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Independence Pass: Conquering Aspen's most impressive climb

In-depth
9 Oct 2018
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Erik continued to talk at a hundred words a minute, his excitement and enthusiasm for life, cycling and being in the great outdoors contagious, if not at that very moment, rather annoying. For whilst he sang the praises of the beauty around us, of which there was no doubting its magnificence, I felt like I was breathing through a straw and any thought of engaging in conversation remained just that, a thought.

To actually vocalise the words in my head would have required me to either stop or, at the very least slow down dramatically, which, given how close we were to the summit, was simply not an option.

For the countless cyclists who take pleasure descending mountains at breakneck speeds, there are the odd ones who find a kind of perverse pleasure in pushing themselves to a point of unimaginable pain and discomfort going up them.

I fall firmly into the latter group and spend as much of my free time as my wife deems acceptable travelling to all manner of destinations to do exactly that.

Which explains why, on a gloriously sunny Friday afternoon in late September, I found myself in Aspen, Colorado, ready to take on one of America’s most iconic climbs: Independence Pass.

Jewel in the crown

Prior to my latest adventure I had done a fair degree of research into the various climbs and rides in and around Aspen, and it was clear that the ride up to ‘Indy Pass’, as it is know locally, was the jewel in a rather impressive crown.

By means of a warm up I had already had the pleasure of riding up to Maroon Lake and Castle Creek, two of the area’s other gems, rides made even more spectacular by the fluke timing of my trip.

As luck would have it I arrived in Aspen at the start of one of Colorado’s most beautiful processes, the changing of the leaves, a phenomenon that turns an already idyllic destination into a place of sheer wonder.

I’m not usually one to ride with other people, not that I am anti-social, far from it, but rather cycling for me is as much about the mental benefits as the physical, offering me time to switch off from the outside world and let my mind wander, or simply fall silent for long periods, happy to just be.

But there was something about Erik, a local cycling guide who’d been recommended, that resonated with me long before we actually met.

His unrivalled excitement for anything and everything was apparent even in his emails and was enough for me to decide to ride with him, figuring at the very least it would be good to get some local knowledge.

Erik met me at my hotel with a bag of freshly baked cookies, a good start to any ride, and wasted no time in beginning to tell me the history of Aspen as we clipped in and set off for the morning.

The climb officially begins the moment you leave the postcard-perfect town of Aspen, headed east on Colorado 82, although with the first few miles meandering next to the Roaring Fork river at barely more than two degrees incline you’d hardly notice the effort, that is if it wasn’t for the climb’s silent assassin. Altitude.

High altitude

Aspen sits at a little over 2,400m, which is higher than the summits of almost all of Europe’s big-name climbs. This means that for the unacclimatised you notice even the slightest of inclines.

Whilst I wasn’t at the same level of acclimatisation as Erik who is a resident of Aspen for twenty-five years, I had thankfully had a week for my body to start producing more red blood cells and adapt to its new surroundings.

I came to learn that it’s not so much the gradients of the Independence Pass, which don’t exceed eight percent, that test your mental and physical resolve, but rather the effects of the altitude.

This was evident at around three miles in when the road steepened and the climb began in earnest. It’s at this point where the road meanders into a thick forest of aspens and pines which, given the time of year, were ablaze with every imaginable hue of yellow and orange.

Erik sensed my wonder at our surroundings and informed me that the leaves don’t usually change so early in the year.

It was hard to focus on the road such was the hypnotic pull of the trees, with leaves rustling in the wind and reflecting the sun’s light in a dazzling display of colour.

A sign warning of narrow roads ahead soon brought me back to the present.

Several locals had warned me of this particular stretch, as had Erik, but it was nowhere near as dangerous as some had made it out to be.

Before long we had passed through the narrowest section where there was room only for traffic in one direction, and back to riding two abreast allowing for Erik to talk me through his favourite cookie recipes.

I took mental notes as he shared his knowledge, all the while amused by the road signs that we passed, wondering what the stories were behind names such as ‘Difficult Campsite’ and ‘Grizzly Reservoir’.

The trees began to thin as we approached the half way mark of the climb until eventually they vanished altogether, replaced by an immense valley framed by towering peaks reaching for the sky.

It’s here where the climb takes on a familiar alpine feel, the vast expanse of the Rocky Mountains dominating the horizon, the magnitude of what’s still to come clearly evident as the road snakes its way towards a summit hidden from view.

As the air grew ever thinner so did the conversation grow ever quieter, at least from my side. Erik meanwhile continued to amaze me with his ability to push a decent pass without breaking the flow of his words.

Push for the summit

The ghost town of Independence, dating back to the 1800s and a time when prospectors were looking for gold, marks the start of the final push to the summit as the road cuts back on itself and climbs to over seven percent.

By normal standards that would be more than manageable, yet with the air noticeably thinner at 3,200m it soon left me unable to respond to Erik who, despite my effort to increase the pace once more showed no sign of tiring, as energetic and talkative now as he was a few hours earlier when we met at the hotel.

With only a few miles left, and relishing the challenge I opted to make one final effort to reach the summit, to push my body to a new limit, for this was the highest I had ever ridden on a bike.

Any pain that I felt was offset by the majestic views of the Collegiate Peaks and Elk Mountains, both as impressive as the other as they jostled for my attention, standing tall and proud.

With one final switchback the summit was within touching distance, prompting me to push a little harder still, believing that I could maintain a higher pace.

But the truth is I couldn't, it was only a matter of seconds before I regretted my decision, legs burning from a few watts too many.

Breathing as if trying to blow out candles I watched as Erik effortlessly surged ahead, controlling his bike with one hand whilst taking pictures as I simultaneously reached the summit and crossed the Continental Divide in the process.

At 3,967m it’s the highest point I have ever reached on a bike, I felt euphoric breathing in crisp mountain air, the sort that fills both your lungs and your soul.

Erik too was a picture of happiness as we posed for photos. To borrow the words of the famous alpinist and climber Lionel Terray, 'I suppose we really amounted to nothing more significant than a gang of overgrown children delighting in the conquest of altitude by the force of our own muscles.'

Independence Pass: The Facts

When To Go

The Pass opens on Memorial Day Weekend (end of May) and, weather depending, remains open until the end of October.

It is advisable to set off earlier in the morning as the road can get busier later in the day.

Distance

Aspen to Independence Pass is 20 miles (32km)

Elevation

Starting elevation is 2,423m, finishing elevation is 3,697m

Local Guide

Erik Skarvan of Sun Dog Athletics

Bike Hire

Four Mountain Sports offers the latest Giant Defy Advanced for rental

Find out more

For more information on Aspen and the surrounding see: aspenchamber.org