Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Only Way is Up: Colorado Road Trip Part 1

14,000 feet.

I repeat: 14,000 feet. That is 100 feet higher than your typical skydiving altitude. In fact, if you jump off a cliff at this height, you'll be freefalling for just about a minute. Not that you'd be able to, of course, as the tallest cliff in the world only clocks at a paltry 4,100 feet.

At this height, Oxygen becomes very thin (as I later found out). You will also see the curvature of the earth quite easily in the distance. Here, the boiling point of water is at 185 degrees.

In other words, 14,000 feet is quite high.

It is also the altitude you can find yourself at in Colorado. Colorado just happens to have 53 of those places above that altitude, known locally, as the fourteeners.

My goal is to drive up to two of those mountains -- Pikes Peak, and Mount Evans -- and see what the drive is like.

My journey starts from Denver, Colorado. From there, I'll drive to the nearby Colorado Springs, visit the world-renowned Pikes Peak, do a day trip through Aspen and the Rockies, and eventually travel back to Denver for Mount Evans, where it holds the highest paved road in the world.

Accompanying me would be my two dash cams, the Thinkware X330, and the Thinkware F770. I've also acquired a Ford Explorer from a local rental company, because of the amount of exploring I'd be doing for the next couple days. Heh, get it? [Ed. note: That was terrible.]

The first part of this blog chronicles my drive to Pikes Peak, America's rallying playground.

Pikes Peak holds a special place in my motoring life, as it is one of those near mythical places I have always read about in car magazines, watched in countless YouTube videos, played on video games, and just generally wanted to visit. It just offers breathtaking views, a huge variety of corners and sharp turns, an insane elevation climb, and rally pedigree that not many other roads can offer.

If you have ever watched any rallying at any point in your life, you have probably seen Pikes Peak before. In other words, driving up the same road would fulfill a big part of my childhood dreams,

And what does the rental company offer me? A Ford Explorer. A standard one at that, without EcoBoost.

I must admit, traveling all the way to Colorado only to be offered a soccer-family-special SUV was a bit of a let down. They have completely run out of Camaros and Mustangs, so this is the best they could do. So off I went in a Ford Explorer.

In the morning, I drove up Pikes Peak as soon as it opened its gate at 8:30 in the morning. Turns out, I was a little too late -- ahead of me was a squadron of minivans, SUVs, and motorcycles, all waiting to climb another 7,000 feet to the peak.

Sure enough, I spent half the drive up being stuck behind slow-moving vehicles.

Not that it mattered anyway.

The majority of Pikes Peak also consisted of really steep inclines and no guard rails on the side of the road, so chances are you'll be more comfortable doing well under the posted speed limit of 25. Which you will, because once you get past 10,000 feet in elevation, the engine is so starved of oxygen it simply can't produce the power that I wanted.

Still though, at the rare stretches where there was nobody to get in my way, driving on Pikes Peak was a blast. I even forgot that I was driving a large sized, heavy SUV at this stage, as I was simply having too much fun to care.

There were even some side roads where I can take the car to do some off-roading as well, which is always fun. The hill crawl function in the Explorer worked just as advertised, controlling the vehicle's pace at 5 mph while going down a pretty steep incline.

The only things that would have made my drive better were if the roads were closed off to public, allowing me to tackle the twisties in our office Miata and thus fulfilling my rally-slash-Initial D dreams at the same time.

Once I got to the top (and I was second!), the sight it offered was quite unlike any other. You can see out in the horizon in all directions, and Colorado is quite spectacular. There wasn't much on the top of the mountain, other than a gift shop, a cafe, and a small train station.

Unfortunately, my first foray into driving in Colorado has proved to be more challenging than I anticipated. Two things of note, in particular:

1. It was very cold.
I went in the middle of August thinking that it would be warm and sunny. It was sunny, but warm it wasn't. Half way up Pikes Peak, the temperature was hovering in the low 40s. By the time I made it to the top of the mountain, the temperature was in the mid-30s. It was so cold, that I, a guy from the Pacific Northwest, went into the gift shop and bought myself a sweater.

2. Altitude sickness is very real.
From the gate to the top of the mountain was about 45 minutes of driving. Alas, it was also my fastest ticket to altitude sickness ever. I was woefully prepared for the altitude I was tackling, and the general lack of oxygen and my own dehydration were not helping matters. Half way up, and I was already feeling nauseous. At the top, I felt like a zombie stumbling around on the set of the Walking Dead.

Altitude sickness is also quite important. I was now on top of a 14,000 feet mountain, cold, groggy, with a headache that most Detroit Lions fans would be familiar with. I was also over an hour and a half away from my motel in Colorado Springs.

Making the drive down the mountain with a full-blown case of altitude sickness was not very fun. One thing to note while driving down the mountain is that one must use engine brake generously -- if you are riding the brakes the entire way down the mountain, the brakes will start smoking. I was extremely hungry, yet the mere sight of a McDonald's drive-thru almost set me off to the side of the road.

Eventually, at 4 in the afternoon, I dragged my corpse of a body back to the motel room, and slept for the rest of the night.

Well, then. I need to be better prepared for the rest of my trip. Off to Aspen. Stay tuned!

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