Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Alpine Style: "This is why we do it."

I woke to a dank layer of clouds and instinctively smiled out my gratefulness: Most of the previous day had been bright, bright sun, and toward the end I'd begun to feel a little crispy.  Having lived in the desert for the last few decades I simply can't take cloud cover for granted.

We ate and packed up camp in slow motion, not inefficiently so much (I guessed) as because no one was in a hurry to cross and recross the firehose that was Cooper Creek.  The first few braids were easy enough to wade, but pretty quickly we got pinched between a wall and a fast, deep channel.  Doom did what Doom does and made his way across disaster style.  I did what I typically do and made it across the same spot in a decidedly less aesthetically pleasing manner.  The crossing was deep and cold, the fast current tumbling basketball and watermelon-sized cobbles along the bottom such that you had to keep feet moving -- shuffling along regardless -- or you'd catch a few on the toes and shins.  Brett is a picture of deliberate concentration when crossing these creeks, but on this one even his poker face wrenched into a wince more than once as cobbles banged off of bone.

With the drama of last night's close-call still fresh in Jon's head, and perhaps with the not-yet-scabbed scrapes on his legs tingling out warnings, he watched all of us struggle, stumble, and slip (but not fall) on this crossing and then, when it was his turn, he paced up and down the bank looking for the spot that spoke to him.  And then he paced some more, edged in ankle deep, started and stopped, then eventually took a step back -- up onto the bank.  The roar of subsurface trundling cobbles was intense, but by really shouting he was able to communicate:

"I don't like it!  I want the boat!"

We could all relate to the first statement but it was the last 4 words that set off a flurry of motion on our side of the creek.  Doom unfurled and inflated the boat while I snapped together the paddle and inflated the PFD as Brett hucked the throwbag across to Jon.  

I was so, so happy that Jon could sidestep any ego or peer pressure nonsense and just tell it like he felt it.  It'll sound funny to verbalize but I was proud of him for that.

In ~20 minutes we had Jon on our side, everything packed up, and continued working our way upstream.  

We saw no critters other than birds but there was constant sign of moose, bear, wolf, caribou and -- once over Cooper Pass -- there were tracks from wild horses everywhere.

So resigned had we become to the game of roulette we were playing that we almost missed a turn.  

Cooper Creek actually had it's origin in a clear, tame stream, and once we left the raging brown torrent behind we were able to relax several notches.  Concurrent with the split up Cooper proper we were suddenly riding very little.  Some combination of thick brush, huge cobbles, slippery creek bottom or steep gradient was always present such that we spent the next few hours walking next to our bikes. 

Except for Brett, whom decided to commit to strapping bike onto pack.  This gave him the benefit of not having to find smooth places to roll his wheels, at a cost of constantly whacking his handlebars into his left calf.  Brett isn't one to be bothered by such minutiae, and even with said hitch in his giddyup he eventually passed me and began pulling ahead.

I need a crutch to lean on when traversing difficult terrain, and the upper reaches of this creek certainly qualified as such.  I'd roll the bike forward, spot my next footing, lock brakes to steady the bike, reach out with one foot, plant it, then the next, plant it, then heave the bike forward, lock brakes, and repeat.  For one particularly steep and rough ~1/4 mile stretch I actually stuck my head through the main triangle, deftly balancing the bike on my shoulders, and moved up and through that way.  It was nice to not have to plot the path forward for both bike and body, but my ankles are so fooked that I was ultimately slower without the bike to lean on.  As soon as the terrain leveled enough to roll the bike again I reverted to that method. 

The boys snacked while waiting for me in a light drizzle at (not) Blue Lake.

We gawked at the scenery for a bit before a breeze got those skinny boys shivering, then up over a tiny bump we schlepped to the actual Blue Lake.  Riding recommenced here -- in fits and starts at first but then for 1/4 and half mile stretches as we ascended.

Any and all trail in this environment is a pleasant surprise.  Some of it was downright exceptional.

The silence of this natural amphitheater was appreciated by all, and not just because it lacked a roaring creek.  We heard but had difficulty spotting nesting shorebirds as we traversed above them, then Bailey sighted and the rest of us ogled mountain goats working their way above and away from us.

As we neared the pass the cobbles imperceptibly morphed into pebbles as the creek became but a trickle.

Then snowfields appeared and forced us out of the creekbed entirely, only to find...

...wait for it...

...interconnected ribbons -- miles of them -- of actual alpine singletrack.   Buff, skinny, impossibly smooth singletrack.  

My wife is a collector of bird feathers and I was pretty sure she didn't have any of the goat variety in her stash.

After a false summit the track got yet better and in between ripping along on effortless trail we stopped to laugh, slap high fives and exclaim how great the riding and views were.  The sun even reappeared to brighten the mood yet further.

It might have been right here or maybe a little later, but as I caught up to Doom I could hear him softly whispering -- almost subconsciously, to himself -- "This is why we do it...".

I carry a Delorme InReach for emergencies and to stay in touch with Jeny.  So smitten was I with the place, the incredible riding, the overall vibe, that I powered it up and ripped out a text to her that read simply "Oh hell yes!". Then for good measure I sent it to the rest of my contacts in the device.  Not being privy to where we were nor what we were experiencing, this text served largely to confuse all whom received it.  But I wouldn't know that for another week...

For the next ~half hour we descended what felt like one of the better alpine trails I've yet ridden.  A thought formed in my head -- and grew as we descended -- that this trail was good enough to rival or even best any similar length section of the the Colorado Trail.  I didn't (couldn't!) dwell on it as we chased each other hopping, carving, and manualing our way down to Notch Creek, but still it kept bubbling up to the surface.  It really seemed that good.

It actually seemed better in that I wasn't suffering due to altitude as I would be on the CT.

Exotic views did nothing to dampen the mood.

Eventually the trail disgorged back onto creek bottom and instead of flowing along on world class singletrack we had to re-engage with reading the terrain.  You could just 'check out' and bash along the cobbles all day, but a bit of attention allowed you to connect the smooth bits and create your own flow state.  Focusing on this process was super satisfying.

Something like 15 hours after leaving our gray camp on the lower Cooper, as the creamy light started to fade into shadow, we finally managed to rein ourselves in and start looking for a campsite.  

As we collected wood and set up camp yet more high fives were exchanged and laughter was shared. Giggling, I rhetorically asked Jon if he'd care to rate the quality of the riding on a 1 to 11 scale and he hesitated not a moment before confidently proclaiming "Eleven Plus".

I've been riding bikes on dirt for almost 40 years.  I've lived in 3 different "mountain bike mecca's" (Crested Butte, Whistler, Grand Junction) over the past few decades and I currently have same-day access to several (Moab, Durango, St. George) others.  So to say, I've ridden a lot of good trail and I don't get excited over nothing.  The combination of super high quality animal trail, breathtaking alpine scenery, and a capable, tight knit crew elevated this day into one of my top five -- maybe even top three -- riding experiences.  Ever.

None of us would have believed you had you told us that it could, and would, get yet better.

Thanks for checkin' in.


  1. Amazing. I mean, I could do without the suffering part, but the riding part is insane.

  2. I'm glad you had such a great day on the bike Mike. :)