Climbing Mt. Evans

Thanks to Mike Cotty and the Col Collective I decided to give Mt. Evans a go this summer. I was heading to Denver for a week of R&R, so I figured why not. Mt. Evans boasts the highest paved road in North America. The ride is 27.9 miles in length with 6,944 feet of elevation gain. The average grade is about 4.6%.  The ride begins at 7,526 and ends at 14,130 feet. Having done rides up to 10,000 feet in the past, I figured that last 4,000+ feet can’t be too hard. Oops. It is an absolutely wonderful ride in the sense that you leave the mining town of Idaho Springs with its quaint shops, restaurants and mining culture littered all along main street. Once you turn out of town and hang the left you get your first glimpse of Mt. Evans and start the journey winding through a very nice forest with a river running along the side of the road. As always I was hoping for a nice little warmup, but the climbing kicked right in and was a bit intimidating. The road was perfectly smooth, but the climbing was mostly a 6+ percent grade, not much of a chance to get the legs into a rhythm. This continues on for about 12 miles, with no chance to regain your legs. I was chased by a fox at mile 4, which,  silly me chose to out wit the fox by sprinting away from him. Just in case you think this is crazy, I snapped a picture of the fox as he lost interest in me. It worked, but also put me into the red for awhile. It was a lot like “American Flyers” but with a fox instead of a dog. For several miles this occupied my mind thinking about what would possess a fox to chase a bike. Having gotten my mind back to the task at hand I continued to cruise through the switchbacks and lovely alpine terrain. It is important to focus on getting your body into a rhythm to be able to sustain this long effort. There is nothing quite like hearing a babbling stream and the wind through the Aspen trees. As you continue to climb it will gradually warm up and you’ll be working harder and harder, and starting to strip off layers some layers.At mile 12 you crest a slightly steeper ramp and you pop around a corner to grab an absolutely drop dead gorgeous view of Echo Lake. The view also gives you another view of Mt. Evans in the distance. When you get up past Echo Lake at you can feel the temperature start to cool off a little bit. In only a few short miles you will leave the beautiful alpine landscape and enter the moon like terrain as you exit the tree line. The elevation is measures in at 10,579 feet, but the cycling rhythm still feels comfortable. Vegetation ranges from lower spruce-fir and lodgepole forests, through 2,000-year-old Bristlecone pines and krummholz near treeline, to delicate alpine vegetation reaching all the way to the highest peaks. Some of the Bristlecone pines are ancient and up to 2,000 years old.  The road levels out for about 1/2 mile, but it is enough to let your legs shake out that lactic acid. You can replenish your water at the Echo Lake Lodge at the entrance to the park.  You hang a right on Highway 5.  As you ride past the toll booth the next few miles ramps back up to about 6% as you continue to cruise through the tall pines.   As the forest begins to thin, you can now see the road up ahead and your mind starts playing tricks on you as you begin to think it is a really long way to go, even though you are now well over half way to the summit.  As you focus on the road ahead, it the climb begins to feel steeper, which also plays on your mind, but as it turns out it is the altitude talking and not that little voice in my head. There is no lack of distraction as you continue to grind up the mountain.  After you’ve passed the bristlecones, all that’s left are a few unfortunate krummholz, and then the trees disappear entirely. At that point, it’s just you, lichens, grass, extremely hearty wildflowers and I was promised some wildlife (pika, marmots, mountain goats and bighorn sheep) So far outside of the fox not another animal insight. As you round the bend, there is a little descend, that takes you down to Summit Lake. Another gorgeous view and you now realize that the views of the lakes alone are worth the effort.

At Summit Lake, there is a small parking lot and a small shelter.  There are no services available, but I notice a lot of people in cars cheering me on or stare in wonderment at seeing a cyclist on a bike at 13,000.  From this point, there are only five miles, 15 switchbacks, and 1,300 feet of climbing left.  This is when the climb started to become a bit desperate. Cycling at this high of an elevation is like nothing you may have experienced as the lack of oxygen is now the foremost thought on your mind. I was told after this climb, by my friend who is a pilots for FedEx that they have to wear oxygen masks over 10K in non-pressurized cabins.    As you continue above treeline, it turns out you are completely unprotected and the wind starts to kick in.  The temperature has dropped by 10-15 degrees, so the jacket comes back on. I am glad I tucked it under my jersey.  At about 13,500 the  summit observatory comes into sight and it looks tantalizingly close. Adrenaline kicks in, and I start to pedal faster only to realize that I am now gasping for air.  My heart rate monitor says I am still at a comfortable 130 bpm, but being challenged to get enough air in my lungs, I slow my pace.  I chug up at least a dozen more switchbacks and then realize on more switchback and I am into the parking. That last switchback seems like a 30% grade, but it is still only 7-8%, but with the lack of oxygen it makes for an extremely difficult last push.  As the grade eases up, I can now easily pedal to the end of the journey. Still no Mountain Goats, they must be on vacation, but who cares, the views from the summit are beyond amazing. As it turns out it was really not the summit, you had to climb up that mound of rubble to be able to say you made it all the way to the summit, but as far as cycling, I reached the end of the highest paved road in the U.S. After several photos and even being ask to snap a picture of a family who is on vacation. Clearly this will be their Christmas Card. They gingerly ask if I would mind being in a photo with them, because they indicated that no one would believe them when they tell them that people cycle up Mt. Evans. I guess I may be in there Christmas Card, I hope they don’t forget to send a present. After a small time at the top, the weather report was calling for rain, and noticed the rain in the distance, it was time to go. Not having put much though into the descent, figured it would be a breeze and very cool ride. Let me just say that it took over 3 hours to climb, but 55 minutes for the descent. The descent was a little harrowing as there are no guard rails on much of the road, with some really steep and far drop offs, but not to worry, I had my super grippy tires on. All in all it was and amazing 56 mile journey and my first 14er.