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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bikepacking the Colorado Trail 2015 - Days 1-6

Cataract Lake in Segment 23 at sunset. I made camp after descending to a smaller lake next to it.
The Colorado trail is an 800 km long distance trail from the Waterton Canyon near Denver to Durango, organized into 28 trail segments and a few bike detours around wilderness areas. The highest point is over 4000m and most of the trail is above 3000m, although still below the tree line, which is around 3300-3500m. The Colorado Trail is not a fast route, think of alpine hiking trail rather than dirt road or flowing single track. Average speed for most sections was under 4 miles/hour. There are a few mandatory detours around wilderness areas for cyclists, which are faster, but have other issues (my least favorite stretch of the whole route was such a detour). Federal law prohibits bicycles in wilderness areas, the term is "mechanized transportation" (not "motorized"). Probably when this was created, lawmakers had in mind horse-drawn tourist carriages, but now this precludes a lot of safe access to backcountry for cyclists. In the Los Padres in Southern California, the wilderness designation cuts off many possible routes that would allow access to the backcountry. 

Despite the slow pace, the whole route can be done in about a week on the bike with very long days (two weeks at touring pace), while hiking takes a month. The human limit seems to be about 4 days for self-supported cyclists and 10 days for runners. 

Rocky alpine meadow near Shavano
The Colorado Trail is a very challenging route and easily ranks as the hardest I have done. I was walking about 20% of the distance and almost half the time on the route, rather than riding. Even more walking for the intrepid single speeders and I met a few on the route. To maximize riding opportunities, I mounted a 22 tooth small chainring on the front.  
Hike-a-bike section in segment 22 (the blue dot up there is a hiker ahead of me). The bike is not an advantage here!
My initial plan was for about 7 days, maybe 8, which would be considered more a "racing" speed than touring. But there were many uncertainties given altitude and route difficulty. As it turned out, I changed plans on day 3, slowing down, but adding 14er climbs to my itinerary. Every time the Colorado Trail bike route intersected with the trail to a 14er summit, I went to the top first. There aren't that many as many routes to summits are in wilderness areas where bicycles are not allowed. 
View from the top of Mount Shavano

My full route via my spot tracker

There is a mass start for the Colorado Trail Race, a self-supported bikepacking event, which started in 2007, and its website is here: http://www.climbingdreams.net/ctr/
This year it ran from Durango to Denver, so the opposite direction to me. Bikepacking races used to be small grass-roots events that largely were off the radar, but many of these events have outgrown their roots and are too big for their soul, partly because of media coverage. The CTR is probably one of them as it is (entirely deserved) one of the big three bikepacking events, together with Tour Divide along the Great Divide Mountain Bike route and the Arizona Trail Race. I enjoy a small group start to meet with other people before or occasionally even on the trail going the same way, but CTR is too big for my taste.

Bikepacking races are a bit like randonneuring for road cyclists, where a course and a time standard provides the extra motivation to complete a route/distance that just seems to be too hard with minimal or no sleep and riding at your limit. Roads, however, are more forgiving for large numbers. The most famous road randonneuring event, the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris, packs 5000 or so cyclists into the ride (and requires tough qualifying rides). Yet on a single track route, even a few dozen can be too much and invites backlash from other trail users. Cramming 60 people into a hiking trail almost from the start is problematic. Indeed, there were complaints about excessive numbers of cyclists and their behavior about this year's group start at Durango. Anyway, I didn't want to contribute to congestion and started from the other side and a day earlier. 

There are still a number of smaller events. At Los Padres, there were 9 of us last year, 15 this year. When I did the Tour Divide in 2011, we had 15 people at the northbound Grand Depart. That size is about perfect, so maybe all it takes are more, smaller events. But once there are a few dozen people, the ethos of self-support seems to be disappearing rapidly.  

Although it is nice to see a sport grow, media exposure may also attract unprepared participants, some without outdoor experience or even the imagination of doing such trips on their own. The Colorado Trail is particularly ill suited as it gets into very remote terrain (far more remote than the Great Divide Mountain Bike route). There are good beginner routes to try first. The Idaho Smoke and Fire makes for an excellent introduction and can digest a large group of starters without problems as it stays largely on dirt roads. A highly recommended ride, my report : Idaho Ride Report

Wildflowers were going wild - a wet year and summer comes late in high altitudes

Not this year, that was 2012, hose in my
chest connected to a wall vacuum at the
Durango hospital. 
I also had unfinished business with the Colorado Trail as this was not my first time. My first attempt was in 2012, but quickly aborted after I fell at night, broke some ribs and punctured my lung. A small creek crossing where I stalled and fell, but unfortunately right into a sharp branch. I made camp for the night and even tried to go on the next morning, but quickly found that this was not possible and in fact needed all of the next day just to get myself back to a town (very hard to move with half the lung capacity). 2 days on the trail, 5 in the hospital. As far as hospitals go, the Mercy Medical Center in Durango is quite nice. But given my track record with the Colorado trail, I was a bit hesitant about riding at night (let alone "racing" through the night).
Prologue - Segment 1
We visited family that week in Longmont and Boulder. Kathy's dad and Obin drove me to the Waterton Canyon on Friday night. I started very late because first my GPS failed and I needed to recover maps and files (which I did and then the GPS held up fine for the rest of the trip), then then there was slow traffic, and finally there was a storm. But I was in no rush to get going while there was a storm coming through! Just before sunset, the rain had stopped and I took off at Waterton Canyon, initially a flat dirt road, but after 6 miles turning into a steeper single track climb. I didn't ride for long and camped long before midnight, but at least I was on my way! 
Campsite on the first night

Even segment 1 is not easy, many steep switchbacks and some hiking. As it was night, I didn't see very much, but filled up on water at the South Platte River. 
Day 1 - Segments 2, 3 and Lost Creek Wilderness Detour (Tarryall)
I started a bit after 6, just as the sun rose. The first part of this first full day was fun, not too much climbing either. Segment 2 is not pretty, it goes through an area devastated by the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire. During the middle of the day, that stretch would be hot without shade, but early morning was nice. I quickly came to Segment 3 at Little Scraggy Trailhead, which is one of my favorite segments, a nice forest trail. Obin and I rode this segment out and back 3 years ago. Highly recommended for a day ride.
Then comes a bad part, possibly the worst of the whole route. Segment 4 of the Colorado Trail enters a wilderness area where bicycles are prohibited. So instead of 20 miles of trail, there are 70 miles of detour, first on dirt road and towards the end on pavement. The dirt road is very sandy, fully exposed to the sun (Hayman Fire area), plenty of car traffic, and guys shooting automatic weapons on the side of the road. No interest in ever going through there again. 
This picture makes it look as nice as possible, but there is deep sand
I wanted to get the detour out of the way, so pushed through it. Near the town of Tarryall, pavement starts and riding is much better. But lots of mosquitoes and cowpoop quality water.  At least, there is one restaurant just before the detour leaves pavement. Things improve quickly afterwards though and I didn't mind the dirt road for the last few miles. It was dark when I reached the Colorado Trail again in segment 5, finally away from cars and people, but couldn't go very far: During the day I had lost my good front light and only had a headlamp. A strong headlamp, but not good enough for single track riding. About 100 miles that day.  
Day 2 -Segments 5, 6
My second full day started with nice smooth single track in segment 5 that ends at Kenosha Pass. "Pass" on the CT often means a tough climb, but section 5 is gentle.

Segment 6 is the longest single segment, from Kenosha Pass to the Gold Hill Trailhead near Breckenridge. It is an outstanding trail as well, almost completely rideable, but has two hard climbs. The first climb is Georgia Pass and it gets close to 12000 feet for the first time. It was windy and damp, no hard rain, just drizzle. Many day riders and I would definitely recommend this segment for a day ride as well.
Georgia Pass, at 3600m. Getting close to 12000 feet
The second, unnamed climb in segment 6 also goes over 11000 feet. Plenty of pushing, although it would be rideable at lower elevation (at least when fresh): the altitude added to the challenge and it seems like I needed to walk over 11000 feet.
Many of those mushrooms
My plan for a 7 day schedule was to reach the Gold Hill trailhead near Breckenridge in the afternoon with enough time to get up into the Ten Mile Range and camp there. But I did not feel good and was dizzy at 11000 feet. Maybe the hard first day (I just had to get through that vile detour), maybe lack of acclimatization to altitude, maybe not enough sleep. Then I met Dan Montgomery, a local rider (and skier and pizza parlor owner), coming the other way. Not exactly a coincidence: Dan had followed the trackleaders website that listed my spot tracker, but it was a big surprise for me. And he brought up an Izze drink, just perfect for my current condition as there was yet another climb to come. Entirely unexpected trail magic at its best!
Dan Montgomery brought a drink up the mountain
We had a nice conversation, I last saw him 4 years ago doing the Tour Divide (that day, we even had snow storm). Dan was one of the very first riders to tackle the Colorado Trail Race in 2007 and 2008 when it still was a small underground event.

Izze trail magic or not, I was pretty exhausted although only 5 in the afternoon. Even more, I was concerned about how I felt at altitude. Starting into the Ten Mile Range in the evening, where the trail goes well over 12000 feet, and camp there seemed like a dangerous idea. Maybe I was just tired from an overly hard day 1, but being dizzy over 11000 feet was a bad signal. Needing help later because of bad decisions fails on the basics of self-support! So time to ignore the planned schedule; instead of going up, I rode the bike trail into town and checked into a hotel. Even at 9000 feet, I didn't sleep very well. Much of that was acclimatization, from around Salida on  (halfway point) I slept very well at altitude, even at 12000 feet.

Day 3 - to Mt. Elbert Trailhead

Now that I had to change my schedule, what other interesting alternatives are there? Dan told me that when he did the 2008 CTR, he went from Frisco to Buena Vista in one long day ( the route then skipped the Ten Mile Range). Judging from that, I should easily get to Leadville with an early start. Then I would be a half-day behind the original schedule, but arrive at the trailhead of Mt Elbert early in the morning the next day, a good time to climb a 14er. With the typical afternoon thunderstorms, it is recommended to get off summits and exposed ridges before noon.
So far, the water was excellent and always available. Big difference to California bikepacking routes

It was slow moving as the trails here not particularly bike friendly and there are steep climbs.  I was a little short of Searle Pass (first high pass after the Copper Mountain ski resort) just before the first afternoon storm blew in. But the storm moved quickly. I put on my rain gear, covered behind some small bushes and had a snack, and the storm was already over. After that, the weather stayed nice, very good because Kokomo Pass came shortly afterwards. Both Searle and Kokomo passes were over 12000 feet, not good places to be during a lightning storm. 

Not sure where exactly that is, could be between Searle and Kokomo Pass
There is a long descent from Kokomo Pass to Camp Hale, a concrete bunker that was used as a military training site for mountain division 70 years ago.
Camp Hale, these are all small individual rooms
Some climbing, but not too hard, to get up and over Tennessee Pass and then onto the highway to Leadville. I missed a bit of the trail after Tennessee Pass as I immediately went onto the road at the pass, but it was not a bad descent despite being on the busy road. Maybe better to use the trail going the other way. 

In Leadville, I had dinner and quickly rolled out of town. Easy riding on Halfmoon Creek Road, but too many campers for my taste, and I was soon on the Colorado Trail again. It was late and dark, so I didn't plan to go very far and didn't try to ride (it was uphill anyway). I largely pushed until the intersection with the first Mt. Elbert trail (there is a second Elbert trail a few miles further along the Colorado Trail) and found a good camping spot right after the intersection. Ready for the first 14er bonus miles of this trip!

Day 4: Mt Elbert to Twin Lakes
Mount Elbert
Despite camping right at the trail to Mt. Elbert and getting an early start, there were many people ahead of me! I heard people coming by before 5; at 6 am, there was a constant flow. Mount Elbert is popular for several reasons: It is the highest summit in Colorado and actually of the entire Rocky Mountains in North America, at about 4400 meters. And even though the first documented ascent wasn't until 1874, there is nothing particularly difficult about it. In fact, if it weren't for the crowds, it would be fine on a mountain bike (at least downhill) and no harder than many other parts of the Colorado Trail.

View from Top of Elbert

Ptarmigan's look like the rocks they sit on - close to top of Elbert
I was very tired after the hike and nixed the idea of making it to Buena Vista. Those 14ers do take more energy than one expects from a 5-6 hour activity. If you think in terms of road riding, 5-6 hours is about the first half of a double century, time for lunch, but just the first half of a long day. However, I didn't have enough left to do another full segment after this hike, so it tired me out much more than the number of hours. 

Shortly after coming down from Elbert, I saw the first northbound rider, Jesse Jakomait, who was going to smash the course record by doing the whole route in under 4 days. That required a lot of night riding, something I wouldn't recommend to people less experienced than Jesse on this trail. In any event, I was too tired to ride into the evening and went to Twin Lakes and stayed again in a hotel. The trail down to Twin Lakes is very nice and fairly technical.  
Area around Twin Lakes
Day 4: Twin Lakes to Mt. Princeton
The next morning, the Collegiate  Wilderness detour would take me into the town of Buena Vista. It was a fast ride down highway 24 again and I actually missed the option of taking a side road, something I normally would do to avoid riding on the highway. Yet the traffic was light, there was a wide shoulder, and cars were considerate. Just as the ride into Leadville, one of the rare occasions where riding on a major road did not seem like a huge hassle or dangerous.
While I hadn't really firmed up on the plans of how many mountains to climb, this one just looked really good from the road:
Mount Princeton seen from the road to Buena Vista
I stopped at the outdoor store (i think it is called The Trailhead) in Buena Vista to get a new fuel canister and also look for an alternative front light. The only choice with replaceable batteries was a commuter light (the bike store a block closer to the main road had even more limited choices). The outdoor store also had a restaurant and I had lunch there and bought a sandwich for the evening. The pavement ride out of Buena Vista was not bad either for road riding, slower traffic and lighter than 24, but not much room and uphill (although gentle). 

Strangely, the official route (and CTR) suggested going further on the highway then necessary. There is an easy way to join the Colorado Trail across a bridge, which skips maybe a mile or 2 of highway. I don't see the point of stretching out highway riding. 

My next stop would be Mount Princeton. An attractive looking mountain, about 4300m, but it has one drawback and that is the jeep road from Princeton Hot Springs up to about 3600m (11800 feet), although there is no parking after about 11000. Many people want to drive (lots of rental jeeps). Based on my 1 day sample, I estimate about 80% drive as far as they can, 19% walk up the dirt road, and 1% take a bicycle. The initial access to Princeton is unpleasant. 

No good camping along the jeep road either, a few spots for car camping near the radio towers at 11000, but not many. I found the highest reasonable spot, not much more than a turnout really, at 11300, and camped there for the night. Strong wind and some rain, but not overly wet, although I was getting concerned about the storm hitting. Buena Vista had flash floods that night, so that's where the water ended up.  

Day 5: Mt. Princeton to Mt. Shavano
I left my tent where it was and rode the unloaded bike to the real trail that starts at about 11800 feet. The bike was very practical here, none of the cars could park much higher than 11000, just no space. 

Princeton is a more climby mountain and talus fields start almost immediately. I actually liked that better than Elbert and as far as the actual ascent is concerned, Princeton was my favorite. Many people didn't, so on the way down, I passed many that had turned back. Overall, only a small fraction of people compared to Elbert.

Route to Princeton's top has plenty of talus fields

The danger of weather in those high mountains was highlighted when I passed a metal plaque on the last pitch dedicated to a woman climber who would have been about my age now, but who was killed by a lightning strike at that spot 20 years ago. With my limited experience of Colorado's high mountains and weather, I was going to follow the recommendations to descend before noon and also watch conditions before committing to an exposed section. But that morning, no cloud in sight yet.

On top of Mount Princeton, the contrast and brightness looks almost photoshopped, but it is just my Iphone camera
By the time I got back to my tent, it was hot, and I was happy to be going downhill from there. Easy descent, but not exactly fun, just a dirt road to Princeton Hot Springs. I stopped at the store for ice cream, drinks, and refilled my water. 

The next segment starts at Chalk Creek Trailhead, 2.5 miles after Princeton Hot Springs, and it comes with a very short and yet surprisingly hard uphill push. Just as I reached the top, Mark Caminiti came up from the other side. I last saw him on my aborted CT attempt in 2012 and we drove back from Durango to Denver with another CTR rider from Colorado, Les Handy. Mark Caminiti has managed to do all the 3 major bikebacking racing (Tour Divide, Colorado Trail, Arizona Trail) in a single year - and two years in a row. I think one of those tours in one year is enough for me. 
Nothing else was particularly remarkable that day, again, I was more tired than expected given the time I had been moving that day. Elbert was not an exception, doing a summit took more energy than the time hiking indicates. But the remaining goal for the day was unambitious: Get to the Mt Shavano trailhead, so only about 25 miles of biking after climbing Mt Princeton that day. Very good camping available at the intersection of the Colorado and the Shavano trails. 

Day 6: Shavano to Salida
As on the other days, people started heading up Shavano before I got out of my sleeping bag. Many hikers seem to start their day before 4 for those mountains. Scott Morris asked me whether I took the bike, but the answer is pretty obvious:
Steep, rough trail for the first mile, many downed trees
The middle section of Shavano would be more rideable, but the initial part just isn't worth it (and the top are talus fields). More than enough pushing on the Colorado Trail already, so I am happy to leave my bike at the bottom.
approaching Shavano, this middle section wouldn't be too bad for a mountain bike

View from the top of Shavano

Obnoxious animal spoiled by hikers on Shavano and was hard
to chase away (tried to get into my backpack, too).
There is an additional 14er that can be reached from the top of Shavano, Tabeguache Peak. However, the connection is along an exposed ridge and the return requires going over Shavano again. By the time I reached the top of Shavano, there were thick storm clouds forming, the wind picked up, and I did not go on to the second peak. The storm held off for a while and it stayed dry during the descent, but this was definitely not the day for a prolonged peak stay. I packed up and continued on the trail and then a road to Salida to resupply. With those bonus climbs, I spent so much more time that I was running out of everything - including batteries. In fact, my spot tracker ran out of power on Shavano, which is why it showed me camping up there.

As soon as I had turned off the Colorado trail onto a road, I promptly took a fall near the parking lot. That turned out to be the worst spill on the ride because because of road rash (I had a bunch of other falls on the trip, at least 5). It rained by the time I got to Salida, so skipping Tabeguache was a wise decision. The next 2 days would have bad weather. 

In Salida, I bought a new water filter as my old MSR hyperflow was getting very hard to pump (despite repeated backflushing) and the outdoor store did not have a replacement cartridge for that model. I bought a new Sawyer filter, very light weight and it worked fine for the rest of the trip. Not sure yet how much I like it yet and whether I get another MSR or Katadyn instead, but the Sawyer filters faster than my MSR ever did, is lighter, and allows carrying additional water and filter it later. I shipped back some excess clothes and my old filter and then went downtown for dinner and beer. 

Continued here: http://rolandsturm.blogspot.com/2015/08/colorado-trail-second-half.html