The (Mis)Adventures of Rollins Pass: Part I

 

KINFOLK

I am lucky to be part of a community of people that seek adventure. This community has grown so large, encompassing one of global reach, that calling it a “culture” might actually be a more appropriate moniker. Today, exploration is not about conquering new lands in the name of “God and Country”, or to be the first to sail unchartered waters or summit a peak. There are no new frontiers(on Earth). Though some might use this as an excuse to stay home, living out their drab, monotonous lives one online cat video at a time or never making it past the neighborhood tavern, the adventurous spirit is alive and strong in so many people, and the bicycle is the best vehicle for this kind of discovery.

Seeking adventure has now become something more personal. It could be the simple desire to experience something new like hearing the sound of the ocean, or to see what a sunset looks like above the mountains. It could be an opportunity to try new foods or to experience new cultures. However mundane these desires might appear, there can be certain challenges attached to them. Navigating these challenges adds another layer to the experience, and fosters a great deal of self-discovery. Along the way you get to meet new people and make new friends, some of which might share this same spirit.

I recently made two such friends when I serendipitously met Chunyu and Masha. I was on a Tuesday night group ride and we had just stopped at a park to regroup and take a little breather. A couple rolled up on fully loaded touring bikes and were asking us where they might be able to camp. We explained that camping wasn’t allowed in the city. I did not hesitate to offer them my backyard to pitch their tent or even stay in the house if they preferred a break from sleeping outside. They gladly excepted.

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Both in their early 20’s, one could not tell from the way they dressed or their very well equipped bikes that they were from other countries. Only after speaking to them for a little while, was it obvious they were not American. It turns out that Chunyu was from China and Masha was from Siberia. They had both moved to San Francisco about 2 years ago from their respective countries, and had met in English school. They both enjoyed riding bikes and spending time outdoors, and had done a previous tour along the Pacific Coast Highway. They were currently riding cross country but were going to spend the winter in Colorado to work at the Winter Park ski resort to save up money for the second half of the tour that they will resume in the Spring, and also do a little snow boarding.

It also turned out that I had actually exchanged emails with Chunyu a few days prior about possibly making some alterations to their bikes in order to make them even better suited for touring. They stayed at my house for a few days and during that time we became good friends. It was extremely easy to like them. Firstly, since they were not American twenty-somethings, they actually had manners and were excellent house guests. It was also fun to hear about where they were from as I do not know much about day to day life in China or Russia. They also embodied the adventurous spirit that I would like to think I share, though it takes a back seat to work responsibilities these days. On top of all of this, they were going into this together. Is it not everyone’s dream to do the things you want to do and have someone to share those experiences with?

We kept in touch after they headed to Fraser to settle down for the winter. After seeing a photo I had posted from a particularly long ride Chunyu left a comment suggesting that I should try to ride to Fraser. His comment was more of a joke than an invitation as there really isn’t a direct, safe route to Fraser from Denver even though its just beyond the first line of mountains and only 70 miles. Always up for a challenge, this got the cogs turning in my head . I started looking at maps and researching online to see if there was any route that was suitable for a bike. I discovered that there was a stretch of about 26 miles on a dirt road called Rollins Pass that was a direct route to Winter Park, the neighboring town to Fraser. With over 8,000ft of climbing and almost ½ being on a dirt road, this ride had to be done.

It was now nearing the end of October, and my fitness was far below what it should have been. Other than riding a brevet series over the summer, I had not had much time on the bike as I had been extremely busy in the shop and most of my free time was spent organizing the Colorado Framebuilders’ BBQ. With a spell of decent weather during October I was trying to make up for the lack of riding, maybe even overcompensating, by being on the bike as much as possible. I knew Winter would show its bitter cold face at any moment.

The last week of October was particularly warm and it looked like that Saturday, November 1st, would be a good day to attempt the ride. I don’t know if I am “goal orientated” go-getter, or simply a chronic day dreamer, but I started hatching a few goals for the ride. At only 73 miles away, there was a possibility of making it to Fraser by lunch, saying hi to my friends and then making it back to Denver in a single day for a total of nearly 150 miles. I knew the terrain and weather in the mountains might dictate otherwise, so I gave myself the bail out option of staying in Fraser for the night and then returning the next day and threw a pair of pajamas in my handlebar bag. Worst case scenario I would turn back prematurely. I really did not know what to expect so I kept pretty quiet about the expedition, only telling Chunyu and Masha. I traded Halloween debauchery for getting organized for the ride, turned in early, and was on the road by 7am the next morning.

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THE GENTLE GIANT

The ride started off on familiar roads. I took 32nd Avenue, through the suburbs, past the Coors Brewery, and then on through Golden. From there I made my way to Golden Gate Canyon Road where the real fun and climbing started in earnest. Eventually the canyon road dumps you out on the Peak to Peak Highway, one of the most breath taking roads I have ever ridden. With almost 5,500 ft. of climbing in only 40 miles it was after Noon when I made it to Rollinsville, a tiny mountain town, with only a Saloon, a coffee shop-cum-local food mart and another store that didn’t quite know what it was. I had a coffee, and by the time my wheels finally touched the dirt road that would take me the rest of the way, it was clear that making it to Fraser for lunch was starting to look like nothing more than wishful thinking.

The start of Rollins Pass was absolute bliss. Other than a few 4 x 4’s occasionally passing there was no traffic. The approaching mountains made for a dramatic backdrop and seemed to be singing my name. I feel into their trance and was hypnotized by the gentle switchbacks. The road was previously a railway, so the grade was pretty mellow, and I was actually climbing better than I had on the way out through Golden Gate.

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Occasionally there would be a patch of snow on the road in sections that did not receive direct sun light. This did not occur too often and didn’t seem like anything to raise concern, so I would either ride through it or hop off and take a brief walk. Though the grade never really kicked up, the road did rise about 3,000 ft in about 10 miles. That combined with the occasional snow and unpaved terrain meant that it was a bit of a slow slog. I knew the only thing that would make me anxious about being behind schedule would be looking at the time, so I avoided this as much as I could and simply tried to enjoy the fresh air and solitude.

The main reason I moved to Colorado was to ride in the mountains. This is no easy feat, no matter how good one’s form might be. I enjoy the struggle and the sense of accomplishment of making it to the top of a pass. The buzz of a fast descent is a nice reward for the hard work, but for me the real treat is the feel of the thin air in your already burning lungs and the view that is made even sweeter by the fact that it was earned solely by one’s effort.

In this lays a great irony. I am not ignorant enough to puff my chest out and think that summiting a climb was a feat worthy of greatness or even a boost to the self-esteem department, for as much as we feel that we have accomplished something or arrogantly claim that we “conquered” the mountain this is simply not the case. The mountain was completely oblivious to our conquest for we are but the smallest spec of dirt trying to climb its ridges. They hardly notice. The mountain is like a sleeping gentle giant, that the smallest shudder in his sleep can cause absolute destruction to the life that either lives amongst his slopes or had come from the city to play. Having experience in the outdoors can certainly help for one to succeed in their given adventure, but when we make it to the top it wasn’t due solely to our own volition but because we were granted a pass, and that pass can be revoked at any moment.

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Other than falling far behind schedule, I was doing fairly well. I was about 9 hours in when I was within reach of the summit. Once I was at the top it would be about 18 miles to Winter Park. I was on the home stretch. From studying the maps and from what I had read I knew that there was short tunnel on the south end of the summit that had been moth-balled back in the 90’s because it was deemed unsafe. As a result the road was barricaded about a ¼ mile from the tunnel. It was easy to get past the road block, but I knew I would have to climb the ridge above the closed tunnel to rejoin the road a little further down.

When I approached the tunnel, I wasn’t quite sure where the best place to hike over would be. I chose what looked to be a path on the outer side of the tunnel and then cut across the top to try and descend from the other side. Traversing the other side was a bit of a scramble as it was pretty steep and the ridge was essentially scree. This was coupled with the fact that I had to carry my bike down. I was being extremely cautious and was essentially doing a crab walk down, digging my feet into the scree to secure my footing while incrementally moving my bike down. My prudence got me back down to the road safely, but by focusing so closely on only the ground in front of me, I failed to see that less then a 100 feet away the road was covered in a bank of snow.

There appeared to be a small ledge of passable ground, maybe 6 inches in width, between the snow bank and the scree field that then plunged down at least 500 ft. The next thing I knew I was shouldering my bike trying to traverse the ledge. I made it about 20 ft. at which point I noticed that the snow bank began to cover the small path and extend down the scree. Normally trudging through snow is not a big deal, but this snow appeared to be fairly loose, and it was hard to tell what part was on the road and what was on the scree. The vision of slipping in the loose snow and then sliding down the scree field to my untimely death and my body not being discovered till early spring emanated in my mind and I was stopped in my tracks. I decided to turn around, which was no easy feat on a 6 inch ledge while shouldering a bike.

I was now stuck between the closed tunnel and the snow bank. The bank to climb back over the tunnel was extremely steep so I was hoping there was another option. I investigated the barricaded tunnel more closely to see if there was a way I could climb over the 7 ft. tall concrete pylons. Without a bike I could have scaled it easily, but trying to hoist a bike up that high and then essentially having to drop it down didn’t seem desirable nor even possible with my fading strength. The only option was to scramble up the side of the tunnel. Though it was covered in a patch of loose snow, I chose a line on the outer side as it was the least steep. There was also some brush that I was hoping I could use to aid my footing. So, there I was scrambling up a snow bank, using my bike as a snow pick, and brush as a foot hold, with a 500 ft. drop mere inches away. My heart was racing from a combination of fear, the thin air, exhaustion from riding uphill for 10 hours and the exertion it was taking to climb this ridge while carrying a bike. This is the closest I have ever come to dying.

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I was waiting to slip in the snow, and then the brush give way as it was never an adequate hold, and then fall down a scree field to my untimely death and my body not being discovered till early spring. Wait. Didn’t this just happen 20 minutes prior? Was this becoming a reoccurring theme to this adventure, or was I exercising the law of averages too rigorously and my imminent demise was soon approaching. Was this the day I died? Was this how I was going to go out? On this mountain? Trying to carry my bike up a ridge? The odds were beginning to point that way, but I knew I had to fight till my last breathe. Any chance of survival I had to take. I obviously didn’t want to die that day. I kept fighting and I eventually made it to the top of the tunnel and then scurried as fast as I could to higher ground, far away from the edge.

Check back soon for Part II, it only gets worse.

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