“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Thus observed Ed Hillary, and so too did I repeat to myself several times at the bottom of County Road 101, where it meets Highway 50. The little voice within said so with all the conviction of a five year-old trying to convince himself there really is no monster under the bed. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I have a love-hate thing about riding the Rainbow Trail from Bear Creek to Methodist.
The love side of things is easy – just ride the single track. The hate side is pedalling up there. The only thing keeping you going is the promise of what is about to come once you reach the trailhead. To my mind, that part ranks alongside Starvation Creek as the creme de-la creme of local single track – fast, narrow, and not too difficult. The ride to the trail head is another thing altogether. It doesn’t seem to matter how or when you do it – early season or after you’ve a few miles under your belt, from town or starting at the cattle guard, it has you sucking air like someone just kneed you in the ribs. Close to 2000 feet of vertical in six miles, getting steeper, narrower and looser as it goes.
The more realistic, assertive voice inside took over. “This is going to suck, no two ways about it.” I haven’t been riding much this year, and was feeling a little nervous, intimidated even, about the climb. I figured I’d be walking a couple of places. I’ve also found that if I go into the day thinking things are really going to blow, it’s amazing how often they don’t, and events wind up exceeding expectations. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but it is a technique honed from years of guiding fishermen.
Some days I tell myself the whole day is going to be a disaster. The fisherman will doggedly continue to drop his backcast in the face of all evidence to the contrary that not doing so will make the whole process easier and more satisfying. He’ll stare at you blankly when you explain the importance of an aggressive mend, show himself incapable of casting closer than six feet to the bank, miss a dozen fish or more that he didn’t even know he had, tip with all the enthusiasm of a Scotsman down to his last farthing, then go home and tell his buddies how average his guide, and consequently the fishing, was. As it turns out, it is pretty rare to get someone who ticks all those boxes, so at least some part of the day rises above expectation.
Climbs like these go much easier if I can get my breathing in synch with my pedals, and counting the beats, zone out into some kind of Zen-like state. Sometimes a mile or more will pass before I realize that dull fire down below is my quads melting, the strange gasping sound is not an asthmatic squirrel dogging my progress, but my lungs on the verge of imploding. Then I come to the cattle guard, and it starts to get steep. I use the fifteen degree pitches to catch my breath in between the twenties. I tell myself such exercise is good for me. I wonder if Ed Hillary ever rode this trail. Just when I think I’m going to pass out, there stands before me the last obstacle to the trail head – SOB Hill. Summoning my last reserves of character, I tell my legs to keep pumping easy, tell my hands to quit gripping the bars like I’m trying to choke the life out of a python, tell my lungs to keep rattling, and somehow I’m there.
A last deep inhale, and we commenced the climb. This time of the year, as the sun tracks lower in the sky, the morning air is infused with softer hues, the contours of the land are laid bare while up on high, stands of aspen are already ablaze with color. While the early morning sun held the heat of August, the air was cool and crisp in the shade of the trees lining the road. As usual as August turns to September, I wondered how is it that summer passes so quickly? Although part of me is looking forward to the slowing down of mind and body that comes with winter, another part is not ready in any way, shape, or form. All I hope is that when winter comes, it is a big one.
Two thirds of the way up, we pulled to the side to let a rancher coming the other way pass by, driving his cattle down hill from their summer range. He reined his horse across from us and tipped his hat. He looked the quintessential cowboy – steel-grey hair flecked with silver, mustache to match, pale blue eyes and a mouth creased with a smile that hinted at the truth of that moment, that it was a good day to be in the mountains. Lord knows ranching is a tough way to make a living, and days such as this, in the saddle in such a place, must go some way to making up for the 3:00 am calving call-outs in January, praying for moisture, or the latest regulation that always seems to stand between you and common sense.
“You guys see any more cows on your way up?”
We shook our heads. “Just these ones here. Lovely morning”
He sat for a few seconds and took in the view and nodded. “Well, you have a great day.”
We wished him the same and recommenced our quest. I discovered a couple of things on the remainder of the climb. Whatever those cows were eating up there, a little more protein wouldn’t have gone amiss. It was uncanny how often their chosen line on the way down turned out to be the same as mine on the way up, and you don’t realize how much cow shit sticks between the knobs of your tires until you start going down hill again.
I am pleased to report that my doom and gloom tactic worked to a tee. I reached the top feeling like I could have climbed another mile if necessary. I sat on a log and inhaled a Cliff Bar and a bottle of Gatorade, and stared off along the tree lined single track as it disappeared around the next corner. Ten miles or so of that to come. The climb was worthwhile. And the cowboy was right. It was indeed a great day to be in the mountains.