Ambassadors in Action

Highs and Lows of Solo-Mountain Biking the Colorado Trail

This post comes from Scott Shirey, a friend of Sea to Summit. In an earlier post, Scott recounted his experiences mountain biking the Colorado Trail as a competitor in the grueling Colorado Trail Race. In this edition, he looks back on his journey and shares some of the highs and lows.

Hail Storm on Indian Trail Ridge (Low point #1)

Many people who live and recreate in the Colorado high country have a terrifying lightning story. My defining experience was a few years ago at 14,000’ on Mt. Evans. I did my best to learn from that, and I managed to avoid putting myself in a similar situation since then.

While planning for the Colorado Trail Race I told myself, despite the “race” aspect, that I would be sensible about lightning threats. I would patiently wait below tree-line in a relatively safe spot instead of recklessly risking my life for no good reason.

And then the race began.

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Indian Trail Ridge is a 5-mile section of the Colorado Trail fairly close to Durango, with multiple ridge-tops above the tree-line and almost no escape if the weather turns nasty.

It was noon on Day 1 when I began hiking up from Taylor Lake to the start of Indian Trail Ridge. Once up top, I was greeted with the first low rumblings of thunder and a mildly disturbing horizon. Despite some misgivings, I decided to continue on.

Just as I started to climb over the last ridge between myself and the relative safety of the forest, the simultaneous flash-bang of a massive strike landed somewhere in my immediate vicinity. I threw my bike down, grabbed my seat-bag with my warm clothes and started running down the steep side of the trail. I was bluffed-out before I could reach thick forest so rather than hiding in the dangerous patches of isolated trees, I put on my rain-gear and hovered exposed in thick bushes.

The hail came down with a fury for over an hour. The constant blasts of lightning were unsettling, but I do remember my initial fear subsiding and my survival instincts taking over. I was shivering and hypothermia began to cross my mind unless I could get to my sleeping bag and bivy which was still attached to my bike up on the ridge.

I made a break and ran up the steep slope, and once I reached my bike I came across other riders who had all just crawled out of their hiding spots too. With little debate, we agreed to get the hell out of there.

So despite all my planning and forethought, I put myself directly into my most feared lightning situation just a few hours into Day 1.

The First HIGH point – Silverton to Stony Pass:

I arrived in Silverton at 2 pm on day two and made a mad rush through the grocery store. I came out $40 lighter and sat outside, gorging myself on a chicken pesto sandwich, large Cheetos, Butterfinger ice cream, 40oz of Gatorade, 1-liter chocolate milk, and almost a liter of coke. Then I counted my remaining calories as I packed four days’ worth of food into a crushingly heavy backpack for my next unsupplied leg to Buena Vista.

I was enjoying the comforts of civilization, but my intuition was telling me to get back on the trail quickly. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but something good happened to me in Silverton and I actually began “racing” the course for the first time, rather than merely surviving it.

I put some good tunes on for the 10-mile, 3500’ climb to the top of Stony Pass. Adrenaline-fueled, I motored up that thing with daylight and energy to spare.

It was about an hour before dusk once I cleared Stony Pass and got back onto the Colorado Trail single-track. This amazing section would travel the next 33 miles above 12,000’ to Spring Creek Pass. I stopped at the first creek I saw and cooked a delicious meal of pasta with tuna and enjoyed some coffee for dessert.

The full moon rose not long after I pushed on. It’s hard to describe, but physically and mentally, I felt amazing. Before the race, I was very apprehensive about this section after hearing all the stories about its difficulty. But on this night I experienced something akin to the Runner’s High, and for several hours I moved along effortlessly, smiling and truly enjoying every second. I made it all the way to the base of Coney Summit at 2 am before the high wore off and the sleep monsters barged in. But I had accomplished my goal. I had made it halfway across this amazing section of high-mountain tundra and had a magnificent experience while doing it.

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Sargents Mesa (low point #2):

While the lightning experience on Indian Trail Ridge was an actual threat to life and limb, the march to Sargents Mesa was my internalized low point.

I was on my fourth day now so the trail had taken a physical toll on my body. Besides normal aches and pains, both my Achilles Achilles tendons were in a state of revolt from the miles of steep hiking.

The trail from Hwy 114 to Sargents Mesa entailed 5000’ of climbing over every size of loose rock imaginable. It wasn’t even that steep, but the trail was so rocky and treacherous that it was necessary to hike downhill for miles at a time. The days and miles and suddenly glacial progress combined to put my psyche into a most fragile state. Despite that, I’m pleased to say that I never really thought about quitting.

On the way to Durango for the start if the CTR, I had shared a rental car with 4-time finisher Mark Caminiti. Mark had explained to me that if I was going to finish, I would become “hardened” at some point. I kept that advice fresh in mind as I continued my march to Sargents Mesa and it gave me comfort that things would get better. And of course, things did.

The Second HIGH point – Hwy 50 to Buena Vista

I spent my fourth night at Marshall Pass which meant that I got to ride the world famous Monarch Crest section of the Colorado Trail first thing the next morning. As I dropped the Fooses Creek trail I enjoyed the longest extended downhill of the entire race so far, close to 4000’ down to highway 50. Unlike prior days, I had knocked out a decent chunk of miles by 9:00 am. A pretty good start to the day.

Highway 50 is the way from Salida to Monarch Ski Area and I have a great friend and riding buddy who works there. He is somewhat notorious for sticker-slapping the Monarch butterfly emblem anywhere and everywhere he can as he travels the world. Therefore, as I saw a Monarch sticker protruding from the side of the Colorado Trail marker at highway 50, I had a little chuckle and didn’t think much more about it. As I got closer I noticed that this sticker wasn’t affixed to the sign, but was kind of stuck in a crevice and had a message written on it: “Go, Scott Shirey! HS (long irrelevant story, but those initials represent a core group of my riding buddies) love SS!!!”

A wave of positivity washed over me and I couldn’t stop smiling. I wasn’t all alone out there after all. My friends were following me and were proud of me; people existed who cared if I lived or died. The moral support was a huge boost on this first day where I didn’t see another racer for the entire day.
Even better, after highway 50 the trail became more flowing and ride-able than almost all the preceding sections. The distances on the map were passing by much more quickly than the days before. I remember talking to the trail like it was a living entity, thanking it and encouraging it to continue giving up the miles.

I pulled into Buena Vista as the sun set and I began to think about the finish for the first time. All self-doubt was gone. As long as nothing catastrophic happened to my bike, I knew I was going to complete the Colorado Trail Race. And on a day full of great moments, I had saved the best for last. I purchased a motel room, took a long, hot shower, ate an entire Dominos pizza, climbed into a warm bed and went to sleep.

A few comments about my gear:

My Sea to Summit Micro II sleeping bag was perfect for the race. I was warm even when bivying at 12,000’ at Carson Saddle. It got damp a few times from condensation from the bivy sack, but dried out in minutes & retained its loft. [With the latest addition of Ultra-Down to these bags – they are perfect for this kind of journey] . Best of all, the included compression sack packed the Micro II down to the size of a Nalgene bottle.
I used a Sea to Summit 10 liter eVent Compression Dry Sack to house my sleep system (bag, bivy, & pad) on my handlebars. When packing, I loved how the air would easily escape while the sack remained completely waterproof. I experienced periods of significant rainy weather on four of the eight days I was on the trail, including one constant eight-hour bout from outside of Breckenridge and all the way to Kenosha Pass. My sleeping bag and bivy remained completely dry inside the eVent Compression Dry Sack.

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Although I have a lighter, carbon 29-er hard-tail, I chose my 28-pound Yeti SB-66C for the race, and I think I made a fantastic choice. Despite the massive doses of hike-a-bike, I still wanted to maximize my fun out there, and the Yeti allowed me to rally the fantastic descents as if I was on a day-ride. I also figured that the Yeti might save me when descending while totally exhausted, and I think this was proven many times. I didn’t have to concentrate much on my line at all. I could just point the Yeti down the trail and it took care of the nasty spots for me. Finally, I’m sure there is a good bit of luck involved, but during the entire race, I only had to lube the chain and periodically rinse the drivetrain. No flat tires, no adjustments to the derailleur…. nothing. The Yeti SB-66C is a tremendous machine and it performed beautifully.

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