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Sunday, August 28, 2011

An alpine odyssey

I have a few more stories from our recent camping trip to western Colorado that I'll be interspersing with my regular posts over the coming week or so.

After we stayed at our spectacular campsite with tremendous views of the San Juan Mountains for a few days, it was time to move on. Because riding in a vehicle on a bouncy 4wd road is terrible for my back, we made a plan that involved me riding a gorgeous singletrack route from our campsite to a relatively nearby paved road.

I knew that the distance and climbing were well within my capabilities but there was one hitch. K couldn't run that far with me, and the runners in the family had a very long run planned, which was too arduous for K. So, I exercised K before starting my odyssey.

To give K some fun and exercise, I rode my mountain bike with her to a nearby alpine lake. K frolicked and swam until she was sated. Then, we rode some singletrack back to camp. We stopped for a few parting photos of the amazing wildflowers in that area.
I thought that these might be my last Columbines of the season but I was wrong.
When we arrived back in camp, I left K with the Runner and R. They would drive the long way around to meet me at the paved road. I bid them adieu with one last soulful look at our wonderful campsite. We will return to it, no doubt.

Then, I confidently headed off on the Colorado Trail. Almost immediately, I was confused by the lack of trail signs on a trail that normally is extremely well marked. I kept riding, trying to make good time. Soon, the trail descended steeply to a creek and then paralleled it. I was starting to question whether I was on the right route. I perused my map and turned on my GPS. 

Then, I realized that I'd made a classic KB mistake. I am a terrible navigator, and I tend to bull-headedly storm off in the direction that I think is correct while ignoring the evidence that I might be going the wrong way. It takes me far too long to realize that I've gone the wrong way.

I turned around and climbed out of the abyss that I'd descended into. I was climbing hard, breathing heavily, and feeling my burning quads. Eventually, I found the Colorado Trail. I looked at my cycling computer, and I realized that I'd burned an hour trying to find the trail. I also realized that, by the time I added up the time I'd spent riding with K, the time spent lost, and the projected time for the ride ahead of me, this was going to be a very long ride for my fragile spine. It was too late to find the pack and ask for a ride (and there was no cell phone reception) so I started on my journey with trepidation.

The other problem was that I was going to be at least an hour later than the Runner expected. I thought that he'd be worried so I started hammering on my pedals, trying to make up lost time. At first, I felt pretty good and kept up a brisk speed.

The beauty around me distracted me from the fact that I was not being smart. I was riding in the red zone at the *start* of a very long ride. If I'd been thinking, I would've realized that I was going to pay for my high intensity riding later.
After starting on open meadows and climbing a small pass, I descended into a jumble of canyons and creeks. Close to the creeks, wildflowers wowed me. The isolation was total. I hadn't seen another person or even the trace of one all day.
I emerged from the jumble of canyons and was faced with a long climb up a high pass, about 12,500' high. I started grinding my lowest gear up the pass. From the view in the photo below, it appears that the pass is in between the two peaks and just over the crest in the green meadow. With that vision, I believed that I could ride the whole way, without doing any hike-a-bike.
I turned myself inside out, burning energy, to pedal to the spot where I thought that the pass was. You can imagine my dismay when I discovered that the pass was actually far beyond the crest in the photo above. I tried to keep pedaling but finally allowed myself to collapse into the bed of wildflowers, completely spent.

As I lay there, I named the pass "Endless Pass".

I took a long break feeling completely wrung out. I'd been riding far too hard for such a long journey, and now I was bonking. I turned my backpack inside out searching for calories. I inhaled every morsel of food that it contained and had a long cold drink.

Replenished, I continued the climb, but now at a more reasonable pace. I reminded myself that the Runner is not the panicking type and probably would not be very worried about my lateness. Soon, the actual pass appeared above me!
The view to the other side was magical. It felt like the kingdom of alpine tundra extended forever. I am in heaven when I'm on the tundra.
While I took a break to enjoy the view, Marvin the marmot entertained me. He was remarkably unafraid of me. I had a whole conversation with this animal, telling him about getting lost, riding too hard, and still having many miles to go before I reached my destination. He seemed sympathetic until he realized that I had no food to share with him. Then, he disappeared under a rock.
I continued onward at my new, more reasonable pace, passing a snowfield and seeing the sinuous path of my trail in the distance. I wished that K could be there to swim in the alpine lakes that I was passing.
I descended through a forest of wildflowers, believing that the rest of the ride would be pretty easy. Somehow, I visualized an all downhill coast to the van from this point. I was so wrong.
I stopped taking photos for a while as I followed the trail that was cut into the side of a long mountain ridge with side-gulches and creeks flowing down the ridge and intersecting the trail. I struggled with the steep descent into each of those gulches and then the lung-searing climb out of each one.

And, I've got to admit that my back was hurting, a lot. A reasonable quantity of bike riding is really good for my spine. That day's ride was simply too much.

Soon, I spotted a pair of lakes in the distance that I thought were close to the trailhead. I pulled out my 2-way radio to see if I could reach the Runner. Woo hoo - I heard his voice reply to me, meaning that I couldn't be too far from the van. I confidently told him that I was descending into the trailhead and would see him soon.
Alas, "soon" wasn't really very soon. I had a few more gulches to dive into and climb out of. A half hour later, I finally rolled up to the van, completely spent and with a blood sugar level of approximately zero.

I ate everything that I could lay my hands on - a Ben and Jerry's ice cream bar, a yogurt, plums, peaches, tortilla chips, cookies. You get the picture. I was like a hungry bear set loose in a well-stocked kitchen. All that food barely touched my energy deficit.

I think that there was a lesson learned somewhere in that day but I'm not sure what it was. "Bring more food than you think that you need" is the most likely candidate. Regardless, I now look back on it as a grand adventure, wending my way through bucolic mountain meadows with wildflowers blooming so thickly that a hummingbird would have trouble deciding which one to drink from.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is not to be afraid to embark on these adventures, for I always end up loving them!


  1. OK There are several thoughts that ran thru my head.....One is this is fantastic, and beautiful and amazing and magical and I wanted to be walking thru that area. (OK, not a biker, just a hiker)

    Second, "oh no", what if she hurts herself, falls and injures her back while she is OFF TRAIL.....she would need ME....Search Dog extrordanair.

    Now I love a great search in the high mountains, and your country is incredible. BUT, I Say BUT

    You must be careful. WE all love you and love your blog and love your photos and love experienceing life through your eyes.

    Do NOT mess it up for us by hurting your back.

    Thank you Thank you for todays pictures. My Vickie called her mom the minute we saw the columbine.

    Take Care
    Bert and My Vickie

  2. What an adventure! Beautiful pictures and what a ride you had. Having gotten lost on a mountain while hiking years ago and having to be rescued by the park rangers, I know how hard it is to give up and call for help. I had to because the sun was going down and I had absolutely nothing to drink with me or eat at all. I was so determined to find my way out and so mad at myself for getting lost. The rangers were a blessing when they found me and brought me a big bottle of Gatorade!! Please be careful! I was very sore for days and bones and muscles hurt that I didn't even know I had. I am very happy that your adventure had a happy ending and you had great pictures. I love Marvin too!! Lots of love, Debbie & Holly

  3. I have never seen Alpine meadows like those before and they are astoundingly beautiful. That being said, while I think you and K and Bert and Vickie would really hit-it-off, I don't want you meeting up "by accident". I know you are very careful; but I'm the one that broke her arm in the 6 inch deep stream last summer!!



  4. Just to allay some of your worries, I always carry a Spot Rescue Beacon when I'm in the wilderness alone. Having done SAR work with my previous dog, Acadia, I know how fast things can go south so I keep Spot with me in case I need to be rescued. I've been carrying it for 2 years and haven't used it yet. Hopefully, I never will.

  5. Gosh the meadows are gorgeous
    Benny & Lily

  6. Such rich, vibrant colors. Absolute beauty!

    Boondocks & The Love Shack Pack

  7. It sounds like a fantastic adventure to me, although I prefer a bit of a back up plan like a working cell phone. All the sights you saw on the trip definitely seem to have made it worthwhile! I hope that K is able to go for longer romps with you soon!

  8. I am very glad you go prepared unlike me!! I wasn't even planning on going hiking the day I got lost on a mountain and told absolutely nobody that I was going anywhere at all. Not prepared was an unstatement on my loss which has led me now to never go hiking alone and to go with someone that knows the way (I have a horrible sense of direction!) I'm so glad you are okay...the pictures are gorgeous!! Lots of love, Debbie & Holly

  9. How beautiful! I hope to see some of the places you've seen one day! How very lucky you are!


  10. Great post! I was totally hooked, both by what could happen next to those intensely beautiful pics. It truly looks like heaven there! I'm such a sucker for wildflowers, I'd have been so distracted! Thanks for sharing these pics & ending on such a high note. You made my night!

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  12. Hi Y'all,

    Oh did I feel your "oh no" moment when realizing you were still a good distance from "Endless Pass". Years ago when I lived in Texas and looked across the desert at the mountains, I decided to "drive"...yes in a car... to this day I have yet to reach them. :) I had to turn back when I started running out of daylight, and gas, and saw no gas stations.

    Here in the eastern mountains so much is forested, especially in the southern portion, you can step a couple of feet off the trail and everything looks the same. If you turn in circles you'll be hoplessly disoriented.

    I depend on staying on marked trails or with my dog...My dogs, like my horses, seem to always be able to find the way.

    Y'all take care now,
    BrownDog's Human

  13. That was a marvelous journey. I agree with all of the others in asking you to be careful, but, from your reply, it sounds like you take reasonable precautions. I just don't want you to hurt yourself. Regardless, you went through some absolutely beautiful country, and I think you're right -- as time goes by, you will remember more of the beauty of the journey, and less of the anxiety and stress.

  14. Absolutely stunning..
    I've been in a similar situation (granted, east coast and forest on foot) and I loathe that moment of "no, that is NOT the end".

  15. Oh my, I could stare at those pictures all day long!

  16. We sure do admire your courage to take on that ride. We hope your back has recovered well. It certainly was a beautiful ride (albeit a bit crazy - that's the Mom in me speaking).

  17. If you are going to be lost, that is one gorgeous place to ramble around. Glad you found your way and especially glad the runner had all those high energy foods for refueling.

  18. Wow... those are some beautiful photos! Glad you made it back okay.

  19. Wow! At least you had amazing views for your long journey. You're so adventurous. I'm pretty sure I would need to call in the calvary. I hope you didn't take it too hard on your back.

    Thinking of K and hoping there's been improvement.

  20. My gosh!

    Even the pictures are breathtaking! I can't imagine seeing them in person.

  21. Beautiful! Really makes me miss my vacations in Colorado.

  22. This must be the post you were referring to. So glad you made it out, but so sad it was so hard on your back.

    Oh, my gosh!!! The wildflowers! Simply phenomenal!

    I keep wondering if that's the portion of the trail where many CTR racers get similarly lost each year. I truly admire you for pushing on throughout this journey. This time, YOU are the inspiration!


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