Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Staying High All Day

Stony Pass/Pole Creek Loop
27.8 miles
5210ft vertical (Garmin)
4:17 moving time

Took it "easy" today, hitting one of the shorter loops on my list of rides. When I talked with the guys at the LBS last night about where to go that doesn't involve a boat load of climbing, they mentioned Horse Gulch. It is right on skirt of town. It was supposed to be hotter than blazes again today. Somehow that just didn't settle nice with me. Sure, it is the place locals go for after work rides. Tons of purpose built trails in there. Only a thousand feet or so of vertical difference.

I have an affinity to the high country, however. When you are out there, haven't seen nor heard another human for hours, can see forever, you realize this is still a pretty big planet and we are minuscule. Despite needing a rest day, I drove an hour north to Silverton, a town that still looks like it is right out of the 1800's. Silverton sits at 9300ft, and the mountains around there tower to 13,000 to 14,000ft. This would be new territory for me to explore.

The loop I had planned was a cobbled concoction. I suspected some hike-a-bike would be involved, as one of the trails was a hiking trail (but open to mountain bikes). The route climbs Stony Pass on 4WD road from the Silverton side, then descends to Pole Creek in the middle of nowhere. Stony pass sits at 12,600ft on the Continental Divide. Pole Creek Trail is then taken a few miles to catch Trail 918, which used to be part of the Colorado Trail until recently. Trail 918 climbs to the Continental Divide again, at 12,500ft, then descends Magie Gulch on the Silverton side. A small loop, but a few photos I caught on the web suggested the scenery would be second to none. This ride was more about big sky and adventure than hammering away on some famous MTB trail.

I got a late start, but forecast was perfect. Normally, this time of year is still full monsoon season. Afternoon thunderstorms are expected each day. That is a frightening thing if you get caught at 12,000ft with nary a rock to crawl under. I wasn't worried about it today. I started around 9:30am, and it was COLD. I had to put long layers on.

The climb up Stony Pass Rd seemed innocent enough starting out, a couple trucks went by. There are still many active mines in this area. It didn't take long before the climbing got serious. Then to my horror, I encountered freshly graded surface, so fresh there was still a foot high hump in the middle of the doubletrack with beech ball sized rocks and the craters they left behind all over the place. Five miles of this at 15% grade at 12,000 feet would suck. I soon caught up to the grader. He stopped, then sternly warned me that more of this was going on further up. I smiled, said thanks, and pedaled on thinking I was doomed. I gathered the grader operator thought I was nuts for even continuing. Soon enough, I got past this initial piece of "road" work.

The grade hovered in the 12-20% range the whole way. I'd guess average was around 15% with some long 20+% sections. You can only go so slow before you fall over. Easier gears don't matter. I was in my 22x34 almost continuously. I was breathing way harder than I planned today, but I was not walking this sucker if I could help it.

The scenery above tree line was amazing. I could still enjoy it despite being in a hypoxic daze. Near the pass, I caught up to the other grader. He was not making anywhere near the mess the first grader was. After stopping a while to soak in the view at 12,600ft, I bombed down the other side towards Pole Creek. This side was not nearly as steep. You could see many miles down the gulch. In a single view you could see ten's of thousands of acres.

It was much hotter when I got down to Pole Creek, about a 2000ft drop. The Garmin was telling me to go left to get on Pole Creek Trail. This is free range cattle country, and the trail was little more than a beat up cow path. Uh-oh. I hate riding horse or cattle trails, especially on a hardtail with an already raw butt. It has been dry for a while now, so the hoof prints were baked in like concrete.

Pole Creek Trail was mostly rideable for me. I did not expect it to start climbing as rigorously as it did. I never really mentally correlated where the climbing was with the trails I was hitting, other than Stony Pass Rd. But now I was on mostly single track. Mostly, because cows are worse at braiding trails around rocks than gumby mountain bikers. Sometimes I didn't know which path to take, whether they'd come back together or not. A few times, I started diverging from my GPS track pulled from the web. I'd have to backtrack, take the other fork to see if that kept me closer to my track. I had to put complete faith into a track created by someone I'll never know. This area was extremely remote. It would be highly unlikely to see someone else back here on a weekday, I thought.

I get off Pole Creek Trail and begin climbing Trail 918, I think. There were so many cow paths to choose from. Then I hit a heinous wall. It was so steep I could barely carry my bike up it. The GPS said 35% grade. At least I could walk anywhere I wanted. It was like I was walking in a 100,000 acre cow pasture. Sometimes the path disappeared entirely and I had to navigate purely by GPS track. Did I say nothing was smooth? I contemplated walking the rest of the way up to lessen the back side pain.

After the 35% punch, I got into some really awesome contouring singletrack. Still cow path, and the scenery made it so hard to stay on the path. I pretty much had to stop if I wanted to look around. This climbed steadily up one side of the gulch, and the valley below was filled with cattle.

Good things come to an end though. The Continental Divide loomed high above me, and I was making little vertical progress to claim it. This could only mean one thing: massive hike-a-bike. Sure enough, the grade goes to 20+% and doesn't come back down. With thin air, bumpy cow path, I was in full hike-a-bike mode. If it weren't for such incredible scenery in every direction around me, I might, just might have gotten a sour attitude. But this ride was about adventure. I had all day, there was nary a cloud in the sky, temps were totally pleasant up here, and my water supply was holding up. I took my time hoofing it up this beast. It took me about 40 minutes to claim the summit. The Colorado Trail crosses my route on the ridge line. It went up steeply to mountain peaks on either side of the unnamed pass I was traversing. I don't think I could ride those grades at this altitude, no matter how tempting they looked.

The work was done. It was all downhill back to the car from here. I hung out for a good 20-30 minutes, basking in the sun with a nice breeze. Other than the faint paths, you could not see human evidence in any direction from this vantage point. I never felt more alive in my life. Some folks live to race their bikes. Rides like today beat any race I've done hands down. This was quite possibly the most scenic ride I've done, and I've done some amazing rides in Alaska and Hawaii too.

I no more than began my descent when I encountered a solo male hiker with huge German shepherd coming up. He sat down and we talked a good while, 20 minutes maybe. His dog was extremely friendly. I never got his name, or even where he was from. He, like myself, lives for the high country treks. He had a tent set up somewhere around 11,000ft. He commented that the weather we're having this week is extremely rare, to go cloudless all day in August. I am fortunate to have scored such a good week. The hiker also told me the cattle rancher's name was Billy Joe Dilley. I checked on the web, and sure enough. Dilley also offers guide services. The hiker told me he hikes this trail a lot, and maybe once per year he sees bicycle tire tracks in the mud. He thought those riders had no idea what they were getting into. He rides too, a man around 50-55 years old. Now he actually meets one of those wackos. He then asked me if I would do it again, 40 minute hike and all. I had to think about it. I probably would. I think he expected me to say Heck No!

There was only 1-2 miles of singletrack on the Magie Gulch side before picking up a Jeep road. It was nearly all rideable but a bit hard to follow towards the bottom. No more than 6" wide in places. Sweet! The remainder of the descent was white knuckle death grip on brakes. I wondered if the loop would have been easier going the other way around, but there's no way I would have cleaned coming up Magie Gulch Rd. 20% grade and wicked loose.

The sky was still cloudless when I got back to the car. This ride was another one of those "lower on the list" rides, but totally exceeded my expectations. It's always cool when that happens. I took about a hundred photos but have time to post just a few. I may attempt a big ride on Thursday, thinking about hitting the Calico Trail. The deal with that one is it's at least 90 minutes away. Have to see what my legs feel like when I get up. 15.5hrs of high country riding in three days takes a toll on my 47 year old body. Yeah, it was my birthday today.

Looking down upper portion of Maggie Gulch Rd

Lower portion of Magie Gulch Rd. Hard to watch where you are going with views like this.

8" ribbon descending Magie Gulch

Descending Stony Pass towards Pole Creek. Stony Pass is in background just above my right knee.

Looking up Trail 918 towards the Continental Divide. Pass is dip on right side of image.

Looking down Pole Creek side of Trail 918 from the Continental Divide

A rideable section of Trail 918

Looking down Silverton side of Stony Pass Rd

Silverton at 9am

Pole Creek cow path


Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday from Texas. Good way to spend the day, on a bike in high country. Very nice.

aspenmike said...

Awesome Doug, Happy BDay. Enjoy upper/lower Calico, can't wait ot read about it.

plum said...

Happy Birthday KOM.

Doppler said...

Doug, unbelievable scenery. I am envious. The solitude must be supernatural.