I am fortunate to live at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and to have riding pals that are willing to do fun rides with me. Our fun rides are often challenging, which is part of what makes them fun.
I reserve the title "Epic Ride" to rides that are, by definition, "very imposing or impressive; surpassing the ordinary (especially in size or scale)".
Our annual ride from my doorstep to the top of Trail Ridge Road each year is certainly challenging, but I wouldn't normally consider it an epic ride. (Sans the first year I did it. That year, given my experience and conditioning, it was epic for me.) On the challenging side, the round trip is 106 miles, there is roughly 9,000 feet of climbing and the elevation goes from about 5,000 to 12,168 feet. Yes, challenging, but doable with appropriate conditioning.
I have included an attachment of a partial profile of the climb. The altitude isn't accurate and I'm missing about 45 minutes worth of data, but more on that later. You can still get the general idea of the route.
At 7:00 am nine of us left my house, we would pick up one more person on the road, with high hopes of a fantastic day. Everyone in the group that planned to go to the top is well-conditioned and a ride of this type should have posed no problem. The weather at home was predicted to be 85 to 90 degrees F. with a chance of late afternoon rain. Estes Park was slightly cooler, with the same late afternoon rain predicted. Perfect, we'd be off the mountain well before late afternoon showers and thunderstorms.
In the shot below you can see all but one person in the group. The photo was taken by my husband Del, driving sag for us, at the top of the switchback climb above Glen Haven, with Estes Park and Longs Peak as the backdrop. This is one of my favorite scenes in the entire world.
Longs Peak is one of Colorado's 14'ers and we would be heading to a spot directly behind Longs. Notice the clear sky surrounding Longs.
We stopped to refuel in Estes Park and headed west toward Rocky Mountain National Park to ride a portion of Trail Ridge Road, to Rock Cut. Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved highway in the United States and is typically closed between mid-October to late May each year due to heavy winter conditions. Road crews work hard to have the road open for Memorial Day visitors.
Dave McClure (one of the riders with us) snapped the photo below of Peter Stackhouse on opening weekend this year. Peter is riding next to one of the giant snow drifts within a couple of miles of Rock Cut.
Two people turned around in Estes Park and the rest of us headed up, up, up.
The photo below shows eight happy riders. It was taken at one of the car turnout locations. The road, as you will see later has a very limited shoulder and cars can only stop in specified locations because there is no room on the road. Notice behind us that you can see treeline, at around 11,500 feet.
The next photo was taken about two hours after the one that was taken on top of the Glen Haven switchbacks, looking toward the direction that is our goal destination. Notice the beautiful blue skies are gone.
The next photo is looking behind us. You can see a good portion of the road and notice in some places there are decent drop-offs with no guard rails. For Colorado riders this is typically not a problem, but out-of-state folks can be freaked-out by the drops - even when riding in a car. Totally understandable.
The area in the next photo is an exposed area of the mountain that can often host nasty, gusting cross-winds. The snow patch you see in the background is the remains of last winter.
We made it to our turn-around point, the parking area at Rock Cut in about 4:38 ride time. We normally spend some time at the top taking photos and enjoying the scenery, but when we looked west, we could see a wall of weather moving our way.
Everyone put on extra clothes and high-tailed it down the mountain. We weren't even out of the parking lot on top, when it began snowing. The snow was mixed with rain. Now summer rain isn't usually a problem-unless you're above treeline and trying to get off the mountain.
We had to make a short stop for single-lane summer road construction near the top. You can see our weather-related issues just beginning.
All of us expected some rain and/or snow on top, that is just the way it is with riding Trail Ridge Road this time of the year. I put on a helmet cover, ear warmers, water resistant glove shells and Pearl Izumi's version of Gore Tex at the top. I kept my knee warmers and decided not to put on rain pants or booties. I thought, "We should be in Estes Park and off the mountain in no time. The temperature isn't too bad and I'll be fine on the descent."
Once through the construction zone, we could all descend at our own pace. We weren't out of the construction zone five minutes when the serious weather hit us. First, it was heavy rain mixed with hail. If you have ridden downhill in hail mixed with rain, you'll know that it hurts your face. Thankfully there wasn't enough hail in the mix to make the road slick.
This descent can normally be done between 40 and 45 miles per hour on dry roads and with no traffic. Today, for this top section, we were limited to 35 to 40 miles per hour due to the rain.
Then came the wind. Remember the photo of me riding solo earlier in the column? The place I mentioned gusty winds? Yep, gusty side winds and rain now, pulling speeds even lower. Although I couldn't see the drop-off, or rather I wouldn't look for it, I knew I needed to stay well away from the edge of the road.
Recall the narrow roads and nowhere for cars (like a handy sag vehicle) to stop? There are few places to stop, only the designated pullout areas.
By this time, one person had lost braking ability. Luckily, he was near a pullout area and could hop in the Suburban with Del.
The rest of us continued down the mountain and were within a mile of Del when the sheets of rain hit. Things are getting worse. I am now shaking due to being cold. (I can't pedal at all, so I cannot maintain any body heat.) If I try to descend faster to just get off the mountain, I can't see due to the volume of rain. At this point, I figure out I have nearly zero brakes.
I was going down a straightaway at about 30 mph when I could see car brake lights ahead of me. I started to apply my brakes to slow down and nothing. I gripped as hard as I could and there was the ever-so-slight sensation of slowing. I went to the tip of my brake levers and gripped with every ounce of force I could muster and I could feel more, slight slowing. Yes, only slowing.
I could see tail lights getting closer.
My some miracle, the cars began moving in time for me to not run into the back end of one. I could see one of my riding friends ahead of me dragging his foot like Fred Flintstone, trying to slow down.
I managed to grip my brakes long enough that I could actually come to a "rolling stop." When I saw three of our group members huddled under a tree, I decided to join them.
We stood there waiting for Del while the lightening moved in. We had a small discussion between near-convulsive shaking, "Never would have guessed this kind of weather. Not this morning. Not on top."
And so it goes with mountain weather. This is what can happen-what you don't expect.
The four of us saw Del and the first pick-up rider go by and we waved. I wasn't sure Del saw us, so I jumped on my bike to catch them at the Hidden Valley parking lot. I was pretty certain they would stop or turn around there.
Yep, they did turn around there and they headed back to the huddle-tree.
I am now down the mountain a mile or two and decided to wait under a new tree. And I wait.
After about ten minutes, some jumping jacks and a small break in the sheets of rain, I decided to try to make it to Estes on my bike to find the other two riders that were ahead of me. I thought this was a better choice than shivering next to the tree.
I have never been so glad to do a few climbs on the mostly descent route. The small climbs allowed me to build some much needed body heat.
I found my two buddies huddled in a Starbucks. We ordered coffee and sat there shivering.
I called Del and some of the riders decided to descend on their bikes to Estes and one fellow had enough. He was too cold and he was having bike problems.
We all regrouped at a parking lot. In the car, I had dry gloves and leg warmers. I knew if I put on these, along with booties and rain pants I could make it back home. I've done it before.
Four riders decided they were in good shape and would ride down too. Three riders didn't have enough clothes and couldn't stop shivering. They, wisely, decided to call it a day and ride back to Loveland in the Suburban with the heater on high. The rider with the mechanical issue figured out he snapped a cable, adding to the list of reasons to be in the car.
As we headed down the canyon toward home, it was decided anytime the ride is 106 miles and half of it involves unstoppable shivering, driving sheets of rain, hail, wind and limited to no braking ability-it classifies as an epic ride.
I'm happy to say that everyone made it home safely. My speed sensor was so caked with road grime that it quit working in Estes Park on the way down. I started the time clock when I realized it wasn't working, but I lost some data because the sensor was not working. The altimeter works off of barometric pressure and I think the storm caused problems with accuracy. Elevations earlier cited in the column come from map data.
I'm sure we'd all do it a little different, given another chance. That chance will come in 2008.
When I got home, my mom called to see if I made it off the mountain. Then, she told me their mountain cabin was broken into by a mother bear and her two cubs. But, that's another story...