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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Red Mountain Number Three...Blood, Sweat, and Gears

I've been remiss, with two blog adventures collecting dust in the "unpublished" basket. So "Red Mountain" goes to press posthaste, pun intended. Just as well, the other two need editorial CPR...in fact, go ahead and call a damn priest for absolution and last rights. Sometimes a script sounds better in-head than on-paper—days when they just lay there with the indolent lack-luster pulse of a disinterested lover. I claim distraction, which begs explanation. But some things are best left unsaid rather than said improperly. Where oh where to clear my bloated head?

Indulge your imagination and picture route 550 snaking south out of Lovely Ouray like the narrow, two-lane coiled serpent it is. Long ago Otto Mears carved and blasted a wagon trail notch out solid rock in order to charge a toll for its use. Thus, the humble, narrow beginnings of "The Million Dollar Highway," still narrow, but now toll free, unless you take your eyes off the road. Adjusted for inflation and tourist value, it should now be called "The Trillion Dollar Highway." 

Some of the most spectacular hiking we've found (and four-wheeling, if that's your thing) is right up Highway 550's perilous gorge, between Ouray and Silverton. It's a recreational playground, 13'ers and 14'ers, with an endless connecting network of trails for foot and tire. Bobbie and I have been mining golden hikes off "The Million Dollar Highway" since the disco era, and the "vein" has yet to play out. A hike up near 13'er, Red Mountain number 3, was long overdue. 

Most good hikes are west of 550. They afford stunning views eastward into the hearts of Red Mountains Number 1, 2, and 3, "The Bleeders," as I like to call them—those colossal conglomerate mounds of iron and assorted other colorful minerals—a hemorrhage of red amongst more sedate and stately silver headed mountains, with proper plaid bases of aspen and pine. 

RV friends often ask about Number 3 while hiking cross canyon, Pal Boonie, in particular, as there appears to be a modest jeep road serpentining its way up to the summit. Boonie salivates at roads un-hemmed by woods, and wonders out loud if it's rideable. I remind him how easily the eye is deceived up high, how slopes are steeper than they appear in this land of vertical relativity. Besides, even if Number 3's grade was so modest as to be rideable, at 13,000 feet one would need the lungs of Pheidippides and the legs of Atlas to conquer its summit. But, having never climbed it, I wasn't absolutely sure. So that became yesterday's objective, to summit Number Three and get a feel for its mountain bike worthiness. 

I used Google Earth to get a birds-eye preview of the route before leaving; there are sooo many mining roads and jeep trails one could easily get lost, and maps are a headache waiting to happen. A hard left one hundred yards beyond Red Mountain Pass put us on County Road 14's rutted dirt surface. It wound upward, bike-able for the most part, past the old Saint Paul's Backcountry Ski Lodge (a misnomer in that it looked more like barracks than "Lodge" given the outhouse). 

Another left, through a passable gate (due to its dropped cable). There were no "Welcome" signs, but then again, it didn't say "Keep Out," either. Onward, through the twisted metal remnants of mining ruins, now wrapped with a patina of yesteryears beautiful rust and decay; a log home, collapsed upon itself from having borne the weight of too many winters and twenty foot snows. How did they do it? How did miners ride out six months of cold and winter?

On a steep, but seemingly rideable grade, we passed a bearded Burly Man with bulging hairy legs. He was wearing a pack and pushing his fully suspended  29'er. Not a positive sign; maybe it was steeper than it looked. Or maybe he started at the highway and was spent from elevation gain. Something old and familiar stirred inside. He made me want to give it a go on my 29'er, that he would choose such a relentless grade, at altitude, alone. Of course "alone." I can just hear his bike buddies, "You want to ride what?" Hey, we've ridden our share of off-roads and trails where dismount, push, and carry was part of the deal. Some I am beyond repeating; the White Rim Trail in Utah's canyon country comes to mind, and the Shaffer Trail loop, with it's ridiculous headlong decent and a brutal, maniacal push up Puckered Ass Pass. They are shadeless, and not to be attempted without support in temps above 70 degrees, trust me.

But without those kinds of prerequisite rides I might have missed out on future footholds—oh-so-many fine other-world explorations, the kind that beget discoveries of inner strength and physical "burly-ness"—those surprise and suspense filled escapades where one nibbles at the edges of limitation, perseverance, and glorious reward. Mountain Bikes are, after all, by definition, are machines for "Mountains." Problem is, Mountains could care less about your determination to climb them. 

We parked the Subaru near timberline, hefted packs and road trekked on foot. Clouds reared and darkened horizons. But the sun was full out overhead, illuminating reds and yellows against a deep blue Colorado sky, lending an edgy intensity that only crisp, clean high-altitude air can render. My trusty Canon peeled through a hundred rounds lickity split. It was a good light day, with clouds enough to deepen interest and hold one's gaze. 360 degrees, as far as the eye could see, no cities, no smog, no Grand Canyon throngs...just solitary confinement where one can be alone with their thoughts and no dream seems unattainable, no mountain insurmountable, no problem unresolvable. 

We will try to connect another "dot" by climbing Red Mountain Number 2 yet this year. Our "backyard" does grow familiar, but in a good way, like growing old with someone you love. As for riding a bike to the summit of Red Mountain number 3? I think it would be 60/40 in favor of pushing...maybe even 70/30. Does it matter, really? Do we not ride bikes for exercise and reward? Think of the freedom ride down, the ice cream reward for the penance of grunting out two thousand calories on a hike-n-bike summit, and the new "footholds" carved in new territory that you thought unreachable, untouchable, "beyond the pale" of age appropriate behavior. Balderdash! 

Burly Man didn't quite make it to the top, but he was no less a man in my estimation. I could see he was still fresh enough to kick my lilly white ass all over Red Mountain if I so much as teased him about falling short. 

The sun-hole closed over head as we reached the car. Large drops of rain; crater-like splats in layers of dust accumulated from many such backroad excursions.

Stay tuned for Part Two of "Red Mountain Number Three...Blood, Sweat, and Gears." We'll finish off County Road 14...a bike-able high road that would have Boonie fluttering his eyelashes :))




  1. Glorious photos! Biking at that altitude, and steepness, would probably kill me! Thank goodness for feet!

    Metamorphosis Lisa

  2. I had to do a double-take at first with that new header photo...for a minute, I thought it was an image of one of Bobbie's paintings. I can't decide which is the greater compliment, comparing your photograph to Bobbie's paintings, or Bobbie's paintings to your photos! Either way, simply gorgeous.

  3. So far the photos make the road surface look ride-able. I hope you have good news from Red Mountain. It would make it a lot more fun to visit the San Juans if I could find at least a couple ride-able routes, ones that don't have bumper-to-bumper jeep, UTV, and ATV traffic.

    As weird as it sounds, pushing the bike most of the way up and riding down IS an option. Think of it as way to honor the San Juans.

  4. WOW! Beauty that has no words ....

  5. Bike-a-delic. I definitely want to come back and do some more mt. biking back there. Nice photos. I was wishing for that wide-angled lens the other day when we had the most amazing clouds at sunset.-Maikel

  6. Certainly puts the mountain in mountain bike! My sea level quads are already screeming in agony. Then again the effort, pain etc never seems as bad after it's done. And that's what makes it fun.

    Eric and Carrie Ann in Chicago

    PS We'll be in Lovely Ouray the last week of Sept. Hope to run into you.

  7. Stunning photos, yet again. Those photos have me teething at the bit to hit the trails and break in my new hiking boots.

  8. Gunta,
    A real compliment coming from you :) thanks!

    John and Pam,
    Thanks. You are making the best of your back east travels...but I sense a longing for the west. Hurry back.

    Seek out your inner "Burly Man," woman :) Let's do it!

    Wow, We are both complimented by your comment, Thank you.

    The "news" is good...not great, but good. We'll just take our good old time and see what happens. It certainly was less trafficed than C. B. road. It's all going to start winding down now that school is starting up. I hope you "honor the San Juans again."

    Gay and joe,
    Beautiful does need more words...it gets to overused. But I'll take it :)

    It's drying out, so come on over. We have a bed now, too :) And yes, I do love my wide angle lens...

    Eric and Carrie Ann,
    Cause "after it's done" we're having beer :) It postpones pain till the next day. As for "Sea Level Quads," all I can say is find a high rise and start running the stairs...with your mountain bike on your back. :) Please do look us up...we will be around. It should be peaking fall colors, too. Thanks for checking in!

    Live laugh rv,
    Ingrid/Al, I love how you love southwest Colorado! Some places just grab you like that.
    Thanks, Mark and Bobbie

  9. I'm so glad you climb these, to me, insurmountable peaks so I may see the beauty.


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