At this point, it’s a cliché to say that it’s a cliché to say epic. It’s a shame that the word has been so debilitated through use and mocking of its use to render it almost useless. But in terms of climbs, to take on Mount Evans from base to summit, with all of its nearly 30 miles and 7,000 feet of climbing to over 14,127 feet above sea level, is an epic ride. If you run across some stereotypical Colorado summer afternoon weather (read: frightening), it’s unquestionably so.
Words & images: Jered Gruber
The first time I rode up to the exposed parking lot of Mount Evans, I was a freshman in college and had just started riding bikes. I was young, weak, hardly acclimatized, and full of stupid. Over three hours of climbing later, I was drunk from far too many thousands of feet above sea level. I was nearly incoherent, mumbling to myself, worried about my curious tunnel vision, and wondering how the final few miles could be so insanely steep, but still, somewhere in the murkiness of a crazy high-altitude-induced delirium, I knew I was seeing something special.
The second time I rode up the highest paved road in North America, a couple weeks later, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face in a snow/sleet/hail/rain storm and made it off the mountain almost hypothermic. I’m still not quite sure if I managed the feat or not, but that’s irrelevant. That was the day I was informed, while huddling behind the ruins of the old gift shop and restaurant at the top of Mount Evans, that the final few miles that feel like the Monte Zoncolan, in fact average a whopping 5%. After mulling that revelation over a bit in my head, forceful, swirling snowflakes returned me to a more pressing matter. I was on top of a 14,000 foot mountain with only knee and arm warmers. I turned my knee warmers into sort of leg warmers, pulled my arm warmers down to cover my hands a bit, then began the long, long journey to warmth. Such were the joys of high-altitude exploration in my first year of riding bikes.
The third time, a month later (I needed time to recover from that last ordeal), the sun shone, my body cooperated, and I finally had a chance to drink in the view. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve seen big views in a lot of places, but the world seems a little different at half the height of Mt. Everest. The sky is that little bit bluer, the clouds that little bit closer, the expanse of view that much bigger. The whole Front Range of Colorado, the distant eastern plains, South Park, the Continental Divide, the vast expanse of the Rockies—it’s all there. There’s nothing quite like feeling your head try to rotate a full 360 degrees to try to take in the panorama. This is the world from 14,127 feet, and I’m pedaling a bike—a road bike at that.
Colorado is blessed with 54 mountains that poke through the illustrious 14,000-foot (4,267-meter) mark. I’ve been up a few of them, struggled up all of them, but riding my bike to that altitude is unquestionably my preferred mode of transit. I love bikes, I love to ride my bike, I love the very basic feeling of turning the pedals over, my hands on the bars, the view down to my rotating feet, even the feel of my helmet strap on my chin. For better or (bone density) worse, I feel more comfortable on a bike than I do walking, so the chance to take on a Fourteener sans hiking boots and the requisite multiple days of DOMS afterwards? Heavenly. Well, it’s still a bit short of that altitude, but there aren’t too many (paved) roads that flirt so closely with the heavens.
On paper, it sounds amazing: a goliath of a mountain adorned with a snaking nearly 30-mile climb as far into the sky as I’ll probably ever get a chance to take my road bike. In reality, once my wheels pass the 12,000 foot mark, it gets a lot less pleasant. No matter how acclimated I get, a quick acceleration to catch up with friends following a hastily snapped picture leaves me gasping. Don’t even ask about that sprint to the parking lot at two and three quarter miles into the sky. It’s not an entirely pleasant feeling to pedal through the mud of extreme altitude. The gradient is barely 5%, but at 14,000 feet, it feels closer to three times that on pavement that begins to feel like it’s coated in elementary school rubber cement.
At an elevation as high as Mount Evans, riding a bike takes on a completely different feel. Everything slows down: your speed, your mental acuity, your vision, your thoughts, your inner voice. Slowness prevails at the end of the nearly 30-mile effort that takes you from Idaho Springs to the summit of Evans.
In Europe, and the rest of the world for the most part, the great high-altitude roads often have some kind of a purpose. Whether they were built during a great war, connect opposing valleys, or just to form an artery to a ski resort, there’s a reason behind them. Mount Evans is a road to nowhere with nothing at the top. Why the gigantic dead end? The answer is pretty simple, if a bit unromantic: tourism. At the turn of the twentieth century, Colorado was at a crossroads; the fifty years of almost continual boom from gold, silver, and a myriad of other minerals had finally run its course. With the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, the mining and agricultural economy plunged the still fledgling state to the brink of disaster.
The ship was slowly righted, but it was during the hard years of the early 1900s that it became apparent that an entirely different direction could pave the way to a new foundation to the economy in Colorado: tourism. Glimmering to the west of Denver, the Rockies were always going to be the focal point of tourism in the state. The question, however, was how to bring the average citizen to the rarefied heights of the high Rockies.
Colorado Springs jumped first in the high Rockies tourism sweepstakes. The Cascade and Pikes Peak Toll Road Company took on the major task of building a road to the top of Pikes Peak. Denver was not to be overshadowed by its southern neighbor. In 1917, Denver’s then mayor, Robert Speer, managed to gain support to build the road to the top of Mount Evans. Ten years later, the road was completed. Almost a century on, it’s a playground for cyclists, hikers, and, well, cars. Fortunately, for once, cars and bikes coexist rather seamlessly in the upper elevations despite the narrow, barrier-less road and the yawning depths that beckon if you ever go a bit wayward at the wheel, er, handlebars.
There are two main routes to the top of Mt. Evans: from Idaho Springs and Bergen Park. Idaho Springs is the classic route, which is used by the annual Bob Cook Memorial Hill Climb, which often serves as the Colorado State Hill Climb Championship. It’s 27.4 miles from the Clear Creek Middle School just outside of Idaho Springs to the Mount Evans parking lot over 7,000 feet higher than you start.
The race began in 1962 and has been run every year since, save for three missing editions, two of which were cancelled due to snow (in July!) and the third? The race organizer was working the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The race was renamed in 1981 to honor five-time winner and prodigal talent, Bob Cook, who died of cancer at the age of 23.
The best time ever was set in 2004 by Tom Danielson in a mind-bogglingly fast one hour, forty-one minutes and twenty seconds. That’s 28 miles—uphill—to over 14,000 feet. Danielson has taken part in the hill climb three times, and holds the three fastest ascents, ranging from the aforementioned record to a slightly more sedate time of 1:43:04, a whole 1:48 slower. On the women’s side, the rider who puts the term evergreen to shame, Jeannie Longo holds the record on Evans. She set the record in 1998 with a 1:59:19. Notably, her time was only a little over two minutes slower than this year’s overall winner.
Idaho Springs is the easiest access point for those near the I-70 corridor. The start is less than half a mile from the Idaho Springs exit. For a different view of the climb—plus a longer one with more vertical meters of climbing—you can toe the start line in Bergen Park and bag two extra passes along the way: Squaw and Juniper. At 15.5 miles in, you’ll arrive at the intersection of the two main approaches from Echo Lake. Echo Lake (Elevation 10,750) is more or less the halfway point and signals the beginning of the really high altitudes.
If you’ve seen the iconic cycling film American Flyers, you’ve seen Echo Lake. It’s the site of the final duel between David and Muezzin. You know the one, it’s where David’s scowling nemesis tries to take our hero off the road, but David holds on, attacks, and takes the win? Of course you do. The finish is at Echo Lake.
There are a couple other possibilities as well to reach the climb’s halfway point at the lake, but they include a fair bit of dirt. My personal favorite starts in Evergreen, ventures only slightly in the upward direction on the winding, wooded, and babbling brooked Bear Creek Road. The fun starts with a right on Witter Gulch Road. From there, it’s all uphill, and it gets steeper and steeper until the road turns to dirt and the switchbacks begin. It’s a fantastic climb with some sass; the dirt and steep grade make for an always entertaining ascent. It tops out about halfway up the climb from Bergen Park to Echo Lake (There’s still a lot of uphill to go from there, but you’ll be happy about the mild grades that Evans offers following the suffering on the dirt of Witter Gulch).
If you’re not into racing, but still love a huge day on the bike, the local cycling organization, Team Evergreen, puts on a huge event each year called the Triple Bypass. It starts in Bergen Park, climbs Juniper and Squaw Passes before taking on Loveland Pass and finally, Vail Pass. It’s a good day of riding at 120 miles and over 10,000 feet of climbing.
The Best Part
I digress! With the opening overture taken care of, it’s time to get to the good part. Whether you start in Idaho Springs or Bergen Park, the first half is nice, but it’s just an appetizer for the main course and dessert that will follow. Dessert will be kept nice and chilly, as the average temperature atop Evans is a frosty 18F. Thankfully, in the summer, the temperature is usually somewhere in the 40-60F range, but it doesn’t take much for the weather to do a somersault and send the numbers toward frigid.
From Echo Lake to the Mount Evans parking lot, it’s another 14.65 miles. More importantly, it gains another 3,400 feet. That goes on top of the starting point of almost 11,000 mind you. In other words, things get really high, really early on the second half. It doesn’t take long before you emerge above treeline and into the wide open expanses of ultra-high.
A climb like Evans, which reaches such a special altitude, allows for a unique experience in terms of what you see. The 27 miles of climbing takes you through three life zones, which, simply put, means a LOT changes from Idaho Springs to the summit of Mount Evans. The trees steadily change from the basic lodgepole pines, spruce, and aspen that characterize most of Colorado, to subalpine forest around treeline, highlighted by the oldest living organism on Earth—the bristlecone pine, which can reportedly reach ages of up to 5000 years old. Mount Evans doesn’t have any of that vintage, but it’s estimated that the small forest of bristlecone pines near Mount Goliath has some trees that are close to 1,700 years old. The bristlecones are a notable addition to the ride and form a sort of time capsule just a couple miles up from Echo Lake. The knotted, gnarled trunks of the beautiful trees show their vast age and also offer up a nice little distraction. These distraction points are extremely helpful, as the road is not of the curvaceous sort; you can see vast expanses of what’s to come far in front of you, so the little distractions help to keep one focused on the task at hand and not quaking at the thought of how much further there is to go.
Thankfully, there’s no lack of distraction even when you reach the special lands above treeline. After you’ve passed the bristlecones, all that’s left are a few unfortunate krummholz, and then the trees disappear entirely. At that point, it’s just you, lichens, grass, extremely hearty wildflowers, pika, marmots, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and a couple of lakes.
What I mean to say is there’s no shortage of entertainment. Gloriously fat, sprinting, chirping marmots have kept me entertained for far too many hours on my rides up Mount Evans, while the smaller, more seldom seen pika is always a prize to merely lay eyes on.
On a bit larger scale, mountain goats comprise one of my favorite memories of Evans. A few years back, my father and I did a late evening ride up Evans and found a small herd of mountain goats lounging in the middle of the road. As we approached, they barely took note, so we were left to pick our way through the sedentary mass, until one curious goat took to enjoying the sweat on my leg. Then another. So there we were, approaching Summit Lake, with still a solid five or so miles of climbing to go, a perfect sunset gearing up to hit full blast, and mountain goats happily using me as a salt lick. That one instantly went into the treasure chest of I-won’t-ever-forget-this moments.
When to go
While it’s highly discouraged by most, my favorite time to venture up Evans is late in the evening during the high summer months. Many will say that it’s best to be off the mountain by noon because of the afternoon thunderstorms. I agree, those things are nasty, but if you wait long enough, you can get up there post-storm and get a rare opportunity to explore the nether regions of close-to-space altitude with nary a car, the ability to enjoy peaceful pockets of completely undisturbed flora and fauna, the quiet after the cars and tourists have disappeared, and a sky like no other.
If this year’s Tour of Colorado takes hold and gains enough steam to come back in 2011, don’t be surprised if Mount Evans ends up on the stage list at some point soon. It would make for an absolutely spectacular stage where only the best (acclimated) climbers need apply.
From Issue 06. Buy it here.