Yesterday (August 13) I climbed Mt. Evans in Colorado. At 14,130 ft it is the highest paved road in North America. It also turned out to be the toughest day I ever had on a bike, and elevation had nothing to do with it.
I was traveling from Chicago to San Diego and decided to stop by Denver to do Mt. Evans specifically – I got 6AM flight from Chicago to Denver and 8PM flight from Denver to San Diego. Perfect layover!
The weather in Denver was warm – with high of 91F, as it should be in mid-August. I chose to do a full climb from Idaho Springs (high of 86F on the day of the ride), rather than the shorter version from Echo Lake – the route from Idaho Springs is 28 miles long and just short of 7,000 ft of elevation gain. At about 4% average it is not nearly as steep as California climbs we do often, but everyone who has ridden it comments on how the elevation has a serious effect past 10 or 11 thousand feet.
When I checked forecast, it claimed temperatures around 50F at the summit and 20% chance of showers in the afternoon (typical for Denver), with hourly forecasts predicting showers from 2PM to 6PM. I started riding around 10AM and with 3 hour climb and 1 hour descent I figured I may just be lucky enough to escape them.
But I wasn’t so lucky – just a few miles into my ride it started drizzling, then turning into serious downpouring. The temperature was in high 70ies when I left Idaho Springs but now was low 50ies and dropping. Should I turn around and go back to the car and postpone my date with Mt. Evans till next year? My shoes, my clothes were already completely wet, but I wanted to get to the top so I just pressed on, despite the rain – after all, how much worse could it be?
The park rangers at the fee collecting station by Echo lake (by the way, cyclists no longer have to pay $3 entrance fee) warned me not to go all the way up to the summit, saying the road is likely to be completely shut down due to bad weather. This only made me want to climb faster, wanting to get to the top before they shut the road down.
With about 3 miles to the summit the rain turned to snow, with some mixture of hail-like particles that I could see bouncing from the wet road. Wind was brutal too. Visibility was almost non-existent, so no good photos unfortunately – on a clear day one can see Pikes Peak and even curvature of the Earth from the top of Mt. Evans. My hands were freezing, despite my full-fingered gloves.
I finally made it to the top, after going through the famous 11 switchbacks (I tried counting but my hypoxic brain couldn’t manage this simple task, I lost count at 5 or 6). I had no negative altitude effects until around 13,000 ft when it felt like someone started squeezing my chest with a vice. I slowed down quite a bit and monitored my breathing, to avoid getting altitude sickness – in the end I felt fine, somewhat surprisingly. It wasn’t so much the climb itself (long but not very steep – with sections at 6-7% but nothing steeper) or the high altitutde that proved to be the worst for me, but the cold, wet weather.
At the summit the temperature was 36F (more than 40 degree swing from base to summit), very strong winds and on top of it, it was snowing pretty hard. I was wearing wet shoes and clothes for 3.5 hour ascent and my whole body was getting cold. My fingers and toes were frozen numb.
After hiding out in the bathroom structure at the summit to warm myself up a bit, I decided to (very gingerly) start my descent down wet switchbacks. Unlike California, there is no barriers and 1,000 ft dropoffs to my right (the side I was descending) plus numerous freeze cracks in the asphalt. But descent wasn’t nearly as technical, especially past 11 switchbacks near the top. I was freezing on the descent and got borderline hypothermic. At times my hands and my chest were shaking, not a good thing for descending wet roads with low visibility!
I finally made it to Echo Lake tavern/gift shop where I spent a few hours drinking hot tea and eating bowls of chowder, wrapped in a blanket near the space heater (thanks to wonderful waitress Becca for taking good care of me) until I recovered from my hypothermia. I went down to the car, took apart and packed my bike and made it back to Denver
In the end I made it fine – a bit of misery and suffering, perhaps pushing my body a little too far beyond its limits, at least in context of getting a bit hypothermic (that part wasn’t fun), but an epic and memorable ride nonetheless. Even though I entertained the idea of turning around to the car 30 min from start all the way to the top (including flagging a car to get me down safely), I am glad I finished the climb despite the weather.
Below are some photos (visibility was very limited), as well as some brief highlights from my GoPro which gives you some idea of the weather conditions and my suffering.
Suffering is good for the soul, but I am also happy to be back in sunny and warm San Diego.