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! 


  1. My friend has Zwift and said I should get it, but the bike I have on my trainer is a city cruiser and I don't need to feel bad about myself..haha.

    1. I'm not sure that matters. On our trainer we have an old Frankenbike ... MTB frame, my Karate Monkey fork. You do still need a smart trainer that is calibrated to accurately measure power output. My first few rides have been on a virtual mountain bike, which I think puts me at a speed disadvantage in Zwift land. I intend to try different virtual bikes to see what happens.

  2. What a great week of getting out there while the weather is good! Corrine


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