Podcast: Justin Simoni – The Ultra-Endurance Artist @ Mountain & Prairie

Justin Simoni – The Ultra-Endurance Artist

I joined Ed Roberson earlier this week after we bumped into each other running in Chautauqua. Ed runs an interesting and diverse podcast called Mountain & Prairie and invited me to do an episode which I agreed to.

Ed loved how our interview went and I hope you do, too. Give it a listen yourself, and thanks again to Ed for having me on.

Chaffee County 390 Ramble: The Three Apostles, Huron, Missouri, Iowa, Emerald,

My time in Salida on tour soon came to an end, after a little time at the hostel with an honest to goodness shower. Time for me to travel north! Out of Salida, there’s some pretty awful highway riding to get directly to the next town, Buena Vista, and the day I set off saw me face a stiff headwind, that only got worse as I got closer and as a storm cell was moving from west to east. Frustrating!

I made it to Buena Vista, which I was going to only use as a top-off spot for food, etc – but my Brother was in town for Paddlefest, so I decided to linger a bit. After another partial day of rest, the weather turned much nicer, and I continued my ride to Chaffee County 390. The road out of BV North is dirt, and  follows an old railroad line complete with tunneled out sections of the hillside, making things quite fun. TONS of people were out for Paddlefest – or just the good weather – I’ve honestly never seen it so packed.

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Ouray and Chipeta

I took a ride out from Salida to Poncha Springs then onto Chaffee County 210 to the rarely visited (by 14er standards) Little Cochetopa Trailhead, which gives you access to Mt. Ouray, a Centennial peak @ 13,971′. The last few miles of the well-maintained road turned into a legitimate 4WD track, and it was a nice challenge trying to get my over-burdened Surly ECR up this steep track. Eventually, I got ‘er done, and after a little wandering around looking for a flat place to set up the Ultimate Direction FK Tarp while it slowly began to rain, (then snow), I was able to get some sleep.

The next morning (after sleeping in a bit), I set out from the trailhead following the actual trail for a little while, until I turned south and started gaining a saddle of the ridegline. That went smoothly, even though the trees were choked with snowdrifts. Once on the ridgeline, I was greeted by bristle cone pines – quickly turning into my favorite tree, and started the hike to the top of Ouray. The ridgeline proved a little spicy – with a few Class 3 moves if you didn’t want to drop too far off the ridge itself.

Soon the summit was gained, but weather seemed to want to move in, in the form of some angry looking clouds. The wind picked up, but I decided to keep moving along the perimeter of the basin on then same ridge to see if I couldn’t also summit the neighboring peak, Chipeta. There’s a bailout point between Ouray and Chipeta, so I kept an eye on the quickly degrading weather, as I made my way down the ridge.

The weather did hit, but came only in the form of some hail – no thunder or lightning, and I took just a few minutes for the worse of it to pass over me, before continuing my hike to Chipeta. The rest of the day was fine, and Chipeta was summited with not additional difficulty.

Descending back into the basin was a bit spicy – I had no beta on this, so I just chose a saddle on this side of the ridgeline, and pointed ‘er down. I glissaded a bit to a talus field and rock-hopped a bit, until getting suckered into a steep ravine, with a small creek running swiftly down it. Deciding it would go with a bit of care, I quickly descended into a huge field of thickets, with whip-like branches. Slow going, but not impossible, and lucky for me, a social trail (animal or otherwise) suddenly appeared to take me out of that and back into more manageable bushwhacking, where I then re-found the main trail. Good route!

Really fun day. I’ll almost surely approach Ouray on the Highest Hundred by Marshal Pass, as I can ride from the west side of the pass, leave the bike at the top of the pass, take the quick hike to summit Ouray, then ride down the east side of the pass and onward to either the town of Salida, or directly to Shavano/Tabeguache. I wasn’t sure if Marshall Pass is open all the way open to the top, and I wanted to explore a different trailhead, so Little Cochetopa worked perfectly.

I also know Marshall Pass somewhat intimately; it’s part of the Tour Divide route, the Colorado Trail Race route, the Vapor Trail race route, and with all the racing and recon of all those rides, I’ve visited Marshall Pass almost more times than I can count. I’ve never managed to summit Ouray though – having tried once from Marshall Pass, but failing due to the threat of lightning, so it was nice to finally tick it off. I look forward to visiting its summit again in a few months.

Shavano/Tabeguache, Antero/Cronin Recon

I’m presently in the Salida area, enjoying the incredible weather, tough training, and reconning potential routes. Salida and its people are incredibly friendly, bike shops and bike people are everywhere, and the mountains are crazy-accessible.

I rode here from Colorado Springs, having taken the bus from Boulder -> Denver -> Colorado Springs to save some time. It snowed about 3 feet last week, so some of the more interesting routes out of Boulder are currently under water.

Some photos from the bike ride,

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Surly ECR and the Surly 24-Pack Rack: Enter The Mud Season

(Part One)

5:00pm on Friday. Time to set off towards Estes Park. Although I would have like to take a more dirt route off the bat, the day was getting long, and I had some exploratory tracks to travel, so I took the express-way down Highway 36; it’s traffic known somewhat for its rep of severely injuring cyclists. I’ve never had a problem – but I usually ride it around 3:00 in the morning on my way to Longs Peak where the highway is desolate rather than filled with rush hour traffic.

I survived to Lyons in no time, and turned onto St. Vrain Canyon, which must be one of the prettiest canyons to slowly pedal up. Or so I’ve heard – I usually do this pedaling in the wee hours of the morning – the last time was during a snow storm with zero visibility, so today was somewhat of a rare treat for me to see the canyon in the waning daylight. Large pinnacles and crags shot up from the canyon floor. Loads of climbing adventure potential!

The Watchtower

My objective this evening was a FS 82 near Meeker Park. Word has it that there’s National Forest access in the tight squeeze of private property, Wilderness, and National Park of the Tahosa Valley. Surprisingly, I’ve never looked around to see what’s around this road before. My friendly National Forest Service Ranger Station, which I live across the street from, supplied me with a Motor Vehicle Use Map of the surrounding areas accessible by road, which helps greatly in finding legal campsites off private property.

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Surly ECR and the Surly 24-Pack Rack: Initial Impressions

Imagine my delight,

when an enormous box from Surly was delivered to my door, with instructions to do something cool with the contents: A medium Surly ECR, and a 24-Pack Rack! I was planning a trip to Breckenridge to say hello to my Brother who was becoming a year older, and I wanted to climb some mountains to train for the Tour of the Highest Hundred, so naturally, The Surly ECR entered into the thick of my plans.

In this post, I’ll go over the unboxing process, some of initial thoughts, and how I’ve set things up for a 5 day bike tour + mountaineering (bike-a-neering?) trip to Summit County. In a follow up post, we’ll talk about that trip itself.

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Bikepacking Route Optimization: Lake City to: Aspen, or to Salida?

Whoo boy, do I like me some optimizations of my routes! Being not the fastest, strongest, or most, uh, endurance-est person in the world, I’ve gotta rely on my brain fat a lot of the times to figure out the most efficient way top get from point A to point B. I love working on projects like the Highest Hundred, since optimizing the route can have seriously awesome outcomes, like saving a few days, or a few hundred miles by finding a shorter path to the mountains I want to visit.

But, that’s not the only thing I’m optimizing for. I could be out there pedaling my slowly melting-away butt at most any hour of the day or night, so I want a route that’s somewhat safe. I’ll also have a mountain bike in between my legs, so if there’s a dirt route, I’d rather take that, instead of pavement. And if the route’s a classic, well all the better.

Colorado has it made for classic offroad bike routes, as people have been riding bikes on dirt in Colorado for a while now, and there’s two long-distant routes that cross through most of the mountainous regions of the state that are ripe for the plunder: The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and the Colorado Trail.

I use these two routes generously to advise where I should go – I know the routes well-enough, and I know they’ve been well-vetted and see a bit two-wheel, fat-tired traffic.

While planning out my route of the San Juans from Lake City, I traced a route ,similar to my Tour 14er route:

Taking the paved Highway 149 to north out to Gunnison, up Highway 135 to Crested Butte for a quick cup of coffee, and then taking the rocky four wheel drive track over Pearl Pass to summit Castle/Cunnundrum. Continuing this road north takes you to Aspen to grab the rest of the Elk 14ers, while going west.

Afterwards, grab Frying Pan Road east out of Basalt which goes up and over Hagerman Pass into Leadville and move in a generally southern direction, bagging the Sawatch.

In the Tour 14er, the southernmost 14er is Shavano, and Buena Vista was the southernmost town you really needed to get to, to head back north to the Mosquito/Tenmile (and eventually Front Range) via paved (and somewhat busy) Highway 285.

The Highest Hundred will require me to go slightly more south to grab Mt. Ouray, and I might as well make a quick trip to Salida to get my bike worked on by expert mechanics, then take the Great Divide Mountain Bike route up and over Ute Pass into South Park, past Hartsel and access Alma to start the Mosquito/Tenmile that way:

This is all well and good, but as soon as I mapped this all out, I realized the long slog on pavement is really obvious from Lake City to just outside of Crested Butte. Ugh! On my Tour 14er, I started on this pretty early in the morning, and the route is quiet enough where I didn’t feel I was in any real danger – I even saw a lot of road bike touring enthusiasts going the opposite direction! The payoff of all this boring pavement is the chance to go up and over Pearl Pass, which is cemented in local mountain bike culture as one of the first mountain bike rallies (most likely, after a bar bet that it couldn’t be done!).

If you look just to the east of this route on the map, you’ll also notice that you pass a good majority of the Sawatch, on your race to get to Aspen. Wouldn’t it be wiser instead to go to the most southern Sawatch Centennial, Mt. Ouray, make your way north to Independence Pass just south of Mt. Elbert, take that into Aspen, summit the Elks, take the same route back from Basalt to Leadville, finish up the Sawatch, go up and over Mosquito or Weston Pass, and enter into the Mosquito/Ten Mile that way? It would look like this:

Without measuring, that seems like a major distance/time savings. It cuts out the paved highway slog to Crested Butte, and replaces it with a gravel ride on the Colorado Trail’s La Garita Wilderness Detour, until it meets up with the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (more gravel), which crests ,right at the trailhead for Mt. Ouray at Marshall Pass. Salida is still close enough to visit for TLC, but you won’t need to go up and over Ute Pass to take the GDMBR to Hartsel,  then Alma  which I have to admit maps out to a bit of slog with no peak bagging for a long stretch, since you will be following the Highway 24/Colorado Trail tagging Sawatch Peaks until Independence Pass. Indy Pass is paved, but it’s somewhat of a classic road ride, and strangely something I’ve never taken myself before. Then to to get to Mosquito/Tenmile, you’d have to take Mosquito/Weston Pass –  both classics for this tour.

So what’s the bad news about this route alternative? Although it looks shorter, mapping it out and measuring the distance, it actually comes out marginally longer, with a bit more elevation gain. Surprising! I believe there’s more out and back going on that’s hidden from the mapped out routes. Also surprisingly, the distance from Lake City to the TH for Castle is almost exactly the same as the distance from Lake City to the TH to Ouray – about 100 miles. The same long slog going across to a different range just cannot be fully removed.

All in all: it’s quite a toss up, and wasn’t the major optimization I was thinking it may have been. Still, I’m seriously considering it for my Tour. Weather is beyond fickle, so having these options available could prove invaluable. Good weather is essential in the Elks, and maybe waiting a few weeks for that good weather will mean the difference between a fast tour and a sort of fast tour.

What Are the Most Difficult/Technical Parts of The Tour of the Highest Hundred?

One of the main attributes that differentiates The Highest Hundred from other ultra-endurance FKTs is the technical nature of some parts of the route.

For example, the Appalachian Trail is indeed longer, and has more elevation gain than The Highest Hundred (many of the stats of the AT may surprise you), but I think it’s comparable to this challenge in a, “how much blood/sweat/tears will you go through” if done as a self-supported FKT. As I write this, the FKT is held by Heather “Anish” Anderson at 54 days, 7 hours, so the time to finish is similar to what I expect to do to set a self-supported FKT.

But, how can the AT –  a longer track, with more elevation gain be done quicker than the Highest Hundred, where the majority of the mileage in the HH is done by pedaling a bike?!

One big reason is that the AT is on a well-established trail for its entirety  and much of the Highest Hundred has large sections that are trail-less, where one is going to face Class 3, Class 4, and even Class 5 mountaineering routes.  On the AT – except for one, one-mile section (Mahoosuc Notch), you’re simply hiking, following white blazes. Whatever scrambly bits there are, there are 10x more Class 2 sections on the Highest Hundred to keep you busy. I’m not saying sections like Mount Washington are easy, I’m saying that sections like Mount Washington are par for the course in the HH.  The Highest Hundred requires knowledge of rock scrambling and rock climbing techniques/experience.

That’s what I’m going to focus on in this post.

And yeah, there are also some gnarly cycling sections if one elects to take them, but it’s easy enough to bypass riding those sections, by merely walking your bike across them. The on-foot (and on-hands, I guess) technical sections I may not have any workaround: you are required to do them to summit – or at least summit efficiently.

So let’s take stock of some of the big ones:

Dallas Peak, 13,809′, 5.3

Dallas Peak has a reputation of being one the hardest Centennials with legitimate technical climbing – the last pitch goes at 5.3 and usually a rappel is done from the summit to avoid downclimbing the last pitch. To just get to that last pitch takes some devious route finding on loose rock and many more Class 4 sections on the approach.

For my entire trip, I’m not planning on taking any rock climbing-specific gear at all with me: no rope, no pro, no shoes – and certainly no partner;  so the technical pitches will be done simply in a pair of burly trailrunners, then downclimbed. For Dallas, usually, a rappel is done from the summit to avoid downclimbing the last pitch. I’ll have to safely downclimb that, as well.

This last pitch is mandatory, as there really isn’t any easier route up the mountain in summer conditions. The rock that makes up Dallas can be of questionable quality and reports of finding dinner plate rocks stacked on top of each other waiting to topple are the norm when trying to ascend Dallas from it’s connecting ridges.

Little Bear/Little Bear – Blanca Traverse/Gash Ridge to Lindsey

The Sierra Blanca in general poses a huge puzzle on how to negotiate all the peaks quickly – I still don’t know if I got it right, or what I’ve got is reasonable! If you do everything by their standard routes, this section could take many days to a week, and be done from at least two trailheads. The routes I plan to take are not going to be the easiest ones, and this line is a prime example of taking more technical routes to improve efficiency.

Little Bear

Little Bear itself is known to have one of the most dangerous standard routes of any Colorado 14er: The Hourglass Couloir. There are easier ways to ascend the peak, but but none of them are available without getting permission from  private landowners (good luck), and none really work well with connecting large routes together, like I would want to.

In 2014, when I ascended the Hourglass Couloir in my Tour 14er, I woke up to a light hail with accumulation on the ground, and a dripping wet Hourglass shrouded in fog.

Not ideal. The center of the couloir was a running waterfall, and the slabs to the side were slick and not so wealthy in the Holds Department. You may be able to make out a rope in the photo above – many who climb Little Bear then descend the Hourglass using these ropes left by other parties. I think this is a terrible idea (fixed rope left by anonymous parties in general is in my opinion poor form, and a bad idea to trust with your life!) – but I won’t be descending the hourglass – I may not even ascend it, but rather take an alternative Class 4 route called The Northwest Face.

The Northwest Face is a little harder than the standard route at Class 4, but has less traffic, so less of a chance of getting rocks rained on me from parties above. It also features ever so slightly less mileage. I may/may not have time to recon this route before going for it on this tour.

Little Bear – Blanca Traverse

The Little Bear – Blanca Traverse is one of the four great 14er traverses, as described by Roach, and it’s an awesome way to link these two mountains together. Taking this route would save a ton of mileage, time, and elevation loss if you were to do it – so we’re doing it.

The traverse is rated at Class 5.0, and is about a mile long. There are few bailout points on the ridge, and it’s not a very good place to be in an electrical storm. I did this traverse during my Tour 14er, right after summiting Little Bear via the Hourglass Couloir. The weather was still cloudy, and I did almost the entire traverse with a visibility of only a few dozen feet:

I’m hoping for better conditions next time around!

Gash Ridge to Lindsey

Gash Ridge from Blanca is the key to accessing the Huerfano Valley from the West. Blanca and Ellingwood’s North Faces are true Nordwands with very steep and loose technical climbing of dubious quality. Gash Ridge is rated ~ 5.4 and will “only” have to be down climbed.  Once in the Huerfano Valley, one 14er and one 13er will be summited,  then the other side of the mountain range will be re-accessed via a ridgeline far to the north of Ellingwood Point.

Jagged Mountain

Jagged Mountain’s standard route is rated 5.2, but it’s its remoteness that really makes it a standout. One has to be completely committed to climb this technical peak solo. I’m actually more stoked than scared of this leg of the tour – all I can really think of is the intense beauty of the peak, and what the view must be like from the summit.

Wham Ridge, Vestal Peak

This is absolutely extra credit, but does highlight another strategy in making a successful tour: keep the stoke high by doing interesting things – what’s the point of climbing 100 mountains if it’s just a big grind?

Vestal Peak by its standard route is merely rated Class 3, but it’s impossible to look at the mountain without noticing it’s incredible north face, where the Wham Ridge, 5.4 route is found. I would be totally nuts to pass the opportunity to climb this route for my tick of this mountain, and look forward to it being one of the many, many highlights of the trip.

Ring the Bells/Thunder Pyramid

The Maroon Bells Traverse goes at ~ 5.6, making it one of the most technical routes I’ll be doing on my tour. I’ve done the traverse before, so I’m not so worried about doing it a second time.

What I am worried about is descending the route afterwards. On my Tour 14er, I had a particularly nasty spill going down a small gully, where a rock shaped like an ironing board gave way when a put pressure on it with my foot, leading me to fall down the gully itself. Time slowed down, as my life flashed before my eyes. Once I hit the sloping talus, I immediately checked my body for grave injuries. I was expecting at least a broken leg – my hands were a bloodied mess.  A broken leg usually means at the very least a night out in the open as Search and Rescue – at the very best estimates, would have to wait till the next day to be able to reach you.

To my incredible surprise, most of the blood was coming from superficial cuts from my hands and a small one from my knee. My groin had a slight pull but… I was ultimately fine. I’d like to not recreate this incident again.

And this is where the true danger in some of these routes are found: not in the technical level of climbing – I can train for that; rather, it’s in the loose and sketchy  nature of some of the rock on the routes themselves, regardless of grade. This is where my worry exists in large doses, and I think I’m justified in at least giving these routes the respect they deserve.

If the Bells are chossy, loose, and dangerous, Thunder Pyramid is Crazy Town. I am not looking forward at all for climbing Thunder Pyramid, and would rather just get it done quickly.  The standard route clocks in at only Class 4, but it’s loose, and very, very dangerous.

I won’t be descending the standard route on Thunder Pyramid, but will be traversing to the 14er, Pyramid instead. This traverse should make the Bells Traverse look like child’s play, and will be the very next item on my, “not looking forward to” list. This is a traverse I’ll only do if feeling up for it, and will happily do Thunder Pyramid and Pyramid separately if I do not feel 100% up to the task. This doesn’t make things much easier, as the amount of loose rock I’ll have to face will be greater doing these two peaks separately. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Ice Mountain

Completely out of style with the rest of the Sawatch, Ice Mountain has a reputation for being loose and dangerous – much like the Elks I just described. Ice is a bit more remote as well, leading to a bit more anxiety that could be felt while doing the route. I’ll most likely be taking the Northeast Ridge, as the Refrigerator Couloir will sadly be out of condition by August. This will be an easier mountain to recon, which gives me some piece of mind – if I do, in fact, manage to recon it!

Atlantic Peak to Fletcher Peak Traverse

Finally, I’ll try to cover the Atlantic Peak to Fletcher Peak Traverse, but there’s quite a bit of unknowns about it for me – some trip reports call the finger crack crux at up to 5.7 (perhaps I’m wrong about this?). This may be a bit too futuristic for me to reasonably take on, during the last leg of my tour, so I may have to recon the route to find a sneak around this, or bail on my idea of enchaining all the Centennials in the area together.

And that’s about it for, “hardest part of a really hard adventure”! I may have spaced a few mountains – I purposely skipped over the Crestone Traverse – the climbing is exhilarating and the real threat is afternoon thunderstorms like much of the rest of the mountains.  I have also skipped over Longs, as Longs is my backyard mountain and I am deeply entrenched in a long-term relationship with it. I look forward to many challenges it presents to me. I skipped over some optional routes like the Harvard/Columbia traverse, which goes at 5.7. I don’t know yet if doing the high traverse is worth doing, rather than the standard – and much easier lower traverse.