Twin Lakes to Aspen: The best morning of my life
Wednesday June 16, 2010, 38 miles (61 km) – Total so far: 1,697 miles (2,731 km)
I’m a bit nervous about the ride today. Independence Pass is 12,095 feet and I am untested on alpine climbs. The three little passes I’ve already done are just a warm-up. And I am doing this pass from the ‘easy’ side. But I’m still worried it’s going to take me a long time to get to the top. We get up in the pre-dawn light and Mom drives me back to the town parking area. She is to meet me at 10:30am on top. I figure if I average 5 mph, and allow for some rests, the 17 miles might take me 4 hours. Then it’s off I go at 5:45am.
The first twelve miles follow a creek up the valley. There are quite a few campgrounds along the way and a couple of trailheads. The pavement is good and you can see several avalanche chutes coming down from the mountains and the associated ‘no stopping’ avalanche zone signs on the road. I stop just before getting to the roadworks to use my inhaler – to open up my lungs before I start to really climb.
Just as the road takes a right with a curve in the valley, I come to the roadworks section. But they aren’t working on it yet. There’s maybe a ½ mile of road that has sections freshly paved or ready for paving today. The guys in the three CDOT trucks that are up there and about ready to begin the day wave as I go by (they all passed me a bit ago). As soon as I’m through this section, I hit the first switchback and the first real climb up a grade. The pavement is good but you can see all the scratches and dents from rockfalls. There’s water running onto the road from the melting snow, but the climbing is not so bad. I climb steadily.
The road curves up into a basin after this first grade and I’m loving every second of this. The views, the road nearly to myself (minus the CDOT trucks, I’m only passed by 3 vehicles in the climbing portion of the ride today), the physical exertion, the perfect weather, the absolute lack of wind, the fact that I can be here rather than anyplace else at this exact moment – yeah, I’m having an awesome time.
At the next switchback in the basin I take the inhaler again since I’m getting a little wheezy. I cough up some of the phlegm and this helps, because otherwise it has a tendency to get caught right in the back of your throat when you’re trying to take a deep breath.
From here you climb out of the basin and upwards toward treeline. There’s no guardrail here and I notice I’m riding a little closer to the centre line than I normally would :). As the road curves left you are just about above the trees.
There’s then a curve to the right that takes you to the next switchback. At this point, you can look back and see the road way down below. It’s only another couple of turns above treeline after this switchback and you’re at the top.
Oh yes!! 7:28am. There is still quite a bit of snow left up here and the views are fabulous in every direction. I get to the top and there are only two people up there – a woman cross-country skiing and a cyclist. The cyclist is from New York and comes out every year to ride some passes. Today he’s riding from Aspen to Leadville and back. Insane!! He did it a few years ago and had so much fun he’s doing it again. He’s impressed I rode up in under 2.5 hours on a heavy touring bike. I tell him I’ve done the easy side of the pass and the panniers have no weight. He assures me the east side is still a good challenge and thinks the balloon idea is a good one. He picks up the bike and says, ‘No, that’s still a monster.’ He warns me to be careful going down to Aspen because there are big holes and dips and bad pavement on that side, particularly in the first 1.5 miles. And then he’s off.
I cannot describe how happy I am. I just climbed my first big pass and had no real troubles. I don’t even really feel the elevation all that much. I feel like I could have even done this fully loaded, albeit much slower and with many more breaks. I have just had the absolute best morning of my life. As I’m walking around, looking for a spot where I can sit and wait for 2.5 hours for Mom, I’m thinking, ‘You know what, I can die tomorrow and it would be okay. Because I’ve done a lot of things in life and now that I’ve fulfilled my long-held IN-CO dream ride and climbed this pass, I can say I truly lived.’ I don’t know if anyone could have done anything to knock me off that high. I find a good spot to wait for Mom, sitting amongst some rocks that form a seat in the sun, out of the now-building wind.
Mom really senses my excitement when she arrives and we get some more photos on top. We agree to meet at the Aspen town limit sign if there’s somewhere to pull off or at the visitor centre in town. Then I’m off. It is about 10:45 am by now and there is heaps of traffic starting to come up the other side from Aspen. I start to head down, and the top couple of miles are quite steep and I’ve got to ride the brakes quite a bit. The road really is rough (the east side had good pavement the whole way) with gouges and holes from road machinery, rockfalls, etc. There’s quite a few bicyclists riding up (I stopped counting at 15), too. The scenery is beautiful but I can’t enjoy it. I’m just trying to keep my speed under control, watch the road and traffic, and stay out of all the big gouges. I still hit a few holes pretty hard and knock the rim a bit out of true.
There are a few sections of the road that are narrow enough that two cars would have trouble passing each other. I’m still flying along, but this isn’t all that fun. Towards the bottom, I see two fully-loaded touring cyclists. I wave but I’m not stopping at this speed (and I don’t think they’d expect me to!). Much respect to them for climbing the difficult side with a full load, but I can’t understand why they’ve started so late in all this traffic and the increasing wind. About a ½ to ¾ mile later I see another fully-loaded cyclist who is most likely riding with the other two, but this lady is really struggling already. Wow – she’s got a long way to go and isn’t looking good even now.
I catch some road cyclists a few miles outside of Aspen and draft them into town. My hands ache and my ring and pinkie fingers are numb from riding the brakes and hanging on so tightly on the way down. In town, I follow the signs toward the info centre. Then, I see mom walking up a road. She looks worried. I pull up to her and she says, ‘I found some parking in a parking garage, but I can’t find the visitor centre. I was worried we wouldn’t find each other.’ I assure her it’s okay since we’ve found each other now and we set off to find the info center. It turns out she was very close, just didn’t see the sign amongst all the others.
It is absolutely nuts in town – such a HUGE contrast from Twin Lakes on the other side. We both agree we should have a picnic and then get outta here. We were going to look for the John Denver Memorial, but we’ll reassess after lunch. We also decide that I’ll just forget about the ride down to Carbondale on the bike path and just spend the time hiking with Mom this afternoon instead. What I really wanted to do was climb the pass, so I don’t mind giving the bike path a miss to spend more time with my mom.
We gather the picnic supplies from the car and pack my bike away and then head in the direction of a park area we saw along a creek. There’s people in every shady spot, but by total accident we find the John Denver Memorial (big boulders along the river with the lyrics to his most famous songs written on them) and there’s a shady spot open just by the rock with his name. Perfect. My mom’s always been a big fan, and some of my favourite childhood memories are of baking cookies with Mom while listening to John Denver LPs.
We then head up to the Maroon Bells (most photographed place in the state) for a hike before heading down to the BRB cabins south of Carbondale to our cabin for the night. We get Mexican for dinner and celebrate the Pass with a margarita. What an awesome day!!
**mileage does not include 40 miles from Aspen to Carbondale by car
Ave speed: 11.6 mph (7.6 up the pass itself) Max speed: 36.3
Elevation start: 9210 ft. Elevation end: 7908 ft. in Aspen
Independence Pass: 12,095 ft. Ave grade 5.4% Max grade: 6.4%