After Saturday’s warm-up came the real test on Sunday. Mount Evans was waiting for me, the highest paved road in the entire United States. I had made plans to meet up with my nutritionist Kelli (who is awesome, by the way, and I recommend her services to everyone), her husband and a couple local friends. They are primarily mountain bikers, and used this as an excuse to challenge themselves on the road bike.
Aside from the difficulty of the climb itself, there were two other major concerns:
The first was weather. The elements can be chaotic and unpredictable at high elevations, but the odds are in favor of the worst weather coming in the afternoon. As it turned out, a tornado had touched down on the Evans summit the day before our climb. That was at 3pm, which is perhaps the worst time of day to climb. The forecast was for some late showers, so we began the climb as early as we could justify rolling out of bed on a Sunday morning.
The other issue was with the altitude. If one were to measure the climb based on the grade and elevation gained per mile, it is not terribly imposing. The issue is that the climb is long, and reaches high elevations. The higher you get, the more difficult it is to breath. Without acclimation, there was a good chance of getting sick. That’s what I was mostly worried about.
I had spent Thursday night at home in South Carolina at 300 feet, and then the next two nights at 5,000 feet in Denver. I discovered on Saturday that my lungs had not quite adjusted to altitudes of 7,000 feet. Climbing to twice that was a talk order. On top of all that, I had never been (that I can recall) higher than 8,000 feet in my entire life. Altitude affects everyone differently, so I had no idea what to expect. I did my best to prepare as well as I could. I took iron supplements, hydrated, and even took some altitude medication.
We left from Idaho Springs, which is the longer route up the mountain. Some will opt to ride from Echo Lake, which shaves about 12 miles and maybe 2,500 feet ascended from the route.
It was a gorgeous morning with a slight cloud cover. The climb to Echo Lake starts out very easily, with maybe a 1-2% grade at the very beginning. We got to know each other and rode easily through the climb.
I noticed my heart rate abnormally high almost from the beginning. It was odd because I did not feel tired or that I was pushing too hard. My body was probably trying to adjust to the altitude. After spiking near 190, I backed off and let the rest of the group ride ahead. They were all strong riders, and already accustomed to the elevation. I was very thankful to have Kelli there to hang with me. I knew she could ride with the others, but she is a good person and was watching out for me. Thanks, Kelli!
To be honest, when I saw myself struggling so early, I had doubts whether I would make it. The last thing I want to do is quit, especially so close to the beginning, so I pressed on.
The climb up to Echo Lake, also called Juniper Pass was absolutely gorgeous, and far more closely resembled the Blue Ridge climbs that I am used to. The major difference being the 14,000 foot behemoths in the distance. We wound our between tall peaks and deep valleys, all covered in a dense foliage. I was in awe, almost giddy, at seeing the natural beauty, and we were not even halfway there yet.
My heart rate settled down somewhat after I scaled back my effort. The others were waiting for us at Mount Evans State Park. It would be a 10-mile trek to Summit Lake, and 14 miles the actual summit. It seemed like a long way to go from there.
The grade remains at 5-6% once inside the park, and we slowly climbed out of the trees. Once above the tree-line, the road started to curve around. There were a number of sharp turns and a few switchbacks. The road also became extremely bumpy with pot holes scattered about. This was not that big of a deal on the way up, but would be frustrating on the way down.
During this stretch is when I expected to feel the altitude effects. The entrance to the park was at just under 11,000 feet, and we escaped the tree-line at 12,000. To my surprise, I did not feel too differently, other than being a little slower and working a little harder, which I had been dealing with since Idaho Springs. There was no headache, no nausea, and my legs were not feeling too sore. I got a sense of confidence, knowing there was a better chance of success.
The climb continued at the same moderate grade until we finally reached Summit Lake at 13,000 feet. I could barely make out the summit by this point. Kelli pointed it out to me.
By that point I was beat up, tired, and even had a slight hamstring cramp near the very end, yet I felt amazing. The last 1,000 feet were the most difficult because of the lower amount of oxygen, but also the most enjoyable for me. I was overwhelmed by the surrounding beauty, and proud of the fact that I was going to do this. Perhaps also because of the lower amount of oxygen, I had a peaceful sense of calm. Kelli said she enjoyed living the experience through me. She had already hiked all of the 14ers in Colorado, a fantastic accomplishment, so this one did not have the same impact. I asked if she felt similarly after her first one. She said yes, and that was where her husband proposed. The mountain has a way of bringing out the romantic poet in all of us.
As we got closer to the top, the switchbacks became tighter, and some were a little more difficult. My legs were feeling very heavy by this point, and the heart rate was still high. That said, I had my eyes on the prize as I was able to see the summit off in the distance. We turned a corner and found more switchbacks waiting, but more importantly, there were cars. I squinted and saw more switchbacks above the cars, but that was not a road; that was a trail. We were nearing the end.
I pedaled and pedaled, ever so slowly, and finally reached the top. Relief! It was done! From 300 feet to 14,100 in a little over two days. This may be my proudest cycling achievement.
I was feeling a little woozy at the top, but I couldn’t stop there. We parked our bikes in the rack, and hiked the remaining 200 feet to the summit. Words cannot explain what the world looks like while staring down at it from 14,000 feet. I took some pictures, some of which I think came out well, but they do not compare with seeing it with your own eyes.
The descent was not fun. We were fortunate to still have good weather when we first descended, so we did not to deal with any heavy winds. Many stretches of the road had bumps every 20 feet or so that could not be avoided. I hit some of them hard enough that I could have flatted. We had to be ever watchful for obstacles and holes, of which there were many. The first part was the most difficult because of the bumps and the switchbacks. It eased up after we dropped below the tree line.
There was a nasty cloud in the distance as we were dropping down. It looked horrible, but probably would be behind us. That may have been the case for that particular cloud, but there was another one that awaited us at the park entrance. Almost immediately it started raining. There was no lightning or thunder, and while the rain could be heavy at times, it was not torrential. It looked like we might descend out of the rain, as there were clear skies in the distance, but it nagged us the rest of the way down. Even though it was not pleasant, it was better
However uncomfortable, it was an amazing day that I will never forget. I have a feeling I will see Mount Evans again someday. Next time, I will approach it with adjusted legs and lungs.