Episode 2: Gnar-packing in the San Juan Mountains
Bike packing the Colorado Trails is like riding on 2ft wide skinnies for 10 hours a day. Add in drops and ledges, daily 3000ft elevation change, thunderstorms and mud pits. Take away the oxygen and oh, don't forget the extra 20lbs of gear on the bike.
Meet up with Roberto in Durango. Execute self shuttle - drop one car in Durango, drive the other one to the top of trail head. Do a 2 days bike pack, riding on CT (Colorado Trail) Segments 27 and 28 back into Durango and pick up the car. Roberto didn't make it out due to car troubles. Scrap plan A.
Call up Hermosa Tours to provide a shuttle service to the trail head. They require a 2 person minumum and no one else had booked a shuttle service that week. Scrap plan B.
Last minute route re-planning. The easy 2 day route had to be revised to 3 days, double the mileage and double the climbing. Oh that should be fun. Plus my shuttle service would be the famous historic train ride on the narrow gauge railroad from Durango to Silverton. Let's do this! I'm too lazy to type out the details of the route so click below for the vidoe of the route.
Side note: I'm quite meticulous with route planning, especially if I'm out by myself. I always note water sources along the way, shelter options if the weather turns bad, and also bail out options in case of medical emergency or mechanical failure. It has served me well to always be prepared for every possible scenario and have a corrsponding plan for each. So when the unfortunate do happen I don't waste any precious time to alleviate the situation.
Again I'm far too lazy to list out all the gear I took on this adventure so here's quick video about it:
After ride note: . I was worried about food and I definitely brought too much. I guess it was a mixture of exhaustion and laziness but I ended up consuming only half of what I packed. I didn't have any lunches and proper meals were restricted to breakfast and dinner. I was never really hungry at any point, which is surprising - those who know me know that I need to be fed every 2 hours. I guess I had so many other things to worry about plus if you paced yourself well, you can easily survive a 3 day bike packing ride on natural body fat and minimal food intake.
Leg 1: Durango to Silverton on board the Historic Steam Train
Well this is definitely a unique shuttle service. A one way ride from Silverton to Durango will set you back $89 (cheapest seats are for the open carriages) and you'll have to pay an additional $25 for the bike. So yes it is a pricey option but one that I was more than happy to pay for the novelty of it (also because I had no other shuttle options left). The ticketing staff at the train station are super helpful and they will always try to find the best seats for you, which is on the right hand side of the train. On this side you'll be entertained to views of the mountains and the Animas river. I was slightly unlucky with all the good viewing seats taken so I was assigned a seat on the left side (which still has great views), but it was also an aisle seat which meant that I could easily get up and move around the carriage to check out the view on the other side. But regardless of which seat you get, as long as you're in the open carriage everyone mingles freely and you'll get a chance to walk about, admire the panoramic views and converse with your fellow passengers. That I did and coincidentally there were two other bike packers on board. Turned out that they have just completed almost the exact route that I had planned, but instead of leaving their car in Durango they have opted to leave it in Silverton and the train ride is the last leg of their journey. I wondered if I should have done the same - seems like I'm eating the dessert before doing any real work. These guys managed to complete the ride in two and half days, a feat that is quite impressive given one of them had never bike packed and was riding a hard tail.
The open carriages are definitely the best seats in town (as long as you have good weather) but I do have a word of caution. If your carriage happens to be close to the engine, which was the case for me, expect to be inhaling quite a lot of steam and ash. Not the greatest thing for my lungs when I'm already struggling in the thin air. When the wind blows just right you'll get showered by ash, enough to hurt your eyes and you'll be wiping a fine dusting of coal from your face and hair after the three and half hour train ride. I recommend wearing sun glasses but they also sell eye drops in case it gets real bad. The train makes a number of mandatory stops to pick up passengers along the way and also to fill up the water tank, which was pretty rad to see.
Fun fact: The1969 movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was shot on this railway and if you're really observant (I wasn't) you'll see remnants of movie artefacts (such as bullet hole-ridden buckets) left along side the railway.
Leg 2: Silverton to Engineer Mountain TrailTotal distance: 18.3 miles
Total ascent: 3,452 ft
Toatal descend: 651 ft
The train pulled into Silverton at 11.45am (this is the earliest train service from Durango leaving at 8am), which doesn't leave me a lot of time to get to where I planned to end the first day ride. Naturally I wasn't inclined to explore Silverton, but I can say this - it is definetely not what I expected. It is a tiny town that time has forgotten with a very shabby facade of a 18th century mining town with wooden saloon building lined up along the main road which is not even paved. I cycled to the gas station and did a last minute gear check and bid farewell to my fellow bikepackers. From Silverton I had to climb up US Route 550, for around 8 miles to Molas Pass, and this was a straight climb from 9,513 ft to 10,890 ft. Needless to say it was dull climb, but I thought it would be a nice warm up for the legs and to cough up all that coal in my lungs courtesy of the train shuttle service. After an hour I reached Molas Pass, pleasently surprised by the rate of my progress, lungs and legs were feeling great given the altitude. There is a nice viewing point at Molas Pass and also a carpark frequently used by hikers and bikers to access the Colorado trail. In fact the bike packing dudes left their car there, sparing them from road climb (they hitched a ride from Silverton to pick the car).
A Colorado Trail sign presented itself by the side of the road which marked the second half and more gruesome climb of the day (another 1,877 ft to go). Thankfully there are plenty of distractions in the form of stunning vistas and conversations with hikers to take the mind of the pain. Most of the hikers just happen to recognize me from the road climb as they drove up to Molas Pass. By 3pm I was about 5 miles from the end but I could feel the thinning air catching up with me. Progress from then on was painfully slow, something that I fully anticipated and I had to constantly remind myself to remain calm and just focus on doing short hike-a-bike 100ft segments. Yes, that's how pathetic my progress was above 11,000 ft. The legs were doing fine but my heart and lungs were working over time. Having lived all my life at sea-level altitude I'm more accustomed to chewing my oxygen. Here it was more like sucking air through a thin straw using one lung. Oh and then of course on cue, just to compound the misery a thunderstorm rolled in and gave me a good drenching for almost 2 hours. Nevertheless I soldiered on and just after 7pm I reached my objective of the day and set up camp.
So I have this thing - I'm petrified of sleeping by myself in the woods, most likely from watching too many horror movies. Which explains why I had to do so much climbing so I could get above the tree line. The draw back is that I'd be more exposed to the elements but thankfully the weather played nice that evening. I was next to a small lake and running stream fed from the melting snow. As soon as I laid out my sleeping bag I was out for the count. Exhaustion had invaded every single cell in my body, and the idea of food did not even cross my mind. Before I drifted into deep sleep I recalled how peacefully quiet it was, the silence was only puctuated by the gentle gargling of the stream and the occasional flap of my fly sheet.
Leg 3: Engineer Mountain Trail to Blackhawk Mountain
Total distance: 17.2 miles
Ascent: 2,711 ft
Descent: 2,972 ft
I woke up in the morning feeling very sluggish and with a headache. Undoubtedly the altitude had fully caught up to me. I went about fixing breakfast, re-packing and re-supplying for the day in a very leisurely two hour long manner. By the time I was ready to roll on out it was well past 9am and scores of hikers and bikers had already passed by on the trail. Although today's distance is relatively short, I'd be between 11,000 ft and 12,500 ft, and so I had already planned to be at a much slower speed. The ride started with a short climb to 12,440 ft, followed by a steep 3 mile descend. This is when things got a bit sketchy. At the start of the descend the rear brake started mis-behaving, it had half of the bite I'm used to. I initially shrugged it off, blaming the muddy marshy conditions from the previous day, But it got worse to the point that the brake lever offered almost no resistance even when fully depressed. So it was all up to my front brakes to keep me alive. Now any good mountain biker will know to stay off the front brake when descending, and I was doing the opposite. I could see the fork was bearing all the load under braking, always at the verge of bottoming out. I forgot to mention that I'm riding a long travel 160mm travel bike (Yeti SB66c), not the weapon of choice for such endevour but in this case I was thankful for the long travel, it had just enough travel to absorb the braking load and absorb bumps. It still made for a very nervous descend and every time I had to roll of ledges I had to brace for the half second delay it takes for the packs to lurch forward and catapult me over the bar. Oh did I mention it also started to pour down? Seems my downhill progress was going to be as slow and painful as the uphills.
When I reached the bottom of the descend I did a thorough check on the rear brake but couldn't find any fault. The brake line had no leaks, brake pads and rotor looked good - it just had no bite. After almost an hour of tinkering I gave up, and consulted the map for all my bail out options. Remember how I mentioned always have bail out routes planned it advance? Well this is why you need those. I identified a number of options and wieghed them. I wasn't ready to bail just yet and the rest of the ride that was going to be mostly uphill so I decided to roll the dice, press on and continue working on the brake at camp. Rolling through the alpine meadows and zipping through fields of wildflowers which grew to head height kept my mind of the brake troubles. Occasionally marmots would appear on the track leading to cartoonish moments of chasing them. Don't worry - no marmots were harmed in the process. The one thing that continously surprised me about the trails is how treachously narrow these single tracks are, less than 2 ft wide for most part. That does not leave a lot of room for mistakes and focus is required at all times to maintain balance. Something that the body and mind has little capacity of when burdened with fatigue and lack of oxygen. Needless to say I had plenty of off-trail excursions. Most of the time they were harmless - as you crash into fields of wildflower and you emerge with a fresh flowery scent.
Camp was set up under the peak of Blackhawk Mountain. This time I had enough energy to cook dinner. I had planned to set up time lapse shoot of sunset and the night sky but sleep swiftly took over shortly after hunger was satisfied.
Leg 4: Time to bail!
Total distance: 27.7 miles
Ascent: 384 ft
Descend: 2,972 ft
In the morning I spent some more time trying to fix the rear brake but to no avail. The planned final leg was going to be a purely downhill affair with good portions of the route rated as double black diamond where having functional brakes is required to avoid death. Given my predicament I again consulted my marked bail out routes and choose the gentlest descend option. Sometimes choosing to quit at the right time is much harder than finishing. Blackhawk Pass was meant to be one of the highlights of the route so I was devastated to have missed it. Shortly after, the weather turned vicious, pelting sharp droplets of rain accompanied by terrifying flashes and booms of lighting and thunder. I definitely had to get down pronto.
After the weather cleared I was presented with another obstacle, this time in the form a 300ish strong flock of sheep guarded by two fiercely protective sheep dogs. I had joked with my local moubtain bike facebook group about my chances of getting chased by a bear. Turned out that these dogs were the most likely thing that would attack me. I could sense I needed to keep my distance from the flock and there was no way by passing them without falling off the mountain so I had to content with a 40 minute delay as the flock cleared off the trail. I was impressed how these two dogs were keeping the flock in check for however many days they've been in the mountains.
Once the path was cleared I began my gingerly descend, and at around 9000ft my rear brake miracously came back to life on its own. Now I have a theory about this. I reckon there must be some air within the rear brake line that must have expanded or behaved differently at higher altitude. Turns out both me and Zooey (the Yeti) had altitude sickness. With Zooey coming back to life I was able to enjoy the descend. I could hear Zooey begging and screaming to be let off her leash and to go faster but with all that weight I dared not, but it still made for a very enjoyable downhill ride, zipping through the forest. Close to the end of the trail I bumped into a couple of hikers, who turned out to be search party for a mountain biker. They had dropped of the rider at 9am further up the trail and was expecting him to finish in 2 hours or so. By now it was past 4pm and there was no sight of him. I hadn't seen any riders all the way down and I whipped the map to help them figure out his possible whereabouts. Worryingly his GPS tracker went dead and from the map, we couldn't figure out how he could have gotten lost since this particular section of the trail has no junction or off-shoots. Furthermore I was informed that his an experienced rider which added to a mystery. With nothing else to offer other than well wishes I moved on (Dominic on a green Diamonback - I hope you returned safely from your ride). Eventually I reached the US Route 550 and from there it was 10 mile ride back to Durango. To bid me farewell the San Juan Mountains bestowed upon me a parting gift in the form of another thunderstorm - that one soaked me to the bones.
One of the best treats of these adventures I go on is the opportunity to connect, exchange ideas and learn from amazing characters and their stories. On this trip that person was Nigel Peck. As I arrived back in Durango, encapsulated by layers of mud, I made a last minute decision to ditch the camping ground for a more normal human dwelling setting. I spotted a place called 'The Adventure Inn' and thought the name was quite fitting so I took a room for the night. The next morning whilst having breakfast, Nigel who turned out to be the owner of the establishment came by for friendly chat that ended up to be a 2 hour long talk covering a wide range of topics from mountain biking, homelessness, politics and eventually his story of sacrifices and his deep conviction of values that form the foundation of his company. At 55 Nigel and his wife Tammy took a chance, sold everything in order to raise enough capital for the property. When they bought the place it was ranked 36 out 38 in Durango, with a bad repuatation and equally horrendous clientele. But in just one season, with insane hours of sweat and tears they had managed climb to number 2. Tears welled up in Nigel's eyes as he told his story. What I was most moved and inspired by is his drive, not for wealth but for the pursuit of providing meaningful experiences and opportunities for everyone that he encounters, especially his clients and people he employs. Hotel workers in Durango barely get by and most hold multiple jobs to earn enough. That's compunded by Durango's high cost of living. Aware of this plight, Nigel wants to be best paying hotel employer in this area. But he doesn't believe in handouts either. Nothing is given and everything is earned is his mentality and those who work for him hold the same value. The business is doing well and he has big plans to expand and continue improving the lives of his workers as well as providing future opportunites to others. His life mantra also seemed to have attracted like-minded customers and he has had the pleasure to provide a service to the most wonderful and exceptional individuals. And that I believe is why he loves and sacrifices as much as he does - for the pure joy of looking after others. I wish the best of success for Nigel and his team. If you ever find yourself in the area I highly recommend staying at the Adventure Inn and while you're there, have a chat with Nigel.