We load the bikes on the Durango and leave the sad-faced dog, promising to take her for a hike the next day. We are headed to Silver Plume to ride up through the glowing yellow aspens of autumn. Our goal, other than to see amazing fall foliage, is to reach 13,200 foot Argentine Pass, the highest pass on the Continental Divide in North America.
Way back in the summer of 2005, we first attempted to reach Argentine Pass on our bikes, but were denied by afternoon hail and thunderstorms; we turned around less than half a mile from the pass, disappointed but confident we were making the prudent choice. We knew we would be back.
This time around, it is October and we are not especially worried about the weather building up. Nevertheless, we arrive at the trail head early just in case. Besides, the early morning lighting is magical and certain to light up the aspens, which should be about at their peak. Starting at 9,200 feet, we ride up an old railroad grade used during Silver Plume's mining heyday. The road, reverted to single track in some wooded sections, climbs steadily and gradually for about 10 miles.
Other than the consistent ascent and the thin air, the riding is not challenging. This is good, since Jesper and I are both gawking at the brilliantly lit up trees, framed by a stunningly blue sky.
We stop a ridiculous number of times for Jesper to snap pictures. He has brought one of his big cameras and tries out all kinds of photographic techniques. The trees and I are willing subjects.
We stop at a historic building site, the old dance hall used by the miners to let off some steam. There, underneath the still standing chimney, we set up the timer on the camera and snap a few pics of us dancing.
It takes about two hours of riding for us to see any other people; a family on ATVs (it is a 'road' after all). On the way up, we will eventually see a few motos, a couple other bikers, several 4-wheel drive cars (most of which do not go to the top) and two hikers. Still, considering the brilliance of the aspens in this area, we are surprised not to see more people.
At about the same time, we notice a buildup of clouds. WTF?!?!? According to the forecast, there is only a 20% chance of rain, but is is rapidly looking like the forecast was optimistic. Although we have brought extra layers, jackets, leg warmers and skull caps, we are not expecting cloud cover, let alone rain. However, as they often do, the mountains have other plans for the weather. It begins to rain; just a drizzle that doesn't dampen us too much. Clouds obscure the sun and we arrive at the old Waldorf Mine site, surrounded by the stark beauty of the alpine tundra.
We are at about 11,600 feet and have over 1,500 feet to climb in less than 2 miles to reach the pass. As we set off up the incredibly steep and loose trail to the top, it begins to snow a fine dry graupel. However, other than it being cloudy and snowing, the weather seems fine; it's October and we are not overly concerned about storms.
This last push up to the top is mostly hike-a-bike; super steep and loose rock, all between 11,600 and 13,200 feet. There is not much air. Jesper and I both 'try' to ride as much as we can; however, we manage only to travel short distances on wheels. So, we push our bikes most of the way, sweating in the increasing cold and wind. I am pleased that the last 50 feet or so to the top is rideable; it seems more gratifying to reach the top of the pass on the bike rather than pushing the bike.
Riding the last little bit to the top under ominous skies (courtesy Jesper Kristensen)
I arrive at the top shortly after Jesper. The views are amazing! An immense valley falls beneath our feet on the other side of the pass. Grays and Torreys stand tall to the northwest. I can see sheets of snow coming at us from the north and west. We both begin to get very cold and start putting on more clothes. Then something weird happens; Jesper's helmet starts buzzing (WTF?); I pick my bike up for a summit photo op, Grays and Torreys in the background, and my bike is sizzling.
BOOOM! We hear the thunder. Holy shit! We are at 13,200 feet, the highest point around and completely exposed in an emerging LIGHTENING STORM! We high-tail it off the pass as fast as we can safely ride on the loose steep rocks, ignoring our frozen hands that can barely hold onto the bars.
Back down at the Waldorf Mine site, I am super duper cold, despite the fact that I'm wearing everything I have: short sleeved jersey, arm warmers, long sleeved jersey, jacket, skull cap, shorts, knee warmers and full fingered gloves. I wish my socks were taller so the 2 inches of skin between my knee warmers and the top of my socks was covered. But I am essentially completely covered from head to toe in one or more layers.
At this point, it looks a little bit like the weather is clearing. We have a secondary goal for this ride to go up another road that would take us to more impressive views of Grays and Torreys Peaks. We decide to give it a go; however, we don't make it very far before I hear thunder again. We decide not to push our luck and turn around for the bomber descent.
Usually, we don't stop often on the downhills to take pictures; we don't want to slow down and spoil the fun. But this time, we are interested in taking more photos of the amazing aspens. I'm still wearing all my clothes and must look odd to the hikers and cyclists coming up wearing shorts! We make it to the car just as another storm comes in.
Coming back down the way we came, it's still beautiful, just not as warm (courtesy Jesper Kristensen)
We end up riding almost 25 miles and climbing over 4,000 feet.
Once again, the mountains have shown us their might; being caught up high in an electrical storm is serious. We are super happy to have made it to the top of the pass, six years after being denied, and especially happy to have made it safely, albeit just barely. Had we not started so early, we would have been compelled to turn around before the top a second time!
Later that night after dinner and a beer, we soak in the hot tub and crawl into bed. It's 9:05 on a Saturday night. Yes - we are party animals!
Post Script: We did take the dog for a hike the next day.