Friday, December 25, 2020

Wild Winter Way

It started, as most endeavors have in 2020, with widespread cancellations. One by one, all of our winter races dropped from our calendars — the Tuscobia Winter Ultra, Fat Pursuit, Arrowhead. My favorite social media group, the "Wild Winter Women," proposed putting together a virtual race for the final weeks of the year. If there's anything that makes my heart happy during this isolated holiday season, it's watching other women embrace the joys of the winter slog. I took on the role of de facto race director, in that I set up a Web site and promised to publish results afterward. The premise of Wild Winter Way was effectively "do what you want." But as a nod to Tuscobia, we established the long distance at 160 miles. 

160 miles was an intriguing distance for a winter bicycle ride — something that could be done in a single day, although once you factor a hilly course with mixed snow and ice, grinding the high resistance of studded tires, and carrying the requisite supplies necessary for a full day out in cold temperatures, maybe just barely. I wanted to start from home and make a big loop east of the Continental Divide while mostly avoiding the urban corridor. I had fun drawing up a route that was exactly 160 miles — with 21,000 feet of climbing — following snow-packed gravel roads, unmaintained back roads, and long paved climbs. The best bike for the job, I decided, was my good ol' Moots 29er: mostly because it's my most comfortable bike. Also, with aggressive studded tires, it's arguably my most capable bike for winter road riding. Fat bikes can do almost anything, but because they're designed to float rather than dig in, they tend to wash out in the sand-snow chunder so common on rural roads. 

I packed three liters of water, about 4,000 calories of food — mostly cheese sticks, banana bread and ham sandwiches — three batteries for a handlebar light, one helmet light, one spare headlamp, a water filter, wind pants and jacket, two puffy jackets, primaloft mittens, mitten shells, spare hat, socks, neck warmer, extra buffs, a mask, assorted electronics, full repair kit and pump, spare tube, and assorted personal items. The forecast called for a high of 48 degrees in Golden, where I expected to be at noon, and an overnight low of 15 in Ward, where I hoped to be at midnight. What was daunting about the weather was the wind. We were pummeled with 60 mph gusts in the days leading up to the ride. Although the forecast called for slightly lower wind speeds on Monday, the ongoing whistles and howls through my restless night convinced me that I'd probably have to face the teeth of the gale. 

My planned "race date" was the Winter Solstice — the shortest day of the longest #$&! year of our lives. With sunrise at 7:20 a.m. and sunset at 4:38 p.m., I had 9 hours and 18 minutes of daylight to work with, which is a lot, really, when you think about it. I remember reading somewhere that everywhere on Earth receives more or less the same amount of daylight over the span of a year — Alaska greedily consumes all of theirs during the summer and endures deprivation through the winter.  The equator dutifully doles out daylight in equal rations all year long. These mid-latitudes swing between 15 and 9 in either direction, which ... eh. Is there really that much difference in the modern era, when most of us spend day and night in front of screens? Yet, it is fun to celebrate Solstice — that time of year when the sun is most angled over these gentle latitudes, and color and light are infused with a richness that you never see in June. 

I headed out at 6:15 a.m. The temperature was 34 degrees and winds were still gusting well over 30 mph. An ominous if beautiful sunrise portended a difficult battle — "sailors take warning" and all that.  Buffeted by gusts, I had to engage a hard effort just to reach Flagstaff Road — two miles with a steep descent and a 500-foot climb. "I can't afford to burn all these matches right out of the gate," I thought. I also started shivering. 34 degrees isn't terribly cold, but after enduring twenty minutes of stiff headwind, the spare layers were already coming on. "Maybe I should turn around and grab my puffy shorts and once more coat," I thought. "Nah, I'll be all right." 

One problem with starting an endurance challenge from my front door is the tyranny of familiarity. There are too many sections that I know by heart; I know how far I need to travel, and I know how long these miles should take. Through a barrage of crosswind gusts, I raced to keep a good pace on Gross Dam Road, then turned into the teeth of the wind to ascend another 2,000 feet up Gap Road. Gap Road is named for a veritable wind funnel of a notch between two 10,000-foot mountains. Riding this road on a windy day feels like wrestling with an angry ghost. You can't see the ghost and you never know which way he's going to shove you; you just know it's going to hurt. 

On this day it was more of a mud wrestling match. Several inches of old snow had drifted across the road, churned into sugar, and then stirred up by traffic. The resulting chunder is difficult to describe. It's not sand, it's not mud, it's not snow — it's really all of the above, just gross and loose and seemingly bottomless. The angry ghost landed a solid jab just as my rear wheel washed over a chunder pile, and I crashed ear-first into the muck. I spit out a string of obscenities and looked at my watch. Three and a half hours! It usually only takes me two and a half hours to ride to the end of the road, which was still more than three miles away. I swore some more and ground into the pedals, swerving and churning, pegging my heart rate for four miles an hour. 

I reached Panorama Point, which was deserted, and sat on a bench overlooking angry clouds to the west. I ate two thick slices of banana bread even though I only brought four and they were supposed to be treats for later in the ride. Then I had a little cry. I like to have little cries during my endurance efforts. Tears reset the system and release extra endorphins. But when I'm not yet to the end of Gap Road ... not even at mile 20 of a 160-mile ride ... maybe that's not such a good sign. 

Finally, I started a long descent into the urban corridor on minimally maintained roads through Golden Gate Canyon — Mountain Base Road, which was awash in drifts, and Drew Hill Road, which was a fun mix of chunder over black ice. I was grateful for those studded tires! But I had to take care not to wash out, wherein studs won't save you. As I crept downhill through the shaded canyon, my core temperature plummeted. Even a puffy jacket and the mitten shells didn't ward off the chill. This was supposed to be the warmest part of the day. Maybe that's not such a good sign. 

I arrived in Golden feeling defeated. The wind still howled at the lowest altitude of my route. I also was as far east as I was going to go — no more tailwinds. It took a healthy dose of energy just to pedal west along flat city streets. I thought about turning north and heading home. Who would care? It's not like this Wild Winter Way really meant anything. It was a virtual race that I made up. Still, if I gave up now, just because it was hard, I would have to give up all of the rewards I was seeking — traveling through the beautiful day into the long night, relishing a simple, almost childlike state that forgets fear and expectation, and opening my mind to wonders beyond my usual rigid perceptions. 

It's difficult to describe the inner state of these journeys. I recently finished the book "How to Change Your Mind" by Michael Pollan, and many times found myself nodding, "That's It!" This book summarizes Pollan's personal and academic research into psychedelic drugs, exploring their history, biology, and potential for therapeutic applications. Now, I have never tried psychedelics and don't intend to still. But I can relate to the mystical journey, the pursuit of awe that Pollan frequently describes. 

 “When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest," Pollan writes. "What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.” 

So instead of heading north toward Boulder, I started up Lookout Mountain, where the gusty, angry ghost regathered his strength and pounced. Crosswinds became an insurmountable obstacle. I just had to throw a foot down and wait for a lull. Eventually, the ghost caught me off guard, shoving body and bike into a guardrail. My knee and shin throbbed as I teetered over an alarming precipice. After that, every time I had to round a switchback and change my defensive stance, I stepped off the bike and walked. It was shameful, but at this point, I was committed to the ride. It didn't matter how long it took or how slow I went. I was going to finish this thing. Because of this almost imperceptible shift in expectation, I felt more content — happy, even. 

My resolve was further tested along an unmaintained bike path paralleling I-70, which was just ... interminable. Here the fat bike would have been better, but one can only ride so well through loose yet crusty sugar. The infernal west wind roared directly in my face, so there was no more need for defensive wrestling moves — just a dull grind into an invisible wall. For nearly ten miles I churned along miserably, spending the rest of my energy matches just to ride the bike rather than walk it, and gaining almost no real altitude when I still had a 4,000-foot climb up Echo Mountain to contend with. There, my ride would top out at 11,135 feet, but it would be a faint victory. After that, nearly 100 miles and more than 10,000 feet of climbing still remained. I probably stopped 20 times to sulk and text Beat variations of "This Wind Is Kicking My Ass." There was no cell signal, and none of the messages went through. Probably for the best. 

I was grateful to leave that infuriating bike path and veer onto the long paved climb toward Echo Mountain — more than 15 miles of steady uphill grind. A fair amount of snow had drifted across the road and no one had yet been through to plow it, so the wrestling match commenced. The wind would not give an inch. I had listened to its roar for eight solid hours. There would be no relief. 

As I neared the top, sunset cast gorgeous pink and gold light across the mountainous horizon. The wind had swirled up a particularly impressive lenticular cloud, and I enjoyed open access to these views at the perfect time of day. The space felt immense, and yet the chill became increasingly confining. I stopped to put on most of my spare layers. I felt a tinge of fear for the many hours of darkness in front of me. I turned on the front headlight only to find it barely worked — it would only flicker in its dimmest setting. I tried a second battery and then the third with similar results. I probably should have anticipated that these batteries might not work so well when cold. My anxiety spiked substantially because the long night was coming and I was nearly blind — I had only one helmet light battery and thus needed to keep it on its lowest setting. I wanted to save my headlamp in case everything else failed. 

Under a crush of cold and darkness, I was overcome with irrational urgency, an inner voice screaming that I needed to descend into Idaho Springs as quickly as possible. I launched into the descent with my sad headlight blinking white flashes into otherwise jet-black darkness. These were surreal miles, coasting in panic mode with a kind of disco light effect guiding the way, shivering so profusely that I could barely steer the bike, my hands too numb to do much with the brakes, and wondering with slight detachment what would happen if a deer suddenly darted out in front of me. 

"This is so trippy," I thought, and laughed with a thirdhand observer's amusement about the poor choices I was making. 

Luckily, the spell broke before anything bad happened. I finally stopped to windmill some blood back into my hands and fiddle with the lights, coaxing one to work on a more solid setting and stuffing the other two batteries down my bra for rewarming. I started to daydream about the one gas station I'd pass in Idaho Springs, and the hot coffee with cream I was definitely buying alongside the few liters of water I needed. I originally planned to complete my ride unsupported but justified making this stop. It was coffee and water. Who would care? 

I pulled into the parking lot, propped my bike against a window, and was again fiddling with my lights when a large Greyhound bus pulled up to the store. The marquee read "New York" and the interior was completely packed with passengers. Dozens of people poured out of the bus and into the store, lining up at the bathrooms, filling the aisles, and swarming around the nearby garbage cans outside. I haven't been around this many people since the pandemic started. It's just my luck that my first crowd experience in nine months happened in the midst of a long and deeply fatiguing solo ride where my anxiety was already spiked. I panicked. Even though my backpack was slung over one shoulder with half of my stuff hanging out, I mounted the saddle and began pedaling away, forgetting I'd clipped my helmet to the rear wheel. A clunk halted my pedal stroke — "Why did my bike stop working?" — before I remembered I put it there to trip up potential thieves for a few seconds while I purchased coffee. As I struggled with the helmet straps, smokers continued encircling me, masks off and cigarettes lit. I fully lifted the bike and carried it across the street until I was safely out of the store's spotlight, where I could lean against a chain-link fence and put myself back together.

Whew! Who even knew that cross-country bus travel was still a thing right now? I was greatly relieved to pedal away from the lights of I-70 and into the yawning darkness of Virginia Canyon. Sure, I didn't get my coffee. And sure, I was now going to have to scout out frozen creeks to collect water that I needed sooner than later. But any difficulties ahead were much less daunting than that crush of humanity. I was slightly agoraphobic even before the pandemic. I wondered if I'll be able to function normally in a crowd, ever again.

After that adrenaline spike, the world returned to surreality. My next section took me through a maze of barely traveled jeep roads to bypass a crush of humanity in the casino towns of Black Hawk and Central City. Snow was deep and grades were steep, and I stumbled along, gazing bleary-eyed at the snowy forest where a few random trees held strings of Christmas lights. From there I descended into Apex Valley, where a bridge crossed the ice of North Clear Creek. Just below the bridge was an open lead with enough rocks around it to spur some confidence about straddling the ice. Balancing on top of rocks proved tricky, but I was grateful to take a sip of icy clear water and know that I had earned it. Since the water temperature was already close to freezing, it rapidly turned to slush in my water bottle. I took a few more sips while standing in place — my first moments of real stillness since the start of my ride. What was that strange sound? For the first time in more than twelve hours, the air was simply quiet. 

The angry ghost had been subdued. Late evening had arrived, and almost all traffic had disappeared from these mountain roads. The air was quiet, the land was quiet, and the sky was filled with an expanse of stars and a lopsided half-moon.  A giddy sort of "endurance buzz" took over, and I pedaled onward in a state of bliss. I tackled the climbs with renewed zeal, half believing in this strange out-of-body sensation — that time had ended and yet consciousness remained. Now I was free to roam the universe without the nagging demands of a body. This would last until I felt woozy because my glucose tanked, and then I'd have to stop to cram down a few more bites of sandwich, after which a higher level of lucidity — and thus mental fatigue — would return. But I loved my night ride along Peak to Peak Highway. Loved it. How often does one just continue moving through an expansive and starry night, the only sentient being in the universe, breathing frosty air and sipping slushy water so cold that it sparks a thrilling electric jolt? (I believe these are called ice cream headaches.) This was exactly the experience I was seeking, reason enough to travel all of those grueling miles while wrestling an angry ghost.

I reached my furthest north point at the quirky mountain town of Ward, sometime before 2 a.m. Here I again bundled up after shedding most of my layers — even though temperatures had dropped well below freezing, with the wind gone, I'd heated up rapidly — and launched into a 4,000-foot descent into Boulder. As I was zooming down Lefthand Canyon, I passed a dark driveway with something softly lit on the ground. It looked like my name. At first I thought I was half-hallucinating, as one does at 2 a.m. after 20 hours on a bike. But it was real! An acquaintance left out this encouraging sign and a cup of warm tea. The tea was caffeinated and the perfect temperature to gulp quickly — unlike my headachy slush water — and I relished the infusion of energy and hydration, along with warm gratitude. Simple acts of kindness can mean so much.

The wind had returned before the end of the descent, so the steep climb up Lee Hill renewed a punishing battle. My overnight bliss had faded, and all that remained was seemingly insurmountable fatigue. I'd burned up all of my energy matches. I burned them while the sun was still up, while battling chunder and angry ghosts. There were only fumes and fantasy to carry me through the darkness. Now even fumes were gone. I'd ridden my bike nearly 150 miles. It wouldn't be so bad if I could call that distance good and just stop here, but I still had one final 3,000-foot climb to surmount before I was physically at home. Ten miles of pure pain. Was it even possible? I had lots of snacks still — I hadn't eaten nearly enough calories — and resolved to stop every mile, catch my breath, and cram down a few grams of sugar before continuing. 

Again, I was back in familiar territory. Again, I knew where my capabilities should fall. "SuperFlag" climbs 2,000 feet in 4.5 miles. My best time on this segment is 45 minutes. It's mediocre, but it absolutely crushes the 105 minutes it took me during the wee hours of Tuesday morning. It had become so late that it was now early, and the first commuters were rolling down the icy pavement on their way to work. I made sure I was never walking my bike when I saw headlights — dignity and all — but once the road crossed that ten-percent-grade threshold, I wasn't even capable of pedaling. I had nothing left. Just nothing. A deep nausea set in, and I could no longer consume the snacks I promised during more frequent breaks. While pedaling, it was all I could do not to vomit. There were a few moments when I genuinely wondered if I could even walk my bike home. But finally, just before 6 a.m., the lights of my front door came into view — just as I'd left them, 24 hours earlier. 

One short day. One long, strange trip. This is the Wild Winter Way. It has its up-front costs, and this one felt particularly high given the slowness of my recovery since. But bodies are fickle. Nausea and soreness fades. The awe, the wonder, the expansive perspectives — those remain. It's worth it. 
Monday, December 14, 2020

Fourth summer happened somewhere in there

It took me several days to thaw out after my week in the desert. There's just something about spending several too-cold nights living outside that will chill a body to the bone. Even wrapped under a down blanket with underfloor heating radiating through the carpet, I still felt uncomfortably cool. Still, my home state made the transition back to normal as easy as possible. As I was driving home from Utah on November 30, the temperature in Golden was 63 degrees.

"Ah, it's always summer in Denver," I thought. "Except when it's not."

The temperature climbed into the 50s and 60s for much of the first week of December. I enjoyed several afternoon runs wearing a T-shirt and actually needing to carry a water bottle. I suppose in this selfie I am technically not wearing a T-shirt. But I was still in the midst of my post-Utah thaw. It was 59 degrees. 

Thanks to the low light of December, a surprising amount of snow that fell a week earlier stuck around. It had mostly melted out in the open, but forested roads and trails held onto a thick layer of sugary powder. I took my fat bike out one evening and spent more than three hours plodding through a route that normally takes two in the summer. My reward was this lovely view, and also seeing absolutely nobody else out. Even a short section of paved road was devoid of traffic. It's always surprising to me, the way crowds just fade away in the winter. Even when the weather is nice. Where do they go? 

Ah, there they are! One of my favorite aspects of this time of year is when the elk return to the neighborhood. They're more elusive than I'd expect, given there seem to be many dozens in the herd, but every so often I catch them milling around familiar places. It's always fun to stop what I'm doing and gawk. This particular burn where the elk are grazing is an interesting case study of the impacts of modern wildfire damage. This area burned in 2000 — 20 years ago — and it has yet to recover any new trees. I've done a bit of reading on this, and found that researchers believe many of Colorado's lower altitude forests will convert to grasslands as fires become larger and more widespread. Honestly, every time I ride by this section of Walker Ranch, it breaks my heart just a little to realize what the future might hold for this place where I live now, this place that I love. But on this day, I could instead dreamily watch elk grazing on an abundance of grass. At least, that is, until my core temperature plummeted because I left the house dressed for 48 degrees and returned to evening temperatures dipping into the 20s. 

December 5 was "Global Fat Bike Day." I'm somewhat of a scrooge when it comes to hashtag holidays, but the social media buzz did get me thinking about places to ride my fat bike on Saturday. Around the Front Range, as far as I've found, there are almost no snowmobile trails or forest roads that see regular winter use. Most of what winter cyclists ride around here are hiking trails packed by people on foot and skis. These trails can be fun, but I do miss the long-distance trails of Alaska and other regions where snowmobilers or dog mushers travel deep into the wilderness. I decided to check out Rollins Pass Road, knowing that people sometimes drive their jeeps up the road. I wasn't expecting much — every other time I've tried this road in past years, I've had to turn around after three or four miles. But Saturday held surprisingly rideable conditions. It wasn't perfect — temperatures had been warm, so the track was often loose and sugary. I only encountered three vehicles, and all were in some state of spinning out, even though I always pulled off the track to let them pass. I suppose that's why this road isn't traveled all winter long; the deepening drifts will probably deter most traffic soon. 

I was stoked to climb all the way to Yankee Doodle Lake, although the day had by now become so warm that even the more solid sections of track were deteriorating to mashed potatoes. Grind, grind, grind. The vehicle tracks ended at the lake, but one track continued through the drifted snow. It was a hiker's track — one set of boot prints and the runners of a sled the person was dragging. The track had the distinct pattern of a Paris expedition sled. I know it so well — following faint sled tracks for miles and days until one becomes fixated on every detail is a hallmark of walking the Iditarod Trail. I was surprised to find the sled had consolidated enough snow to leave the track marginally rideable. It was punchy, for sure, but a fun practice in "think light, be light." 

After a couple of miles, the Paris sled hiker was punching knee-deep into drifts, and so was I. I hoped to make it as far as Needle Eye Tunnel, which I view as the terminus of any winter trek here — the trail beyond crosses a dangerous avalanche path, and would never be packed enough to ride even in safe conditions. But the drifts started to become ridiculous, and I was four hours into this climb and still 1.5 miles away from the tunnel. I called it good. I still logged a 36-mile fat bike ride on Global Fat Bike Day, which I consider a dedicated celebration. 

The following day, Sunday, Beat and I hiked to one of our favorite winter haunts, Niwot Ridge. It was already 33 degrees when we left the trailhead and felt downright hot in the high-altitude sunshine. But once you hit that air funnel of a ridge, even a gentle breeze will become a 20- to 25-mph wind, and then you regret every layer you've sweated out. 

The climb to the ridge had loosely consolidated sugar snow, similar to the conditions I encountered on Rollins Pass. The ridge itself was wind-scoured to the bony tundra — with just enough pockets of snow to make navigating a route tricky. Beat is good at this sort of stuff — he just floats over the tussocks and snow pillows. I seem to find every patch of collapsible crust hiding a tangle of brush thick enough to pull my boots nearly off my feet before I manage to free myself. It seems every hike I do with Beat these days brings similar musings — "Walking is hard. I should just stick with bikes from now on." 

There are lovely views from the farther ends of the ridge. Here we climbed to 12,300 feet and I thought, "You don't often see these altitudes in December." But the next day, my friend Betsy embarked on an adventure that left me feeling even more ambitious. 

Wednesday proved to be my best window for such an adventure. The forecast for Denver again called for temperatures in the 60s, but the approaching Thursday storm and subsequent days of cold might well close this window for a while, if not for good. I loaded my mountain bike in my car and set out at a not-so-early hour — although late December sunrises make it seem early — and enjoyed another short visit with the elk on my way out. 

My destination — Mount Evans, elevation 14,265. I've already been up this road five or six times this year, but honestly, it does not get old. There's a particular novelty to a winter ascent, which I always suspected might be possible given the wind-scouring that happens at these altitudes, but have never been bold enough to try. Betsy and a few of her friends made a pioneering attempt at Evans on Monday, and she made it all the way to the top. After she described the conditions, it seemed like I might be able to get away with a lighter bike than my fat bike, which would be such a grind to pedal up 7,000 feet of a continuous climb. See, I was determined to start in Idaho Springs, 13 miles and 3,500 feet below the winter gate — mostly because I'm a weirdo, but I am set in my ways and have to do Mount Evans my way. Still, I realized that even a best-case scenario probably meant a 7- or 8-hour ride as opposed to 5 or 6 in the summer. 

Given the summer-like weather we'd enjoyed and the forecast for the day, I was surprised that the morning temperature in Idaho Springs was 21 degrees. I'd showed up only marginally prepared for consistent temperatures this low, especially deep in a canyon in December without direct sunlight for most of the first 13 miles. The plowed section of the road was coated in black ice, and I quietly hoped that it would melt by afternoon, or I might just have to walk more of the descent than I'd planned. Even climbing was quite slippy, and my fingers were half-frozen in my single set of mittens. 

Once I passed the winter gate, conditions actually improved. The next three miles are below treeline and protected by forest. About a foot of snow covered the road. But it had been nearly two weeks since the area received snowfall, and in that time hikers had trammeled a solid bootpack. It was as boney as a rocky summer trail, but it was perfectly rideable for my 29er. Beyond that were 11 miles of drifts and wind-scoured pavement. The drifts were often possible to ride around, although not always simple — some required threading along a rocky shoulder beside precarious dropoffs. A couple of times I tried riding up onto the drifts, but they always collapsed underneath my wheel. I believe the same would happen with a fat bike. Colorado snow is just too dry and airy to form that white slickrock so prevalent in windy and wetter parts of Alaska. I think even a few good freeze-thaws wouldn't make enough of a difference. 

I don't believe temperatures ever rose above freezing, based on the ice that was continuously forming in my hydration hose. A Camelbak wasn't the best choice for this ride, but I admit I packed somewhat mindlessly with the ingrained habits of summer rides. I had to ward off a frozen hose by blowing the water back into the bladder every time I took a drink. This proved more difficult as I gained altitude, leaving me sucking wind for several minutes every time. By 13,000 feet, I felt like I might just pass out. Dehydration or hypoxia? It's a difficult choice to make. 

I suppose my summer altitude acclimation is long gone. As I neared 14,000 feet, even where the pavement was dry, I felt like I was plowing through a foot of snow. I did enjoy seeing all of the animals along the road — the bighorn rams that have rejoined the ewes, and the mountain goats now sporting their shaggy winter coats. 

Another fun aspect of riding Mount Evans in December was the clarity of the views. Most of my summer trips happened amid the haze of smoke season. On this day I could see all the way to Denver — some 9,000 feet lower — and beyond. 

Mootsy the mountain bike on top of Mount Evans. Between Beat and me, we've taken many of the bikes we own up here — one road bike, two gravel bikes, a fat bike, and two mountain bikes. 

Even though five hours had passed and I was feeling tapped out, I still hiked to the proper summit, because it would not be the same — or a proper 14er summit — without this ritual. The one other person I'd seen on the mountain was Betsy's husband, Josh, who also got the idea from her to get it while the getting was good. Based on the erratic tracks along the snowy trail, I could see that he tried to ride and then hiked his fat bike all the way to the top, which I found amusing and a little bit enviable. A brisk wind left me shivering as I choked down my peanut butter sandwich, knowing the hard part of this ride was still ahead. I wondered how much the cold wind and icy road was going to hurt.

"It's always summer in Denver — except at 14,000 feet."

Luckily, the unrideable snow drifts came at convenient intervals where I could run with my bike and pump blood back into my extremities. The black ice scenario at lower altitudes had improved as well. I even finished up before dark, although it was my slowest Evans at 7.5 hours. I guess I've made six ascents this year. The first, which I also titled "Snowy Mount Evans" was on June 20. That ride involved hiking most of the final three miles through several inches of fresh snow. The mountain was ironically snowier on the cusp of summer than the cusp of winter. 

It was an incredible treat, to make it to the top of Mount Evans in December. But I suppose it was also somewhat of a waste of the final day of fourth summer, as I spent most of the day battling a creeping chill. Then the following day, the storm arrived. On Friday I convinced Beat we should go for an evening ride up the Homestead Trail. 

There were only a few inches of new snow, but this ride was amazingly hard work. Beat buried himself trying to clean the entire climb and sweated out his layers when temperatures were in the teens. I threw them in the laundry later that night, and he might as well have tossed them in a lake for how wet they were. Luckily he anticipated this and brought an entire change of clothing for the descent. 

It was such a lovely evening, though. After the fog began to clear, frost clung to every needle and twig. This climb is a go-to workout, so I visit this place frequently. But it feels like a different world in the winter. So quiet, so soft, so menacing and inviting all at once. And, as an added bonus, nobody else is around. Where do they go? 

We saw a few more folks during our Sunday run around Walker Ranch, which had also converted to a winter wonderland. I didn't get outside on Saturday because I was trying out our new toy — Zwift! I've long resisted indoor trainers, but a conversation with a friend convinced me that the competitive and virtual reality aspects of Zwift make it more of a game than a chore. Our recent smoky summer also pushed me over the edge in this regard — there were a lot of summer days when I would have liked to have the option of exercising indoors rather than risk my health and ravage my lungs when the AQI is 200. But I had so much fun that I can see myself sacrificing a few quality winter days to the trainer as well. 

I'll probably write more about Zwift next week, as I'm just getting started and discovering what it's all about. But it's exciting, and seems like it will be a fun social diversion from all of the solo slogs I like to do. Let's just say that my recent Strava post about grinding out 3.5 arduous hours on my fat bike elicited seven comments about Zwift, and none about the actual outdoor ride. I look forward to riding with some of you out there in the virtual world! 
Friday, December 11, 2020

Chasing the moon

Once upon a time, this place was a near-weekly staple in my life. It was the early aughts, while I was living with nine roommates in an old house near downtown Salt Lake City. Most of us had already finished college and were living the in-between lives of subadults dabbling in grad school or working odd jobs. I was trying to launch my career as a journalist, recently hired as the community news editor at a bi-weekly in Tooele, Utah. The job demanded 50 or 60 hours a week, and my commute around the Great Salt Lake ate up 90 minutes on the best days. I was 21 years old and working all of the time, it seemed.

Between work and the frequent weeknight house parties, I was always wrecked by the time Friday night rolled around, ready to crash. But there was always somebody in the house actively packing to "drive to the desert." Before long most of us were throwing our sleeping bags and tents in an assortment of vehicles. Our destination was the San Rafael Swell, where we had a handful of secluded spots where no one else went. Even if it was February and there was a thick layer of crusty snow over sand, we'd plow through a rough jeep road in a woefully underpowered '89 Honda Civic and find a pullout to occupy for the weekend. It was usually midnight or later by the time we arrived. The air was so still and cold that it felt almost liquid; the night was so clear that moonless starlight cast a silver hue on the juniper and sage. 

This is how I best remember the desert of my youth. Come Saturday we'd hike a slot canyon or climb a pinnacle, and by Sunday everyone would be buzzing to get home. It's interesting, but my memory holds fewer of those daytime adventures and more of the Friday night arrivals. The cold and the stars, the startling expanses, the blue junipers and black mesas, and the seemingly eternal silence after a week of relentless noise. It's as though all of those busy and athletic things we did with our days didn't make a difference. Being there ... that was enough. 

Danni and I said goodbye and headed out on Sunday morning, both driving north on Highway 24 — she back to home and work and family in Montana, and me, well ... I hadn't quite decided. As I drove through Hanksville, I gazed longingly at Duke's Slickrock Grill and imagined all of the hot coffee and pancakes I would consume if only I could go inside (If they were open. It was Sunday morning in Utah, so who knows.) That felt like all I wanted on this morning — hot food and drinks, a warm place to be, and the lovely heater cranking full blast in my car. If I kept driving, I could be home by dinner, in my warm bed by 7 p.m. bedtime. And yet ... I wasn't quite ready to go back. I'd managed to spend five days disconnected — no morning news, Twitter doomscrolling, or daily COVID updates. All of the relentless noise of 2020 was finally beginning to settle into a vast and tranquil silence. Even if I was sure to freeze during another night out here, it was what I wanted — one more night.

 Temple Mountain was one of the places I remembered from my youth — just a few miles off the highway with easy access to tons of free camping. I drove along the series of pullouts beside South Temple Wash and found a spot I swear looked familiar, although truthfully most camp spots in the Swell look the same — mounds of red sand and a few juniper trees with sheer sandstone walls closing in on both sides. Of course, when you camp in a narrow canyon in late November, you are guaranteed to not receive even a wedge of direct sunlight. That was okay; I didn't intend to just hang around Cold Temple Camp by myself. I still had a bike I could ride. 

Behind the Reef is an OHV trail snaking behind the geological uplift that forms the San Rafael Reef. It wends in and out of drainages above the slot canyons that they become, climbing steep sandstone shelves and descending sandy washes. There are a few narrow dropoffs that earn it a black diamond rating for ATVs, but it's not terribly difficult on a mountain bike ... even with somewhat tired legs and a foggy head from not sleeping well for several nights. Still, the punchy climbs take their toll. After 17 miles and 2,600 feet of climbing, I'd already pedaled away three hours of the day. It was my turn-around time limit. A few miles back, I'd passed the entrance to Ding and Dang canyons, which I remembered hiking way back when. The day was still warm and inviting, and I was eager to do some exploring. 

I hid the bike, set a GPS waypoint, and started down Ding Canyon. Hiking down a slot canyon can be a dangerous endeavor. It's all too easy to descend a pour-over or boulder jam that won't be as simple to climb, and then I'd be stranded on the wrong side of my bike. I resolved not to climb down anything that I wasn't sure I could reverse. I hit that point less than a mile into the hike, where the canyon floor deteriorated into steep potholes and the walls narrowed to sheer sandstone. After I turned around, I made a surprising number of wrong maneuvers, cliffing myself out high on a wall above the canyon floor, then shimmying under an overhang beside a sheer drop-off. I did not recall negotiating any of this on my climb down that was only twenty minutes earlier. Strange, how disorienting such a narrow canyon can be. I was just a little bit frightened at times. Maybe I did descend an irreversible drop-off? I didn't remember it that way, but how much can one trust their memory? I don't remember Ding Canyon being overly difficult from those long-ago excursions. But as I finally emerged in the open, safe part of the wash, I encountered a young couple who asked me if I was aware of a 5.7-rated climbing maneuver and wondered whether a fixed piece of webbing was still in place. When I replied that I didn't make it that far, they clarified that the move was above us.

"No, I came from the top of the canyon," I said. "It's all easy hiking from here."

I got the sense that they didn't quite understand that I hadn't climbed from the bottom like they did. They seemed unsure as I continued up-canyon, telling me that they were going to turn around here. Either way, the encounter left me feeling uneasy for the remainder of the trek. Was there a sheer wall that I jumped down and somehow failed to notice? Given how much I'd confused myself in a single mile, I couldn't discount the notion entirely. I sure was relieved to finally return to my bike. A canyoneer I am not. 

It was soothing to return to the motion of pedaling around ruts and rocks. Still, I'd spent a fair amount of adrenaline in Ding Canyon, and started to feel sleepy as the shadows grew long.

Typical terrain on Behind the Reef Trail. It does require some concentration. 

The ride out was quiet. I didn't see a soul after the young couple in Ding Canyon, or even a vehicle parked at trailheads off of the graded part of the road. At first, it felt pleasantly lonely. But as evening approached, the solitude became more unsettling. Night was coming. The cold was coming. My thoughts were disconnected and dreamlike, reflections of sleep deprivation and the steep comedown after adrenaline spikes. I stopped in more or less the middle of the road to sit in the dirt and eat a handful of crackers. What was this surreal place? Did time and space have any meaning here? From this vantage it could have been 2002 or 2020. Did it matter? Memories from 18 years ago burned sharply; moments 18 minutes ago faded into the shadows. I rose and mounted my bike, and for a few seconds formed a serious expectation that I was pedaling toward friends and their desert camp with orange firelight flickering on canyon walls and the aroma of sage smoke wafting through the air. Strange, how layers of the past can be unearthed as clearly as sedimentary strata stretched along the San Rafael Reef.

I returned to the canyon where I was camped just before dusk. At the intersection of Temple Mountain Road, I looked left to long climb toward a mesa and realized that I might be able to climb up there in time to catch the sunset. All that awaited me at camp was another long and frigid night. At least cycling kept me warm; it was an easy decision. With renewed purpose, I put as much power into the pedals as I could muster, not wanting to miss the moment. The road was rough and rocky, grades topped 10 percent, and a sandstone shelf to the south blocked any views I might catch of the setting sun. The light began to fade. Just when I was about to turn around in disappointment, I looked to the northeast and gasped. 

The full moon, rising over Temple Mountain. Even though I'd languished long nights under the silver light of a waxing moon, I didn't connect that on this night the cycle would reach its pinnacle and rise in tandem with the setting sun. It was all serendipity that I caught the moon at this precise moment. It was one of those rare moments when one wonders if perhaps the universe will bend to the desires of an individual — tiny, insignificant me, traveling through time and painting the sky. 

I got back on my bike and sprinted, gasping for breath as the mesa opened up around me. I turned onto a side road and found a 360-degree vista. The sun had already disappeared below the horizon, but its long-angled light remained on a startling expanse of rock and sand. 

The San Rafael Reef, with the delineation of sedimentary layers clearly visible. 

The moon continued rising over Temple Mountain. Like the Super Blue Moon I chased on Halloween, this moon had special designations — a Beaver Moon about to undergo a penumbral lunar eclipse, which means before the night was over it would pass into the Earth's shadow. Later that night, I would become convinced I witnessed this, as the moon's bright light illuminated the canyon and then faded. As I stumbled out of my sleeping bag, I assumed the moon had slipped behind canyon walls, but it was still there — just grayer than before, muted. 

I reached into my pack and pulled out the thermos of coffee that I'd heated in the morning while Danni and I were still lazing around camp on the Fremont River. Amazingly it was still reasonably hot. This was an incredible discovery, given this morning felt like it happened years earlier or perhaps years in the future ... I couldn't decide. Even in real time, the coffee was eight hours old. I sat on a boulder and swiveled to catch all of the views at once, sipping my coffee out of the side of my mouth so I never had to look away. 

Last light of the sun to the southwest.

My final photo of the moonrise over Temple Mountain. I sat there until it was fully dark and I was shivering in all of the layers I had with me. I still had to make that painful 800-foot descent to camp, and somehow survive another night in the cold, cold desert. I realize I could get in my car, crank up the heater, and drive away. I considered this. But I wanted to catch the sunrise/moonset. That became an all-encompassing goal. 

The night was, well ... it wasn't as bad as it could have been. I shivered and didn't sleep well. The temperature dropped to 14 degrees, according to my watch that didn't quite become cold enough to die. I read a lot of Katherine Keith's memoir about how she came to adopt long-distance dog mushing as a lifestyle. It was the fourth book I started this week alone. I watched the moon make its arc around the canyon, become ashen, and continue descending toward the mesa where I watched it rise. Finally, at 6:20 a.m., the timing was right and I got up for good. 

It was refreshingly gratifying to catch to moon in its final descent. It had slipped away from the shadow of the Earth and held renewed brightness as it disappeared behind Flat Top Mountain. 

The light of sunrise beginning to illuminate the valley. Those cliffs beyond are Canyonlands, quite possibly a segment of the White Rim. 

The light of sunrise on Temple Mountain. 

Flat Top, so bright in the morning light. Someday I will return and ride a longer loop through the Swell, perhaps connecting all of the remote corners that felt like the edge of the world when I was young. 

I was lazy in the morning and drove my car to the high point rather than ride my bike. It made a nice subject. I will be sending these photos to Subaru for their next ad campaign. 

The temperature had risen to a balmy 20 degrees by the time I headed out at 8:30 a.m. I stopped at the mouth of the canyon to view a panel of pictographs. You can see where a layer of sandstone flaked away, taking pieces of the image with it. 

The erosion left this little figure all by itself. I thought about the passage of time — what remains, what fades, what's worth holding, what I should let go. All of these thoughts came in waves, fading as quickly as they arrived in a whisper of wind. I shivered and felt a crush of exhaustion settle over my body. As I turned to walk back toward my car, I heard a deafening clamor above my head. I imagined rocks coming down on me and ducked, but no rocks arrived as the crashing noises continued. Finally, I caught a glimpse of movement high on a cliff on the other side of the canyon, and realized the noise was two bighorn rams sparring on a precipitous ledge. They were too far away and hidden in shadows to photograph with my point-and-shoot camera, and I was too mesmerized to look away from the action. I was certain one of them would fall. But they continued clashing horns, pushing one another toward the edge, until with a final gallop they both disappeared behind an outcropping. It was a gorgeous dance, and I again felt lucky to land in the right place at the right time. It's as though the universe is showing me I belong here. Life goes in all directions, and every so often I'm lucky enough to find a path back to the beginning.