Late season Monarch Crest
(Hover over video for color)
Zac was my roommate in undergrad, along with being one of my best friends, constant training partner, and wingman. Though he was kind of a shitty wingman.
He’s been testing Conation Collective gear up in Seward AK for the past couple years, doing everything you would expect from someone who found Colorado’s backcountry too developed and civilized. Sea kayak to a couloir? Done. Guide tourists on Denali? Check. Freeride from the snow to the sea. That’s his favorite ride.
Last year Zac and I built him a new bike in 3 days in my friend’s garage in Denver before taking a road trip to Monarch Crest, Crested Butte, Gunnison, and Moab. You can read about it here. But we missed the Monarch Crest ride by literally 10 hours when it started snowing, he came back this year to finish the job.
I woke up at 5:30am and drove to Salida to meet Zac and his friend Josh in a gas station parking lot. We shuttled up to the top of Monarch Pass and began riding up the trail. Zac and Josh had skied here a couple years before, and I guess the ski route goes all the way up to the radio towers, so we rode all the way up there too before realizing we had passed the mountain bike turn off.
The trail up there is amazing – just endless views of the Rocky Mountains and no one else around – so we cruised along enjoying the scenery and trying to stay hidden from wind. Both Zac and Josh are strong riders, but when the trail started to tilt downhill Zac pulled ahead. It must have sparked something in me, because next thing I know we’re ripping down the trail, on the knife-edge of control, trading lead and chaser roles.
By the time we popped out on the dirt road I had a silly grin on my face. I hadn’t ridden like that with someone in a long time. After years of riding 4+ days a week with Zac, we knew each other’s riding style perfectly even after a couple years in different states. We could ride right on each other’s wheel the entire time, knowing exactly what line the other person was going to take even before he got there.
The three of us decided to stop at a sunlit hut for lunch where we found old metal chairs and a table to eat on, as well as a nice wooden bench to chill.
I don’t know what trail Zac and Josh found after lunch, but it was amazing. We started by crashing through little mountain streams in an aspen grove, then onto a screaming downhill in open single track through old pine trees. Eventually we ended up hugging ravine walls that dropped down to a picturesque mountain creek, though we were riding way too fast to enjoy it. The ravine walls went from loose scree to boulder fields to ripping hardpack and back, each blind corner offering a new surprise.
Coming out of the trail and back onto dirt roads I realized my front wheel was completely out of true. Like, tire-rubbing-my-fork-arch bent. At a bridge with some shade I took off my wheel and beat it against the ground until it was manageably straight, shrugged, and we kept riding.
The road went on forever. It was at least a chill incline, but it was late, we were tired, and the ride was becoming demoralizing. When we finally found the last single track, which was downhill (at least to start), I was so excited I completely blew the first corner and Zac almost followed.
For those of you that have ridden Monarch Crest, you know the mental fortitude the last section requires. The trail basically screams down to a creek and then climbs straight back up the other side, over and over again. It hurts so bad as the last section of trail, but there’s really no other choice.
Just before the last climb I blasted through a rock garden and my chain swung into the tire, bending the derailleur cage and a couple chain links to the point I couldn’t pedal. It wasn’t worth fixing with the amount of pedaling left, so I got it into a higher gear away from the wheel and just coasted or walked the last few miles back to the road.
It was an obsurd way to end such an epic ride, but sometimes that’s what has to happen. We coasted down the highway into Salida, inhaled some Chinese food, got the other car at the top of the pass, and I headed back to Denver hoping I wouldn’t fall asleep mid-drive.