Category Archives: Adventure

Aces high: an alpine climb of Mount Ypsilon, Rocky Mountain National Park

A photo essay from an alpine rock climb of Blitzen Ridge on Mount Ypsilon, 4,119m, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

September 2014

Mount Ypsilon

Mount Ypsilon, our route was the right skyline ridge

It had been over two years since I’d last climbed. I was out of practise and a good deal more uncomfortable with exposure than I remembered. Two days previously, we’d been repulsed by this route, grossly underestimating its length and deciding to bail relatively low on the ridge before getting stuck. Privately, an uneasy feeling had settled over me in the few days since, and I was not psyched about returning.

My climbing buddy Steven, with whom I’ve shared many great trips, was undaunted. A regular climber still, he was, without a shadow of doubt, the stronger climber of the two of us. He made a convincing case for going back for a second go at Mount Ypsilon, saying we owed it to ourselves to have another crack. I was still uneasy but agreed, knowing I would regret it if we didn’t but also that I would have to overcome my fears if we were to reach the summit.

Steven on lower reaches of Ypsilon

Steven on lower reaches of Ypsilon

Learning from our first attempt, we set off a full two hours earlier, before dawn. We hiked stealthily upwards in the cool morning air, zig-zagging up the steep trail to the base of the mountain, each lost in our own private thoughts. The forest felt more oppressive, as if my anxiety was manifesting itself physically. I did all I could to hang onto Steven’s coattails on the walk in, arriving at the mountain lake not far behind. The lake was nestled in the Mount Ypsilon’s alpine cirque, with the bulk of mountain in full view. From here, a steep gully took us straight up and on to the shoulder of the mountain and the beginning of the ridge to the summit.

Gearing up

Getting ready to climb at the start of the ridge proper

Already we had gained considerable height from the car park. But we were only just beginning and had a long climb ahead. At first, progress was easy, measured, as we walked up the broad ridge, scrambling over and between boulder fields. Gradually the ridge narrowed and became more defined, more intimidating. Ahead lay the climb proper and the four aces the route was known for. Four huge dorsal fins of rock on the lower half of the ridge that constituted the bulk of the technical climbing. As we scrambled to the base of the first ace, the exposure ramped up very suddenly.

The technical climbing began in earnest.

Steven leads up the first pitch

Steven leads up the first pitch

Doubt and anxiety swirled around my head, a constant presence over the hours of climbing along the ridgeline. Gradually, as I became more comfortable with the exposure, I began to enjoy the splendid position we were in. High up on a monstrous alpine ridge, alone and totally committed, surrounded in every direction by beautiful mountain architecture.

The traversing fun begins

The traversing fun begins

Me on top of the first Ace

Me on top of the first Ace (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

Steve led each pitch since I long ago relinquished any claim over the sharp end of the rope. The route led up steep faces and corners, across knife-edge crests with several abseils to drop off the back side of the ridge’s jagged teeth. In all, it was 8 varied pitches of exposed climbing up to 5.6 grade.

Exposed middle pitches of the climb

Exposed middle pitches of the climb (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

View back down the ridge from near the summit

View back down the ridge from near the summit

The final section of the ridge, past the technical climbing, was the most arduous of the day, both physically and mentally. Having been on the go for around 10 hours, we were both dog tired. The route beta had given us the false impression that it was a short, easy stroll to the summit beyond the final pitch of climbing. However, it turned into several hours of scrambling over loose rock, with continual focus required because of the big drops. It was stressful and only became harder as we climbed above the 4,000m line, as the altitude made our breathing ever more laboured. Still, we had no choice. Our only way out was to go up and over the top of the mountain.

Me on the start of the summit ridge

Near the top of the summit ridge (photo credit: Steven Cunnane)

We summited around 6pm, rather later than we planned, but elated to be on flat, safe ground again. (Or at least I was.) Relieved to just sit, to walk around and enjoy the magnificent scenery.

On the summit of Mount Ypsilon

On the summit of Mount Ypsilon

We couldn’t hang around for long though as the daylight was quickly fading and we needed to get as far down the mountain as we could before darkness set in.

The descent was over new ground; in fact, we had decided to take a different descent from the recommended one, based on what we had seen of the terrain. We opted to climb over the satellite peak of Mount Chiquita and down its broad shoulder. Despite being slightly further than the “standard” descent route (a heinous-looking steep gully), it appeared to be much more benign terrain with a gentle gradient, which was important as we knew we’d soon be descending in the dark.

Descending at dusk

Descending at dusk, in spectacular evening light

Our goal was to reach the bottom of the shoulder of Chiquita, where the tree line began, before dark. So we hotfooted along the ridge, hopping over the boulder fields, only pausing to catch our breath and witness the beautiful sunset. We managed it, only needing to get the headtorches out as we plunged into the forest.

Sunset from Mount Chiquita

Sunset on the descent over Mount Chiquita, after summiting Mount Ypsilon

Although I was mightily relieved to be off the mountain proper, and below the technical terrain, the forest presented its own set of challenges. The darkness was complete and our tired minds began to play tricks, imagining that behind every tree was a hungry bear, or rock crevice to tumble into. We stumbled onwards in the dark, knowing that as long as we kept going downhill we must eventually intersect the path we’d trekked in on that morning.

Stumbling around the forest in the darkness

Stumbling around the forest in the darkness

So it was that we slipped and slithered our way downhill, swearing profusely at the rather absurd situation we were in, convinced we were lost and likely benighted in the forest. I managed to get a signal on my phone and pull up Google maps which showed that we were closing in on that path however. Finally, after a harder struggle than we expected, we emerged into a clear corridor between the trees. Hurrah! The path! Salvation! A veritable highway to carry us home. We still had several miles to go, but compared to all that we had encountered thus far, this final section of the day was a breeze. We reached the car, tired, hungry but elated at about 10.30pm. Definitely one of the best mountain days I’ve ever had.

At camp that night

At camp that night

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Bikepacking around the North East of the United States

I’ve finally got round to editing the photos from this year’s tour and want to share them here along with some of the stories from this trip.

Originally, my brother and I had planned a summer of bike touring around the Western US. We began in San Francisco with an ambitious plan to follow a huge horseshoe route around the mountains of the West. This went awry when I crashed heavily on day 9, forcing me to return home, rest and re-assess plans. We changed our strategy, planned a new route and set off from DC, finally riding a 2,300 mile loop around the North East of the US, over 25 days.

1. The trusty steed
A standard Cannondale cyclocross bike with Revelate bikepacking gear was the perfect setup for this tour. Fast enough to cover long distances on the road, light enough to climb any hill with only a compact double, agile enough to lift easily over obstacles we encountered and tough enough to ride off road for several days at the beginning of the tour. By the end, the bikes felt more like friends than mere mechanical objects.

Cannondale setup in bikepacking mode

Cannondale setup in bikepacking mode

2. C & O Canal
The first two and a half days were spent riding along the C & O canal: 185 miles of off-road, traffic free riding from Washington, DC to Cumberland. My back was still hurting like crazy from the crash earlier in the year, so I had to take strong pain killers to help me sleep in the tent at night. The canal towpath was scenic, quiet and full of historic interest. Highly recommended for bike touring.

Cycling past an historic canal aqueduct

Cycling past an historic canal aqueduct

3. Night riding along the C & O canal
We were slower than anticipated along the C & O canal as a result of my bad back and a poor riding surface (in places) so we didn’t make it to our chosen campsites before darkness fell. As we only had head torches, it made for some interesting night-time riding.

Pete cruising along the C&O at night

Pete cruising along the C&O at night

4. Stretching on the GAP trail
From the end of the C & O canal in Cumberland, we picked up the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail to Pittsburgh, a further 150 miles of off-road riding. The GAP trail gives superb riding through miles and miles of forests, with hardly a soul out there.

Stretching on the GAP trail

Stretching on the GAP trail

5. Pittsburgh
The end of the GAP trail and the end of the signed, off-road bike paths. Personally I was relieved to have made it this far, but still felt there was only a 50-50 chance of being able to continue the tour from here because of my back pain. We stopped overnight in a hotel in Pittsburgh, ate in a dingy, cheap restaurant, gorged on fantastic chocolate from The Milk Shake Factory and slept a deep sleep. A real bed did wonders for my back and the bike tour was still on!

Fountain in Pittsburgh

Fountain in Pittsburgh

6. Changing brake pads in Meadville, PA
Pete’s bike did not have a particularly happy tour! It began with a scraping sound from his rear disc brake, which we were able to fix ourselves relatively easily in Meadville, as we waited out a passing storm. Several days later his rear sprocket and free wheel began making all sorts of horrible noises, which continued on and off for the duration of the tour. We had two bike shops take a look along the way and replace various bits, which helped keep us going….for a while.

Replacing brake pads in Meadville, PA

Replacing brake pads in Meadville, PA

7. Sunset on Lake Erie
From Pittsburgh, we cycled through Amish country for two days to Lake Erie, where we raced the setting sun to the PA/NY state line and camped right on the lake shore. This was our longest day so far, 114 miles. We arrived just in time to pitch the tent and take a sunset photo. Lake Erie is so vast it felt like we were camping along the ocean. The campground hosts made us feel very welcome, offering us a prime pitch looking out over the water, bottled water, use of a charging point for our cellphones and not charging us full price when we didn’t have the available change. The generosity of the strangers we met on the bikes was something refreshing and wonderful, something one doesn’t encounter too often in day-to-day life.

Sunset over Lake Erie

Sunset over Lake Erie

8. Niagara Falls
An amazing sight. Spectacular. Superb. Deafening. Monumental. Be warned though, the statistics are not good if you decide to go swimming.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls — Bridal Veil falls

9. A pain in the ass
Literally. Beyond Niagara we picked up the Erie Canal towpath for around 60 miles until just beyond Rochester. For me, this was some of the most difficult riding of the tour as saddle sores were causing me all sorts of discomfort in the afternoons. Aside from this issue, the canal made for lovely, relaxed riding (it was flat and traffic free!).

Sunset over the Erie Canal

Sunset over the Erie Canal

10. Lake Ontario
We reached Lake Ontario, our second Great Lake, on day 9, at a pretty little hamlet on the lake shore by Salmon Creek, called Pultneyville, scene of a battle between British invaders and American locals in 1814.

Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario

11. Sunset from our camp on the shores of Lake Neatahwanta, near Fulton, upstate New York
We arrived into camp and pitched the tent just before dusk, a common theme on this tour. That evening, we walked through the woods (and the worst swarm of bugs I’ve ever encountered) to have an excellent dinner and beers at the Red Brick Pub in Fulton. We caught a taxi back to the campsite that night (we decided unlit roads with no sidewalk was too risky). The cab driver was a character — as he drove through the campsite in the dark, a fellow camper said “Hey, the speed limit is 5mph” to which he replied, in thick New York accent, “Whaddya think I’m doing, huh, you wanna drive?”. For some reason this amused us greatly, and my brother and I laughed about it for days.

Sunset over Lake Neatahwanta

Sunset over Lake Neatahwanta

12. Into the Adirondacks
Beautiful scenery, brilliant, quiet roads and fantastic riding. This is what we came for.

Pete cycling

Pete cycling

13. Lake in the Adirondacks
The numerous lakes through eastern New York (and Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine) were beautiful. Scenic roads hugged their shores, giving us cyclists the perfect backdrop as we pushed the pedals.

Lake in the Adirondacks

Lake in the Adirondacks

14. Camp at Paradox Lake, New York, on night 11 of the tour
I liked this campsite, mainly because of the misty, atmospheric conditions we had. It felt like we were the only ones around for miles and miles.

Camp at Lake Paradox

Camp at Lake Paradox

15. Covered bridge in Vermont
Old, wooden, covered bridges were few and far between on this tour so I was particularly excited by this one and insisted that Pete get a photo of me riding into it. Having seen hardly any cars in the previous hour, one arrived barely a moment after this photo was taken, requiring a hasty retreat to the right side of the bridge.

Covered bridge in Vermont

Covered bridge in Vermont

16. Thirsty work under a blazing sun

Thirsty work

Thirsty work

17. Cresting Kancamagus Pass, New Hampshire
Our high point of the trip, and some of the best cycling too. An earlier sign titled “No Gas – 32 miles” made us chuckle as we joked we shouldn’t have eaten such a heavy lunch. By this stage of a long outdoors trip, toilet humour takes over as the main relief for weary minds.

Kancamagus Pass, New Hampshire

Kancamagus Pass, New Hampshire

18. White Mountains of New Hampshire
Arguably the best scenery of the trip, although one might argue the same for the day we cycled through the Adirondacks past Mt Marcy. Certainly some of the best cycling. I enjoyed the long climbs up and over passes in the White Mountains. They afforded plenty of time for day-dreaming, time to enjoy the splendid scenery, time to embrace the exhaustion emanating from one’s legs. One is able to use the excuse of a photo opportunity at various scenic overlooks to cover up one’s suffering, and give those tired legs a little time to recover.

White Mountains of New Hampshire

White Mountains of New Hampshire

19. Panorama from the Kancamagus Pass road, New Hampshire

Mountain Panorama

Mountain Panorama

20. Maine, where roadworks were never far away
Before the tour, I thought Maine would provide some of the best riding of the tour, and, though it was stunningly beautiful, it was less suited to bike touring than the previous few days through Vermont and New Hampshire. Partly that was attributable to us being there over a weekend, so we had to contend with holiday traffic on the busy coastal roads of Maine. This did not make for relaxing riding at times. The other factor we noticed in Maine more than any other state, and this is understandable given how far North Maine is, was the poor quality of the road surfaces. Frost heaves, huge potholes and unlaid roads meant we had to keep our wits about us at all times.

New road in Maine

New road in Maine

21. Feeling remote in Maine
We relished getting away from the traffic and off the beaten track, although these unsealed roads were precarious at times. Small rocks were everywhere, ready to flick a wheel off its natural course and tip you over, so speeds were necessarily low. Absolute concentration was required so they were tiring miles, but experiences like this were always preferable to clogged up highways.

Dirt road, Maine

Dirt road, Maine

22. Victory!
We ate lobster on the Atlantic coast of Maine, thereby achieving the goal we had set ourselves several weeks earlier. A steadfast determination had gotten us here. The reward was a deep sense of satisfaction as we munched through these delicious lobster rolls. It was with some degree of relief too, at least on my part, to be here in Maine, as I had been worried the crash on the west coast had laid waste to any further biking this summer. The tour felt like a redemption of sorts, salvaging a great adventure from the pieces of our earlier summer tour.

Eating lobster

Eating lobster

23. Feeling fresh as a peppermint
Taking a break in Stafford, Connecticut. By this stage a cumulative fatigue had set in, so that each day the legs felt a little heavier, with a little less pop. We frequently reminded ourselves that it was a marathon, not a sprint. Keep turning those pedals, our mantra went, and so we did, from morning to evening, enjoying the satisfaction that comes from covering long distances each day.

Weary legs

Weary legs

24. In the hurt locker as we near home
We could smell the finish line as we raced through Maryland during the last couple of days to home, in Arlington, Virginia.

Pete at speed

Pete at speed

25. Finish line photo
We made it! This photo was taken by my wife as we cycled back along the road where it all began, three and a half weeks earlier. It was particularly memorable to simply ride back to my front door at the end of such a long trip, prop the bikes up in the garage, take a shower and then sit in the living room with a cup of tea, as if we had just returned from a two hour training ride.

Finish line

Finish line

26. Mileage chart from the Eastern Tour
We ended up covering just over 2,300 miles in 25 days, of which 24 were riding days. We took one rest day in Burlington, Vermont. Our average daily mileage ended up being around 96 miles for the riding days. We were pretty tired by the end.

Mileage chart

Mileage chart