Posted by: nickgerlich | August 27, 2007

Uphill All The Way

Some things beckon to be done over again.

Last year when I rode up Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, I knew that I had begun a tradition. Not that I’m big on traditions, mind you, but I sensed this ride was one to be savored every time we return to RMNP. It’s just too epic to do once.

And so I found myself rolling out of our campsite in Moraine Park Campground in RMNP at about 7:10am, headed first into Estes Park’s Kind Coffee for java, scone, and email sweep. By 8:15 the sun had warmed the skies into the 50s, but windvest, armwarmers, and thin gloves still felt comfortable. I headed west on US 34 for the Fall River entrance to RMNP, which, at 8200′, sits about 700′ above EP.

It didn’t take long to work up a sweat, though, despite the chill.

Once in the park, I rode through the bighorn sheep crossing area without seeing a thing, and then turned right onto Fall River Road…the original road built between 1913 and 1920. It was the first road to cross the Rockies in northern Colorado, until replaced by the more modern Trail Ridge Road in 1932. (Click here for a nice series of historical pics.)

Shortly after turning onto the road and entering Endo Valley, I passed the incredible alluvial fan of boulders created when Lawn Lake’s earthen dam collapsed in 1982, sending water and rocks downward. Lawn Lake is a natural lake at about 11,000′ elevation, some 2400′ higher than the valley.

Not far after the alluvial fan there is an open gate, followed by a dirt road. Signs warn that traffic is one-way, there’s only one lane, the grades are steep, and there’s no turning back.

Welcome to Old Fall River Road.

…or interact with the original Google Map

Before starting the climb I stopped briefly for a bio break, to shed clothing, take a few bites of a bagel, and mentally prepare for some hard work. My Garmin showed about 8600′ feet elevation. Never mind the cool air waiting at the top. I’d be sweating buckets before long, and the chill would feel good.

It was 9:17am when I started the 9-mile section of dirt. This section of the road is virtually unchanged since it was built some 90 years ago. Even though it was a weekday, there was a steady stream of motor tourists passing me, which was unnerving whenever I found myself between a car and the edge of a sheer cliff looking down hundreds of feet. The soft, crumbly roadbed did nothing to make me feel better about it.

My goal was to finish inside two hours, equalling the time I did in 2006. I figured if I could do that, then I must not be getting any older…yet. But with gradients in places hitting 15%, this was to be no ride in the park. Dirt, sand, rocks, and deep ruts made for tough going, as I constantly had to find a new place to aim my wheels. And when the going got tough, I just made the cars wait. After all, the speed limit is only 15 mph.

Not that I ever approached it.

Part of me regrets my urge to ride nonstop to the top once again, because for the second year in a row I did not take any pictures along the way. Some day I’ll drive up it as well, and play the role of tourista.

I watched the numbers on my Garmin GPS slowly climb. It seemed like an eternity for each tenth of a mile to go by, but with each one I would climb, on average, another 30-40 feet. I suppose it’s better to not look so often, but when you’ve got nothing else to do, one’s information source becomes a novelty that hollers frequently.

Through the switchbacks I went, trying hard to not lose it in the extremely soft road, all the while trying to cut the angle of ascent by not following the road’s line, but instead by first cutting 45° from the outside to carve a new line well into the switchback, and then making an abrupt 90° turn through the switchback. This technique actually adds a little bit of distance, but decreases the severe angle that is found inside the switchback.

The first two miles went by in 22 minutes, so I was well on-pace for my goal. Between the third and fourth mile I watched as I hit 10,000′ elevation, noticing the chill felt great on my exposed arms. Never mind the intense UV radiation…this was the only way to climb this beast.

A few passersby shouted words of encouragement, like I had encountered the year prior. It’s always fun to keep pace with the motor tourists who stop periodically for pics, and then have to keep passing me.

At about 10,600′ I spied the Alpine Visitors Center at the top. It looks deceptively close, but I knew I had over 3 miles and 1200′ to go. While the general grade of the remaining miles is not severe, the thinner air would make the going tough.

Which is exactly what I noticed at 11,300 feet, just before timberline. I realized my concentration was fading, as my mind tossed back and forth over a variety of subjects. It was almost like having a beer buzz, but without the beer. And as I left trees behind me, I noticed the wind pick up considerably. With nothing to stop it, the wind howls at higher elevations.

The final couple of miles take travelers out of view of the Visitor Center momentarily, to a wide pull-out for trail access. There, a couple urged me on. “Where are your bikes?” I shouted, noticing the bike rack on their Illinois car.

“Back in Chicago. We’re just admiring you!”

Yeah, sure. A sweaty, 48-year-old guy trying to turn back the wheels of time, proving to everyone that Lance Armstrong has lost nothing on me. But I’ll take the attaboys anyway.

Immediately after their kudos comes a short, steep bump in the road…probably the steepest section of the route. The thin air, the fatigue, the now-apparent dehydration all became banner headlines for what seemed an eternity, but in reality was about only 100′ of suffering. For once you top that little rise, it’s an easy, steady climb around the final bend and on up to the Visitor Center.

In fact, as I rounded that curve and saw I could nearly reach out and touch the Visitor Center, I put on a burst of speed. The dirt turned to pavement for the final approach, and then, with no fanfare whatsoever, I rolled through the open gate into the parking lot. I was now at nearly 11,800′, a full 3200′ higher than when I started The Big Climb.

I waited for applause, but nothing happened. People came and went. Hikers passed by toward the trail that went ever higher, their silence snubbing my accomplishment.

My wristwatch read 11:12am. I had made my goal by 5 minutes. I took a huge gulp of water, went inside to buy a few souvenirs, and then headed back to camp on the paved road.

While I was pretty spent from the uphill grind, I know I will return next year. I can hear that road calling my name.



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