Thursday, October 30, 2008

Breathe, Pray, Eat: The Continental Divide

by Nickie

I've been long wanting to post about my favorite and most challenging day on our trip. It's interesting that the two coincide. I suppose that is the way it goes.

We stayed at Aspen Glen campground in RMNP the night before our continental divide attempt and woke early (5 ish) to the beep of our cell phone alarms. Fortunately, the baby between us and the toddler next to us did not rise. This was the first challenge of the day, getting the camp (and tent and bags) packed up while keeping two little ones asleep. We dressed silently in the dark and packed everything onto the bikes except the kids in the tent with their bags.  We then made a mad *but quiet* dash to load the kids and pack the tent before they woke too much so we could get them back to sleep on the bike! Success!!! We rolled out of the sleeping campground around 6 am with two kids asleep! This was really important, because we needed to get as much of a start on the day uninterrupted as we could.

There's something quite magical about RMNP early in the morning, in the dark, watching ribbons of pink and orange rip across the sky as if they are physically pulling back the curtain of night. The quiet. The coolness of the morning. The rhythmic crunching of gravel under your tire. The atmosphere that is not quite night and not quite day... there is a certain energy in it. One that you can't really hold onto... a fragrance, a kiss, fleeting and precious. We rode up out of the campground, and on the main road began to approach a large valley on our left with more than a few elk in it. Just as we began to circle around the valley, the sun rose! The view of the valley was amazing, circled in rocky peaks with pink light flooding the park. On the other side was the edge of the valley, flanked with an aspen forest and above, rugged peaks of dizzying heights. On one of the peaks, you could see where an old dam had broken leaving piles of rubble across the face of the mountain. I truly got a sense of the power of this place and my own lack of might.

We began the climb toward Trail Ridge Road and slowly clicked into the rhythm we would keep for the next 16 miles. We had trained for this all summer, and were well aware of what it would take to have a chance at success. We had to maintain a consistent even spin to the top. We had alloted 2.5 hrs to stop for the kids and 4.5 hrs of riding time to the top. Even as I'm writing this, I cannot believe we did it. I also cannot believe how beautiful it was.  Cascading waterfalls.  The kind that sing. And no one in the cars even saw them, all surrounded by aspens and flowers. Deer, elk, forests of pine and aspen. Rocks of every color, covered in thick orange, green and red lichen. That is the stuff of the lower altitudes on the east side of the divide. We stopped by one such waterfall to feed the kids breakfast. Samuel had fun climbing the rocks and seemed to sense he was really taking part in the adventure. Anders was definitely happy and having fun.

We continued our steady climb watching the valley fall farther and farther down, and the peaks that were once so high steadily drop downward. The rock that was above us in our campground sank beneath us as we began to climb higher and we reached the fork to go back down into the park or up to Trail Ridge. Turning right toward Trail ridge, we caught a beautiful view of Longs Peak before riding into the pines and leaving behind the passing cars which had gotten steadily more frequent as the day went on. The day before, we'd watched the sparkling glass from the windshields of cars hitting the sun as they went around a high rock outcropping. From the map, we knew that that particular spot marked the beginning of the alpine climbing. As we climbed higher and higher, I watched that spot draw closer, nervous about the level of exposure on the outcropping. And knowing that we needed to hit that spot by about 11 so we could get down safely. We carefully watched the time with the kids. Stopping when they needed breaks, food and a diaper or potty break and going steadily while they napped. One of the challenges we found was getting water and food while they were sleeping. If we stopped, they'd wake and we might have to stop and then get caught in a storm at the top. So when our water bottles emptied, Anthony circled the bike on a scenic overlook while I feverishly refilled the water bottles from the larger canteens in my panniers. I kept the food in my basket and handed him handfuls as we road. As we approached 10,000 ft, we began traversing the side of a ridge that went between two peaks. The wind cropped up and we went in and out of the shade with huge changes in temperature. We stopped to put jackets on the boys, our wool sweaters on and put the wind/rain cover over the bike seats. This proved to be a better move than we could have ever imagined. The rugged outcropping drew closer and closer and the wild flowers got smaller and more fragile. Tiny streams penciled their way down the mountainside, and I knew we were getting up into the tundra. We soon reached the outcropping and saw that there was plenty of room! In fact there was a parking lot and a bathroom! No danger of being pushed off the mountainside. In fact, the drivers in cars had been so incredibly considerate. The slowed *way* down and gave us a whole lane the entire way! Very considerate folks. We stopped only long enough for Samuel to use the bathroom. Clouds had begun to gather. It was only 11. The rangers had said storms that week hadn't been coming in until 1:30! The sky wasn't yet dark and stormy, but we were watching the clouds very closely, ready to be forced to cut bait and make a break for safety below. The winds began to pick up as we began the long trek across the alpine tundra. Altitude was about 12,000 ft now, topping out around 12, 200. 

We began riding across the side of the mountain with steep rock slides off to the right until the mountain began to drop away to the left and I could see up ahead there was a section of road about 50 feet long where we were exposed to the wind. I had to dismount and walk because of ferocity of the wind. Anthony seemed to have no trouble with the Llama and the kids. There went any concerns about the rain tent in the wind! It didn't seem to affect the bike at all, and the kids were toasty warm. I must diverge for a moment to tell you about what we refer to tongue in cheek as "snot suckage factor". This is when the wind is almost rushing perfectly horizontally and incredibly fast. Rushing so fast, in fact, that it tries to go in one nostril and out the other literally sucking the breath out of you and anything else which might happen to be in your nose! Usually when the wind is going that fast I have to get down low or be blown over. With the exposure to the left and right, I did not want to risk being blown off the mountain! Anthony seemed to have no problem with it whatsoever! Amazing! My hero. :) After passing the scary ridge the terrain while still steep was not so exposed to the left and right and I began to enjoy our ride again. We passed a herd of elk a the characteristic boulders dotting the landscape like marbles a giant forgot to collect after his game. Truly, I feel so small up there. The views to the left here were magnificent. I am certain Samuel thought so too. However, he began to get antsy and ask to get down. With the alpine center still two miles away and the clouds still gathering over the mountain, we had to explain to him that we needed his help to ride over the mountain. I think he caught the urgency in our voices and he waited patiently the rest of the way! What an amazing boy!

About this time we both began hurting. The altitude was high, we'd been going for about 5.5-6 hrs (with kid stops). The grade was really steep and it was hard to breathe. But we were both getting low on blood sugar. The clouds were continuing to mount. The landscape all around us had so few features. It felt as if I was pedaling in place. About this time, Anthony prayed for help and the Lord reminded him to eat every time the grade let up enough. We were breathing too hard to eat on the steep sections. We switched from trail mix to salty whole grain crackers. The salty food was more palatable. This helped a bit. Then as we were pedaling up a steep section, courage waning, a man drove by with his window down and yelled, "Bless you! You can do it!" I think that was a turning point. His kindly face and words lifted our spirits and we found the strength to breathe, pray and eat.

We pulled into the visitor's center around noon. As we parked the bikes, the first snow flakes began to fall. We had a hot meal, let Samuel down to play, nursed Anders. Samuel thought it was great fun looking out the big windows at the snow falling and the great drifts of snow curling like a great 30 foot wave on the side of the mountain. Truly, a stunning, wild place on the earth! We stayed for about an hour and a half and watched the sky. We saw a gap in the clouds and raced off the peak and out of the storm, down into a lush green valley on the west side! We made it!

The west side is truly a reward for our efforts with lush hanging valleys and little lakes surrounded by peaks. The grass and flowers were so deep that an big bull elk looked as if he was laying down when he was actually walking!

It turned out that storm was a front coming in that would last for 3-4 days. If we hadn't gotten up over the divide then, we would not have gotten over at all this trip. Also turned out (as we heard from other travelers who passed that way) that we shot the gap between a snow storm and a hail storm and never caught a drop! The rain cover proved priceless in that in all that temperature variation, we never had to change the kids clothes while we had to stop to change ours 5-6 times! Couldn't have done this without it.

I suppose this was one of my favorite days because of the intense beauty and the challenge. I felt as if I was swept up in an adventure that asked all of me that I had to give and still more. And the "more" comes from those around me that love me and fight for me. And I have a chance to fight for them too.