I planned to get back to our hotel around 6PM – leaving plenty of time to take Kelly to see Red Rocks Park and stand on-stage at the ampitheater made legendary (at least to us) by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, among others. Instead, in a dirt-filled rental car, toting a half-functioning rented Ellsworth mountain bike covered with red-clay mud and snow, I pulled into our hotel parking garage a little after 11PM. I still couldn’t feel my fingertips, and the mixture of mud and blood that washed off me in a hot post-ride shower would have been well-suited to an action-movie recovery scene.
The warm cafe where I’m sitting and typing this entry – with jazz, the smell of espresso and the sound of lighthearted conversation floating through the air – feels almost as otherworldly as the landscapes I just endured with two other riders…
The madness actually began the day prior. I picked up an Ellsworth Glimpse from the Golden Bike Shop in (wait for it…) Golden, Colorado. The owner suggested I give the Chimney Gulch Trail a try – “an easy out-and-back with some climbing.” Sitting in the rental car at the trailhead, waiting out a rain shower, the trail didn’t look too bad. Then – knock! knock! – a knuckle on the passenger window pulled me out of my internal pre-ride self-pep-talk. Another rider had gotten an ear bud cord tangled into his freewheel, and wondered if I had any pliers. After a few minutes’ conversation, through the combined dexterity of the rider, his friend, and I, we managed to extricate the remains. I learned their names – PJ and Dave. Both were paramedics – and had recently returned from stints as civilian professional firefighters at Al Asad airbase in Iraq.
A few minutes an an enthusiastic invitation later, we were saddling up at the summit of the trail. My perception of a quick 2-mile out and back rapidly disintegrated as PJ’s truck had sliced switchback after switchback, climbing to the far-end trailhead. The town of Golden, far below, looked like a miniature model. After a few quick seat adjustments and a rattlesnake warning from PJ, we clipped in and started descending. It only took about 100 feet of trail to put massive grins on all our faces – shuttling this descent was a decidedly good idea!
At the bottom, after we exchanged all the requisite post-awesome-descent fist bumps and exclamations, came the invite: Kenosha Pass tomorrow? I was in. I’d head to REI that night to pick up some cool-weather gear, and we’d meet a little before 9 to head 45 minutes into the Rockies.
I did. We did. And moments after cresting Kenosha pass on Highway 285, I got the news – the plan had changed, and we were actually headed much farther into the Rockies, to the Monarch Crest Trail. Starting elevation: 11,386 feet. Length: 32 miles. We’d leave my rental car at the bottom, then shuttle our bikes and ourselves to the top in PJ’s truck. Ride time? About 3-5 hours, according to most of the reviews. My response? What the heck – let’s go for it. After all, this ride was apparently #6 on someone’s list of the 10 epic rides you should take before you die.
We arrived in Salidas, Colorado at about Noon, and headed to the Sinclair gas station whose owners operate a shuttle service for mountain bikers. The shaggy guy slinging roller-dogs behind the counter – who warned us he was new to the area – told us that 6 inches of snow had fallen at the pass overnight. With clear skies and bright sunshine, we figured most of the new snow would have burned off through the morning – even when we reached Monarch Pass, only a dusting was clinging to the ground in the shadows. We suited up – gore-tex socks, insulation layers, fresh-powder-worthy rainproof jackets, and sunglasses all around – and headed up the fire road toward the trailhead. A few minutes’ pedaling and pushing gave us the view pictured here: the summit of Monarch Ridge. Pulling in a shred of a Verizon data signal, we downloaded directions for the route – which would prove, quite literally, to be a lifesaver a few hours later.
While the trail started snowy, it was completely rideable. The sticky layer of high-country white stuff allowed surprising traction, and within minutes we were 2 miles into our adventure. That was about when things started to get interesting… The Monarch Crest route, for the most part, follows the Continental Divide Trail (or CDT) from Monarch Pass to Marshall Pass. Our portion? It winds around the windward (Western) peaks of Mt. Peck, Pahlone Peak, Chipeta Mountain and Marshall Pass, predominantly above the tree-line. With precious little shelter from 40+ mile-per-hour winds and sporadic bouts of snow and hail, we trudged along the 9+ miles of trail separating us from the leeward face and the miles of grin-inducing downhill we’d set out to find. In many places, early October snows had drifted to thigh-deep – we mixed slogs through snow with occasional frozen trail riding and crunchy pedaling over the permafrost tundra.
Just prior to reaching Marshall Pass, we reached a spot sheltered enough to allow a few gloves-off minutes, and a short break in the snow allowed a quick photograph:
Just to be clear: our starting trailhead was on the far side of the most distant mountain visible in this photo – at the top of an even higher summit that’s shrouded in clouds. The view is Northerly, so the wind was out of the left side of the frame – the Pacific drainage – the same side of the mountains our trail followed. The only visible trail here drops from left to right, just above the pine forest on the pass.
After clearing Marshall Pass, we found a clearing and took a few minutes to recover. Since the Camelbak hoses were frozen, we took the opportunity to crack into the not-yet-frozen bladders and take on some much-needed hydration, as well as load up on calories and lash our cold-weather shells to our packs. Safely out of the wind, we started descending toward the Silver Creek Trail – which past reviewers assured us was composed of long, sweeping single-track descents.
Before we could reach the Silver Creek Trail, however, we had more dues to pay: another mile of climbing on the Continental Divide Trail that took us nearly an hour, followed by a long uphill fire-road slog to reach the Silver Creek trailhead. By the time we arrived there, the sun was ominously low in the sky – and not knowing how long our dirt road descent into Poncha Springs would be, the risk of not making it back to the car by nightfall was very real. The climbs paid off, though: the final stretch of fire road to the Silver Creek trailhead was a fast descent over drainage ridges that had all three of us airborne, alternating with banked berms around tight corners.
At last, with PJ nursing a slow front tire leak and fighting exhaustion, and me thoroughly motivated to get a message through to Kelly that we were OK, we started down the Silver Creek Trail. The descents were as-promised: fun, fast and technical. Frozen fingers struggling to stay anchored on my ice-cold brake levers, I pushed the Ellsworth and myself as hard as I could – and the O-rings would later indicate I used every bit of its 5+ inches of front and rear suspension travel. Silver Creek offered a vast array of lines, with terrain ranging from glassy, banked, sweeping red clay single track, to tight-packed gravel, to steep roots, rock gardens and switchbacks. At the bottom of the trail – with minutes of dim twilight remaining – we even encountered a trifecta of stream crossings, one of which offered no bridge or stepping stones – we forded this one on nothing but knobby tires.
Finally – 6 hours after we set out – we reached the dirt-paved Silver Creek Lakes Road, descending from 9,000′ to Poncha Springs at 7,500′. With one final food stop to stave off an imminent bonk, we took on energy for the last frigid descent, and beelined for the car. Our way was lit only by moonlight, diffused by a thin layer of cirrus clouds and the headlights of occasional passing cars. Thankfully, Dave had a small headlamp to provide a bit of supplemental illumination, as well. I arrived at the car at 8:03PM – over 7 hours after we started with the sun high overhead – and the others would follow shortly.
All told, taking those first few pedal strokes to set out on the Monarch Crest trail was likely the riskiest, most reckless and dangerous endeavor I’ve ever undertaken. Between high altitudes, bitter cold, unfamiliar (and unforgivingly-rugged) terrain, and complete ignorance of how long or how difficult the trip would be, the adventure could quickly have turned into a nightmare. But it didn’t – we prepared as best we could, we pushed hard and worked through each challenge as we encountered them, and we reached our goal. I’m sure there was as much praying as swearing, and as much fear as confidence, but when we arrived at trail’s end there was nothing but agreement: it was hard, it was scary, and it was as fun as it was insane. And at one point, sometime during the hours we spent plowing across the wind-battered tundra on the Western face of the ridge, the horizon tearing away at 45-degree angles to vertical on either side, I thought back to my first “real” mountain bike ride at Dryer Road Park. If you’d have told me the pursuit of great mountain biking (mixed with a touch of peer pressure and blissful ignorance) would someday take me here, I’d never have believed you…
Featured “IRL” Comment: “So, you do know how close to death you were?” – Craig