Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Monarch Crest Trail, The Hard Way

I first came out to Colorado on a cycling trip in 2005. It was a short trip in late September, and I came out alone. I've been back many times since, usually with a friend or two or family. I can't get enough of the high country riding and endless, buff singletrack. This year I decided to take a longer break from work. I really needed it it. My short list of friends who like to go on these things had other life things getting in the way. I was quite content on coming out for some solitude again.

Most riders I know can't quite get their head around a solo trip. For some, riding is a social activity. Without others sharing the experience, it would be boring. Others are alarmed by the risk of riding in remote areas by yourself. You can crash and break your body. Bears, lions and snakes can kill you. Pop-up weather can take you out too. I do think about these things a lot when riding solo in remote places. You have control over most of the risk. There are terrain features I would not hesitate to ride back home that I will not attempt out here. I cherry pick the best weather days for the most exposed rides. Wild animals, well, make noise and maybe at least the bears will leave you alone. Actually, I fear wild animals more riding in New England than out here. Black bear are getting too comfortable around people in populated areas, probably because idiots are feeding them.

Anyway, today was my first full riding day. A mint day was forecast, perfect for a high-country ride. I had planned to do one of the hardest rides of the trip on my first day, the Monarch Crest loop. I start in Poncha Springs at 7500ft and peak out at nearly 12,000ft on the continental divide. Most riders shuttle this ride, since you can pick up the crest trail on highway 50 at 11,300ft. Several outfits in Salida offer cheap shuttle service. I prefer to earn my turns.

Instead of grinding all the way up Hwy 50 with semi's buzzing by, I thought I'd give North Fooses Creek trail a try. Others have taken it per Strava. There were some sick gradients near the top though, and aerial imagery suggested it could be quite bony. In short, there'd likely be some hike-a-bike.

Starting out at about 7:30am, the temp was only 45F, yet it was supposed to rise well into the 80's. Hmm, what I started with I had to carry with me all day. This is ok if there is risk of adverse weather, but that was not today.  I went with just arm warmers and lite Goretex shell. I quickly learned that the sun's ability to warm the planet far outstripped my ability to climb into colder air at higher elevations. The long layers didn't stay on more than 30 minutes.

I pulled a track from Strava to follow up Fooses Creek. The GPS track cut off Hwy 50 much earlier than the actual forest service road. So I took it and meandered aimlessly in a RV park with numerous dead-ends trying to connect through. Some steep grinds in there, all for naught. Eventually I capitulated and went in to the office and asked for directions. Go a mile further up 50 and then get on Fooses proper.

Most of the grind up Fooses was quite pleasant. You could probably take your SUV up it with care. The surface was a bit loose and chunky in spots and surely required more energy than riding up the paved highway. But then I reached a gate with a sign that said dead end. Ok, my track and the "road" continues past the gate. The gradient was so steep it hurt my neck to look up at it. It was all melon-sized irregularly shaped sharp rocks. It barely looked hike-a-bikeable. I was mentally prepared for this. I still had a lot of vertical to got before reaching the divide. I hoped it wasn't all like this.

This section went by pretty quickly, maybe 10 minutes total off the bike. When it is that steep, you gain vertical like crazy, even if you are only going 2mph. In fact, I was getting dizzy and had to stop a couple times, going that slow. That's what a hematocrit of 40 gets you.  After a rideable section, there was more hike-a-bike, not quite as steep, but it went a ways, finishing at the divide. Glad that was over. Not my worst hike-a-bike, and when you weigh having complete quiet and solitude away from the highway, it might almost be worth it. Have to think hard, though, about following this route again. There are other non-highway routes up. Perhaps the biggest negative is significantly higher energy expenditure to reach the divide this way on such a long ride that is punishing enough.

North Fooses Creek trail intercepts the divide trail about a mile from Hwy 50 and the Monarch Pass store. I took just enough water to get me up there. I needed to top off my 100oz Camelbak there before committing to the next four hours of riding. It would no doubt be very hot when I get down to the Rainbow Trail later on.

Heading back out on the divide, I met three guys coming back to Monarch Pass. They said "hey, we saw you heading up!" I did recall seeing a pickup with three bikes hung over the tail gate shortly after starting out. They were even more impressed when I mentioned I took N. Fooses. Guess they must have done an out and back on the crest from Monarch Pass.

A short while later when I stopped for an extended period of time to take in the view and take photos, two guys caught up to me at the vista. They were Scott and Hank from Salida. They also shuttled the ride but do participate in an annual ride that starts in town and does the whole enchilada.  The two had solid downhill skills, and there was nothing on the route that Scott couldn't climb. I played leapfrog with these two for the next 3-4hrs.

It was wicked windy on the crest, Mt Washington windy, really. There were times it was hard to keep your bike on the narrow path. The temperature was just high enough that no long layers were needed. Other than a couple handfuls of day hikers and a few more mountain bikers we passed, the three of us pretty much had the trail to ourselves. I think Scott and Hank were the only two I saw for the last three hours of the ride.

I was digging the 29er on the Silver Creek descent. That trail is getting terribly rutted out, and I would have struggled mightily on a 26er, which is what I've always previously taken to Colorado. Strava tells me I rode many segments my fastest today, and conditions were certainly worse. Sofa bike is almost like cheating.  Upper parts of Rainbow trail are getting beat up too, but most of the lower parts are still in fine shape.

The final switchbacks dropping down to Hwy 285 were terrifying. I rode and cleaned all of it, but again, the steepness, looseness and big rocky waterbars meant it felt like you were in a chute filled with marbles and big speed bumps. Almost no control. Scott and Hank put over a minute on me down this final drop. The silly cyclist I am, I burned matches from tomorrow's ride to catch back up to them on the paved descent back to Poncha Springs.

Overall, a fantastic ride. The hike-a-bike sections did not detract from the satisfaction at all. The ride took 40 minutes longer than when Dave, Isaac and I did the loop climbing on Hwy 50. Those guys were hammering that day.  But about 12-15 minutes of that 40 were due to navigation errors, some to challenging climbing conditions, the rest just plain chilling for the rest of the ride. I finished with 5.9hrs moving time, 6600ft of climbing in 55 miles. That'll leave me in shambles for Thursday's ride.

At least the view doesn't suck starting out on Rt 50

Top part of North Fooses Creek. A few acclimated riders might be able to ride this, but I
suspect it was about 30% grade and extremely loose and rutted.

The Monarch Crest Trail on the Continental Divide.
See to infinity views like this are why I come to Colorado.
I hope to ride another section of the divide near Lake City later in the trip.

Selfie on the divide

The whole trail is just one big glossy calender. 

Looking south along the divide

Another shot to the east/northeast

Cresting one of the climbs along the divide. Photo by Scott.

Look at my bike leaning against the Silver Creek trailhead sign.
The white knuckle ruckus begins here. Photo by Scott.

Selfie at Silver Creek trailhead to capture how saturated blue the sky was.
The LX7 camera does a nice job with this.

Most of the way down Silver Creek. It was rarely less loose than this.
The scree fields were terrifyingly loose, with exposure to boot.

Lower portion of Rainbow Trail.

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