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“Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms, she rewards passionately.” — Tim Krabbé
You know how you talk with good friends about crazy ideas? Those overly bold things that pop into our heads at odd times, maybe as possibilities; but we don’t really think they’re going to happen. They aren’t so much part of a brainstorm as a good-natured bluff. Sometimes, both parties to the idea are bluffing—and that’s how I found myself climbing North America’s highest paved road in December. And I’m not really sure how it happened.
Words: Jered Gruber
Images: Gruber Images
It started as an idea casually tossed out, something mentioned in the kind of tone in which you’d say, we should go check out that new restaurant in town. My friend, Stephen, confirmed the soundness of the concept, then threw some more chips on the table, sort-of saying, we should definitely check out that new place. Let’s do it!
Except it was not a new restaurant, and our idle talk was about a very, very big mountain.
A few days passed, a text arrived: “So we’re riding tomorrow, right?”
My mind whirled: I shouldn’t. There’s so much work to do. Maybe it’s okay though. It will be fun. What if there’s a special shot? A story? Pictures can be edited in the dark. Pictures cannot be made in the dark—at least, not the ones we take. I want to ride. I’m hungry.
I responded: “Definitely riding tomorrow. Where?”
I hoped in vain that sense would come knocking on Stephen’s door.
The response made me groan: “Mount Evans, of course!”
I found out later he was bluffing. He was waiting for me to speak sane words and steer the ship clear of the looming danger. Instead, I unwittingly called his bluff, not wanting to back down, not wanting to be the guy that brought the crazy talk to an end. I fully expected Stephen to do that at some point. He’s a father. He has to have more common sense than me, right?
It occurred to me that this was not the first time I’d been in a double-bluff situation that led to high adventure, with the real chance of frostbite or hypothermia. It wasn’t the 10th time either. I’m a terminal case.
I looked down at my hands. They were so warm and full of color, and they even showed normal signs of dexterity.
That won’t be the case in a few hours, I thought.
A little later, we were nervously dressing in a parking lot with the Evans massif far off in the distance. It wasn’t cold down here at 7,000 feet. It was an amazing 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In Colorado in mid-December! But the climb is 35 miles long, and the summit is 7,000 feet higher—and it’s definitely not going to be 50 up there.
We set off in warm sunshine and settled into our natural rhythm—that is, talking. We talked and talked. Stephen is a talker. Like me. He’s a dreamer too, an ideas guy. Like me. He does this amazing thing though—he talks and dreams and comes up with ideas, and then he makes them real. When he has an idea, it takes solid form. In the past year, he has created his own bike (Trail Donkey), his own racing team (Rodeo Labs), his own kit, his own energy bar (Trail Nuggets—try ’em!), and his own decals for everything. These aren’t enormous things, but they’re not little either. Not like me, not like me at all. I like Stephen. He’s good at life.
At this point, the climb was too big to think much about. Riding at an enjoyable pace, it took us almost an hour for the first part, an hour for the second part, a quick descent, then the final 14-mile push for the heavens. It’s a long way. The best way to deal with Evans is to find a person you really like, pedal and talk. You’ll get there eventually.
Sometimes, I got a little ahead of myself in our conversation—squeezed one too many words into a breath, and then I was left panting. My oxygen awareness was lacking. High altitude is real.
Stephen proceeded to tell me a story.
“I have a friend who does a ride sometimes. It’s called the antelope ride. He rides east from Denver into the desolate plains. He rides until he sees an antelope.”
I looked over in disbelief. “An antelope? How long does that take?”
“Sometimes, it takes days,” he replied.
I immediately imagined a Wild “East” explorer, cowboy-type in Lycra, with his steed leaning against a cottonwood tree at night, fire crackling, light dancing around his campsite, coyotes howling in the distance.
Stephen must have seen my imagination heading for outer space.
“He stays in hotels.”
The image vanished, but the respect remained.
He continued, “He doesn’t always find an antelope though. One time, after a few days, all he found were hoof prints.”
Then, I had a horrible thought—the wind generally comes over the top of the Rockies and blows east, or at least that’s the way it feels to me. I often fantasize about rides that just go east, east, east.
If you rode three days east, then turned around and headed west toward home? Shudder.
Maybe that was our way out—our honorable surrender in this foolish adventure. On Mount Evans, there aren’t any antelopes as far as I’ve ever seen or heard, but there are mountain goats: those ivory-furred, surefooted kings of the lands above timberline. If we saw some, we could turn around. Those creatures are everywhere up there. If we made it to the mountain goats in the middle of December, our day would be a success.
But they were not everywhere in December. They were nowhere to be found, probably far below in the protected, quiet valleys that ring Evans’s wilder sides. Up there, it was just winter-blasted brown grass, cracks in the road, some bits and pieces of snow, the remains of last year’s road construction….
Snow crept in at odd intervals. Sometimes, it nearly covered the road. Other times, it was non-existent. The view to the south was eerie—it’s generally brown in Colorado, but right now, it was winter brown. Dead brown. You’re not supposed to see her skin right now. She is supposed to pull on her jacket for the winter and hide the barrenness of it all. Not this winter. It was all there to see.
We’d ridden for two hours. Almost entirely uphill. We finally started taking pictures.
I was nervous about taking pictures. Stephen is pretty handy with a camera. Scratch that…excellent! It’s absurd, but I wanted to take better pictures than him. I love Stephen to death, but I wanted to win at pictures. It scares me that I can be competitive over something as silly as taking a picture, but it’s comforting too. But this is what we do; this is what we hang our hat on. When I pick up a camera, I want to do something good with it; on a good day, maybe even something special. The same goes for the thing I was sitting on at the moment—when I get on my bike, I want to do something special.
I read about the word “yarak” in a book once. It’s a falconry term that comes from the Persian word, yaraki, meaning “power or strength.” Wiktionary describes it as “a super-alert state, where the bird is hungry, but not weak, and ready to hunt.”
At that moment on the mountain, I was hungry.
I don’t want to wake up the day of a shoot and not be nervous about taking good shots. I don’t want to show up to a race without that tightness in my gut. I don’t want to forget that each day I shoot, I start from zero—it doesn’t matter what I did yesterday or before that. You’re only as good as your next…. It’s a cliché to be sure, but there’s a reason it has been used to the point of absurdity. It puts a basic truth into a nice tidy format, ready for spouting a billion times over.
More than anything, I’m scared of losing the hunger. I don’t want to be satisfied with the first spot I find or the first image I take. I don’t ever want that to go away. If it does, I hope I have the maturity to recognize it, and the balls to realize that the gig is up—and step away.
For me, yarak has taken on exceptional importance. It’s my mantra. I think about it all the time.
Don’t let me overdramatize it though—it’s an important idea to me, but I was not out there on Evans banging my head against walls in frustration or cursing the heavens at a missed shot, or throwing rocks at Stephen when he schooled me. At one point, Stephen hopped off his bike to take a shot from below the road. I look at it, see what he has in mind, and think, nice spot—a mental note for the future.
Outwardly, the attitude manifested itself with a smile, and: “That’s going to be a sweet shot.”
He joked about having me relay his everlasting love to his wife if he should plummet to his death as he hopped down to the near-vertical boulder field.
I laughed, but remembered the story of the guy that ran off the road in this turn and did in fact fall to his death. I didn’t want to know how far he fell.
Did he make it all the way down to the frozen lake a thousand feet below?
There was nothing up here now. There were no animals, no birds, no sounds, no wind. The absence of wind was disconcerting. The wind lives up here, calls it home.
We arrived at Summit Lake. The road was terrible—huge(r) cracks.
The summit was still above us—two switchbacks were close at hand, followed by half a dozen or so on the unseen face. I could swear that that section is 10 percent or more—but it’s only 5 percent. There was blood in the water at this point; we’d come this far, and I didn’t want to turn around without the upper parking lot beneath our wheels.
We stopped at the lake, ate, took some more pictures while standing on the ice, and gave ourselves huge pats on the back.
Name anyone who rode their bike higher than we did that day.
They say that if you’re not really great at anything, you can just build your own mountains and be king of your own hill. We were gleefully mediocre with crowns atop our heads.
This ride was rapidly turning into one of my all-time favorites. Every piece of the puzzle had lined up perfectly, with one glaring, happily missing hole—suffering, pain, that stuff.
Is there really glory through suffering? Fuck that. Glory through riding? Glory through living and doing something a little crazy? Glory through grabbing hold of the second hand…the minute…and the hour? Hold on tight.
On special days like this one, we slowed time down. We battered it with fun and happy until a four-hour ride felt like 12. We achieved our minuscule bit of glory by making a day longer than 24 hours, by making a memory that won’t fade.
I got caught up in this feeling, and the top of the mountain felt close at hand.
The sun was dipping low against the ridge. The light was changing. The shadows turned blue. It was past 3 o’clock.
I tossed the old lady of discretion out the window: “Let’s go for it!”
Stephen looked up, pursed his lips in thought, thought about it, but I knew what the answer was. This was what I was looking for hours earlier and many thousand feet below. Where was his answer then?
“It would be great, I won’t argue that, but don’t forget, we still have over 30 miles to get back home—not all of it
That number 30 snapped me back to reality—that is a long way back. We made a U-turn and headed toward home.
The descent began after a little climb. The cold chased us as the sun disappeared entirely. The warmth that followed us all the way up was suddenly gone entirely. It was really cold. Face-stinging, toe-numbing, finger-freezing cold.
The warmth was not our friend. It lured us up higher than we should have gone, and then promised still more. It got me.
I’ve listened to people a few times in my life, but Stephen’s call to turn around at Summit Lake ranks in the top 10 as the best calls in my life. I had a momentary lapse in judgment, and considering where we were, that’s the kind of lapse in judgment that leads to an appearance on the Denver evening news.
We couldn’t talk too much on the descent. My face wasn’t working very well. You know those pictures of yourself that were taken when you were completely frozen? How did that smile look? It just didn’t work. My words got floppy and uncoordinated, and I drifted into silence.
I thought about the ride on a grander scale—while still riding my bike. I thought about what Stephen said about his team, Rodeo Labs, and the quest for fun.
“Rodeo is fundamentally not pro in the traditional sense of the word. We don’t field the fastest race team; our feats will never come close to being mentioned amongst the top ranks of the sport. That’s fine with me. We are pro at a couple of less-traditional things though. One of those things is having fun. We hold our ‘wooting’ skills in high regard. Bonus fact: Nobody wins or loses at having fun. There is no leaderboard; there is no way to accurately measure it. There is no KOM of fun. You just go out and do it, and you know you’ve done it right if you come back from a ride and you feel like maybe you are levitating and you can’t stop talking to people about what just happened. When you’ve had fun, you feel compelled to share it, and therein lies some of its value: Sharing our best experiences with each other is one of the simple joys of being human.”
It resonated with me, and I realized, this story deserved telling.