Tour de Traverses: 1st Half11/27/2018
I’d been wanting to do some kind of bike trip all summer. In the spring, biking was the one outdoor activity that my angry Achilles would tolerate consistently and repeatedly. For a time, I even seriously considered the Tour Divide, a 2700 mile self-supported bikepacking race along the spine of the Rockies in early June (perhaps an indicator of my often irrational mindset concerning injuries). By August my Achilles had improved quite a bit, but then my vague aspirations for a peak-bagging bike tour in Wyoming were foiled by an early season dumping of snow in the Tetons and Winds.
Grrrr…what to do? Summer was palpably drawing to a close and I felt as if I had nothing to show for it. A few long rides here and there; reasonable but not total running fitness and health; regular doses of verticality and fear on large stone precipices, sure; but, overall, no enduring outings that I could point to as obvious occasions where I was challenged, pushed to grow in new ways, and had expanded my life-experience base in a manner that would have a lasting effect. The lack of these things generally induces some not inconsiderable existential angst in me.
But then one of those mid-run epiphanies occurred to me during an otherwise typical trot down Chapman Drive here in Boulder—why was I planning on driving to go for a long bike ride anyways? Colorado has plenty of mountains of its own…why not plan a self-supported, human-powered mountain range link-up right from my doorstep? Sometimes the most obvious options are hidden in plain sight.
By the end of that run, I had formulated a plan: pack up my 3T Exploro with some gear and pedal a roughly 1000 mile loop around the state of Colorado, stopping every other day to climb one of Gerry Roach’s Four Great 14er Traverses (the Crestone Peak to Needle and Little Bear to Blanca in the Sangre de Cristo’s, El Diente to Wilson in the San Juans, and the Maroon Bells in the Elk Range) as designated in his classic 14ers guidebook.
Personal projects are all about creativity and self-determination, however, and I needed to be inspired by the objective. To appease my jones for something a little more technical and a little less rubbly, I decided to kick off the tour with a scramble of Crestone Needle’s Top Fifty Classics Ellingwood Arete before traversing to Crestone Peak (most peak-baggers execute this traverse in the opposite direction and without the 5.7 alpine rock route). In the San Juan’s I would swap out the chossy rock pile of the Wilson Group for the striking and comparatively solid Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak deep in the Weminuche Wilderness. My tour, my choice, sorry Gerry.
Time-wise, I was constrained on either end of the tour by my desire to participate in the first stage of the Tour de Flatirons here in Boulder on a Wednesday evening, but still be back on the Front Range only 10 days later for a concert in Denver the following weekend. This compression of the trip added a welcome urgency—no rest days—not even any easy days could be tolerated if I wanted to complete my aggressive itinerary.
The chain of big days this required was exactly the experience I was looking for. For me, the whole point of a trip like this is to come up with an objective that challenges me. I want it to be possible, but not without some sacrifice, some grinding, some discomfort. If I’m able to cruise casually the whole way, where would the opportunity for growth come from? Drifting alongcomfortably in your home environment is exactly what a trip like this is supposed to shake up. Arbitrary parameters—while contrived—are essential for creating a space where a little problem-solving and a little grit are mandated. Without those, it’s merely a vacation. I didn’t want a vacation; I wanted an adventure.
Day 1: Boulder to Cañon City
In order to make my 10 day itinerary work, I needed to be able to do the Crestone Traverse on day two, thus day one was necessarily a huge day of biking—it is approximately 205 miles from my apartment in Boulder to the South Colony Lakes Rd Trailhead outside Westcliffe on the eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristo range.
The opening hours getting to Sedalia and the Rampart Range on the southwestern margins of Denver were workmanlike and uneventful—log miles, try not to get hit by a car. The next stretch on Highway 67 through the South Platte region were hot and unexpectedly scenic. Temps in the 90s made flyfishing in the river look much more inviting than pedaling along the undulating pavement and gravel, but the effort was tempered by a surprising sense of being out there. Who knew such a wide-open landscape existed so close to Denver?
I finally pulled into Woodland Park in mid-afternoon with more than 100 hard-earned miles covered. The terrain had been slower than expected, but after a crucial refueling at the Donut Mill, I was excited for the next portion of the route winding behind Pikes Peak to the mining town-come-gambling-haven of Cripple Creek; the western slopes of Pikes gave me my first taste of the brilliant fall foliage that would define the scenery for the entire tour.
Descending the 25 miles or so of Shelf Road from Cripple Creek to Cañon City at dusk would be one of the gravel highlights of the route and for sure a trip down nostalgia lane for me. When I was a freshman at Colorado College back in 2002, the limestone cliffs of Shelf were basically where I learned to climb.
I remember clearly one post-climb drive back to campus where my main climbing partner—Eric Martin, a senior on the XC team—was trying to explain to me the existential themes in Radiohead’s hit Karma Police. He contended that the lyric “for a minute there, I lost myself” was a reference to modern man’s struggle to remain true and authentic in the face of the often homogenizing and dehumanizing pressures of society. I did not get it. I was 18. What the fuck was he talking about? I was never going to grow old and lose my ideological edge.
Now, 16 years later, descending into the canyon at dusk, with all these memories rolling back, I felt like maybe I was finally getting it a little bit. Having lost myself—while perhaps a bit overly dramatic—was kinda how I’d been feeling all summer. My chronic Achilles injury shook my sense of purpose. What was I pointing towards? What could I point towards? In the fading light at the end of a long day of biking, kicking off an ambitious trip, my objectives and purpose were finally clear. Get to Cañon City. Eat some food. Keep biking into the night. This distillation of purpose—however self-imposed and arbitrary—is highly satisfying.
A not-so-quick dinner transition in Cañon City’s Safeway had me grinding up the Wet Mountains’ starlit Oak Creek Grade (a dirt road) at 9pm. Two hours later I finally called it a day and crawled into my sleeping bag behind a boulder with 170 miles and 13hr of riding logged. I slept well.
Day 2: Crestone Traverse
I woke up with the wind blowing sand in my face. Windy sunrises are weird. It set the tenor of the morning—I was feeling a bit rough. I hadn’t thought to pack a can of cold brew coffee with me the night before and instantly regretted it. The 20ish miles remaining between my bivy and Westcliffe were slow. Uphill. Into a headwind. On washboard. I was rarely moving at more than 5-6mph. Ugh. Tough way to start the day. It was even too windy to put my contact lenses in. It took me more than 2hr to ride what I had wrongly imagined would be a zippy and trivial downhill.
By time I rolled into the first coffee establishment I encountered, it was already 10am and still pulling off the Crestone Traverse that day seemed improbable. No matter, I needed coffee and carbs. I must’ve been a pitiful sight when I ordered my second quad Americano (“This one’s on the house, brother.”), but finally I was out of town and creeping up the deceivingly ascending South Colony Lakes Rd under a blazing hot mid-day sun.
I abandoned my bike at the start of the 4WD difficulties and began my first foot-travel mission of the trip. Before departing, I debated bringing my headlamp. With a featherweight wind jacket, a half-liter water flask, a pair of TC Pros (climbing shoes), a chalk bag, and an energy bar, I already felt unduly weighed down with everything stuffed in my Ultimate Direction Utility Belt (I hadn’t wanted to pack a running vest or wear it while on the bike). I had 17 miles, 7000’ vertical, and a 5.7 alpine rock route to onsight . It was 1pm. I left the headlamp behind. Nothing like a hard deadline to keep ya moving.
I mixed running and powerhiking on the approach, attempting Achilles tendon preservation. The Ellingwood Arete itself was spectacular, deserving of its classic status. I opted for the direct start—about three pitches of 5.6ish climbing through a giant right-facing “open book” dihedral—and was immediately impressed with the quality of the notorious Crestone conglomerate rock. The extended middle portion of the route offered consistent 4thand low-5thClass scrambling intermixed with grassy ledges before kicking up dramatically for the steep summit headwall, where a pair of 5.7 pitches would allow passage.
The first pitch was a straightforward slightly curving finger crack, but the second pitch was a steep and serious right-facing dihedral. Judicious stemming and attentive jamming got me through the crux bulge/mini-roof. I was thankful for my climbing shoes and chalkbag.
The traverse from the summit of Crestone Needle to Crestone Peak is apparently typically done in reverse, but whichever direction one chooses, it is a rather uninspiring scrabble of discontinuous movement across ball-bearing-filled gullies. When I finally stood on Crestone Peak’s apex, my energy and motivation seemed to be synced with the setting sun. Time to get down. After some counterintuitive route-finding deposited me back at the lake at the foot of the Ellingwood Arete, I enjoyed a dusky descent through refulgent aspen leaves, even overtaking a few creeping 4x4s on the rugged road.
I made a hasty transition back at my bike, clicked on my headlamp, and powered through an unexpectedly chilly hour of nighttime pedaling back to Westcliffe where I arrived just in time for a veggie burger and fries at one of the few restaurants in town still open. After some uncertain searching, that night’s bivy was deluxe—a virtually spotless city park bathroom that locked from the inside. Privacy, some welcome extra warmth, and never even a knock on the door all night.
Day 3: Westcliffe to Lake Como Road
The windowless bivy effected a luxuriously late wake-up time. After getting sorted again at the local java hut, I stopped by the post office to mail my TC Pros and chalkbag home before pointing my rig south towards the hamlet of Gardner. The Ellingwood Arete was the technical crux of my entire trip and I was happy to reduce the load on my bike. Fast road miles led me to the gravel climb up Pass Creek to Highway 160 (an unexpectedly beautiful short-cut) where any advantage the long downhill into Fort Garland offered was nearly negated by an aggressive headwind out of the west.
I rolled into town at 4pm, parched and starving, and proceeded directly to Del’s Diner where I established my trip-long strategy of basically skipping lunch, eating a giant early dinner (linner? lupper?), and then re-mounting my bike for a few more hours of riding into the night. It was perhaps not as effective as a more consistent caloric drip of many snacks and small meals, but it worked for me. I was rejuvenated by the Mexican food and a brilliant sunset for the final 20 miles to Lake Como Road at the foot of Blanca Peak. Bivying where the sand just about gave way to babyheads (7700’) saved my light-n-fast tires and offered up a soft sleeping surface. At 87 miles and only six hours of riding with minimal vertical gain, this would be my least arduous day of the whole trip.
Day 4: Little Bear to Blanca Traverse
I’d done this traverse once before, five years previous, so I knew what I was in for. The approach up to Lake Como at nearly 12,000’ is largely runnable, but by time I reached the base of Little Bear’s 4thClass NW Face, I’d already been moving for nearly two hours. The NW Face is shorter than the more popular Hourglass route up Little Bear, but this convenience is balanced out by some abominable choss. Simple 3rd Class terrain felt serious simply because of all the rubble laying around, just waiting to cascade down the steep slope. Somewhat nerve-wracking.
Once I’d gained the summit of Little Bear, however, the magnificent mile-long traverse over to Blanca Peak unfurled in all its glory and my mood brightened. The whole point of this tour was to climb/scramble quality routes, and this one is definitely a jewel of Colorado’s 14ers. The first half (going from LB to Blanca) is the technical portion, with many 5th Class moves and plenty of exposure, often on both sides. The position is heroic. I’d drastically misjudged my fueling yet again, however, and I was bonking pretty hard on the final bit of talus-wrangling that leads to the summit of Blanca. The descent back down the long jeep road to my bike was predictably hot and interminable (another 17 mile/7500’ vert, 6hr session of foot travel), and I’d saved only a couple swallows of water in my bike bottles for the 20 mile ride to Alamosa.
An all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet—including approximately a gallon of horchata—righted any deficits I was suffering from, but also felt like a mistake; my stomach was killing me for the first hour or so of the next 33 nighttime miles I had to ride to get to the town of Del Norte at the eastern margin of the San Juan mountains.
It turns out there’s actually a bikepacking hostel in Del Norte—meant to service riders of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (track for the Tour Divide bikepacking race)—but contacting the owners for access and a bed felt like an insurmountable hassle, so instead I opted for a dark bivy behind a tennis court across the road from the high school. Slightly less vagrant feeling than a public restroom, but only slightly so.
Day 5: Del Norte to Silverton
This turned out to be one of the more epic days of the whole tour. It began with a tedious but pleasant-enough ride up the Rio Grande River valley to the old mining hamlet of Creede. My thesis research in grad school had been in Creede, so I reminisced over the travails of acid mine drainage and academia as I noshed on a lunch of gas station breakfast burrito and a canned Mexican mocha cold-brew.
The subsequent climb over Slumgullion Pass and the descent into Lake City were eye-openers. The descent in particular was next-level beautiful with radiant aspen groves, the dramatic summits of Uncompaghre and Wetterhorn Peaks towering on the horizon, and a light rain adding to the ambiance. I’d never been to this particular corner of the state before and the stunning setting was near-overwhelming in its splendor.
I rolled into Lake City in the late afternoon with 90 miles covered and the intimidating Engineer Pass—13,000’ high and unpaved—separating me from my hoped-for destination of Silverton, another 35 miles away. But first, fuel.
I wasn’t willing to wait around for a full-service meal, so I scrounged at the local market, which, it being shoulder season, was stocked sparingly. In a somewhat rash decision, I purchased ten large homemade cookies and proceeded to wolf down the entire bag while my electronics charged. Oof, definite mistake. As soon as I started pedaling, I could tell my body was in rebellion, so I made a quick detour to the city park where I hit the restroom and then laid down on the grassy lawn waiting for my stomach to calm enough to allow movement. It was 6pm. If I was gonna make Engineer Pass happen, I had to get going, stomach be damned.
This was a perfect example of what I had set out on this trip to experience. Under nearly any other circumstance, I would’ve gladly called it a day, sought a comfortable bivy, and made the impending huge climb and descent the next morning, preferably after a relaxed breakfast of, say, coffee and eggs. But if I wanted to stick to my schedule—and my promise to be back on the Front Range five days hence—I had to run Vestal Peak the next day, which meant that I had to get to Silverton tonight. Dammit, alright, let’s roll.
It was a beautiful night. The first nine miles or so were barely uphill and on surprisingly smooth road. As night fell the surface gradually became a bit rockier and with about five miles to the top it took a marked turn uphill, increasing drastically in steepness. Nevertheless, I kept grinding up and topped out under a glittering, star-filled sky in windless conditions just before 9pm.
I wasn’t doing anything special—pumping away at the pedals, breath ragged, seemingly no one else within miles—but the mission over this random mountain pass felt heroic. Typically, this time in the evening I’d be at home in bed, probably paying half-attention to some Netflix show while idly scrolling my phone. Perhaps reading a book.
Instead, though, I was out here, having an adventure. When people talk about how something “makes them feel alive”, I think what they’re really talking about is experiencing a sense of agency. Putting themselves in a position where their decisions and actions have weight and carry tangible consequences. This is what I felt on the summit of Engineer Pass, and it was a good reminder that I could set an objective and stick to it.
I threw on a puffy jacket and gloves and cruised the long, frigid downhill into Silverton, my headlamp dying en route, before I finally crashed out for the evening at nearly midnight and tucked beneath the quarter-pipe of a skateboard ramp on the outskirts of town, swaddled in my sleeping bag and bivy sack. Five days, 518 miles, four peaks, and two traverses ticked; I’d made it to the half-way point.