Mt. Evans - 14,268 feet
|Rollerskiing Mt. Evans|
Note: Yes, it's only Mt. Evans, but I think the unique nature of my ascent makes this TR a little more interesting than the standard drive n' hike outings on the Front Range 14ers. I've been a cross-country ski racer for 10 years and since I moved to Boulder to go to college I've slowly been exploring all the mountains, roads, trails and peaks of Colorado by foot, ski and rollerski. I think I spend more time on this webpage than any other (except Facebook...) so why not start being a more active member? Enough background- read on!
Sometime in the fall of 2015 I had the idea to rollerski to the top of Mt. Evans via the road that snaked all the way up from Idaho Springs to the summit. I can't remember exactly when I first considered doing this, but by the end of November the idea had evolved from a "what if" to a legitimate, possible (and extreme) training session. I explored several different long rollerski link-ups during the summer (and October, after my shoulder healed enough to allow rollerskiing) and I found that I really enjoyed 30-40 mile skis, especially up high in the mountains. Additionally, summiting 14ers became my favorite activity in August after I hurt my shoulder. Combining rollerskiing and 14ers thus presented an obvious and enticing goal in climbing Mt. Evans. I jotted down the idea and didn't think much about it during the winter.
This rollerski moved from idea to reality when I started writing my summer training plan in April. Late June seemed like the most logical time to do the ski- the road wouldn't open until Memorial Day and I had no interest in battling lingering snow/ice in early June. Given the length incurred by starting at I-70 in Idaho Springs, I didn't want to do it in July either. I figured it would take about 5 hours, and I wasn't interested in trying to race an oncoming storm up to the summit. Since Mom was going to be my support crew and ride back down, I was also beholden to her schedule. The final weekend in June ended up being the best fit. As it turned out, it was the fourth overdistance rollerski of the month with the "epic" designation (my own completely arbitrary labeling of anything over 40 miles- given that some people don't even bike this far at once, and that no other skier I know of really enjoys going out to rollerski 40 miles at once, it seems justified). In the past 3 weeks I did a 40-mile skiathlon in Frisco/Dillon/Copper Mountain, a 52-mile double pole in Denver and a 45-mile skate in Denver the day after my birthday. Topping off the month would be the 28-mile, ~6800-foot ascent up Evans.
Now that the ski was scheduled, I had to research just what exactly I was going to undertake. In relative terms, 28 miles was not an overly long distance. The difficult factor was the extreme amount of vertical ascent. I had never done a hike that had nearly this much elevation gain- La Plata and the Boulder Skyline Loop were the hardest ascents I did last summer. My other point of concern was the road condition. I knew that CO 103 would have at least a partial shoulder and decent pavement, but above Echo Lake on the tundra things could get bumpy. I read everything I could find on the road conditions, mostly from cycling websites. The general consensus was that the road, while narrow and not the smoothest pavement, was in good shape except for a stretch near Summit Lake. There were no steep downhills to speak of and I wasn't overly worried about sharing the shoulder-less road with cars up high. As the date neared, I checked the weather forecast daily. There is always some weather risk with scheduling 14er sessions more than a month in advance, but the forecast was holding steady for a typical summer day up high- sunny in the morning with little wind, dark clouds & rain in the afternoon. I knew that I would be finishing right around the time the storms would be sweeping in, but I didn't have to worry about getting back down to treeline after summitting. The conditions were as favorable as they could be- now the session was dependent on my own fitness. I figured it would take about 5 hours at a moderate Level 1-2 effort.
The day before the ski the forecast kept bouncing between 30-40% chance of storms after 12 pm, but the morning looked excellent. Mom and I drove up to Echo Lake around sunset. The road had a narrow shoulder and excellent pavement, and I was not worried about traffic since I was starting to early. We turned around at the lodge next to the lake under an incredible sky- the afternoon's storm clouds were black to the east and the setting sun had a bright gold, almost orange hue. Back in Idaho Springs I laid out my gear. I ended up bringing far too many clothes- I wore two pairs of gloves, a short and longsleeve shirt (both lightweight), two pairs of summer socks and a pair of shorts for the entire ski. All my winter gear stayed in my bag, untouched all day. I was going to take 1.25 gallons of water- a quart each in two water belts, a quart in a bottle with 2 electrolyte tabs and 2 quarts in the big insulated jug. My nutrition plan was the same as it was for every long ski I do- carry a gel, a power bar and 6 shot blocks in the belt and eat these over the course of two hours, then get another of each. Mom and I planned to meet every 3 miles so I could refill water or get more clothes. I also brought a few items I don't usually bring when I rollerski- replacement pole tips and a pair of pliers to swap them out with the existing tips. Roads that have a lot of cracks present a danger to poles because it's easy to stick the pole in a crack and snap the tip (or the bottom part of the pole) off when moving forward. I've had this happen numerous times before, and there was no way I was going to bail on the ascent because of something as small as a busted tip.
I woke up at 4:30 on Saturday morning and had a fairly large breakfast- 2 slices of deep-dish Beau Jo's pizza from the night before and an apple. I organized my gear bag, filled all the water bottles and loaded everything up. I started the ski right next to the "Start of Mt. Evans Scenic Byway" sign on CO 103. The day immediately presented a problem: my heart rate monitor was not being picked up by my watch. I tried three times to sync them and I re-wet the strap, but nothing worked. I think the problem was a dead battery in the sensor- at home much later on Saturday, I changed the battery and the watch immediately picked up the sensor. Not knowing this at the time, however, I was quite frustrated. I have come to regard my heart rate monitor and watch as mandatory pieces of equipment- I am very uncomfortable training without them. But, I had no other choice today. I would spend most of the day between 145-170 bpm and I would be fine going by feel alone, but I still prefer to have the exact HR visible on my wrist.
I started my watch at 5:43 am. I was wearing sunglasses and a light longsleeve shirt with no undershirt. The temp was about 60 degrees and there were some high clouds. The first 9 or so miles of the ski were rather unremarkable. A breath of wind would occasionally drift down the canyon, and a car would come by every 10 minutes. I met Mom twice during this stretch but didn't take any water or food refills. I was able to kick double pole the first few miles but I fell into a steady stride as the road slowly climbed upwards. The sun was up but not visible behind some gray clouds to the east, and I could only see glimpses of the blue sky to the west. The scenery was quite similar to Sunshine or Lefthand canyons in Boulder- a snaking roadway and trees/rock cliffs right off the shoulder. A few cyclists passed me but I was mostly alone. My frustration with the heart rate monitor abated after a few minutes, but I still unconsciously looked down at it every 45 seconds anyway.
Around mile 9 the grade of the road pitched upward. I was breathing just a bit harder and I could feel the striding just a bit more in my calves. The switchbacks also started at mile 9, and the sun finally broke through the clouds that had lingered all morning. I met Mom at mile 9.5 and refilled my water for the first time. The vehicle traffic was increasing but I still had the road to myself for stretches of several minutes. I stopped once at mile 11 to take a drink, eat a few shot blocks and take a quick Snapchat of the view ahead. The northern part of the ridge that runs to Evans' summit was visible, as were a few cars slowly, silently moving up the road, windows glinting in the sunlight as they turned. I rolled into Echo Lake at 8 am, 2 hours and 18 minutes after starting in Idaho Springs. The road leveled out just before the lodge and I double poled into the parking lot. My back was still loose and my legs were feeling good. I'd covered 13 miles and 3100 feet of ascent and I wasn't remotely tired or sore. I paused my watch in the parking lot and quickly changed socks and gloves, put a shortsleeve shirt under my longsleeve to add a layer against the wind that was sure to be blowing up high, chugged about 10 oz. of the electrolyte drink, refilled the water belt, got one of each food item and reapplied sunscreen. I also ran into the restroom and tried once again to re-wet my heart rate strap, but it still wouldn't work. I left it on anyway, somehow hoping it would come back to life. All told the stop was about 15 minutes, then I was on my way through the CO 5 gate and up the road once again.
From Echo Lake, it was 14 miles and 3500 vertical feet to the top of the mountain. Although I was halfway done on paper, I considered this "half" of the ski to really be about 75% of the whole session. I was excited to get above the treeline, but first I had to stride up a long, long switchback that curved around to the west side of the ridge and finally broke out onto the tundra next to a small ranger station and parking lot. I met Mom here and swapped out my now-empty water belt for a full one. I considered taking off one of my shirts but there were still some thin clouds and the occasional gust of wind, so I decided to stay layered as I was. By now I could tell that I had 4000 feet of climbing in my legs- my HR was about 5 bpm higher than it was for the first half and I was breathing harder.
The road wound through two short switchbacks before coming around to the north side of the ridge, directly above Echo Lake. As I came around the final corner I had my own Joseph Smith moment. The road curved away to the left and left the entire northern view unobstructed. I could see the Indian Peaks and even Longs Peak, 70 miles away. The sky was perfectly clear and the wind was remarkably calm. I stopped for a moment to take a few pictures. The road wound steadily southward along the ridge. I had a few bad pole placements and lapses in technique because I was paying more attention to the view than the road. I could see Grays and Torreys Peaks to the right, glimpses of Denver to the left and the hulking bulk of Mt. Evans and the surrounding cirques directly in front of me. Now I had a sense of some accomplishment- this was a much better locale than a tree-lined canyon. I stopped at the car again at 12,500 feet. We were on the side of the road, with a large snowbank on a tall ridge to the right and a ~600 foot drop to Lincoln Lake on the left. I topped off the water and asked Mom to meet me two more miles up the road.
The next section was not my best skiing of the day. I felt pinched by the drop-off on one side of the road and the snow on the other. I was also feeling the vertical mile of ascent in my legs. At one point I got tangled up with my pole in a crack and managed to ski into my left ski with my right, exactly the same way I did last August when I dislocated my shoulder. This time I stayed upright but there was a nasty bit of wobbling and desperately jabbing my right pole into the roadside dirt to maintain a vertical stature. I was disturbed enough that I stopped, took a drink and barked out a few well-chosen epithets about the pavement and my shoddy foot placement. Much better. The next 1.5 miles to the car went quickly. I kept a good pace and avoided any more balance issues as I gazed to the south across the Front Range foothills. I could make out the hazy thrust of Pikes Peak about 100 miles away. I could also see a good portion of the Evans shoulder, and the road where it disappeared around a ridge near Summit Lake. I met Mom again and decided the road conditions were good enough to deliver me safely to the lake. After rounding the ridge corner I had a few easy strokes of double pole before I coasted, then slowly poled, then stopped completely and carefully picked my way through the bubbly, rocky road near the lake. I navigated around several potholes, bottomed out the skis on one particularly large bump and just walked with skis on up to the car in the parking lot.
This was my last long break of the ski. I went into the restroom, took a swig from my electrolyte drink, grabbed more food, refilled my water belt and put on a final layer of sunscreen. The summit was almost directly overhead, 1400 feet above the parking lot. The remaining climb was essentially no worse than Mt. Sanitas in Boulder (~1300 feet), but it looked much taller than that. Must be the altitude. I returned to the road and set off in front of some amazed tourists.
The first switchback up the summit pyramid was unrelentingly long. It felt like a mile before the road turned. A few bikes passed me and we exchanged the customary greetings that befit two people sharing in the same sort of ascent- "nice weather, man my legs hurt, see you at the top." The road from Summit Lake to the top is cut into the south-ish face of the mountain and has about 13 switchbacks. The straight sections between the curves were unlike anything I've ever rollerskied. Mere feet beyond the pavement the ground fell away and the sky stretched out to the horizon. Several of the switchbacks were so tight that the next section of road wasn't visible from the straight, and the pavement seemed to just continue into thin air. Objectively, this was not the safest place for rollerskiing- marginal pavement, no guardrail, no shoulder, nowhere next to the road to bail and no up-road visibility. I was supremely exposed but it was a fantastic feeling. To look down on the state from 14,000 feet on rollerskis is a unique thing.
I met Mom about 2 miles up from Summit Lake. She was parked at the bottom of a small downhill in the road, so I had to coast past her, stop and reverse to the car. I passed two hikers on the road and heard them say something like "what...that's crazy" as I whooshed by. I ditched my longsleeve shirt in favor of a shortsleeve and a reflective vest. I was hot despite being at 13,700 feet and building clouds. The wind was still remarkably light. I had one more balance mishap- I tried to stride around a very tight switchback, lost momentum and basically took a knee in the middle of the road. No cars were nearby and I was fine physically, but I was frustrated to be this close and still be making dumb mistakes. The remaining 6 switchbacks to the top were skied cautiously. The turns now were spectacularly exposed and seemed to be getting steeper. Each switchback was essentially right above the previous one, further solidifying the mirage of skiing through the sky.
I could see Quandary Peak to the southwest, Holy Cross to the west and people milling around atop Bierstadt. To the south the Sangre de Cristo Mountains shimmered in and out of view behind the oncoming curtains of rain. A few more strides, a few more careful turns and I came around the final bend- only to stop dead behind a line of traffic waiting to get a parking space in the lot. Screw that! I got up here under my own power- I'll be damned if I'm going to wait for some SUV-driving tourist to ruin my final strides! I jumped into the other lane, threw down a few strong double poles and threw out a finishing lunge with my right ski as I coasted across the highest spot in the parking lot. Done. 27.5 miles and 6600 vertical feet later, I reached the end of the road. I met Mom near the USFS summit sign and had her take a few pictures of me in the standard skiing podium pose- poles leaning against one shoulder, (roller)skis held face-out in the other hand at chest height, summit sign with peak and elevation visible behind me.
I put my ski gear in the car and stripped all my ski-specific clothing off, then threw on a jacket and blasted past all the tourists up the 130-foot climb to the true summit of the mountain. It was packed but I found a reasonably isolated rock to sit and take in the view. Summit Lake and the huge sloping sides of its cirque stretched away below my feet. I could now see Grays and Torreys, and Bierstadt, to the west, as well as the road snaking past Summit Lake.
After a few minutes on top I decided to head down. I took a few more pictures and smoked past all the tourists still milling around the summit block. The rain was moving in fast and it was time to drive down. I stripped off the rest of my gear and got into the car. We left just as the rain started to come down. My legs were already starting to cramp up now that I was done moving. We stopped again at Summit Lake where I changed clothes and organized all the gear in the back of the car. The final 13 miles back down to Idaho Springs looked vaguely familiar- had I really gone up this 6 hours before? Yes, the leaden sensation spreading throughout my body confirmed that I had indeed skied it. I was sore for the remainder of the day but the next day I was mostly back to normal, save for being very tired. The only lingering soreness was in my calves- the 20,000 or so classic strides up the road had placed a bit more stress on those muscles than usual.
Overall the day was a complete success. The only aspect that could have gone better was having my heart rate monitor work. I take pride in knowing that my gear is in perfect working order and that it is this way because I maintain it well, but there was nothing I could do about a dead battery and worn-out strap. This will certainly remain one of the highlights of the summer, simply because it is such an ambitious and unique rollerski. I won't have time to repeat it this year but I will be adding it to my repertory of "standard" overdistance rollerskis. It is far and away my favorite rollerski in Colorado. I've come a long way from rollerskiing laps at the golf course every weekend.
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