David Boerner failed at finishing the Colorado Trail last August - having the trip of a lifetime along the way.
Dan sort of made a wincing face when I told him my proposed plan to get through the Colorado Trail in nine days.
"Weeeelllll... we might not be able to make it to Silverton on day two."
It would be a hard day, sure: 66 miles with 10,000 feet of climbing. But it was nothing I hadn't done before on a mountain bike.
"I'm telling you, man: it's not the same as normal mountain biking."
And halfway through day two, scrambling through a pile of rubble on a sharp ridge above 12,000 feet, Dan's assessment became a comedic understatement. We'd covered maybe ten miles by 2pm. We'd climbed 4,000 feet out of a river valley near Durango to Indian Ridge, a jagged pile rocks in the formation of a coaster above tree line in the San Juan Mountains. We were alternately pushing our heavy, loaded bikes up rock piles, then clipping in and picking our way down nearly-unrideable rock-pile descents. Our average speed on that ridge was maybe 1mph. I had a migraine - having only acclimated for three days from living at 50 feet above sea level - and Tylenol wasn't doing a goddamn thing for me. And at our pace, it would take us another 20 hours to get to Silverton...
"Bikepacking" is a relatively new phenomenon in mountain biking - though people have been doing it since before mountain bikes existed. In short, bikepacking is backpacking on a bike: multi-day, off-road riding while carrying all the gear you need to live. "Through-bikers" are the bikepacking equivalent of "through-hikers" because they're biking all the way through a trail. And the Colorado Trail is one of the best routes in North America for riding.
Bikepacking combines the skills and the speed of cross-country mountain biking and the knowledge and gear of ultralight backpacking - then straps it all onto a mountain bike with modern, soft bikepacking bags, and hits the trail.
The gear involved can be mind-bogglingly expensive, eye-poppingly light, and absurdly impractical for other applications. Many riders head out with under 10lb of "base weight" (the weight of your bags and gear without water or food).
We ditched a bunch of gear when we hit the first town, leaving us with a no-frills setup. We slept under small silnylon tarps, on Tyvek ground sheets and ultralight air pads. We ditched the stove and all our boil-in-bag meals - relying on cold foods with extreme caloric density like cheese, peanut butter, nuts, bars and tortillas.
Conceived in 1974 and connected in 1987, the Colorado Trail is an improbable, 486-mile through-hiking trail that traverses the state from Durango to Denver, crossing eight mountain ranges, and staying above 10,000ft most of the time. Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail, you can ride the Colorado Trail on a bicycle.
Bikes aren't allowed in the National Wilderness Areas, so the bike route does five sorta-long dirt-and-paved road detours that increase the mileage to over 535 miles. Believe me, though, riding 50 or 60 miles of dirt road at 13mph seems like taking a magic carpet ride after going 3mph up and down talus slopes above tree line.
We decided to ride Durango-to-Denver rather than the more popular Denver-to-Durango for a couple of reasons:
1. We'd get the hardest stuff out of the way first, before we were destroyed by the trail
2. We didn't have any way to get a ride FROM Durango if we finished there
3. (Dan's secret) We probably wouldn't be able to finish in time and we wouldn't want to miss the San Juans
The "we" I'm talking about is three former Fort Collins roommates:
Dan Lionberg, a former bike racer, collegiate national champion and current freak of nature. Dan has raced the Colorado Trail Race - the insano race version of the Trail - so he actually knew the trail (in reverse). Dan rode a rigid single-speed.
Josh Agenbroad, our young brainiac skateboarder friend who works at some kind of think-tank where they dream up the future of alternative energy and transportation for humankind. Josh also rode a rigid single-speed.
David Boerner (me), an active bike racer and probably the one with the most miles in my legs coming into the ride, but at a disadvantage to the Colorado boys who lived at altitude. I rode a rigid bike with 20 speeds.
The ride was too long to describe in detail, but it basically broke into three parts that roughly correspond to three-day segments:
I woke up on day three at 11,500 feet with a pounding migraine. It was the highest night of our trip and we hadn't planned to stay there. We were just short of making it over Blackhawk Pass, but Josh kinda fell apart the day before at about 6pm and demanded that we stop for the night.
I must have woken up ten times throughout the night to drink water, take Tylenol, piss out the side of my tarp, readjust my position - ANYTHING to get rid of this headache! None of it worked and after a few hours of thrashing around, it was daytime.
In the morning, Dan gave me some Sudafed to try.
"It's the full-power speed version."
I was hesitant to try any kind of amphetamine at over 11,000 feet when my pulse, though good, seemed unnervingly faint. Plus, yaknow, I'm sober.
But Dan assured me it wouldn't get me high, nor probably give me a heart attack, so I gave it a shot.
After making coffee and breakfast, packing up and filtering water, I noticed that the Sudafed had worked: I felt less bad!
By this point, the story we had learned about life on the Trail is that everything takes longer than you think it will. So after waking up at 7, we finally started riding at 10 - immediately getting off our bikes and pushing for 30 minutes or so, to the top of Blackhawk Pass.
Day three seemed pretty hopeful after Blackhawk Pass. We went down some ok single track, then up and down some smaller climbs that were totally rideable.
"See, I told you, it's gonna go a lot faster after yesterday," Dan said.
And Dan was technically right, but after a few hours, it was more of the same story: we'd only gone 17 miles and it was already 2pm. The idea of riding straight through Silverton at 5pm, shipping excess gear at the post office (on a Sunday), buying groceries, and riding out of town straight up a 3,000-foot dirt road climb to the highest segments of the trail became increasingly ridiculous-sounding as the day wore on.
Our morale was probably at the low point of the trip on day three. We were bickering with each other, accusing each other of holding things up and blaming Dan for constantly giving us unrealistic expectations. We regrouped at a stream crossing in the afternoon and as josh crossed, he made his announcement:
"Wanna know a secret?" Josh said. "When we get to Silverton, I'm gonna quit."
"No, man, come on. It's ok, man. You're doing great."
"No. I'm pretty sure I'm gonna quit."
We rode on silently, figuring it would be better to let it ride than continue to try to talk Josh out of it.
Eventually, the day got a bit faster as we started going more downhill than up. Dan's promise that we would be riding some great downhill single track "really soon" eventually turned out to be correct (despite our accusations that he was lying to us), and all the sudden we were ripping some trails that were as good as any you'd drive a car to and shredding like we didn't have 20 pounds of crap swinging around on all our bikes.
One bizarre feature of the Colorado Trail is that at the bottom of the downhills on the Trail is the TOP of a mountain pass on the road. It took us six hours to get the 30 miles to Molas Pass (one of the best in Colorado), then only 15 minutes to ride the 7 miles down to Silverton.
I wouldn't be fully honest if I didn't disclose that I got fairly misty-eyed while coasting at 45mph down Molas Pass and taking in the mind-blowing scenery. All that hardship the last two days and we were suddenly hurtling effortlessly toward a quant Colorado tourist town with restaurants, bars, hotels, and groceries. It was warm and beautiful and I was for the first time all day immensely grateful to be there.
We didn't have to talk Josh out of quitting. He talked himself out of it. We threw our original schedule in the shitter and got a hotel in Silverton. We took showers and went out for burgers. We ogled our attractive waitress in a way not unlike the old silver miners must have after seeing a lady for the first time in weeks. By the end of the night, we were so stoked that we could hardly wait to tackle the two highest segments of the trip the next day. We were excited for the trail and we understood that what we were doing was incredible - that we were lucky boys. We awoke from our beds on day four and started heading back uphill to rejoin the Trail after the Weminuche Wilderness Area.
Day four took us back over 12,000 feet, then through a series of alpine meadows where you'd crest a ridge, then see the narrow trail go all the way across the next drainage, down 1,000 feet to a stream, then up 1,000 feet to the next ridge. After riding these climbs for what seemed like forever, we spotted the big climb: a doubletrack jeep road that took us up to the highest ridge of the trail.
We'd become pretty efficient at hike-a-biking by day 4 and we managed to do 10,000 feet of climbing and 44 miles - our longest, biggest day of the trip so far. We made it through the highest part. We looked down on herds of goats and two moose.It seemed like we might just make it through to camp before dark.
Just as the sun started setting, we hit this bizarre rock-field that resembled a Scottish moor at 11,000 feet with every rock implanted into the ground. The trail splintered, trying to find a better option where none existed, all roads leading us straight through slippery rocks that demanded much skill simply to stay on the bike.
Josh's light mount had broken earlier in the day, so he was forced to ride with a shitty camp headlamp that hardly illuminated the rocks as the day got darker.
Then it started raining.
"FUCK THESE ROCKS!" Josh yelled from a distance behind us.
We regrouped and stuck together to illuminate the way through the slippery rocks for Josh. It became a tense ride into camp as we all had to resist making "helpful suggestions" to one another.
By the time we got to camp at 10pm, we hadn't stopped for water in three hours. I'd run out an hour ago and was feeling extremely dehydrated, cold, wet, and destroyed.
Dan, always the strongest of us, assumed the duty of riding the extra bit to the nearest creek to filter a couple gallons of water for camp. Meanwhile Josh and I made a couple futile attempts to set up the tarps in the rain, with our minds totally addled and our fingers freezing in the cold rain at 10,000 feet.
I eventually made a terrible shelter for myself by stretching a tarp flat from a picnic table and tying the other end to a log. It was nearly flat and low to the ground - perfect to form a pool of water that would sit atop my sleeping bag and slowly leak its way in.
I didn't care. I didn't brush my teeth. I barely ate. I just got in my sleeping bag in all my clothes; my dirty chamios, my long sleeve jersey and vest and hat. I just wanted to be warm. I woke up shortly afterward with terrible tuna fish/dehydration breath, feeling like I was going to gag, with the tarp on my face, strangling me. I could see the water raining onto the other side of the sheet, just resting on my face. I was burning hot from getting into my sleeping bag with all my clothes, and that old familiar migraine was back.
This was probably the worst sleep of the trip. I refused to get out of my bag, change my clothes and re-pitch my tarp to be effective. Instead I moved around until my head was out one side and my feet were out the other side to relieve my claustrophobia and over-heating. I thrashed around for the rest of the night and managed to peel some of my layers off without ever getting out of my sleeping bag.
I felt crushed the next morning, but I knew that we had finally crushed the trail the day before and we were about to ride a full day of easy detour miles.
Day five was where we started hauling ass. It seemed like we were going downhill with a tail wind all day. We rode a magnificent dirt road canyon along a beautiful creek for three hours and every time we checked the mileage, we'd gone further than we expected. Our goal that night was to get to Highway 114 - 75 miles through a 60-mile detour and a 15-mile single track segment that Dan promised was "super easy." My sister lives in Gunnison and we had called her in Silverton and arranged for her and her husband to meet us at Highway 114 and bring us pizza.
By the time we made it to the last single track section of the day, we were two hours ahead of schedule and already bickering with each other about what we would do when we got to the highway. Josh and I were voting for "stay there, set up camp and wait for my sister" and our vote won out. My sister had been watching our Spot Tracker GPS device and could tell we were ahead of schedule, and she showed up shortly after we arrived with pizza, pie, beers for Dan and Josh and Cokes for me!
We started a fire, sat around on the folding chairs they brought for us and regaled them with tales from the Trail. It was so nice having "outsiders" to talk to, and it brought an incredible measure of civility to us, as we'd been farting, belching, arguing and cursing for the past five days.
The next day was going to be extremely brutal - even according to the ever-optimistic Dan - so we bedded down at 10pm and woke up and got moving by 7.
Josh got sick on day six, but just kept going until he felt better, and we made it to Salida where more of our former roommates lived. We resolved to chill for some of the day in Salida, then head out in the afternoon.
Josh decided to call it quits in Salida after feeling so terrible the day before, so Dan and I headed out with Claire and Rafael as guides back to the Colorado Trail, skipping over several miles in an effort to expedite things.
Dan and I rode long into the night for the next two nights and cheated several times to make up time. We had done one immensely helpful thing in Salida: tied appropriate-length tie-outs onto the tarp and tied them with adjustable knots for quick setup in various terrain. This gave us perfectly-pitched tents that only took a few minutes. Dan and I developed a system where Dan would be the pack horse and get water for camp while I would pitch the tent to a tree and my handlebar, then start a fire. The system worked perfectly and made our various, haphazard tarp setups earlier in the trip seem fairly pitiful in comparison.
We woke up on the morning of day nine warm and well-rested under a visibly soaked tarp. It had rained most of the night, evidently, but I didn't even notice. Since we'd gotten our tarp-pitching technique dialed, the two of us could sleep under a paper-thin, 6x9 foot sheet, untouchable by the elements. An 8oz, packs-to-the-size-of-a-softball, fortress for two.
It was a bittersweet morning, knowing that this would be our last time sleeping outside in the forest; our last time riding into camp at 10pm and setting up tarps in the freezing mist; our last time sitting around a massive fire, eating room-temperature cheese and drinking fruit punch-flavored Powerade.
Life on the trail is so straight-forward: you gotta piss? Pull your bike over and take a piss, you don't even need to get off the bike. You almost out of water? Let's filter some at the next stream. Hungry? Eat some room-temperature cheese.
The point of normal life can seem so indefinite and elusive: Work? Money? How? Success? Children? "Working out?" Yoga? God? Death? Why?
The purpose of life on the Trail is to keep going.
Yet we never even finished and it didn't really seem like a failure.
We weren't sad because we wouldn't make it to Denver. We were sad because we had to go back to normal life.
These thoughts were in the mist surrounding us all that morning, but they weren't our thoughts. Our thoughts were the same thoughts as always: "Eat food. Get dressed. Pack up. Take a shit in the woods. Bury it. Mix Powerade. Finish packing. OK, let's go."
We were in Tenth Mountain Division territory that morning - captivated by the idea of WWII soldiers on cross country skis training on the slopes of Kokomo Pass.
There are two passes before descending the entirety of Copper Mountain ski area and then some: Searle and Kokomo. And in the alpine meadow in-between, some hiker said to us: "you're about to see more sheep that you can believe."
He was right, as we crested a rise and saw a field full of about 1,000 sheep!
We'd been debating for the last 24 hours if we would be able to make the push from Breckenridge to Kenosha Pass - a massive 33-mile segment - which combined with the two mountain ranges in front of us would have made it our biggest day in terms of elevation gained. We wouldn't even start the huge final segment until 2 or 3pm, even if everything went perfectly, so we planned to make the call later in the day.
Then things went un-perfectly on the way down toward Copper Mountain ski area. Dan realized his Spot Tracker had rattled off somewhere. Luckily, we had phone data by that point, being in the relative "civilization" of ski country, and we could track ourselves to find out that the GPS device was back at the top by all the sheep. Dan decided to go back up the pass for it and said he wouldn't be offended if I kept coasting down. I knew this meant we wouldn't be trying for Kenosha, so I cruised to the Copper Mountain lodge for some leisurely coffee, food, and Instagramming. After a couple hours, Dan and I headed out again, looking straight up at the 3,000 foot wall that creates the backside of the Breckenridge Back Bowls and joking with each other, "Is that really all we have left?!"
It only took an hour and a half to ride/hike the final climb to our last 12,000-foot ridge where we were greeted with in incredible vista of Lake Dillon on the right and a terrifying storm blowing at us from the left.
"Let's get the fuck off this rock!"
We got to "enjoy" one final rocky, "baby head" descent toward Dillon/Breckenridge, finally arriving at an intersection that said "Colorado Trail this way. Dillon/Silverthorne that way."
We went "that way," leaving the Trail forever, and cruised some actually-very-nice single track down to Lake Dillon - even airing out the old pack horses along the way on a couple of choice tabletops. We got to town close to sunset - a testament to our correct decision not to try for Kenosha - and met my dad for Mexican food.
Back in Portland a week later, back at work, back to normal life, I was in what endurance racer Esther Horanyi calls "post-trip depression."
I missed the mountain vistas. I missed going to sleep under a tarp. I missed riding all day and continually going somewhere I'd never been. I missed being HIGH and looking down at the world below all day long.
And the thought materialized like a cloud out of heavy air: I will ride the Colorado Trail again and I will finish!