Thursday, September 29, 2011
A taste of Wilderness
The sun was already touching the highest peak to the west as I hit the dirt road and raced a freight train up a moderate grade. I was amused that I was riding the same speed as a train being pulled by 9 engines was moving, but it turned out that there was no rush since the train was second in line to make the dark trip through the Moffat Tunnel. The train screeched to a halt as I pedaled on, soon turning off onto a much steeper road.
Dusk came and went as I labored steadily upward. The bright aspen stands turned grey before settling on a darker shade for the remainder of the night. Stands of spruce stood stubbornly along the trail despite increasingly strong gusts of wind coming down the flanks of the mountains into which I was climbing. But the high peaks became simply dark outlines as stars gradually surrounded them.
The critters that skitter and dart about are often unique to the dark hours. The smells are richer and Earthier. The sounds are far more pronounced and striking. And one's place in the world seems just a bit more uncertain. But foremost, I believe, is that first glimpse of a new landscape when dawn finally arrives. Traveling by night rarely allows the traveler to discern anything more than the shape of the passing country; subtle details beyond the reach of the torch are neither seen nor appreciated. But as the sun prepares to rise again, a thick, diffuse light spreads from the east, revealing to the traveler all that was hidden while the sun sped around the back side of the globe.
The climbing continued as I pondered why I have grown such a fondness for riding in the dark. Finally, as my lungs finally began to signal that there was no longer quite as much oxygen as they should like to have, the rocky trail tilted downward. I dropped my saddle and rattled down the rocky hillside before veering off onto the tundra and dismounting. The sticker on a Carsonite post in front of me glinted in my headlamp. "Wilderness Area," it read.
In most instances of finding myself face to face with similar signs while sitting on a bike, I've grumpily turned around to find more friendly places to travel. Some USFS ranger districts are apparently quite strict about allowing bikes to even be carried while hiking through Wilderness, but our local district has been accommodating and has even approved one local race in which competitors are required to carry their bikes through 3 miles of Wilderness. On this night, the plan was to continue into the heart of this little Wilderness, bike strapped to my back. Owen and I had tried this route once last year and were turned back by the first real snow of the year. Earlier this year, I tried again, but my legs didn't have it in them that day, and storms were building rapidly as the strong summer sun fueled convection overhead. This time, my legs were feeling fresh and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, just a dark summit looming a thousand feet above.
The climb soon turned rocky as I crossed stone garlands and then continuous talus slopes. I probably should have taken the trail around the south side of the mountain, but as always, the direct route seemed like the best idea ahead of time. After a few quick breaks to rest my back, I crested the final false summit, hit the trail, and climbed the final few switchbacks to the summit. The wind howled through my handlebars and steerer tube as I leaned the bike against a stone shelter that had been built at the high point. "EEP!" shouted a nearby pika. That little guy would wake me up every hour or two all through the night with a single exclamation each time.
The view of the Boulder and Denver lights to the east were impressive, and a few little clusters of lights below the other side of the Front Range marked Winter Park, Fraser, and Granby. I heated up some dinner, put on all my clothes, and nestled in among some rocks to try to get out of the wind. But sharp gusts still found me, blowing around my bivy and making it challenging to sleep at times.
The soft orange glow of an approaching dawn seemingly awoke me just in time to enjoy the sunrise. It had been quite some time since I had the pleasure of watching the Sun appear from such a high vantage point. I tried to make some hot chocolate, but my little fuel canister only had enough left to thaw the little ice crystals in the water, so I sipped cold chocolate and snapped some photos of the mountains as they basked in first orange, then pink, followed by yellow.
The plan for the morning was to hike down the north side of the mountain, pick up some alpine singletrack beyond the Wilderness Boundary, head over to Rollins Pass, and get to work before lunch. As expected, a steep hike brought me to a saddle and the exciting sign that marked the edge of the non-bike-friendly territory. I hopped back on and sailed through some of the most beautiful singletrack I've ridden in some time.
I ended up dropping into Winter Park instead of heading directly to Rollins Pass. The aspens treated me to quite a show, a porcupine waddled out of my path in the middle of the long descent, and I just kept grinning. What a morning. What a route.
Eventually, I climbed back up, stopping to chat with a guy heading the opposite direction on a heavily loaded bike. He was headed off on a 3-4 month tour with no particular destination in mind. "Perhaps Arizona," he said, "Or maybe I'll follow the Arkansas and head down to the Gulf." It sounded like this wasn't his first time on such a journey. Or his second. Or fifth.
It wasn't until almost 3 o'clock that I rolled into work. I suppose that wasn't quite a quick overnighter, but it certainly was one of the most breathtaking loops I've ridden in the Front Range. With so many of our trails off limits to bikes in Wilderness Areas or National Parks, options are a bit limited. I offer my gratitude to all the folks in Grand County that fought for the creation of this "Special Interest Area" as an alternative to making it all Wilderness.
While those off us on the east side of the Divide lost bikeable territory to the James Peak Wilderness, Grand County residents fought to not lose bike and snowmobile access since their economy benefits greatly from it. A compromise was reached, and the Special Interest Area was created. I hope that such a compromise will not go unnoticed as proposals for new Wilderness Areas across the country are considered as long as the Wilderness Act remains unchanged and inflexible.