Saturday, September 10, 2022

My belated birthday ride

Saturday, August 20 was my 43rd birthday. 43 was also the number of hours Beat and I had been home since arriving from Europe on Thursday. It felt like a mere hiccup in the space-time continuum as I made my way back to the Denver airport to pick up my Mom, who was flying in for a short visit. I looked forward to seeing her and the timing was good — given my degree of jetlag and the high chance of thunderstorms, it wouldn't have been a choice weekend for an adventure regardless. But it wasn't my favorite birthday — up at 3 a.m. due to jetlag, making the long commute to the airport, waiting in my hot car, delays in finding my mom and more in leaving the airport, finally doing the grocery shopping I'd put off since Thursday, and returning home to a power outage that delayed dinner until 9 p.m. 

I was ready to write the day off, but still, I felt cheated. Birthdays are the best excuse to spend a day doing whatever I want, no matter how selfish or ridiculous, and no one can question it. And every year — despite decades of wishing I was a more normal person who enjoyed parties and pampering — when I search my heart for "whatever I want," I come up with a ridiculous slog that I can grind out alone. That's all I want for my birthday — a day to get out of my head and into the world, numbing my worries with strenuous physical activity while enjoying the freedom of solo travel.

My mom flew home in the middle of the week and then Beat headed out for a bro-trip with his friend Daniel to run a 100-mile ultramarathon in the San Juan Mountains. I was a little surprised that Beat didn't ask me to crew for them, but also grateful. It gave me a guiltless weekend to myself. I envisioned quiet days of much-needed recovery (pretty much everything about August 2022 was exhausting.) But then I woke up much too early the morning of Saturday, Aug. 27 (recovering from jetlag takes so long on the back end.) My first thought: "I should go for a long ride."

No matter that I had barely touched a bike in two months or that I was still grappling with lingering asthma symptoms. The adventure my jetlag-addled brain came up with was to ride my gravel bike to the crest of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, starting from home. How far could it be? In 2020, I rode to the summit of Mount Evans from home and that ride was around 150 miles with 18,000 feet of climbing. It couldn't be longer than that, could it? (Reader, it was exactly that.) I checked the weather forecast, which called for brutally hot temperatures even at higher altitudes but otherwise looked okay — high of 88 degrees in Estes Park with a 15% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. 

I packed my favorite backpack exactly as I had for two dozen mountain outings in Europe: an eight-hour day's worth of snacks, three liters of water, a Befree filter flask that I'd end up using three times, a light rain jacket, skull cap, and lightweight shell mittens that were reasonably waterproof when I took them to Iceland in 2013, but have long since passed their lifespan. During my hikes in the Alps, I usually also carried a synthetic puffy along with primaloft mittens and a warmer hat. But I'd needed the puffy once in five weeks and the rest of the winter gear never. Given this day's forecast, all of it seemed like overkill. And given how overheated I'd felt for most of my time in Europe, I figured I'd welcome any weather that wasn't oppressive heat.  

I set out at the respectable time of 6:48 a.m. and descended through toasty morning air toward Boulder, skirting the western edge of town before commencing the long, long climb beneath a cloudless blue sky. Even though I know these roads by heart, my memory still oversimplifies them. There isn't one long climb to the Divide — it is a series of long climbs, first on Old Stage Road, then the brutal 16% grades on Jamestown Road, and then endlessly undulating rollers for what turned out to be 30 miles of the Peak to Peak Highway. By the time I reached the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, it was 1 p.m. and I'd traveled 62 miles with some 8,000 feet of climbing just to start the climb I'd come here to do. Well. Hmm. It was later than I hoped and farther away than I expected, but I had a water filter and I had lights. The weather looked fine. Why not?

My legs were beginning to feel the burn but I was otherwise enjoying the experience. It was a beautiful afternoon and fun to be back in Colorado — these mountains are different than the Alps, but I missed being here. I was listening to an engaging audiobook that helped soothe the hard-grinding miles of Old Fall River Road. I probably didn't eat enough and definitely neglected electrolytes as I continued to suck down cold, clear water that I'd filtered from the adjacent creek. It was going to be a long grind home — the climbing would not even be close to over once I hit the top — but that was okay too. I was exactly where I wanted to be.

As I neared the crest of Old Fall River Road, I noticed dark clouds looming over the horizon. Blurred sheets of rain were clearly dumping on the Mummy Range to the north, but isolated thunderstorms are a thing. This storm looked like it had already missed me. Arriving at the Alpine Visitor's Center and catching my first view over the Divide quickly flattened my optimism. The entire western horizon was a wall of apocalyptic clouds. Already the landscape was darkening to an ominous mid-day twilight. I wanted to turn around and retreat right there, but I couldn't. As long as it's open to car traffic, Old Fall River Road is a one-way gravel road. Legally I had to ride the rollers along Trail Ridge Road, which exposed me to altitudes above tree line for more than 10 miles. I quickly pulled on all of my layers, ate a handful of peanuts, and commenced the steep climb to the top of Trail Ridge. 

Trail Ridge Road is one of my favorite scenic rides and I planned to take a bunch of photos, but I have none. The reason I have none is because survival mode commenced almost immediately. Within a half mile of leaving the visitor's center, I was hit with a frigid gale-force crosswind that demanded all of my strength just to keep the bike upright. Trail Ridge Road is already narrow with precipitous dropoffs, and there was a steady stream of downhill traffic from drivers who also seemed eager to escape the storm. I was all over the road and genuinely could not help it. I'm surprised no one hit me. I have to admit at the time I was almost disappointed, because everyone was driving slowly, so I wasn't likely to be hurt badly, and the prospect of being placed in a warm vehicle and carried down the hill sounded wonderful ... although I wasn't about to stick out my thumb and beg for it. 

Just as I started into the long, long descent, what had been a light rain exploded with stunning force. There was heavy rain, and then icy sheets of what I assumed was sleet, and then a pummeling of pea-sized hail that blanketed the surrounding tundra in a white veil. The hail and sleet seemed to stick to the pavement and form an icy sheen. While coasting I detected this strange sensation from the back of the bike — the best way I can characterize it is a sudden lack of vibration — almost as though the rear tire was hydroplaning. This would have been terrifying if I wasn't already succumbing to the early effects of hypothermia. My rain jacket had soaked through, my mittens were worse than useless, my steering had been erratic before I lost the sensation in my hands, and I was mostly just thinking about how great it would be if someone hit me with their car and put me out of my misery. 

Then it got worse. From the crest of Trail Ridge Road at 12,000 feet to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at 7,500 feet are more than 20 miles of steep descending with no opportunities for shelter. In hindsight, I should have gotten out of the saddle and started running to boost my core temperature. This visible act of desperation also would have likely earned me the sympathy ride that I was too proud to beg for. But I wasn't thinking clearly. I kept weaving all over the lane, riding the squealing brakes because my numb hands were locked in place, and frequently slipping off the pedals because I could not feel my feet and also could not feel a large portion of my legs. My shoulders shook violently, my teeth chattered painfully, and then the shivering hit my core. I can't remember whether I'd ever involuntarily shivered with my abdominal muscles before — it hurts, a lot. Any part of my body that wasn't numb was wracked with painful convulsions, and I was still trying to steer a bike over icy, hail-streaked pavement as heavy rain pelted my face. 

The last fully coherent thought I formed during this descent was, "I'm so miserable. I have never been more miserable in my entire life, and I am definitely too old for this." Saying to this myself brought levity to my situation. I smiled, but then everything began to blur. The convulsions began to subside, which was a relief. But also not a relief, because I know how hypothermia works. There's the painful part, and then the not-so-painful part, and then you start acting really weird, and then you lose consciousness. 

Somehow I continued to steer myself past the park entrance and rolled into the visitor's center. It was after 5 p.m. and closed, but the bathroom was still open. I threw my bike onto the sidewalk and waddled inside on wooden legs that were not my own. It was comical, how little control I had over my legs. I had no hope of using these legs for pedaling so it was good that I was able to coast all the way to shelter. I sat on the tile floor, removed my shoes and socks, and awkwardly pawed at my toes, unable to massage my numb feet with numb hands that I also had no control over.

It seemed like I spent a long time in that bathroom, but it probably wasn't that long. Only a couple of women walked in while I was there. They did their best to avert their eyes as I probably looked dangerous in my bedraggled state — soaking wet with bare feet. One of the women left almost immediately, which I didn't find strange at the time but later thought — "yeah, that was probably because of me." The shivering recommenced and then I started to feel more lucid. Suddenly I felt desperately thirsty, which was weird. I hobbled outside to the drinking fountain and filled my hydration bladder so I could gulp down at least 1.5 liters. Feeling even better, I chased the water with a Kind protein bar. Something about that bar — or more likely the hypothermia and drinking way too much water when I was possibly also a little hyponatremic — made me feel extremely nauseated and faint, so I had to sit down again. 

After a few more minutes, my head stopped spinning and I felt all-around better but utterly exhausted. Hypothermia takes a lot out of a body even without 95 miles of cycling behind it. I considered looking for a hotel room in Estes Park, but as soon as I pulled out my phone to look, I remembered that it was a Saturday night. The whole town was likely to be booked solid. And even if it wasn't, I wasn't sure that a bail-out was what I wanted. It had been a while since I'd had an old-fashioned misadventure — you know, bite off more than I can chew, come underprepared but not in an unreasonable way (a 15% chance of storms on a summer day does not portend certain doom), be completely pummeled by natural forces I can't control, and yet somehow battle my way to some semblance of victory. Sure, this was more of a thing for me when I was younger — and I am justifiably still teased about many of these youthful mistakes — but it had been a while. Nostalgia — and yes, a still-addled brain — drove me back to my overturned bike. 

I still had some 60 miles and 5,000 feet of climbing to pedal home — indeed, I'd close out the ride with 152.5 miles and 17,800 feet of climbing. And while the wave of nausea abated it never entirely went away. I don't remember whether I consumed another calorie after that Kind Bar. I probably did, but there's also a chance I didn't — I only had two or three bars left at the Alpine Visitor's Center, didn't resupply in Estes Park as I had planned, and still had two bars in my pack when I got home. 

As I merged back onto the Peak to Peak Highway, the setting sun lit up the fading remnants of the thunderstorm. The wind calmed to a gentle whisper. The air felt warm, almost hot, once again. My body, no doubt grateful to be alive, filled my blood with adrenaline. I had transcended pain, transcended fatigue, transcended any remnant of weakness that could stop me from sprinting up the steepest hills. Also, my core temperature was still low enough that any time I stopped pedaling, I started shivering, so there was a survival component to my relentless motion. 

Dusk faded and the stars came out, so many stars. Traffic ceased and I was alone in a vast world, feeling warm and safe. I rolled through an empty Nederland and rolled along the washboard gravel of Magnolia Road, which usually rattles me to the bone but seemed to have lost its bite now that I'd transcended being human. 

I turned onto a considerably more rugged road while continuing to descend at a fast clip. The road was sandy and mottled with embedded rocks. I had essentially forgotten I was riding a bike in the real world, let alone a gravel bike with questionable traction. Within seconds, my rear wheel washed out and slammed me onto the dirt — a hard, dead-fish sort of slap that happens when gravity catches me unaware. Having no idea the hit was coming, I managed to stay loose through the fall so the impact didn't have that much effect on me. It was a surprise that jolted me back to reality, but not much more. 

There I was, nearly 150 miles into a spontaneous ride, alone on a rugged back road at midnight, as a 43-year-old woman — well, 43 and one week — who really should know better by now. The ridiculousness of finding myself sprawled out in the dirt amid this reality hit me before any semblance of pain, so I burst out laughing. My brain conjured a scene from the movie "Everything Everywhere All At Once" — the characters wake up in a universe where life never formed and they exist as rocks, and one decides that rocks can still be spontaneous and wear googly eyes, because there are no rules. There are no rules! We can do anything we want!

Of course, in this universe, I accept that there are still rules. Gravity is a rule, one I respect. I decided to walk most of the remainder of the jeep road — some four miles — since I clearly could not trust my riding. I finally pulled up to my house at 1:33 a.m., shivering in the still-damp rain jacket that I was still wearing. My home thermometer read 71 degrees. It was a hot summer night following a hot summer day. Did any of it even happen?

I took a shower and went to bed, waking up the next morning and still feeling unsure about that question. If it hadn't been for the bruises on my legs and the chaffing on my bum, I may have continued to question the veracity of my memories. But my feelings were clear: That was such a fun day. I'm definitely too old for such nonsense, but also, I suppose, not too old. For the latter, I'm grateful.


  1. Great to see that the old Jill that we know and love is back! This is why we do rides like this.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Never too old for some type 3 fun! Danni

  3. What Danni said! Never too old to suffer. I'd love to do this ride but with being better prepared and not hypothermic.

    1. Really, the only way to prepare for a storm like that is to not be out in a storm like that. It’s the reason smart Coloradoans have a strict “off the mountain by noon” policy.

  4. I am astounded at what constitutes a birthday outing. Just when I think you are starting to act your age, you go off and do something like this :)
    Cheers to you and your big day! Never stop moving and you will still be moving at our age :)
    Mark and Bobbie, still climbing in Lovely Ouray

  5. I'm with you on birthdays ... I need not do much to recognize the day. But you are correct they are a valid excuse to do whatever the F you want without question. I admire that you choose epic adventure nearly every time!!! Happy belated birthday twin (by one day) - Patrice

  6. Parties and pampering sound awful. While I probably would have thrown myself in front of a car, I do try to adventure on my birthday...just maybe not that much.

  7. Then it got worse. 🤣

  8. So enjoyed your last three posts and your stunning photos of the Swiss Alps. Glad you survived the wx on your epic birthday ride and made the best of it. Happy belated #43.

  9. Such great writing. Love the foreshadowing description of your decision not to bring the winter gear: oh, this is gonna be good! Thanks for turning your suffering into smiles for your readers.


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