Tag Archives: testing limits

The Highest Point in Colorado

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I hiked Mount Elbert last Friday for a few reasons…

I wanted to reach Colorado’s highest point.

Also, it has been a hot summer in the Denver area, with August’s daytime high temperatures running about 4ºF above average.

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At Denver International Airport, the average high temperature for the month of August (through the 23rd) was over 91ºF (33°C). Getting up in elevation, where temperatures would be far cooler sounded refreshing.

Despite the heat, I could feel summer’s end approaching, with sunset getting earlier and earlier.

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I was starting to feel as if I was allowing my Colorado summer to pass by without that many mountain adventures to show for it.

Finally, as recently as a six months ago, the idea of needing a day away from people would have seemed inconceivable to me. Things changed, and last week I was seriously feeling the desire to spend a day alone (well, with my dog). I guess it is true that even the most extreme introverts need human interaction and even the most extreme extroverts need some time alone.

So, I did the only logical thing. I left Denver at 3:45 A.M. so I could arrive at the Mount Elbert Trailhead at sunrise- in time to get the last parking spot in the lot.

It certainly was cooler. At the start of the day, the temperature had dropped into the mid 30s (≈2ºC).

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The Northeast Ridge is the most popular, and most easily navigable route up Mount Elbert. The first mile of this hike follows both the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide trail.

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This first half of this mile is fairly steep, with switchbacks, followed by a flat section.

One of the greatest things about starting a hike this early is being there the moment the sun first hits the top of the trees.

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I reached the tree line an hour into the hike.

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The Arkansas Valley and the town of Leadville gradually disappeared from behind the trail, as if I was on an airplane taking off.

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Due to the time of day, and sun exposure, it began to feel warmer. The trail also got even more intense.

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One of the reasons people hike 14ers is to get that feeling of being on top of the world! Because the Mount Elbert Trail is pretty steep right near the tree line, that feeling comes sooner on Mount Elbert than it does on other 14ers. I looked back only about 15 minutes after reaching the tree line, and already felt as if I was looking down on all else.

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The other common 14er experience that comes a bit earlier on Mount Elbert (compared to other 14ers) is the “scramble”. This is a really steep and rocky section where there is often not one specific route. On most 14ers, the “scramble” comes right at the top. However, on Mount Elbert it comes a bit earlier.

After a couple more miles of alternating steeper and flatter sections…

An intense “scramble” presents itself.

The top of the scramble, however, is not the summit.

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Exhausted from the scramble, the trail seems to drag on forever (although in reality it is about 30 minutes). It is the kind of hike that forces a lot of hikers to reach, deep inside themselves, and find the energy and stamina they did not think they had.

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I was able to summit right around 10 A.M., a safe time to summit given the thunderstorm threat is primarily in the afternoon.

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Shasta (pictured with me here) was far from the only dog to hike Mount Elbert that day. However, I was surprised to see a mountain bike at the top of the mountain.

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A hiker carried this bike up the mountain on his back, and then rode it down the East Ridge- WOW!

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The man who carried the mountain bike to the top of the mountain was far from the only person I talked to on this hike. I talked to dozens of people, many others with dogs and even one of the trail volunteers who was helping build an erosion preventing wall along the trail just above tree line. It was not nearly as solitary as I had thought.

I really didn’t mind. In fact, I enjoyed talking to all of the people I met on the trail and felt it made it a better experience. Maybe what I really needed was not a break from all people, just the ones I felt were being demanding.

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Downhill was also an adventure. The views are commonly different, as it is much closer to the middle of the day. Some places feel like they took on a somewhat different color.

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It also presented a challenge of its own, as parts of the trail were slippery.

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And, as was the case with the trip up the hill, it also felt like it dragged on longer than anticipated.

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While I had grown tired of all things “demanding”, this hike made me realize that some of the best experiences in life are the demanding ones. The ones that force you to give more than what you were prepared to give. The ones that force you to reach deep inside yourself, both physically and mentally, and find what you did not know you had in you.

There are different kinds of demanding experiences. Some build something in us, such as hikes like these, the basketball coach that wants their players to reach their full potential, or a great boss or mentor that knows going soft on someone with real talent will shortchange them.

Then there are other ones, that do nothing but feed someone else’s ego, or squeeze every last hour of work or bit of energy out of you to line pocketbooks. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, especially when tired. I know there were sections of this hike where I was barely able to hold a thought. Somewhere deep inside, we all understand what is going on. All we need to do is trust our instincts and ask ourselves this simple question…

Am I Being Built or Harvested?

Be thankful for the experiences that build us, no matter how frustrating or exhausting they are. Run as fast as you can from those where we are being harvested.

Testing Our Limits

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A good friend of mine once told me that nearly all people are capable of much more than what they believe they can do.  And that, in fact, when challenged, most would actually be surprised by what they are physically able to do once they have been pushed to their very limit.

When it comes to most activities, people generally tend to stop when tired.  After all, exhaustion is generally an unpleasant experience for most, and has the potential to make an activity no longer enjoyable.  However, from time to time, life issues some kind of challenge that forces us to give everything we have, way beyond what we had been wanting to give.  Most of us have experienced that unexpectedly challenging assignment in college that forced us to “pull an all nighter”, or had to tend to someone they truly care about at a time when completely exhausted.  It is at these moments, when we completely drain ourselves, that we figure out the true boundary of what we are capable of.  And, for physical activities, such as cycling, it is when our bodies actually physically begin to give out on us, that we truly understand what we are capable of doing.

Heading into a new season, I decided it was time to challenge myself.  Monday, I had an entire day available with no prior engagements, so I decided to take on a ride that would potentially test the limits of my endurance at its current state; A bike ride from Denver to Castle Rock, and back, in one day.

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The first 30 miles of this trek is on the Cherry Creek trail, from Denver to the suburb of Parker.  Most of this trail is relatively flat.  A gradual upslope, combined with a few uphill segments, takes a rider from Denver’s 5280′ in elevation to Parker’s 5900′.  This part of the journey was not too terribly challenging.  In fact, in this segment, my biggest challenge was finding water to refill my water bottle.  I had assumed, for some reason, since it was already the end of March, and that there have already been 12 days with high temperatures of 70 or above, that the water fountains around the suburbs would be turned on for the spring.  I was wrong, and was quite thirsty and relieved to see this sign, indicating that although the water fountain was not operational, that the bathroom had available water.  You would be surprised how many suburban park bathrooms do not have running water.

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To get from Parker to Castle Rock, one must follow a road called Crawfoot Valley Road.  The road is quite luxurious for cyclists, with a shoulder wide enough for roughly two bikes.  In fact, it is labelled a bike lane for some parts of this eight mile stretch of road.  The first three miles, headed southwest from Parker, however, is a bit of a climb, and a deceptive one.  The climb is nowhere near as steep as one in the mountains, and one only climbs 500-600 feet.  But, it is one of those frustrating climbs where the road winds around a bit, and, with each turn, a cyclist will wonder whether or not they are approaching the apex only to see another uphill segment gradually appear as they approach.

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Once this road levels off, facing southwest, the ride becomes almost surreal.  To the left of the road, one can see Pike’s Peak, standing there all by its lonesome.  To the right, the mountains of the Front Range, due west of Denver appear.  Riding sort of directly at these mountains, with the vantage point of being up at roughly 6500 feet in elevation, I cannot help but take a deep breath and marvel at how wondrous the world can be sometimes.

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After just over 40 miles of cycling, I arrived at Castle Rock.  When I got to Castle Rock, I decided to add on a mini-hike to my day of activity.  After all, I spent almost three hours getting here, why wouldn’t I head up to this little rock structure- my destination!

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This is a fairly short hike, with stair-step features that indicate that it was designed primarily for tourists, and not hard-core hikers.  So, I did not feel too bad about adding this hike to my already exhausting daily itinerary.

After all, the return trip to Denver would be much easier, after the initial climb out of town on Crawfoot Valley Road, the rest of the trip would be more or less downhill, descending, overall, from an elevation of 6200′ at Castle Rock back to 5280′ at Denver.

That turned out to be wrong.  As I approached Parker, a northerly wind developed, and, although the wind itself was not too terribly strong (10-12 mph range), the gusts began to pick up and become more frequent.  It was here, peddling into the wind, that an already challenging ride became one where I ended up testing the limits of what my body can do.

There are three levels of tired.  First, there is just general tiredness, where we just feel like stopping.  Many people do indeed stop at this point.  However, those who stop at this first level of tiredness generally do not develop any further endurance.  Level two tired is where we begin to ache, or feel some level of pain.  At this point, it is typically recommended that one stop.  This is the level of tiredness I had expected out of Monday’s ride.  However, the gusty winds on the return trip brought my level of tiredness to the third level, the level in which you simply cannot go anymore.

Working to each level of tiredness achieves a different goal.  An activity that stops at level 1 tiredness maximizes our enjoyment of an activity.  An activity that stops at level 2 tiredness is most beneficial to our fitness.  When we push to level 3 tiredness, we achieve personal accomplishments, the kind that make us feel as if we are achieving something with our activities.

The key is, for almost anyone involved in any kind of physical activity, to find a balance between working to each of the three levels, as they feed off of each other.  The original, and ultimate purpose of any activity should be to have fun, but, for most, an activity become even more enjoyable when we improve, take on new challenges, and accomplish new things.  Much like a skier that starts out on the green slopes, moves up to the blues, then blacks, and finally extreme terrain, I am looking to take my bike out longer distances, and to places that were previously unreachable.  However, in order to plan out how to test my own personal limits, I first have to know where those limits are.  So, as much as I can be pissed off that this ride ended up being more difficult than expected due to the wind, the wind allowed me to actually measure my personal limit, so I can start the process of improving.