Words and Photos by George Wisell
It all started a long time ago, a conversation over some beers, turned into planning. Let’s do something epic. Out of our comfort zone. Something we’ve never done before. Something totally rad.
My partner in crime is a Vermont ex-pat, just like me. We have done many silly rides together in the West. We come from the maple jungle, nestled around 300ft above sea level. We come from humidity and oxygen. This ride was going to be something else. Since moving West, we have both acclimated to our new surroundings: altitude, arid air, but I doubt much could prepare us for what was on deck.
Over the winter, we decided we were going to ride the final 75 or so miles of the Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to Durango over four days. Plans were made in early February to ride in late July. We were hopeful that the trail would be in good shape due to the extraordinary lean snowfall over the winter. As it turned out, our plans were already built on shaky ground, the lack of snow translated into prime conditions for fire, something we deal with far too often out west. Come May, we were treated with not one, but two fires that seemed to burn out of control for months, threatening our best laid plans. And then the Forest Service wisely closed the entire San Juan Forest to the public. Crap.
Let’s just say tensions were high. Vacation time was booked, schedules were cleared months in advance, commitments were made, yet we were expecting the worst in the coming weeks before we were to embark on our voyage. We were beyond the point of no return. Miraculously, with one week to go, the firefighters had mostly contained the bigger fire, and mountain monsoon season had kicked in. The forest was open. It was go time.
I met my partner in Durango, our starting point.
We were part of a self-guided group, organized by Hermosa Tours. To me, this is probably the best way to get out there and see the splendor of the southwest corner of Colorado (or anywhere they run a tour for that matter). The basic gist, they drop you off at the starting point, then ferry your stuff from campsite to campsite along the route, meaning, you don’t have to go into full on bike pack mode. Food, water, cold beer, and all your camping accouterments await your arrival after a long day of pedaling.
Our total headcount was eight. One was a local that does this trip every year, five were a group of old college friends who were meeting up from other parts of the country to ride this for the first time, and then my riding partner and myself. We met at a bike shop in Durango, loaded our bikes on the racks on top of the van, and headed out to Molas Pass.
Over the years, I have visited sections of this trail, so I sort of knew what to expect. My weapon of choice? The JET 9 RDO. I knew that I was going to be above treeline for most of the ride, and that climbing was going to be an issue for my less than stellar fitness. I needed a light bike. I’ve been a die-hard 29er guy for a long time, but I thought it might be a bit easier to turn over the slightly smaller 27.5+ wheelset. My bike was kitted out with 2.8” tires for traction, a 12 speed Eagle group that had all the gears I needed, and Just Enough Travel in the suspension department to keep me honest. You don’t want to be ripping down the trail and get over your head out there, bad things can happen quickly, and you are very far from help.
We piled out of the van at Molas Pass (10,910ft above sea level) with blue skies and calm morning air. It was shaping up to be a glorious day. One last equipment check, photo op, bathroom stop, and away we go. We were headed to Durango on the Colorado Trail.
I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing the scenery was. The pictures I took don’t even come close to doing it justice. And to tell the truth, I wasn’t about to Instagram the most amazing scenery I had ever seen. I really think you need to earn that view.
Our group traveled at various paces, but we had a slight upper hand having ridden at altitude before. The local made haste from the start, but we opted for a slow and steady, yet deliberate pace. We only had to ride about 20 miles, but all above 10,000ft, it’s not an easy 20 miles. The main thing on our minds was afternoon thunderstorms. It goes very south very quickly above tree line, and every other time I have been on this trail, it has ended up with torrential rain, cowering for cover, and wondering if the lightning was going to get me this time. Fortunately, the little puffy clouds would get no bigger this day.
Onward we pressed, over Rolling Pass (12,520ft) and down into the Cascade Basin. We’d been on the bike for about 5 hours at this point. Time gets fuzzy when you have been assaulted all day by staggering vistas, technicolor wildflowers and danger of exposure. I think it was about mile 16 that The Bonk began to set in for me. We stopped for some water, snacks, and some heckling from the local marmots (Lebowski jokes were made), and then began our climb out of the drainage towards camp.
After a bit, my legs were threatening to lock up in full cramp mode, so the ride then turned to a leisurely stroll pushing my bike ahead of me. We knew we were near the end, so spirits were still very high. We even stopped and talked to our guide/sherpa who had already set up camp, and was just riding out to make sure everyone knew where the turn off was. We were not far at all. I was looking forward to camp. Everything seemed very clear on where we were to go after we parted ways.
We pushed on some more, maybe another mile, and then it happened. Legs. No. Work. Full on excruciating cramps. Being somewhat of a planner, and knowing the cramps were an inevitable part of this experience, I brought some salt tabs to try and stave off the result of dehydration and effort. I popped one, then promptly ran out of water to wash it down. My partner was out of water too, but we were so close to being done for the day. The oasis was only a short distance ahead.
I took a break, he marched on. We were so close to the end, and we both wanted to be done. This was the mistake.
I said earlier that I had been on parts of this trail before, and this was one of those parts. When meeting with our sherpa, I knew the markers that would point us to camp. One big white creek, then one little white creek (all horribly uphill and technical) and the turn off was on the left.
After stiff legging my bike past the second little creek, I was overjoyed to find the pink ribbons marking the turn off the main trail. Camp was a couple miles more down this side spur. I popped out of the pretty techy rooty downhill onto an old mining road. Two switchbacks down, I could see camp far below me.
Dropper post down, hands off brakes. Hauling ass on a forever downhill, beat, no more gas in the tank, but camp was so close. I finally arrived at camp, no partner. Local guy was there, all relaxed. But no sign of my partner.
I hit that water jug pretty damn hard.
Clumsily, I set up my tent and laid down. I can honestly say that I was glad no one was there to witness my writhing and convulsing. It took 20 minutes to get my bibs off the cramps were so bad, and another 20 for my muscles to calm down. I had gotten to camp around 2:30 and woke from my stupor around 3:45 to the sound of some of the others rolling into camp. Still no partner.
I’m not even worried anymore, I’m freaking out.
There was no sign of him. Crime Scene Investigation CT in full effect. He missed the turn for sure but didn’t go back. So many terrible scenarios went through my mind. Everyone but one was back at camp. Our Sherpa, who was an expert at this whole section of trail even rode back out to look for him but to no avail. There were several opportunities for one to plummet several hundred feet to one’s doom. Several wrong turns to make. Absolutely ZERO cell phone reception. The group was now freaking out.
The sun was almost down, and no one was going to be able to go anywhere until the next day. By some sliver of luck, or divine intervention, there was one bar of 1x on one of the other rider’s phones. We called him. He answered. He was back in Durango.
Massive group sigh of relief.
Short version: he missed the turn, crashed hard, messed up his knee, no food no water, limped on a few miles, ran into some guys with a pickup truck and hitched a ride back to town.
Then I cracked a beer, my buddy is safe, and I was going to leave the ride in the morning. I have never had a more peaceful night’s sleep above 10,000ft.
In the morning, I wished the remainder of our group safe travels and I set out on the mining road, about 15 miles to Purgatory Resort. Luckily, I have some Durango friends, who I called for an extraction. Eventually, I rejoined my partner, and we agreed we would try this ride again, but might do a better job of preparing. Maybe even train a bit.
The moral of this story: We knew better. High alpine riding is no joke. You make bad calls without even realizing it. But if you are with someone else you can navigate it together. Always wait at the turn, it could make all the difference.