Saturday, June 23, 2007

Day 6: Independence day - the saga

Distance: 58.5 miles
Feet of Climbing: 5,400
Weather Conditions: Sunny and warm, changing to blustery and rainy

We had a wonderful afternoon in Aspen. We posted our day 5 blog over lunch and Fat Tire draft, explored the town and then had what both of us agreed was the best Italian meal outside of Italy at Gusto Ristorante. We caught the shuttle back to the high school as the sun was setting and the air was getting chilly. We scrambled inside to get warm before making a dash for the tent. It's so easy to forget a jacket when it's 85°.

Aspen's high school is what you might expect — a Taj Mahal. Their fitness room was more equipped than the Winter Park Y. There was ample room for the indoor campers and we secretly wished we could stay there, too. We were warned to bring in all of our toiletries and food items so as not to attract bears to our tents. We stuffed them all in a backpack (Princess has a LOT of toiletries!) and checked it with Bike Security.

The wind blew hard all night, buffeting the tents and knocking over several port-a-potties in the lower camping area. We were in the upper camping area, thank goodness!

The morning was, mercifully, not bitter cold. We were again encouraged to make an early start. There was an 8:30 a.m. time cutoff at the first rest stop because the road up Independence Pass was being one-laned in narrow spots for our safety. We rolled out at 6:40 a.m. and easily made the first rest stop an hour ahead of the cutoff.

The route was stunning — by far the most beautiful climb of the trip and possibly the most beautiful climb I have ever done. The sun was coming over the mountain-side on our left and slicing through the Aspen trees, causing white trunks to glow and leaves to shimmer.

The climb was not hard. There were a few parts that were steep enough for long enough to cause people with heavy gear ratios to struggle, but we never ran out of gears or had to push hard on the pedals. There were plenty of grade breaks and even a few short flats.

I'll never forget the first vista, when the Aspen forest opens up, the road ahead curves around a cliff and the ridge of snowcapped mountains appears. I tried to snap photos from the bike, but the point-n-shoot camera metered on the shady foreground, no matter what I tried. Next tour, I'll fashion a holster for the Rebel.

Winding along the cliff, the road narrows but we had the benefit of traffic control. Cars were stopped and directed into the opposite direction lane, while we had a clear lane protected by cones. It was necessary with so many riders trying to climb at different speeds on the same road.

Pretty soon, it was one breathtaking vista after another. This gave us a perfect opportunity to take photo breaks.

Lisa woke up with a heavy chest this morning. Apparently she hadn't kicked the cold she caught a week before our trip. The temperature extremes were taking their toll. It's very hard on the body to go from 30 to 90 to 35 to 97... day after day. And sleep in a tent that was not made for cold weather (more on that later), get ready and moving in icebox temperatures and then be overheated a few hours later. Both of us woke up with sore throats on Thursday (mine is still sore - like swallowing a knife), but Lisa's moved into her chest Thursday night. She c0ughed for hours, took some Expectorant and downed two Excedrins so she could sleep before the big day.

She actually climbed quite well and the photo breaks helped out. She was suffering a little at 12,000 feet, but considering her condition, it's impressive she made the climb to that altitude. Like me, on Sunday, her legs felt great, it was just the congestion getting in the way.

Despite my sore throat, which seems to be much worse in the evenings, I felt fantastic and had probably the best mountain climb I have since climbing Mount Shasta in 2003 (when I had a far better power/weight ratio than I do now).

One thing both of us experienced was other riders envying our gear ratios as they slogged painfully while we spun past them.

We'll post photos below this blog of all the vistas we passed. My favorites were the ones described above, and the big switchback vista where you can look down the valley below and see the road you just climbed.

The top of the pass is a desolate frozen tundra with large patches of snow and a 360° view of planet earth. OK, not really, but the panorama really makes you feel like you're on top of the world.

AID Station 3 was set up on top in the blustery wind. This was the first AID station on the trip where anyone would have considered a hot drink, and we were both grateful for a cup of coffee!

After resting, eating, filling bottles and taking in the panorama, we headed off for a 17-mile drop. The road was, again, single-laned on the narrow spots to keep the motorists out of our way. Most of the motorists were staff cars or personal support vehicles, but there were a few hapless tourists who picked the wrong day to visit the pass.

It doesn't take long to drop out of the sky. Unless you have a headwind, which we did at the bottom. Of course. There's a pattern here. Anyway, the road flattened out a bit and we had to work to maintain speed.

At AID station 4, there were numerous SAG vehicles and staff members practically recruiting people to catch a ride. There were black clouds just over the ridge and knowing how bad Lisa had felt at 12,000 ft, I asked if she wanted to ride in. I would have been happy to climb in a van. Because, honestly, this was clearly the ugly side of the mountain. Of course, the answer was "no." So we shared a smoothie, used the potty and hit the road. Instantly, we were presented with a headwind and then some light showers.

We had a few rolling hills to cover, then a descent and a long shallow climb into Leadville. A few miles after the AID station, we made the turn onto US 24. We had been warned in some of the pre-ride materials that this road would not be fun. There really was no way to overstate that. The wind gusted off our right shoulders threatening to hurl us into traffic... that is, when it wasn't pounding us right in the face. There was a varying width of shoulder between 2 feet and 6 inches and there was plenty of high speed traffic (the speed held somewhat in check - to the 65 mph limit - by state troopers on motorbikes) There was nothing at all visually pleasing about the landscape.

The rain was like ice pellets. When the sun peeked out it was too hot to have a rain jackets on, but as soon as we'd strip them off, more rain would move in again. Oh, and we had to PEE! OMG, did we have to pee. I knew there was another aid station in a few miles, and there was not so much as a man-sized bush in that desolate landscape, but I could not wait. I spotted a cluster of buildings ahead and thought it must be a store. I set my hope upon it, but when we arrived, it was only a cluster of low-rent condos in the middle of nowhere. There was no more time. I thought maybe we could cross the RR tracks (which ran parallel to the road) and take shelter in their berm. We pulled off to the right. Lisa hit loose gravel, which looked like the shoulder, and fell down into the road, cutting her knee.

On the other side of the RR berm there was swamp. Who knew there could be swamp under such a dry, brown landscape? We managed to get semi shelter under the tumbleweed, but both of us emerged with scratches on our legs and burrs in our socks. Fun. Really, was it just this morning we were in Aspen? Could this be the same day?

Back on our bikes, we pushed on into the wind. In a few minutes, I could see the blue port-a-potties shimmering in the distance, sort-of like a mirage... so close, and yet so far away. It seemed to take an eternity to actually get to them.

Again, the AID station was full of SAG vans. There were a couple medic vans there too. I practically had to collar Lisa to get her to go get that cut cleaned. For a Princess, she's awfully stubborn! With the knee clean and wrapped, I again suggested the SAG van, which looked really good to me as lighting sliced the distant hills and pickup trucks roared by on US 24. We had 9 miles to go, uphill, into the wind on a US highway. But the answer was still no, between labored breaths.

I was there Sunday, so I sure couldn't push the issue.

We struggled on for another 5 miles, then it started to rain again. Enough already. We flagged down a SAG and caught a ride into town. I was so happy to be out of the weather and off the bike!

When we pulled into the Lake County High School in Leadville, the contrast from where we had been the night before was painful. The have's and have not's . What a sad little place. The school was small, old and run down. The lockers in the locker room were rusty, the concrete floor was filthy, the showers were cold.

In fact, Leadville was cold. At 10,000 feet, it is only warm when the sun is shining, unobstructed, upon you. When we arrived, it was cloudy. And if it was that cold at 3 PM, it was going to be a brutal night in a tent and sleeping bags made for summer weather. We went into the school before retrieving our bags to see if there was room for us to drag our sleeping bags inside to join the indoor campers, but every square inch was taken. It is a small school, and parts were cordoned off. The one place on the whole trip that most needed indoor facilities was probably the smallest.

Facing that defeat, it was Lisa's turn to visit the medic tent. I left her there and went to find our campsite. I wandered around for several minutes before relying on the information tent. They pointed me through the labyrinth of vendors and... "you have got to be kidding me!"... the tent city was set up on the football field 200 feet below the high school. How to get there? Stadium steps. At 10,000 feet.

I hiked down, picked up towels, cloths and toiletries and hiked back up. Lisa was still with the medics. They wanted her to go to the hospital, which, fortunately, was right next to the high school. So off we went to the ER.

More on that tomorrow.

Here are more photos:

Lisa in the Aspen forest.

Keri pulls another rider ;-)

Looking back at the road we just climbed.

Incredible vista!

There were 3 men pedaling wheelchair bikes. What you can't see is that this man has only one complete limb, he has lost both legs and part of one arm and he is climbing Independence Pass (almost to the top).

Approaching the frozen tundra.

At the top, looking back on the view.

AID station 3.