Mt. Evans looms over Denver just 35 miles west of town and reaches 14,264 feet into the sky. In addition to being the city's closest 14er, it also holds the distinction of being traversed by the highest paved road in North America. By car, it's one of the most spectacular drives you can imagine.
But throw a leg over a bike saddle and Mt. Evans becomes something altogether different. Twenty-eight miles and gaining more than 6,700 feet in elevation, it is one of the most epic climbs in cycling. At the top, there is half of the oxygen that there was at the start.
I first made it to the top of Evans three years ago, and it's been something of an obsession ever since. I'm not sure why. That first summit was anything but pleasant.
Even for a wannabe cyclist like me, the start of the ride is no big deal. The road out of Idaho Springs rises gradually and the scenery is worthy of a postcard. But all that changes once you get past the ranger's station at Echo Lake. The terrain gets steeper as the air gets thinner and the temperature plunges. Even if you were in a car, you wouldn't be able to miss the abrupt transformations as lush wildflowers and dense forest give way to moonlike terrain.
On that first ride, somewhere past 13,000 feet, my arms went numb as my lungs forced what little oxygen they could find to my aching legs. Even the simplest of calculations became too much for my oxygen-starved brain. "I'm two miles from the summit. I'm going 10 miles per hour. How much longer until I'm there?" Instead of an answer, I began to hear the same two words over and over in my head. "Never again."
Interestingly, I hear those words every time I climb Mt. Evans, but within days I'm plotting my next ascent. Why do I do it? And why do we as Coloradans have such an obsession with these kinds of challenges?
Some of it is the chance to test myself in a setting that, unlike ordinary life, can be measured in absolute terms. You're either faster or you're not. There's no in-between, no shades of gray. That's comforting in a world that seems to get more ambiguous every day.
But there's more to it than that. As I climb, cell-phone reception fades, and along with it so too does the rest of that gray-shaded world, even if only for a few hours. Maybe that's escapism, but I find that when I get back to Denver I may be physically exhausted but I'm mentally recharged.
Riding up mountains may not be for you, but I think everyone can benefit from a way to step outside of their ordinary lives. In this month's "Thrill Seekers Guide to Colorado," we celebrate the stuff that drives us to climb higher, race faster, soar above it all, run with burros.... If you haven't found your own thrill, let us help you get started.
Of course, Mt. Evans is nothing compared to the uphill battles faced by Rob Stein. The 47-year-old recently gave up a cushy job as headmaster of the exclusive Graland Country Day School to take on the principal's duties at Denver's troubled Manual High School. But in "Rob Stein is Not Superman" (page 92), the Harvard and Stanford grad makes it clear that he doesn't see the task as insurmountable.
One of his biggest obstacles will be overcoming the widely held perception that urban public schools can't succeed. The truth, as documented by our look at the area's best high schools, is that private schools aren't automatically superior to their public counterparts. No doubt many readers will be surprised to find that a public school tops our rankings.
We see that as great news for all of Denver, but for Stein and Denver Public Schools superintendent Michael Bennet, the real challenge is to establish that kind of excellence district-wide and not just at a few showcase schools. We wish them the best. m