Posts Tagged ‘mt evans’

Mount Evans Hill Climb Done Right

July 31, 2014
Photo by Footwarrior

Mt Evans parking lot seen from summit. Photo by Footwarrior

I first stood atop Mt Evans in 1997, after an amazing car ride up the highest paved road in the United States.  The Mt Evans road first opened in 1931, and was planned as a segment of a 150-mile road linking Longs Peak (14,259′) to Pikes Peak (14,114′). Alas, the road yet extends only 14.5 miles to just below the Mt Evans summit at 14,130′, fulfilling a 100-year-old prophecy to become, “…a road that starts nowhere, ends nowhere, and never gets there” (W.F.R. Mills, Commissioner of Improvements, 1915).

But as far as cycling is concerned, it is certainly enough.

Official course map

Official course map

Prior to 2014, I had returned to the Mt Evans summit four times to hike or climb some snowy aspect of the mountain. The last time I did so was 10 years ago, in May 2004, when my good friend Brian tricked me into riding my old mountain bike from the parking lot at Echo Lake (10,500′).  The excuse was the Forest Service road would be closed to car traffic for the day due to recent snow fall, and we could have the road to ourselves for once.

The affair was total misery for me (and a funny story) as I was not nearly in shape for powering an old, heavy bicycle up 7 miles of steep road carrying an extra 50 lbs of blubber and snow climbing gear (click to see and laugh about my Mt Evans Climb and Bike Ride trip report).  I have long desired to return to do it right, and reclaim a bit of my dignity.

I waded and crawled, I rolled and hopped, I cursed and yelled.  And then I finally lost my cool completely and swore out loud that I’d never do another snow climb.

With my last drop of energy, I crawled onto the road; and then I stood up, collected myself once more, and thought, “that was a good bit of exercise.”

~ excerpt from Mt Evans Climb and Bike Ride trip report

Mt Evans summit on the left with Summit Lake and the highest paved road in the USA below

Mt Evans summit on the left with Summit Lake and the highest paved road in the USA below (taken in 2002).

On July 26, 2014, full of cycling confidence after successfully completing the Triple Bypass Ride (120 miles; 11,000′ climbing) two weeks before, I started riding up toward the summit of Mt Evans once again, this time from Idaho Springs, a little over 27 miles away and nearly 7,000 feet below. The 49th Annual Bob Cook Memorial Mt. Evans Hill Climb would keep the cars away and bring my dignity within reach.

Awaiting the start of the Mt Evans HIll Climb Gran Fondo

Awaiting the start of the Mt Evans HIll Climb Gran Fondo

The Gran Fondo didn’t start until 7:20am, but I needed to arrive before 6am to carry out a number of tasks:

  1. avoid long delays for I-70 tunnel blasting (did it)
  2. secure a reasonably close-in parking spot (did it)
  3. have enough time to get my race packet containing my race numbers which had to be pasted/pinned to the various parts of my body and bike (did it)
  4. send some clothes to the summit to wear on the ride down (decided I didn’t need to do it; big mistake)
  5. secure a good placement in the Gran Fondo mass start (did it)

The Mt Evans Hill Climb came highly recommended.  It is advertised as one of the great cycling climbs in North America; not only a test of physical fitness, but also a means to measure a rider’s mental toughness. Heck, I guess there just aren’t many places where riders can climb for hours on end without a rest, which must be the definition of ‘awesome’ in cycling climber-speak. Starting in Idaho Springs, road grades to Echo Lake average 3.5% for 6.7 miles and 5.8% for 5.8 miles. Echo Lake to the summit averages 5.6% for 5.5 miles, then 4.1% for 2.7 miles and finally 5.7% for 4.25 miles through 11 switchbacks to the top.  Still, the experienced riders say the Mt Evans Hill Climb isn’t hard due to the grade.  It’s hard due to (1) length of the climb, (2) the gain in altitude, (3) the high altitude (low oxygen) reducing the ability to produce power, and (4) the challenge of staying hydrated due to drier air.

course stats tableThey also say, half of the challenge is in the mind, and patience is the key:  ‘focus on small victories along the way’, ‘focus on the 10 feet in front of you’, and ‘find a mantra to repeat or sing to yourself for motivation’.  And, lastly, ‘when you reach the summit, take in the splendor and accomplishment of riding up one of the highest peaks in America.’

Anyway, they had me at ‘no cars’.

Heading up on the relatively flat road out of Idaho Springs, I found myself conflicted between my twin objectives:  (1) conserve energy to make sure I could finish (ego preservation) and (2) go fast enough to beat my 3 hour time estimate (ego maximization).  This internal conflict was made more difficult by my lack of bike computer or even a watch; I couldn’t tell how hard I was working or how fast I was going.  I had to go on feel alone.

The pack thinned out pretty well after the initial few miles.  The very fast riders were quickly gone, never to be seen again.  Luckily, I did find a strong rider my age who was pulling a pace just above what I liked; he must have started further back in the pack and passed me a few miles in.

I figured I’d stay on his wheel for as long as I could, which turned out to be quite a while.  He was a chatty fellow out of Grand Junction, having a quick conversation with everyone we passed along the way.  As we approached Echo Lake, I was looking forward to taking a short but needed rest while I refilled my water bottles.  We sprinted along the lake, taking advantage of the short downhill section just before the Ranger Station; I had no problem burning through my energy reserves knowing I had a rest coming.  As we neared the Ranger Station, I could see the aid station was not what I expected. They were handing out filled water bottles as we went by…no stopping.  No rest. I was going to have to do the 27.4 miles and nearly 7,000′ in a single push, doubling the height of any single climb I had ever done.

Mt Evans road above treeline (CDOT photo)

Mt Evans road above treeline (CDOT photo)

As we got above treeline, I was starting to struggle to stay with my ‘rabbit’. We did have a chat along the way where I assured him that I would not have brought my cyclocross bike up Mt Evans if I had a lighter weight bike. He estimated we were on a 3 hour pace, which by then sounded like a very good time.  Around mile marker 5 above the Ranger Station, my rabbit got away from me and my tiring legs; and I picked up another, somewhat slower host.

This point is also about where the riders can see the rest of the ride, and I assure you it is a soul crushing sight to see so many miles of winding, treeless road that must be ridden before a rest.  Fortunately, I had been scarred by this sight 10 years earlier and was psychologically buffered against such a reaction. I followed my new rabbit to about mile market 9 where I passed him on the short descent to Summit Lake (12,830′) over shockingly rough, winter-broken road.

Joe nearing the top of the Mt Evans Rd

Joe nearing the top of the Mt Evans Rd

The 1/4 mile downhill ended at a sharp left bend which led to a final 5-mile, 1,400′ climb along guardrail-less road hanging over cliffs above oblivion. And, for the first time, I was alone, riding up the first of 11 switchbacks all by myself, battling the wind without any help.  I could feel the growing empty spaces in my body that used to contain my vast reserves of energy. And, now, the altitude was getting very high, and my limiting factor was shifting from muscle strength to available oxygen.  Unable to collect enough oxygen to fully power what remained of my muscles, my body temperature plunged.

I kept spinning my legs.  I also kept looking up to catch of glimpse of something familiar, something to give me hope of a near conclusion.  This was an incredible, memorable ride, but I wanted it to be over.

I finally could see the astronomical observatory tower located near the summit, and then I knew the end was near.  I kept spinning my legs.  I knew to look for mile marker 14, the signal for the final half-mile; but, I couldn’t remember to look at the signs as they went by.  I kept spinning my legs.

The money shot.

The money shot.

I came around a final right hand switch back to find a 100 yard sprint finish, but, I had no ‘kick’ to give. I kept spinning my legs, and crossed the  finish line at 10:13am for a ride time of 2 hours & 53 minutes. This time represented an average speed of 9.5 miles per hour, below my hoped for 10 mph which was based on nothing.  I was never so happy to be finished with a ride.

26th of 85 riders in my age group who finished the ride (31st percentile)

78th of 334 gran fondo riders who finished the ride (23rd percentile)

I rode my bike over to the Mt Evans sign to collect a personalized photo.  When I finished (see photo), I looked back toward the parking lot to find the food and water. Instead found a man standing in front of me.  It was Brian!

I nearly had a heart attack over the shock of his presence.  Brian explained that he had climbed Mt Beirstadt and then traversed the Sawtooth Ridge to Mt Evans to say hello.  I am often amazed by my cancer surviving, great friend.

Joe and Brian in front of the ruins of the Crest House (1941–1942) a restaurant and a gift shop that burned down on September 1, 1979

Joe and Brian on Mt Evans, in front of the ruined Crest House, a restaurant and a gift shop that burned down on September 1, 1979

As we chatted about the day, I started shivering.  I realized then that I should have had a jacket brought to the summit for me to wear while riding down at 30-40 mph through the cool air. Later, I found out that the all-time high temperature measured for the Mt Evans summit is 65F.  This wasn’t it (45F). There was little wind on the summit, but flying downhill on my bike was going to be brutal. But Brian saved the day by giving me his fleece jacket to wear on my descent. What a guy.

The descent to Summit Lake was still freezing.  I flew down the steep, twisting road, teeth chattering and hopping the bike over the worst of the cracks in the pavement. The short climb from Summit Lake warmed me enough to stop the shivering, but the road was still a broken and cracked mess. Once past the Ranger Station, the descent into Idaho Springs was a delight. With good roads and minimal traffic, got my speed fix for the day.

And, then it was over.  I had done it right this time.  I had reclaimed my dignity and even captured a bit of pride to call my own.

Now I just need to do the Pikes Peak ride to earn that “14er x 2 Cycling Cap” I’d read about. Who wants to join me?

 

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Mt Evans Extreme

June 2, 2010

It was the end of May, 1999, and I had just returned from my Great Bolivian Adventure. I didn’t have time for a full day of mountain fun, and, naturally, Brian wanted to ski; we picked Mt Evans as a good, close-by solution, with the thought of seeking the route less travelled to spice things up. And, I was anxious to see how much better my performance would be with my Bolivian, high-altitude acclimatization.

A view of Mt Evans and the rocky ridge separating Mt Evans from Mt Spalding

We drove up early to get good snow conditions and parked in the parking lot beside Summit Lake. We started working our way forward, postholing our way to the top of the bowl rim so we could get a good view of the options. We decided to angle right toward the rocky face dividing Mt Evans from Mt Spalding, aiming for the snow slope that reached nearly to the top of the ridge.

Brian nearing the exposed rock portion of the climb. The hard snow climbing occurred just before this spot.

Brian picked it, and I went along; I thought it looked interesting and possibly climbable. I forgot that we didn’t bring a rope; read: no belay.

The climb started like any other moderate snow climb, but about 2/3rds of the way up it got hard; the route became steep over mixed terrain.  And I was huffing and puffing with poorly functioning lungs. I whined to Brian that my allergies were acting up and trying to suffocate me.

The last 50 feet was thinly covered rocks; very little for the crampons and nothing for the axe to grab onto. On two separate occasions I had to commit to moves that I expected to fail, when failure meant some very bad outcomes. My alternative was to stay there for the rest of my life. The worst was at the very top, which turned into a moderate rock climb with crampons and ice axe making every effort to kill me.

I didn’t get a belay, but I recall Brian was generous with his words of encouragement.

But we made it to the top of the rim.  Thanks, Pal!

Then we hiked to the summit and enjoyed the well earned views. My breathing was so labored that I swore to Brian that if Colorado made my allergies this bad again, I was moving!  The skies had quickly changed from beautiful blue to looking like rain or snow soon, but we didn’t start down for the North Face until the axes started singing their dreaded electrical song.

We got down well enough. My glissade wasn’t very good due to operator error; I guess I just forget how to do it, having been skiing instead for the last year. Some additional huffing and puffing while postholing had me really annoyed with my physical performance. I had looked forward to kicking Brian’s butt for a change, but my 20,000′ plus acclimatization just didn’t pay off the way I expected.

Brian about to descend the North Face to escape the electrical field around us.

Twenty-four hours later, I knew why:  I had the flu. Isn’t air travel just lovely? At least I could continue living in Colorado with a clean health conscience.

It was my 3rd summit of Mt Evans, and the most interesting so far.

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Mt Evans Bike Ride (and Climb)

February 22, 2010

In early June, 2004, Brian says, “How about a snowclimb on Mt. Evans?”

“Need a short day?” I inquired.

“No,” he replied, “I just read that the road to the summit is closed because of heavy snow; we can enjoy a rare restoration of wilderness solitude on Mount Evans while we ride our bikes up the road.”

We had taken to riding our bikes in the Brainard Lake area during the Spring climbing season when the road is closed, so the idea wasn’t completely out of the blue.  But there isn’t a lot of altitude gain on the Brainard Lake road, which makes bike riding an ideal way to shorten a boring & time-consuming approach.

“So, how hard will it be to ride up the Mount Evans road?  I seem to recall it is a long, steep drive,” I asked while thinking that I am not capable of a hard bike ride.

“I don’t think so,” Brian reassured me, “I think it will be only be a little harder than the Brainard Lake road. Probably the distance is around 4 miles, but the extra distance will help spread the extra altitude.”

On the morning of June 5, 2004, we loaded Brian’s truck with gear and bikes and set off for Mt. Evans.  We arrived at the gate to find it closed, as expected. Then I noticed the sign that read, “7 miles to Mt Evans”!

“What the….,” I exclaim. Slowly turning to glare at Brian, my tormentor, I see the Snow Plow Truck pulling up to the gate.  I’m saved!

We ask if we can follow him up the road in Brian’s truck, but he says no can do.  And he also said the road will probably open today, but he didn’t know for certain or, if so, when.

Not one for waiting around, Brian says, “Let’s just ride up; it will be fun.”.  I really wanted to wait for the gate to open, but sensed a tragedy in the making (what if it doesn’t open?).  So, I agreed to try; I’d just have to go slow and rest on the flat parts.

Brian recalls:

I remember feeling fortunate that I got Joe on the bike before he had a chance to think about how far it was.

Per our Brainard Lake method, we strap the packs and other gear onto the bikes, and then start up the hill.

The Bike Ride

My bike is an old Schwinn made of solid cast iron with lead wheels (feels like, anyway), and with my personal 220 lbs plus an additional 20 pounds of gear (axe, crampons, water, boots) on the bike, I immediately know I am in trouble.

I down shift into my lowest gear and manage to go just fast enough to keep from toppling over.

Bike & Climb up Mount Evans

The following thoughts [and emotions] occurred to me along the long Mount Evans road (follow number sequence on map):

  1. My lungs are bursting and my mind racings….what am I going to do?…how can I possibly finish this road? [panic]
  2. But after a bit, my body settles into a rhythm and I start to think that I’ll make it.  But I am going very slowly  [relief and embarrassment]
  3. Brian is up ahead waiting for me to catch up; he probably is worried I cannot make it.  I try standing up to go faster, but my back wheel spins on the snowy road.  I cannot go any faster.  And I cannot stop or I’ll never get going again.  Hell, I cannot even stop pedaling for a moment’s rest; there are no flat sections! [resignation plus determination]
  4. The Plow truck comes barreling back down the road, coming around a corner…we swerve violently to dodge out of the way; the shot of adrenaline helps me for a while [amazement]
  5. Now my hands are freezing. I guess they are not getting enough blood flow due to my death grip on the handlebars; but for now, my need to squeeze the brakes is not paramount.  Still, I do not want frozen hands, so I desperately try to keep my balance with with only one hand on the handlebars at a time while letting the other warm up [fear and irritation]
  6. Brian is long gone. I approach a big curve and think I am close to the end.  I have just enough energy to make it as long as I can weave across both lanes to reduce the angle.  I wonder if the road has opened up and let cars through, but I cannot afford to look back  [desperation]
  7. As I turn the corner, I can see I am only half-way and I have 3+ miles to go to reach Summit Lake.  I keep spinning my legs and concentrating on my breathing.  Every time I look up it looks further away. I stop looking and keep pedaling  [determination]
  8. After battling cramps for the final mile or so, I finally make it to Summit Lake and pull off where Brian is sleeping on a rock.  I get off my bike and find I cannot walk, which reminds me of the first triathlon I did many years ago on Key Biscayne [surprise]

Once at the end of my pedaling madness, I also noticed that the upper part of the road was closed by a gate across the road (and the road covered in snow).  It was a tremendous relief; I was not physically capable of riding up the steep road to the summit after the climb, and now I could save face.

After a few minutes of rest and serious contemplation of just going to sleep instead of climbing, I decided to pull myself together (man-up, as it were) and persevere. The summit wasn’t far away, and I could rest at every step if necessary.

The Climb

The snow was soft and getting softer; it was going to be miserable later in the day.  Of course, Elfin-like Brian, floating on his skis, moved effortlessly ahead, gliding across the snow like Legolas crossing the Misty Mountains Pass (think:  Frodo Lives!).  I stumbled along like an elephant in ballet slippers since I left my snowshoes home to avoid carrying them on the bike ride.

Luckily, I found enough rocks and firm patches of snow to keep going to reach the base of the North Face route without too much misery or burning energy I couldn’t afford.  There had been a massive slide recently…the snow was very chunked-up.  Yet, the conditions turned out to be okay…no sun yet…, and we successfully navigated through the avalanche debris and around the rocks to reach the summit ridge.

We sauntered over to the summit to enjoy the views.  But not wanting the snow to get too soft, we decided to leave after a short stay.

The Snow Descent

The snow had softened as predicted, but still yielded some good ski turns for Brian and a nice glissade for me down the steep couloir.  I managed to slide down most of the way before the snow ate my momentum.  Then I had to walk / wade through the snow at the bottom of the couloir which was like wet glue.

The Postholing

Oh, I hate soft snow.  I cannot decide which hell would be worse, but at that moment #3 was the leading candidate between the following:

  1. An eternity of driving in rush hour traffic where other lanes move faster, especially the one you just moved out of.
  2. An eternity of watching TV with a broken remote that can display all the great sporting event and science fiction options available but cannot switch the channel away from All My Children
  3. An eternity of hiking in soft snow

I waded and crawled, I rolled and hopped, I cursed and yelled.  And then I finally lost my cool completely and swore out loud that I’d never do another snow climb.

With my last drop of energy, I crawled onto the road; and then I stood up, collected myself once more, and thought, “that was a good bit of exercise.”

I always tell Brian that I get more exercise than he does with his shamefully fun and easy skiing, but he never changes his ways.

I started walking toward the bikes, and that’s when I saw the cars start coming up the road. And there were lots of them.

The Downhill Ride

Cars were everywhere, including those going back down the road after the family’s annual 5-minute adventure [sure, my attitude is poor, but wait ’til you do it before you judge too harshly].

I tried but could not keep from flying down the road, as I desperately squeezed my brakes as hard as frozen fingers would allow.  The downhill cars were whizzing by me as they tried to time the instant they could get around me without hitting an oncoming car or knocking me off the cliff  (I would lose either way). I was so consumed with staying close-but-not-too-close to the edge of the road that I couldn’t afford a moment’s thought for how my life was utterly at the mercy of drivers I’ve spent thousands of hours (so far) dodging in my daily driving routine.

It was a helpless feeling.  A drop-off, only 1 foot to my right, was at least 500 feet to the bottom, and the cars blazed by only inches to my left, going by so fast that my left ear would have caught fire if it wasn’t frozen.  I kept thinking that if I hit a rock or if my front wheel comes loose or if I get into the gravel, I was a dead man.  I felt real regret for not doing some sort of inspection on my antique mechanical beast before trusting my life to it on this roller coaster adventure.

But by the mid-way point, I had grown accustomed to the speed and began to enjoy it.  I felt increased confidence in my bike and my skills, so I eased up on the brakes a bit as I tried to weigh my rate of progress toward the parking lot against the rate at which my hands were becoming frozen blocks of ice:  would I reach the truck first or die when my hands broke off during the descent?

Brian’s recalls:

The biggest problem was that the road did open up, after we summitted, and we had to dodge cars all the way down.  I also remember the usual peculiar handling of a bike with skis and boots tied to it.  Seeing those skis protrude past the bike stem always makes me wonder if something will bind up and the handle bar will refuse to turn.  By the time I got to the bottom I was getting enough of a feel for half-assed road biking that I was starting to really lean into the turns.

And then it was over.  I sure didn’t feel short changed on exercise or thrills.  And, I even thought I might like to take up cycling again [p.s.: it would take 10 years to buy a road bike; click on Mount Evans Hill Climb Done Right (2014) to see my Mt Evans redemption ] or even look into mountain biking [note: it would take 5 years to start mountain biking].

I was especially pleased to be able to say I rode my bike up America’s highest paved automobile road.  So, ignore my whining, bring a good bike, and enjoy a nice ride.  And, perhaps, have a friend follow in a car.

If you plan to ride from the Entrance Station [to the summit, it is a] 15-mile route [and] an elevation gain of 3,530 feet. Allow 2 to 3 hours to complete the trip to the summit.

Mount Evans – Bicycling the Mount Evans Scenic Byway

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