Expedition Mountain Biking:
By Christopher Solomon
Ten thousand five hundred seventy feet up on the Continental Divide in Colorado, my friend Tim is screaming at his mountain bike. Or maybe he’s trying to motivate himself. Honestly, from where I’m standing –punch-drunk with hypoxia, my vision graying at the edges – it’s kinda hard to tell.
“Come onnnn!” Tim hollers at his Gary Fisher. And it occurs to me that we’re a long way from help, including mental health services of any kind.
Overhead the clouds are pulling a rapid mood-ring shift, ripening from a sullen lead color to a pissed-off plum. The thunder is a lion’s paw on the shoulder. We should keep moving. Tim climbs aboard his bike, pops it in the granny gear, and churns furiously, attacking his nemesis: an absurdly mellow, 10-foot rise in the trail. He crests the swell, pedals 20 yards of flat singletrack beyond… then crumples over the handlebars again, his mouth O-ing like a goldfish on the carpet. I’m not faring any better: A track of blood runs from my nose thanks to the dry air, and the altitude has convened a gang of timpani players for a drum circle inside my skull.
It’s Day One of an epic six-day ride along a chunk of the 486-mile Colorado Trail, arguably North America’s most spectacular, and spectacularly burly (and thus rarely-done) point-to-point knobby-tire ride. By my reckoning we’re still 157 miles from our finish line, with a half-dozen 12,000-foot passes in between. I wonder, for what won’t be the first time, just what the hell I’ve gotten us into, when literally a bump in the road feels Himalayan. At least things couldn’t get much bleaker than they are right now, I tell myself. Then it starts to rain.
Rider Descending the alpine vistas of the Colorado Trail
My mountain bike has always secretly disappointed me. The components aren’t the problem, or anything like that. What I mean is this: My bike has never fulfilled its implied promise to take me deeply into the embrace of the mountains. I didn’t buy a mountain bike so I could spin crappy loops through a suburban forest park, or so I could totter down ramps at Whistler while wearing more armor than Spartacus. I thought my mountain bike was supposed to help me leave the rabble behind, and quicker than my hiking boots could — “Rubber on wheel…faster’n rubber on heel,” as blues man Lightnin’ Hopkins sings.
John Humphries knows what I mean. A senior guide at Moab-based Western Spirit Cycling Adventures, the nation’s largest mountain biking guide service, Humphries knows that the largest demand by far in guided trips is for moderate and mellow itineraries. But he’s convinced that a small minority of fat tire fanatics will go in for what he calls “expedition mountain biking tours” – vehicle-supported, multi-day mountain bike tours that link remote sections of singletrack deep in the backcountry in the some of the wildest, most stunning, and inaccessible mountainous areas in the Lower 48. So Humphries recently launched an offshoot called Lizard Head Cycling Guides, to offer a few such expeditions each summer.
Humphries had hatched our plan two years earlier, during the first of these expedition-style trips, along the relatively well-traveled Molas Pass-to-Durango segment of the 486-mile Colorado Trail. Humphries a compact 37 year-old who favors both a battered leather Crocodile Dundee hat with a turkey feather in the brim, and an impish smile that suggests he’s got plans for you – looked to the northeast. He thought, why not an even longer trip on the CT, through some of its highest and most lonesome country—from, say, Monarch Pass in the Sawatch Range to Telluride in the San Juan Mountains, where the trail ambles along at 12,000 and 13,000 feet and hopscotches back and forth across the Continental Divide?
Humphries started asking around for rider beta and found… nothing. Of all the mad cyclists he knew in Durango and Crested Butte’s cycling-mad worlds, “I know one person who’s done the ride,” he says, chuckling in disbelief. “It’s off the radar. It’s the most remote area of mountainous Colorado” – a rare white space on the cyclist’s map. Yet because Colorado has been tramped by hardrock miners, sheepherders and now ATV’ers for some 150 years, enough cob-rough roads embroider Colorado’s high country to make such a trip supportable with a go-anywhere 4X4. So Humphries sketched out a 180-mile reconnaissance trip through this knobby-tire terra incognita, for a future Lizard Head expedition. Anxious to redefine my relationship with my mountain bike, and to see a less populous side of the rectangle than the “Condo-rado” I know, I sign on.
Prior to leaving I call Bill Manning, managing director of the Colorado Trail Foundation. I want to know a little more about this Colorado classic that zags through eight mountain ranges and six wilderness areas on its path from Denver to Durango. I also want to know what Humphries’ infectious enthusiasm is getting me into.
“One word,” Manning replies, “Three letters. B-I-G.” Beware the afternoon thunderstorms, he warns. And take it slow. “You’re getting ready to go on something that’s upper echelon in every way.”
Then he says, “Can you put a fourth chain ring on your bike?”
I don’t even know what the hell he’s talking about. But I don’t like the sound of it.
The Granny Gear Traverse doesn’t begin auspiciously. In the parking lot at Monarch Crest (elev. 11,312) where we’re about to jump on the CT, Tim is so amped he yanks a wheelie… and slams onto his back, bruising his tailbone and snapping off his seat before we’ve even set off. Mile Zero and we’re already cannibalizing our sole replacement bike – a 15-year-old, single-speed, steel Specialized Stumpjumper that, to everyone’s surprise, apparently can get less appealing.
“This is a prime opportunity to talk about the ‘expedition mentality,’” says John, eyeing the carnage. “Your ego will get you into trouble on this trip,” he continues, advising us to ride at 85 percent, not 100, because the middle of nowhere is nowhere to find yourself with a broken collarbone. “Protect yourself. Protect your bike. Protect the environment.” And if you’re unsure about something, he says – walk. Finally, he says again, keep a sharp eye out for the hypothermia-inducing afternoon thunderstorms that bloom after noon. This explains the mandatory shower caps, and the ridiculously heavy, rubberized slickers John’s insisted we lug in our packs, not unlike those worn by crabbers in the Bering Sea.
The chastening aside, morale’s high. We are six in all. In addition to Tim Neville and me, John’s recruited three of his amazingly strong Tahoe-area mountain-biker friends to aid in the recon: Tim Farrart of Reno, a linebacker-thighed seller of high-end Italian windows who a few days previous at the Downieville Classic won the Clydesdale class (“That means the fat guys,” he quips); Matt Anderson, a whippet-thin private banker also from Reno; and Incline Village’s Rob McDougall, a carpenter and downhill bomber with the energy of a Lab puppy.
Crammed inside the support vehicle, besides the 26 spare tire tubes, six five-gallon jerry cans of water and a hacksaw for clearing downed trees, are two Dutch ovens. Two bottles of tequila. A whiffleball bat. And 778 ounces of beer, for starters. Whatever this expedition’s many rigors, they do not include self-denial.
And then there’s the Dude. The Dude is the support vehicle, a go-anywhere 1986 VW 4×4 Vanagon Synchro, the support vehicle that will rendezvous with us each night. Like a camper-van on horse steroids, the Dude has 15-inch clearance, true four-wheel drive, dueling rocket boxes, a Subaru engine, and a license plate that reads “DOOOOD.”
Which is appropriate, because while this may technically be a “business” trip for John, it’s also a roving hard-man’s bachelor party of sorts. Tim Neville’s getting married in two months, so this is likely to be the last chance for him and me to spend real time together in big mountains. For one week the six of us will forget about, collectively, the following: 3 a.m. diaper changes; wedding planning; work deadlines; soccer-team coaching duties; heartbreak; and six bottomless in-boxes. The rule, established the first day, is written by John in the dust on the Dude’s door: “No checking cell phones from the peaks.”
“Bachelor party” seems an apt enough description for the first few miles – it’s smiles and ladies all around, as cute girls shrink-wrapped in Lycra rip past on buffed ridgetop singletrack. Hey, our smiles say, maybe this trip won’t be so taxing after all.
Don’t get comfortable with either, warns John, with a smile of his own. “These are the last women we’ll see for awhile. So take a good whiff.” Ditto the smooth trail. The stunning first 16 miles of our route, with views southeast to the Sangre de Cristos, is part of the famed Monarch Crest Trail, which Bicycle magazine once rated one of the five best rides in the USA, and it eventually peels off from the alpine tundra to plunge 3,500 feet to sagebrush and the town of Salida.
Soon enough ponytails and manicured trail are left behind. I’m introduced to the concept of hike-a-bike: dismounting and simply pushing our rides up sections too steep, or too inefficient, to cycle. But at 11,000 feet, everything feels too steep – especially for someone who three days ago was looking out his apartment windows at saltwater. Don’t let your ego get in the way, John repeats. Push when you must. Besides, he adds, “Ever heard the phrase, ‘if you ain’t hikin’ you ain’t bikin’?’” That impish smile, again. For the rest of the day, and in fact most of the days, the other guys are a blur. Tim (from Bend, Ore., elev. 3,625) and I get to know their backs. They are lungs with legs. And when they do pause, they pull what some cyclists call an “Italian stop” – lingering just long enough for us to arrive, and ensuring that we’re still functioning, and that my radio’s working… then racing off again.
As the day warms, the cumulus clouds that were only random spinnaker shapes in the west now organize into a regatta, and take on a heavy cast. The other guys push ahead to meet the support truck and find a good campsite, leaving Tim and me to push our bikes through subalpine fir forest and past old settlers’ cabins melting back into the earth, as black-bottomed clouds spit overhead. More than seven hours after setting out we pedal – slowly – into our 11,600-foot camp atop broad, green Sargents Mesa, having climbed and descended more than 8,000 feet over 26 miles. In mountain-biker argot, I’m “shelled,” and want to hug the Dude – its door flung open in greeting, its corners strung with Buddhist prayer flags, the grill already primed for buffalo burgers, and the cooler brimming with sweating Tecates with which to chase a fistful of Vitamin I. Somebody hits Play on a laptop and we recap the ride via digital photos to a Jack Johnson background. And as sunset fires the sky, everyone’s mood rallies, including mine. If every day ends so well, maybe this trip is doable for guys like me.
Times like this, I recall city-bred Jack Kerouac, who spent a deprived summer as a solitary fire lookout in the Pacific Northwest, himself tortured by his own physicality while in big mountains, and who wrote of the experience, “But let the mind beware, that though the flesh be bugged, the circumstances of existence are pretty glorious.”
It takes some time in the saddle to earn this revelation: To be astride a good mountain bike on a long-distance trek is indeed pretty glorious. True, laboriously churning the pedals up a steep switchback at 11,500 feet in the granny gear holds all the glamour of a butcher turning a sausage crank. The mud crawls past. When the angle finally relents, though, and you’re no longer fighting the landscape, but moving through it at a brisk ten miles per hour, you see the mountains anew. You see for the first time how the topography knits together: how valleys flow into one another; the competition of geology, in the color and roughness of the rocks under your tires; where creeks dive to seek other creeks, and dive again until they earn the name of river; and you even have the scope to see weather as living, moody character, as the morning’s modest smoke-signal cloud puffs coagulate into storms. On a bike, graced with speed, almost flying over the landscape, you see all of this in a way that poky hikers can’t begin to comprehend. More than anything, though, you just get to see so much new country. Twenty, sometimes 40 miles a day we cover, as our route follows the unique oxbow bend in the Continental Divide that forms the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. And we encounter fresh sights and often challenging terrain seemingly with each click of the shifter:
Click. Brief sections of “high-five”-worthy singletrack through quiet forest carpeted with pine needles that slip fast under the Moots’ 29-inch tires, the needles releasing their vanilla incense.
Click. On the second morning, a downhill-steep spur trail plunges to high-alpine Baldy Lake, ringed by Engelmann spruce, where we strip naked and dive in – and promptly rename it “Lake Shrinky Dink.”
Later that day on the trail while Matt and John again waits for us and the skies boom overhead, Matt stretches his showercap over his helmet. Then, to cool off, he drops his biking shorts to his ankles.
“If your clients ever saw this,” remarks John, taking in the shower-capped, pantless private banker standing before him in the woods, “they’d never trust you with their money again.” “I paid five bucks for this shower cap,” he throws back, a bit defensively, “I’m gonna use it.”
Click. That afternoon, a section of steep singletrack is so tilted and viciously cobbled with “baby heads,” softball-size rocks uncovered by dirt-bikers who also use the trail, that even walking it risks a fractured ankle.
Click. The third morning, detouring around the La Garita Wilderness, we spin fast down dusty, empty old dirt tracks of the Cochetopa Hills, a remote area that links the Sawatch to the San Juans and through which buffalo once migrated. We draft in a pace line through a big-hearted landscape that seems something out of an old Marlboro ad, with pronghorn antelope running along sagging barbed-wire fences, cows grazing in bottomlands beside fishy creeks, and mountain bluebirds racing the Dude to the 2,000-foot screamer descent from Los Pinos Pass. And, once again, the sky blackens to the color of a cast-iron skillet, we just barely beat an afternoon thunderstorm to camp.
That evening below the Cannibal Plateau I ice my aching knees with cans of Miller High Life and try to decide whether to tell the guys the tale of the infamous Alfred Packer, a self-styled guide who got snowbound with his party very near here in 1874 and was later convicted of killing and eating some of his less-fit comrades. The judge famously – if fictitiously – declared upon sentencing Packer, “There was seven Dimmicrats in Hinsdale County and you et five of ‘em, damn you!” But my friends look sated with Dutch oven burritos and spendy Don Julio Reposado tequila, so that night I sleep well beside Cebolla Creek. Mostly.
Day Five is to be the high point, literally and figuratively, of the trek. “It’s all up – except where it’s down,” says John, grinning under his brim, as we prepare the night before. “But it’ll be beautiful.” “Painfully beautiful,” I guess. Fearing thunderstorms on the route, which is almost completely above treeline, John rouses us at 4 a.m. – an alpine start on mountain bikes. We’re riding by 5:30. “I’ve never had a dawn patrol that wasn’t worth it,” says Matt, as we leave the trees behind under a pinking sky, five of us finally together on the trail and joking in the blue morning. We pass herds of sheep braying complaints at the coyotes lurking in the bushes, and Cujo-looking Great Pyrenees sheepdogs hurry us along. Not far from Big Buck Creek we flush a dozen deer as we push higher, to 12,000 feet, then 13,000 feet, where the CT traces the old La Garita Stock Driveway. Our bikes roll across the big bald pate of the earth, through fairytale alpine tundra rioting with alpine sunflowers, purple fleabane and elephantella – a wildflower Dr. Seuss would’ve made more of if he were in charge.
From the top of the world John points out the Elk Mountains to the north, home of Crested Butte and Aspen. To the west lie the “American Alps”, the San Juans, still piebald with snow. There’s Wolf Creek Pass to the southeast. But here, the world is ours. In fact, in five days on the actual CT we’ll meet maybe eight thru-hikers, and just two thru-bikers – and none of them today. But even up here, the world isn’t flat. At the route’s high point, 13,334-foot Coney Summit, Tim pushes his bike above his head, and calls up to me, higher on the rock. “There’s a certain Sisyphean aspect to this trip,” he says. Then he begins to giggle, hypoxically: a good sign – at least for morale, if not the oxygen supply to his brain.
We breathe hard. While the oxygen is stingier than ever today, for once we’re not decimated by it. Maybe it’s acclimatization, or the good company. Or maybe it’s that we’re about to ride the best singletrack of our lives. Which raises a dilemma: Do we take it in one big gulp? Or nibble it like the excellent chocolate?
After the plateau come two sweet descents into empty valleys, each better than the last. Finally, we’re poised atop the head of the Pole Creek Valley, its alpine treeless and pocked with tarns like some beginning-of-time-land. Rob and Clydesdale Tim clip in and rocket down the trail. They launch off lips, arc over the rolling terrain, splash through the streams and pretty much don’t stop for seven miles and 2,500 vertical feet, when the Dude finally pokes into view in a clearing among the pines. John and Matt hang back and treat the singletrack like the backcountry skiers they are, savoring the ultimate powder run: pausing every half-mile or so to slap backs, look up and relive each bend and drop, they arrive a good half-hour later.
For a minute all of us just stand around grinning like simpletons at one another. “The best mountain-bike ride of my life,” says Matt, “ – and mountain is key.”
We laze about in the late-afternoon sun, drinking beer and bullshitting about everything: dating advice (“If you’re a single guy and you’re not going to yoga class, you’re not getting it. The girls are ten-to-two at the classes in Telluride and Moab.”) The virtues of Two-Buck Chuck (“It won an international wine competition. Seriously.”) More dating advice – this time, the Dutch oven as aphrodisiac. (“If you’ve got girls on the trip and you can cook with the D.O., you’re in.”)
That evening the clouds pile up and deliver a real Old Testament skullclutcher, with pissing rain and lightning that flashbulbs the heavens. Near Molas Pass, the newspaper says later, the storm even sends a 23-foot-deep mudslide over the tourist-train’s tracks near Silverton. We’re snug, and dry, however, and warmed by good fortune and something not unlike victory.
But truth to tell I’m a little worried: What if the Dude can’t ford the storm-swollen river the next morning? All week the Dude has been my security blanket, my commissary, my sag wagon – I even hitched a ride for a few spins of the odometer one afternoon when my knee got gimpy. I love the Dude. Now Clydesdale Tim, the Dude’s owner, hears my concern and returns it with a slack, three-beers-in look.
“’The Dude abides,’” he says, quoting “The Big Lebowski.” Then he crawls in the pop-top and goes to sleep under the hammering rain.
By the numbers the final day is the sickest of all: 39 miles, three passes and more than 6,000 feet of climbing before our tires will finally crest the lip of 12,840-foot Black Bear Pass and the neat crosshatch streets of Telluride come into view far below. Yet fueled by the previous day’s euphoria, and the prospect of real showers and beer in actual bottles, not to mention the promise of nearly 8,000 feet in total of Mr.-Toad’s-Wild-Ride downhill, the whole thing somehow doesn’t seem so punishing. We ford Pole Creek with and toss stones in the deep spots so the Dude can follow us to 12,588-foot Stony Pass, once a main stagecoach route from Santa Fe to the mining towns.
Near the summit the hum of the curious hummingbirds who’ve buzzed our colorful jerseys all week is banished by the brap-braap of an ATV convoy, followed by a choking miasma of blue diesel smoke: Somebody remembers that it’s Sunday, mid-summer, and we’re clearly closing in on “syphilization,” as writer Ed Abbey, that old solitude-greedy coot, put it.
After a 3,500-foot, brake-burning plummet on a corkscrew fire road into Silverton, an expert macchiato waits at Mobius Cycles, poured by a dude named Winston Churchill. Eyes to the increasingly ugly skies, John finally rouses us for the afternoon’s 4,000-foot push. We pedal to 11,020-foot Red Mountain Pass, then left turn onto dirt and push up the last, steepest and most spectacular climb of all: Black Bear Pass, where the firs drop away again and bouquets of columbine, the state flower, arrange themselves beside braiding waterfalls.
It somehow seems right that the clouds that have nipped at our tires all week finally catch us. A thousand feet below the saddle they release their silent, drenching rain. Water sluices down the trail, over shoes. The waterfalls flow with chocolate milk. Wildflowers bend like penitents under the heavy drops. For the first time all week I don that crabbing gear, finally glad to have it.
There’s nothing else to do. So this time Tim and I smile at each other, and push our bikes higher.