The mutual homeostasis normally present in conversations is often missing between Bryan, Blake and I:
“Want to walk up a mountain?” – OK
“Want to walk up a 14,000 foot mountain?” – OK
“Want to ride 43 miles, hike up one of the hardest and longest 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado, then ride 43 miles home?” – OK
With a gestation period of only a few days, our idea blossomed from a way to eek out the last little bit of the high country season, to the most intense bout of exercise this year. Perhaps an indication of the lack of limiter on our dumb ideas is when Blake, casually over a beer on Thursday night, mentions that he may or may not have a stress fracture in his foot… looks are exchanged, and later Blake decides that he must abandon our hare-brained ideas. So, Brian and I set about making preparations.
The idea of getting up at 5:30am would not even be entertained for anything but exercise. I’d spent until 11pm the night before packing a silly amount of stuff onto my bike, but I didn’t hesitate when the alarm went off. Unlike those work mornings were snooze is pressed until the last possible moment, I was out of bed and making the true american combination of pancakes and coffee as soon as possible. We pedalled straight up Broadway through the centre of Boulder; no-one on the roads that time in the morning. As we turned onto US36 and the sun started rising, we picked up the pace. The empty highway was a revelation; perhaps riding at sunrise is the safest time to be out there!
It took me some time to get used to the bob trailer dragging along behind my bike – the strain of resistance pulling heavily, and the suck of momentum can be felt instantly as soon as you stop pedalling. We pulled into Lyons for a coffee, and to see whether Blake could catch us (His FOMO kicked in and he was planning on doing the pedalling part with us). From Lyons, the road kicked up South St Vrain canyon and our speed plummeted to barely 10mph. We gritted our teeth and turned the pedals.
Cresting the canyon and turning onto Peak to Peak, the mountains around us began to show their heads. Although the map makes it look like the majority of climbing was over in one big chunk, the road showed otherwise and we oscillated between 5 mph and 50 mph on the rollers along the road to the trailhead. The last mile up to the car park was perhaps the toughest, with grades going above 10% for the only time on the ride.
We struggled into the car park to greet Andy waiting for us, eating a sandwich. Bemused spectators who had watched us ride up the road now looked on from a distance as we dumped our bikes and started transforming from cyclists to hikers. A well intentioned couple asked us if we were ‘training’, to which we responded that we were just out to have some fun. They didn’t understand. Why didn’t we allow Andy to drive up with all our gear? Well, that would have been cheating. They still didn’t understand, so the conversation ended there. Clothes and equipment sprawled everywhere, we ate some much needed food and began upwards.
Andy’s fresh legs showed from the off. He set the pace, and we couldn’t complain; we knew we needed to be hiking fast to get to the top in time and make it home before midnight. Bryan trailed 10 metres behind us on the first pitch through the trees. I was worried at this point we may have bitten off more than we could chew, but we quickly rallied. Bodies complained at the stark change in muscle usage; I had some strange sensations with the altitude and achy muscles.
Above the treeline, the trail meanders gradually up a series of ridgelines. Never steep, but always stepped, I kept on considering how far back down we would have to make it.
Into the Boulder field, we could look up and see the keyhole; a hole in the rock that gains you access to the ridgeline, and finally the summit. The views opened up to the North, and we could see the smoke from a fire burning in Rocky Mountain National park. Further, just peaking their peaks above the other mountains, the Never Summers could be seen. I thought about three weeks ago when we were up there looking in the opposite direction.
About half way up the boulder field, I stopped, took off my pack and sat down. Bryan and Andy looked at me for a second, then followed suit. It seems a little strange, but most groups stop somewhat regularly when hiking; we’d been on the trail for 4 hours at that point with little more than a pause. I needed the break, and as soon as we got going again the pace higher and more motivated. As we approached the ridgeline, Andy pointed out the small stone cabin built on the precipice overlooking the bowl.
We stopped in for some shelter and to put some more layers on for the exposed ridge to follow.
We crested the Keyhole and instantly gained an extra 120 degrees of horizon, looking north and west, into the heart of RMNP, and further over the Elk mountains on the west edge of Grand County.
From here the footing got difficult. The path had been tracked by a couple people before us, leaving rough footsteps to follow but always a question as to the surface under the snow. Rock? or Ice? The consequences of the wrong choice was a 2000 foot fall down the chutes which seemed to be watching our every step. The massive Cirque basin with lakes in the bottom seemed an infinitely long way below.
We got to the crux. Instead of the foot-wide ridge we’d been traversing, a hump of rock juts out and pushed us across a slick chute. The move required no more than five steps on slick ice. No big deal? In that situation, with fading hope that we’d make it any further, we made the call. It was difficult to admit defeat after 8 hours of upward progress, but it was the right decision. Having spoken to some people who have got to the top in the summer, it became clear we had more than a couple more moves which would have taken some extra equipment. So, a clear choice but a still a difficult one.
The walk back down was unendingly long. The occasional markers indicating we had forever until the bottom. With the sun fading and changing hue, we knew time was against us anyway. Getting to treeline was reassuring, but the millions of steps from there down jarred my body with every movement. Each footfall was designed with the least impact in mind. Half a mile to go, the car park was still in sight and our energy was fading. It was about at this point that it dawned on me that we had to ride home. It may sound silly, as that was the plan all along, but perhaps the only way my mind had allowed me to try this stupid task was to focus only on one step at a time.
We suffered the same inquisitive glances as we repeated our transition into cyclists in the car park. The people who we’d passed on the way up and the way down looked on with obvious difficulty in comprehending what we were doing. Andy bid us farewell and we headed down the road, through a huge heard of Elk, including a massive Bull. The temperature had dropped since the morning and I had to work hard to get some feeling into my legs which were rebelling against pedalling. The rollers sucked some steam from our progress, but soon we were layering up in anticipation of the 16 mile downhill to Lyons.
If you’ve never ridden with a bob trailer, its an experience going downhill. Its almost like someone is pushing you hard from behind. Cruising down South St Vrain at 35 mph without pedalling is a great experience. We were within touching distance of home. Just the small matter of 14 miles of gently rolling road between us and home. The light had already faded to dusk, with the warm glow of sunset being replaced by a cold blue of the late-season sun. The traffic volume had increased just a little bit since twelve hours earlier, and we pedalled with the constant buzz of people busy in getting home. I challenged Bryan to a race to small sign a couple of hundred metres up the road, he declined. Then, a couple of moments later he suggested a town line sprint in Boulder instead. I just chuckled, but we both knew the challenge had been accepted. The pace picked up somewhat as we got closer to town, until I was riding just above comfortable, considering at this point the clock had just clicked past 12 hours. The final uphill into Boulder, we cranked the pace again and Bryan jumped out of my slipstream to grab the victory; as I responded I momentarily forgot I was riding a bike laden with 45 pounds of trailer attached. My front wheel lifted off the ground as I swerved sketchily across the road. At that point we called a truce and cruised across the line side by side.
I should have known such an adventure would always turn competitive, but perhaps Karma was telling us to calm down; just ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE. In the end, that’s what we did.
The day was complete when I got home to Christa having made an amazing dinner, with a beer for me and bread ready to consume. Our half mile failure on summiting was quickly forgotten and instead I vegetated on the sofa, and soaked in the feeling of all-consuming exhaustion. True satisfaction.