Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Monarch Crest Trail, Salida, Colorado

It was obvious I didn't learn much in my 8th grade Spanish class after I spent four days in Salida, CO wondering why anyone would name a city "Salad." I guess "Gran Montana," "Rio Blanco" or "Ciudad de Sucio Hippy" seem more appropriate.

I've often tried to find the words to accurately describe the four July days I spent slogging through the Colorado backcountry, riding some of the best single track the Rockies have to offer, including racing Xterra Beaver Creek, DNF'ing the Breckenridge 100, riding remote backcountry segments of the Colorado Trail, and tackling a 40 mile descent of Salida's infamous Monarch Crest Trail.

I think the problem was I was traveling solo and by the time I got home I was so sick of my own thoughts that I couldn't be bothered to try to put pen to paper and share them with anyone else. But enough time has gone by that I can go back to that amazing cold dark place and tell you why I'm dying to go return to CO and do it all again.

Home sweet home
Born and raised in a drafty hay loft in northern Vermont, I prefer to insulate myself in the New England experience and shun all other regions of the country and world. I'm no elitist, but I do hate when people tell me how much I would love it  ____ because I am so into ____. Don't they know I have everything I need right here in Vermont?

"You haven't skied until you've been to British Columbia."
"You only think you've mountain biked till you've been to Brevard."
"Pot and hookers?? You've never been to Amsterdam and you think you know a thing about pot and hookers!??"

You know the type. The "my shit stinks so much better than your shit" type of outdoor sporting
enthusiast. I've actually been known to travel outside Vermont, but there's not a lot you could say to convince me that there's anywhere in the world I'd rather live than northern New England. People try though, bless their hearts. They just love where they're from too.

I can usually smile and take it from most people, but for some reason people from Colorado just grind my gears. They are just so unbearably sanctimonious about how much better their skiing and biking is than Vermont's, a subject on which I've endured enough verbal abuse from bible-thumping xenophobic wife swappers to last a lifetime.
It's not easy to hate Colorado so much

This abuse led me, at one point, to declare that I would never in my lifetime ski in Colorado until I had met just one person from Colorado who had made the trek east to ski Vermont. Until that day I would never ever spend a single dollar patronizing their stunningly beautiful patronizing state. And I haven't. But I'm getting older and apparently you have to start filling your bucket of life experiences before someone kicks it out from under you and you hang to death (ever wonder where "kick the bucket" comes from?). So this summer I decided to relent a bit and try Colorado, but just for the mountain biking.

Turns out I like Colorado quite a bit. Thankfully, most people I met there were from Vermont. And the mountain biking's not half bad too. I'll give you a quick walkthrough of the riding I did in Colorado, which should convey why I'm so eager to get back there in 2013.

Highlights from XTERRA Beaver Creek
I rolled into Beaver Creek the afternoon before XTERRA Mountain Championships to scope out the course. My first race at altitude, I was extremely apprehensive about how the thin air would affect my ability to steer a bike safely up or downhill, let alone survive 1500 meters of swimming at 8500 feet. A quick warmup ride proved that the climbing was going to be slow, but the wide open smooth pack Rocky Mountain trails were going to make for excellent speedy descending.

The race went well enough and I actually found my greatest moment of Zen somewhere on the first 3000 foot climb as I was passing a lot of locals and making good time. Then a real-deal local came by me like I was standing still, smiled, asked me how my day was, and beat me by 20 minutes. Apparently there's some advantage to live above the clouds.

The Beaver Creek race course has an excellent even grade opening climb for the first 5 or so miles, drops down a bit, loops through and out and back, and curls around the ridge into the ski area. I asked around after the race other places in the area to ride and the race course was mentioned as one of the best local spots to ride. Check the XTERRA website for maps and details.

Poor Decision Making and the Breckenridge 100
Originally, I had planned to meet an old friend after the race and travel around CO to do some mountain biking. Unfortunately he couldn't keep it in his pants and was expecting his 3rd child in mid-July, which is why my trip ended up being a solo affair. After Beaver Creek I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do with myself for 3 more days in CO. Then I heard about a little Rocky Mountain Endurance race in Breckenridge. What better way to fill a day than 100 miles of mountain biking along well signed and supported trails?

Post race PBR with Wheeler Pass in the distance
I left the XTERRA race expo late and rolled into Breckenridge about 20 minutes before day-of registration closed. I asked the guy at the desk how hard the race was and if he thought I should do the 100 or the 68 (3 laps vs. 2).

"Well, the 100 is $100 dollars more... but you do get this rad jersey even if you dont finish the race. Look right here on the back pocket; we silkscreened an image of a can of Dale's Pale Ale so people will think you're awesome even if you don't have any beer on you." Lesson to learn here: Wanting a cool jersey is not a good reason to do a 100 mile mountain bike race you only just heard about yesterday. Oh well.

I'll do a more substantial post of the Brek 100 someday, after I actually finish the damned race. Although my 2012 shot at the Brek 100 turned into a defacto Brek 68 and left me wheezing on the floor a hotel room for 3 or 4 hours, it was pretty freaking awesome. I managed over 10,000 feet of climbing all above 9,500 feet, all within 24 hours of racing a triathlon. This makes me a pretty awesome failure.

The single track on the Brek 100 is just incredible. The opening climb takes a large race pack up the ski area and over Wheeler Pass (12,500 feet). I now totally understand how the Donners were driven to consume one another. Wheeler Pass, too, takes no prisoners. And the rutted 2 foot wide single track descent off the backside, hanging over a 50% grade scree field, was probably harder than the climb itself.

Other highlights of the race include a second lap climb up Little French, and significant portions of the Colorado Trail on the return leg. The descending on that return leg was some of the best I've ever riden. Probably a good hour of fairly technical single track with very hard corners.

I'll tell you more about the third lap later this year when I actually finish the race.

Endless Descent: The Monarch Crest Trail
It goes without saying that I was pretty f@cked up after 8 hours of mountain biking and 2 races within a 24 hour window. I needed a break but despite my aching ass I still wanted to bike. I needed to find something low-key, and that wasn't going to be easy in a land of formidable 12,000 foot mountain passess and lung crushing thin air. I also needed a day off, and to find some riding at a lower elevation.

That night, around the local watering hole I heard tale of a nearby point-to-point ridgeline trail that offered nearly 40 miles of single track backcountry mountain biking, mostly downhill, with a shuttle-accessed start and riders returning to town in a little over 5 hours. Five hours of downhill... now that I could handle.

I left Breckenridge heading south through honest-to-goodness South Park, CO, which is just as miserable and surreal as the cartoon makes it out to be. Lots of grazing cattle and vacant stares from local frackers. Liquified petroleum is the #1 in South Park, but methamphetamines are not far off in 2nd.

In the spirit of an active off-day, I found a rafting outfitter on the other side of the San Juan mountains to take me out on the Arkansas River. The Arkansas was at a record low in 2012 due to a drought you could see in the yellowing pine high above the valley floor. Even with the low water, the float was still full of thrills, chills and gnarly drops along with a little hike-a-raft. It was a pretty good day.

It's all downhill from here
I found myself overnight in Salida awaiting the early shuttle up Monarch Pass to start the ride.  It was strongly suggested that the early shuttle was the way to go, as afternoon thunderstorms can plague the later shuttle. There aren't a lot of trees up there, and bikes are a great electrical conductor. The local bike shop in Salida had sold me a very detailed map and assured me it was "really hard to get lost unless I was a complete idiot." The shop owner also pointed me to a field outside of town where one could camp alongside the Arkansas without being hassled by the local fuzz. I thanked him and then found myself a room at the very nice and moderately priced San Isabel Bed and Breakfast. I'm getting a little fancier now that I'm older and achier. Plus those meth addicts back in South Park kind of freaked me out.

Riding along the Monarch Crest Trail is more than spectacular. It is amazing. Unbelievable. Mind-blowing. Incredible. Stunning. Real bucket list quality stuff if you're into that kind of thing. The shuttle departs from a little bike shop in Poncha Springs and drops of at a parking lot in Monarch Pass. There's actually quite a bit of climbing as you head east out of the lot, but once you top out (near photo above) it's all downhill from there.

The first 10 or so miles of the trail are side hill along some of the most jaw-dropping panoramic views you'll ever see. Mostly hardpack dirt and sand, there are also significant rock deposits that make some of the faster-looking corners actually quite dangerous. I dumped my bike pretty hard and got roughed up on one such corner - still have the gravel embedded in my thigh to prove it.

Marmots mean business. Watch out for your sandwich.
The trail darts from one side of the ridge to the other, giving riders a taste of both north and south views before eventually winding its way down into softwood forests (near Green Creek). At this stage you'll link up with the Colorado Trail, an impressive multi-use trail that runs across the spine of the Rockies. You'll know you're there when you find yourself saying "HEY! Who let dirt bikers ride up here???" Colorado did. Their impact is fairly minimal from what I can tell, but there are some mucky corners here and there with big deep ruts so watch out.

Around the mid point of the softwood portion of the ridge line I was grabbing a bite to eat and spied this little guy eying my brown bag lunch. I'm amazed how adept nature is at finding ways to survive. This guy was on my sandwich before I had a chance to blink. And when I blinked again, he was gone. Fast little buggers. Guard your goods. There's a white faced devil with a real sandwich problem in them hills.

There are two tricky spots on the map, and despite not being a full blown "idiot" I did need to consult the map to stay on course. The official Monarch Crest Trail actually ends near the map's halfway point, at Marshall Pass, where the trail drops down to connect with a forest service road and parking lot. Everything after this is technically the "Monarch Crest Ride." At Marshall Pass, you'll likely be looking for more down, but you actually need to go up to get to the rest of the Crest Ride. The second spot is a hard left a few miles down the road (Silver Creek). The hard left takes you along the inside of a gully and crosses over to the other side of the drainage, which makes up the remainder of the descent back into Poncha Springs.

Side hill on Monarch Crest's return leg
Where the upper section of the Monarch Crest Trail offers excellent smooth pack riding and wide open views, this lower portion (Crest Ride) is a lot of side hill in thick pine, cutting in and out of a dozen little river washes and through a few spots with very thick rubble. The entire section reminded me of an 8 mile version of Kingdom Trail's Webs, with a lot of babyhead's thrown in. By far my favorite portion of the ride. Despite being totally blown out from the previous day's racing, I couldn't help but smile and stand up on shaky legs as I picked my way through tough rock gardens and held tight high-speed lines through the forest as towering pine whizzed along to my right and left.

One last bone-jarring rock garden marks the official end of the Monarch Crest Ride, although there's still 4 or 5 miles of paved state highway to take back into town. I was pretty broken at that point and it was all I could do to roll back to my car.

When I do I leave the land of glorious rocky single track, bottomless maple syrup and shitty ethnic food, I love to find the best local substitutes. Colorado definitely impressed on two out of three of these all-important travel metrics. Go figure. Proximity to Mexico directly influences the quality of Mexican food, which was pretty good but no San Antonio. Too bad you can't tap an aspen. Then we could really talk apples to apples when comparing Vermont and Colorado.

Early morning sunlight, long shadows, and endless single track

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