Tour de Traverses: 2nd Half (Silverton to Boulder)12/24/2018
[The first half of this 10 day bike tour–a pair of traverses in the Sangre de Cristo Range–is available here.]
Day 6: Vestal Peak/Wham Ridge
The late night getting into Silverton—I didn’t fall asleep until almost 1am—was also the coldest of the trip thus far. I had vowed to sleep in, but habits are habits and I woke with the sun shortly after 6am. My bedding was covered in frost. Knowing that I had a big day of running ahead of me, I lingered at the Brown Bear Cafe in Silverton enjoying a breakfast burrito, pastries, and multiple Americanos. By time I’d pedaled the six miles and 1500′ up to Molas Pass (the trailhead into the Weminuche Wilderness) and started running, it was after 10am. Oh well, the weather continued to be perfect and I needed a little relaxation after the previous evening’s efforts.
My legs were tired. Jogging down through sun-drenched, aspen-groved switchbacks to the Animas River I could tell that the day was going to be a grind. I just didn’t have any energy. No matter, these things happen. The only other time I had been out to the Grenadier Range–within which Vestal Peak’s Wham Ridge is the crown jewel–was five years previous when I had done a full traverse from Arrow Peak to Vestal and continued East over the three Trinity Peaks (scroll down to the Thursday entry in that post for an abbreviated report). Such an ambitious objective seemed absurd on this day’s accumulated fatigue, so I was happy to only be targeting Vestal. It would still be a 20 mile outing with nearly 8000′ of elevation gain.
After a couple hours of jogging (and plentiful deadfall negotiation on the Vestal Creek use-path), I had made my way to the sweeping ramp of Wham and started marching straight up the center. Five years before I’d climbed the easiest line, near the climber’s-right margin of the face, so with much more climbing experience in the intervening years I was curious to check out the supposed 5.7 Center Shift route for something a little more engaging. I did my best to stick to the very center 0f the face, but without contriving some difficulty I didn’t find anything harder than low-5th Class. To avoid scree and talus, I simply downclimbed the standard ascent route.
I had felt my bum Achilles twinge a bit on the sustained slab smearing on Wham Ridge and my fears were confirmed on the nearly 10mi run back out to the highway. All summer I had deliberately been taking at least two days of biking inbetween days of running and this was my third long running outing in a row with only one day of biking in between. A nuanced and somewhat subtle calculus, I know, but my aggressive schedule was catching up to me. To try and mitigate the tendon stress I hiked any extended uphills, which meant most of the final four miles from the Animas River back up to the highway.
I finished the outing unsure of how my Achilles would feel the next day (always the real litmus test), but convinced that I should spend another night in Silverton instead of biking the Million Dollar Highway over to Ridgeway that evening as I’d originally planned. I was tired and bonky; I needed food—a lot of it—and rest. After coasting back down the pass into town, I had a giant dinner—appetizers, beer, pizza, dessert—at the Avalanche Cafe and turned in early for the night. Taking two days of biking to get to the Maroon Bells would be best for my Achilles anyways, and if I didn’t flub any more of the timeline I could still be back on the Front Range by Saturday evening for the concert I had planned.
Day 7: Silverton to Gunnison
I had figured I’d get at least to Crested Butte today, and if things were perfect, maybe even Aspen. Alas, the day started off shrouded in low-hanging cloud—the first instance of this on the entire trip—and deteriorated from there. Thankfully, I made it over Red Mountain Pass and the Million Dollar Highway (a truly spectacular experience with the peak fall foliage) with no precipitation, but as I rode a heroic tailwind into Montrose the sky started spitting. No worries, after 60 miles and an 11,000’+ pass, it was time for lunch anyways.
I pulled into a coffeeshop on the eastern outskirts of town just as the skies opened up for real and proceeded to have my one legitimately downhearted moment of the trip. Riding bikes in the rain isn’t very fun. It’s very difficult—especially without fenders—to not get soaking wet. And the constant wind inherent to being a body moving quickly through the air makes for chilly conditions. Tough to get psyched on several hours of it.
At least the coffee shop was on point. A couple cups of coffee, pastries, and a panini were all perfect distractions as I procrastinated heading out into the wet. To further put off the inevitable, I called Hailey over her lunch hour. Her pep talk was devastatingly simple–“Chin up, TK.”–but remarkably effective. Sometimes that’s all it takes. I wrapped up my running shoes in a plastic trash bag, put on my wind jacket and gloves, pulled my brim low, and after a lugubrious 90min lunch break, started pedaling.
As is almost always the case, it wasn’t that bad. It rained the whole 65 miles from Montrose to Gunnison, but I made it, albeit late. I had to click on my lights maybe 10 miles out from town and by time I soggily rolled into town I’d resolved to spend the night in a motel. I was wet and cold; everything around me was wet and cold. I’m not above creature comforts. A hot bath and a bed were magnificent. I hadn’t taken a proper bath since high school (only showers). What a luxury! The room was totally worth it.
Day 8: Gunnison to Aspen
The day started off Olympic with a clutch breakfast stop at the Double Shot Cyclery in Gunni. I highly recommend this bike cafe. They nail all the important things–bikes, espresso, breakfast sandwiches. It was a cold but clear morning and I barely noticed the 25 miles of tarmac that led to the dirt grind up to the iconic Pearl Pass.
Ever since the first Crested Butte Klunker Ride in September 1976 helped launch the mountain bike revolution, traversing from Crested Butte to Aspen via the 12,705’ Pearl Pass has been a bit of a rite of passage. Though my 3T Exploro is about as far as one can get from a “klunker”—aero geometry, carbon frame, electronic shifting—it is also indubitably without suspension and was loaded with everything I needed for a couple weeks in the mountains. As such, I felt a certain kinship with the mindset that I imagine motivated that seminal crossing—adventurous self-reliance, a subversion of the status quo, sheer fun.
The route started off winding up through bucolic sub-alpine pastures and refulgent aspen groves with plentiful stream crossings. But about 1500’ below the high point the road surface changed from surprisingly smooth double-track with occasional choppy bits to pure rubble. Fearing for my lightweight, skinwall tires, I shouldered the rig and hiked the last couple miles to the windy summit.
I didn’t know what to expect for the drop down to Ashcroft and Aspen, but I was pleased to ride all but the chunkiest sections, even while being conservative with my fragile tires. Aspen deservedly gets a lot of guff for its ritz and wealth, but the beauty of the mountains within which it is nestled cannot be denied. It is a stunning corner of the state, especially during leaf season. After scarfing my usual late afternoon lunch/dinner I was sluggish and unmotivated for the climb up to Maroon Lake but at this point I was accustomed to my nighttime pre-bivy rides. This evening a particularly luminous moon lit the way and I snuggled into my bag excited for the final traverse in the morning.
Day 9: Maroon Bells Traverse
I woke up cold, uncomfortably so. And well before dawn due to the leaf-peeping hordes there to take photos of the Bells with sunrise alpenglow. I can’t blame them–I was there, too, afterall–but the crowds sure did make me feel uneasy. I felt guilty about my involuntary attitude of superiority over the masses–I biked here! I slept on the ground! I’m running over those summits!–and was further self-shamed by a not-so-sneaking suspicion that I was in fact just another lemming in the herd.
I was unavoidably reminded of one of the most famous passages in one of my favorite books, Don DeLillo’s award-winning novel White Noise. In this scene, two of the books’ main characters–Jack and Murray–are visiting ‘The World’s Most Photographed Barn’ simply to witness the tourist trap spectacle. Murray opines:
“No one sees the barn. Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see
the barn. We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph
reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see
only what the others see. We’ve agreed to be a part of a collective perception. This literally
colors our vision. They are taking pictures of taking pictures. We can’t get outside the aura.
We’re part of the aura.”
I like to think that by choosing to travel in the style I was—with acute intention, under my own power, getting up close and personal with the peaks themselves—that I was succeeding in penetrating this aura and hopefully stepping outside of that collective perception. Not only here at the Bells—though this was certainly the most obvious instance DeLillo’s aura—but with the trip as a whole.
But why? What does it even matter? To feel special, I suppose, but hopefully not necessarily superior. And yet a hierarchy seems to be required if one’s satisfaction is to be evaluated. How else do we decide what we do? The assertion of “no judgment” has always rung a bit hollow to me because, ultimately, we all make choices and judgment is implicit in the choosing. This tension between desire for community/connection and a perceived differentiation from the mainstream seems to underly most of the choices we (I) make in life. It seems we want to feel special, but not too special. I’m not sure; motivations and values are thorny topics.
Either way, the run was magnificent. Any worries about my Achilles from Wham Ridge were unfounded in my traverse across the Bells and the dusting of snow up high meant I barely saw anybody once past the lakes. The Elks are a spectacular mountain range and I was happy to spend a little more time in them after a few summers away.
Once back down in town, though, I knew I had to hustle. I was more than 200 miles from Boulder and I had barely more than 24hrs to get back. A sandwich at Annette’s Mountain Bake Shop (recommended!) and a double espresso had me jazzed up, though, and I charged up Independence Pass, topping out late afternoon.
I pedaled into Leadville just as lights were becoming mandatory, happy to be 70 miles closer to home than that morning. Leadville always feels like a second home-base for me in Colorado, and I hit up the usual amenities—namely High Mountain Pies and the Ice Palace City Park. Public restroom bivies for the win, especially at over 10,000′ on a fall evening!
Day 10: Leadville to Boulder
Last day. A mandatory stop at City On A Hill Coffeehouse kicked off the morning and it only improved from that high. Fremont Pass down into Frisco was absolutely frigid, but then I was shirtless cranking up and over Loveland Pass in the late morning sun. I don’t know if I was just that much more fit by the end of the trip, but this final 135 miles were some of the easiest of the trip, both mentally and physically.
I made it home with plenty of time to spare to take the bus down to Denver for Frankie and the Witch Fingers, but, perhaps more importantly, also with plenty of stoke to spare for the next trip of this style and magnitude. I’ve got plenty of ideas.