I’ve only ridden my bike to the top of Mount Evans once. It was a wild day spent riding and laughing with friends.
Even though I live in Denver and the 14,240 foot peak is relatively close I’ve never gone back and done it again. Evans is a bit of a rite of passage for local cyclists around these parts. The annual hill climb race is well attended and on any given weekend streams of riders can be seen striking out for the incredible summit via Squaw Pass or Idaho Springs.
Many serious cyclists ride the peak yearly or even many times per year but I’ve never felt the draw to go back and ride up it again. I think maybe I’m just a bit scared of the whole thing and maybe I have such good memories from the first ascent that I don’t ever want to go back and try to top it.
Sometimes though life conspires and mixes together just the right elements in a way that motivates you to do something that you had no intention of doing. On this occasion the events were a full moon, persistent invites from friends, and my own personal funk.
2016 has already been a banner year for me and bikes by any measure. A trip to Belgium, Dirty Kanza, a chance ride with a very friendly World Tour pro, The Unspeakable ride, and all the little rides with great friends that happen week in and week out have been amazing. I don’t say that as any sort of brag, but as a way to count my own blessings so to speak. Despite all that late July has me in a general funk. Running a few companies and the associated responsibilities have left me worn out to the point of not wanting to ride very much right now. Riding is firmly planted at the middle of work and play for me these days so it feels strange to want to take a nap more than I want to ride a bike, but there it is. Maybe this is the sort of thing that wears off with a bit of time and rest or maybe something else will shake things loose.
Cue Mike and Gordon.
Mike and Gordon are both guys that I’ve ridden with a bit over the last few years but recently we just haven’t connected much. Schedules and geography prevent us from getting many miles in but I always admire their adventures from afar. Mike in particular has asked me to join in on the Ad Ride that he organizes many many times but I’ve not yet taken him up on an invite. Usually when you invite somebody on a ride a dozen or so times and they just don’t show up you begin to wonder if they are avoiding you. Or in the case of Gordon maybe he and I not riding over the past year could mean that we’ve just lost contact completely and we call it a day.
Either way a reasonable person wouldn’t have expected that Mike or Gordon would have put any effort into inviting me on a ride that they were planning this week, but for some reason they both did. For some other strange reason it was exactly the type of ride that wanted and needed to go on: A ride that doesn’t follow the mold or re trace a previous experience. Gordon and Mike had planned a late night full moon ascent of Mount Evans.
Mount Evans isn’t really the type of mountain you’d want to climb at night. I’m not exactly sure what makes up an ideal night ride location but Mount Evans has a strong track record of rain, sleet, snow, strong winds, lightning, the highest ever recorded tornado, and very cold temperatures. Evans is an iconic Colorado peak and Colorado peaks generally get into very foul moods over the course of any given afternoon and evening. Actually, I do that too sometimes.
The original ride plan was to summit Evans under a starry night and the soft light of a full moon, but heavy rains had washed the whole thing out a few days before. The make-up date was the 21st and the plan was simple. Meet up at a carpooling lot, drive to Echo Lake, and ride it even if the skies weren’t friendly. I was 50/50 on the whole idea but a few friendly texts pushed me over the edge. “9pm at the Mammoth lot”. I was in. My wife asked me what time I thought I’d be home and I guessed that if I left Denver at 8:30 I might be home at 1am. (I was way off on that estimate).
As we drove up the road towards Echo lake heavy fatigue from the work week and the late hour of the day ambushed me. What in the world was I doing driving up into the mountains at 10pm? Why in the world was I about to hop on my bike and ride for hours and hours into the cold darkness? I didn’t have a good answer to that question, but I’d received the invite and sometimes an invite is the only reason that you need, so here I was.
As if to underscore the stupidity of the endeavor soft rain began to fall on my windshield. Great. Cold, dark, AND wet were not a good combination. I decided to at least drive to the starting area and see if everyone else would agree to bail before I did so that I wouldn’t have to be “that guy”.
When I pulled up to Echo Lake Lodge nobody seemed to be making any motions towards bailing. The rain continued to fall but everybody around me busied themselves with piling on every available layer of clothing that they could find. I did the same. Maybe we could just ride a few miles up the road so that we could say we tried and THEN we could turn around, go home, and go to sleep.
Slowly we got organized and started pedaling upwards and into the rain. Almost immediately the rain stopped. The roads were wet but we were all dry and surprisingly comfortable. The temperatures and wind seemed to be holding at an acceptable level. Maybe this would work?
I reflected for a moment. All was quiet around me save for the joking and conversation of our group of six. The whir of cranks and sound of wet tires were our soundtrack. The glow of our headlights was our theater. Everything was stripped back and minimal: The color palette, the view, the sounds, all of it. This was awesome. This felt like magic.
Not far into the ride I discovered with no small amount of horror that I had left my electronic shifting battery at home in the charger. I had no way to change gears. The wonders of Di2 shifting that were supposed to make my rides more precise and enjoyable had instead left me only one ratio with which to climb the highest paved road in North America. Surprisingly,whatever gear that I happened to be in felt pretty decent on the climb. As I proceeded up the road I found the whole thing fairly amusing and rather fitting. Maybe I only needed one gear. Maybe less is more?
The moon was obscured by clouds but still managed to push light through. We all agreed to turn off our headlights and let our eyes adjust. When we did it was exhilarating. The lights had created a tiny illuminated cave that we rode inside of but when we turned them off the size of our world exploded into infinity. We ascended through the last of the tree line and into the high alpine landscape. The peaks, valleys, cliffs, and sky were painted in an entirely new palette soft blues, whites, and yellows.
Mile after mile we tried to soak it all in. We couldn’t help but remark how amazing this all was. We rounded a bend and Denver’s shimmering, gridded lights came into view far in the distance, but without the light of the sun to illuminate the void they seemed right at our feet.
The mild gradients of the first nine miles of Mount Evans Road allowed us to talk and catch up before the thin air and steep pitches that would later silence the group. I caught up with Mike and Gordon a bit and also chatted with some of the guys that I didn’t know well. We didn’t exchange life stories, instead we mostly traded quick recaps of “how are things going these days?”. Words aren’t always best when spending time with friends on a bike. Sometimes just passing the miles in silence or matching cadence and pace for a spell are all that is needed for fellow cyclists.
We passed Summit lake and began to work our way up the legendary Mt. Evans switchbacks. I think we were all expecting a very difficult and cold four miles but for some reason adversity didn’t visit us. The temperature held around 50f. Nobody attacked the climb, nobody set a PR, nobody really cared about getting to the top first.
The clouds that had been hanging heavy above us retreated almost entirely and the nearly full moon finally revealed itself to us. The upper slopes of Mount Evans are a measure more beautiful than the lower slopes. Many come from far away to see the expansive views and indeed in the summer traffic jams often clog the otherwise pristine road that threads towards the top. But the night time views? Few people ever see those. The darkness is a unique lens through which we can see things with fresh eyes and seeing those upper slopes and summit of the mountain bathed in moonlight was therapy to me. The view was utterly impossible to capture with a pocket camera but I find that fitting. Some things cannot be fully experienced unless you are physically present.
The 1:30am summit was an incredible thing to achieve. Physically it was only a 14 mile climb up 4,000 vertical feet, but the best things in life can’t be quantified with numbers. As each of us arrived at the definitive sign at the top we took some time to document our achievements.
My life is so complicated right now. Everyone’s lives are complicated. We have so much to do, so much to plan, so much to worry about. We need to escape from that from time to time, to change our environment and temporarily leave reality behind. This ride was that for me.
On the final ascent and the later descent of the mountain I passed a fair number of miles alone. Particularly on the descent the solitude of the darkness at 14,000 feet was powerful. Heading west on the switchbacks the noise of the wind was intense but as I rounded each turn towards an easterly stretch it was now at my back blowing at exactly my speed. Everything became very still, silent, and meditative. Mentally it felt like a wash and rinse cycle, over and over, all the way down the mountain.
Life is a funny thing. We need to work for things, to struggle, and to conquer even. We need friends, excitement, conversation and noise. Some things that we need get left out more than the others: silence and rest are two of those. Silence and rest are what I need more of these days, not all the time, but sometimes. Last night riding up a mountain in the middle of the night with friends unexpectedly brought that into focus for me. Sometimes moon light is preferable to sunlight. Less can definitely be more.
I would have missed out on last night had not a few good guys thought to invite me. I’m grateful to them for the experience and for the opportunity to gain some perspective, born along through quiet darkness on two wheels.