We filled our liter bottles with water and packed a few lunch treats at 5am. We were rushing to get out into the Rockies to start our alpine ascent of Mt. Evans. We wanted to complete the multi-pitch climb before noon to avoid the heat of the day and the afternoon thunderstorms. We sleepily chugged a cup of acrid coffee and tossed our packs in the car. The drive up Clear Creek Canyon, where we have climbed before, was quiet and dark. The sun left warm colors on the summits of the peaks around us. The light doused the chaparral landscape in rosy tones and draped itself over the valley and onto our car.
We drove uphill and did not stop for miles. We passed quiet rivers, tall pines, and sleepy gold-rush towns. Eventually, the lofty clouds fell below our Corolla as we powered up to the base of Mt. Evans thousands of feet above sea level. We parked briefly near the summit (on the country’s tallest auto road) to lock up our bikes. We expected to climb all day, summit, and cruise down the slopes of this towering 14,000 footer. A day of real adventure! Our route up Mt. Evans was the most difficult. Straight up the vertical rock face of a glacially carved wall – straight up to the summit.
We scrambled over talus and scree and balanced our way over rock fall debris to get to the base of the climb. Rob climbed first, placing gear every ten feet. The wind started to pick up as Rob ascended. We were at 13,000 feet and many whom have attempted this alpine climb have been forced to hastily rappel for severe lightning and hail storms. On one occasion a tornado was recorded touching down on Mt. Evans. The physical climb was well within our rock climbing ability but the exposure, altitude, and commitment were new and challenging. We wondered days before this attempt if we had the fortitude to make it to the top.
At 14,000 feet and above the human body responds differently. There is approximately 40% less air pressure and inspired oxygen at this elevation. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is the result. The body is incapable of breathing enough oxygen and hallucinations, irrationality, and severe headache ensue. These symptoms are made drastically worse with aerobic activity. Rob & I suffered these symptoms last at 9,000 feet and have yet to venture higher. Mt. Evans was our test-piece of high altitude capability.
I followed Rob’s path as he belayed me from a thin perch up above. I placed one hand after another in a secure flake of rock and shuffled my feet up. I removed the gear Rob used to protect his lead and collected it for when it became my turn to lead. We alternated pitches for most of the day, each time hauling up our gear and rope. After we were two hundred feet up the wall we concluded: there was no going back down, our rope would not touch the ground. To continue climbing would be the easiest and safest way off this mountain.
We kept climbing, comparing ourselves to iron-strong climbers of the past. We spat out stories about old epic struggles on hard rock lines in dismal conditions (often with hemp ropes and old woolen garments). We were building up our own confidence to keep climbing. The summit was out of sight so we kept climbing until the angle of the rock slacked off and the climbing became easier.
Rob & I hauled ourselves over a lip of rock onto a grassy ledge, we were forty feet from a false summit. From there we could rock hop and traverse a steep ridge to the true summit of Mt. Evans (14,265 feet). The view inspired awe. This was not only our test-piece climb in Colorado but a thrilling experience that would remain with us for our lifetimes.
The ridge to the summit was an easy challenge after a vertical climb. The cliffs fell away on either side of us into massive cirques, the biggest in Colorado, thousands of feet below. Our trail to the summit was nothing more than wedged stones the size of cars in a row. We took care not to slip, on occasion the blocks of stone were only ten to twelve feet wide. The view was panoramic and the distant mountains fell away – At that moment I would argue nothing was higher than Rob & I except for the horsetail-like cirrus clouds streaked above.
Many tourists drive to the summit. We met most of them as we slogged up the hundred yard summit cone. Needless to say we looked worse for the wear when compared to the tourists that had just stepped from their air conditioned vehicles only moments prior. We had started our ascent at 6am and were only summiting at noon.
We slung our gear to our bikes and got them up to speed. Within minutes we were traveling at the posted speed limit and within a few more we were traveling well above the posted speed limit. We had to be cautious because the road to the summit is without guardrails and the hairpin turns are surprisingly tight.
It was a rewarding ride, to feel the hundreds of feet we climbed zip by with the breeze. Our approach lended us a few hundred feet and the technical climb itself was 800 ft. All of this was lost on the bike in under twenty minutes. We packed the car and shoved off for our campsite in Golden, CO. Rob & I were sufficiently tuckered out and we decided to celebrate his birthday the only way an alpinist knows how… at a restaurant titled The Sherpa House.