Sometimes it takes no sleep to make a dream come true.
I couldn’t sleep, even though I was very tired. It was the fourth night of the trip to Salida, CO. We’d been riding the Monarch Crest, rafting, drinking and staying up late every night. I should have been fairly exhausted. I suppose I was, but I couldn’t get the next morning’s ride out of my head.
In the fleeting moments my body was able to wrestle some REM from my brain, I dreamed about missing the ride: I woke up late. I got left behind. My tires were flat. My chain was missing. I woke up and checked the clock. I fell asleep and dreamed about checking the clock. I stared at the starry glow of the sky behind the windowshade and waited for the faint purpling of the black universe that was the harbinger of dawn. My anxiety fixated on this. It would mean that I was too late. I wanted to be on the Monarch Crest Trail by sunrise.
This plan was hatched in the neurological aftermath of several days of shuttles; the brain damage of trying to figure out the best placements for vehicles, rider/driver rotations, adding people, subtracting people. Simplicity seemed like a refreshing change. I needed it. I craved the quiet stillness of the pre-dawn moments waiting for the fuse on the day to burn down. The Monarch Crest is a Most Excellent place to do this.
|Aaron looking for Strava-tion Creek
At 4am I heard someone shuffling around in the kitchen. This was a good sign. A couple minutes later I heard the gurgle-churn of the coffeepot. The house we had rented for the weekend came equipped with all modern appliances and heavier water than Fukashima. The mineral-thick water had clogged the coffee maker over time and reduced its performance like a restrictor-plate. It could make a pot of coffee in about 30-45 minutes. The slow drop-by-interminable-drop of an ICU intravenous pump dripping medicine into the lethargic and listless. A cure. I could hear another set of shuffling zombie feet out there circling the coffee pot. This could get ugly.
I listened to my wife breathing next to me. The perfect slumber on an unburdened mind with nothing much to do when it wakes. I slid from bed and found my riding clothes waiting for me. I dressed and packed my backpack in the soft glow of my cellphone, cracked a sliver of warm light in the door and went off to fight the coffee undead.
A small ration of coffee each to wash down daily doses of ibuprofen. I moved with quiet urgency. This was found time. Time squeezed out of a day whose other hours we already spoken for. Time that the others didn’t want. Time gladly traded for the sleep I didn’t get and the sleep I wouldn’t get. I loaded the last bits of my gear into my pack. I had laid out my camera and spare battery and checked my SPOT tracker. I topped off my hydration bladder with the terrible tapwater that had nearly bricked the coffee maker and shivered a little. Maybe the water was full of electrolytes instead of just molybdenum tailings. The optimist in me said that the glass was half full. The realist in me said that the other half was probably heavy metals.
The Monarch Crest
The Crest is an alpine ridgeline high in the Sawatch Range of the Colorado Rockies. The Collegiate Peaks loom to the North, and among them the highest concentration of Fourteeners (14k foot peaks) in Colorado. The Monarch Crest trail starts at the 11,312 foot Monarch pass and climbs to just shy of 12,000ft. The Crest meanders gently upward from the highway and traverses among the marmots, wildflowers and hardy scrub grasses that grow up here on the surface of the moon.
It then spills off into the various Children of the Crest: the drainages that fall away from the knife edge hide hero-level singletracks. South Fooses Creek, Green’s Creek, Silver Creek, Agate Creek, Starvation Creek. Yes there is a theme. Each with its own challenges and personality. The Monarch Crest is a weeks worth of riding in one of the prettiest places on the planet. We crossed two largeish snow fields on our Monarch-Silver run on the 4th of July, which is still on the early side of this trail and things are pretty reliably clear until the first couple weeks in October.
The general recipe for success involves shuttling. There are plenty of out-n-backs and monster climbs and completely ridiculous riding that doesn’t involve a shuttle, but as a tourist with limited time here and so much to ride there is no time to waste. Also, it is important to note that this is not a downhill-only shuttle. These are big all mountain rides. I’m sure that there have been motivated individuals on DH bikes that have ripped down the crest and her children but all the rides require at least a little climbing and frequently rolling terrain at nose-bleed elevations. The shuttles just cut out the more boring parts of the ride, not necessarily the hard parts.
A hired shuttle from town will cost you around $20 per person and they run on a schedule based on demand throughout the morning. With a little planning, a lot of patience and your own vehicles you can set up your own shuttles.
Monarch Crest to Silver Creek (+/- Rainbow Trail)
This is what most people mean when they say they’ve ridden the Monarch Crest. Starting at US 50 and continuing past South Fooses, Agate, and Greens Creeks and over Marshall pass the Silver creek option is the longest, climbiest, and probably most user-friendly option out here. Its around 35 miles if you ride the whole thing including the first section of the popular Rainbow trail at the end and the 5 or so downhill pavement miles back to Poncha Springs. We rode this on July 4th, and even though it was a holiday weekend found user traffic to be pretty light.
There’s a little something for everyone on this trail. It starts off with the beauty and incredible panoramic views of the Crest. It swoops and ducks back into treeline just in time to take cover from the near-daily thunderstorms that roll through in the mid-afternoons. It’s everything that Colorado riding should be: Its high, its exposed, and its tight and wooded.
Its buffed and rutted, its hero dirt and loose shale. It runs a wide contradictory range of trail types and they are all rolled into one. This is the Monarch Crest experience if you have but one day to spend.
Our little trip was running pretty smoothly. The weather was cooperating even after a convoluted and delayed start pushed us ever later into the morning. The group had just finished grinding away up the last of the big climbs to the start of the actual Silver Creek portion. My wife rolled her bike in front of me to begin the descent. At about the time she reached terminal cruising velocity I watching in horror as her front wheel became tangled in the business end of a dessicated tree root sticking out at an odd angle from the trail. I flashed back to my childhood. When I was about four years old my grandmother let me watch the movie “Poltergeist”. There is a scene in which a large dead tree becomes animated by supernatural forces, grabs a little boy, and begins to eat him by stuffing him into its hollow trunk. It still scares the hell out of me and I’m a grown-ass man. Pretty similar to what happened here. The root reached up and grabbed Kristi’s wheel and threw her and her bike into the air like tasty snacks being thrown into the maw of the Earth. I blinked and saw nothing but a cloud of powdery moon-dust dirt and a pile of wife and bike and blood.
|This may be the last surviving picture of Kristi’s intact elbow
I skidded to a stop and ran to her. I was terrified. My mother-in-law was going to kill me.
In years of riding this was her first “major” crash. I waited for the tears. I waited for the anger. I waited patiently to begin walking the remaining 10 or 15 miles carrying two bikes and a wife. Instead I got a smile. A giggle. A confused look taking stock of the situation as she tried to figure out if she was broken.
A jagged flap of skin like the bite of a tiny shark dangled from her elbow. It flipped open just long enough to show me its depths, become covered in dirt as the moon-dust settled and flapped back shut again. The Medic in me came on-line and realized what I was looking at.
“That’s gonna need stitches…”.
An isolated injury though. Thankfully.
“What? Where?” she said as she flopped around trying to bring the awkward wound into her vision, grinding the dust and dirt deeper.
Stitches and properly cleaned. And a tetanus shot. The Monarch Crest is probably crawling with tetanus. I considered our options for early egress and I watched clouds gathering among the nearby peaks. I cleaned the wound as well as could be cleaned, slathered it in triple-antibiotic, applied a non-adherent dressing and mummified it in 4 inch roller gauze. Our only way out of there was to continue down.
The Only (Medical) Game in Town
Despite the violence of the crash Kristi rode strong. I expected a little more mental fracturing but she continued on, made no mention of complaint, finished the ride, and downed a couple beers at the truck before our shuttle pilots dropped us off at the Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center. It is for times like this, and so many innumerable reasons that I married this girl in the first place.
Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center sounds pretty impressive. In reality it’s a tiny medical outpost deep in the Wild Wild West, really a critical care helipad to give anyone seriously hurt out here a fighting chance to make it to definitive care.
The friendly, overworked staff did a great job in caring for Kristi’s elbow. It took them three hours, and I could have driven back to Denver in that time, but some Lidocaine, a little elbow grease, that tetanus shot, and four stitches later we were back at the ranch, drinking beers and laughing with our friends.
Starvation is the hidden step-child of the Crest. It isn’t particularly well marked, it is a little overgrown and moderately technical. It is also accessible without riding the Monarch Crest trail via Marshall Pass making it the go-to option for lapping multiple times in the same day. It’s short by comparison and after completing a short 15 minute climb the descent can be casually ridden in 40ish minutes at normal-human speeds.
The anemic coffee maker did what it could, but despite its best efforts our collective caffeine levels were still dangerously low. I doubt we were even legal to drive let alone ascend to aerobic maximums.
But at least we were moving. On time. Out the door by 5:10 am. This was the first time all week we managed to do anything on schedule. We set the drop car and headed to the top of the pass. At 5:59 we were wheels down and riding. Somewhere to the East the sun was breaking the horizon, launching upward, picking up speed. I mashed my 32 x 20 upward desperately racing to beat the sun into the sky.
|Self-portrait. 6:30 am July 7, 2014 somewhere around 12,000ft
The technical gem of the Crest. South Foose’s Creek gets a little more attention than this hidden jewel. Based on its membership in the Colorado Trail, and as the first child of the Crest and the proximity of the ending to the highway Foose’s is the go-to, multi-lap, Monarch shuttle.
But the Shuttle Monkeys are missing out.
Green’s Creek is the next stop on the Crest Train and is definitely worth the effort. It bifurcates from the Crest at the Green’s Creek Shelter, a little lean-to tucked away just below treeline that provides a proverbial port in a literal storm for Colorado Trail hikers and riders that get caught in the Crest’s unforgiving and potentially deadly weather. Temperatures here swing from freezing to 80F+ over the course of the day. Lightning and hail are sometimes daily occurrences. The one rustic wall combined with the soft light of a small fire can be unexpectedly hospitable.
The drop into Green’s creek is a little unassuming ribbon of singletrack that ever-so-gently wraps over a little knoll and disappears from view, presumably into the forest. Taking this lightly, building speed as I went I was quickly reminded what this trail is all about.
100ft in, things start to get… rowdy.
The trail here is an earthy loam that is the substrate that holds together a chunky soup of mini-boulders. It is deceptive. Its deep in the woods and you plummet faster and faster. The trail lures you in and presents you with a rubik’s cube of sketchy lines through jagged rock gardens. On another bike I may have tried to plane out and skim across the tops of the sharp-edges. Piloting my singlespeed 29er with 100mm of front-end travel required a little more precision than I would normally reserve for such a trail. Dropper post would help too. Doesn’t matter I suppose. You gotta dance with the girl you bring to the ball. Several times the twists and turns emerge into short snow banks, hidden from the scalding sun by the dense trees and canyon walls. These remain deep into the summer.
|We all float on.
About 2/3rds of the way down the trail mellows and speeds increase. A swoopfest ensues with more ledgey jumps and natural ramps than Super Mario Brothers. The above pictured Aaron was leading the charge. I was a few seconds behind on autopilot. Swoop. Flow. Repeat.
|Aaron shows us his Bear-Face.
I came around a bend and over a roller and there was Aaron, a six-foot-two spider monkey wildly pointing and gesturing, yelling STOP STOP STOP BEAR STOP BEAR BEAR BEAR CAMERA CAMERA BEAR!
Down the trail in the general direction of flailing was a cloud of dust. Minutes before Danny had mentioned something about fresh bear scat in the middle of the trail. There were some jokes regarding old debates about what bears do or don’t do in the woods, and the rude interruption of some poor ursine’s morning constitutional by high-speed cyclists.
But there was Aaron, not laughing, heart screaming from his chest. A mixture of terror and wonder on his face. He had been, at least for a moment face to furry face with a very startled, very large, very real bear.
We proceeded with caution. Slowly. Listening to the forest. Waiting for it to explode with fur and teeth from any direction. But none such nightmares revealed themselves. It was evident that the bear was either no longer in the vicinity or making at least as much effort to avoid us as we him. We rode through a zone which we silently agreed exceeded the temporary sprint limit of the average bear and promptly dropped the hammers again, as fast as we could to put the bear far behind us, cautiously as we could to avoid running headlong into the next one.
We made it back to the drop car at 8:50. A ridiculous 10 minutes before the estimate we gave our wives, which put us back at the ranch at just shy of 10:00. Right on time. It may have been the first time that I actually delivered on an ETA. Aaron, the hummingbird metabolism in his bigfoot body had burned through all his Fig Newtons was very near starvation at this point and we headed home on a mission to take back the breakfast we left behind.
There was a very real question in our minds if our wives would even be awake yet. We arrived to find them freshly showered and glossed up. After days of riding with sweaty dudes in shuttle vehicles the sweet girly smells of soap and the perfumey tools of their feminine trades was like a POW’s first encounter with his native tongue, forgotten and familiar. A massive breakfast was on the table, the cabin packed up and ready for departure. The reward for my insomnia, all my dreams come true.
|The hills are alive with the sound of music
If you go:
in Salida is the center of this cycling universe. There are other shops in town and they are probably great too, but I wouldn’t know. Absolute has always served whatever need I threw at them. Its a cool shop with a good selection of gear. Most importantly the personnel are friendly, accommodating and knowledgeable. Once, I broke my rear triangle while in Salida. Ibis graciously overnighted the replacement, and I asked that I might have it shipped direct to the shop as I was camping nearby. When I showed up the next morning I found not only my new rear triangle but that it had already been installed and was ready to roll, no charge. Absolute isn’t even an Ibis dealer. Good people who are genuinely stoked to share a passion for mountain biking and this beautiful area.
High Valley Bike Shuttle
is a service I have used. Nothing fancy, just a ride to the top from Poncha Springs. If you ride the Crest + Silver Creek + the Rainbow trail out to the highway and take it downhill back to Poncha Springs you will find your way back to your car.
produces a great map in general overview of the area. There is also a local map available at Absolute Bikes that has detailed info about the Crest specifically including full-color photos of tricky trail junctions with bright color-coded arrows to show the way. Get both. Maps are good. A wrong turn up here will put you 40 rugged miles the wrong way, downhill, in Saguache.
has, IMHO, the best pies in town and the best Porter too. Amica’s
is so close to this that it’s almost too close to tell. Moonlight by a slice. River’s Edge is a nice little cafe RIGHT next to Absolute bikes, right on the river (go figure). Good food. Good coffee.
There is also a distillery. Woods Distillery
is right on the main drag and offers a number of delicious spirits and great atmosphere. Their whiskey is spicy and smoky with a peaty, almost tequila-esque finish.
A note about the weather. These are high, sometimes exposed rides. It gets pretty cold. It gets pretty hot. The UV is intense. Lightning is no joke. In the past couple days here in Colorado a couple people have been aced by lightning at similar elevations. Get your rides in early and get down before the afternoon storms. Bring good gear and bring enough calorie-dense food, a jacket, first-aid kit, compass, fire building implements, whatever-you-need to survive at least one night out here. Personally I travel with enough crap to live indefinitely quite comfortably .
If I can be of more help, I will. Leave questions in the comments or hit me up on Google+ or @badchad on the tweeters.