On Tuesday George Barnes, Joel Rutkowski and I did what we believe to be the first descent of Gray’s Peak by unicycle. Gray’s Peak, near Idaho Springs, CO, is 14,270 feet high, and is easily the highest mountain I’ve ever been up, with or without a unicycle.
We started the day with a breakfast of champions, served by master propane burner chef Joel. Joel filtered super-strong Russian Roulette coffee directly into our waiting mugs. I couldn’t believe how powerful the brew was and had to have sugar in mine. George and Joel drank theirs black. We packed some lunch, struck tents and made for the trailhead. We were on the trail by 9am.
The lower section of the trail was a wide but rocky track, heading up a U-shaped valley towards the linked Torrey's and Gray's Peaks. Pretty soon we were past the treeline and into alpine meadows. Joel and Zoe the dog streaked ahead, while me George and Abby took a more moderate pace. There were some rideable sections, but mostly we were pushing our unis.
Soon the gradient increased noticably and the plants got more sparse. Abby sensibly turned back at this point. Walking up the lower slopes I saw a pika, a small rabbity ratty creature, far cuter than the groundhogs I've mentioned in my previous posts. Apparently the Pokemon character Pikachu (sp?) is based on the pika, and I see why - they're extra cute and talk to each other in chirping calls.
On a ridge top next to the track there was a mountain goat checking out the curious human passersby and eating alpine grasses or whatever mountain goats normally do. The goat was quite unconcerned by George and my approach, and got within 3 metres of me. Joel had already streaked past this point but later would swear black and blue that there was no mountain goat on the track, only a large white dog which Zoe wanted to play with!
There were a few patches of snow which covered the trail, but nothing serious. The trail got steeper and switchbacked across rocky boulder fields. At about 13,000 feet I started to feel a little short of breath and light-headed. Even after resting, my heart rate went way high as soon as I started moving again. I prayed to the mountain gods that I wouldn’t get altitude sickness. The last 300 feet to the summit were really taxing. George and I could measure our progress by looking across to Torrey’s Peak which is connected to Gray’s by a saddle and only 3 feet shorter at 14,267 feet. It was hard to keep moving upwards, but ominous black clouds were building quickly near the summit. I knew we had to push on to make the summit before the infamous Colorado afternoon thunder and lightening storms struck. Even knowing this it was tough to find the strength to push on.
Finally we made it to the summit. It was about 12:30pm. Joel, who’d been there for some time already, announced that we’d spend only 10 minutes at the summit before heading down due to the incoming weather. In those precious minutes, I managed to wolf down an energy bar, eat half a cheese and salami bagel and take some photos. The whole time I felt slightly drunk due to the altitude and was fumbling to suit up in arm, ankle and leg armour. Joel held his unicycle in the air above his head, for a photo. As he was in this pose a lightning bolt struck down behind him, only a few kilometres away. (Would have made a great photo, if we had had Joel and the lightning together in the same shot!) We took this as a serious cue to start our descent!
We rode down short sections and paused to take photos, George and I swapping cameras once. The descent was quite exciting because if you fell off you could fall onto nasty jagged rocks and potentialy roll a long way down. I noted to myself once again that things often seem steeper and less rideable on the way up than on the way down. There were some very rocky and snow covered sections which were unrideable, but I’d estimate I rode about 85% of the trail from summit to the upper slopes of the valley.
The remainder of the trail back to the trailhead was fantastic technical rocky alpine riding. Luckily the effects of the altitude were now gone. The last few kilometres were really cool - rock dropoffs followed by more dropoffs and boulder strewn chutes. Really good riding. We rode out, tired but happy at 2pm.
A few vaguely interesting statistics about the ascent and descent:
Food I ate: one fig bar, one aforementioned cheese and salami bagel, one powerbar, a few handfuls of dried cherries and raisins, 2L of water.
Injuries sustained: stubbed toe (me), small cut to thumb (George), banged elbow in a flying somersault dismount (Joel), wet fur from lying on snow (Zoe).
I will post some photos soon on my gallery. This may have to wait til I return to NZ in a few days.