Last Friday night we filled our spaceship of a vehicle full of bikes, bags, and gear and traveled back in time (EST to MST) to arrive in sunny Colorado Springs by noon on Saturday for an escape from one winter to another.
With a packed schedule of activities like hiking, snowmobiling, skiing and fat biking, this trip was about how a group of sea level dwelling friends faired against Colorado's terrain, altitude, and weather over 10-days of physical activity and 35-hours of driving.
We started using the phrase "Health Bars 10" as sort of a code to check our safety levels when we first started riding with my sister Mary. Mary, a video gaming machine when she wants to be, tends to ride like she is in a video game. "Health bars 10" would be our reference to full health levels for a video game character and our way of attempting to slow Mary down. So with this trip including a lot of unfamiliar variables, keeping our health bars at 10 was a priority.
Located about an hour south of Denver, Colorado Springs sits at the base of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, most notably at the base of one of Colorado's most famous mountains, Pikes Peak. The vibe in Colorado Springs was full of sunshine, athleticism, the smell of legalized cannabis, and for some of us, a mean altitude headache, and nausea. We were excited to be there and were looking forward to getting our bodies moving after a long drive.
Our first stop was to stretch our legs over a short hike through the Garden of the Gods, a geological formation of red rocks that looks like this, amidst foothills...
Depending on where you are, Colorado Springs sits around 6,000 ft in elevation. It hit me like a hang over after prom night the first morning I woke up. With plans to hike Barr Trail to Barr Camp on Pikes Peak (a 3,000 ft elevation gain over a 6-mile hike one way), I forced a banana and some sour yogurt into my belly and packed my day pack. Just like what food does for a hang over, food does for altitude sickness (in my short experience) and I was feeling better every minute I spent outside in the sun, hiking, with friends. During the first mile, we noticed a whole bunch of people running down the trail, the opposite direction of us. Had they ran all the way to Barr Camp and back? In the presence of these short-sleeved Barr Trail runners, we felt a bit over-prepped, with daypacks, lunch, and extra layers, as we had planned to take all day for our excursion. Finally, we stopped and asked a woman what was up, "We do the incline" she said, "I do it every Sunday." We hiked a little farther and noticed the veritable pilgrimage of people slowly making their way up an endless series of timber steps (officially, 2,000 ft up in a 3/4 of a mile, that's 68% grade at some points). At this point on Barr Trail we were in the middle of the incline, it seemed like a good idea so we hopped in with the masses. I quickly realized the cause of the concerned look on my friend John's face when I found that gravity was pulling me to my hands and knees as I was gasping for air and experiencing the type of tunnel vision from Alfred Hitchock's Vertigo film.
To assume we took a short cut on Barr Trail would be incorrect because, when we asked how to get back to Barr Trail from the top of the incline, someone (obviously assuming we were like everybody else and there to hike up the incline and down Barr Trail) pointed us in the direction of the parking lot, down Barr Trail. Call it the altitude, the celebratory wine at the top, or the giddiness of our group simply enjoying ourselves in Colorado, but only after reaching the intersection of where we left Barr Trail to climb the incline did we realize what had happened... We made haste and got back on track.
Once we passed through the influence of the populated incline, Barr Trail came to life. On this trail, thousands have made the journey to summit one of the highest mountains in the States. We met one of these travelers and instantly became friends with Lee, who was returning from the summit of Pikes Peak, her twelfth time in a year.
Reaching Barr Camp and speaking to Renee and Anthony (Barr Camp's resident caretakers), is a blur of a memory. We reached the camp around 3 p.m. and were at 10,000 feet. Looking back, we all looked sort of puffy and sleepy, felt it to! After some hot chocolate, and some good conversation, we high-tailed it out of there for our downward retreat, ultimately arriving in the dark, appropriately hungry and sore.
The next day, we hit the road again to make our way deeper into the mountains, closer to the cold and to the snow, but before that, we hopped on our fat bikes and explored our host Branwen's back yard, which happens to be Ute Park.
The following day we had reservations to try something new. Our friend John, made arrangements for us to give snowmobiling a go, out of his favorite location in Red Cliff (a tiny little ski town near Vail). That morning the mountains had finally received their first dusting of snow in a while, we were told Colorado has been having one of its driest winters to date which means less snow, less skiing, and less tourism for many of the businesses built on income from powder hungry adventurers. Falling snow made for an interesting drive through the mountains and fresh tracks for the snow mobiles.
Upon reaching Back Country Rentals, we were briefed on the DOs and DONTs of snowmobiles. Stay on the trail, don't go off the trail, don't tip the machine over, if you do, call immediately, don't jump the snowmobiles, avoid a series of bad decisions etc. etc. etc. By the time the briefing ended and we were on the snowmobiles, I was ready for a nap and confident that nothing could possibly go wrong with our group. At the same time, I was having flashbacks to experiences with jet-ski rentals during family reunions... which usually ended with rescue missions and expensive damage fees. Without further worry, we took off and all was good! We were the first ones to lay tracks on the light, blowy, powder that had fallen since the day before. This was great, until we got to a fork in the trail and could not tell which direction we were supposed to go. The rental agent said it would be obvious because the trail would be worn in, but he did not take into consideration the fresh snow they had received. We faced a field of lumpy snow with options to go straight, left, or right. At the time, I was mounted upon the back of the sled that my sister, Mary, was piloting. We proceeded to follow our friend Rich (on a single rider, more powerful machine) in a move to maneuver the sleds around to regroup. We realized why the rental agent was so adamant about staying on the trail when my sister went to make her turn and the sled sank... Things weren't so bad. The big, tandem machine sat atop a 5 foot drift of loose snow... After a little teamwork, and some uh-ohs we had the snow mobile thoroughly buried in that snow drift, 10 minutes from the start, and on the easiest section of trail.
Needless to say we dug her out and everyone and the machine made it out just fine. We managed to find our route and made our way through the mountains. Snowmobiling, thoroughly reminds me of jet-skiing. The revved-up, gasoline thrill and speed that will take you far, far away. This also means that any involuntary dismount will likely be dangerous. What made me nervous about these machines, is just that they are machines and if they break, or something happens while you are out, you are screwed, and very far from rescue. This is why I like using human power for adventures... The scale of speed, distance, noise, and interruption are always of a more manageable nature when driven solely by human power.
The scenario that finally solidified this feeling in my mind was when John, (an experienced snowmobiler) decided to attempt to crest a massive hill that was so steep and so long you had to commit 100% or else you would backflip down the mountain. John took off and it appeared that he was going to make it, until the very top, when a cloud came over the edge of the mountain, obstructing his vision of the edge. In that split second John's commitment level went from 100% to about 90%. The snowmobile flipped and started to slide down the hill, with John beneath it. Our group, spectating from a great distance down and away, sat open-mouthed and momentarily speechless. The only machine capable of going to John's rescue would be the one Rich was aboard. Rich had no prior plans at attempting this climb, but when his best friend needed help, he set off to rescue him. "What happen's if they both get stuck up there" I remember someone asking..."This is what the guy meant by a series of bad decisions" another said under their breath. Sure enough, Rich made it to the top with no problem and by that time John had done some sort of high-speed roll and mounting maneuver and was sliding down the mountain upright on an unpowered machine.
His machine returned to life, his health bars were at 10, and crisis was luckily averted, again! We powered around a little more and turned back towards the town. The one obstacle left to traverse was a series of mogul-like formations in the snow. The repetitive bumps were not so noticeable to the driver, but extremely noticeable to the passenger. We found the bumps surprisingly annoying and uncomfortable on our way out, but maneuvered through them slowly, making limited impact. On the return trip, approximately 7 miles out, with only 15 minutes left on our rental, and after the day's events, there was no time for slow. The experience of hitting these bumps at speed as the driver was sort of like riding a galloping horse with your feet in the stirrups. Imagine the leg-pumping workout as you absorb the movement over the bumps with your legs. Now, imagine having your friend, riding bare back on the back of the horse, with no stirrups, bumping up and down into the air, screaming. With two tandem sleds shared between four people, everyone got a go at being the pilot and the passenger. After a full buffet of gas-powered snow blasting, when we rolled into the parking lot, I removed myself from the snowmobile with permanence in mind. With no additional late fees, damage charges, and health bars at 10 , we escaped with memories and the sore muscles in our bodies.
After our eventful time snowmobiling, no one was feeling up for skiing that evening so we made our way back to Evergreen. The following night we had reservations at a hut outside of Leadville. The catch was that a snow storm would be moving in over night making our escape from Evergreen in our awkward vehicle most likely impossible. The decision was made to hightail it out of Evergreen to Leadville that night, and beat the snow covered roads. After the snowmobiling adventure/nightmare and 5 hours of driving, we found ourselves in the sleepy, high mountain town of Leadville, Colorado, four people in a tiny double room of the Alps Motel. We started packing our bike bags with gear for an apocalyptic fat bike adventure the following day. Apocalyptic could be the theme of this portion of our adventure for while our health bars were physically at a 10, they were mentally wavering around 5 or a 6 after a week of exhaustive, exhilarating adventures at high altitude. The snow storm initially bound to hit north of Leadville, appeared to be moving south which put our plans into question. Our plans were to fat bike a 6-mile route with 1500 ft of elevation gain (relatively easy under most non fresh snow circumstances) to a primitive cabin in the mountains where we would sleep, eat food, and go on a day ride. The following day we would descend along the same route, back to our vehicle. This trip was inspired by traditional hut-to-hut ski trips, but instead by fat bike. If a major snow storm was coming through and dumping fresh snow on our route, that would make for a very difficult day ahead. Sure enough as morning rolled in, so did the snow, a lot of it. We had the reservation, we were in Leadville, we had to attempt the trip. This meant we were packing for the apocalyptic snow ride of the century with no idea if we would make it or not.
Talk about motivation... By the time we reached the trailhead, there was a healthy 8 inches of fresh powder waiting for us, with more coming down every minute. Not so easily defeated, we set out in a pace-line, following each others tracks, doing what we could not to loose traction and put a foot down. We made our way, inching along the route at about 2 miles per hour. After two hours of riding/hiking uphill in deep fresh snow the novelty of what we were doing had worn off. Half of the group wanted to push forward, and half of the group wanted to turn back. The decision was made to throw in the towel now, rather than push our bikes up the last 2.5 miles.
It's never easy to turn back on your plans, but when it comes to the health of your group and mother nature is involved, it's important to check in with reality. We turned ourselves around and what had taken us two hours to climb, took just half an hour to cruise down. In retreat, we noticed that it had snowed so much during the climb, that our tracks, headed up the mountain, were invisible.
The benefit of our change in plans was spending more time in Leadville (an old mining town sitting at 10,000 ft, with its claim to fame, Leadville 100 Mile Run and Mountain Bike Race), visiting with the people, shops, and eateries that call this quaint town their home. "Leadville is a cool town" they would say, then go on to tell us how they wound up there. The local newspaper was promoting the new activity of fat biking and encouraged riders to explore the Mineral Belt Trail which is essentially a paved rail-to-trail in the summer time and an ideal cross-country ski loop with a gradual grade in the winter time. We were snowed into Leadville until Thursday afternoon, so we decided to explore the trail. By the time we mounted our bikes the snow had let up, the sun came out, warming the temps to the high 40's yet not melting all the snow. This made for a fun, scenic, short sleeves and shorts ride through the snow before we hit the road back to Colorado Springs in search for some warmer temps and dirt roads before we headed back to Ohio.
We found a cheap motel with a bit more space and a hot tub for our traveling troop of four, just outside Manitou Springs. We imagined this time would be relaxing, free of driving, free of imminent danger from our adventures, with more time to explore the fun atmosphere of the environment around us. A modest route was laid out to reach some local dirt. We had been given multiple recommendations to check out a road called "Gold Camp Road" as it's known for scenery, tunnels, waterfalls, etc. etc. I found the road on the map and since my preference is to avoid out-and-backs and create looped routes, I located another seemingly beautiful road, called Old Stage Road, and routed us up Old Stage Road (the steeper way up), and down Gold Camp Road (the more gradual, less treacherous way down). As we made our way to, and up Old Stage Road in 70 degrees and sunshine, it was obvious that this route would not disappoint.
However, we were still dealing with altitude weakness, which made the grade of some of the inclines along the climb incredibly taxing physically and in terms of time. We finally reached our connecting road which turned to the north face of the mountain, the cold, dark side of the mountain. Elated to be heading toward the downward direction no one was paying much mind to the fact we were hiking our bikes through the snow, for a really long time...
We finally reached a sunny turn in the road and thought our hiking days were over. We ripped off our wet shoes and socks and warmed our feet in the sunshine. Tom was agitated, and brought to our attention what everyone failed to notice, which was that following this turn the snow hiking would continue as far as the eye could see. It was 3 o'clock and we were losing daylight, the only rational decision to be made would be to turn back and return the way we came, back through the snow, and down the treacherous steep descent, now covered in patches of re-freeze ice. While it was a decision no one wanted to accept, it was the only safe decision to make, once again, we needed to keep health bars at 10 and we were not equipped for an overnight stay, especially when the surrounding area smelled like mountain lions... So we turned back, again (that's twice on this trip), and made our way down the treacherous descent, over the ice patches, only stopping in small patches of sunlight to warm up our wet feet and cold hands.
No one was motivated to retrace our exact tracks through the city, but we needed to get back quickly. Energy was low since we had eaten all of our food on the climb and the hike-a-bike, we were losing sunlight by the minute, and everybody was cold, with wet feet. I took a shot in the dark and opted to take a more direct, more unknown road, back to our starting point. Within a mile it was obvious that this road, while paved, would take us up, and over another mountain, adding wear to our already exhausted climbing legs. With the climb we saw warmth so we continued silently forward and upward as spirits were as empty as our stomachs. When we reached the top we noticed the opportunity to re-connect (albeit at a lower elevation) with Gold Camp Road, we rolled a little further and noticed the continued snow cover, said hell no, turned back and took whatever road there was that would take us down. As the sun was setting over the mountain range, creating a bright orange light in the sky, this road breathed renewed life into our low spirits with scenic vistas, tunnels, twists, and turns.
This was the kind of experience we had been looking for all along. We soaked up the moments on this road snapping photos and laughing again. We knew we were going to make it back to the safety of our hotel, the hot tub, food, bed, with health bars at 10. Ultimately riding over 5,600 ft in only 40 miles over an entire day...
Our trip had to come to an end. We held on to the last day. We soaked up some rays, enjoyed being tourists, and made one last ride through Palmer Park on the fat bikes. We returned home to Ohio over a 17 hour drive through the night. Health bars may have experienced some deleterious effects from the drive, but no one kept a record.
Thanks for reading! For more photos from our trip, click here.