Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Psychology of Climbing a Mountain Pass

We've been climbing a mountain pass each morning for the past two days and have two more planned for the following two. At the beginning of each pass climb, I always make the silent vow that I will complete the climb, and I will attempt to complete it with dignity. So far, I have always accomplished the first goal. Not quite on the second.

When Ira and I left on our trip, the idea of quitting our jobs and riding our bikes around the US, seemed like the equivalent of winning the lottery The desire to leave all trappings of society behind, hit the road and go on an adventure of discovery is so much a part of the American dream, its almost on par with hitting the mega millions jackpot in a lot of minds. With everyone telling us this was a chance of a lifetime (with the except of much parental concern), we allowed the romanticism of the fabled American west to act as a magnet pulling us out our front door and across the plains. The idea of heading across the frontier thrilled my imagination. Except for one tiny detail. The ROCKY MOUNTAINS! My Midwestern born and bread legs soon began fearing for the future. The mountains loomed as a dark ominous threat I knew I had to deal with sooner or late, but was always hoping for later. They were easy to put out of my mind in Minnesota, and even for most of South Dakota, but as we got into Wyoming, and as the foothills began growing in view across the horizon, I started wishing them further and further away. When we got to Buffalo, WY and our first pass was directly before us, I actually resorted to having a little hissy fit in a supermarket parking lot when I could not talk Ira into getting a campsite in town to wait an extra day before starting the climb. He was resolute (he is used to dealing with my high-strung antics) and we pursued the climb that day.

I always thought going through the mountains would be one long climb. I guess when I mean long, I mean hundreds of miles long. I had this view that once we started ascending into the Rockies, we could keep climbing for days and days and days. When we finally reached the top, we would have a very, very long descent and, bam, we would be out the mountains, forever.

The reality of climbing through the mountains is very different, as anyone who has ever been through them knows. Modern roads are graded to give the most gradual ascent possible. They are generally designed to follow a valley for as long as possible, usually along a river, and when this is no longer possible, the road will cut to switch backs, lacing up the mountain, to the pass. Usually, when you approach a pass, you have a period of say 10 miles with a very gradual uphill grade interspersed with a few short steep sections through the valley. Once you get within 5-10 miles of the pass, the road will start the switch back section. This section of road is generally steep to very steep all the way through. So actually, although you may have to climb anywhere between 15-25 miles, usually only the last section is the worst. Of course, this is all very general. All passes are different. Our longest climb was the Powder River Pass in the Big Horn Mountains, which was 25 miles long, and steep for almost the whole stretch. The pass we climbed this morning, Waucunda pass, was only about 10 or 11 miles, most of which was a very casual assent with a steep section only along the last 3 miles.

Whatever the condition of the pass is, we've never been faced with hundreds of miles of uphill at once. Instead, we've seen a few passes scattered through miles and miles of valleys. By now, we have ridden about 1000 miles of mountainous territory through Wyomming, Montana, Idaho and Washington. Through this, we have done 9 passes to date with three more before we cross the pacific divide and hit the ocean just north of Seattle. If we can guesstimate each pass is approx. 20 miles, in the last 1000 miles we have (very) roughly ridden only 180 miles of steep grade which is only 18% of our riding time. The vast majority of the time, we've been on mostly level ground. We have ups and downs, sure, but, for the most part straight shooting.

By breaking it down to 18%, I don't mean to infer riding a pass no big deal. For me, riding a pass is always a big fat fu**ing deal! As I said, at the beginning of each pass climb, I always make the silent vow that I will complete the climb with my dignity in tact. So far, the dignity part has been illusive. What can I say, I'm sort of a shit. Poor Ira.

We know its going to be hard, so we've come up with a battle plan to attack each pass to ensure success. To split the climb in half is usually the best way. We'll camp somewhere halfway up the mountain, so we can hit the final hard stretch early in the morning, well rested and ready to go.

I like riding in the mornings. The light quality is so clear and pure, especially in the mountains. The sunlight filters through the trees at an extreme angle, just above the horrizon, hightlighting and glistening on all the drops of dew. Everything feels crisp and clean. Birds sing. I feel like a good person and the world seems benevolent, just waiting to give me all that I ever wanted. I generally start out strong, positive, well rested. I try to focus on spinning the pedals in a light gear to not wear out my knees. Ira and I will chat and joke back and forth for a little while, enjoying the ride. Not for too long though. Soon the going gets tough, and we get quiet. I'm starting to not care about the birds. AT ALL. I will turn on my ipod and try to listen to some music which will help me set a pace and take my mind of my legs which are beginning to burn. So far I've been listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco. I listened to it on the first climb, and now its become a must have, like the lucky pair of underwear which help win the game. I just listen to it over and over again until I get to the top. I choose this album because the beat is slower, so it doesn't make me feel like I need to pedal faster. The lyrics are poetic enough to be enjoyed yet pretentious enough to give me something to criticize and complain about beside my legs. The music is soothing and it helps me relax. Relaxation is the key when climbing a mountain, although for me, next to impossible.

At first I would want to stop all the time to rest, but I have since realized this is a very bad idea. When you stop peddling in the steep areas, it is almost impossible to get your legs going again. You have to keep experiencing the "muscle burn" each time you start up. If you just keep going and pedal through the burn, you get to a place where you're not burning red hot, but just a steady low heat which is tolerable.

At this point, I spend way too much time focusing on the small green markers along the roadside which slowly tick off each mile passed. We generally ride about 5 miles an hour up these steep grades so we pass a mile marker every 12-15 minutes. Time goes slow when riding uphill, so 12-15 minutes will start to feel more like a half an hour. I keep a keen eye on the horizon for them, sometimes imagining that perhaps because I was so focused on the ride I might have missed one, or possibly the marker was hit by a car and destroyed. So if I just passed mile marker 302 I will fantasize the next one will read 304, however it always, always says 303.

So, I ride along, trying to relax, all the while being totally compulsive about watching the road and keeping track of mileage. I plan rest stops, in 5 more miles I can stop for 45 seconds. Sometimes I make it, mostly I stop at the 3 mile mark and then again at the planned 5 mile stop.

I watch the road as I am coming up a hill. If it dips out of view and I can't see what direction the road takes, what I can see is a huge mountain looming over the horizon directly in front of me. At this point I start praying aloud for the road to please, please curve so I don't have to ride all the way up. It always does. When the road starts getting more curvy, I know were getting closer, which is a relief, but I also know the road is going to get steeper, which is not.

I like to ride in front because then I can set the pace. Ira jokingly calls me "dinky pace" because I am very slow at climbing. I refer to Ira as "Earl of Stinkpot" because I am jealous he can climb so much better then I. His effortless pedalling pisses me off. If he rides in front of me, he will get very far in front of me, which makes me feel insecure and I usually slow down even slower and have a tendency of resting more. If I am in front, I will try and ride as long as I possibly can without a break.

So here, we must applaud Ira's patience at always humoring me at riding in the back, to keep up my morale. However, he sometimes shows his impatience at going so slow when he starts inching up behind me and is suddenly riding next to me, like he wants to pass. I turn around and ask very aggresivly if he wants to pass, letting him know by my tone, I definitely don't want him to. He will usually fall back. I would like all you readers to understand the state of my mind here. I am usually at the point of full physical exertion and full mental instability. I try to keep my cool, but this is where it all goes to plop. I am not riding a straight line, and sometimes I veer off the shoulder. As I start to snake over, I see Ira has moved up again and his front wheel and my rear wheel are parallel. I turn around and again, ask if he wants to pass. He says no. A few minutes later, the same thing happens. I abruptly stop and Ira almost crashes into me. I turn around and yell something about how much i hate him ridding up my ass. Although his riding may look effortless, he is also very tired and physically stressed. He can't take it anymore. He yells back for me to stop yelling at him. At this point, I may start gesturing wildly, telling him to "just go. Just go ahead. I'll meet you at the top. I don't even want to be around you."

Really, I just don't want to be around myself because that means I will have to deal with riding the hill. However, the reality never changes and I still have to get to the top. Ira may humor me and apologize, or he may just take my advice and ride ahead. Either way, I have allowed my stress to get the better of me. I am not relaxed, I'm festering with the physical insecurity of whether I can do this or not. I "know" I can do it, but my legs don't and right now, their insticts are stronger then my brains. Mind over matter. Whatever! Somewhere deep inside, I feel really bad for getting so worked up, but that part of me is not in control. I am a raging terd. I am the Earl of Stinkpot and I am affecting everyone with my noxious odor.

My mind is stressed, my body is stressed and I am cannot relax. The least little thing will irritate me. Because of this, everything has to be in it's place. My pants have to be rolled up just so, the clasp on my necklace has to be in the back, I have to have Burt's Bees applied to my lips to keep them moist. Anything off will just drive me crazy. I'll pedal on obsessing about the random thing out of place until I can't take it anymore! I'll have to stop pedaling to fix it. But I wasn't at my planned break spot yet. DAMN IT. I have NO SELF CONTROL!

The closer I get to the top, the steeper it gets. I know I'm getting close when the road really starts curving all over the place. I start praying around each corner I'll will see the pass sign. I have to stop about each mile. I'm about to quit (although where would I go?). I don't think its humanly possible to make it any further when finally, FINALLY, I get to the pass!

When I reach the sign, any irritation I may have had is immediately gone. Poof! I love life, I love Ira, I love the sign. I must kiss it. I always feel an intense sense of satisfaction and pride. I am capable of climbing a mountain. My bicycle weighs 240 lbs, with me on it. I am capable of hauling that amount of weight, up 4000 ft, along beautiful twisty roads. I can hear the birds singing and I enjoy the crisp morning air. I feel good. Time for a snack!

All the hard work is forgotten until next time. All I can think about now is the 15 mile ride downhill at 45 mph without having to pedal once. HA! See you at the bottom!


janice said...

That is what I love about you Andrea, your ability to accomplish what you set out to do! I can see you smiling as you head down hill!

Aunt Nancy said...

Am I a super masochist because I just love hearing you describe your fear and pain? Maybe. I am so proud of what you are accomplishing and learning, and of your ability to describe it in words. You're my hero!

rhea the vicarious said...

you have just summed me up. and though i laughed through reading this, i also was comforted to know that i am not the only neurotic who does these awful mind games. i fully expect that by the ti me your trip is over, youll have some amazing new "zen" approach to life, and ill be compulsively waiting to learn it. which of course is only possible with practice...xo

Anonymous said...

Shirley said...

You will never see me on a bycycle again so I am admittedly reading your blog experiencing your trip vicariously. I loved this entry as it shows both how in touch you are with your emotions and describes fantasticly the physical and emotional challenge of the climb . As an aunt I am just so proud of you both. Your photos are spectacular. I think you should consider writing a table top book with your photos and the highlights of your journey when you return to the day ole day old work life. Keep at it and know we are all pulling for you.