Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Fog, leaves and thundersnow

I was laboring up a knoll near 10,500 feet when I heard an all-too-familiar crack of thunder directly overhead. Familiar, and yet so out of context that I stopped pedaling and did a double take toward the dark clouds billowing over a nearby mountain ridge. The temperature was just a notch north of freezing, and the rocky road was coated in ice-tinged puddles and patches of snow. 

"Aren't thunderstorms a summer thing? Maybe it was a fighter jet." 

Then I heard another boom, unmistakable. A flash above the clouds that happened seconds earlier was probably lightning. Although still below treeline, the 4WD road traversed a bald ridge, so I was completely exposed. "Babyhead" rocks littered the surface, and my riding had been so pathetically slow that I instinctively stepped off the bike so I could run faster. Near the top of the knoll, the clouds unleashed a barrage of icy precipitation, first in sheets of sleet, then sharp flakes of snow. 

"Thundersnow!" I'd heard of such a thing. I'd never experienced it. Really, I never wanted to experience it. I hate thunder and lightning even when the ensuing precipitation doesn't sting my face and blind me in a whiteout. The road surface angled downhill so I jumped back on my bike. This movement was instantly followed by another deafening boom. My hands were too numb to finesse the brakes and I could barely squint into the blizzard, so I just let the bike go and hoped for the best. There had to be tree cover somewhere close by. The bike bucked and lurched over unseen rocks. I held on for life, all but certain I was going to crash, but I was too frightened to weigh the odds of cracking my skull on a babyhead versus actually being struck by lightning. 

The swirling snow put a nice touch on those few chaotic seconds. I rolled beneath a thick canopy of pine and opened my eyes. At some point I must have bounced through a big puddle, because my entire lower body was coated in mud. Globs of ice clung to my tights. The snowfall was losing intensity and rumbling thunder already sounded far away. 

It was short-lived excitement, but intense. I'd say my brush with thundersnow was cool, but no, it was just frightening. And I was already bonked from battling babyheads to the top of a mountain. And now I was soaked and freezing precipitation was still falling from the sky. And I had a 5,000-foot descent in front of me. 

 Before that thundery Sunday ride, I had a couple of days that were completely different. I'd planned to do my long ride on Friday, but the day's thick fog and rain were wholly uninspiring. That was, until I coaxed myself out for a tough run over the home mountains, where the deep canyons and burns were nicely accentuated by spooky haze. Even though biking is killing me and regular running still hurts, I'm in fantastic shape for steep climbing right now. I went ahead and had fun with this run by smashing my PR on two tough segments, even though I was in the midst of a four-hour effort.

 My parents were driving home from a vacation in the Black Hills, and dropped into Boulder for just over a day. We did the obligatory leaf-viewing tour on Saturday. The aspens were a bit past peak on the Peak to Peak Highway — although they probably never had much of a chance given how wet the latter half of September had been.

 This is the best I could get for my Colorado leaf views this year. Oh well. No one can say I didn't try.

 Dad and I were going to hike on Sunday, but they decided to leave early after hearing Monday's weather forecast — calling for up to 18 inches of snow in the mountains and guaranteed road closures and chaos on I-70 (all of which came to pass.) So I set out in the late morning for the long ride I'd been avoiding all week. The day started out beautiful — sunny, warm, no wind, and classic Colorado singletrack through the autumn forests.

I had a chance to explore some new-to-me trails, but did grow weary of maneuvering with crowds of cyclists. Mountain bikers seem to concentrate in the area's small pockets of singletrack, which I suppose makes sense. It's not really for me, though. The trails can be fun, but they feel limiting. Give me the wide-open spaces and forgotten back roads rippling toward who knows where. That's where I long to be.

 Of course, the backroads are where I started to fall apart. Every time I explore new forest roads around here, I get so frustrated with the effort. What looks like a reasonable amount of climbing on a map is in reality an intermittent mix of horribly steep and mostly flat, all littered with loose babyhead rocks that require continuous bursts of power and make pedaling uphill all but impossible for me. I have hiked most of five miles to climb such roads in the past, but on Sunday I was feeling bold and determined to put my recent climbing strength to good use. The power bursts lasted a few good miles. I even impressed a jeep driver when I blasted through the woods to avoid his vehicle, causing him to comment through his open window, "That's some ride!"

Then I bonked, rather epically. Complete with lactic-acid-flooded legs, sore forearms, and dizziness. Then there was stumbling, and soft-pedaling, and more hiking, all while wondering if I'd ever reach the top of this apparently endless hill. And then the thunder came.

 Picture now a cyclist who's bonked, soaked to the skin, shivering from a lightning scare, at 10,000 feet, and it's snowing. There was nothing left to do but descend into town, nearly 5,000 feet lower. As I lost elevation, the road surface smoothed out and turned to gravel. The snow turned to rain, and then heavy rain. The wind picked up. I put on all of the layers I brought with me, having planned for the possibility of 35 degrees and rain. But nothing actually shields against 35 degrees and rain — short of a Helly Hansen waterproof fishermen suit, that is. I know this, but I still imagine that I can dress to stay warm when it's 35 degrees and raining, even if I'm coasting downhill for most of an hour. No, I cannot. I can only suffer. It was an exquisite misery, really. So encompassing that the only thing I could do was embrace it.

Finally I was in Boulder and the rain had stopped. I still had a 2,000-foot climb toward home. I've never been so without energy and yet so grateful for a 2,000-foot climb. I stopped at Chapman trailhead to replace my sopping mittens with a dry pair. It took me most of 10 minutes to unclasp my backpack and switch out the mittens, such was the numbness of my extremities. I was still shivering and heavily bundled up as I climbed, when I was passed by a guy wearing shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. I must have looked quite silly to him.

 By Monday morning, the snow storm had reached our house. Our last winter storm was May 18, so it had been four months and 14 days between snows. I joked that I thought the drought was never going to end. Actually, I enjoy living somewhere where I might only have to wait four months between snowstorms (Knowing, of course, that this is Colorado, and not only will be 60 degrees again in a few days, but also might be in February as well.)

 I wanted to take advantage of the big snowfall to launch true winter training with the best slog-fest I could muster. Wednesday offered such a chance, with 18 inches of new snow in the mountains and temperatures predicted to hit the high 50s. Do you know what it's like to trudge for six hours through slush that has reached roughly the density of liquid lead? Most don't, because most wouldn't bother. I didn't see a soul on the trail.

 It was an absolutely gorgeous day, though. Sure, I could have waited a few days for the snow to just melt. But what would be the fun in that?

Since I was breaking trail, I loosely followed the Arapahoe Glacier Trail to the saddle below South Arapahoe Peak. Conditions were iffy enough and the climb had taken long enough — six miles in four hours — that I opted to skip the tricky route-finding on the class 2 scramble to the summit. Instead I sat on a rock and enjoyed my "lunch" (an expired organic nut bar that Beat brought home from Google at some point, and a small Rice Krispy Treat.) I rested for at least ten minutes, still just wearing a light long-sleeved shirt, no gloves and no hat. My lower body was predictably soaked from the deep slush, but the afternoon was so warm that my legs were hot. At 13,000 feet. In October. After a major snowstorm. That's Colorado.

After I started down, a single cloud sank into the ridge, and then I was in an incredibly disorienting whiteout for a half hour. Light definition was bad enough that I couldn't make out my own snowshoe tracks on the ground, so I relied on staring at my GPS to find the way (I'm always fearful of stepping off a cliff if I wander "off trail," even though this is a gentle ridge.) Eventually I started having bouts of vertigo and knelt down briefly to re-orient my body — meaning reorienting which way was up toward the sky and which way was down toward the ground. Such a weird thing to experience on such a warm, sunny day. But these are the mountains.

 Where the ridges were wind-drifted and manageable, the trail below treeline had become incredibly slushy in the afternoon. It was basically a thin layer of snow atop six inches of Slurpee. Finding correct footing through the rocks while sliding all over the place was the true challenge for the day. But, I continued to tell myself, great training for the stabilizer muscles. First slog of the season is always one of the best.


  1. Beautiful photos and great description. You have a great blog, thanks, and keep it up!

  2. I'm with you on the single track vs forgotten, old jeep trail thing. Sometimes the mountain bike trail systems can seem a little contrived and theme-parkish. When we live in AZ for 19 years there were a wealth of seldom-used old mining, logging and ranch two tracks that led way out into the boonies, used to like to take them just to see where they went.

    1. Although the desert scares me, I was recently thinking that I'd love to spend a season or two exploring two-tracks throughout Utah and Nevada by bike, under the guise of writing a narrative guidebook that only a handful of people would even find interesting.

  3. Oh yes thundersnow. I have experienced it on a few occasions. While lightning is never exactly a calming thing, having it happen when it is snowing feels freakishly wrong and many magnitudes of scary. The first time I was in it I was somewhat lost in Idaho, having gone off trail as a wilderness ranger. Fortunately I followed a drainage out and found the trail crew.

    1. The freakishness of it does make it somehow more scary than summertime lightning, I agree. If that happened *while* I was lost in the woods, I probably would have full-on panicked.

  4. I was out during that thunder snow too... but I was much lower down. That was a crazy few days of weather! Oh gosh, I hate that area of single track where you ran into crowds of cyclists too - and many of them seem to be trying to get Strava PR's even if it means almost running over anyone in their way. I avoid that area like the plague. Your route sure was adventurous!!!

    1. Yes, I had that suspicion about West Mag, which is one of the reasons I haven't ventured there before. I'll probably go back eventually, but like other popular bike trails around here, the area doesn't hold that much interest for me.

  5. Yeah, that feeling of getting colder and colder as you descend and just hoping for the road to go uphill for a little while so you can warm up!

  6. Lightning at night during heavy snow is one of the most amazing things I've seen--up there with a total solar eclipse. Everything turns blue for a second. But I wasn't up high and exposed.

    The very rare clap of thunder in Sitka usually is during the winter when storms come in directly from the west and pile up against the mountains behind town.

    That quickly rising air usually happens summer afternoons in hot climates due to heat convection.



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