As we sat around the table eating big steaks and downing ice water as fast as we — Chad, Eldad, Ken, and myself — could, the waiter, reading the logos on our shirts, asked, “What is ‘My Life at Speed?’”
“It’s an automotive website,” answered Ken.
And I added “We were covering the hill climb today.”
“Oh cool,” said the waiter as he refilled our waters, and I thought to myself if what we had put ourselves through that day and the week leading up to it could really be expressed in those six easy words, for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was by far the most difficult event I’d ever done.
Aside from only getting one day at home between getting back from New York and going on this trip, the flight to Denver was nothing out of the ordinary. Wake up, get a ride to the airport, wait, fly, land. Ken and I were on the same flight and we got picked up by none other than our fearless leaders Chris and Andy. We stopped for lunch at the Rockyard Brewery in Castle Rock, and that’s where we got brought up to speed on the happenings on the hill. It was all new to me, as this was my first time going to Pikes Peak, but both Ken and Chris had a lot to say about the new chain link fences at the newly restricted spectator areas, updates on Greg Tracy’s campaign to win the Electric Class, and various behind the scenes political issues. I tried to just soak it all in. The pizza was delicious and I was starving.
We continued south and checked into our motel in Colorado Springs. That’s when I learned about the Internet situation, or rather the lack of one. I quickly became thankful for what little Wi-Fi signal there was at the motel, and Ken’s Jetpack. Our schedule for the next three days would be to wake up at 2 a.m., head up the mountain and get in line until the gate opened at the Pikes Peak Highway toll plaza at 3, then drive up to whichever location we decided on for that day.
2 a.m.? I’d have to be in bed by 6 in order to get a full eight hours of sleep. I popped a couple NyQuils and fell asleep around 10:30.
2 a.m. came way too soon, but it was go-time. I slammed a Red Bull, threw my gear in the car, and away we went. We waited at the gate, unsuccessfully trying to get a few more minutes of sleep, until cars started moving. We followed the procession up in our own less dramatic hill climb. We passed the starting line at 9,390 feet, where competitors were pitting for their practice on the bottom section. As we passed Halfway Picnic Grounds at 9,960 feet, I set a new personal elevation record. My previous high point was Tioga Pass (9,943 feet) on the eastern border of Yosemite National Park. We passed Glen Cove at 11,440 feet, which was the pit for the middle section. Finally we made our goal of Devils Playground at 12,780 feet, the top section pit. My head felt tight, for lack of a better word. It wasn’t quite a headache, and the feeling eventually passed. I’d been waiting years for the chance to shoot sunrise from Pikes Peak, and now I was within an hour of realizing this, one of my main objectives for the trip.
But first I just felt like sitting still. I was tired, it was cold, and I didn’t know how much the elevation would affect me. I’d been at sea level the day before, after all. From where we parked I could look to the east and see Colorado Springs 6,745 feet below. We were more than a mile above the town, which itself is more than a mile above sea level. Also to the east was the part of the sky that was getting light.
Soon enough it was time for action. I jumped out of the car and ran over to a boulder to relieve myself and immediately ran out of breath. Oh yeah, that whole lack of air thing…I’d try not to forget about it again. I slowly sauntered back to the car, grabbed a camera and a couple lenses and headed over to the End of the 4th Leg of the W’s for my sunrise shot. One foot in front of the other, slowly but surely, and I kept my breath. I remembered that on Mt. Everest, especially at the higher camps, many climbers experience a state similar to drunkenness, having difficulty concentrating and taking extraordinarily long times to perform simple tasks due to the lack of oxygen. I was fairly certain that on Pikes, half the elevation of Everest, it wouldn’t be that bad, but I tried to pay attention for lesser degrees of weirdness. On my way down to shoot, I looked around at all the cars still in their pits. Monster Tajima, Danny George, the electric Mitsubishi’s, and a cool old Ford Falcon caught my eye.
Ken suggested that we hike over to Bottomless Pit, a quick half mile uphill. Sure, why not? We crossed the road by the start line and found a trail to follow. It was relatively easy going. One foot in front of the other. Step, step, step. Some rocks to step up onto and down off of, and then we were there. At 12,760 feet, it’s a saddle point that’s actually 20 feet lower than Devils.
The session wrapped up and the crews started loading the race cars back onto the trailers and packing up the pits. It seemed pretty outrageous to be done at 9 in the morning, but that’s the arrangement the hill climb has with the mountain. It’s a toll road after all, and the government takes in too much revenue to let the race encroach on business hours. Unless you’re Sebastien Loeb.
We found Linhbergh Nguyen wandering in the paddock, and Chris had to get a picture of him with Ken and myself. Not two minutes later I asked Ken if he’d seen Chris around, not realizing that it was her who had taken the picture. Maybe the altitude was getting to me after all. I later heard tales of photographers who couldn’t remember how to use certain functions of their cameras. I’m glad that didn’t happen to me.
We packed up our own stuff and headed back down the hill. We were all tired, hungry, and thirsty. We needed breakfast and then naps. When we got back to the motel, I opened the door to our room and was a little surprised that our beds hadn’t been made. I checked the time, 10:41a.m. We had gotten back before the maids were even supposed to have been there. Fellow photographer Camden Thrasher, who had just come from Germany where he had covered the 24 hours of Nürburgring, noted that he wasn’t jet lagged as he was already on this wacky schedule. I checked a time zone map. 2 a.m. in Colorado is 10 a.m. in Germany; he was getting to sleep in.
We ate at the Colorado Mountain Brewery and then went back to the motel to go through our photos from the day. I unloaded and sorted, flagged a few, edited a few, posted one, and before I knew it I woke up from a three hour nap. Alex Wong and Camden happened to be staying in the same Motel so we grabbed them and went to go get dinner. But first Ken wanted to go check out Garden of the Gods. It’s a cool place but climbing isn’t allowed so it wasn’t all that fun.
2 a.m. again came too soon. I didn’t have to go up on the mountain today did I? I could do it tomorrow. No, that wasn’t how I really felt. I’d kick myself if I passed up the opportunity to go up again. Today we were shooting in the bottom section. We were another day above sea level and not going as high up. It would be a lot easier. We did the same routine again, waiting at the toll booth, following the procession up, only this time stopping at the Start Line and hitching a ride with Ken’s friend Dave up to Glen Cove. The plan was to hike down from Glen Cove as far as we could, and then hitch a ride back down the rest of the way once practice was over.
In the trees, sunrise was not spectacular, but it was a good change of scenery. I still prefer the landscape above the tree line, but my coverage would have been incomplete without shooting in the forest for a session. We were shooting the same group of cars as the day before, as that’s the way the rotation goes.
Ken had discovered that standing in the concrete basins leading into the drainage culverts was a good way to get really low without risking lying prone. They were almost like little one-man bunkers. We took turns in them whenever we found one that offered a good angle. It was Ken’s turn standing in one on the straightaway above Grouse Hill when we heard the squeal of tires.
There was deafening silence as we listened, mouths open, for the next sound. It felt like an earthquake as Mike Ryan’s Freightliner sheared off treetops and crashed to the rocky ground, a good hundred feet off the road. We didn’t know who it was at the time, as the incident happened around the next bend, but Ken jumped out of the bunker and took off running down the hill to investigate.
I showed up a minute after Ken did. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that we might be the first people on the scene and need to rescue whoever it was. Besides Ken and myself, another photographer was there, and two safety trucks showed up within the next minute. Mike was unhurt and had climbed out of his truck and started tossing branches out of the way so a tow truck would be able to drag the Freightliner out of the forest and back up to the road. The safety crew pulled Mike up to the road and took him to be checked out and Ken and I continued on down the road.
Mike’s crash caused a long red flag and there wasn’t much time left in the session so we only got to see a few more cars before it was over. I got down to 11 Mile Water Station and found a guy in a truck who offered me some oxygen from his medical oxygen tank. I stuck the cannula up my nose and took a few hits and it was glorious. Cold, dense oxygen never tasted so good. I took a few more hits as I waited for Ken to catch up.
Dave made his way down the hill, picked up Ken and me along the way, and took us to the Start Line where we met up with Chris and hung out for a while. Ken had dropped his radio somewhere on the hill so we had to go back up to try to find it. He had some ideas where it could be so we waited until traffic died down and then went back up. We stopped a few spots but didn’t have any luck until I spotted it at the Switchback Below Glen Cove. On the way back down the hill from there we got caught in stopped traffic as the safety team and tow guys were getting ready to pull the Freightliner back up to the road. Ken and I still had our vests so we put them back on and walked down to get a closer look. Chris parked the car and came to join us. We hung out on the scene for an hour or so, until the truck was loaded onto a flatbed and then taken down to where Mike’s tow rig was waiting. We followed it down the hill and then headed straight for the motel with a story to write. So much for breakfast and naps. Ken wrote the text and I edited photos.
We gave the video footage we shot of the incident to Chad and he and Eldad shot an interview with Mike later in the afternoon. They put together a pretty cool video while we all ate pizza from Savelli’s.
By Friday, 2 a.m. was feeling like a normal time to get up, and that worried me. I was excited to shoot above the tree line again and we were going even higher than we did on Wednesday. We waited at the toll booth and joined the procession and drove all the way up to Boulder Park at 13,380 feet. Boulder Park might as well have been Antarctica. The temperature was reportedly in the low 30s, but the wind-chill pushed it to nearly zero I’m sure. I had my two-layer winter coat and a beanie, but no gloves. At least when I’ve shot snow rallies I expected it to be that cold and came prepared. Everyone I’d talked to said this is the coldest they remember it being. Thermals and gloves and snow boots would have helped a lot.
Some combination of tiredness and altitude produced extraordinary laziness and I didn’t remember to do any of the long exposure or night shots I had planned. No epic Milky Way shots. No headlight streaks of cars coming up the hill. I’m still kicking myself for that.
It was cloudy and the sunrise was unimpressive so I went exploring to find another kind of shot. Climbing down through talus with one frozen hand on my monopod, holding my 400 over my shoulder, and the other frozen hand gripping frozen pink granite is definitely my idea of a good time. Throw some unstable rocks under my feet and it’s a regular laugh riot. I found a spot I liked and shot from there for a while before heading back up. Climbing talus one-handed is a mean trick at sea level. Doing it tired, cold, and at 13,000 feet makes you a legitimate tough guy.
I noticed it took this kind of effort for the elevation to affect me as much as simple walking had done it on Wednesday, so that meant I was getting acclimatized. Once past the first talus field, I was still on a grassy slope, so I extended my monopod to waist height. Using the monopod/400 combo like a piolet, I climbed up like I was in the Alps. Just another day at work.
Back up at the parking area the light was less than ideal and there was a red flag on the course, so I got back in the car to take a nap, though I’m not sure if I actually fell asleep or not. When I got back out of the car I found Larry Chen. “See why this race is so hard to shoot?” he asked. “I sure do!” I replied. It wasn’t very much longer before the session was over and the cars came back down the hill for the last time before the race itself. When the coast was clear we drove the last mile and a half to the summit, at 14,110 feet. It’s my new elevation record.
I brought my Super Bowl edition Seahawks jersey to wear on the summit, and as soon as I took my coat off a Denver Broncos fan had to speak up. “Real brave wearing a Seahawks jersey here, man! You won’t make any friends with that!” I told him I wasn’t looking for any friends. My friends had come up with me. Anyway, I wouldn’t have expected any less in enemy territory, but it was cold so Ken took a photo of me on the sign and I put my coat back on. I was excited to be done for the day and have all day the next day off. It would be a much needed recovery before Race Day on Sunday.
Back in Colorado Springs I didn’t even feel like I needed a nap. I just edited photos and shot the breeze until it was time to go to Fan Fest downtown. Ken and I rode with Chad and Eldad, which earned the four of us the name ‘Bearded Brigade.’ It feels nice to belong. Fan Fest is like a parc exposé and street fair combined, so I wandered around and found some race cars to look at and found Danny George letting little kids sit in his car. He’s a good dude.
After Fan Fest we all went to dinner at the Colorado Mountain Brewery and got the kind of food that makes you fall asleep. Sleep. Much needed sleep. I couldn’t wait to sleep in.
I wondered if I would even be able to sleep late, since we’d been getting up so ridiculously early. When I woke up I checked my phone and sure enough it was 7 a.m. and I was ready to start the day. What in the world would we spend all day doing? The teams were setting up their pit spaces near the Start Line but that’s not really media worthy. Ken and I decided to do our laundry and go check out Revolutions Performance, a local shop a lot of the teams use for last minute tuning and repairs.
Back at the motel there was a barbecue. It was the ML@S crew and one of the Japanese bike crews. Good food, good beer, good company. Good night.
1 a.m. I could do it one last time and extra early at that. I packed my stuff the night before so there would be nothing to do, but somehow I left my hat behind. The Bearded Brigade stopped at 7-Eleven for energy drinks and snacks and then went to wait in line at the toll booth. This time there were fans waiting in line as well, hence the hour earlier start time we’d given ourselves. The gate opened at 2 a.m. this time and we drove up to the Start Line and parked. It was hours before sunrise and the event staff was already directing traffic. We dozed off to the sound of “Do you know where you’re going?…Okay. Do you know where you’re going?…Okay.”
I’m a terrible sleeper in anything but the most ideal circumstances, but when Ken got out at around 5 o’clock and I could stretch out a little, that was all I needed. I woke up around 6:30 and looked out the window. The summit was lit up by the early morning sun, contrasted by the trees down where we were still in shadow. I decided it was time to get up. The sunlight coming through the motorcycle pits was incredible, and every time anyone did anything it kicked up little clouds of dust. I felt like I was finally getting a taste of the old Pikes Peak, where dirt was king.
I got to hang out with Travis Tollett, who I’d only met on Facebook a few months earlier. He’s a graphic designer and photographer who used to race quads until he had a bad crash and broke his neck seven years ago. I didn’t even know he was paralyzed at first; that’s how positive his outlook on life is. He’s gotten back to racing on a machine with hand controls, so we may be seeing more of him on the hill yet.
Mike Ryan had gotten the Pikes Peak Board of Directors to let him switch classes and ride his brand new Triumph up the hill. He wore his driving suit with motorcycle pads underneath so his sponsors would still be represented. What a stand up guy.
The Vintage Bikes were the first to go, and Mark Shim was the first of the Vintage Bikes to line up. It must be a weird feeling to go first. No one had gone up the hill at race speed for 47 hours, and no one had done the whole course at speed in a year. There’s no warm up, no practice. There’s just a green flag and you just go. Mark’s crew rolled the bike out with a tire warmer still running, and then as the time got near they started the engine. Mark got his gear on. Helmet first, then gloves. The warmer came off and Mark got hugs from his guys and mentally prepared himself to perform. Sitting on the bike, he revved it a few times, maybe not so much to make sure it worked, but for something to do. He was waiting for a signal from the starter that the time was getting close. The Gas Monkey Garage pace truck was having problems getting up the hill so Mark had to cut the engine. He got off the bike and the tire warmer came back on. It must be nerve wracking to work up to the moment and then have to back off. Ten minutes went by before the process started again. Engine on, tire warmer off, rider on, and green flag! He’s off! The crowd cheered. The 92nd running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb had begun.
There were only four Vintage Bikes, but they were followed by the other bike classes, including 250s, Exhibitions, Electrics, Lightweights, Middleweights, and Pikes Peak Open. During the Middleweights, I wandered over to a spectator area with a view of the summit and waited for the next bike to launch. I waited and waited, and made friends with a girl from Martinique who was rooting for French riders Eric Piscione and Fabrice Lambert. She wondered why no one was going. The guy behind me also wondered why no one was going. My yellow vest and seemingly official status made me the target of questions, but I was in the dark as much as anyone else. Five bikes came back down the hill and were allowed to refuel and get new tires. A red flag had stopped their runs before the summit. Ten more minutes went by, and the guy who had been behind me came back to report that he had heard that a rider had gone down after crossing the Finish Line and had been airlifted away. That’s not the kind of news anyone wants to hear, even if you didn’t know the guy. Hardly anyone knew it at the time, but Bobby Goodin, age 54 and father of two, had crashed into a row of rocks just after crossing the Finish Line and died on the summit. He gave his life to the mountain, only the fourth competitor to have done so in 98 years, and the first on Race Day.
After an hour and a half the red flag was sheathed and the green flag came back out. I couldn’t help but wonder if the rest of the riders had been told that Bobby had died. It takes enough concentration as it is to make that 12-mile ride up the mountain as fast as you can, but doing it with a fallen comrade on your mind makes it that much harder. The fact that he died doing what the rest of the guys were gearing up to do couldn’t have sit well with everyone. Nevertheless, the rest of the Middleweight class made it up without issues, followed by the remaining bikes.
While the rest of the bikes were lining up, I wandered through the car pits. Tucked between the trees with not a piece of flat ground in sight were trailers and tents and race cars. Radios were tuned to the race broadcast. Teams later in the order were doing last minute preparations or even just sitting around or getting a bite to eat. Other teams were getting ready to race.
Next the car program began. Romain Dumas of France took the green flag first in his Honda-powered Norma M20 and then proceeded to set the fastest time of the day at 9:05:801. He wasn’t even close to catching Sebastien Loeb’s record of 8:13.878 set last year, but this was this year. He was close to beating Rhys Millen’s 2013 second place time of 9:02.192 too. Getting that close to breaking into the 8’s was impressive considering the 9’s were uncharted territory a few years ago.
As the drivers moved forward through the line, I was continually passed by famous names. Monster Tajima, Paul Dallenbach, Jeff Zwart. There were a handful of current and former Formula D drivers in the line-up: Toshiki Yoshioka, Danny George, Ken Gushi. Rhys Millen was conspicuously missing.
After Gushi started his run up the hill, it was time for the second half of the Bike Program. These would be the sidecars and quads. In the good old days of dirt, there were more quads than you could count. Even this far into the paved era, there were only six.
The sidecar guys were the craziest guys on the hill, in my opinion. Especially the monkeys. Nothing keeps them from falling out besides their own grip on whatever handles they can reach from whatever position they need to be in. There’s not even a back on the sidecars.
Soon the very last competitor was on the summit and the paddock breathed a collective sigh of relief. Many of the pits had been taken down hours before, but no one could completely pack up since all the vehicles were still on top of the mountain. They’d begin the parade back down at any moment and all the spectators would line the road to cheer and dole out high fives.
One wouldn’t be returning though. Maybe it didn’t hit a lot of people until the bikes came through and Bobby Goodin wasn’t with them. Maybe they kept looking and waiting, but he never came. The scene was reminiscent of the proverbial soldiers returning from war, emotions flying every direction. Happy to be done, happy to be back, heartbroken to have left one behind.
The Mitsubishi team popped champagne to celebrate Greg Tracy’s class win. Last year Greg finished 3rd in the electric class, with teammate Hiroshi Masuoka coming in second behind Monster Tajima. The trio was 5th, 13th, and 14th overall though, due to a wet track. This year Greg and Hiroshi took 2nd and 3rd overall, just the kind of improvement the Mitsubishi Electric program needed.
Ken and I made our way back to the car, where Chad and Eldad were already breaking down their gear. We broke down our own and loaded everything in and then started the drive back down to town. Eldad announced that he needed to “eat cow,” so Ken checked his phone to see what a good restaurant would be. We decided on Texas Roadhouse. While his phone was out he also checked the time. 8:08. We’d been on the hill since 2:08, exactly 18 hours.
As we sat around the table eating big steaks and downing ice water as fast as we could, the waiter, reading the logos on our shirts, asked, “What is ‘My Life at Speed?’”