Surly ECR and the Surly 24-Pack Rack: Enter The Mud Season

(Part One)

5:00pm on Friday. Time to set off towards Estes Park. Although I would have like to take a more dirt route off the bat, the day was getting long, and I had some exploratory tracks to travel, so I took the express-way down Highway 36; it’s traffic known somewhat for its rep of severely injuring cyclists. I’ve never had a problem – but I usually ride it around 3:00 in the morning on my way to Longs Peak where the highway is desolate rather than filled with rush hour traffic.

I survived to Lyons in no time, and turned onto St. Vrain Canyon, which must be one of the prettiest canyons to slowly pedal up. Or so I’ve heard – I usually do this pedaling in the wee hours of the morning – the last time was during a snow storm with zero visibility, so today was somewhat of a rare treat for me to see the canyon in the waning daylight. Large pinnacles and crags shot up from the canyon floor. Loads of climbing adventure potential!


The Watchtower

My objective this evening was a FS 82 near Meeker Park. Word has it that there’s National Forest access in the tight squeeze of private property, Wilderness, and National Park of the Tahosa Valley. Surprisingly, I’ve never looked around to see what’s around this road before. My friendly National Forest Service Ranger Station, which I live across the street from, supplied me with a Motor Vehicle Use Map of the surrounding areas accessible by road, which helps greatly in finding legal campsites off private property.

By the time I made it to the turnoff to 82, the sun was most definitely setting. I turned my lights on, and finally, after 3 hours, touched sweet dirt on the 3″ wheels of this ECR beast bike. The road was smooth, fast, and downhill. In little time, and with many summer cabins passed, I made it to a turnoff towards an ATV trail.

The ATV trail was gated, barring access to motor vehicles, but bicycles were fine. Sweet! This meant I wouldn’t see anyone else all night – or if I did, they’d be on a bike too. I anxiously awaited making camp a few miles away in just a little while – an hour, tops? If my planning was correct, I’ll crest the top of a climb, right above Estes Park, where there must be good camping to be had.

But, the track had other plans.

The start of the track was benign – even enjoyable, but ever so slowly became steeper and rougher. I started walking the bike up some of the harder undulations and felt sweet relief when I thought I made it past a small col.

“All downhill from here!”

I quickly realized the other, north-facing side was still snowed in! Instead of an easy downhill,  a hike-a-bike slog through snow drifts greeted me. I did my best trying to ram through the snow drifts, but the snow was not very set up, having been baking in the sun all day. Soon, my bike and I were stuck – I actually cannot believe I didn’t go over the handlebars… as much as I did.


Finally the tracked clear of snow, but that just meant more climbing. By my GPS, I was only a mile or two as the crow flies to my campsite, but the track was a bit more noodle-y that that. I started thinking about bear encounters.

Surprisingly, a sign popped out of absolutely nowhere:

Track’s Out! MUDSLIDE!

Mudslide? I hadn’t… planned on a mudslide. I was on the eastern side of Twin Sisters. The western side has an enormous mudslide you can see from the East Longs Peak trailhead. I couldn’t imagine a second mudslide, just as large as the one I knew about. Nothing beats reality.

Within a few minutes, my worst fears were confirmed: Instead of a track, I faced a 30 foot wall carved out of the very earth I was riding with water streaming at the bottom. My headlamp shined just so much, but… it looked passable. I pushed the bike up a primitive trail, up and over the side, while humming a Stevie Nicks tune. Success!

The track now was well and truly gone. That… wasn’t what I was expected, but oh: now the ride starting to get good! Even with a GPS track to follow, I  was very lost, as itself mapped a route that no longer existed. I walked in circles in the woods until happening open a faint, singletrack trail that lead out to a meadow. Good to go! Worst case scenario: looks like a great place to camp for the night, find my way out in the morning. I was started to really feel the tug of Mr. Sandman, and my legs didn’t sign up for this extra shift of difficult riding. I was hoping to get to bed by 9pm – it was now midnight!

After going through a cataract of downed trees, the track reappeared! Sweet relief! Speaking of relief, I was facing a literal wall of a climb in front of me. I couldn’t believe the topo lines on the GPS could be so close, and this was still a road! Head down, I continued the hike-a-bike of shame up this momentous incline. My brain was ready to make a bargain with my legs, threatening mutiny if I didn’t stop soon.

Lucky for me, as the track finally leveled out to something realistic, an amazing camping area opened up, and I was at the exact spot I wanted to bivvy for the night! It was now almost four hours past my expected time, but sleep sounded sweet. Within, I swear, ten minutes, I had camp set up, and was making, Z’s, with a fairly aggressive wake up time.

Highly suggested route!

Ding ding goes the alarm. Takes me 3o minutes to get rollin’. I realize I’m actually checking how long it takes to pack up and tell myself to cool it: we’re not racing: this is a pleasure cruise: a maiden voyage on the good ship ECR. With this new vibe supplanted, I take in the beautiful view my perch affords me of Rocky Mountain National Park and anticipate this morning riding up and over the entire sucker. But first coffee.

 

I must have counted 10 switchbacks to make it to Estes Park, and a stop at Kind Coffee to get a warm caffeinated beverage and I believe about 3 giant cookies. Off to the Park!

The Park Ranger at the entrance was the exact opposite of my last experience. This man was warm, friendly, talkative (almost too talkative) and especially liked to chat about gear. He loved my bike, and my pack, and Hell: I wanted to be become best friends, but a car pulled up behind me and I needed to split.

I made sure Trail Ridge Road – the route I have to take to get up and over the Park, the Continental Divide and one of the only ways I can bicycle to the other side of the state at this time of year is open, all the way, to the other side and… I think he confirmed that, and… onwards! I’ve got a lot of pedaling to do to get to 12,000 feet, and this ain’t no featherweight roadie rig I’m straddlin’.

If you haven’t ever ridden through Rocky Mountain National Park – what are you waiting for? Do it when the road is closed to cars, but not to bikes, and it’s one of those rare, stress-free, “Yip!” out loud types of experiences. In the high season, it’s not so much fun, as it’s a busy place – to speak nicely of the experience. It’s not quite Going to the Sun Road in Glacier – but it’s right out the door from me, so in that perspective, it’s way better.

Riding loaded down bikes on a tour, even a short one, is always a trip. My logical mind likes to raise its hand and tell me how illogical this is, and that I should have probably just shipped the extra gear to Breckenridge, and I’d get to my destination that much faster. The creative in me HATES that idea, and wishes I took MORE gear, to prove some immature point. I take the middle road and think, “Hey, it’s pedaling, and I love bikes, more time riding bikes!”, and soldier on, taking in the incredible views of snowy peaks and enjoying the quiet roads.

I take a break at around 10,500 feet (2 miles up), give myself 30 winks on a rock wall and eat one of my cookies, leaving the next for the top at the Alpine Visitors Center. I continue on…

…until, shit: I can’t! There’s a sign in the middle of the road telling me that… the road is closed? I’m surprised as I was expected the road to be open. The website said so. The ranger at the entrance said so – and he took money from me! Facebook said so, and NOTHING on Facebook is ever false! I decide to keep going to investigate. The road is still… basically snow free, but it’s starting to see some patches here and there I have to avoid (or plow through!).

Finally, my stoke figuratively a pinch flats: I happen upon two large snow machines digging the road out of an enormous snow drift, with nothing but snow in front of them as far as I can see, on a fairly steep pitch.

Sheeeeet.

I make my way slowly to the, uh, end of the road. One of the workers comes out of his machine. Ok. He’s not exactly pissed, but he asked me some obvious questions:

“Hey, did you NOT see the sign?”

I admit that I did, and continued, using truth as my ally: I thought the road was open – why would I pedal this heavily burdened beast all this way, if I couldn’t get through? I apologized for getting in his way and his work. I told him of my plans to find a half pound cheeseburger back in Estes Park to drown in ketchup and a beer for my sorrow, as I figure out plan B.

He must have noticed how well-outfitted I was – I was carrying an ice axe after all, which means Business – or, perhaps how pathetic of a situation this was for me… Anyways, this kind man took pity on me and basically told me that he was going to look the other direction for just a moment, and if I slip by… no one would be the wiser.

I bumped fists with him and started climbing up and over the snow drift and onto the steep snow slope – ice axe in hand just in case. And within just 200 meters, I was at the Alpine Visitors Center. Snow drifts or n0, it was all downhill from here, all the way to the western entrance of the Park!

The snow drifts came to little difficulty for me and my wide tire’d brother in arms, and soon pavement was again found, without a snow removal crew on the other side – I’m guessing it was about lunch time and they were on break!. I lost a few hours, but I decided it was a good time as any to celebrate my good fortune in Grand Lake with lunch and get out of what was becoming a very unseasonably warm day.

Punching through the last snow drift and reentering the trench run be like,

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After lunch, it was time to hit a bit more pavement: south to Granby, then west to Hot Sulfur Springs or so – all beautiful country along the Colorado River. My turnoff south finally did came, and I was now pedaling a road that would lead me onto the venerable Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. I remember this being a pretty fast part of the course from my previous tours, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to make I all the way to Ute Pass before dark.

After Ute Pass, camping options get real slim again as you’re again in a tight constriction with private property and Wilderness areas that feature difficult access (The Gores!).  The only thing you look forward to is Summit County which these days is pretty built up. If I could, I’d like to camp at the trailhead for tomorrow’s objective, Buffalo Mountain. If I can’t get close, it’s either a very early start tomorrow, or nix plans to climb the mountain: the snow would be too soft to climb even by mid morning. Even with quite a few miles in the legs, I decide to soldier on.

The miles did go fast, and right before nightfall, I crested Ute Pass. There’s an option to camp pretty close to the col, but I decide instead to gamble riding the highway at night. It seems pretty desolate, as I spied the road from my high perch. I pass some construction, which leaves me without a shoulder for a few spots. Stressful, but it’s over quickly.

Soon, I’m in Silverthorne, at the Target 15 minutes before it closes at 10:00pm. Long day! I stock up on food – a random assortment of things my sun-addled mind thinks it wants, and look for the National Forest trailhead I’d spend the night near.

Well, even though I used to spend summers at the base of Buffalo Mountain, and have even slept at the trailhead I’m looking for before: I’m now lost. Things are so built up, I can’t recognize the old neighborhood. The main trailhead is in an easy to find place, but I was trying to avoid it, as it meant another few more miles of climbing! I’ve done enough climbing today, but decide to go for it for character building reasons. Up Wilderness Trail I go!

Road seems to never end. I had no idea any of the houses, condos, apartments, etc. even existed up here! Switchback after lazy switchback were cleared; the trailhead being at the very end. Finally, as it always seems to happen, I make it to the end of the track. The pickings for a spot to sleep seem slim.

The forest near the trailhead has seen some microburst activity, so instead of a nicely forested area to throw down a sleeping bag and hide a bike, it’s a maze of downed trees and snowdrifts – or even worst, areas have been cleared out, given NO cover at all! The trailhead explicitly states, “no bikes!” and even advertises a fine!

I sneak around a bit up a road and find a National Forest boundary sign and hop back into the trees. I somehow find a coffin-sized amount of land that’s somewhat dry, somewhat flat, and somewhat quiet and collapse for the day. It’ll be another day of only 5 hours of sleep before I have to get up.

The next morning I pack up, leave the bike out in the open at the trailhead, switch to Mountaineering Mode, and  gear up with everything I’ve been hauling on the front rack: 25 liter pack, crampons, ice axe, trekking poles, snowshoes – the whole kit, and I start my way up to the base of The Silver Couloir.

Buffalo Mountain holds somewhat of a special appeal to me: it’s probably the first mountain I’ve asked the name of, and I used to live at the base of it during the summer. When I was 15, my Brother took me in, and I lived with him between school terms. He hooked me up with basically a full-time job washing dishes for $5/hour + tips at a Jamaican-themed pasta place, and I sometimes took shifts at the local skatepark the owner of the house also ran.I lived in a 6’x10′ room with no windows dubbed “Cell Block 1-A” by the other housemates. I generally did Adult Life on Training Wheels during these formative years – it was a pretty incredible thing my Brother did for me!

Writing this all out, I can’t believe that was 20 years ago. In that 20 years, I never hiked up Buffalo Mountain, even though the trail started at the end of the road the house was on. Damn! Missed opportunities.

As I hiked up to the base of the couloir, I thought of all these memories and more, and how I was finally here to get ‘er done. At the base of the couloir things looked less than ideal: the snow simply sucked. Even though it was relatively early, it felt soft without a proper freeze the night before, and I could see major wet slide activity within the couloir itself.

The couloir isn’t difficult and I’ve got a lot of experience with more imposing, much longer and steeper chutes. So with just a bit of reluctance,  I switched into my crampons and started up. Felt a bit of a bite from the previous two days in the legs, so my going wasn’t the quickest. The snow never got any better – full of air holes, and all together of dubious quality, but I kept trudging on.

Within a couple of hours, I was topping out to a fairly busy sub-summit. Skiers were taking off their skins, to get ready for the ski down. But, this wasn’t the true summit, so without missing a beat, I left the happy group of peeps on sticks, and made my way to the Class 3 finish to sit all by my lonesome. Beautiful views all around.

After a couple of minutes, I started down back to the trailhead with little problem. Back at the trailhead, I took a bit of time to switch back into, Riding-Bikes mode, sort  my gear, and prepare to enjoy the no-effort ride down the damn hill I had to ride up in the middle of the night, already tasting the burritos and coffee at the bottom.

Last night, the choices were ride in the rain/sleet/snow to camp underneath a tarp in the same to climb a couloir in questionable weather the next day, OR visit my Brother, eat delicious food and drink beer. Naturally, I chose the latter. Before going for a coffee run, I shot this quick vid. to show you just what I’m hauling across all Creation. Spring in Colorado is a challenging time to ride, camp, and climb mountains – you need a bit of gear to be successful as snow is present and the weather is all over the place. Here’s what I’ve paired things down to, to fit onto the @intergalacticsurlybikes E.C.R. and it’s 24 Pack Rack. Everything is tied down securely when riding using straps supplied by Surly. It’s busy, but things like my brake and shifter cables are running pretty well without kinks. My sleep system is working better than I thought it would with the rack, and the straps on the @jonesbikes help distribute the weight. Sick! I’ll be out tonight after some R&R to set up a camp up near Hoosier Pass. #bikecamping #bikepacking #gear #bikeaneering @ultimatedirectionusa #colorado

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While enjoying my actual burrito, the weather turned, and it started grappling. I made the decision to see if my Brother was around and take a day in his 240 square foot shack 3 blocks from downtown Breckenridge. He was home! Hot showers and cold beers were on the menu. One night turned into two, and by the third day of hanging out not moving because of degrading weather, I decide to make a break for it to get to the next camp spot 9 miles down the road near the Quandary Trailhead.

Of course, as soon as I start out, the weather got worse, but I continued on. Before nightfall, I found another relatively dry, relatively flat area to prepare camp. This time, I put up the tarp, since I was sure precipitation was to fall all night. I shivered with all my clothes on getting everything set up, and had a peaceful, if not cold day out in the sticks. At least this night I was well rested, and could afford a 9 hour sleep, instead of 5.

The next day, I packed up once again, left the bike at the trailhead, and began up Quandary’s East Ridge route. I planned on something more audacious, but conditions weren’t showing that this would be in the cards. It happens. I had the privilege of breaking trail all the way to the summit at 14,000’+. Getting there in pretty good time, I turned around in a whiteout, and stomped all the way down at a good clip, making the round trip in about 3 1/2 hours. Having nothing else to do this day, I decided to… do it again! Off I went, in disintegrating conditions. At least now I’ve got the trail packed down a bit, care of myself! I even wondered if I could make better time the second go around…

I topped out for lap #2 in a snow squall wearing what amounts to a windbreaker and tights. You can’t beat Colorado in the Spring! I cruised down and made it to the trailhead in about the same time as before. I raced to get dry, warm clothes on, as thunder hail was rumbling in the distance. 9 miles back to my Brother’s shack, where beer and showers were awaiting again. Luckily, it was all downhill and I made excellent time.

My Brother and I went out for dinner, and after another cramped night in the Love Shack, I got up early enough to catch the Purple Prince Bus in Frisco to take me back to Denver, then another bus to Boulder, and then home, finishing up this early Mud Season tour of the high country of Colorado.

Success!

All good things must come to an end. Having E.scaped C.ommon R.eality on the @intergalacticsurlybikes E.C.R. for almost a full week: exploring some new washed-out-by-enormous-mudslide double tracks in the middle of the night; traversing Rocky Mountain National Park via a snow-choked Trail Ridge Road; touring a segment of @adventurecycling’s Great Divide Mountain Bike Route; #climbing a sketchy-conditioned Silver Couloir on Buffalo Mountain; hanging out with the Bro + Bro’s Wife in a 250 square foot historical shack in Breck.; and running laps up and down #14er Quandary Peak in a snow squall after a chilly #bivvy at the base of the mountain – it’s time to head home via the purple Prince bus. #Colorado is a pretty killer place to tramp around on a bike and walk up mountains, even in #mudseason. Grab your bike + a pack and GO! #adventureneerizitating #biketouring #bikepacking #bikeaneering #bikecamping #mountainrunning

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