Sunday, July 26, 2020

Rarefied air

Thank you for all of the nice comments on my last post. It's been a low-key couple of weeks since. I don't have a lot to report, but I did want to post a few mountain photos for the archive. 

 After tumbling into the talus on Mount Bancroft, my leg remained sore for most of the week. Although I developed a big purple bruise below my hip, most of the pain concentrated in an outer quad muscle, just above my knee. Each morning the muscle felt just a little bit better, but it prevented me from attempting anything too ambitious during the past two weeks. Last weekend I still didn't feel up for running or hiking, which felt a little like a waste of what appeared to be the last nice weekend of mountain weather before the seasonal monsoon finally moved in. Beat suggested we return to Mount Evans.

 Since it was our third climb from Idaho Springs this season, Beat decided to spice it up by riding the Eriksen fat bike. Why? I was mystified. Sure, the heavier bike with its hard rolling resistance intensifies the workout. But with its 7,000 feet of climbing, Evans is already a hard workout. If you're going to challenge it multiple times, isn't it more fun to try to ride faster? But Beat was insistent. I took the gravel bike and put in a consistent but conservative effort — standing out of the saddle hurt my leg — and shaved six minutes off my PR, from 3:43 to 3:37. Beat rolled up about twenty minutes later, which I thought was quite impressive on a fat bike. We can now say that Erik has both crossed Alaska in the winter, and conquered a 14er.

 The summit was its usual fun. I was entertained by the antics of baby goats, as well as German tourists who asked for a photo and then spent at least five minutes positioning themselves around the huge German flag they carried to the top. I'm still amazed by the incredible weather we've enjoyed up here. I'm going to be so soft by the time I finally make my way up a "real" fourteener.

 Beat, of course, had the advantage for the long descent. The gravel bike helps smooth the pavement cracks and frost heaves, but I still took it gingerly. The climb is the fun part on Mount Evans, in my opinion.

While bouncing downhill, I came upon three bighorn sheep ewes strolling up the road. I pulled over to give them a comfortable berth and take a photo. As soon as I stopped, one veered toward me and broke into a run. "Hey!" I yelled a few times, but she was not deterred. When she was about thirty feet away I started to panic, as it seemed more likely this was a charge, and I was standing precariously close to a steep scree slope that she could conceivably push me down. I rushed to put my camera away, fumbling with a vest pocket as she nudged against my leg and then swung around behind me. I felt the unmistakable sensation of a rough tongue on the back of my calve, which was covered in thin leggings.

"Oh," I giggled. "Oh, sorry, no salt there." She still persisted as I hopped up on the saddle and pedaled away, hoping to pass her two friends without incident. Honestly, I was quite frightened for a few seconds there. But in hindsight, a kiss from a bighorn sheep is an interesting experience, and the charging photo is super cute.

 My next mountain adventure was Wednesday. I decided to buffer my weekly chore trip to town with a ride to the Continental Divide at Rollins Pass. (I'm probably not the only one who believes this, but "quarantine" supply-gathering is only getting more painful. I've been wearing a mask since March and that doesn't bother me at all. And it's nice that toilet paper is in stock, for now. But there seems to be more tension than ever, and I find myself feeling more perplexed by the behavior of my fellow humans. I do wonder if this bewilderment is a natural regression because I interact with fewer humans in real life, these days.)

Anyway, I feel justified in warming up for my shopping trip with a six-hour solo mountain bike ride.

 Rollins Pass feels like a mystical place. It holds the relics of humans that predate most of North American history. Archeologists discovered that this rare weakness in the Continental Divide was used as a game route by Paleo-Americans more than 10,000 years ago. In the 19th century, gold-seekers built it up as a wagon route, and then it became a railway in 1880. Trains chugged their way over these mountains until Moffat Tunnel was completed in 1928. The railway ties were torn out, and it became a road for automobiles. After Needle Eye Tunnel collapsed in 1990, through-travel became impossible and the road fell into a state of disrepair. The first ten miles are still open to four-wheel-drive vehicles, but rapid erosion is taking hold. Each year the roadbed becomes sandier, the gravel looser, and the babyheads and cobbles more prominent. It's a rough ride.

 I make this trip once or twice every year. It's gorgeous, and there aren't many places in these mountains where one can even ride a bike (most of the surrounding area is wilderness.) But each time I'm grinding through the cobbles, I question how much I really enjoy this type of riding. The railroad grade drags out the climb interminably, and negotiating the constant bumps and ruts makes it perplexingly strenuous. It feels like riding up a streambed. One Rollins climb for 3,500 feet in 22 miles is at least as hard as one Evans climb for 7,000 feet in 27 miles, in spite of slightly friendlier altitudes. Rollins tops out at 11,660 feet, at an intersection of the Continental Divide Trail.

 Looking west toward Winter Park — it's fun to drop in if you have the time. I was chuffed that my climb from Rollinsville almost broke three hours (3:03.) I spent some time hanging out at the pass, hiking a short stretch of the CDT, and eating my sandwich. I thought for sure I'd be down in five hours, but no, it pretty much takes just as long to descend as it does to climb this bumpy road — at least it does if you have a painful leg bruise and every move is about minimizing the beating you're taking from your bike.

 The old railroad trestles near the pass are a fun — but slightly unnerving — relic. Each time I ride or run over these trestles, they seem to be in worse condition. This time, I rode slowly and observed all of the wooden planks that have broken or completely fallen away, revealing open air and a rapidly eroding scree slope underneath. I do not want to be here when these rickety bridges finally come down.

After I made my way over the collapsed tunnel, I sat in this spot for a few minutes to gear up mentally for the painful descent. I always appreciate a good view of James Peak (far left.)

 On Thursday, Beat had a big mountain adventure planned with his friend Daniel, traversing a technical ridge over three airy peaks, then potentially looping around two passes for a 30-mile day. I did not feel mentally ready for the spicy traverse nor physically ready for such a long day. I'd only just embarked on my first run since my fall, two days earlier. My leg felt okay on this six-mile run, but I wasn't about to push my luck. So I planned my own conservative adventure: a seven-mile hike with 2,500 feet of climbing to a popular but new-to-me summit near Allenspark. The weather report was iffy, but the peak topped out at 11,400 feet, so I felt safe in only packing a small hydration vest with a thin jacket and gloves, 1.5 liters of water, and two granola bars.

 Of course, by the time I arrived at the parking lot at 8 a.m., it was overflowing. There were also signs at the entrance saying I needed one of Rocky Mountain National Park's timed entry permits, which I did not have. I didn't even realize that trailhead was in the park. Bah. Frustrated, I headed out, wondering where I even could go for a plan B. Brainard parking was sure to be full. I wasn't sure I wanted to slog my way up Niwot Ridge again. Just when I was thinking I'd just head home, I passed the road to Longs Peak trailhead. I've never been up that trail, any part of it — I've avoided it because I badly want to climb Longs, but I'm also afraid of the final traverse and I don't like to live with this stomach-churning mixture of desire and anxiety. Still, no reason not to check it out ... especially if I can find a parking spot at 8:30 a.m. (amazingly I did!)

A trail sign said it was 3.7 miles to Chasm Lake. I decided that sounded like a good destination for the day. I was feeling blasé about this outing — still frustrated about the full parking lot at Twin Sisters, and perhaps a little fatigued from my Rollins ride. But the miles passed quickly, and when I crested a small ridge to catch my first views of The Diamond and Mount Meeker, my jaw just dropped. A sheer face of granite perfection, as though chiseled by Greek gods. I mean, I've seen photos of Longs before. But photos don't capture the enormity or quiet splendor of this place, even remotely.

I had a similar reaction when I scaled a series of car-sized boulders to crest the cirque that holds Chasm Lake. I could hear the roar of cascading water echoing off the walls, but the lake itself was calm, as still as glass. Wispy clouds had moved overhead, and the rock face reflected a dance of light and shadow. A shiver moved up my spine. The physical reaction startled me. I tried to remember the last time I'd been moved to chills by scenery. I've seen so many beautiful places that I've almost become jaded. The sublimity of this place was an extra-strength dose of awe.

 Energized by Chasm Lake, I made my way back to the junction with the trail to Longs Peak. The sky was still surprisingly clear, and my leg wasn't hurting too much. I decided to make my way to the Boulderfield for another view of Longs. It was an easy climb. I had one encounter with a grumpy trail runner who assumed I didn't return his greeting, probably because I was wearing headphones. I was wearing a buff over my face and huffed out a breathy "hi," which he probably didn't notice. As I passed, he bellowed "Hello! Hello! Hello!" loudly, and then more quietly say something derogatory. I heard all of this, turned around to chide him by saying "I said hi! Sorry you can't hear." I let the encounter ruin my mood for the next few minutes. But this transferred grumpiness didn't last long, after I crested another knoll to this view. Sublime. I almost felt bad being a human in this place, because clearly we humans are a petty little species that does not deserve this place.

From Boulderfield I could see the famous Keyhole. It looked like a talus scramble, but not terribly hard. By now it was close to noon, and dark clouds were building ominously over the western horizon. I received a couple of comments from people descending about the lateness of my climb, and I assured them I wasn't going to the peak, just the pass. But I admit, a little summit fever was trickling in. I pushed it away.

The view west from Keyhole was another jaw-dropper. This is Glacier Gorge, another basin of granite perfection.

Keyhole itself is an impressive place. I've not yet visited another pass that reminded me so much of the European Alps, which are filled with tiny notches in sawtooth ridges that divide one insanely steep scree slope from the next. In my mind, this pass will always be "Col Keyhole" or perhaps a more proper "Col d' Trou de Serrure." If you can't tell, I miss the Alps. 

 Looking toward the standard route to Long Peak. If you squint at the center of the photo, you can see a hiker. The traverse makes its way along this talus slope, scrambles across an outcropping, and ascends the nearest gully. The most exposed sections, the Narrows and Homestretch, weren't in view, but none of this looked all that terrible. Keyhole is only 1.3 miles from the summit. It's a long 1.3 miles though — probably at least two hours out and back if I was making my best possible time. I shouldered my hydration vest. I'd already consumed most of the water and both granola bars. My little jacket and gloves would do nothing for me if a storm moved in and I needed to take shelter under a boulder. Also, Beat would be hurt if I made a summit attempt without him, and attempting an unknown class-three traverse so late in the day, and so and poorly prepared, would be quite uncharacteristic of me (I know I have readers who think I'm a reckless risk-taker, but mountains, in particular, have beaten me into meek submission.)

 Not today. With a sore leg and long descent from 13,200 feet, I turned away from Longs. On the way down, I made a brief stop to check out this shelter. I was surprised to learn it was first erected in 1927 in commemoration of a lady mountaineer, Agnes Vaille. Agnes was the first woman to climb Longs Peak in the winter, in January 1925. During the descent, she slipped and fell more than 100 feet. She recovered from this fall mostly uninjured, but she was so exhausted amid the -14F temperatures and strong winds that she told her companion she needed to lay down for a rest. He tried to dissuade her, but she never got up. The plaque on the shelter reads:

This shelter commemorates
A Colorado mountaineer
Conquered by winter
After scaling the precipice.

Conquered by winter after scaling the precipice ... so beautiful. If such an epithet is written about me someday, I wouldn't mind.

Clouds built rapidly as I descended, and streaks of rain filled the sky to the north. I was glad to not be on any precipice on this day. It was a fantastic, unexpected day. Fifteen miles and 4,100 feet of climbing weighed heavily on my leg and the Achilles tendon I admittedly have not been stretching enough over the past two weeks. But so worth it. I hope to return soon. 


  1. A tale of beauty and humility :)!! Great way to start a Monday morning with coffee!

    Jeff C

  2. What bugs me is when people don't make eye contact when they pass,and lately people have turned their backs or scrambled far away. Even though I have a buff. Sad times.

  3. That rushing sheep picture is one of a kind.

  4. I must say that our fat bikes have been in storage for 2 years now. I really don't feel the need to ride that darn thing. Maybe it's because it doesn't have a dropper seatpost :-) I miss you two.


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