Saturday, August 6, 2016

Trying to Survive the High Altitude in Colorado

Canon City, Colorado to Rawlins, Wyoming (3,683-4,065 miles)

I leave Canon City, have a 57 mile day planned that will take me up and over 9,400 feet, then down to the town of Hartsel, where I plan to spend the night across from a biker-friendly cafe. The day is much cooler than anything I've experienced lately and I relax and enjoy the climb. Unfortunately, the climb is 37 miles long, and the elevation chips away at my reserves the higher I go. I suck hard for air, grabbing it and hauling it in, regulate my breathing with powerful inhales and exhales. When I reach 8,400 feet, still 10 miles from Currant Creek Pass, I'm so exhausted I stop and reevaluate the mileage I planned for the day. Yes, I could go on, I could tough it out, but where will that leave me tomorrow? Will I be so tired, I'll be forced to take a day off?

Guffey welcoming committee 
I turn my handlebars to the right and take a road that leads one mile up to Guffey, a small town nestled in the mountains at 8,500 feet. Bill Soux, a retired IBEW electrician, hands me a PBR and rents me a cabin for the night. Richard Collins, a CPA who is in the Hollywood business, occupies the cabin next to mine, and we spend the evening talking about cycling. He's a long-time tourer, a fun guy, and the time passes quickly.

As night falls, I get up from the patio furniture to go to bed and can't help but notice how sapped my body feels. I'm empty, the elevation has taken its toll, and I have strong doubts that I'll recover before morning.
My buddy Richard Collins from LA

Amazingly, I wake refreshed, and after spending time at a cafe drinking coffee with Richard, I pedal toward the pass, reaching it without much problem. I cycle down the other side to Fairplay, where I crawl into my sleeping bag and spend the night alongside the Middle Fork South Platte river. I wake up some time after midnight—short of breath, nauseated, light-headed, weak, and with a wet cough—all symptoms of high altitude sickness. Eventually I fall back asleep, tossing and turning, waking again and again to the same symptoms. In the morning I have the same empty feeling I had before Currant Creek Pass, and I begin to wonder if I'll have to bail off the route to
lower elevations. I've hiked through these mountains, a 1998 Continental Divide Trail thru-hike from Mexico to Canada, never once having these issues, but I'm 18 years older and not as strong as I was back in those days. Still, I've taken steps to acclimate this trip, spending two nights at 5,000 feet, then a night at 8,500 feet, then going over 9,400 feet and dropping back down to 8,700, and I should not be experiencing high altitude sickness. I study my map, stare at the elevation of Hoosier Pass, which is 11,542 feet and the high point of the TransAmerica Trail. I cough into my hand and tuck the map into my handlebar bag. My head hurts, a sixth symptom, and I rub my temples with an
exasperated sigh.

Screw it.

I'm going for it.

Twelve miles of ascent stand between me and the pass, and within less than a mile I have to stop and rest. The sky is blue, the air cool, and I'm surrounded by tall spruce that grow on the mountain sides. All in all—if not for the elevation troubles—it's a perfect day to cycle. I grip the handlebars and sit in the saddle, force my body to pedal my bike up the mountainside. Route 9 narrows and impatient drivers zoom
around me at high speeds, sometimes squeezing between me and approaching vehicles. I move out into the lane and force the drivers to slow down and wait until it's clear to go around me. Without a doubt most of them think I'm a jerk, but I don't care. I'd rather irritate a driver than wind up in a coffin at the bottom of a Colorado grave.

It takes forever to crest the 11,542 feet, and my cough worsens. My head pounds. I'm woozy. The pass appears—thank goodness—and I coast down the other side wondering if I should stop at a clinic and see if I can get a shot of something to help me out. Money is an issue, though, and I bypass the clinic and spend the night on a hill that overlooks Dillion Reservoir. Mountains rise toward the sky on all sides, and the water stills to the point I'm looking into a gigantic blue mirror. I cook Lipton Noodles and instant potatoes, listen to the radio until my eyes grow tired and it's time to fall asleep.

In the morning, I feel fine, almost fully
recovered. Dropping in elevation, I cycle through the pleasant temps, move off the road as emergency vehicles rush past. I come up on the wreck 30 minutes later, talk to a driver who stands next to a pickup. The front of his truck hit a rock in mid-air, a chunk of shale that had fallen off the mountainside.

"It exploded," he says, "took out my truck and a car in the other lane."

A wrecked car sits on the side of the road, silent testimony to the carnage, and its four occupants huddle together arm-in-arm. Two vehicles are totaled, but no one is hurt, and there is a sense of relief in the air.

I leave the wreck behind, picking up my daily average as I recover from the elevation. Northern Colorado is burning, wildfires on the mountains to my left, and a couple of days later I leave the state behind and enter Wyoming. Since the drop in elevation, I've woken up nauseated each morning, also sporting a slight headache, but I feel better as soon as I get up and start moving around. The route stays above 5,000 feet in the next map section, 350 miles that will take me past the northern border of Yellowstone, and I hope to take some great photos of the wildlife and scenery. I also hope the nagging morning issues disappear. It's no fun waking up with hangover-like symptoms.

Here are a few more pics of my Colorado journey.

View from inside my tent
Bike path between Breckenridge and Silverthorne
Insects have taken their toll on Colorado trees


  1. Love reading about your adventures. I'm glad you're feeling better and you're safe. Thank you for sharing it with us. My heart aches to return to Colorado. It's so beautiful. Wyoming is just as gorgeous, though. Take care.

    1. Thanks, Elle. I'm looking forward to the Tetons.


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