Time to Go Big
On a bike-hike-scramble epic from his front door to the summit of a fourteener, Colorado-based climber Ryan Wichelns races the weather
It’s been a while since I’ve been up this early.
3:32 a.m. As I get out of bed I glance at my watch, its glow-in-the-dark hands showing me the ungodly hour and reminding me that, quite literally, the clock is ticking. I need an early start to have any chance of getting from my house to the top of Mount Sneffels and back before today’s summer monsoon. There’s not really any time to take it slow.
4:04 a.m. After another quick bite of my breakfast sandwich, I roll my bike out of the garage. My goal for today is to ride the 16 miles and 2,300 vertical feet to the trailhead on the other side of the small Colorado town of Ridgway, where I’ve lived for the past two years. Sneffels is the tallest peak I can see from my house; its 14,157-foot summit tops a toothy ridgeline rising like a fortress wall above town. The climb up Sneffels is a rite of passage for locals, and the ascent is challenging even if you drive to the trailhead. But since moving here I’ve been dreaming of making it a door-to-peak journey, biking from my front yard to the trailhead, then climbing six miles and nearly 5,000 feet to the peak.
The moon is bright enough for me to just barely make out the ridgeline I’m biking toward. Two hours to the trailhead is my goal. Let’s get riding.
5:10 a.m. I’m not sure why I expected the road up to the trailhead to be smoother. Forest roads like this—with deep canyonlike washboarding and potholes that could swallow a whole tire—are rarely comfortable in a car, let alone a suspensionless bike.
It’s slow going, so I have plenty of time to ponder this micro-adventure. Thinking rationally, I admit it feels somewhat contrived—an insane wakeup for a gravel ride that’s really nothing special on its own—but biking to the trailhead boosts the reward as well as the effort. I’ve climbed Sneffels before, but I know I’ll enjoy the view of the mountain from my back porch all the more knowing I can cover the terrain between here and there without the help of a motor. And there’s something valuable about hyperlocal epics no matter where you live. Finding adventure near home—whether on a fourteener or in a local park—changes the way we look at our surroundings.
6:14 a.m. At the trailhead, the dawn light has just started to illuminate the north face of my objective. From this angle, Sneffels looks like the spiky, bristled back of a dragon. My objective, the peak’s Southwest Ridge, rises in a mass of sharp talus punctuated with gendarmes and outcroppings. Up close, they feel like they could both slice you in two and crumble to dust at the same time.
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7:55 a.m. The three gemlike Blue Lakes sit at the bottom of the Southwest Ridge, and passing the first one signals the end of the forest and the beginning of the alpine. The first lake’s color is especially rich. I’m guessing a little rain last night washed some sediment into it, darkening the water and enhancing its green-blue color.
Afternoon rain is the norm around here this time of year. Colorado’s monsoon season, which has felt stormier than normal this year, stretches from July through August and strikes like clockwork in the midafternoons. That was my biggest motivator getting out of bed this morning. The monsoon storms, which can unload lightning like a bombing raid, aren’t something you want to experience in the alpine. Reaching the summit and getting back down before the storms roll in is the goal today.
That’s why I’m so tuned in to the time—and the reliability of my watch. No batteries or finicky electronics to worry about. The Khaki Field Auto Chrono winds itself with the movements of my arm as I hike, helping me keep precise track of my progress. (Plus, it has a 60-hour power reserve.)
9:45 a.m. Blue Lakes Pass is where my route leaves the trail and starts up the scree-choked ridgeline. This is where the real climbing starts.
10:29 a.m. The crux of the route is a series of near-vertical steps in the narrow couloirs I’ll have to link together to climb the ridge. Climbing through them requires all the contact possible with the rock—both hands and both feet. I work my way up, hold by hold, trying to ignore the exposure below me. One move at a time, I pull through the crux and have only the jaunt up the exposed ridgeline to the summit.
11:44 a.m. I don’t let myself celebrate too much on top—I’m only halfway, of course—but I do take a moment to appreciate the view of the town where I started well below and the sweeping peaks all around. But the summit break is the first opportunity I have to notice the clouds starting to fill up the sky. At this point, they’re relatively benign-looking: fluffy, small, and white. But I know from experience that it’s only a matter of time before they turn into storm clouds.
I swallow some snacks, snap a couple photos of the surrounding peaks, and start back down within 15 minutes.
2:22 p.m. Things are moving a little more quickly now as I race by the Blue Lakes. Since starting my descent, the clouds have accumulated and I’m beginning to hear some distant thunder. But I’m close to relative safety and well below the exposed ridgeline. I still have a long way to get home, but the hard part is over and as I cross below treeline, I let myself breathe and appreciate the adventure.
5:04 p.m. I roll into the driveway—coming down is a whole lot faster than going up. The monsoon rain comes as I’m riding back home, but getting wet is welcome at this point. I check my watch once more: the timing couldn’t be better.
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