I dropped the bike within the first 100 feet, and dropped it twice more before reaching the lake. The first drop was rather sobering. I found my left ankle pinched between the left-side bag and a medicine ball size boulder. This first drop was a wake-call. With my left leg trapped and the bike laying in a deep rut, I was standing ABOVE the bike. And, because my foot was pinned facing downhill with the bike, I really had no purchase to grab ahold of the bike to lift it up. I twisted my body left, then I twisted it right, but found no way to get myself around. I’d been similarly trapped, 25 years ago, but by the finger of my right hand. This felt so eerily similar, and so appallingly helpless. The difference was, I hadn’t seen ANYONE on the trail, and it was close to 7 o’clock at night. NO ONE would be coming up this trail tonight. Fortunately the ground was pliable enough, and my boots and ankle limber enough, that with a huge amount of pull by my left leg I was able to drag my foot from its trap. Picking the bike up wasn’t overly easy, given the fact that is was still pointed downhill, and on what amounted to a vertical pool table, covered with marbles. The second and third drops came with the same surprise as the first. The new insight that kept me from getting pinned again was to keep my feet as WIDE as I could. What I’d planned to take 10 minutes took closer to 40, but I was sure I could make up for that time.
Unfortunately the road had other plans. The 50 or so feet of relatively smooth and gradual slope gave way to more boulders, more ruts, and steeper drops. The rocks combined with the chalky, ultra-fine grains of sand make “feet-up” riding on the big bike next to impossible. The road was trenched out in places with two foot embankments. Adding to the challenge were the 12 to 18 inch boulders that dotted the course. I was reduced to flat-footed riding; essentially walking with the bike resting between my legs. Coming to another steep, short section, I surmised that it would be easier to ride outside to the path. I hated the thought of tracking over lichens and moss and flowers that were so far undisturbed. These high alpine meadows are fragile, and take a long time to heal. But I was getting tired and frustrated. Coming the short half-mile around the eastern side of the lake had so far taken another half-hour. If I’d actually gone a mile since leaving the top of the pass, I was in for a much longer ride out than I expected. Plus, the sun was well behind the mountains, and twilight was getting dimmer and dimmer.
I found a path out, I walked it to be sure and thought it would deliver me another 100 yards down the road, where there looked to be a flat enough spot to stop and set up my tent. I positioned the bike to go right, out and around the road and through some scrub. As I eased out the clutch and picked up speed in first, I bounced out to the road and into the thicket. “WHAM!” I came to a shuttering stop! The rear tire lifting up, the bike falling again on its left side, tangling itself completely in the shrubs and undergrowth?! I was thrown, but landing on my feet staggered 15 feet or so from the bike! “What the!” I cursed in my helmet?! Bewildered, I got back to the bike, shut if off, and found a one foot diameter boulder buried in the twisting branches and leaves! What had arrested my progress so completely had at least not damaged the bike. The downside is I had 650 lbs of metal tangled up in a mass of foliage that seemed to wrap itself around every possible edge and corner of the bike! Freeing the Strom from this mess burned more time, and soon enough another 40 minutes was gone, and I had made NO progress down hill?!
Back on the trail, the 200 yards of shuffling took another half hour, and when I pulled into the big, flat spot I’d determined was my bed that night, I was thoroughly exhausted. Sweat poured from my helmet has I pulled it off of my head, and I slumped to the ground in my full gear, slugging down one of my fortunately filled water bottles, and munching on leftover pizza. I was ready to collapse there, sleeping in my gear. I felt warm enough, staring off into the dark, pissed at myself, frustrated at my situation, wondering how much damage I was doing to the bike, and looking anxiously at the lightning strikes off in the distance.
Sitting there, dazed as I was for more minutes than I should have, the thought of my parting conversation with Suzie flashed across my mind. “Shit!” I said to myself.
“You know better than this. Get up, set your tent, get inside. This is not how your day ends.”
I have spent a lot of time in the mountains. I’ve lead teenagers on high country trips, summited many of the Colorado’s peaks, and in general paid attention to the stories that talk about “what went wrong.” I can’t say I’m smart about this, hell, look where I am. Stranded on the side of a pass, in the dark, with a 650 pound liability and at least three miles of totally unknown path in front of me. There are three really simple rules to any high country outing: #1 be prepared for overnight. Extra food, water, clothes and basic first aid are a must. #2, stay to your course. Never, under any circumstance should you veer of your path. There are no shortcuts in the high country. #3, let people know where you’re heading and when they should expect you back. These rules don’t ensure your safety. But, they greatly increase your odds if something goes wrong. So, yes, here I was realizing I have covered only one of the rules today. I’d text my boys and my brother on and off. I’d posted a few pictures to social media, but even the person I seen most recently had absolutely no idea where I was. This was dumb. This was major league dumb. This was “Experienced, Active 48 Year-Old, Who Should Have Know Better” dumb. Actions when to auto-pilot. Ground cloth down, tent thoroughly staked, dry clothes inside sleeping bag, water bottle and snacks inside of tent! I found my towel and began peeling off my gear. I was shocked at how soaked my jacket and pants were, from my sweat! That meant that getting out of my base layers, which were actually dripping, was imperative. I fumbled with my headlamp as I toweled off. Fresh long underwear and thermal top, socks and knit hat were easy enough to slip into once I was in my sleeping bag. The realization of just how wet I had been just minutes before left me pretty dumbfounded. “That’s how people lose it. They don’t even know they’re cold,” I thought to myself. I was dry, I was warming up, and I wasn’t sweating anymore. That was all very good. Inside my tent and sleepingbag I got as comfortable as I could, I reflected on all the beautiful things I’d seen just today. I was a long 15 hours ago that I’d made my way out of my tent. I was spending a fourth night in it, but fixed my mind on being up with the sun, and being on the main road in three hours. I’d get a big breakfast in Buena Vista, at the Columbine, and I’d be home not much after noon! The wind was blowing the tent flaps, and I thought it would keep me awake, I was proven wrong.
I was out before I knew it, but woke up harshly within a few hours. I was completely dehydrated at this point, but having had enough sense to throw the extra full waterbottle in the tent with me, quickly drained two-thirds of it and munched on granola before falling back asleep. I woke again at 1 a.m., this time to pee. The sky had cleared and the breeze had calmed, so I took a few minutes to take in the stars and the Milky Way. I was actually glad to be where I was. I may not have been happy, but it certainly seemed the worst was behind me. In the daylight, rested, I would make easy decisions, I would know what the route ahead looked like, I could be out in three hours, tops!
The sun rose with clear skies. The dew had come out, so the tent and gear that wasn’t stored was damp to the touch. I pulled on my gear and boots and walked down the next stretch of the road to figure out what I needed to do. This bit wasn’t as steep as the first section off of the divide that I’d covered the night before, but it was longer, equally rutted and it turned to the left at the bottom. Once it bottomed out, the road was sandy, but flat, for the quarter-mile I could see. Immensely relieved I walked back up to the bike, and sorted out what needed to dry and what could be packed. My plan became this; ride the bike unloaded down the steeps, as long as the were short, and portage the gear to the flat spots and ride along! Easy! It was about 6:30 when I made my first move.
This first segment went slow, even with the bags off as I was being my most cautious in the light. Climbing bag up to gather my gear, I worked to be careful with the belongings that were dry and those that were wet. I was certain I WOULD NOT be sleeping out again, but I was also not going to want wet gear if the worst came to fruition. There was enough water from melting ice that I’d carried to refill both water bottles, but it was nearly 8 before the gear had been shuttled to the bike and I was upright, riding again. Optimism was brushed aside at the end of that first quarter mile when I encountered another steep drop with a creek crossing at the bottom. It was only 25 yards long, but it was one of the steepest drops yet. And slippery. Gear off, I decided to portage first, then come back for the bike. Two hard cases, a dry bag and tank bag made the bike cumbersome, street biased tire with 8,000 miles on them didn’t help. I had crash bars for the tank and upper part of the engine, but the bottom cylinder head and exhaust are horribly exposed without a bashplate, and I didn’t have one. Lugging the fifty plus pounds down the slope, across the stream and back up the sand embankment took time. Braking, clutching, and essentially walking the bike over the same course took equally as much. Another flat, quarter mile stretch greeted my. So did the sound of trail bikes! This gave me huge hope. I thought if bikes were on the trail, the start can’t be that far ahead! If nothing else, I could at least get some word of what lay ahead. I was anticipating the grief of a couple of fast riders on light bikes as the sized up my “big” bike, but I got nothing instead! They just flew by, at their own fast pace, and I was left wonder, “What I would have to conquer next?”
My next pause brought more mechanical noise. This time though, it was a group of ATVs, and they at least stopped to talk. They weren’t sure how far back the road was, they’d been riding on it for a while. But, they said I should turn around. The said that what was ahead was pretty awful and that since I knew what it was like in the other direction, maybe it’d be easier to get out? I assured them I wasn’t going back UP. I thought that nothing could be worse than what I’d just come down. Boulders, steeps, ruts, water. I’d been working at this for at least three hours by now, and I wasn’t going to retrace THOSE three hours. I just knew that had to be out soon!
I reloaded for the third time with a 500 yard stretch in front of me. As I neared the point where the road tucked back into the trees and out of sight, I heard the approach of more ATVs. As I came to the trees the path took a huge step, two feet at least, down, then another, and another, until it was crossing the stream, with 8 inches of water coursing over bowling ball size rocks. And in between this six-foot drop, spaced no more than three feet apart, were the largest rocks I’d seen yet. Two and feet feet tall, obstacles that could be crawled OVER by the right vehicle, but not really to be navigated around by this bike. I looked at my watch, it was saying 10:30; I was now four hours into my day.
A hot, hearty breakfast was not going to happen anytime soon. I made the first drop as I heard the atvs approach. I’d thought I’d find a path to navigate the second only to realize that this was more than two feet, and really didn’t have a clear path. The first quad crawled past me. The owner not amused by my blocking his path, had to take a tighter turn around his obstacle. Once clear of his stress, he turned around to gain the full scope of my predicament. Seeing how “pinched” I was, he and another in his group helped me get down off the next two ledges, and into the water, the three of us essentially lifting the bike down the embakements. At least here in the I was flat-footed, though the rocks I was now perched on seemed to want to roll and spin, no matter how I stood. So, I stood, with another group of riders coming towards me.
I’ve seen all those horrible pictures of big, shiny new bikes, dumped in water, headlight deep in mud, roughly sandwiched between boulders, standing on their tanks as they tumble over a ledge. All of these images must have created such a panic look in my eyes, that this oncoming group stopped in their tracks, and insisted on helping me navigate this crossing. Five more, agonizing minutes of walking the bike across the stream. Thank you’s and handshakes extended, the assured me the path wasn’t that much longer, but there were still some steep portions, but nothing as difficult as what I had just crossed. With the stream to my left now, I knew the path ahead would be slippery again. It was mossy, and the pine trees were thick around me. I was tired from carrying the luggage, tired from keeping the bike upright, and my hands were starting to cramp from the constant clutch and brake lever pulling. I was beginning to wonder about the reliability of these parts, and the stress on the mounted with each revolution of the tires. The stream corrected its course, and placed itself below me after 200 feet. This whole segment had consumed an hour, and I might have gone a quarter-mile.
One more steep drop to portage through, and coming around a corner, I entered a stretch of Aspens that reminded me of the road I’d come up yesterday. To this point, I hadn’t actually “dropped’ the bike today. But here, with a long, straight shot of 100 feet before the road turned away, and ever fiercer looking rocks that were growing in size, I knew I had to be even more on guard. I paused to collect myself, drink some water, and really think about what to do. It was now past noon. Clouds had been moving in and out. I had most of one bottle of water left, food to snack on, and I was certain I’d be out very soon. I tried to peer through the trees for a sign of the main road, a clear view of the valley below, but nothing. I picked the bike off of its sidestand, aligned my front tire with my desired route and eased off the brakes with the engine idling. The pitch was steeper than I’d judged, and the rocks as unforgiving is any on the path. The tires were tired and not grabbing anything at all. My speed seemed to increase as a tired to brake, and in a moment it was too late again. One bounce, two bounces, a half attempted to stay with the careening beast, thenI was flat-out on my chest, ten feet in front of the bike, which lay twisted, engine revving form a pinched throttle cable and the gas leaking out of the top of the tank! I hit the “kill” switch and sunk down next to the bike, damning myself and current folly, wondering how long it was going take to walk out of here. The clutch lever was broken, and the shift lever was bent at 90 degrees. I could barely get the side stand down and the brace for the centerstand was misaligned, cause the swingarm to smack into the stand. “SHIT!”
Bags off, I began the process of 50 yard march, that I’d repeat 10 more times in the next two hours. Nothing was getting easier. If anything the pitch was steeper now and the surface even less forgiving. At one point, about an hour into this new madness, a pair of mountain bikers flew past. Obviously they were undaunted by the route, and were in a much bigger hurry than I could imagine. So, this would be my pace. I couldn’t trust the track or the bike loaded up, so I continued to carry gear and riding the bike 150 feet at a time. I lost count of how many times the front end washed out, tearing the handlebars from my grip. The shift lever was now bent 180 degrees back, and I finally noticed I had no ABS. AND, the cooling fan wasn’t functioning either. Carry, paddle, carry, paddle, carry paddle, going on and on until at least, a totally preposterous right hand turn appeared, and I was at the service road gate!
It was 3 o’clock. I’d been hauling this motorcycle downhill for NINE hours. Shocked to see a flat, graded dirt road off to my right, I carefully reloaded the bike, and made my way around the worst part of the remaining trail and parked for a long pause before getting the nerve to ride on. I drained the last of my water bottle, knowing I’d find food and water soon enough. I tightened things up, threw my leg over it again, and edged out onto the road. The gravel was looser than it first appeared, so I wouldn’t be making any real time up. I also finally noticed that the speedometer wasn’t working. Either the damage was really extensive, or really simple. Maybe just a pinched speedometer lead, that could certainly cause some of the symptoms I was seeing.
I can honestly say I had never worked so hard at any one thing ever before. Forest Road 761 didn’t defeat me that day, but it served me an awfully powerful lesson. I still hadn’t found a map, or trail description that accurately places it. As I was standing there, lifting my bike of the side stand for the last time, legs quaking and hands miserable balls of stress, I tried not too hard to project forward. I wanted to remember this fatigue. Not out of spite, but as a message to my future self about limits, and planning. I needed to be reminded that caution does have it’s place, and that planning won’t always curb enthusiasm. All totaled up, the bike had about $400 worth of damage. It really could have been much worse. Limping over Cottonwood Pass, far later than I ever dreamed, I took the new pace more gracefully. This was not about a race, or specific destination, but it was about getting home. I stopped in Buena Vista, for gas and water. I sat on the side of the gas station, retelling part of my story to my brother while draining a second liter of water.
Three more hours of very thoughtful riding later, I was unloading the bike in Denver, and thinking only of storing the gear, starting laundry, and standing in shower as long as possible. I left town a few days later for a trip to D.C. I was still sore from the effort, my ego as bruised as my body. I was embarrassed to think how off guard I’d been caught. That really, it should have been much worse. That same week a mountain biker, mid 40s, had died in Crested Butte. My brother shared another story of a middle school teacher who’d been hiking in Northern Michigan, also mid 40s, who’d been active and healthy, but circumstances turned against him. Do I stop doing what I love? Do I take even more chances and push the limits of machine and man? I like returning home, bent, but not broken. I can wear my scars well, but I don’t want them to be foolishly won.