NCT Overnighter: Petoskey to Traverse City

Welcome to Michigan. I never thought that I’d move back to the Midwest, but a series of extenuating circumstances sent me back to sea level for the foreseeable future. After living in Colorado for eight years, I moved back East with a bit of an entitlement complex and low expectations for the local goods. Sure, there are trails, and Devil’s Lake, Canada and the Red. But after the Western Slope, won’t flatland life be a bit … boring?

I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong.

For an adventure route, there was a substantial amount of fast and flowy single track.

The North Country Trail runs 4600 miles from New York to North Dakota. The Great Lakes State accounts for 1000 of those, and the accessible Lower Peninsula has 547. I set out to ride from Petoskey to Traverse City, a 111-mile segment known for singletrack and sand traps.

Halfway betwixt the North Pole and the Equator.

Einstein Cycles in Traverse City hooked me up with their house fatty, the Bearclaw Balthazar. I dubbed her Ophelia, not after the Dane’s lover, but rather my parents’ chubby basset hound of yesteryear. She has pretty much every bike component that’s able to be made from carbon fiber … I’d imagine she’d get through airport security without a hitch. A full review on this site is forthcoming, but for now suffice to say that this is the funnest bike I’ve ever swung a leg over. (Sorry, Beatrice. Steel is real and ti is fly, but plaster is faster).

Preflight checklist and McGriddle-mashing in Petoskey.

Proper bikepacking bags were still in production over at Cleaveland Mountaineering, so I improved some ghetto-fabulous substitutes. All of my stuff is back in dgo, so I bought a Thermarest Neo Xtherm from Backcountry North in TC because I needed one anyway, and decided that no sleeping bag would be necessary with a low of 60F.

Left to right, Winifred is sporting the following:
– 16oz peanut butter in a plastic bike cage zipped to the fork
– Jones bag with leg warmers, tools, headlamp, etc.
– Thermarest stuff sack tied on with a thrift-store windbreaker.
– Cheapo phone-case gas tank for $13 on Amazon. Pretty stoked on it.
– Tube in a ziplock duct taped to the seatpost.
– A can of Hormel spicy chili and 24oz water in cages, plus a frame pump.
– Free-range organic fair-trade potato crisps.


Rolling p******* at the start.

I started from Harbor Springs at 06:00 and spun fourteen miles of asphalt through rolling farmland to get to the trailhead. It was a perfect, contemplative warmup. I’ve had a lot on my mind as of late, and was looking forward to processing it all with some two-wheeled therapy.

Not exactly columbines, but still nice.

For those who have never been, Mittagan is one big sand dune. Most people roll plus or fat tires, and I was grateful to have the formidable 26×4.0 Van Helgas mounted on 75mm carbon rims. Altogether, Ophelia weighs the same as my carbon Ultegra 3×9 road bike Winifred.

Even the hardback is kind of loose and squirrely. Big Rubber for the win.

All was well until I stopped to shoot some video. I set down my food bag containing Pringles, Cheetos and tortillas (curse you, sugar-free August! This was my first outdoor activity ever without gummy worms, serious withdrawal going on). After instawhoring, I completely forgot to strap the food bag back on, and went on my merry way through the forest. It was an hour before I realized it. Sorry about the mess / you’re welcome for the trail magic.


Everything is so green here.

Calorie deficit is par for the course, but I was staring down the barrel of two full days of biking on one can of chili and a jar of peanut butter. More importantly, my betadine dropper for water filtration was now gracing some black squirrel’s nest. I wasn’t keen on getting giardia a third time.

Fortunately, I was able to take a few detours to local bars and gas stations, but this changed the timbre of the ride by adding about twenty-five extra miles of pavement. On the upside, I got lots of PBR. At each stop, I’d pound a Gatorade and half a tallboy, then pour the remainder in my bike bottle. I’m a huge fan of the craft beer scene here, especially Short’s, but there’s nothing like a good PBR when you’re cranking hard in the heat and humidity.

… but if you get permission, it’s no longer trespassing. It’s an ontological quandary!

One of the highlights of the trip was bikewhacking through handlebar-high ferns. It was reminiscent of the CT at Molas Pass in late July, plowing through mountain cabbage.

Jones H-Bars are almost like a train’s cow-catcher. They do a great job of busting through brush.

Another huge difference between the NCT and every other trail I’ve bike packed back west … water! And lots of it! And it doesn’t induce hypothermia! I was pretty stoked to go skinny-dipping in a couple of crystal-clear streams at midday.

That’s some high-quality H20.

Water, cont’d.

As always, I brought my ultralight bikepacking spoon / tire lever combo. These guys actually clip together to form masterlink pliers, too! That is, when they’re not gummed up with peanut butter.


Aside from a sparse handful of vehicles on dirt roads, the only sign of human life I saw on the trip was the tepee below. As for wildlife, I flushed a couple dozen wild turkeys, some deer, two raccoons and …

Somewhere halfway between Petoskey and Traverse.

A wannabe gote.

This llama / alpaca must’ve taken acting lessons from the rabbit in Donnie Darko.                

At 20:30, I called it a day — eighty miles down, thanks to paved PBR detours. I started a fire to smoke out the mosquitos, and then came to an awful realization. While packing for the trip in my jimmy-rigged bags, I had forgotten an insulating layer to cover for the sleeping bag I didn’t bring. Hmm. My sleep system included an inflatable pad and my clothes, which included a long-sleeve button down shirt, windbreaker, leg warmers and a bandana for my head.

There wasn’t enough wood to blaze all night, so I got coals started and then spooned with the warm metal fire ring for a fitful night’s sleep. It was pretty much a shiverbivy. I wasn’t feeling strong enough to ride through the night to stay warm like on the Grand Staircase misadventure. Prolly because I couldn’t eat any mini-Snickers. Everyone knows that Snickers makes you strawng.

Spokin’ and tokin’.

The next morning I started a little fire, ate my can of chili for breakfast while listening to an audiobook (Gospel of John) and busted off down the next segment. My phone battery died while recording a GPS track, so I don’t have the exact stats, but I was riding at a pretty decent clip for 11.5 hours.

When I hit Kalkaska, I fired off another tallboy and ingested 1500 calories of McZargalds (over 6bn Earthlingburgers served!) in order to even out the health benefits of the past few days’ riding. From there, it was a cruiser seventeen miles of pretty dirt roads to get back to the house.

Altogether it was a great overnighter on an incredibly fun new bike. I look forward to exploring the NCT further this fall.

Touched by an Angel

(When I wrote this post, my nervous system was pretty activated by some trauma trigger flashblacks, hence the discordant bent of the writing. I pulled it from the site during a period of depression, per usual, but now am reposting because it was a kick-ass tower featuring a stout R-rated offwidth lead by Andy).

I have a problem with routefinding.



Sometimes the only way back down is up. At the end of the day, it is what it is. That’s why I’m proud to climb with serene partners who dress the knot for success.

Andy is one of the chillest guys I know. He and I have a lot in common – teaching is our vocation. Science is his passion; words are my trade.

In exchange for losing my puffy on P1 and shivering my belays to the top, I got to come to a place of blunt emotional honesty and give credits where credit’s due

processing … I’d like to blaze the grade of A+ onto the climbing C.V. of the man who tied in tight and onsighted the spiciest pitch on that Sedona spire.

So how spicy is too spicy? Ask McDonalds. They were supposed to open at 06:00 but a handwritten note postponed my McGriddlefix far past rock-oclock. At quarter to send:thirty, we busted hard left to the grocery and snagged a sixer of sausages.

In addition to being a suave educator, A-mac is a veteran thru-hiker and knows how to work a grocery store counterclockwise.

Alien Ant Farm serenaded our dawn patrol.
Like a double-zero micro cam’talot,
O revolting headlamp, lock and shot.
Flickers of inspiration, smoothcriminalz roll!

Fast forward to the crux pitch. One of us onsighted the trendy-.10d finger crack in a flare. The other popped past a shallow dihedral that dilated down to a vortex.

Pitch three was straight chronic Zion-esque splitter. It was too good to mention anything but the naked jams, tapeless as a trash-compacted diskette … super floppy.

Thumbs up, lock it. Big toe? Sprrrrawkittt!

To the next responder: Sorry about the mess … but I have to admit that it feels good to leave some DNA when you’re finally on-route.

Input pitch 4$
Let 4$ = 5.8X wide

Congratulations, my young partner. In this moment, you are weightless, whippered but not snapped. I would applaud your headgame except that the only thing keeping you from F2’ing and turning a sender’s game into a catcher’s wry folly is one piece of aircraft-grade aluminum. Should that fail, I shall have found myself in a “duty to act” scenario in which the first rule of (timelapsed subwoofer club) is you do not focus on anything but the present club  [exwoofer CAPTURE]. I am holding on to what matters most. I am skydzwfrydzw’s raging conscience. Don’t let go of that crystalvision of our best friends climbing the dawg and sleeping at last under the stars. And that’s when you realize, whoever you are, that in the blink of an eye, you are caught. By an angel or a demon or whatever.

^ <3 * §

input pitch 4.5
let lead$ = swapped
if jug haul = positive
then print “sweetactionbrosendthagnar”


It’s a relief to top out on a spire. No way down but out. Pre-thread the chains, commemorate the capture, lean back into the blessed assurance that my favorite part of rockcraft is aiding and abetting fellow fugitives.

Pataphorically speaking,
it’s super meta to be a
forerunner. semantic
brawls aside, I have
nothing left
to say

Good photos by @mcquilat


Kokopelli Trail

It felt good to dial it back a notch. The past couple trips have been strenuous, and I was looking forward to a chill couple of days on the Kokopelli Trail.

The rules: no alarm clocks, ample food and water, lots of photo breaks and no heroics. For once, everything went as planned and I had a relaxing weekend on some beautiful dirt roads.

Rule Five: No Bike Selfies.

On Friday morning, I boarded the Greyhound from Durango to Grand Junction. I slept a bit and read some Infinite Jest, but mostly just stared out the window and let my thoughts meander around the “nothing box.”

I met Jeremy for lunch, then rode the bike path twelve miles to Fruita and filled up three liters of water and Tailwind. Temperatures were balmy, though there was a bit of a headwind. Seven more miles of pavement brought me to the singletrack start of the trail.

Rule Five: Broken.

The KT starts with Mary’s Loop, a mostly flat trail that contours atop sandstone cliffs above the Colorado River.

Mary’s Loop

Occasional boulder problems punctuate the flow of this scenic section.

A rock or two keeps things interesting.

It turns out that the riverside cottonwoods were at peak foliage, an unexpected bonus. It was nice to get an extension on fall colors, which are all-too-brief in Colorado.

Westward ho!

Eventually, you start horsing around on Troy Built, then hit some legit hikeabike down to Salt Creek. It’s a good source and I definitely could’ve started with less water — one liter would’ve sufficed in the cool October temps.

The sun set when I hit Rabbit Valley, but the headwind continued, and some rain fell intermittently. I wanted to make some time and allow for a leisurely finish in Moab on Sunday, so I rode by headlamp for another four hours. It seemed like that was the least scenic part of the whole trip, so it worked out. My wife had made me a stellar playlist of blues and funk to keep my spirits and RPMs up, and it helped pass the time.

I was hoping to make it to the Westwater Ranger Station that night for water, but I ended up dry-camping sooner. This trip was stoveless because I hadn’t felt like running to the store to refill denatured alcohol, so dinner consisted of a burrito filled with instant mashed potatoes, salami, cheese and pretzels. Dessert was a gold mine … an ice cream sandwich with instant cookies-n-cream pudding as the filling.

Instant pudding in the middle. Winner!

I woke up with the sun the next morning and ate a half-dozen oatmeal raisin cookies for breakfast. I normally do instant oatmeal like everyone else, but seriously? Look at the ingredients. Oats + wheat flour + raisins + brown sugar. You may as well just bring oatmeal raisin cookies at 130 calories an ounce and eat them from the comfort of your mummy bag.


It was a chilly morning, and the slow, chunky jeep road made it difficult to warm up. When the sun finally crested, though, it was glorious.

“Blue Rajah’s my name, but I will fork-give you if you fork-get.”

Eventually I hit pavement and spun out in top gear (30:11) on the way down to the ranger station. Turns out their water still required filtering, but it was better than the cow puddles I’d passed on the way, so the 1.5 mile detour was worth it.

Yes, this helmet is rated for impact, not just rockfall.

Evidently everyone and their mother uses this particular boat launch on the weekend. There were at least forty river rats queued up go do downhill … they looked like boulderers with their tiny little legs. Tee hee.

Westwater Ranger Station and boat launch

I filtered three liters and pounded some yogurt-covered raisins, then left the menagerie of hydrophiles in the hands of a rather frazzled ranger. Dude had a Rock Shox sticker on his Nalgene. What do you say to boaters for good luck, “Vinyl side down?”

I soon hit the longest, flattest dirt road in the universe. I was in the mood for it, though, no singletrack entitlement here.

“The road goes ever, ever on…”

The next segment was barren and dry, a tabula rasa, as though God decided to try his hand at minimalism. In spite of this — or perhaps because of it? — I find the desert to be an incredibly peaceful place. The sky is endless and my mind wanders through it.

“The Jundland Wastes are not to be traveled lightly.”

When the trail rejoined the Colorado River, cottonwood trees erupted from the earth. The audacity of foliage in the desert. I love it.

Water brings life…

… one last hurrah before dormancy.

A little bit of singletrack, then more dirt roads. I passed a couple eastbound bikepackers, but they were blazing on a downhill, so we didn’t stop to chat.

Evidently sand grows really well in this climate.

Several almond Snickers bars later, the terrain started to look a lot like Moab. I passed through some slickrock playgrounds, wide expanses of concrete-like slabs that were like natural skate parks. Entrada sandstone buttresses loomed in the distance. It was about the halfway point on the trail, and I started getting excited.

The stoke barometer is rising …

Fisher Towers in the distance, then the La Sal range.

I knew we were getting close to civilization when I ran into some ATV and dune buggy groups, and a guided MTB ride. A couple of moto riders helped me break the bike-selfie monotony of this trip report.

Sensory overload.

My tires were a bit undergunned for the sand in this section (2.4 front, 2.25 rear), but it wasn’t that bad. Dual 3.0’s would be a good float to weight ratio, no need to get all Moonlander on this stuff.

“Touch nothing but the lamp …”

Dewey Bridge

Then out of nowhere, the river magically reappeared. I busted down to the Dewey Bridge and grabbed some slightly muddy water, then took a lunch break under a bush. Over halfway done by mileage, but not halfway yet by vertical gain.

Peanut butter, honey and yogurt-covered raisins, followed by salami+cheese+Tabasco.

Time to go uphill. I turned on Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and thanked the gourd that I had a granny gear (30:42). I leapfrogged a bit with a couple of day-riders, then parted ways down into a rad canyon.

just call me Spinny!

Lots more climbing ensued and my legs started complaining. I fed them some Doritos, colby jack and gummy worms, and turned on my “NFG” playlist, which is pretty much an aural crime against humanity designed to make lactic acid dive for cover. It’s mostly early 2000’s pop punk and screamo. There’s only so much angst that lactate can handle.

“We’re on top of the world here tonight…”

Dusk fell and I started thinking of how nice it’d be to not ride by headlamp for a change. It just so happened that a gorgeous dry campsite was a couple hundred feet below in a horseshoe-shaped cirque.

Overlooking the campsite.

First I had to pick my way down the infamous “Rose Garden Hill,” which supposedly has been ridden by a human being on a bicycle more than once. (Not me!) It’s basically an avalanche slope of encephalitic babyheads. You’d better be in the mood for Mexican food, because your rims are going to be aluminum tacos.

This is the mildest segment of the hill.

Supposedly there was a spring at the bottom, but if there was, it wasn’t running in October. No worries, I was stocked for a dry camp. I nestled into some luxurious, soft dirt, rolled a couple Tabasco potato burritos, and read a letter addressed to Theophilus.

Instant garlic mashed potatos, salami, colby jack, pretzels and Tabasco.

The next morning I woke up at 05:00 and finished the other half-dozen oatmeal raisin cookies. I rode a couple hours by headlamp — cold! I wore every layer I brought and took several handwarming breaks.

playing in the sandbox again.

Lots of gradual uphill ensued. Sometime that morning, I hit the high point (~8600′) and passed some Ponderosa pines.

Good stuff.


Good stuff, cont’d.

I finally hit the top of whatever I was on top of, and promptly layered up for steep, paved descent. Unfortunately, the very last segment of the KT, La Sal Loop Road, was under construction (on a Sunday?!). This meant I had to detour around on Castleton Road to Highway 128 and follow the river on pavement back to town. Mileage was the same, but I had to miss out on finishing on Porcupine Rim.

Castleton and the Rectory

I was hoping to finish on Porcupine, but also kind of dreading the inevitable beating that I would suffer on my little 100mm travel hardtail. (PR regularly gets shuttled by downhill riders on burly full-suspension rigs).

… although I am wearing approach shoes ….

Eighteen miles of pavement brought me back to Moab, where a beautiful woman, a ninety-five-pound puppy and a bacon-bleu-cheeseburger and onion rings were waiting for me. Oh, and a couple corn dogs and chocolate milk, too, plus a few doughnuts and an orange, but who’s counting?

Altogether a wonderful weekend of rejuvenation in the desert.

By the numbers: 159 miles and 13k vert from downtown GJ to downtown Moab. 1 day, 20 hours and 30 minutes total, probably sixteen hours of which was sleeping.

The kit:

(Car sunshade instead of blanket, powerade bottle instead of Nalgene)

Notes for next time:

– The course is surprisingly well-watered, even in autumn. I had capacity for 3.75L and carried 3.5, but never really drank more than 2. Westbounders can fill up at Salt Creek (mile 20, from Fruita), Westwater (50), the river (70), Dewey Bridge (85), and Castle Creek (126).

– Dual 2.4 tires or slightly bigger would be an improvement for traction. Sand is probably more of an issue eastbound.

– Didn’t miss the stove at all, even though it was cold out.

– More hot sauce.

– Oatmeal raisin cookies for the breakfast win! Instant pudding for the desert win! Find powdered whole milk to add to the pudding for extra protein.

– Instant potatoes, instant pudding and Tailwind look pretty similar in ziplock bags in the dark … beware a catastrophic mixup.

Grand Staircase-Escalante Loop

I woke up in the cab of an abandoned dump truck in the middle of the forest and assessed the situation.

– 1) Find water.
– 2) Get back on route.
– 3) Bike 80+ miles back to the van before dark and eat everything in sight.

I guess it wouldn’t be an adventure if something didn’t go wrong. At least that’s how I consoled myself as I watched a full water bottle launch into orbit off my frame and tumble off a cliff. A third of my water gone. At least it was a fun downhill.

The route links up 160 miles and 11,900 vertical feet along sandy dirt roads that meander through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was mid-November, and local bikepacking season was drawing to a close.

On Saturday morning  I kissed my wife and hound goodbye and rolled away from the house at 07:50. The gear list was pretty standard for an overnighter, although I did pack a luxurious, inflatable sleeping pad instead of the car sunshade. I stuffed my frame bag full of clearance Halloween candy and oatmeal raisin cookies, and filled half of my three-liter water storage.

Leaving a despondent gote-dawg

It was a chilly morning, low forties or so, but there was lots of pedaling to be had. I settled in for the long haul. Dirt roads in the desert provide an incredibly meditative experience, if you let them.

Cottonwood Creek

At the “Paria Box,” I grabbed some relatively fresh water. I had recently discovered that the violent bout of giardia I picked up while bikepacking the Colorado Trail two months ago was due to an expired bottle of betadine drops. Armed with a fresh bottle, I double-dosed for good measure and filled up.

The good stuff.

I turned on Handel’s Messiah and spun some more flat, sandy miles. “A voice of one crying in the wilderness …” was particularly apropos here.

Just when things were starting to get boring, a side trip presented itself at Cottonwood Narrows. I busted down some canyon singletrack and snagged a quick photo from some Polish tourists. (I saw maybe ten people that day, and all within the first forty miles).

Ten feet of gnar!

Easy pedaling, good views, sixty degrees and sunny. Without the “focus high” of demanding, technical singletrack, my mind floated off into the clouds. I call it my “nothing box.” Every now and then I’d land on a topic and expend a couple mental megabytes, but mostly it was roaming. Remember that screensaver from Windows 98 (SE) with the transparent glob that pinballed lazily off the perimeter of the screen? “This is your mind on dirt roads.”

A few punchy hills to snap out of autopilot for.

Eventually I hit Grosvenor Arch and a couple of motorized tourists. I politely declined their offers  of water because I was mostly full. Apparently it was too early in the day to offer beers (NB: if you see a bikepacker, it’s never too early). One elderly gentleman said that I looked pretty “squirrelly” coming down the last hill. Trading one non sequitur for another, I told him that I always eat nuts on trips like this because of their high calorie-to-ounce ratio.

“Hey, who’s squirrely-lookin?”

I do have to admit that I was a bit miffed that nobody asked the usual ego-stroking questions, like me how far I had gone / was going / do you own a car / where is your tent / do you need a ride / how do you get the rope up there / etc.

I soon had bigger problems to confront than my vanity, however.

My favorite place to stash a bike bottle is on a bottle cage that I ziptied to the intersection of the toptube and seatpost. I’ve been using that mount on various bikes for years on much more technical terrain, and never had a problem with it.

Until this day. On an uncharacteristically-chunky-but-still-not-heroic downhill, my water bottle decided to free itself from the loving constraints of friction and explore the great abyss beyond the road.

Losing a third of my water presented a quandary. Instead of drycamping as originally planned, I would need to ride late into the night to reach to the next source, twenty extra miles. That source, however, was marked as “possible water at Last Chance Creek” and the only remaining supply on the route. It was late fall and extra dry — gambling on that source and coming up dry there would be dangerous.

My other option would be to continue the loop for several hours, head ten miles off-route to get to the town (?) of Escalante, fill up, and then backtrack or alter the course. This option included the possibility of onion rings and flavored Utah water at a theoretical local dive bar, assuming I made it before last call.

I pondered this decision for the next thirty miles until the road split. By which I mean, I fantasized about plunging a fistful of glistening, salt-encrusted onion rings into a bowl of full-strength ranch dressing …


Ent vs.Progress … hikeabike wins.

So yeah, I cut hard north for Escalante at sunset. Ten miles, even the most backwater bar should still be open in an hour.

Or so I thought. Problem is, my GPS wouldn’t get a location fix. (I later found out that the SIM card slot on my phone had apparently decided that since the trusty water bottle cage was taking a day off, it was entitled to malfunction as well). I had a backup map, but most of the side roads weren’t marked, so I couldn’t tell how far I’d come. As best I could tell, I was at the junction to turn off for Escalante.

A few miles later, I found myself in a spiderweb of unmarked powerline roads. I’d take one and ride for a half mile, and then it would dead-end into some sort of power station with a meter. I hit about seven or eight of these and would have to backtrack each time.

End of the road.

Fortunately, I did find water. Or at least liquid. It was a cow pond with no inlet or outlet. I skimmed my hydration reservoir across the top to get a half a liter before the mud rose, then moved around the pond and repeated the process.

Iodine: tripled.

I found lots of industrial junk and signage, but nothing to indicate how to get to Escalante. After so much backtracking in the dark, I became totally disoriented and couldn’t find where I came from.

Just hold your breath for the next couple miles ….

It was also getting cold at 7600 feet, so I finally decided to call it a night and orient myself to the sunrise. I set up my cushy pad, ate a couple of instant mashed potato burritos smothered in Cholula — good, but not quite onion rings — and settled in for a long, dark night. It was about 8:30pm.

A few hours later, I awoke on the cold ground atop a completely deflated sleeping pad. (I carried sixteen ounces for this?!!) It was 2:00am. It was too cold to stay put, so I ate my breakfast of six oatmeal raisin cookies and started trying to backtrack. Oh, and my Camelbak was frozen, too.

Morale was at an all-time low.

After an hour of wandering up and down dead-end powerline roads, I stumbled across a couple shacks and a vintage, abandoned dump truck. Now we’re styling. The shacks were locked but the truck was open, so I curled up on the bench seat and got a couple hours of quality shuteye (aside from dreaming about serial killers who lived in the shacks).

Primo bivy spot.

Truck sweet truck.

With the sun up, I started to get an idea of how to escape the spiderweb. Looking at Google Earth after the fact, I had gone a total of about ten miles off route in the dark, and the Escalante turnoff had been another five miles down the road. Turns out it was beautifully marked, too.

Anyway, time to ride.

I ran into a surprise cow spring and got some “insurance water” in case Last Chance was dry.

How many drops of cow spring do you add to iodine?

The next thirty miles were pretty uneventful. I was kind of ready to be done with this dirt road.

Last Chance Creek had a couple small puddles. It would’ve been hard to scoop them without a bottle or pump hose, so I stuck with my cow spring coffee. Food was running low, so I set a timer on my phone to go off every hour and ate a funsize Snickers or cheese stick at every beep. (Talk about operant conditioning … I love that ringtone now.)

Last Chance Creek

At long last, I hit a sign that indicated thirty miles to Big Water. So close and yet so far … it was around 2:30pm, the doldrums of the day. Clouds everywhere. A long, flat, sandy road ahead. One last mini Snickers, a bite at a time. This was going to be tough.

In desperate need of a kick in the aural pants, I cranked up the album “Deliverance” by Opeth. (Just the iso of the kick drum track on the first song is brutal enough to wilt a nascent geranium). It was just what I needed. I fired off a quick prayer for stamina — Jesus did forty days without food; I should be able to do thirty miles — and pedaled like hell.

Apparently God was amused at my sudden burst of NFG, because just as I was tearing through the barren wasteland, game face on, racing the sun and calorie deficit and lactic acid onslaught, screaming Swedish death metal under a bleak sky … I came across a surprise.


Somehow, in the middle of capital-N Nowhere, a yellow, polka-dotted helium balloon had snagged onto a sagebrush. Lest I continue taking myself too seriously, I tied it onto my seatpost with a figure-eight followthrough and brought it along.

They say the desert is the last refuge for crazy people …

Of course, after a few miles, the balloon popped off its yarn and floated back to Astaroth. I was sad to see it go — I thought of Wilson the volleyball — but it served its purpose.

I soon found solace in Smokey Mountain Road, an incredible, fast descent down a narrow shelf road. Honestly, I was pretty unimpressed with the entire route up until this point, but that segment made it all worthwhile. It’s probably the most scenic desert road I’ve ever ridden. I didn’t feel like pausing the magic to take pictures.




Fourteen miles to Big Water. I squeezed out the last few drops from my reservoir and settled in for some soul-crushing gravel rolling hills. That was probably the crux of the trip right there. It was comical on my 1×11; I’d shift into my highest gear at the top of each hill, crank a few strokes, hit a sandbox at the trough of the hill and lose most of my momentum, then shift all the way back into my granny (30:42) and barely clear the next hill.

At long last, I reached the visitor center and got tackled by a 105-pound puppy. I ate a pita with homemade blackberry jam and a couple of oranges, then we hightailed it to Page, AZ for the main event. By the time the dust settled, caloric equilibrium was restored thanks to a double bacon cheeseburger, curly fries, Oreo shake, half a liter of eggnog, a kiwi and a fresh pineapple.

180 miles and 12.5k vert in 34 hours. I felt pretty good about that, all things considered.

In other news … this may have been the last bikepacking trip of Beatrice the Karate Monkey. She’s carried me faithfully with nary a complaint on many adventures this year, but it’s time to lose some weight and get a frame that fits a bit better. To that end, the masterminds at Kokopelli Bike Company are designing me a custom-geometry titanium 27.5+ hardtail … eight weeks and counting …





Solitary Refinement by Steve Price

“…has metastasized” are the last words I hear.

I know he is still talking but have gone numb and my hearing is temporarily nonexistent. He stops, the gravity on his face replaced with compassion. The corner of my eye catches a tear track down my wife’s cheek. The bomb explodes. Just a short time ago remission was the order of the day. It has been a few weeks since hearing that.

Time for a head-clearing trip to the alpine.

Ellingwood Arete (different trip)

A change in the weather stirs me from a fitful sleep. The wind has picked up. Pushing back my hood I glance at the watch. 2:11 am. Overhead are patches of clear sky. A light snow is falling. I can see below me for the first time since moving onto this ledge. The clouds that have enveloped all for the last thirteen hours are moving out. Just a few more hours and the warmth of the sun will reach here.

This perch is directly below the crux pitch of Ellingwood Arete. I am alone.

The route is a beautiful line on Crestone Needle in the Sangre de Cristo range. A classic, first ascended in 1925 to a gorgeous summit. Gotta pee. Keeping my back on the wall I stand and stretch.

The dark world around me is wet but no longer socked in. The snow stops. Silence broken by the click of the headlamp. I relieve myself then take stock. Pint of water, a small chunk of cheese bread, two energy bars, an empty pack of tuna devoured hours ago, and my one hit. Take a hit, check the temp and click off the light. Thirty-six degrees. Wrapped in raingear and poncho I am comfortable. Life is good.

The drive across the San Luis Valley was marred only by an inability to focus my thoughts, drifting from upcoming treatments to the beauty of South Colony Lakes. Far to the northeast, the Crestones rise almost 7,000 feet above the valley.

A fleeting doubt makes me question the choice to solo this peak at this time. The latest round of treatments has robbed some of my energy, the weight of the battle tiring. But doubt leaves me be as I pass south of Blanca and continue on.

The forecast showed a twenty percent chance of weather. For now sun and blue dominate all overhead. With four decades in the area I know a forecast can hold no relevance above the trees. The abrupt rise of these peaks above the valley create their own storms more often than not.

For almost two decades this poncho has lived in the bottom of various summit packs. Lightweight waterproof shell, built-in hood, reflective interior and hand pockets on the inside edge make it a great “oh shit” shelter. As I lean against the wall with legs pulled up, it covers me well.

For now I choose to stand and munch on some bread. An hour passes and I sit down, sky above now clear. At 5:30 a glowing tent appears down by the lakes. Fifteen minutes later, wishful thinking has convinced me I smell coffee. It has to be wishful as the winds are coming down from the peaks. I wonder about their agenda for the day and try to sleep. End up just waiting on the sun and picking out constellations.

Only one truck at the trailhead when I arrive. A text from my significant other. Be safe, have a great time, and drive yourself home. She always says that. A pic of her and our dog. I pop a beer and make lunch. It is only a few miles to the lakes and being in no hurry just chill. Today is for relaxing, tomorrow the climb. This is my fifth time on the route. Second solo. Confidence rises as I pop another beer. Two go into the pack, two left in the cooler for my return.

As the rosy fingers of dawn light the sky, my thoughts meander to a favorite saying posted on the wall of a hangout back in Pagosa. In the gray below two figures emerge from the tent and lift their packs. I watch and see they are headed for a different route. It seems the arête is to be mine today.

With the arrival of the sun I strip off the poncho and do a little dance. Vibrancy returns to my stiff bones as I eat and stretch, waiting for the rock to dry. For whatever reason I overslept yesterday and got a really late start. The rain came in around one in the afternoon. It stopped in thirty minutes but the clouds and occasional drizzle remained.

I had climbed to this ledge to wait for the return of the sun. Turned out to be a long wait. Should have set an alarm. Normally I have no need for one. Oversleeping seems to happen more often lately. Go figure. With the arrival of the sun the rock begins to steam, glowing orange and red with the refracted light. The Blood of Christ. I am overwhelmed with emotion and tears fill my eyes. Such beauty.

Since my original diagnosis a few months ago I have not allowed self pity to darken my thoughts. It has caught me here on this ledge and I weep openly. Death does not scare me; the battle ahead to keep it at bay does.

Just six years ago I was standing tall with my father as he struggled with the same battle. That journey was the toughest I have experienced. His last words echo through my consciousness. “Be good, strong, and true to your inner compass. Kiss your wife everyday.” Then he was gone. Needing some time alone my brother leaves the room. I bend down and kiss dad’s cheek. The journey ended on a beach in South America. His favorite place. I reach up and touch the shell I picked up that day. It has hung on a chain around my neck since spreading his ashes.

Suddenly I no longer feel alone.

Time to go. Shouldering my pack I take a minute to absorb the surroundings. This may be my last time here and need to savor it. With a calming breath I turn and climb.

The Head Crack pitch is the crux of the route. The crack is wet but easily manageable. Clarity encompasses me as I move right onto the crux holds. I am fully engaged in the moment and movement and the summit arrives as a surprise. Alpine splendor shines in every direction and through my soul.

After a leisurely time on the summit I slowly pick my way down the South Face back to camp, elk stew, and a cold beer.

As I descend the couloir, windswept voices reach me. An argument is in progress somewhere below. I see no one but hear them clearly. An emphatic “We are going down.” Then silence. Five minutes later they come into view. Announcing my presence with a loud hello they both look up, mild shock on their faces. His eyes are cloudy with fear. Hers, disappointment. We chat for a few minutes but mention nothing of their plight. My input is definitely not needed. I say be safe and continue on. Everyone you meet flutters around my mind as I leave them.

Fed and smugly satisfied I take a hit and open my last camp beer. The couple arrive back at their tent, drop packs, and wander off in different directions, fighting a battle I know nothing about.

Tomorrow I will head home. After that more treatments to continue the fight. Rust never sleeps.

Just outside of town the phone rings. It is my wife. She is at happy hour with the usual suspects. I’m ten minutes away I say and hang up. Upon arrival they are sitting on the deck, laughing and playing guitar. I join them and give my wife a kiss. A beer appears in my hand as I sit down and grab a guitar. Over my shoulder on a wall inside hangs a plaque. I know the words displayed there by heart.

With a song or two left in me I take a sip and begin to play.

Steve “Booner” Price lives in Pagosa Springs, CO with his wife, dog, cat and too many guitars. Climbing since 1980, he enjoys pebble wrestling, plugging gear, clipping bolts, top notch bourbon, and trying not to suffer in the high peaks. 

Rendezvous Doughnuts

We interrupt your regularly scheduled outdoor recreation programming to bring you this important message.

I can confidently say — and I am not given to hyperbole — that the raspberry fruit slider from Rendezvous Doughnuts is the best fruit-based baked good that I have ever had the privilege of eating.

At first bite, your teeth meet a crispy edge, fried in peanut oil and crusted with granules that are more cinnamon than sugar. The slight crunch gives way to a soft, thick interior. Make no mistake, these are doughnuts, not “donutz.” Unique notes of yeast and flour make up the full and rich body of the pastry.

Then comes the filling. At first, the raspberries bite back. Just as their tartness reaches it peak, the sweetness of the filling rushes in from the sides and evens out the overall effect. The fresh raspberries used in this piece evoked fond memories of the wild berries that I foraged while bikepacking the Colorado Trail last month .

As your teeth sink into the lower half of the dough, the cinnamon sugar provide a satisfyingly dusky bookend to the experience.

As a perpetually-famished, mildly-underweight bike commuter, I have a tendency to inhale my food This is a perpetual grievance from my wife, who with each new dish admonishes me “Now savor it …”. Usually the item is halfway down my esophagus by her third syllable.

This, however, must give us pause.

Rendezvous Doughnuts has crafted an aesthetic triumph.

To end this review at taste alone, however, would be a disservice. Inseparable from the delicately intertwined flavors of the doughnut is the environment in which it was crafted and consumed.

The shop is warm and inviting. The decor is minimal but not sparse. South-facing windows usher in an abundance of natural light. It feels like you’re hanging out in the kitchen of a rural bed and breakfast. Upon entering, I thought of Hemingway … this is a clean, well-lit place.

The same doughnut in another locale would not render as satisfactory an experience. Conversely, importing the lackluster donutz available from other sources in Durango into this location would yield a mediocre result as well. The quality of the goods and their context are closely linked in this case.

Lest this review comes off as starry-eyed fanboy slavering, I will offer a few caveats to my enthusiasm. At the time of publication, the fruit sliders retail at $3.45. Unlike their other, robustly-sized doughnuts (dark chocolate cacao nib, brown butter vanilla bean, cinnamon sugar, caramel bacon), the sliders are smaller. The calorie to dollar ratio isn’t quite as good as the others, but then again, that’s not why you should be there.

The place was popular on both weekend days that I visited, and when the doughnuts sold out, many a crestfallen face was turned away into the outer darkness to the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. For us, the wait times were acceptable for receiving a hand-crafted product, but others waited longer. Faster drink service would ease the wait.

At present, the shop is only open from 07:00 to 14:00, which precludes post-adventure visits (unless they’re really epic and you roll in at first light). I’d really like to hit this place up on a Sunday night after returning from a desert tower weekend mission.

The acoustics of the room are a bit harsh for conversation when the house is full. However, they’re great for an impromptu acoustic jam:

Altogether, my visits to Rendezvous Doughnuts have been heartening experiences. I look forward to returning soon to slowly savor their new creations and enjoy the pleasant ambiance among good company.

Durango Dirty Century ITT

As the October sun dropped behind the mountains at 7pm, I knew I was in for a long night.

That morning at 04:45, I stumbled out of the van and started my individual time trial of the Durango Dirty Century course. 92 miles, 12K vertical gain, 70% singletrack.

100% awesome.

I finished just before midnight: 18 hours, 45 minutes. That included 45 minutes of mechanical shenanigans and maybe 20 minutes of cattle herding. The starting temperature in town was 33 degrees, with a forecasted high of 50 and sunny.

The course starts with six miles of flat pavement and then a thousand-foot climb up a gravel road to the Hermosa Creek Trail. From there, it’s a gentle twenty miles of singletrack ascent. I felt pretty good doing most of that in the dark — night riding makes the climbing seem to go faster.

The only fall color remaining on the route.

It was pretty cold at elevation. I was expecting to generate more body heat on the singletrack climb, but it was surprisingly mellow. I was wearing softshell pants, a longsleeve, balaclava, and wool mittens. My next layer up (rain jacket or down jacket) would’ve resulted in too much sweat, so I rode cold for a while.


Things were going pretty well, but then I ran into a uniquely Western-Slope kind of a delay. Forty cows were blocking the trail, with a cliff on one side and the creek on the other. I started hollering the lyrics to “Rawhide” and they headed up the trail … at all of five miles an hour.

How is it that I’m riding an ITT but am still at the back of the pack?!

After the first chorus, the novelty wore off and I started verbally abusing the beasts, using my best Robert Downey Jr. from Tropic Thunder impersonation. In response, they sullied the trail with about six metric tons of steaming bovine excrement.

Traction was difficult for the next four miles. I have never seen so much crap come from one animal’s rump, let alone a forty-head. What are they feeding these guys? (Oh that’s right, primo National Forest lands). Every now and then, I was able to pass a couple and inch my way up in the herd. When I finally passed the lead cow, I yelled “See you for dinner!” and resumed a race pace.

The long, chunky grind up Bolam Pass Road.

Eventually I hit the sun and an aerobic climb up to Bolam Pass. Dirt roads are a bit of a mental block for me, but I threw on some 90’s hip-hop and spun away in 30:42. Along the way I passed a couple of riders on full-squish bikes who had just started their loop.

Felt good to be back on the CT.

Finally, I hit Bolam Pass where the route joins the Colorado Trail. As I was filtering water, a truck roared up and dropped off the two bikers. “We cheated!” they proclaimed, a bit bashfully. No worries, sometimes you’ve got to aid the crux. We started the singletrack together, but I immediately tore a sidewall and wasted a lot of time patching it, trying to reseat the tire, and then eventually throwing in a tube. My legs got pretty stiff during the break, but at least it was sunny and not too cold.

Headed up to Blackhawk Pass

Back in the saddle. Fun singletrack led to more fun singletrack. This is some of the best riding on the entire CT, perhaps only tied with the Collegiate Peaks segments.

Mechanical and bovine issues jacked my racerboy finish, so may as well take good photos.

100% of riders on this ITT agreed that the views were not ugly.

Iceflow on the trail.

The hike up Blackhawk Pass (~11,900′) was a bit of a grunt. My two shuttle-biking friends cheered me on from the top. Not going to lie, I was really motivated to catch them.

I took this same photo a month ago at the start of my CT northbound bikepack. The framebag was mostly blank then — I collected sharpie signatures along the way.

Dropping down off Blackhawk was vindicating — I had very vivid memories of hiking a loaded bike up that trail, dripping with envy at all the southbounders who got to ride down it. It was just as fast and fun as I imagined then. (I also caught up with the other two and their utterly righteous mountain mutt just as they were turning off the CT and heading for Stagecoach).

More fast, flowy singletrack courtesy of the Colorado Trail.

The next section featured incredibly enjoyable, low-gain riding along Indian Trail Ridge. The flow eventually gave way to chunky hike-a-bike on the Highline Trail, which is where the sun finally abandoned me.

“The sun has gone to bed and so must I …” (but not for five hours).

Glorious evening for a hike.

I grabbed some more water at Taylor Lake, mostly just so I could get the calorie boost from the last of my Tailwind powder. I was down to Cheezit crumbs and a nasty old mint chocolate health bar that I keep in the bottom of my frame bag for times of extreme caloric duress.

I turned on my headlamp and bar light at Kennebec pass and braced myself for six thousand feet of descent in eighteen miles. There were some moments of Type 1 Fun — it’s a killer (almost) pure downhill ride — but after a while it just hurt.

I nearly wept with joy at the sight of Gudy’s Rest, which signified that I only had fifteen hundred more feet to drop, then three miles back to the trailhead.

At quarter til midnight, I reached the van and a very excited Irish wolfhound. I drank a bowl of split pea soup, slipped on some luxurious non-spandex pajamas, curled up next to my wife and drew the curtains on a punishing but rewarding day in the San Juans.

CT NOBO Bikepacking Gear List with Analysis

Colorado Trail Northbound, 460 miles in eight days.

Post-ride analysis in italics

The Bike:
– Surly Karate Monkey 1×11 (30:11-42), Ardent 2.25 front and rear Gear range was sufficient for my load. Anything lower and I would’ve been pushing anyways. Tires held up great, no need for fatter with front suspension.
– Cleaveland Mountaineering frame bag. So much storage space! Contained stove, food and occasionally layers.
– CM handlebar harness. Solid, especially with extra ski straps securing it. Contained tarp, sleeping bag, sleep layers. Front pouch contained water filter, CT Databook, phone.
– CM gas tank. Gummies and peanut M&M’s straight in the pouch for easy access.
– CM “Daddy’s Little Helper” hikeabike strap. Absolutely freaking crucial, will never go without one now.
– Osprey 22L. Perfect size. I cut some sleeping pad to ease shoulder pain while hikeabiking. Contained jackets, sleeping pad, not much else. Mostly protective in case of going endo and landing on my back. Wind drag was a bummer on wilderness detours.
– Pringles can taped to downtube. Cardboard rotted, should’ve used a tennis ball canister instead. Contained both spare tubes.
– Cateye Velo 7 computer. Doesn’t register anything below 1mph, so only really good for wilderness detours and as clock. Next time, a GPS watch.
– One 750ml bottle, cage ziptied to toptube/seatpost junction. Convenient spot. Yeah, I only carried 750ML at any given time. A couple rough spots, but sufficient otherwise.
Sleep System:
– Patagonia Hybrid 20 down half-bag. Coupled with 8oz down jacket, this was sufficient.
– Golite poncho tarp, ti stakes, P-cord. Set up once, but glad to have it.
– Reflectix car-sunshade sleeping pad from van buildout. Next time, bring an extra square to double up the hips.
– Pearl Seek VII hikeabike shoes + Eggbeater cleats. One Euro size too big. They got heavy after a while. Achilles pain was an intermittent thing; should’ve moved cleats bag.
– Poly gote sox
– Merino sleep socks
– Zipoff pants. I accidentally only brought one pant leg! Left these at the first resupply.
– Bike shorts
– Poly tights. Wore these every day under bike shorts as a knee sunshade, never even changed out of them at night.
– Poly Button-down shortsleeve
– Pearl Sun sleeves. Super helpful and cooling when dunked in a stream.
– Fingerless leather gloves
– Thin merino gloves.
– Patagonia quarterzip longsleeve. I would wear this at night, then in the morning, then tie it to my pack to dry in the evening.
– Balaclava
– Cycling cap. Looks preppy but super helpful.
– MHW Ghost Whisperer hooded down jacket. Crazy light and warm!
– OR Helium shell
– Sunglasses. Ditched at the first resupply … I hadn’t worn them for five years and couldn’t get back into it. Plus the amber lenses made everything look stormy.
– Helmet. Petzl Sirroco climbing helmet, haha. Dual rated and the lightest thing I had.
– Bandana
– Crank Bro’s M19 multi. Thumbs up.
– Tire levers (2). Also used as spoons.
– Tubes (2)
– Patch kit
– Pump. Fell out of frame bag at Tennessee Pass when inverting bike for tarp setup.
– Gorilla tape
– Gorilla glue
– Zipties (8)
– KMC missing links (2)
– Spare cleat and bolts
– Voile rubber straps (2). Super handy, cinched the handlebar harness down quite nicely.
– Headlamps (BD Spot and Ion). Good enough, but I’d rig a bar light next time.
– Extra batteries. Burned through three sets total.
– Betadine
– Minimal First aid kit
– Sunscreen stick. Never used.
– Burt’s Bees chapstick. Constantly used.
– Lighter + dryer lint
– CT databook. Easier to read southbound …
Cooking and Hydration:
– Vargo Ti alcohol stove + 750ml ti pot. Hot food!
– 4oz denatured alcohol
– Sawyer Mini filter. Slow flow … will consider Lifestraw next time.
– 750ml bike bottle, 1L Platypus softbottle, 0.5L Sawyer softbottle
– Phone + earbuds. Bluetooth buds would’ve been nice but at a higher battery drain. Forgot my USB battery charger … that would’ve been nice to have. Charging at resupplies was adequate.
– RideWithGPS CTR Nobo maps. Helpful for northbound route, consulted occasionally.
– Spotify Premium offline playlists created by friends
– ESV Study Bible and Infinite Jest e-books
Food: two pounds per day
– Breakfasts: instant oatmeal, dried fruit & nut mix
– Sugar: gummy worms, Honey Stinger waffles, HS gummies, Snickers, yogurt-covered raisins (favorite!), peanut M&M’s, Justin’s maple almond butter packets
– Salt: chili cheese Fritos, crunchy Cheetos, cool ranch Doritos, Slim Jims, pepperjack cheese sticks, honey mustard pretzel bites, tomato basil tortillas,  Yellow Carrot Dgo sweet potato chips (favorite!)
– Dinners: instant potatoes and summer sausage, ramen noodles, breakfast burrito dehydrated mix
Staged Resupplies: 
– Friend’s vehicle at Molas Pass
– My vehicle at Spring Creek Pass, which I left with a “CT Thru-Bike Trail Magic” sign
Thoughts for Next Time:
– Go southbound.
– Use some sort of GPS system that tracks mileage more reliably than the Cateye.
– Start with brand new brake pads and bring two sets of spares.
– Resupply in Breck, eat a meal in Copper (but not philly steak mac n cheese again, ugh)
– Find a higher-flow alternative to the Sawyer Mini. Still bring Betadine.
– Bring driducks rain pants instead of zip-offs.
– Bring an extra square of Reflectix sleeping pad for the hips.
– Be thoroughly rested and not-sick before leaving.
– The Leadville bike shop doesn’t stock Tailwind; load resupplies accordingly.

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.”


Storm King North Face Direct

“Dig deep!” I yelled to Todd as the first snow flurries began to fall. We were a hundred feet from the summit of Storm King (13,752′) … the peak was starting to live up to its name, and it was a long way down.

Storm King, North Face in the shade.

The day started at 02:20, ten minutes before our alarm. “You awake?” Todd whispered. I grunted a regretful affirmative. I don’t think I’ve ever slept until my alarm on the morning of a big route.

The day before, we had hiked in thirteen miles from the Vallecito trailhead. It was as casual an approach as you can get for that length. I had the misfortune of carrying a … wait for it … ninety-meter rope since I had just downsized my nylon quiver to move into a van. (It weighed less than my other cords!).

Laden down with the Beal Joker 9.1 90m, ultimate alpine pitchslayer

Along the way, we ran into the remains of the last person who attempted the North Face.

We were just discussing what would constitute a factor three fall. Apparently, this.

On a cheerier note, we ate our fill of wild raspberries and forded a refreshing, knee-deep creek. Smaller creeks and mud were abundant, so my shoes stayed wet for all thirteen miles (in warm temps, I prefer this. On the CT, I went out of my way to stomp in every puddle).

No thanks, I only eat USDA organic.

$#@!, etc.

We set up camp near a waterfall about a mile and half from the start of the route. There’s closer camping to be had, but our throbbing feet vetoed any attempts to push on farther. It’s a great spot, but be advised that the air stays wet even a hundred yards from the falls, so wet shoes don’t dry overnight.

About to set up camp.

While Todd set up camp, I finished the approach and stashed our cord and gear (cams with doubles of orange and red Metolius, nuts and a couple hexes). Spirits were high as we devoured some vague approximation of mesquite chicken-broccoli-rice, set our alarms for “the ass-crack of dawn” and hit the sack well before sunset.

Objects in lens may be further than they appear.

The next morning we mechanically shoveled oatmeal and dried fruit into our gas tanks, strapped on two liters of Tailwind-infused water and stumbled out of camp at 03:00.

Thanks to the reflective markings on the new BD Ultralights, we found our gear cache without too many routefinding woes. We embarked on the first three hundred feet up an “escalator” scree slope — one step forward, two steps back. The start of the climbing was guarded by some bullet-hard snow, into which we chopped steps with a rock.

After a hundred feet of fourth-class, we roped up and began the first pitch just as dawn broke. We enjoyed heartwarming morning sun for most of the route.

2 out of 2 alpinists described this as “not ugly.”

A couple 5.7 moves on wet rock made me glad indeed to have the rope along (maybe not all ninety freaking meters of it). By and large, we enjoyed bomber stone.

Questing upward, only 1400 feet to go.

At the start of the second pitch, I briefly eyed a splitter 5.9ish handcrack, but instead cut hard left and ran out about 150′ of 5.2 traversing or so. The route may have gone up a right-facing dihedral at this point, but it looked harder than 5.7, so whatever. We’re alpinists, not bloody rock climbers.

Todd follows P2.

The third pitch had some real-deal sustained 5.7 (if there is such a thing) that included stemming around a roof. It ended at a commodious ledge (which may or may not have become commode-odious thanks to the generous contribution of an anonymous alpinist).

I’ll give you two guesses, and the first doesn’t count.

P4 had a fun, unprotected move right off the ledge that made me consider requesting an alpine shoulder stand, but Ethics Prevailed. After that, it wandered up 170’ish to a huge ledge littered with talus. (There may have been an extra pitch somewhere in there … it’s all good, clean fun). At that point, the official route might involve moving the belay two hundred feet to the right to a gully of sorts. That sounded like too much work, so we went straight up the headwall, which looked like steep 5.8.

A hundred feet and all of my cams later, I revised my initial assessment. In approach shoes, the moves felt like 5.10c, so let’s be fair and give it a 5.9+. I tiptoed onto a Honnold ledge and belayed off a #8 nut and upward-pull-only #0.75. As soon as Todd cleaned my blue Metolius, I sent him a loop and bolstered the anchor, much to everyone’s relief.

The next pitch had some legit 5.10 moves right off the belay, and I plugged cams above my head like it was going out of style. A hundred feet later, I crawled into a gearless chimney and belayed Todd up on a fat-free meat anchor.

Somewhere earlier on “the” route.

On pitch 9 (?) the Beal Joker spread its wings and facilitated 280 feet of fast 5.6. Meanwhile, the clouds darkened, as did my disposition, and this allegedly “flower-strewn route” turned into a looming graveyard. A hundred feet from the ridge, I slammed in three little nuts and started hauling in rope.

The last pitch would’ve been much more fun had it not been framed by ugly cumulusses. Cumuli? Cumulatively, it was bad and we were hauling more ass than a midwestern homeschool family at a 4H festival.

We busted it to the summit as snowflakes began to fall. This was not the time to get the soundtrack to Frozen stuck in my head, but there ya go.
After a few quizzical moments of routefinding, found the correct ridge and descended with all deliberate speed.

These photos belie the severity of the impending weather. Fortunately, it was just snow.

As soon as we dropped a hundred feet from the summit, the snow blew past and the sun re-bestowed its benevolent gaze upon us. We greeted it with great fanfare and a rousing rendition of the Monarchy’s classic hit, “Sun.”

The descent was arduous but well-cairned, following the established Class 3 southwest ridge route to an everlasting boulderfield that dropped us to Lake Silex. From there, we glissaded a couple hundred feet, and then pounded more talus back to the meadows.

Express lane, vastly preferable to fluid talus.

Camp to camp: fourteen hours. The day before, we had entertained notions of knocking out a couple hours of hiking after completing the route to get a jump start on the trip home. This we dismissed as puerile foolishness, and collapsed victorious at our waterfall campsite. Despite the sudden onset of gravity, we managed to refill water and cook dinner (the same mesquite-jazz-odyssey, but this time infinitely tastier) before falling asleep at 7:30pm.

The next day, we headed home with light packs and even lighter hearts. While hiking, we talked about everything from theology to music theory to nonprofit startups — Todd is without a doubt the most well-rounded person I’ve ever tied in with — but true to form, whenever we passed another group of hikers we deftly changes the topic to hellacious runouts and bicep-curdling rope drag and cheek-clenching exposure. However, nobody took the bait or even asked about the industrial-length spool of pink rope that was playing accordion with our vertebrae.

Aww yuss.

In conclusion, this trip was a series of answered prayers … 1) we got up and down the mountain in a timely fashion, 2) there was no rain and 3) Todd saw his very first bull moose on the hike out, whose surprisingly amicable behavior sealed the deal that this was a Very Good Trip.

Fun Factor Summary:

Type 1 Fun (immediate gratification, enjoyable in the moment): the views on the approach, pitches 1-4, breakfast burritos

Type 2 Fun (not entirely enjoyable but easily whitewashed in retrospect by selective memory to be loads-o-fun): fording Vallecito, climbing the headwall

Type 3 Fun (not fun at all): the escalator scree, blundering about in the snow, the talus walkoff from Lake Silex down, putting on still-wet socks in the morning.