It's taken me a while to be ready to write about what happened up the climb into the Rockies, but I think I'm ready now.
Our stay in Salt Lake City was really fun. We had to fix Mike's rear wheel hub which had last been looked at in Melbourne. The bearings had been replaced there but it turned out that they didn't put any grease on one side so the bearings were totally shot. Luckily, the rest of the hub was really solid and so a new set of ball bearings and some grease saw it all right again. Our hosts, Angie and Vince, then took us indoor climbing which was an absolute joy after the mind numbing but astoundingly beautiful roads across Nevada and into Utah. Climbing engages the brain in a way I'd never thought about; problem solving while you're half way up a tall vertical structure gets the adrenaline pumping and it's a little addictive!
Wheel fixed and brains alive, we set off east towards Evanston, Wyoming. The weather was cool and overcast but actually quite pleasant to be riding in, especially on a continuous but not too steep ascent. We had been on a side service road (a road which parallels the interstate with very little traffic) for a while but after a few hours had no choice but to join the shoulder of the Interstate. The shoulder was very generous and we'd ridden on so many main highways across the world by this point that we thought nothing of it. I put my jacket on as I thought the extra breeze brought by the passing traffic would cool me down. After about half an hour, a little rain started to fall and we stopped under a bridge to check on each other like we always do when we separate a little on climbs. Our hands and feet were starting to get cold but we had thick gloves and socks on and were only about 15 miles from Evanston so we just kept pushing on. Within 5 miles the rain got extremely heavy and began to soak through my jacket, we were getting extra splashes from passing lorries but there was nowhere to shelter. Nothing whatsoever, the road was within a gully heading up the mountainside but still quite exposed. The rain only got heavier and heavier and the temperature plummeted; the rain like ice, I was surprised it didn't hail. I had ended up on the front ahead of Mike after we left the bridge so he didn't ride too far away from me in case something happened. Punctures are more common in the wet because of debris on the road and if I punctured with Mike way ahead he would be unlikely to hear me shout over the din of the traffic. With the rain I couldn't see anything in my mirror so I kept turning my head to check Mike was still on my wheel and hadn't punctured himself, and he was always still there but had begun to slow a bit. I was tiring but knew if we were to stop, there was nowhere to go and would only get wetter and colder and it would take even longer to get to Evanston.
The road levelled a slight bit and I changed gear to keep spinning to keep warm and heard a human noise from behind me. My reaction was slow with the cold and within two seconds there was another shout, this time louder. I put my left block of ice foot down on the road and turned to my left to see if Mike had stopped or if I was hearing things. The next 3 seconds slowed in a way I've never experienced before.
My eyes scanned Mike's face and my brain didn't understand what I was seeing. His features were contorted into a screaming cry, his eyes shut and his mouth wide open. He was weaving across the shoulder, thankfully staying the correct side of the rumble strips. My brain searched for a reason for the reason. Injury? Panic attack? The cold... Hypothermia?
In one movement my right foot unclipped from my pedal and my bike fell left onto the road as I span around and caught Mike on his left side as he managed to unclip his left foot and stop. His breathing was erratic and he couldn't speak save for the cries of pain and panic. I tried to get him to slow his breathing but within seconds I could tell there was no use. He wasn't really responding to me and now his hands were off the handlebars his arms and hands were contracting into his body and his torso lowering down towards the ground. Hypothermia.
There was no way I could get the tent up in good time in the wind and the rain. Holding Mike's chest up with my left hand, I started broadly waving with my right arm. The traffic levels were high but the speed is also around 70 mph along the Interstate so cars may only have seen us for split second. I was alert, thinking logically and trying to look people in the eye as they sped past. My arm was moving steadily through the air going a full 180 degrees to show more of a "help" wave than a "hey everyone" wave which people thought we were doing in Australia. Within seconds Mike made a noise and shakily looked up the road and trying to point with his soaked through ski gloved hand. A car had stopped and was reversing back down the shoulder towards us. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe a car had stopped so quickly. In Australia it took hours.
I ran up to the driver window, thanking the driver for stopped and saying "my husband is having a panic attack". I don't know why I didn't want to mention the H word, I perhaps didn't want to believe it, or maybe I wasn't sure of my judgement. Jason got out of his car and spoke calmly to Mike who managed to say "I can't get off the bike". Jason did what I couldn't do and hooked his arms under Mike's armpits and dragged him off the bike, Mike's legs falling to the ground unable to stand. I lowered the bike and gathered our blankets and my sleeping bag to start warming Mike up. Jason had laid Mike across the back seats of his car and we piled him high with our dry blankets and my sleeping bag. Mike starting shivering but his face was still contorted in a silent scream. Jason introduced himself to me after he jacked the heat up in the car and asked if I wanted to call 911. I peaked into the window and decided instantly, yes.
Jason was on the phone as I moved the bikes further off the road and we waited for half an hour for the ambulance to arrive. Over that time I removed Mike's gloves, and I wish I'd changed his clothes but for some reason I didn't. He was starting to warm up, shivering quite violently and becoming more lucid. Jason really was our saviour that day. If he hadn't stopped I would've struggled to get Mike warm. He said he thought Mike might be hypothermic which in a weird way made me feel better to not have jumped to the worst conclusion wrongfully. I had been right. I had been right to stop Jason and ask for help. But then I began to think of what could have happened if I hadn't stopped and turned around when I did.
Once they arrived, the two paramedics checked Mike's awareness and asked him what happened. That's when I learnt that Mike was fighting consciousness as Jason put him into the back of his car. Jason really was our saviour.
Mike was in the back of the ambulance for an hour with heated packs over his body and a machine checking his vitals. In the mean time Jason had called his girlfriend who brought her SUV to the scene to help us up the last 10 miles to Evanston. Once she arrived I stood up to help move the bikes into the cars but one of the paramedics told me to stay where I was, under a blanket myself, and the paramedic, Jason and his lovely lady took our bags and our bikes and had them all ready to go one Mike was discharged.
Mike recovered very well and the paramedics said that if they didn't transport Mike anywhere, we wouldn't be charged a cent for the ambulance coming to the scene. They were happy to discharge him as his temperature was back to normal and we didn't feel like he needed to be seen any further so off we went in the car to the Super8 motel in Evanston shoving a McDonalds burger into our faces and looking forward to a warm bath.
I cried a lot later that night. Mike's contorted face would appear in my mind constantly and the "what ifs" were all very real. We were going to take a day to mentally recover and figure out what to do.
Mike had recovered really well and any light headedness he had in the ambulance had gone once we had eaten a pizza and rehydrated. His memory was a little foggy of it all. He knew he had been cold but the storm had gone from nothing to torrential very quickly that he had been caught out. It can happen to anyone and it's really important to know the signs.