Colorado Trail Northbound Bikepacking

This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.


I’d like to think that I’ve pushed myself pretty hard outdoors over the years — solo thru-hiking the CT in twenty-four days, redlining all-day MTB races, burning up on Black Canyon climbs and desert towers. But everything else pales in comparison to the sustained mental and physical depletion that I experienced in eight days of bikepacking the Colorado Trail.

For starters, I now realize that I was sick before I even cranked my first pedal stroke northbound.  It was a stressful two weeks leading up to my departure: my wife and I were racing the clock to finish building out our Promaster van before our rental lease expired. I would go to work from 7 to 4, then come home and work on the van til 9, then get up at 5 and get in a bit more work before leaving again for the day. Nutrition was spotty; rest was non-existent — I was already burning the candle at both ends in the frontcountry before even hitting the trail.

Speaking of which, I rode a total of 460 miles in eight days on an average of six hours of sleep per night. Not exactly CTR race-caliber stats, but it felt pretty dang hard nonetheless!

This was by no means an “onsight” of the Colorado Trail. I took several wrong turns due to the surprising difficulty of reading the CT Databook backwards in the dark while sleep deprived and sick. I missed parts of some segments and rode an obscene amount of backtracking bonus miles on others (~40) , including some accidental Wilderness poaching (forgive me, John Muir, for I have sinned!).

I tried writing a blow-by-blow trip report but spent the week of my return violently ill in every possible way, so here are some disjointed pictures and notes.

The kit. I didn’t have a scale to weigh it, but it felt pretty good for eight days of alpine thru-riding.

Durango start; ready to gain some immediate vert. I ended up losing seven pounds on the trail and an additional five upon returning due to illness.

Talus slope below Kennebec Pass

Sunrise after the first night

Front suspension was really nice for long, punishing days in the saddle.

Celebration Lake, I believe.

The ubiquitous white triangle (except for when you got lost as much as I did)

Blackhawk Pass — pushed up the smooth, ridable side; pushed down most of the chunky other side too. Definitely optimized for southbounding.

The one plus side of starting with the hard stuff is that I had relatively fresh legs. Of course, I didn’t know that I had picked up a stomach bug before leaving and was sick out of the gate. It bode its time to strike.

Threatening skies above the Rico-Silverton Trail, an immaculate bit of riding.

Segment 23 — above treeline all day!

One of the better cow puddles in the Saguache.

Slim Jims, pepperjack and honey mustard pretzels in a tomato basil tortilla. It’s the little things.

Nature’s trail magic on the way to Sargent’s Mesa. This was the only enjoyable moment the entire segment of steep moto choss. It look me eight hours to clear seventeen miles, the hiking was so rough.

Near Marshall Pass

The stretch from US-50 to the wilderness detour to Buena Vista was unbelievably ridable and nearly made me forget the barren, chunky wasteland out of which I had just collapsed.

After riding sixty miles on four hundred calories, I made it to the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs store twenty minutes before they closed and immediately ate about 3500 calories. I should’ve stopped after the items in the picture, but I went back for seconds and got two bottles of chocolate milk, a breakfast sandwich and a spicy pickle. Big. Mistake. I held it all down on the push up the road to Mt. Princeton Road, but only by the grace of God and the prospect of wasting $25.

In the throes of a very confused stomach, pushing away from the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs store. Eating was not good on this trip, probably due to the latent illness I started with. There were a couple nights where I just couldn’t eat the dinner that I cooked, even though I was in deep calorie deficit.

Somehow I didn’t get sufficient pictures, but the Leadville area was just about at peak color change. The first week of September was a perfect time to do this trail.

Modelling the Cleaveland Mountaineering “Daddy’s Little Helper” hikeabike strap. I can’t imagine doing a trail of this caliber without one. There was some terrain so steep and rocky that you just physically can’t push your bike up.

Twin Lakes outside Leadville, racing the clock to get to the bike shop before it closed to replace my paper-thin brake pads. I made it with forty-minutes to spare … buckle, please!

Yet another alpine hikeabike conquest. It rained for most of the way up this one; really, the only precip I had on the whole trip. September rocks.

Dropping into the chunky Gold Hill Trailhead descent after sustained hikeabike on the Ten Mile Range.

Beetlekill burn zone near Gold Hill TH.

When I hit Hwy 9, I realized that I was thoroughly sick and needed a break. I rode seven miles into Frisco and checked into a motel, shivering even in a hot shower and under the covers. The next morning I felt a bit better and caught the free bus to Breck to continue the trail, knowing that I was out of time to finish the entire trail within my time window.

Four miles out of Breck, I dug into a turn too hard and burped my front tire. When I went to throw in a tube, I realized that my pump was gone. Somewhere in the past however many miles, it had fallen out of my frame bag, probably when I flipped the bike upside-down to set up my tarp (most likely Tennessee Pass several days before). I shuddered to think that I just cleared the rocky Ten Mile Range with no way to inflate a spare!

I pushed a mile to a trailhead and borrowed a floor pump, then rode into Breck. My weather window for clearing the 32 miles Kenosha Pass segment was gone, so I rode over Boreas Pass to US-285 instead in a storm, rode seven miles of pavement to Jefferson, then hitched to Denver to stay with my sister, then meet my wife and drive home.

It wasn’t the way I expected the trip to go, but all things considered, it was an excellent journey, well worth the struggle. Much like my thru-hike six years ago, the Trail encapsulated a microcosm of the human experience in a short period of time. I experienced every conceivable human emotion — terror, elation, disappointment, loneliness, peace, joy —  and had lots of time to reflect about Life and my small place in it.

Many thanks to the people I met along the way who signed my frame bag with encouragement. One quote in particular stands out, courtesy of a southbound thru-hiker in Segment 23:

“Feed your will to feel this moment…”

and another:

“Passion –> Purpose –> Peace.”


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