Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Ride Report - Mount Evans with Teenager - 14,270’ Summit!


During my Colorado vacation a week or so ago, and two days after my disastrous attempt at an epic mountain ride there, I tackled an even more ambitious effort:  biking to the summit of Mount Evans, the highest paved road in North America.  I’ve reached this summit four times before, but this time I threw in something extra:  I brought along my 14-year-old daughter.  This would certainly be the toughest ride she’d ever attempted.

Did we make the summit?  I’ve decided to thwart the rules of journalism and not tell you right away.  If you want to find out, you’re just going to have to read on, or at least skim all this text and look at the photos.  (Note:  if you don’t have the stamina to read 3,000 words on this lofty topic, whereas a 14-year-old attempted to bike up a 14,270-foot mountain under her own steam, do you think it’s time for some soul-searching?)

About Mount Evans

The road up Mount Evans is, in local parlance, “hyper-gnar-gnar.”  It climbs almost 7,000 feet from its base in Idaho Springs to a blasted summit that looks positively lunar, if there were cold winds on the moon.  According to Wikipedia, the highest temperature ever recorded on the Evans summit was 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can freeze at any time of year.  The average wind speed up there is 28 to 35 mph.  The summit is way above tree line (the point at which conditions are too harsh for trees to survive).  In fact, a 2012 tornado touched down near the summit but didn’t cause any damage because there was nothing to damage.  What was the tornado gonna do … move some fricking rocks around?  (There was once a building containing a gift shop and restaurant, but it burned down in 1979 “and was not rebuilt, but remains as a place of contemplation today.”  Here’s a jumping-off point for your contemplation:  “What the hell are you doing up here?!”)

How does Mount Evans compare to the famous peaks reached in the Tour de France?  Well, Mount Ventoux is even windier, but its summit is a paltry 6,273 feet … that is, 1,267 feet lower than the base of Mount Evans.  The Col du Galibier is the highest mountain that the Tour de France ever climbs, but at 8,678 feet it’s still a dwarf by Mount Evans standards.  The Galibier climb, by itself, lasts only 11 miles—far less than the Evans climb, which goes on for more than 28—but the Galibier taken together with the Col du Télégraphe is 21.6 miles and gains almost as much vertical as Evans.  Does this make it as hard?  Well, the Galibier is steeper, but it also features way more available oxygen.  Thus, I think Mount Evans is harder, especially for somebody only acclimated to sea level.  (Full disclosure:  I’ve raced up Mount Evans and the Col du Galibier twice each, and the worst suffering I endured was on the Galibier.  But there were extenuating circumstances.)


While I was foolhardy enough as a teen to take on pretty difficult rides (particularly this one), I didn’t attempt Mount Evans until I was 17.  Frankly, teenagers aren’t very good with logistics—at least, I wasn’t and my teenage friends weren’t, and my kids aren’t, nor are their friends.  Teens don’t think about things like the wind chill factor being 20 degrees on Mount Evans on a typical day in August.  I don’t remember what I wore in 1986 when I first did this climb but it was probably just shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. 

I well remember two things about that day.  First, when I started I was freezing my ass off while warming up—despite Idaho Springs typically being 20-25 degrees warmer than the Mount Evans summit.  (I was warming up because it was a race and could be fast from the gun; more on this in a moment.)  Second, I remember crossing the finish line and hearing this guy we called The Yeller yelling, “Get this rider into a warm van—now!”  This wasn’t special treatment, but standard operating procedure.  Somebody caught me, and another person took my bike away, and I was thrown into the back of a van—engine running and heater jacked up—with a bunch of other racers.  After lying there dazed for a dozen or two minutes, I came to and started chatting with the others, mostly about how bad that sucked, etc.  Then we were all driven down the mountain to Idaho Springs and reunited with our bicycles.

(About the race starting out fast:  the Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb is a huge, prestigious event and records are kept of the fastest times up it.  There is (or at least was) a special prize for the first Junior to finish, even though—as was common in those days—we had to race with the Senior Category 3 riders.  The first couple miles are almost flat, and the normal custom of the peloton was to take that part easy and chitchat.  So it was in 1986, to the dismay of my friend John Smathers who felt he could get the new Junior record if we went out fast enough.  I remember him looking back at all us slackers, and saying, “Oh well, I guess we won’t be getting a record today.”  But he actually did, winning the race more than five minutes ahead of my teammate Peter and me, and the record John set that day, thirty years ago, still stands!)

As a 14-year-old, I was fairly reckless and thought, for example, that it was kind of cool to get stuck in a thunderstorm at way over 10,000 feet elevation and get treated for hypothermia.  As a parent, I think it would be incredibly lame to subject my 14-year-old to that sort of ordeal.  So for this trek I arranged to have my dad drive up as our sag wagon.  I also picked a day with a favorable weather forecast (and when that forecast changed for the worse, I rescheduled the ride).

There’s one more thing I did as a hedge against the ride being a nightmare:  I tried to set my daughter’s expectations appropriately.  “I never made the summit at your age—I did the race at 14 but it was only to the halfway point at Echo Lake,” I told her.  “Let’s shoot for that, and anything we make beyond it is gravy.” 

She was having none of that.  “There’s no way I’m not making the summit,” she declared. “I’d never be able to live with the failure.”  Okay, kid—but that’s your decree, not mine.  (Not that I was surprised at her position, and I’ll concede that acknowledging the existence of a summit was tantamount to entrapment.)

The ride

We got up at 5:30 a.m. to drive from Boulder to Idaho Springs and try to get on the bikes by 7; no matter what the weather forecast says, high mountains in Colorado always carry an afternoon thunderstorm risk.  We got rolling a bit after 7:30.  Here’s the “before” shot.  Of note:  I was a bit anxious and couldn’t be bothered to frame the shot very well, and Alexa’s smile seems a bit forced. 

Our second “before” shot shows that the road is open.  This is no small thing … it doesn’t open until June, and two or three times the race (typically held in July) has been canceled due to snow.  In fact, the last time I rode Evans, with my brother Bryan and my new bride in June of 1994, there were snow flurries at the top.

It was 44 degrees F when we started.  The first hour slid by, the day warming up slightly despite the increase in altitude.  At 9,000 feet the temperature was 45.5.  Alexa was in fine spirits.

Before 90 minutes had elapsed we made the 10-mile marker.  I’m curious whether the abundance of trees offset the gradual diminishment of oxygen as we climbed.

By 10,000 feet the temperature had climbed to 53 degrees.  We’d brought full-finger gloves and were too hot for them as we toiled along.

Echo Lake is at mile 14 and I dimly remembered my race finishing there in 1983.  My main recollections of that race:  a) there was one girl in our group, who deliberately dropped back when one racer called another a very vulgar and profane name, and b) I got absolutely shelled and was miserable.  The next time round (1986), when Echo Lake was our halfway point, somebody attacked here and blew the Junior/Cat 3 field to bits.  Things were a lot mellower this time around.

We stopped at the Echo Lake Lodge to use the restroom.  It’s kind of amazing how much souvenir paraphernalia is available there:  commemorative keychains, license plates, and even pocketknives with the altitude and your name engraved on them (unless your name is Alexa, which they don’t have).  Tourists are encouraged to believe they’ve really accomplished something by making it all the way up there in a car.

Here’s the sign pointing to the summit.  You can tell we’ve had a rest because our gloves are back on and Alexa has tugged her sleeves back down.  By the way, she was supposed to wear either her East Bay Velo Club jersey or her Albany High School mountain bike team jersey.  But she forgot to pack them, along with cycling socks (which we had to go buy in Boulder).  Did I mention teens aren’t good with logistics?

It was a perfect day to ride up this mountain, but not a perfect mountain to ride up because a) it’s too tall, and b) our planet is too large.  A lower mountain on a smaller planet (i.e., with less gravity) would be easier to take.  The effort began to take its toll.  My daughter isn’t exactly Mary Lou Retton to begin with (I mean, who is?) and though she didn’t become surly, her manner drifted in the direction of, say, Alf.  Fortunately, about 2 ½ hours into the journey, our sag wagon showed up.  That’s my dad behind the wheel and his friend Judy riding shotgun.

We stopped for a tasty hot beverage (tea? coffee? cocoa?—I don’t know, I didn’t have any) and fig neutrons.  I was carrying thousands of calories of Clif shots and bars in my pockets but normal food is always welcome.

Unfortunately, my dad hadn’t remembered sunscreen either, but had a large bandanna I fastened under my helmet and draped around my ears and neck like a Bedouin.  I figured I was wearing enough Lycra to avoid being misidentified by some redneck and shot on site.  You’ll sees a photo of this headgear later.

Eventually we approached the tree line.  The timber began to recede, not unlike my hairline.  (The metaphor, I now realize, is rich:  as I slowly climb the mountain of age, there’s a trend toward less of everything … less abundance, less luxuriance, less vigor, less speed, less oxygen, and—it must be said—less assurance.)  By now our conversation had totally dried up.  Was Alexa fighting an internal battle, or had her respiration crossed over the Peak Conversational Threshold?

We made a painful descent to the wrongly, cruelly name Summit Lake.  This lake is not at the summit—not even close—and the descent to it undoes some of the important climbing work you’ve done.  Moreover, from this point on, large cracks across the road transmit right through the bike painfully into your hands and butt.  These cracks don’t look like much, but everything already hurts.  Here, we’ve gone past the falsely named lake and resumed our long climb toward the actual summit.  Note the tree line, now just below us.

By now my poor kid was well and truly suffering.  Neither my wife nor I has a very high hematocrit (i.e., my last measurement was 37%, which is below-average even for a non-athlete) and Alexa has probably inherited that.  On the plus side, she seems to have inherited my ability to recover within a ride or race; we benefit hugely from just taking a breather by hiding from the wind for a bit.  This doesn’t help on Mount Evans, though.  It’s just a continuous effort for 28+ miles.  It’s hard to tell from this photo because Alexa’s form is so good, but she was dying.  Perhaps the way she’s staring at her front wheel, refusing to look ahead, is a bit of a tell.

Maybe it’s a bit more obvious in this photo.  In any case you can see my silly headgear.

I’m not a proponent of rest stops during bike rides.  I have always held that getting going again is just too hard.  On this particular ride I was especially loathe to stop because I’d twisted my ankle on a hike the day before and could barely unclip my foot from the pedal.  But of course when Alexa asked for a break I granted it immediately.  We sat down in some huge overstuffed La-Z-Boy chairs and geishas came around to give us a soothing footbath.  Wait … I’m remembering it wrong.  We actually just stood on the side of the road along the blasted landscape for a spell.

I gave Alexa a fig neutron and said, “There’s more where that came from if you’ll go with me to prom.”  Without missing a beat she replied, “I like your sleeves.”  So there was still a sense of humor lurking in that tortured soul, even if she couldn’t make herself smile for the camera.  Then it was more slogging along.

It’s scenic up there, in a blasted kind of way.

A couple of years ago, in my Everest Challenge race report, I wrote, “It’s kind of funny how I train hard for like ten weeks for this [race], and my reward is abject misery.”  So it was with Alexa:  we rode all summer with this ride as our carrot, and now here it was and it was like, “Who the hell wants to eat a carrot for four wretched hours?” (or more to the point, “Who wants to stab himself in the legs and lungs with a carrot for four hours?”).  The training, it turns out, is the fun part; the “reward” is the kind of awful suffering you just wish would be over with already.  Look at Alexa here, at another rest stop.  Man, she is pissed! 

Nah, just kidding. I was going for an artsy shot with my reflection in her sunglasses but couldn’t get the angle right.  She was very patient about this.  Since she happened to look pissed in this photo (in the American, not British, sense) I figured I’d throw it in.

Alexa got a flat tire a bit later which gave her a nice, long break and the opportunity to watch 15 or 20 Model-T Fords drive by while enjoying the spectacle of her father trying to pump up a tire with his feeble T-Rex arms.

We got higher and higher up, to where even the lichen on the rocks started to become sparse.  Did the road start to get steeper, or were our legs just running out of juice?

Oh my god, the road sign lies!  You saw that sign yourself:  14 miles from Echo Lake to the summit.  But the magic 14 mile marker came and went, and still no summit.  The actual mileage is more like 14.5, and that extra half-mile is huge.  It’s the longest half-mile on the planet.  My dad and his friend had stopped here and there along their drive but now reconnected with us and drove behind Alexa for moral support for this last bit. 

Suddenly Alexa called out, “Dad!”  I wondered if she had another flat tire.  But actually, she’d stopped to look at a marmot that was, due no doubt to utter unfamiliarity, unafraid of humans.  By the time I got there it had moved on, but she got a nice long look.  (That’s right, my daughter is never too tired out to appreciate nature.  She saw several pikas on the mountain and tried to point them out, but I’m too blinded by adulthood to notice such things.)  Here’s a photo my dad snapped a bit later on:

Alas, after the marmot stop Alexa had a really hard time continuing on.  After a couple hundred meters she needed to stop again.  How close can you get to the top without making it?  I thought I might find out:  she really didn’t seem to have enough air to start back up again.  You know, cars have to be tuned for high altitude—the carburetor or fuel injection system is adjusted to mix more air with the fuel, to offset the lack of oxygen.  Humans can tune themselves this way, but it takes 4 to 6 weeks to produce the necessary extra hemoglobin.  If you don’t have 4 to 6 weeks to hang out at altitude (or a World Tour team-issue blood bag), you just have to dig deep.  Alexa had been digging deep the whole way.  Now she was experiencing something like panic, because her brain rightly recognized that her system wasn’t getting what it needed.  Could it be that we would have to abort, a quarter mile from the summit?  I don’t think we seriously considered this.  We did some relaxation exercises and set off again.

Have you ever noticed that batteries can seem completely dead, so that your flashlight doesn’t turn on at all, but then the next day you try again and get like five seconds of weak orange light?  Well, that’s about what we got after this last break.  And it was enough, because we bloody well made it to the summit!

My dad arrived after a few minutes (traffic was a bitch near the top) and Alexa climbed into his warm car.  Here she is having some solid food and a giant mug of hot, strong cocoa.  Poor thing has obviously had the stuffing knocked out of her.

While Alexa warmed up, my dad lashed her bike to the back of his car.  When he was done, I dragged her out for a couple of photos at the summit sign, just to make it official.

Can you tell it’s a bit cold up there?  We  didn’t dally—she got back in the car and I began my descent.  As luck would have it, I happened upon a mountain goat who was cooperative enough for a sweet photo-op.  (Alexa got to see it too, from the car, a bit later.)

Alexa had been conflicted about whether to accept a ride down the mountain—after all, she’d earned that descent!—so we arranged to meet at Echo Lake so she could do the bottom half of the descent, where it’s warmer and the road isn’t like a medieval torture device.  While I waited for the others, I popped into the lodge for some souvenir stickers.

We had a nice (late) lunch in Idaho Springs:  fried chicken for me and chicken and dumplings for Alexa.  She asked for some of my potato salad and I forked over the whole serving, no questions asked.

So was the ride fun?  Well, yeah, in that strange, warped, kind of un-fun way.  One thing is beyond doubt:  it was fricking epic.  Anyone can do fun; Disneyland is “fun.”  It takes a pretty special kid to do epic.  I think as time goes on, our memory of this ride will get all the sweeter, and I’m sure Alexa has forged, in her soul, a new capacity for perseverance.  (And did she have fun?  I’m not sure ... I’ll have to wait for her ride report.)

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1 comment:

  1. Fantastic !! (And unquestionably EPIC).
    Consider moniker "Tenacious A."