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Celebrate Superformance's 20th year anniversary in the Spectacular Colorado Rockies

by Mike Stenhouse-

In the winter of 1962 and spring and summer of 1963 my college roommate Mike Thompson (aka Morass) and I took an extended road trip around the United States in my 1960 Austin-Healy. We were joined in New Orleans during Mardi Gras by Greensboro friends Henry Harrison and Todd Lamb in Henry's 1952 Dodge and traveled together after that. The journey was a pivotal period in my life where I learned many lessons which have stayed with me and guided me. This story recounts a life threatening event on that journey.

In July of 2013,  Pat and I traveled to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado in our Cobra to meet with other Cobra owners for the weeklong Superfest. Like my 1960 Austin Healy, our Cobra is a 1960's English roadster with an erector set top, drafty side curtains, and a marginal heater. The parallel compelled me to retrace my earlier journey from Denver to Aspen. The road is far different now. Most of the road has been replaced with four lane divided highway. Even the two lane parts are much upgraded with wider lanes and broad shoulders. Fifty years ago, the road was much like the roads over Independence Pass or up Mount Evans are today - narrow, steep, no shoulders, no guard rails, a long unimpeded plunge down the side for those who misstep.

When we returned from Superfest, I quite by chance came across my journal and the map we used 50 years ago to record our travels and guide us. The following notes from my journal are augmented by what I learned on our recent travels.

Thursday March 7, 1963
Our plan for the day was to drive to Climax Colorado to look for jobs in the molybdenum mine there. We planned to take Route 6 which crosses the western continental divide at Loveland Pass. At 11,990 feet it is the highest auto road in the world open all winter. Route 6 is a very narrow, steep, twisting mountain road with no shoulders. The road is plowed down to hard packed snow but no further. The Colorado Highway Department has not seen fit to erect guard rails even in places where the edge of the road drops off over 1,000 feet. A scary journey for Southern boys. We decided to all go in one car.

After breakfast the four of us sorted our gear - essentials in Henry's car and non-essentials in the Healy which was to be left behind at the Sigma Chi house at the University of Denver for the time being. Around noon we left for Climax. We stopped once climbing up Loveland Pass to take a picture of our ascent and got momentarily stuck on the steep hard packed snow surface. Three of us had to get out and push to get started again, then run and catch up with the car and jump in. It is a good thing that we decided to travel in one car.

At Climax Morass, Todd and I were given jobs and told to report March 25th. Henry is color-blind and was rejected. Not wanting to wait around we split for Aspen Colorado to look for jobs.

Friday March 15, 1963
Today is the day to go to Denver to pick up the Healy. The plan is a simple one. It is 210 miles or so from Aspen to Denver. Take the California Zephyr to Denver. Five hours there, five hours back, a ten hour round trip. Leave at eight in the morning and be back at six, before dark. No need to drive over Loveland Pass at night.

The California Zephyr runs from San Francisco to Chicago once a day and passes through Glenwood Springs on the way. It arrives at Glenwood Springs just after noon and arrives in Denver just after seven in the evening, an hour after I expected to be back in Aspen. It is the same every day, so there was no way to change plans.

After work I caught the stage - actually a bus but you know the local color - to Glenwood Springs where I was to catch the train to Denver. I arrived at the Glenwood Springs train station around noon only to find a massive train wreck. A freight train had derailed 100 yards outside the station, delaying my departure some three hours. While I was waiting I walked up the track to watch the workmen clear the wreckage. It seems that one of the cars hit a rock and derailed taking some 14 other cars with it. One was crushed with its load of TV sets sprayed all over the rail yard. Three others turned over and another dewheeled. The rest were just off the tracks. The de-wheeled car slid some thirty feet to the side and ripped up the neighboring tracks, completely severing the line from Salt Lake City to Denver - the line I was to take. On top of it all, it began to snow - hard.

The tracks were finally repaired and the train got underway. When I got on I was informed that I had purchased standing room, not a seat. Nice. So I sat in the observation dome and listened to the tourists count the wild deer. The valley was empty of human life. Large herds of deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope ran wild. The snow continued. It was a sight to behold.

Around nightfall, an 18 year old girl came up and sat down beside me. She was from a town near Minneapolis. We agree to get together when I got to Minneapolis. I have since lost her name and address. Damn it!

It was dark when we passed through the six mile long Moffet Tunnel under the Continental Divide. It was past ten when we rolled into the Denver train station. It was midnight by the time I hiked the seven miles to the Sigma Chi house where the Healy was parked.

I drove 18 miles on Route 6 to Golden at the base of the Rockies and stopped for supper at a roadhouse near the Route 93 intersection. I dallied to play a pinball machine and surprisingly won some serious money which really irritated the locals. A big burley man walked up and said, "Hey boy, what you doing with our pin ball machine?" Much more of a threat than a question. Sensing a serious ass whipping was brewing, I left hastily with my winnings as the lynch mob was forming.

The Rockies towered up out of the plains directly ahead. Clear Creek cut a deep canyon through the wall of rock. Route 6 disappeared into the dark abyss of the canyon. This is where the real journey began. It was intimidating to be sure. I headed up the winding canyon road. The snowfall grew heavier. By the time I reached the end of the canyon at Idaho Springs, it was snowing so hard I passed through Idaho Springs without even seeing it. A few miles later I passed through Georgetown within a few yards of the Georgetown Inn, again without even knowing it. By this time I had traveled 50 miles and gained over 3,200 feet in altitude.

In the next 16 miles I gained another 3,500 feet. The narrow hard tires on the Healy were fighting for traction on the steep hard packed snow surface. It was snowing so hard that at times I could not even see the end of the hood. It was a full blown Rocky Mountain blizzard - heavy snow, howling winds, bitter cold. Snow had blown through the side curtains at lower altitude and soaked my Army fatigue jacket. As I gained altitude the heater was no longer able to keep up and my coat froze into a suit of icy armor. No hat, no gloves, no warm clothes, only loafers on my feet. Only fear to keep me warm.

I was in second gear and still moving forward, but moving slowly - only about 15 miles per hour. The road took a hairpin to the left and began a series of steep tortured switchbacks. There was no stopping. If I stopped I had so little traction on the steep incline that I would never get started again. I was driving blind. The road was too narrow and I was too blind to turn around and go back. I could only go on. One slight misstep and I would either hit the side of the mountain on one side or plunge a thousand feet over the other. The long slog in second gear was draining the gas tank. I had no idea where I was or how far I had to go to safety.

At that moment all adolescent belief in immortality slipped away. I began to realize that I was indeed mortal and that this might well be my last night on this earth. I had no choice but to go on and hope and pray that I would survive.

After hours of slow, steady, blind climbing since entering Clear Creek Canyon, the road leveled off. It must be the summit at Loveland Pass. As I crested the ridge, a violent wind blowing over the back side of the ridge caught the Healy and spun it around. Blinded by the snow, I had no idea where I was headed - onward, back down, or over the side. No choice but to keep going. I crept forward slowly looking for the edge of the road out of the side widow. I found it and followed it. I was either headed for Denver or Aspen. I didn't care which. I just wanted to be somewhere better than this. It turned out that I was headed for Aspen.

The road ahead had several steep downhill switchbacks then straightened and leveled a bit. Low fuel became a concern. How ironic it would be to make it over the pass, run out of gas, and freeze to death. After about an hour, I came across a gas station somewhere around Dillon I think, but that is just a guess. It looked closed but there were folks inside. I pulled up and waited for service but no one came out in the raging blizzard. So I crawled out of the Healey and fought my way over. They unlocked the door and let me in. The station was closed but they realized that the weather was too bad to go home so they spent the night in the station. Smarter than me I guess. They turned on the pumps and told me I could have whatever I pumped. They were not coming out to collect and did not expect me to come back to pay. I grabbed the fender well with one hand to steady myself in the wind and filled up with the other. It was about four in the morning. I had only been eighty miles since leaving Denver. A hundred and thirty to go to Aspen.

I had dropped 2900 feet since Loveland Pass but unknown to me I would now have to gain much of that back. Vail Pass at 10,662 feet lay 17 miles ahead. A dangerous stretch known for avalanches. I slogged on uphill in second gear. The blizzard continued unabated. I crested the pass and continued on alive and intact and unaware of the danger.

After Vail Pass the road dropped almost 5,000 feet to Glenwood Springs another seventy miles away. Steep at first then more level, the road followed the Eagle River then the Colorado River after they merged. The roads were covered with snow but I was able to pick the speed up to about 30 mph. Thank God. On the way dawn finally arrived. The storm began to subside.

At Glenwood Springs I turned southeast toward Aspen. Route 82 followed the Roaring Fork River climbing another 2,000 feet in the forty miles to Aspen. The snow blanketed Glenwood Canyon was stunning, but I was too tired to much notice or care. I arrived exhausted around mid-morning. My planned ten hour trip had taken twenty two. During the 216 mile struggle, I had climbed 10,390 feet and descended 7,780 feet. I had driven through a deep freeze cold enough to freeze the clothes on my body, winds strong enough to spin my car, and a whiteout blizzard. But I was alive.

I learned later that others on the road that night were not so lucky. An avalanche swept down some time after I passed and carried a car down the mountain into a ravine under fifty feet of snow. The man and his two daughters in the car were not found until the spring thaw.

It took a while for the lesson of Loveland Pass to register. I don't think that the finite nature of our lives ever crosses the mind of the adolescent male, not mine anyway. But it is an important lesson. It teaches us that every day is a precious gift to be spent wisely, that we do not have forever to do the things we need and want to do.

Mike Stenhouse  SP 218  Davidson NC