In 2008 I visited Peru while studying abroad in Argentina. There I befriended Richard, a young Peruvian fellow that was wise beyond his years. During the month I spent volunteering and hanging out in Lima, Peru's capital city, Richard helped cue me into his country's culture. I became particularly fond of a rich Peruvian saying he taught me, "Uno es varon". The saying roughly translates to, "One is a man". Richard explained that the saying is used by men as a lame attempt to justify having done something really dumb. It doesn't actually justify anything. It basically just asserts that you're a dude and have a tendency to do dumb stuff. Today I had one of those "uno es varon" moments.
It was a special day. Today Celine and I would climb over Loveland Pass, bringing us up to an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet from a starting point around 9,000 feet. It felt like today's ride would be the culmination of our Colorado adventure. After achieving this great accolade, we presumably had a smooth, downhill ride all the way to our ultimate destination of Denver. We honored the tall task ahead of us by getting a good night's rest, waking up decently early and closely monitoring the weather. We knew that thunderstorms were going to roll in around 1:00 or 2:00 pm, so we hit the road by 7:30 am. Despite a few minor setbacks, Celine and I were feeling confident as we approached the base of Loveland Pass.
We climbed out of Silverthorne, looped around the Dillon Reservoir and followed paved bike paths towards Keystone. Negligible winds and clear blue skies made us feel like we were on the right track. About ten miles in we arrived at the Keystone ski resort. This was the last stop before the heavy climb began. Celine and I, determined to climb this final mountain pass, mounted our bikes with a purpose. The next 11 miles would be challenging, but we could do it.
So we climbed and climbed and climbed. Despite the severity of the ascent, I felt that our experience was showing through. We were less jittery climbing up this mountain, even when big gas trucks roared past us. We had spent the last three weeks riding through the Rocky Mountains and it seemed that we had grown accustomed to many of the rigors of our environment. I was really pleased with our progress as we slowly, but steadily, climbed up Loveland Pass.
We took an extended pause at the Arapahoe Basin ski resort, commonly referred to as A-Basin. This resort was crazy. It's base...BASE...was 10,780 feet above sea level. This meant that skiers got ON the skilift at nearly 11,000 feet. It's summit reached above 13,000 feet. My brother Adam once described A-Basin as one of the more technical ski resorts. I now understood why he said that.
From A-Basin we had no more than 4 miles to the Loveland Pass summit. Despite being so close to the top, I began to grow a bit uneasy. First, I noticed that storm clouds were beginning to trickle in. The last place I wanted to be during an electrical storm was on the top of a 12,000 foot peak. Second, inspecting the mountaintops that surrounded us I discovered that we were above the tree line. The air was so thin and soil so weak up here that trees couldn't even grow. Loveland Pass was an unhospitable environment, not just to flor and fauna, but also to humans. The volume of cars and cyclists began to dissipate beneath rapidly greying skies, giving me the chilling sense that we were sort of in No Man's Land.
The sky opened up. Frozen hail pelted us atop our helmets. The fair weather and clear skies of just a few hours prior were now long gone. They had given way to a bizarre manifestation of precipitation which I had only experienced a handful of times in my life. At this point I began shivering. I'm not sure if it was the icy hail that caused my trembles or if it was the sensation of being stranded. Most likely both phenomena played a role in my physical response. We were so close to the top that it only mad sense to keep climbing. Quite frankly, both the "turn around" and "continue forward" options were looking like bad ones.
We finally made it to the Loveland Pass summit, indicated by the yellow and brown continental divide sign. I struggled to indulge in the elation of having literally climbed a mountain due to an underlying feeling of urgency which forbade me from relaxing. Though the hail had stopped, I knew there was nothing preventing it from picking back up at any second. We took three minutes to snap a few photos, then prepared ourselves for the much-deserved descent. Celine would lead the descent, so we fixed the headlight on her bike. I would follow and call out any traffic, so we fixed the red taillight on my bike. Both of us were wearing foul weather gear ever since little ice crystals began clunking us on the head. I was nervous, but it felt like we were as prepared as we could be for this ride.
We inched towards the downhill. Our gazes peered down at a 1,000 foot drop following 5 or 6 switchbacks. It looked treacherous. To make matters worse, a light drizzle was beginning to build into a steady rain. My mind had tunnel vision. The only solution I could muster up in my mind was to get down this mountain as soon as possible, before things got worse. I urged us forward.
Celine stopped dead in her tracks. "Colin. I'm not going down. I'm going to try and hitch a ride."
That was literally the last thing I wanted to hear. My one-track mind couldn't handle any dissent in this tense moment. I tried to reason with my frustrated self. Colin, if she's not comfortable riding down this mountain then don't push her. She's resourceful, she'll find a way down.
Celine's decision to hitch a ride had no impact on my decision to ride down on my bicycle. There was no way I was going to be robbed of my opportunity to ride down this mountain, especially after having climbed my way to the top. I felt like I had to "man up". I took the headlight from Celine, gave her a hug, took a deep breath, then rolled my vessel over the rollercoaster's peak. I thought to myself: Here I go.
The rain was steady. And this was no warm summer rain, this was a frigid Rocky Mountain shower. I could hear my teeth chattering beneath my helmet. In no time I was soaking wet from head to toe. My friend Cooper, a motorcyclist, popped into my head. I recalled a lesson he shared with my from his rides in fowl weather, which was his perception that the main danger of riding in the rain originates from the rider's vision being obstructed. I always assumed that slippery conditions were the biggest problem, but man, he was totally right. I could hardly see anything. This was really dangerous. I needed to focus, so over and over I told myself: See and be seen. Stay focused.
There were objective indicators informing me that this was a bad idea. First, I was the ONLY cyclist on the road. Coloradans weren't silly enough to storm down Loveland Pass in a, umm, storm. Second, trucks were pulled over, indicating that even their big rigs couldn't make the descent in such poor conditions. Finally, there were hardly any regular cars on the road. The few that were on the road were driving very, very slowly. I grew uneasy. Why the hell was I on the road?!?!
My mind raced between Celine and myself. I didn't know who I was more worried about. Was she still on top of the mountain? Had she gotten down safely. Were YOU going to get down safely?
Thunder clapped behind me, spiraling me into panic mode. For the fourth time on this trip I was contemplating my mortality. I looked for someone to blame for my predicament. Was I mad at Celine? Was I mad at the weather? Was I mad at myself? I began talking to myself. Well, I wasn't really talking to myself, it's probably more accurate to say that I was screaming at myself. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING, COLIN?!?!"
As I rode sopping wet down Loveland Pass, the cold cracked my ego, forcing me to accept the consequences of my poor decision. Once again, I had no one to be mad at but myself. I should have hitched a ride with Celine. That was certainly the wisest thing to have done in our situation. As I scoured my brain for an answer as to why I put myself in this situation, the only trite excuse I could muster up was, "Uno es varon."
About 4 miles down the mountain I passed the Loveland Ski Resort, then hopped onto a proper bike path. Not having to worry about being hit by a car helped ease my mind. However the thunder, now occurring more regularly, afforded me no solace. I kept pedaling, vigorously. Another three miles into the nature trail and the weather began to lighten up, lifting my mood with it. Now, I don't mean that the sun came out and it warmed up to 85 degrees. No, I mean that the rain slowed down and the thunder ceased. It was still no warmer than 55 degrees and, again, I was soaking wet. I neared Georgetown where I sought shelter in the first place I could find.
I slogged into the gift shop at the touristy Georgetown Loop Railroad station. The two women working there looked upon me with horror, as if I was the Creature from the Black Lagoon or something. I can't really blame them. There is no reason that any cyclist should have been entering their store coming from the Loveland Pass at that time. Recognizing the peril I was in, they kindly turned on their heat lamp and pulled up a chair for me beside it.
As I sat by the heat lamp, allowing my socks and tights to dry, the women told me of a blunder even worse than mine: Four young men took on Loveland Pass earlier in the season when the probability for snow was still high. When you're at 12,000 feet of elevation, any weather pattern can occur at any time. These guys got caught in a snowstorm atop the Pass. Just as I did, they found no better solution than to barrel down the mountain. And, just like me, the first place they found for shelter was the Georgetown Loop Railroad gift shop. All four came into the store covered in a sheen of ice. One of the guys was doing noticeably worse than the others. As soon as he got indoors he curled up into a ball on the floor and shivered violently. Recognizing the poor state the cyclist was in, the shop attendant turned the heat lamp to him. She said that he looked so bad that she was contemplating calling an ambulance. Then, to everyone's dismay, the guy stopped shivering. She was horrified. She urged them to the call the ambulance, but they guys declined. Who knows, perhaps they didn't have insurance or something. He was still alive, they could see him breathing, but he was in some kind of catatonic state. Several tense moments passed before the shivering recommenced and he began to mumble words. In the end, the heat revitalized this daring cyclist and he was ultimately able to depart with his friends.
It's funny. Well, I don't know if it's funny or foreboding or warning or what. But three of the times when I feared for my own life (outside of Pittsburgh, the Flint Hills Nature Trail and today) there was someone at the end of my journey who had a story of a blunder that was worse than mine. Each time, and in a very sad way, I was comforted to discover that it could be worse.
Once the weather cleared up (again, the weather was not ideal, just bearable) I had a gentle 15 mile downhill ride to my destination for the evening, Idaho Springs. When I met Celine at the local Starbucks, she too looked at me wide-eyed as if I was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I don't think I said a word to her, actually. I just sat next to her, took off my jacket, removed my helmet, then unclipped my cycling shoes and stuffed my soaking wet socks into them. She was overcome with laughter, so much so that she had to take a picture of the poor state I was in. She was right to tease me a bit for my blunder. I think it's safe to say that she had made a better decision than I had on this stormy Coloradan day.
I think that next time I need to seriously check in with my female companion before I pull the boneheaded "uno es varon" card. Hmm, maybe I need to worry less about being a man and try just being a hu-man...