Wednesday, May 11, 2011

That's Banff

Ah, Banff. What would my life have become without it? Leslie, Keith and I still joke about what might have been if I had never started the Tour Divide in June 2009. I came close, so close, to backing out. I remember standing with my bike box at the Salt Lake airport thinking, "Should I do this? Do I really want to do this? I remember holding my phone in my hands and nearly calling my parents to return and take me home. But then I didn't. I got on that plane, and set the rest of my life in motion. I arrived in Banff and met Keith and Leslie, the catalyst for so many adventures since. I finished the Tour Divide, prompting a perspective shift without which I probably wouldn't have left Juneau, which means I never would have moved to Missoula, which means I wouldn't have met Danni (who Keith introduced me to), so then I would have never met Beat. Speaking of Beat, I miss him. The only sad thing about Banff is that he couldn't be here this time around.

Today, Keith and I rode from Lake Louise to Bow Summit on the Icefields Parkway ... about 50 miles round trip. Keith let me ride one of his beautiful Rocky Mountain carbon road bikes. If I were a gear-inclined person I might even remember the make and model, but unfortunately I do not. I do know it rides smooth and is so feather-light that I could fit two and a half of these sweet babies inside my Pugsley. I still maintain that, for the most part, bikes are bikes and what matters most is that they take you where you want to go in the way you want to go there ... but I am starting to understand why roadies love their sport.

Here are some pictures from the Icefields Parkway. It was a gorgeous ride. I secretly wanted to pedal the whole 230 km to Jasper, but I didn't want to impose that kind of a dare on my friend Keith, who between work and prepping for this North Dakota trip had enough to worry about.

Wide-open views and skiable snow at 6,000 feet. Had I known what the mountain snowpack was like right now, I might have pressed for a snowshoe outing to a high peak over road biking. But the riding was plenty fun.

This place is OK, I guess.

Even at 50+ miles, the ride was quite relaxed and almost effortless. We had a strong tailwind on the climb, which did translate to a harsh headwind upon descent - but we also had 2,000 feet of elevation to lose. The wind was strong and the downhill grades were gentle, but they were no match for light bikes and legs fueled by warm air, empowering scenery and a summit Twix Bar. I felt great. Keith will probably be annoyed at me for saying so, but I kinda felt like we had motorbiked 50 miles rather than pedaled.

We still wrapped it up in 3:14 even with multiple photo stops and our 20-minute Twix Bar break. As promised, Keith delivered lots of beautiful white snow. I'm a happy Californian.

After the road ride, I still had lots of energy so I decided to tackle Sulphur Mountain. I've climbed Sulphur at least once every time I've visited Banff, which for the record has been seven visits since June 2009. I've climbed this mountain beneath a splash of stars on a zero-degree evening in January. I've climbed in on hot summer afternoons in June and July. I've climbed it with runners on freshly packed snow in November. Today, I got to see it in its spring glory. Conditions were less than ideal. Leslie referred to the trail as a "ribbon of doom," which was an adequate description. The slushy, rotten snowpack started right at the gate and continued amid a minefield morass of postholes. An oh-so-narrow ribbon of foot-packed snow wound through the bumpy slush garden, and even a tiny deviation off the trail would land me in an ankle-twisting posthole or thigh-deep snow.

I was determined to "run" this trail as fast as I physically (and safely) could. It's 3.25 miles and 2,500 feet of climbing. My all-time fastest uphill hike was 57 minutes, last August, when I was in TransRockies race shape and the trail was completely dry. Today I strapped on my microspikes and plunged my poles into the slush minefield, and I had to run - when I could. Sweat streamed down my face and soaked my cycling jersey and tights despite a 45-degree chill. Sometimes I floundered and punched hip-deep holes, or wallowed by choice to get around a handful of slower hikers. The trail hardened and conditions improved just as the grade really got steep, but still I fought and ran. It was not a fast run. I became upset when the speed on my GPS dropped below 20-minute miles. But I assure you I was working as hard as I physically could and still have enough left in the tank for the descent. My heart rate remained solidly above 170 the entire climb.

And the final result? Despite a quarter-mile dead sprint (on sun-exposed soft snow) I couldn't get in under an hour. 1:03. I was happy with my time. I sat down on a picnic table, watched golden sunlight fade behind the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, and enjoyed my last evening in Banff. Tomorrow we leave for the prairie. But I couldn't have planned a more perfect prelude.