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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The alpine spirit

On our second full day in the Aspen mountains, we drove down a valley away from Aspen early in the morning. The sun hadn't yet crested the eastern wall of the valley so it illuminated only the top half of the western wall of the valley.
We parked at the base of a 4wd road that climbed inexorably toward the sky. I planned to climb at least to Taylor Pass (about 12,000'), and if I had enough time, I hoped to explore terrain beyond it.

We were the first on the trail and the views awed me right from the base.
I had hoped to take K on her 'birthday adventure' on this day but I still felt that she wasn't ready for a long excursion. Her energy levels keep rising but she still needs to gain about 6 lbs (10% of her body weight) to fully regain her pre-pancreatitis form. In a photo that I took today, you can see that she still looks too skinny, even for a physically fit Labrador. Her vertebrae protrude like bumps on her back. I'm keeping her relatively sedate until she regains her lost muscle and fat. So, on that morning in the Aspen mountains, I had canine company for the start of my ride. The canine duo sprinted back to me after ranging too far ahead during our romp up the mountain.
Soon, however, I was on my own. I fell into a steady climbing rhythm, enjoying the silence of the mountains and the smooth effort of pedaling up a relentless mountain. Suddenly, I realized that I'd fallen almost into a trance, enjoying the hard work of pedaling but completely immersed in the alpine world.

I passed through an avalanche zone where a tremendous wall of snow accelerated down the hill and flattened an aspen grove during a recent winter. Some aspens were uprooted or snapped but others bent like pretzels without breaking. The lucky flexible trees dominate the foreground of the photo below.Nearby, the devastating avalanche spared some trees whose yellow leaves framed a sawtooth mountain ridge.
As I continued pedaling toward the sky, the terrain opened up as I approached the thin air zone that stunts trees and then a little bit higher where no trees flourish.
Riding my mountain bike in this alpine world rearranges my brain's circuits, eliminating extraneous thoughts and narrowing my focus to the tundra around me. The starkness and harshness of the mountain world, devoid of wildflowers in the autumn, is part what I love.
Once I reached the barren and treeless zone, a Pika's squeaks caught my attention. Occasionally, I'd catch a glimpse of a small rabbit-like form disappearing under a boulder.These astonishing animals survive the frigid, windy, and snowy winter in the alpine zone by collecting and drying plants during the summer. After the plants desiccate, pikas haul them underground into their dens. They spend the winter wide awake in their snow-insulated dens, burning calories almost as fast as during the summer, and eating their supply of dried plants. Earlier this summer, I found a 'plant-drying' site heavily laden with King's Crown plants, a favorite meal of pikas. An industrious pika had cut down all of these plants and dragged them to this sheltered but sunny spot. Within the same boulder field, I found a few other drying sites.
On my ride near Aspen, in contrast to the pikas, marmots had already begun hibernation. No marmot warning whistles met me as I passed through talus fields. The only music was the squeaks of the pikas.

In the alpine zone, the road pitched toward the sky like a rock-strewn wall, and I pedaled laboriously, barely staying upright at times. I inched upward, shifting my weight almost behind my saddle to keep traction with my rear tire. Finally, when I emerged at the Pass, I gazed at the new view to the east.I lingered at the pass only briefly. A fierce and chilly wind ripped through my thin jacket, and my fingers immediately began to freeze. I have Raynaud's syndrome so even my fleece mittens with chemical handwarmers didn't keep my fingertips warm. To fight off the chill, I climbed some more, up the nearest mountain and looked down at the pass. The 4wd road that I'd just ridden is in the middle of the photo just before the first chasm leading down to the right (toward my van).
In the other direction, scattered trees survived on a nearby slope that was tinted red with wildflower leaves. Snowy mountains towered in the background.
Finally, my time was up, and I started rolling down the mountain that I'd just climbed. This view shows the gash, cut over millennia by a creek, that my dirt road followed.Although the high sun now touched every iota of the valley, my frozen hands began to dominate my thinking. The lack of work in downhill riding combined with the pressure of braking turned my fingertips sickly white. I had to stop every few minutes to try to shake some blood into my fingers. When I rode, I could barely feel my fingers, making it difficult to modulate my braking.

After a long descent, I approached the valley floor through towering yellow aspen groves. My fingers were starting to warm up. I quickly forgot about them as I reveled in the glorious autumn day. No doubt, the alpine journey had reset my brain's circuits, leaving them in a happy state!


  1. WOW! I'm Speechless! Both at the beauty and your energy! :)

  2. Those are some of the most beautiful pictures I've ever seen! It shouldn't come as a surprise that I found them on your blog.

  3. Kia KB,
    Another beautiful ride in the autumn wonderlands. Lovely!

  4. You've outdone yourself with todays photos - if it's not a new camera maybe it was the clear cold air. Glad the pancreatitis is getting back under control.

  5. breathtaking.........
    like that you are taking it slow with K, building up her energy....
    i am just amazed at your riding....when i did mini tri's biking was my strength, but there is no way i could bike in the mountains..."hills" in wisc were my amaze me....


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