I grew up in Texas were the nearest mountain range was an 11 hour drive. The last time I was in Colorado I still owned a pager (it was translucent blue). So when I found out my wife and I would be going to Eagle, CO this July for a wedding we immediately started planning the trip around bikes.
The hardest part about going to Colorado for only a week is picking which trails you want to ride. The opportunities are boundless, but I was fortunate to have a friend that recently moved back to town from Eagle. He and I were able to pioneer a route that looked challenging but doable and more importantly enjoyable. Originally, I wanted to do a modest 100 mile overnighter. At sea level this would be an easy and enjoyable couple of days, but not knowing how we would deal with the elevation we erred on the side of caution and went with a 60 mile option. Elevation became the defining question mark in our adventure. I was confident in our fitness, preparedness, experience, and gear, but I have virtually no altitude riding experience to draw from. The first decision we had to tackle was if we would do the bikepacking trip at the beginning of our trip when we are still fresh, or at the end after we had spent a few days shredding some Colorado Singletrack. Ultimately, I made the call to do the bikepacking trip first. I just couldn’t wait to get lost in Colorado’s backcountry. Just me, my bike, and my girl.
The plan was simple. We would leave College Station, TX at 338′ above sea level and drive to Pueblo, CO at 4,692′ elevation. The next morning we would drive to our base camp at Yeoman Campground in Eagle at 9,215′. Then we would start our bikepacking trip that would have us climb two mountains totaling 4,400′ of climbing in 28 miles. I hoped this would allow for a little acclimatization. I calculated this would take us 5 hours. I calculated wrong.
The next morning we started our ride started with an 8 mile climb gaining 2,000 feet over the first mountain pass. It’s easy to write those numbers, but it was much harder to actually ride them. Within the first mile we were both in our granny gears and wishing we had more all the while hoping this grade would subside. It did not. The lack of air wasn’t making the climb any easier. Instead of focusing on how hard it was we both steeled our focus on the scenery as a reward for our slow but steady pace.
This pace gave us the opportunity to truly take in the flora, fauna, and wildlife of the area. At one point a big mule deer ran out in front of us and down the trail while we followed behind. As a tree lover I was particularly excited about the quaking aspen groves. Rolling through a grove of aspens while the wind made them quake was an idyllic setting to be bikepacking in. Beauty was in abundance which made it easy to focus on things more vital than our labored and prolong breathes as we gasp for air. At the top we were in good spirits and we stopped for a quick lunch while soaking in the vistas.
When we got down to the bottom of the first mountain we took a short break to fill water bottles from a stream. By the time we got back on the road we had already been going for 5 hours (our initial allotted time) and had only covered 18 miles. We were both feeling pretty good overall. Not great, but good. I think we both wanted to just camp in the valley next to the stream, but we were in no mans land…the halfway point. So we pedaled.
The next leg was 10 miles with 2,400′ climbing that would bring us to (what we were told was an epic camp spot) at 10,700′ elevation. When we started the second climb I quickly realized I didn’t have much in the tank and we still had a long way to go. I tried to conserve energy, eat, and drink as much as I could all while making steady work. As the day wore on it started to get hot and I started to get a headache. I immediately thought of the dreaded elevation sickness, but in this type of situation its hard to tell. You are pushing your body to it’s limits. You are in a new environment that is completely foreign to you. I didn’t know if what I was feeling was simply a result of a hard day at altitude or if it was something more serious. With no cell service, no friends in the area, all we had was a Spot Gen3 and I wasn’t about to call in the calvary for a little headache. So we pedaled. I should mention that while I was on the struggle-bus my wife was crushing the climbs like a mountain goat.
I think about halfway up the climb I finally let Keri know that I was a starting to become concerned about my condition and I thought she deserved to know what was going on. I’m as stubborn as they come and had no intention of throwing in the towel, but we were all each other had to rely on and as her partner she needed to know mostly for safety reasons. As we trended upwards I was doing more and more hike-a-bikes while Keri continued to grind those pedals. I monitored myself closely, all the time trying to self diagnose the problem. I wasn’t really getting worse so I figured that was a good sign. The climb to our camp was one of the hardest things I’ve endured, ever. But the spot was breathtaking and it took me out of myself long enough to appreciate it.
Unfortunately, the beauty of the moment and the gratitude of the accomplishment was outweighed by my condition and the realization that in an effort to stave off altitude sickness I was drinking a lot more water. We were down to a liter and our dinner and breakfast both required water to prepare. Once the “adrenaline” of the moment wore off I started to realize that I really wasn’t feeling well. We were in a position that we identified as somewhat critical. We both needed food and water, I might have altitude sickness, and we are miles away from resources or cell service, and we didn’t have enough water. The decision we were grappling with was whether we should backtrack 5 miles to lower elevation where we knew there was a water source or try to grit it out for the night. In the midst of this a truck came up the road and I flagged him down and asked if he had any water. He had an entire cooler of ice cold water, he offered beer as well, but we reluctantly declined. I didn’t get his name, but his timing and graciousness gave us the confidence to try to stick it out for the night. We will pay his kindness forward at every opportunity.
The night wasn’t easy. For weight and space reasons we decided to bring only one hammock to share. We tested this method out in camp the night before for a few minutes and thought it would be fine. But that dehydrated chili mac and beef didn’t sit well on either of our stomaches and neither of us smelled right. Most of the night was spent shifting and lobbying for space that wasn’t there. I continued to suffer from a headache and nausea. Around 2am when I was showing no signs of getting better Keri offered to sleep on the ground so I could get some sleep. The next time I woke up was at 5am and she was crawling back into the hammock with me. She had “slept” on a hard cold ground with no blanket, pillow, or pad so that I could get recover. When I woke up I immediately felt better, my headache and nausea were gone and for the first time I could truly appreciate were we where and who I was with. This is a great example of why having the right partner in life and on bike adventures is so vital. We are all human and need others to lean on from time to time so they can sure us up when we are weak and hopefully you will be able to repay the favor.
The next morning was one of the best of my life. The contrast of how I felt to the day before was profound. I was able to soak in the expansive landscape while the excitement of a new day and a new adventure nibbled at me.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to wake up feeling great and knowing that you have a 17 mile decent and beautiful views ahead. The decent from Hardscrabble mountain is worthy of it’s name, it is rough and rocky, but after the day we had before I didn’t mind. I soaked up every minute of downhill I could. The road gradually changed from rough and rocky to smooth and fast gravel. We let the brakes go and bombed down the mountain.
The road back to our base camp was a gradual climb on paved and well maintained gravel roads. I remember being spent and over climbing, but figuratively speaking it was all downhill from here. The hard part was over and nothing was going to stop of from finishing this ride.
We rolled into camp right as the afternoon showers started to fall, but our excitement was at an all time high. We set out a day before on an adventure and that is exactly what we got. Bikepacking isn’t about being comfortable or easy. If we wanted that we could have rented a vrbo, drive to overlooks, and tour some local breweries. Instead, we got to experience Colorado for the beauty that it offers and the harsh and uncaring conditions that you will find yourself in. It tested us and pushed us to our limits, but we were able to overcome the situation and our personal limitations to finish what we started. And we both were left with a profound respect for the experience, this place, and ultimately ourselves.
Our Route (click on image for RWGPS file)