Colorado Trail, Desert Southwest (CO,AZ,UT,NM) » A Drowned Rat at 11k


“A Drowned Rat at 11k”

I laid awake just a few minutes before dawn, listening to the pitter-patter of rain on my tent, thinking how nice it was to be dry. For most of the night we were only a sheet of polyurithane canvas away from being hammered by the atmospheric showerhead.
The rain finally stopped. Beads of water rolled off the tarp onto my hand, when I finally zipped down the tent door and popped my head out. Wispy clouds pierced by the giant toothpicks of Engelmann Spruce, hung overhead. I packed my gear into the Honda Accord while waiting for my friend, riding partner and support driver Sean to awake. I couldn’t help but think, Sean had been missing out on the best this trip had to offer, by not seeing the morning clouds and dew, not to mention the red of the rising sun, even if it was a bit damp out. Instead of riding the length of the trip with me he would daily drive the car to our endpoint for each day’s trip, and then he would saddle up and ride his Cannondale out to meet me at whereever I was on the trail. Then we would pedal the last short bit of trail to the car, chill, chow, find a place to camp out by the trailhead and call it a day.
This last overnight I had struggled to find a good position to rest on the rocky ground, earning only a fitful sleep. Still tired upon awaking, I was keenly aware of how wet it was outside, and wondered how much it would affect reaching my goal for the day: a 46 mile trek over a spaghetti-tangled line of gnarly singletrack. A path that would require passage first over high ridgepoints and across tundra, barren rock, before submerging beneath tree stands on a wildly rooted foot trail.
It was day 4 of 6 of a three-century trail ride along the mid to southern Colorado Rockies from the Mosquito Range to the far side of the San Juan Mountains at Telluride. Beginning the expedition in late August several miles south of Breckenridge, Sean and I were now somewhere in the middle of Gunnison National Forest in the Sawatch Mountains. This earthen flank of massive bulwarks made up some of the most awesome spectacles along the American Continental Divide. With seven of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks among its ranks, it defends the highest ground in all of the country, and undoubtedly it has been the background for many postcards defining the Centennial State.
Before departing that misty morning from the Monarch Crest Store off of Hwy-50, we had our picture taken by the sign for Monarch Pass (el. 11,312 ft .). After unracking my vintage 7-speed Trek 820 and lubing the chain, I started to crank my pedals at 8:30 a.m. – an unusually late hour given the amount of daylight already gracing the still frosty ground. Churning up the steep two-track towards a gondola to a line that branched off the right I broke away from the wide jeep track, ripping down a narrow foot trail etched into the slope. I could feel the adrenaline surge through my body as my bike clung to the ledge of a sheer dropoff.
The land oscilated from talus ledges on hardpack to 30 degree climbs over rockgardens. In one instance flying downhill on a short, steep descent, I slammed the wheels into a solitary rocky prominence that nearly forced me into a back flip. In a last second move I abdicated the saddle and kissed the dirt. Shaking it off, I climbed back into the saddle and attacked the next hoard of baby-heads at speed. Dodging and jumping over the trail impediments for a good 5 minutes, suddenly the front wheel bounced skyward. My feet left the flat pedals as I seemingly unicycled over the boulder before nose-diving my front tire back to the ground. While fun, one had to hope that the trail would settle down some so I still had the energy to complete the trip before the sun took a siesta.
It was late in the morning just two days before, when I struggled up the boulder-strewn ridge on the west side of Taylor Pass’ 4wd trail FR#761. Alternately propelling myself forward both on two wheels or by foot with the weight of the bike on my shoulders, I so wished I had made the recommended mechanical adjustments to my bike, whose largest gear was still only 28-teeth at that point. Whether due to overconfidence or being tight with money, I waited too long to realize the importance of rebuilding my drivetrain to meet the preciptious trails. Finally 5.5 miles later on the talus trek I stopped for a moment to regain some of my strength, and felt a rebellion of my digestive track. Having pushed myself up an unrelenting incline of loose rocks and boulders, I was soon on the ground writhing in dry heaves. Water and rest is a good thing, but I apparently forgot that an hour into my uphill charge.
Having grown up in the Blue Earth river valley of, Minnesota, I was only just starting to appreciate the lower oxygen levels, not to mention the advanced gear requirements to ride talus slopes. I kept telling myself the thin air really didn’t matter, and wasn’t going to affect me too much. It was all in my head — mind over matter.
Sucking air vehemently after I was unable to dispell anything from my empty stomach, I paused to look around me. Amid the odyssey a marmot popped out from behind a rock just a few feet in front of me. I groped for my camera a Canon Powershot A480, but with only the slightest move of my hand his eyes fixed upon me. Even before I could bring the viewfinder to my eye he scampered behind the boulder.
Since becoming serious about riding back in college at Minnesota State, I had a tended to be a bit masochistic about the sport, spilling my cookies after 80 miles of virtually non-stop riding over paved paths of rails-to-trails between Mankato and Fairbault, MN. So, I was fearless to attack the mountains. Despite the change in altitude after moving to Denver, this was only the second day of my the first experience pedalling over unstable ground for countless miles. I had come to realize my feeble mortality in the higher altitude. After regaining my composure, I leaned against a rock looking upon the vast expanse of mountain peaks, while simultaneously drinking my electrolite-empowered water. Taking a few more minutes to rest, I finally, hopped back on the bike and torqued my pedals over the next hilltop, negotiating several annoying rocky crags.
Just 100 feet from the apex of Taylor Pass I hung over my bike handle bars for a short rest. A couple minutes later I heard a caravan of ATV’s approaching from behind me. The tranquility of the area immediately disappeared along with feelings of exhaustion. As the hum of their engines slowly rode up behind me over the sea of rock, I hopped back on the wheels for one final push. Undoubtedly saving face I torqued my pedals up another 100 feet of the alternately steep to moderate slope. Spinning furiously to the top I dismounted next to a sign for Taylor Pass elevation 11,925 feet. The day before I was at 13,200 feet at Mosquito Pass, and that one seemed so much easier.
The awesome panorama at the top along with the company of boisterous 4-wheelers made this normally serene area seem almost circus-like. Two or maybe three guys walked over and interogated me in a friendly manner over this mad concept of cycling the pass. After this brief exchange they offered me a sandwich, pitying me for having only power shots and protein bars.
After oohing and awing together over the imposing skyline and making some small talk, the head of the party asked if I would prefer to ride with them or attempt to take my bike down across Taylor Creek. It would be another year before I was aware of the more ridable trail that waited for me on my right, well that and I had intended to go down Taylor Creek this year.
It was a constant rockfall and at times the trail was one with the creek, as the water level of Taylor had not dried up yet due to the unusual amount of rainfall in the high country this summer. So, I gratefully accepted his invitation. We strapped my bike on the back of the larger ATV and drove down several feet before going through and across the large mountain sluice. The trail was covered with watermelon and beach-ball sized boulders partially submerged in the mountain stream. The relatively short distance we covered lasted for what seemed like forever due to all the bouncing and jarring along the way, and to no surprise the wire to my odometer-speedometer severed. Fortunately I had some electrical tape with which to reconnect the wires.
Fast-forward to the present, and indeed today’s events would offer new challenges that might make the crawl up Taylor Pass seem tolerable.
As I spinned onto the narrow trail towards Peel Point — the height of Monarch Crest, I could feel the presence of several other knobby wheels behind me. I counted approximately ten other riders pedaling in front and behind me. I was honored to finally share the trail with so many other cyclists.
At Peel Point 12,600 ft in elevation I stopped a little ways before a radical decline, took a few more shots and exchanged some small talk with a guy who was on a tour that looped back to Salida. He was with a large group, but had taken an opportunity here to enjoy the spectra of an boundless mountain peaks and swap trip stories with me. The rest of the ride to Marshall Pass, whether riding uphill or downhill was a breeze. At this juncture on a dirt road a large crew of French roadies pulled into the parking lot where I was breaking at 11:30 a.m. Listening to their chatter it was curious seeing such a foreign element in this comparatively remote area.
By noon I was off again, following a couple casual riders. Not an hour passed though and at the turn for Silver Creek Trail, I again was playing solitaire as I watched the others ride off back towards Poncho Springs.
Almost immediately I approached a 30-percent grade on a ATV trail. Struggling desperately to maintain a rhythm on a waterfall of baby-heads, I slowly ascended upwards.
Next the trail alternated from rocky slopes to a narrow, rooted path. The dry bones of a deer carcass lay just off the trail on my left. I made a sudden shift and sharp right to avoid it and whatever my imagination told me was lurking nearby.
While slashing through a wide creek , I could hear the hum of two motorbikers approached from behind. I stopped and pulled off to let the two bulldoze past me.
Shortly thereafter the skies darkened and a few minute droplets soon transformed into a monsoon. Incredibly there was no wind. Nevertheless, the hammering rain, turned the trail into mud and I was forced to dismount and push my bike towards a campsite a mile or so ahead. With the added weight of my gear, I was wishing I had spent the extra bucks for that 100% water-proof jacket. A few minutes later a motorcyclist returned. My trail trashing enemy just a few minutes ago suggested a shortcut on the Tank Seven Trail down to the town of Sargents. Naturally, I was thankful for the tip, but feeling a little tentative about turning back and trying this uncertain route. Yet the gentleman was certain I could better circumvent the ominous weather conditions by excepting the challenge. Checking my waterproof map in the downpour, I reluctantly took his advice and abandoned my original goal, assured that I would not reach even Sean at the North Pass before darkness would stop my progress.
After finding the trail then tracking for what seemed like hours of pushing and carrying my bike on the washed out pathway, I had gradually become disheartened. The track was increasingly faint and seemed at times nonexistent. The addition of large slick rocks and flooded stream beds was exasperated by muddy, talus slopes. Traipsing through the sludge I felt like I was starting to get lost, so I pulled out my compass, turned my wheels in the general direction of the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) and retraced my steps and/or revolutions.
Having exerted myself and stressed my body so completely in my haste, I took more than a few spills in my effort to get back on track and make real progress before dusk. Already wiped from piggy-backing and pushing my bike across uneven terrain, I sat my soaked fanny back in the saddle and followed the tread back to a natural gas pipeline, and continued spinning along the snaking line to a familiar overlook.
An injection of adrenaline pumped through my veins, deleting all prior messages of weariness. I alternated between pushing and pedaling methodically with meager hopes of back-tracking to Marshall Pass before dark.
When the rain finally stopped a thick fog hung in the air, gradually dissipating into a string of vapor as I followed a tree studded ridgeline. No matter how hard I pressed myself the crimson western skies spelled the final chapter of the day. I contemplated where under the canvas of the dampened, old growth forest and seesawing hills that I should stop for the night .
When the sun finally settled down behind a silhouette of jagged massifs I probably should have still been in the thick of the doghair pines, but by divine interference the light hung on just long enough for me to reach a clearing. Hunkering down in the tall grass meadow on a incline, I laid my backpack down and curled up in a fetal position to stay warm since my clothing and gear were wet from the deluge. Fortunately there were still plenty of uneaten granola and protein bars in my pack.
Spotting myself in the center of the clearing just off the trail, I had a pretty good view of anything that could approach from anywhere but behind me upslope. The slanted ground allowed me to still recline as much as I could take the cold ground and still have a good view my surroundings.
As soon as I crouched into position the sky blackened. I had not been fully prepared to do an overnight, while my trailbuddy Sean was carrying the tent and camping gear. I tried to appreciate the peacefulness as light bulbs of the universe continued to illuminate my surroundings. Even so, the temperatures dropped drastically and I rubbed my bare ankles furiously with my bare hands. The biker gloves were soaked and useless. Here in the wild, it was like a little bit of heaven mixed with hell.
With time on my hands, I was thankful that my wife and three children were home safe and warm. On the other hand, I was certain that by now the alarm bells had gone off when I wasn’t able to call or answer my now altitude-sensitive cell. My eyes were busy both absorbing the tranquility and being bored with the sameness. A cold, crisp night breeze kept me awake and focused on what lurked behind the trees. In spite of only a fitful sleep, at around 5 a.m. with barely a hint of sunlight I was back on my feet and pedaling off towards Marshall Pass. As I headed down the hill two deer hopped across my slender path several feet in front of me. As they stared at me with a perplexed look of — “What the hell is this guy doing here?”, I stopped only once more to take in the moment, capture it on film, and roll out with a vengence.
Sometime thereafter I finally arrived at Marshall Pass and the familiar Forest Road 243. I had only 17 miles or so to get to Sargents on this wide track, so it should’ve been a relatively easy ride. After five miles of easy, winding downhill from the mountain pass, I zipped past a road closure sign. Without flinching, I pushed on giving no heed to the warning. After another mile I was stopped by a orange construction blockade. Cautiously I pedalled to the brink of a sinkhole, squeezed the brakes and stared down at the ten-foot vertical drop into a stream. I sighed at the thought, of having to scramble down this nasty terrain again, but really after yesterday much less the last couple days this stuff was getting to be routine. I dismounted, picked up my bike and started sidestepping down the embankment, but ended up sliding down most of it. Going up the other side fortunately was easier following the catapillar’s tracks to the continuation of a road. The rest of the trip was fast and finally blah, marked only by mud puddles and a mountainous horizon.
When I arrived in Sargent, I was covered in muck from head to toe. With barely enough change on hand, I asked for permission to make a call from the store phone at the Tomichi Trading Post. My cell phone by now had run out of juice. The store clerk responded “Sure!” without even flinching at my appearance. First I left a message for Sean, who must have still been out of range, then called my wife at home.
Instead my neighbor Vicky answered, and told me that she and three of my friends had contacted Sean and driven up here last night to begin a search. They had spent the night in Gunnison, a resort town and municipal center for the National Forest and County with that name. Previously, I had hoped that I would catch up with Sean, get cleaned up and continue the westward track the next day after a bit of rest, but with this information that was not likely.
Vicky gave me the number to the Gunnison Police, and I quickly called to give them my location. My heart dropped at the thought of a journey cut short. Nonetheless, I was indeed most thankful for friends, who had come to my assistance in this moment of seeming peril.
Looking disheveled and homeless I sat on the bench outside the trading post, waiting for their arrival. They pulled up an hour later, but I didn’t even notice until Steve, Jill and Tony jump out of the Plymouth Voyageur smiling. Then out came my Marcia, who just looked on in disbelief. With not too sharp of a tone, she begged me to just get in the car and leave my bike where it lay. With Steve’s help we loaded the Trek in the back and hopped in the minivan. Having endured a night near 11,000 feet in elevation, it soon came to me after sitting down in a soft vinyl seat how wiped I was really was. The nap on the way back felt good. Regardless of the outcome of the trip as a whole, this was a moment to be thankful. To have my friends and wife finally see me in my element was both humbling and an honor.

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