I know it is long past Memorial Day, but I’m behind on blogs.
A traditional Memorial Day ride for the past five years or so has been a loop from Loveland, Colorado to Lyons, Allenspark, Meeker, Estes Park and back to Loveland via Glen Haven or Highway 34. This year we decided on Highway 34, making the trip right close to 90 miles from my doorstep. A Google Maps of the route is here:
This year Bill Danielson took video for parts of the ride. He has some nice shots on the opening climb up Highway 7, in Estes Park and coming down one of my favorite rides, Highway 34 between Estes Park and Loveland Co. Check out the video below.
I posted a few still shots on Twitter, here they are for you:
Longs Peak and Mount Meeker from two views off of Highway 7.
It was definitely the worst road conditions and the coldest ride start for me. It also ranks in my top two toughest rides to Estes Park.
Those of you that have followed the blog for awhile know that a few riders in our Sunday ride group have a goal of riding from Loveland to Estes Park once per month, year round. (From the Colorado Front Range of ~5000ft. to the mountain town of Estes at ~7500 ft., often taking the route that pops you up to 8000ft. before dropping into the Estes valley.) If you achieve the once-per-month goal, you receive the coveted Turd Trophy Award. And who would not want lacquered elk droppings glued to a fine, hand crafted, award?
As you might imagine, the months of December, January and February are the toughest to accomplish. Winter storms can make the road dangerous to ride on a road bike. Because the 32 mile trip from Loveland to Estes is mostly uphill, it is possible to dress warm and ride a mountain bike up; but not back down (due to sand and ice). Sometimes it’s not safe to ride the canyon at all, so ride timing becomes critical.
Yesterday there was some scrambling to organize a road ride to Estes. After road reports came back that the road shoulders were snowy, we decided to abandon the road ride idea. Several phone calls back and forth; looking at the upcoming forecast for snow and cold; the thought of riding indoors; trying to bag the December Estes; and some hand-wringing lead to two of us planning to ride to the top of the switchbacks with an 8:00 am departure time. Oddly, this same scenario is how the once-per-month Estes ride began a few years ago.
At 8:00am this morning, Todd Singiser showed up at my house. He commented, “Gee, the thermometer read 8 degrees when I got up.” This resulted in us laughing, making fun of ourselves and also convincing ourselves that it certainly warmed up since he got out of bed, pre-dawn. (Read: denial)
As we rolled out of town, it was definitely cold. It was colder than I remember at the start of any Estes ride. As we rolled west, I imagined what people in cars were saying about us. I suspect the word “idiot” was used more than once.
Remarkably, two of the toes on my right foot were the only thing that was cold after about 45 minutes of riding. Not bad considering we were riding in a shaded canyon, ice-capped river next to us and had a head wind to boot. Granted it wasn’t a stiff headwind, but headwind nonetheless.
After riding about 1:20 I tried to get a drink from my hydration pack. Even though I filled it with hot water and it has a neoprene cover for the drinking tube, I couldn’t get a single drop out. I did manage to dislodge the pea-sized ice chunk in the mouth piece, but the line was frozen. No water.
I had to take the entire line and wrap it inside the pack to thaw it out. After about 15 minutes I had water. Ah…
Del, my husband, agreed to sag for us. The plan was for him to leave the house roughly 1:45 after we left so he would meet us after about 2:30 ride time.
Worth mention is when the clock was at 1:20, I was wishing Del was there with us. There is a good chance I would have gotten into the car and called it a day. It’s only the 5th of the month, plenty of time to try another ride. Just keep pedaling, push the sag demons away. (As if I had a choice at this point anyway.) I was pathetically slow, unable to get out of my own way. Thankfully, Todd was willing to wait and ride with me.
At just over two hours of ride time, we saw Del and sag-dog Meeka. Wahoo! Though the road has gone from snowy shoulder to mostly snow packed, we’ve gone too far to quit now. Must keep pedaling…
Near the town of Glen Haven, head winds picked up. Perfect. Wouldn’t want this to be too easy.
Just west of Glen Haven are the notorious switchbacks. My computer has logged the grades of the switchbacks between 13 and 18 percent. I’ve gotten a couple of 20 percent readings, but I suspect those readings happened to come at the steepest part of the corner, which only lasts for a few feet. Below is our approach to the second set of switchbacks.
There is no doubt, this was a tough ride for me. The last two miles were the toughest. I was tired, it was windy and my left inner thigh was threatening to seize-up on me. It took us 2:53 to make it to the celebration point at the top. In the summer on road bikes, we can usually ride this distance in right around 2:00.
With Longs Peak over our shoulders, Del offered to snap a photo before we headed to Estes for something warm to drink.
The first thing I did was hit the hot tub when we made it back to Loveland.
After a shower and reviewing the photos, I decided to check WeatherUnderground to see what the morning temperature was when we rolled out. I’m glad I didn’t know before we left, because I might not have started.
Sometimes it’s better not to know it’s 10.9 degrees at ride start.
Just three days after our group made it safely to the summit of Longs Peak, and back, a man fell to his death near the false Keyhole.
Several of us commented on Tuesday that we were surprised more people didnt suffer significant injuries on the mountain. In the times Ive climbed the mountain Ive seen people clearly unprepared for:
the endurance required (making it to the summit is less than half the battle, getting off the mountain in a fatigued and oxygen-deprived state is a serious challenge)
recognizing when they are beyond their physical, mental and emotional capabilities
the upper body strength required
the balance and agility required
the significant dangers that the mountain can present at any moment (lightening, snow, ice, high winds, etc.)
Unfortunately the climb is portrayed as relatively easy, because so many people are able to make it to the summit. The climb is not easy.
While fear can be something that hampers your growth and can keep you from reaching your potential as a human; fear can also save your life. That kind of fear deserves the highest form of respect.
Our group was also tricked by the false Keyhole and fortunately, we had the wherewithal to stop, retreat and find the colored egg markers on a path lower than where we were heading. We saw a young couple on the mountain that day, where the woman was panicked and crying on the climb towards the false Keyhole. The man was telling the woman she would be okay and encouraging her to continue pressing upward. When they saw all of us going down, I believe they somehow decided to follow. Perhaps their gut-instinct or fear told them not to continue up.
Well never know.
My condolences to the family that lost a loved one on the mountain.
On Tuesday of this week, I climbed Longs Peak for the fifth time. Its still a tough climb.
Longs Peak (14,259) and the neighboring Mount Meeker (13,865 ft.) are both prominent in the skyline west of the Northern Colorado Front Range area. Ill try to get a photo tomorrow morning; but for tonight youll have to imagine two massive peaks perched high above peaks in the Rocky Mountains, dominating the western horizon. Cities lying east of Longs Peak rest on the Front Range at a humble 5,000 feet, plus or minus.
Longs is the only fourteeer in Rocky Mountain National Park and is listed in the book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. The peak draws the interest of both serious technical climbers and the enthusiastic recreational hikers as well. Know that if you attempt to hike the peak in a single day from the trailhead outside of Estes Park, youll need to be ready for a round trip from the ranger station that a park handout advertises to be some 13 to 15 hours.
The biggest challenge is to summit and get yourself below treeline before the afternoon thunderstorms arrive. For this reason, most people try to begin climbing by 3:00 am.
Based on previous experience, we decided to meet at a store on the west side of Loveland and carpool. My alarm went off at 2:30 am and I met four others at 3:30 am. We drove to the Longs Peak Ranger Station and met two other people. We started the hike at 5:00 am, each person with a headlight or flashlight, a pack full of fuel and around 120 ounces of water.
The first hour of the climb is in the dark. In the next hour, the sun is pushing its way up the eastern horizon, the makings of a beautiful sunrise. By this time, we are above treeline and making our way to one of the traditional rest, fueling and bio-break stops the trail split to Chasm Lake and the continued trail to the top of Longs.
Below is a shot of the gang (Scott Ellis, Tony Meneghetti, Ed Shaw, Scott Rees, Pete Graham and Doug Pearson). Directly above Eds head is the eastern face of Longs Peak, known as The Diamond. Technical climbers can often be seen roping their way up this vertical rock.
The next recognizable section of the trail is The Boulder Field. As the name suggests, hikers must navigate a rock field with various sizes of boulders, from those the size of your computer printer to some bigger than a car. The next shot is looking across The Boulder Field toward The Keyhole, the near-hole formation silhouetted against the blue sky.
I dont have a shot of The Keyhole with people in it to give you a good perspective of the size. Ill give you additional photo links at the end of the column.
From the ranger station to the start of the Boulder Field, the trail was a hike. At the Boulder Field, some jumping and scrambling was required. It is at the Keyhole where things get tough. Going through the Keyhole to the back side, you are typically greeted by wind. This is not welcome for several reasons, one of which is you need to negotiate a section of trail called the Ledges. Just as it sounds, the Ledges portion of the trail includes sections where you must face the wall of the mountain and keep your focus on the task at hand. Missteps here will include a long tumble down the mountain.
After the Ledges section, there is a transition climb to what is known as the Trough. Below is a shot of Doug, Scott, Tony and Ed getting ready to progress toward the Trough. Notice the red circle with a yellow center painted on the rock. These eggs mark the trail.
The Trough is a V shape that includes fields of smaller rocks, sand and dirt to navigate. Many of the larger rocks are covered with the fine dirt and sand making the footing similar to walking on tiny marbles. The shot below shows the typical trail of rocks, over Tonys shoulder, that we must navigate to get through the Trough.
After the Trough is the area known as the Narrows. Just as it sounds, this area is narrow and extremely exposed. There are a couple of sections that I needed help getting up because I could not get hand and foot holds secure enough to lift myself up to the next section. A mistake in this section carries heavy consequences. My tactic was to look for the general direction of the next egg, then stay focused on the next 5 to 10 feet of trail ahead of me. That trail could be horizontal, at 45 degrees or vertical.
After the Narrows, its the Homestretch. This big slab of rock seems steeper than 45 degrees, though it could be the fatigue making me misjudge the grade. Most of this section is four-wheel drive (Im using hands and feet to propel myself).
If you clear the Homestretch, youve made it to the top. We were up in just under six hours after leaving the ranger station. (We did stop several times going up, so this is not a continuous-movement pace.)
The top is a football field size area, made of big boulders. Below is a shot of us on the top, standing next to the rock that shelters the summit-sign-in canister.
After spending some 30-45 minutes at the top, we headed down. In some of the sections, going down is much worse than climbing up due to unsure footing on top of the rocks and ankle-twisting loose rocks. Add fatigue and altitude to the mix and youve got yourself a recipe for potential problems. Blood spattered on sections of the rocks is a callous reminder that the mountain can be unforgiving.
Focus, concentrate, vigilance I kept telling myself.
The short story is that we did all make it down the mountain and to the safety of our cars about 11 hours after leaving them. The trip, however, was not without some physical payment. In addition to muscles crying from 7.5 miles of eccentric loading, some people got nasty blisters. Some blisters were patchable with a bandage of duct tape, other blisters forced the postponement of summiting the mountain. Scott Reess biggest blister stopped him short of the Homestretch and consumed the entire bottom of his big toe. When I saw the flap of dead skin covering his raw, pink skin underneath; the flap appeared to be about 1/8-inch thick a good sized chunk of hide. He had more blisters, but this was the worst one.
I think nearly everyone had some blisters on their feet, though none as impressive as Scott's. I managed to twist an ankle in the Trough on the way back and had to duct tape it for stability. (Ill show you how in another blog.) There were banged up knees, toes, arms and torsos from using the body as a brace to make another move or as a momentum stop.
This mountain can be cruel and unforgiving. It turns away people that are in great shape as well as those that dont have the fitness that it takes to summit. As I wrote on my Twitter page, I would rather be denied a goal due to fatigue, physical pain, weather or nutrition than fear (of starting, trying, being last, risking ego)
How about you?
When is the last time you really challenged yourself?
More photos are available on this public Facebook page. (You dont need a Facebook account to view them, though my Facebook page is open if you want to be friends.)