The Semi-Rideable 14ers Tour

I kept the email vague.  Aggressive route in Colorado.  There will be lots of hike-a-bike.

I kept the email vague.  Aggressive route in Colorado.  There will be lots of hike-a-bike.

I didn't think I'd have a problem talking Dr. Refsnider into it.  He loves dumb ideas.  But I was rolling it out slowly. I was trying to convince myself it was a good idea, too.

The elevation profile looked like a heart attack, or something you'd saw a tree with.  It didn't look like something you'd want to pedal a loaded bike on.

The whole endeavor of "mountain biking" 14,000’ peaks is a fringe activity at best.  Most are closed to bikes.  Few are rideable, downhill.  Even fewer can be pedaled.  All are hard.

In my various MTB wanderings, I'd managed to drag my bike to the summit of a few.  I'd given up getting my bike up a few, too.  Each one that was successful left me exhilarated and destroyed.  I needed days to process the experience and to recover.

So of course, it was only natural to try to link them all up.  Each had shelled me individually, riding unloaded, and driving to trailheads.  Instead, we would pedal singletrack between them, sleep in the dirt and carry all our gear for the summit attempts.  You know, bikepacking!  What could go wrong?

My usual partner in crime for bad ideas is Eszter Horanyi, who has more ability and grit than anyone I know.  But ever since we spent a summer pedaling/pushing/dragging bikes along the Continental Divide Trail, her zest for pushing bikes endlessly has been, shall we say, diminished.

Fresh blood.  Kurt Refsnider and I have exchanged blows in underground endurance races for the better part of a decade.  Almost invariably, it was me who took the beating.  I've long been in awe of how quickly and competently he is able to travel by bicycle, and like me, he has a preference for rugged terrain and places that most would agree are "no place to take a bicycle."

Perfect.  The stage was set.  A 300-mile loop that would bring us to the base of seven 14,000’ peaks.  We would set up a base camp at each, ditch our bikepacking gear, and push up them unloaded.  I dubbed it, jokingly, the "semi-rideable 14ers tour."  Only peaks that were 100% open to bikes and at least somewhat rideable were included (with "somewhat rideable" being a subjective measure, based on our own meager abilities).

We had Salsa's most capable alpine bike: the all-mountain Redpoint.  We had a narrow eight-day window.  And we had a terrible weather forecast.  Late August storms had already dumped a foot of snow on some of our peaks.  Rain, snow, and thunderstorms were in the mix for all of the next 10 days.

But it was a sunny afternoon in Salida.  So we pedaled in earnest, starting the 7000' climb to our first target.

Photo courtesy of Kurt Refsnider...

#1 - Mt. Shavano

The worst was first. 

"There are a lot of rocks on this trail.  Why are there so many rocks on this trail?"  I think it was a rhetorical question, from Dr. Refsnider, a professor of geology.

We pushed bikes into the failing light, failing to find even nuggets of rideable trail.  Eszter had decided to join us for day one, wisely ditching not only her camping gear, but her bike as well.  She was easily an hour ahead of us, on foot, bouncing down the trail after tagging the summit.

I was already questioning the sanity of the trip at large.  Perhaps this was too hard.  And days of this?  But we pushed on, carrying our bikes through talus that wouldn't be rideable downhill, either. 

Once our bikes became useful, they were more than that. 

Photo courtesy of Kurt Refsnider...

Outrageous, silly fun.  Kurt leads, picking our way down the tiny shelf of a trail.  Tires moving against harsh scree.  Clinging to the side of the mountain, some 6000' above the banana belt below.  A family of bighorn sheep darting across the trail.  There's just enough light to see, above the trees.  I can't believe some of the technical moves we were getting away with, riding above our ability. 

A solid branch catches Kurt's handlebar, several near saves, and a slam to the ground.  "Whoo, I need to sit down."  Wind knocked out of him.  "Perhaps we should tone it down a little."

Headlamps on and in the trees, the trail gets even more rowdy.  We really, probably, shouldn't be riding this. 

"I could hear you guys giggling and whooping ten minutes before you got here."  Eszter is waiting for us at camp.  Once the adrenaline wears off, sleep will come easily.

"Hardest first.  They're all going to seem easy after Shavano."  Somewhat true, but I knew I was lying, too.

#2: Mt. Antero

A short transfer on the Colorado Trail to the base of Antero.  This is not easy riding, or perhaps we are already shelled.  Will the clouds build today?  Probably.

Coffee and bright sunlight energize us.  Hopping up ledges and muscling switchbacks, even more so.  The granite spires of Browns Creek impress the geologist, and pull us further up the mountain.  To our great relief, we are pedaling more than pushing.

The upper reaches of Antero are heavily mined, but even the mining roads we join are only semi-rideable.  Overcast skies give us the confidence to push for the summit. 

But first, we ditch our bikes, knowing the last 400' won't be rideable downhill.  Dragging bikes up just to drag them back down doesn't fit our (arbitrary) definition of "semi-rideable."

Dark clouds chase us down my favorite descent in Colorado: Little Browns Creek.  It's a dash for treeline, just waiting for the skies to unleash.  I smile as this technical gem of a trail unfolds before Kurt's eyes.  More giggling, some heavy rain, and again Eszter is waiting for us at camp.

Photo courtesy of Kurt Refsnider...

She couldn't resist the allure of the bikepacking portion of the trip, deciding to climb the peaks on foot while we struggled to mountain bike them.  Without a doubt, her strategy proved faster and more efficient, but I maintain that the giggling she heard as we finished each descent was proof that we had more fun.  Or something like that.

#3: Huron Peak

The transfer to Huron, along the Colorado Trail and Clear Creek, hadn't gone smoothly.  The town of Buena Vista sucked us in, with hot coffee and warm sun.  It looked like a day you didn't want to be in the mountains, but to the mountains we went!

Camping below Mt. Huron was grim.  Dark skies, more rain, and a lack of enthusiasm for venturing above treeline.  Luckily a couple of girlfriends showed up to meet Eszter and climb the peak, early.  They gave us a "Melly" dress fashion show (Melly is short for Melazana, a made-in-Leadville outdoor clothing company), and there was only one thing to do: motivate and give the three cute girls a chase.

The singletrack brings warmth and energy to our legs and psyches.  The challenge– the chase– a brilliant one.  I love climbing this trail.  Kurt is in the mood to dig deep into the pedals and fight for rideable lines through rocks.  We trade leads and are slaying alpine trail like it's our job.

Huron's upper basin.  The stuff of dreams.  We hear giggling and excitement from above us.  It's the girls, just heading down.  They cheer us on, and decline to mention the incoming weather.

The valley fills with a giant white cloud.  Snow falls.  Surrounding mountains disappear.  Graupel and ice.  All our layers come out.  Tires are starting to pick up soil, mud.  Without much discussion, we decide to turn around, some 500' shy of the summit.

These descents are mildly terrifying and are only semi-safe when dry.  Was it a good idea to try to ride, slick and with snow in our faces?

You can probably guess the answer.  YES.  Somehow we rode more than I thought possible, the downhill generating almost as much warmth and fire in our hearts as the climb.

We collapsed at camp in adrenal fatigue, laughing and buzzing.  How did we recover enough to leave the tents in the rain?  Coffee, of course.

#4: Mt. Elbert

Photo courtesy of Eszter Horanyi...

It rained all night.  Snowed more up high.  We stayed indoors at the Twin Lakes Inn, awaking to a thick fog in our brains and an even thicker layer around the valley.

Glimpses of Elbert in the dawn light did not encourage.  Fresh snow, nearly down to treeline in places.  Uh oh.

But you never know until you go.  We'd turn around if it was a mess, or if the predicted midday thunderstorms materialized.  Up early, at least we had a fighting chance.

The trail is a wall.  So steep it's difficult to push a bike up.  Eszter floated away from us, effortlessly.  What are we getting into?

We emerge from the trees.  A pleasant surprise: bright sun and rapidly melting snow.  The summit calls to us, LOUDLY.

Our super-duper granny gears get called into service, a 24 tooth chainring worth its weight in gold.  We commence a switchback contest, at 14,000’, egging each other on.  It's not at all a good use of resources, but neither of us can resist.  Neither of us can believe the trail is this rideable!

Photo courtesy of Kurt Refsnider...

A switchback cleaned, a rock garden negotiated.  "It hurts!"  "Every cell in my body is screaming at me."  But we couldn't stop.  The momentum was unstoppable, and the summit was ours.

I was apprehensive about the descent, but Kurt took the lead.  I went with the logic of "Hey, he just rode that and didn't die, I probably won't die, either."  He guided us to a nearly clean descent of Colorado's highest mountain, which I did not think was possible.

We found Eszter at the bottom, again laughing that she'd heard us from a mile away.  In Leadville, I bought her a "Melly" dress for additional warmth, and because they are super cute.  Pizza was consumed in mass quantities.

Photo courtesy of Eszter Horanyi...

#5 & #6: Mts. Cameron/Lincoln

"There's nothing romantic about alpine starts," as Eszter is fond of saying.  But we pushed bikes over 13,000’ Mosquito Pass, in the pre-dawn chill.  The tundra wonderland we found ourselves in was motivating, but the promise of hot coffee in the town of Alma was what actually kept us moving.

Photo courtesy of Kurt Refsnider...

The coffee shop owner liked what we were doing.  We ditched gear behind the store and began pedaling what is perhaps the easiest of our summits.  I even convinced Eszter that it would be a good idea to bring her Redpoint along, sparing her knees some abuse.

It may be the easiest, but it's still a hefty 4000' granny gear climb.

And then we got into the snow.

Eszter wondered aloud why she listened to me, dragging her bike up sections of icy "climbing with bike."  "This is dumb, I'd be faster on foot."  I could tell she was joking, and beyond stoked to be where she was, with bicycle in hand.

We coasted off Mt. Lincoln with great speed, intent on making the coffee shop before it closed.  A third round of black gold was needed to get our carcasses over to the base of the final peak.

#7: Mt. Sherman

Photo courtesy of Kurt Refsnider...

A mining road took us beyond 12,000'.  From there the route up Sherman has very little dirt.  Mostly your tires are on large chunks of rock, chunks that you hope don't shift or roll too much.  Add snow between the rocks, and, well...

Photo courtesy of Kurt Refsnider...

Photo courtesy of Eszter Horanyi...

I'm not going to pretend that riding down this one was a safe or reasonable thing to do.  We'd safely negotiated all the other descents, so perhaps we were feeling a little invincible.  It was a good feeling, the rhythm of a week in the mountains, of heading above treeline every day.

This photo cracks me up.  Hikers standing and awe, with iPhones out, taking video.  Again, I'm not going to maintain riding down was a good idea, but it sure was fun.

Photo courtesy of Eszter Horanyi...

Closing The Loop

Alright, the peaks are done.  We sighed in relief, and in deep satisfaction.  Now to get back 'home.'  Kurt had contributed the know-how and GPX for what really tied this loop together: a largely singletrack return, on the west side of the Buffalo Peaks.

Photo courtesy of Kurt Refsnider...

Kurt couldn't quite remember when he'd ridden these trails, in which direction, or which portions thereof.  But it all tied together beautifully.  We made some game-time decisions and gambles on a few new trails, and we won, big time.

"These trails should be the Colorado Trail, and that stuff over there should be something else."

It was such ideal bikepacking trail, especially for our tired legs.

Of course, it's never that easy.  In Chubb Park we met a valley of shale.  The overnight downpour turned it into death mud.  We thanked our lucky stars for Boost spacing, which kept us rolling, if only barely.

We decided to finish the loop in style, descending the classic Cottonwood trail straight into downtown Salida.

It was a fitting end to the loop, on aggressive trail that had us buzzing yet again.  We'd been turned back on one peak, but there was no apologizing or regret; it was a fantastic time spent in the mountains, with the best of friends.

Done.

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ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER: SCOTT MORRIS

Scott Morris loves riding bikes. He loves hike-a-bike, too, especially if it's in a beautiful place. Scott has a PhD in computer science, and wrote the GPS software TopoFusion. He tracks backcountry events and trips, especially bikepacking, over at trackleaders.com. Right now he's lucky enough to live and work in a 13 foot Scamp trailer with his partner, Eszter Horanyi, as they wander the west and its many mountains and canyons.

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