Trading skis for wheels in search of soulful experiences
Trees fly by. The scraping branches remind me that I am just inches away from a nasty tumble as I check my speed and rein control back in. With my balance under me once more, the adrenaline subsides and my other senses return. I catch the sharp smell of freshly exposed spring pine. My downward momentum slows to a trickle and I transition into the slothy plodding of another hill climb. I move slowly through subalpine fir trees, glimpsing the tops peaks I’d rather be standing on. But it’s June, and despite that ribbons of snow still cling to the peaks, I’ve traded carbon sticks and slippers for the carbon bike between my knees.
The forest is quiet and although my GPS says otherwise it is hard to believe that someone has trodden here before. Much less pushed a bike, or maybe even ridden one in this exact same spot, a week ago, a year ago, perhaps even a decade? These are often old roads turned trails that fade to faint paths and eventually dwindle fully from recognition. In these primitive, faintly tracked settings, I find in summer pedal strokes the same peacefulness of winter schussing.
For years, my dedication to ski touring was unwavering. Scraping the last spring snow of remote Colorado high peaks would give way to trips to glaciers in the Pacific Northwest and even the occasional South American trip to ski in August and September, ensuring the addiction was well fed year round. Through the blessing and curse of owning a ski shop, May through August are typically time for my most densely populated ski adventures. However, this spring in Colorado was different.
Ironically, Carbondale, Colorado — home to Wildsnow Headquarters — is not ski town. One has to cross Pitkin, Gunnison or Eagle county lines to reach a skiable peak. No one would have ever predicted a time when Carbondalians would not be welcomed by our neighboring towns and counties, places we consider the same as part of one Roaring Fork Valley.
But while I was driving into Aspen one day in March, the flashing road sign read: “All visitors must quarantine for 14 days”. It may not have been written specifically for me, but it certainly wasn’t welcoming. Across the ski community, socially concerned citizens echoed sentiments about the dangers of backcountry skiing during a pandemic. Eventually the circumstances drained the serene meditative powers of snow crunching under uphill steps on skis. It was time to put the skis away for a bit.
But that didn’t mean staying out of the mountains all spring.
A dozen years ago, a friend loudly explained to me that the development of the 29-inch mountain bike wheel was the equivalent of the invention of powder skis. Back then, wheels for skis was not yet a trade I was prepared to make. Mountain bikes were confined to bike friendly, bermy carved trails that lost the freedom of the hills I knew from skiing and hiking. The benefits of cross training were undeniable: Sucking wind uphill that gave way to thigh crushing long downhills of flowing tract. Of course the pain of frequent, impending crashes was far worse.
However, this spring, the bug slowly began to take hold. It looked different this time. I started to push farther out.
While riding down one of my favorite remote trails in late May I noticed a small herd path receding into the woods and felt compelled to swerve onto the track. Five miles, 50 GPS double checks and hours later I emerged victorious onto a service road and a new link up was complete. An addiction was born.
Over the next several months, I carried my bike over hundreds of down trees, sometimes losing the faint tracks for miles at a time. The preparation for backcountry biking became much the same as for my winter ski touring adventures: pouring over maps on the table and on my computer for days. Dark dashed service roads were obvious while the lighter dashes of old trails took closer examination. Nothing was ever a given. Wind events could obliterate a trail beyond recognition after just a few years of neglect. But like skiing, you never know until you go.
Packing snacks based solely on a calorie to weight ratio I would load my bike down and leave hours of extra time for the unknown obstacles of a backcountry ride. But also like skiing, no matter how much time I budgeted for a tour it still never seemed enough. At times traveling on a bike was fast and efficient and allowed me to cover more ground than I could have ever hoped for on foot. But, just when I thought I had unlocked a new super power the going would get rough. When the trees closed in around me, biking proved to be far less efficient than skiing or even foot travel. My once sleek travel companion quickly would turn into a 30 pound anchor as I cast it over another scuttled forest of down aspen trees.
I swore I would take a few week hiatus from the road less traveled and stick to more established paths. But I couldn’t stop. No sooner had that vow crossed my mind that another faint road would grab my imagination. Within hours I’d find myself back out of the saddle, pushing through unbreakable loose rocky roads.
Of course in the end even the new-found backcountry bike obsessions still drew me back to my skis. As restrictions eased, I took my newly acquired, lighter bike and better fitness to crawl up to the peaks I had barely visited in the previous months. Even the lightest skis and boots add precious pounds that make steep service road or trail climbing nearly impossible on the bike. In moments, it was easy to question if there was any efficiency in the mechanized transportation of the bike as opposed to just humping the skis on my back in a more classic dry land approach. However, I always found it more gratifying to haul my skis from town for a fully human powered effort to the high points at the edge of the horizon.
Bikes have long been a summer hold over at WildSnow. Check out more WildSnow bike stories.
Doug Stenclik is an avid skimo racer and ski mountaineer who lives for sharing the amazing sports of ski touring and splitboarding. Since his first time on skins he was hooked and the obsession has taken him all over the United States and the world pursuing the human powered ski turn. He founded Cripple Creek Backcountry in 2012 and took over the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Race Cup in 2014 to spread knowledge and the love of the sport. In 2019 he took a step back from the ski shop and race promoter life to become a publishing partner with WildSnow.