Monday, July 30, 2012

Taking on the Vapor Trail 125, on my own terms

If you haven't seen the preface to this post, read it here.

A little after 7:30 PM Friday night I stepped out my back door. There were some random raindrops on the concrete patio, I looked west. Of course there were clouds, it is July. A really dark one was crouching over the Shavano summit, right where I was heading. There wasn't a thunderstorm, and I was guessing this would be an evening with some light sprinkles. But weather is always a threat.

sunrise from Granite Mountain
Sunrise over the continental divide

I heaved a heavy, stuffed pack onto my back. I packed for the worst case. Not going to get caught without enough food, water, or clothing. I was bringing a surplus of everything, and steripen, extra battery for my headlamp, extra batteries for the GPS, SPOT, or MP3 Player. A big pack was a fact of life for doing something like this without support.

I rolled down to the F Street Bridge to start from the true start of the course. At exactly 7:45 I rode south off the bridge. It was sprinkling lightly as I rode up F Street, crowded with tourists. I turned right on 3rd Street, and followed it to where Poncha Blvd curves off to the left. And I headed out of town.

The sprinkles of rain came and went while I made my way west toward Blanks Cabin. Sometimes it was hard enough to make my arms shine with moisture, other times almost not noticeable. Of course, it was on my mind.

When I got to the road passing the airport, Kathy drove up from behind me. She had a few last questions about what to do if she saw my SPOT breadcrumbs stop moving or disappear, or if I were to press the help button. She was left with a very ambiguous situation. The last thing in the world that I wanted was for her or anybody to need to go out and find me. But really, she was the only person who knew what I was up to that night. Having the SPOT and having her watching it was really nice.

After we finished talking, and she headed back to town, I was on my own for the duration. As I made my way up to the turn at CR250 then on up past the cattle guards and onto the branch of 252, the rain sprinkles came and went. It was toying with me. After dark, it started coming down pretty hard. It stopped altogether when the terrain went from pinon and sage to fir and aspen. Every one of the spells of rain had me thinking that maybe this wouldn't be happening. Then it would slack or stop, and I'd think that maybe that was it.

But before the light was completely gone, I had seen a very dark cloud still camped out over Mt Shavano. I had a vision of being up the Chalk Creek Canyon in the wee hours, looking for someplace to be under shelter as a thunder storm raged. One of the remarkably stinky vault toilets perhaps. Then ultimately riding back down getting splattered with mud from head to toe.

No thank you.

In the last 5 minutes before I got to Blanks Cabin and the Colorado Trail, the rain started again. By the time I got to the trail, it was raining as hard as it had yet in the two hours I'd been out. All the twilight was gone; dark and raining.

Was this totally stupid, or just a little bit stupid?

At about 10:15 I was shoving my bike up the hike-a-bike that marks the beginning of the singletrack part of the Vapor Trail 125, it was raining hard enough that I started thinking about putting on my rain jacket. Get all wet from being rained on, or get soaked with sweat under a rain jacket as I exert myself? Again I thought about bagging the whole thing. I had forgone eating any of the caffeine-laced items in my food arsenal because of my doubts. If I bailed I could still resurrect a bit of a night of sleep. I could be home by 11 and in bed.

No, I'll go as far as Browns Creek, the next logical bail point. Perhaps after I got out from under that dark cloud that had been sitting on Shavano all evening things would get better. I was already out, I was packed, I was on schedule. Stay the course a little longer.

It worked out. Fifteen or twenty minutes worth of northbound travel, and the rain slowed to a sprinkle, then stopped altogether.

When I got to Browns Creek I decided it was time to put on leg warmers and a long sleeve (I'd been shorts and short sleeves up to that point, and warm enough despite the rain). I ate one of my croissants with egg and cheese and then decided I ought to at least steripen a water bottle full of water out of Browns. I didn't want to take any water from the Chalk Creek drainage because of all the mining activity--there is a superfund site up there. My hydration bag was still very full, so just a water bottle seemed like plenty. So I drained what was in the bottle and dipped it into the creek.

I pulled out the steripen, dipped it in, and pressed the button. Hmm. No blue light. I tried again. Nope. I watched the indicator light, when I pressed the button the light went green momentarily than flashed red. Batteries?! I've hardly used the thing! I've tested it in the kitchen far more times than I've used it outside.

I got my spare batteries out and swapped them. Same thing! Crap. So what, is that game over?

No, no I have lots of water in the bag. It'll be chilly all night so I won't need to drink all that much. And I can get water at Snowblind Campground in the morning. I'll be fine. I muttered a quick curse at the steripen and put it away. (Turns out, I was doing it wrong. You push the button, then dip it in the water. If the sensors can tell they are already in water, it won't work. I have known that before, and used it correctly. I had just forgotten. Never will forget again.)

I rode out the Colorado Trail section at a very moderate pace. Last time I rode this, I smashed my pinky on a branch and needed stitches during the Salida Big Friggin' Loop. Just one of the many mistakes/bits of bad luck I've had this year in attempts to complete big rides. Be mindful, I told myself: you're just at the beginning of a big night and day. Being 5 minutes quicker to finish this won't help. But getting hurt will be a bad thing. The rocks were wet and slick, and it was inky dark with the moon and stars obscured by thick cloud cover.

Just as I was finishing up and getting ready to drop into the Chalk Creek Canyon, the light of the waxing gibbous moon getting ready to set shone down from the west. Good news, the clouds up on the divide were breaking up enough to let the moon shine through. I knew that moonset was 12:29 PM. It was just about that time. I hit the old Denver and South Park railroad grade just then and started making my way up to the Alpine Tunnel.

I was feeling good. Maybe this is going to work! My legs were still relatively fresh, I had kept up my eating and drinking. Normally the temperatures in the Chalk basin are markedly cooler than up on the Colorado Trail on the slope of the Sawatch, but tonight a breeze that was downright warm was blowing down. I got busy with the steady pedaling that would be my job for the next three or four hours, a consistent grade up a good road to reach the trail over the Alpine Tunnel. And the beginning of a couple hours of mostly hike-a-bike.

My pace was good. My mood was good. The clouds over head gradually broke up and stars shone through. My moon was long gone, so the night was dark. But the temperature was very comfortable and I had the stars to keep me company. I passed much of the night in a nice aerobic groove. I stopped at the intersection of the road up to the Mary Murphy Mine to eat and swap out my headlight battery. It died just as I pulled the fresh one out of my pack. Nice.

It's always interesting to see the creatures that are out and about at night in the mountains. On the Colorado Trail I had seen too many field mice running across the trail to mention. Near the end I saw what I think must have been a pine marten. At first I thought it was a squirrel, but it ran too gracefully and I don't recall ever seeing squirrels out at night. At one point as I rolled up the last section of railroad grade approaching the tunnel; the non-motorized part, bumping over 130-year-old railroad ties and through tickets of willow that dropped their moisture onto my leg warmers, something skittered across. As I passed I looked down and saw what looked like a large dry land sea anemone. Porcupine, in full defensive display. I told it that I didn't want any trouble, and went along my way.

It was nearly 4 AM when I got to the base of the hike-a-bike climb up onto Altman Pass, under which the tunnel passes. I was quite pleased with my pace so far. I was making good time. I was still wearing only a long-sleeved mid-weight baselayer and leg warmers, and regular full-finger bike gloves. I knew that the other side of the divide was always colder, and the descent off the divide into Brittle Silver Basin was always chilling. I would put on clothes including the new Marmot insulated water and windproof gloves I had gotten from work that day once I got to the pass. Or at least down at the roundhouse on the other side.

One of my favorite parts of the Vapor Trail 125 experience is the thrill of crossing the divide pre-dawn under a canopy of stars. I lingered at the top of the pass just for a few minutes, savoring the experience. It is so amazing to be able to do this! I was very grateful for the fact that my body is capable of getting me to this place from town under my own power.

The trail off the pass is a mess. It's too steep, and in places running water has eroded it down to piles of rocks in a deep rut. I rode up to one of these places and decided to get off and walk just for safety's sake. I put my foot down on a rock that rolled over, and then staggered trying to find solid ground. I rolled off the bike into the wet willows. Not hurt, but annoyed at my clumsiness.

It was really not cold. I knew that the 10-15 minute descent into the basin would be chilling, but it just didn't seem cold enough to warrant pulling out the jacket and gloves, since the hike-a-bike up to Tomichi Pass would start so soon, and I'd be warm enough then for sure. I committed myself to stopping if a chill came over me. But it didn't happen. I arrived at the turn to Tomichi and Hancock Passes. Time quickly came to jump off and push.

Something bigger than I'd seen so far scrambled off the road and into the willows. I saw the butt of a critter as large as a medium sized dog disappearing into the brush. Not big enough to be a bear cub, but perhaps a large raccoon, or porcupine. I think I was looking at the brushy short quills of a very large porcupine's ass.

I was on and off the bike for the next 15 or 20 minutes, granny gear climbing more of the approach to Tomichi than I remember every being able to pull off in the 5 or 6 times I've done this. I was amazed at how good I was feeling. I knew exactly what was coming. And I was OK with it. I had a long stumbling push up the rutted and rocky jeep trail to Tomichi, a brief descent, and then a ridiculous stumbling push up to the high point of the whole course at Granite Mountain--the start of the Canyon Creek Trail. So I started marching next to my bike. It was about 4:30 AM and there was no sign of dawn's light.

The climb to Tomichi was just not that hard. I called that staggering awkward climb "Quit Hill" the first time I did this back in 2007. And I was very fit that year. Maybe it was just knowing exactly what to expect. Maybe it was just that I stayed on task and took my medicine. I don't know. But it was fine. Before I knew it I was on Tomichi Pass, and I pulled off the pack and got out some stuff to eat. As I took a pee, I heard some rocks moving just south of the pass, and then heard the unmistakable sound of elk making warning sounds. It was a little eery, because I couldn't see them and had no idea how close they were. I talked to them a little, then got loaded back up and headed down the half mile or so to the intersection with the Canyon Creek Trail.

Tomichi Canyon

The hike-a-bike up to the summit of Granite Peak is just absurd. It's a moto trail, and much of it is fall line. It's a rut that's often about 4 feet deep and 8 feet wide. The bottom is lined with sharp-edged rocks of every size, and they move and shift. The bike hangs up on them and often has to be lifted and yanked. The right way to do this is to have a bike that's light enough to pull onto your back and just carry like a sherpa carries a huge pack. But I've never been able to pull that off.

Tomichi Canyon

Half way up the grunting hike-a-bike, the eastern horizon went from gray to rose. I switched off my lights. I listened to the sounds of animals reacting to the dawn. Hawks or falcons were calling. I could hear elk vocalizing, and there was a deep bass sound of their hooves thumping somewhere nearby. I marched, stopping occasionally to breath and look around. The thrill of seeing the dawn in this place breathed life into me. I've never been fast enough to be here this early, starting at 10 PM with the event. But starting before 8 I had been able to be here at this magic time. It almost brought tears to my eyes, the beauty of those moments.

Looking South across the horizon from Granite Peak

There were pockets of fog in the valleys and depressions I could see all across the horizon. I forgot to bring my good camera, so these images are the best that my crappy cell-phone camera can produce. Even a mega-bucks SLR would be unable to capture what it was really like though.

Continue Down Canyon Creek

I did not linger for long at the summit, beautiful as it was. A chill wind was blowing from the west, and for the first time I was compelled to yank my rain jacket from the pack to protect myself from the cold. I snapped one last picture and started the spectacular traverse across the high ridge to the descent into Canyon Creek.

When I was out on the ridge shown above, my herd of elk crossed over in front of me from the right. There were easily 40 of them; beautiful healthy animals.

Then came the brake-burning descent into the upper Canyon Creek basin.

I had made it through the night, and had come over the high point of the course. I had passed the entrance exam. Now I was admitted to the University of Suffer. I knew what the day ahead of me would be like. If everything went perfectly, it would be incredibly painful; an exercise in will.

The first class I had, Suffer 101, would be the climb to Old Monarch.

To Be Continued...

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