By Kerry Werner
It all started this spring. Russell and I both wanted to do the Colorado Trail. He’d even attempted alone a few years back but was stopped short by bad weather and mechanical issues. The problem was that since I had transitioned to CX and he stuck with MTB our seasons no longer lined up. In the Spring and Summer he would be in the thick of racing and unable to find a window to knacker his legs by lugging around 60 lbs. of gear over a week in the Rockies. Then, he was ready to go in the Fall but I would be between the tape, racing ‘cross full bore. Then Covid-19 hit and both our professional racing lives came to a screaming halt. Like so many people around the world, our lives planned and lives lived were about to take an enormous change. This was our way of making the most of a very bad situation. And since that experience is shared by many of our fellow racers we were able to get Troy Wells and Ryan Petry on board. We formed a 4 person Covid “pod”, socially distanced from all others, and took to the solace of the mountains for a brief escape from our new version of reality.
The intention was simple: Get from Denver to Durango, 500 miles predominantly single track, with 70k+ of climbing and an average elevation of 10k+. Coming from sea level I was worried about completing the trip. At minimum I knew I’d be slowing down those mountain dwellers. That was a new feeling. I have always been fit enough to complete an adventure but the task at hand was more daunting than anything I had ever undertaken before. I couldn’t pack oxygen tanks and I barely had enough room for my dehydrated chocolate cheese cakes!
Despite the fears, I loaded my bag and my partner Emily and I made the drive to CO.
Heading out, the pace was not a high, but steady. We had a big task ahead of us and Russell had some previous engagements so time window was only 7 days. There’d be no time for lollygagging. We’d ride for 10-12 hours a day, weather and hiccup permitting (I’ll get to that).
Our first day was a solid 10 hour pull with relatively mellow trail and getting on the other side of our first Wilderness “go-around” (no bikes allowed in designated Wilderness areas). We camped up on Kenosha Pass and had good weather.
When we woke up we said goodbye to Ryan. He had a preexisting knee injury flair up and he figured he better cut his losses and play it safe rather than have to call for a pick up in the middle of nowhere. We raided his gear, thanked him for his contribution to our calorie stores and said goodbye.
3 miles into the start of day 2 we stopped for water and as I leaned my bike over my camera fell out of my bar bag, I’d forgotten to shut. I didn’t notice this for 7, uphill miles. When I did I made the reluctant decision to turn back. It was a 2 hour round trip and I paid for that bonus 14 miles and 1.5k of climbing. The part I felt the worst about was slowing up the group. We had planned on getting to the other side of Searle/Kokomo Pass but my 2 hour delay put a stop to that.
The Miner’s Creek hike-a-bike out of Breckenridge kicked our asses and made me doubt that we would make it all the way.
Day 3 we woke up just outside of Copper Mountain and set off on what would be our biggest but easiest day. We rolled over Searle/Kokomo Pass early, while we were still fresh, then dropped down to Highway 24 and rolled our way over to Leadville for burritos and horchata.
We then entered the San Isabel National Forest and traversed our way across to Buena Vista via some of the best single track of the trip ATMO. We dropped down to pavement and rallied to town, full pace line and aero tuck, for hamburgers, fries, and malts. Then we schlepped it up Cottonwood Pass for 10 miles before calling it a night at the CT trail head.
Day 4 started with some wicked steep rollers as we undulated our way to the Mount Princeton Hot Springs where we had a resupply box waiting for us. That meant more food, fresh chamois, and a chance to lighten our load (drop off things we packed but weren’t actually necessary. Every gram counts out there.).
We soldiered on to Fuss’s Creek another god-awful hike-a-bike up to 12k+ and dropped down the backside to call it a night after another 11 hour day.
The next morning, day 5, we ventured into a highly anticipated area called Sargent’s Mesa, for reasons of fear and dread rather than excitement and glee. The place was like an east coast rock garden placed at 12,000 feet for 20-30 miles. False-flat, rocky terrain which seemed tailor made to wear you down and kick you while you’re trying to catch your breath. Luckily, we had good weather for this section and made relatively quick work of it. We got through it, pushed through our biggest Wilderness “go-around” and set up camp just south of Dome Lake.
On day 6 we woke up to overcast skies and only made it an hour (9 miles) before we decided to set up camp. We crested Los Piños Pass and were met with a wall of weather in the valley below. We lost 5 hours waiting for the storm to pass but we were warm and dry in our tents and I even snuck in a little siesta.
When the weather passed, we climbed our way up to Spring Creek Pass and started on the segment that would reveal itself to be the crux of the trip. The next 33 miles was all between 11-13.3k feet. We would crest the high point of the trail and be the fully exposed to the elements. Also, it would be part of a block of 3 days with no civilization so we would have to carry all our own food and get water from streams with no resupplies until we got to Silverton. Consequently, this is the part of the trail Russell had to bail on during his solo attempt. Getting this section behind us was high on our list.
Day 7 we woke up at 11.9k feet. It was 33ºF and we were a little soggy from setting up camp in a drizzle the night before. We stuffed our damp sleeping bags in our bar bags and pulled on moist chamois and freezing gloves. Though our legs didn’t like starting on a climb, we were glad to get warm.
The weather got worse before it got better. Russell’s warm pair of gloves got wet the day before and he was suffering. We kept climbing and Russell’s hands went numb. We crested the high point, but barely registered the accomplishment. We just wanted to get safely down the descent in hopes that lower elevations would lead to higher temps. Getting down however would be nearly catastrophic.
Russell’s hands were getting bad. We stopped after 15 min of descending so he could put on more clothes and Troy and I had to change his clothes for him.
Luckily, Mother Nature took mercy and as we stood there undressing him a sliver of sun came through the clouds. We soaked it in, thanking our lucky stars that we didn’t have to push through that weather for the next 6 hours.
We made it to Stony Pass completely obliterated but with an immense sense of relief. With the crux behind us we knew we could get this thing done. Better yet, Troy had organized a burrito refuel at the bottom of Stony Pass. Our friend Cricket was waiting with beer, burritos, and Riley the dog. We stuffed our faces and completely decompressed on the side of the road as what seemed like an endless stream of Razor side-by-sides (Texas Wheel Chairs) ripped up and down the road to Stony Pass. Then we masked up and hunkered down in Cricket’s car while an afternoon storm passed.
We thanked Cricket but didn’t stop there. We made it another 1.5 miles into town. Plugged our devices in at the “Pedal the Peaks” bike shop and sat down for Pizza and more beer.
We rolled out of Silverton, climbed up to Molas Pass and knocked out 6 more miles before setting up camp just before dark.
The final morning we woke up feeling good. We knew we had our work cut out for us but we were confident we were going to finish, barring bad weather.
We made quick work of the first bit and by this point were really enjoying ourselves on the descents. The bikes handled surprisingly well loaded down and at this point we were completely used to riding that way. We were hitting each descent faster than the last as we neared Durango.
Russell has put Kennebec in his head as his mental stop point for the day. We just had to get through Indian Ridge first, which Troy talked up to be a slog similar to Miner’s Creek just not as long.
Indian ridge turned out to be a walk in the park compared to what we had been through and the Ridgeline descent down to Kennebec was epically exposed.
We hit Kennebec and the final descent with smiles on our faces. We were in Troy’s hood now so he led us out and I was honestly scared that stuff was going to start popping off our bikes. We had a 20 minute descent, followed by a 50 minute burner of a climb, and another 30 minutes of descending to bring us in to the end point.
We rolled into the empty gravel parking lot and snapped some photos at the trail head marker, which Troy remarked he had ridden by hundreds of times and never took a photo. Then we rolled into town with one thing on our minds. Food!
This trip was without a doubt the hardest thing I have ever done. I knew it would be tough going in, but good lord the views were worth it. I had never seen any of the Colorado Trail So I got to log 500 miles of brand new single track and take in the best views Colorado has to offer. I walk away from this experience with a renewed sense of my capabilities. It was a huge test of endurance. It was incredible for us all to realize the amount of training volume our bodies can handle. We racked up 77 hours of riding in 8 days! Now my only fear is that I come out of this in tip top shape, ready to rage and have to do stuff like this more often!