Sunday, July 14, 2019

Summertime rolls

 Well, the rough season is here. I write this as I listen to thunder rumble outside. My body is a constant annoyance — legs, butt and shoulders peppered with inflamed welts (mosquito bite allergy), sinuses clogged with pollen, lips blistered and bleeding, skin blotched with sunburn (I can't miss a even of small patch of SPF 50 for an hour. The lips are a lost cause. Even pure zinc oxide rubs off too quickly.) The window air conditioner is rumbling in the enclosed bedroom as indoor temperatures climb into the 80s. I'm hung over because I spent way too much time in the sun this week. I'm scanning the weather forecast for a hopeful outing to the high country later this week ... lots of scary thunderstorm risk to contend with. Yes, summer is a challenging season, where every outdoor adventure must necessarily be accompanied by discomfort. I grapple for motivation, and occasionally force myself into the fearsome barrage of UV radiation, lest I come down with a real case of summertime S.A.D.

I imagine this is how the majority of people feel about winter. I empathize, people.

As I wait out the latest thunderstorm to embark on a muggy Sunday afternoon run, my outdoor moving time this week is already up to 22 hours. I'm stoked about that. Before this week, my summer was fairly low-key. During our 10 days in Germany, I made brief attempts to reboot my running. There were the early days when temperatures were in the high 30s Celsius with humidity, and I'd return after five miles, as drenched as though I jumped in a lake. There was the moment, a quarter mile into a run on a flat path with no obstacles, when my bad leg just crumpled and I hit the deck. There was the set of 106 stairs outside the technical college where Beat embarked on hill-training repeats. He'd do 20 while I did 15, for less than a thousand feet of elevation gain that left me feeling as worked as though I'd climbed a big mountain. There was also lots of touristing, visiting historic sites such as an abbey built in 1258 and a 60-meter-high boat lift for barges on a canal, and of course Beat's father's 80th birthday festivities with tons of good food and a relaxing boat ride. There was a proper vacation surrounding my pathetic attempts at running, and it was nice.

By the time we returned to Colorado, I was feeling some training guilt. I've been doing a lot of soul-searching about upcoming ambitions (will write about this soon.) More immediately, I signed up for a single summer race that is not necessarily a small thing — a 210-mile self-supported mountain bike race called the Summer Bear in Steamboat Springs. Spending 15 days off the bike during what should be peak training weeks wasn't ideal, so on Wednesday I carved out most of a day to make up for that. The weather was friendly, with temperatures in the high 70s rather than 90s, although climbing above 9,000 feet means I still need full leg and arm sun sleeves. I rolled out on some of my favorite local gravel climbs, washboarded and dusty, before turning onto Peak to Peak Highway near Ward. I thought about targeting Estes Park, not yet realizing that it was still another 35 miles of steep rolling hills away.

I managed 25 of those miles to Meeker Park before I hit a line of construction traffic. With people milling around outside their cars, it looked to be a long wait. I veered off the road to a take a break by Chapel on the Rock (built in 1936 - not quite the history of an 800-year-old abbey, but beautiful nonetheless.) I'd been battling severe jet lag for the past hour, and actually dozed off for a few seconds, just deep enough that I snapped awake to feel severely disoriented. Fearing the sleep monster would continue to haunt me if I waited around for too long, I decided to turn back. The ride still ended up at 103 miles with 9,600 feet of climbing. It occurred to me that I haven't ridden a "century" in some time ... perhaps years, since road-riding was a more regular thing for me while living in California (lots of tough rides in the Colorado log, but none quite topping a hundred miles.) Anyway, beyond the jet lag, I felt strong on this ride, which was heartening.

On Friday I joined friends for an overnight bikepack outside Eagle, Colorado. Betsy and Erika are also training for the Summer Bear, and Betsy organized the trip after asking local professional endurance cyclist Jeff Kerkove to suggest a route for her. We all had the GPS track and little else in the way of knowledge about it, but at least Erika had paper maps for later assessments ("is this really the right way? Really?") It was only about 80 miles overall, and we were all a little blasé about prep, rolling out for a crack-of-2 p.m. start. We actually ran into Jeff as were gazing at a map and he was returning from a training ride. He took this group photo for us.

Eagle is part of the region where the Rocky Mountains meet the Colorado Plateau, a stunning landscape of redrock cliffs rising toward the snow-capped summits of the northern Sawatch Range. It has been high on my list of regions to explore ... let's face it, I haven't seen that much of Colorado. So I was excited for the opportunity. Even if it meant a tedious I-70 commute to squeeze this trip into a 36-hour window.

Photo by Betsy Williford
Crossing Nolan Creek to reach Old Fulford Trail. Just 10 miles into the trip, we were already wandering back and forth, wondering where we were even going. This is why my physical therapist told me to wear the knee brace for this ride.

The first of several steep double-track climbs. Erika and Betsy performed impressively on their loaded fat bikes.

We descended to Fulford Historic District, elevation 9,860 feet, population "odd." This is another of Colorado's many semi-ghost towns, named after a miner killed in an avalanche in 1891. Now apparently more of a recreational community, Fulford wouldn't be an easy place to access in the winter, but it's hard to beat the setting.

More vistas at a bridge over Brush Creek.

Hat Creek Road, still blocked with a gate due to snow cover, took us 2,000 feet higher to a pass at 11,100 feet. Steep, rutted and dusted with loose pebbles, this climb was demanding yet "spinnable." Colors became saturated as shadows grew long, and I was in my zone. Contentedness peculated in my blood as I stomped through snow drifts and grunted around precipitous hairpin curves, gazing at mountains almost incandescent in the evening light. This is my heaven, right up until it becomes my hell. The duplexity makes me appreciate this zone all the more. 

Beautiful vistas awaited us just below the pass, with long views into the Holy Cross Wilderness. I rode my brakes, trying to prolong these fleeting moments next to the sky.

Betsy was fairly gassed by the top of Hat Creek Road, where we'd already climbed nearly 6,000 feet in a mere 29 miles. There was only one more hour of daylight, and it was clear we needed to keep rolling.

We descended all the way back to Brush Creek Road, the fast track to our point of origin. If we simply stayed on this road from the start, the ride to Crooked Creek Pass would have been a whole lot easier. But then it wouldn't have been nearly so late, nor the light so gorgeous.

Avalanche Peak made a stunning appearance as we raced the fading light to the end of a spur on Jeff's GPS track. I figured there was no reason for him to send us down here unless the camping was awesome, and I was eager to ride to the end.

Crooked Creek Reservoir. This did seem a nice spot to camp, but possible private. Plus, the bugs were bad, and it was surrounded by cattle. We continued to descend into the valley, watching a herd of elk gallop through the gorge.

The route ended at an intersection that was crowded with campers — apparently this is a popular spot for climbing, and also this is just typical Colorado in July. The crowds were a disappointment, but it was apparent that my companions felt an urgency to nail down a camp site before it was fully dark. Had I been alone, I probably would have kept riding until I could find more solitude. As the sky faded to deeper shades of purple, we wheeled the bikes through a bumpy marsh until we found an unoccupied fire pit. The woods only held open spots big enough for Betsy's tent and Erika's bivy, so I plunked down on the dewy shoreline of Lime Creek. It was a beautiful setting, though, with the sound of cascading water to lull me to sleep.

Wider view of camp in the morning, from where I enjoyed my peanut butter oatmeal and coffee at the fire pit. Yeah, okay, it was a nice place to camp.

Mist rising off the creek in the morning. I awoke to a thick coat of frost across the fly of my tent, so I guessed it dropped a few degrees below freezing overnight. I slept cozy in my brand new Sea to Summit Spark sleeping bag, my first new "summer" bag in 12 years, after a number of years freezing in a worn-out Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32. Such luxury, to camp in the mountains in a lightweight sleeping bag and stay warm! Since I tend to do the majority of my camping in the fall and winter months, my summer system still baffles me. It weighs almost nothing — two-pound tent, one-pound sleeping bag, and a 12-ounce pad. I may curse my holey Thermarest NeoAir to the sky and back, but when it actually holds air, it's wonderful.

Heading out to climb the long road we'd descended the previous evening. We ended day one at around 40 miles, and expected the same mileage for day two, but we naively hoped for a little less climbing and maybe more easy rolling descents.

After the climb out of the Crooked Creek Valley, there was only supposed to be one 2,000-foot climb and a few small rollers. But the 2,000-foot ascent proved to a tease, with endless rises and drops around drainages as the powerline road skirted a broad ridge between Brush Creek and Gypsum Creek. The heat of the day was beginning to crank, there was little shade, and the UV force at 10,000 feet made me feel like I was hunched over the surface of the sun. I slathered on more sunscreen and drank gulps of still-cool creek water, but I felt cooked. Summer is hard.

Beneath the first stand of aspens I'd seen in a couple of miles, I met another trio of bikepacking ladies. What are the chances? I suppose this whole bike-camping thing is becoming fairly popular. I learned the women were from Leadville, and were also fully cooked by what they viewed as low-altitude heat away from their high mountain home (our altitude at the time of meeting was 10,200 feet.) We compared routes and it was funny to learn they were on a similar two-day trip, even though our plans came from different sources. Their route was all downhill from there, and we both assumed mine would be the same. We agreed to meet up at a brewery for lunch in a couple of hours.

Of course, I had no idea where our route actually went from here. None of us did. Betsy was enjoying the views but seemed to be struggling with the climbing. We accidentally bypassed a ridge trail to instead take the parallel jeep track called Hardscrabble Mountain Road, which earned its name with jolty babyhead rocks and endless, pointless ups-and-downs.

From there we spent some time lost and gazing confused at Erika's map, but we managed to reconnect with the route with a long climb to the also-aptly-named Fire Box. This was a nasty, chundery descent, a downhill hike-a-bike even for my more skilled friends with monster truck bikes. Betsy had enough of all of this, and voiced this opinion to us. I too was wondering about bailouts, but at this point I'd spent a fair amount of time scrolling through the screen on my GPS, and understood that we were locked in a gorge surrounding Abrams Creek and fairly committed to whatever Jeff had in mind. That proved to be more doubletrack climbing and a long singletrack traverse through the oak brush along dry hillsides as all three of us ran out of water and thunderstorms bared down from the high country.

In the race to beat the rain to town, Betsy suddenly broke out of her funk and outpaced Erika and me, as we struggled with woozy dehydration and dizzy vertigo along the steep side slopes (the vertigo was probably just me.) It was fun to watch her bust out a strong ride when just miles earlier she was vocally insistent that she was going to keel over. Endurance does this for everyone, at some point. It's heaven to hell and back again. That's what makes it so addicting. We ended this day at 42 miles and 5,500 feet of climbing spread across 8.5 tiresome hours, and promptly hit the local saloon for massive plates of food.

All in all, a great overnight with a little something for everyone. 8/10 would ride again, although I still have a whole lot of Colorado left to explore. 


  1. So funny that you feel about summer how I feel about shouldery months. Summer is scarily easy for me. Scarily because I could go soft and move to a much warmer climate. That trip looks amazing.

  2. Fulford, that's a new town to me. From the picture it reminds me of Platoro.


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