Winter Riding in the Rockies

Winter Riding in the Rockies

elephant ride

Why is that that people put on the incredulous face when I wax enthusiastic about the Elephant Ride? It’s a motorcycle ride, for chrissakes, and we all enjoy a motorcycle ride. Okay, this is not your average Sunday toodle to the Hungry Hog for the brunch buffet of a sultry August morn. Poseurs and  wannabes need not apply. But still…
Here’s the deal: Saturday night campout, a nice ride with scenic views Sunday morning, leisurely lunch at a cozy restaurant in Georgetown, then back the way we came, break camp, ride home. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, it is great, but as usual, the devil’s in the details.
The salient details are these: the ride happens on the February weekend closest to Valentine’s Day, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The campout is at 8600’ elevation, Sunday’s scenic ride is up and over 11,669’ Guanella Pass, and road conditions lead the prudent rider to dress warmly and prepare his motorcycle by studding both tires.

The Elephant Ride is an annual ritual started some years ago by a few restless souls suffering motorcycle withdrawal in the middle of Colorado’s long winter. These days the ride draws hearty bikers from as far away as Chicago and Southern California.  In 2003, when I first learned of the event, I knew I had to give it a go. I’ve since done the Elephant Ride three times, and the fond memories and anecdotes from the three separate weekends are intermingled beyond any hope of separating them out.
There’s nothing like pitching a tent in a snowfield, enjoying cocktails and barbecue with like-minded folks and waking up to a fine day of motorcycling through drifted snow on a corkscrew road. Suffice it to say, there are lots of laughs, hangovers, and the occasional low-speed crash on the ice-and snow-covered pass road.

ice cream man
But as much fun as the Elephant Ride is, for pure motorcycling adventure it can’t hold a candle to winter mountain riding alone, away from the security and comfort of others. This truth became exquisitely clear to me on the 26th of February, 2003.
Back in those days I did a lot of solo motorcycling. It was my wont to strap a sleeping bag and tent on the back of my Norton or whatever bike was running at the time, and head out for a weekend, a week, ten days of riding and camping. So after my first Elephant Ride, when the following weekend promised fine weather and with fond memories still fresh, I decided to enjoy a day of solitary off-road riding.
I again studded the tires of my KTM, loaded it into the back of the pickup and headed up into the Wet Mountains, some seventy-five miles from my off-grid homestead. From previous (summer) exploration, I knew of a forest service road that climbs up to the shoulder of Greenhorn, at 12,349’ the highest peak in the range.
As I had expected, the road had been plowed to provide access for snowmobilers enjoying the backcountry. It was early afternoon by the time I had my bike unloaded and ready to ride, and there were two or three parked rigs indicating that snowmobiles were out and about.
Although the forest road heading up to Greenhorn had been plowed, there was a dense base of compacted snow, perhaps six inches thick, uniformly covering the gravel. Without studded tires, it would have been too slick for me to negotiate, but my well-prepared bike was up to the task.  With a light heart I ducked around the gate barring the road and headed up. I gained elevation, basking in the cool, clear mountain air, unspoiled pine forest lining the roadway and ridiculously blue sky. As much fun as the Elephant Ride had been, I’m a bit of a loner, and it was wonderful and expansive to be out there alone in the Rockies.
I passed no one as I climbed steadily through the thick woods. The bike was running well, the studded tires dealt with the packed snow and I was in reverie. I’d been up this road before, and knew that it continued some fifteen miles up to the base of the summit trail. For the first dozen or so miles, the surface was pretty much the hard-packed snow layer I’d started out on. Evidently, though, the forest service chose to plow only to a popular snowmobile trailhead, but not the last few miles to the summit trail. As a result, my reverie was suddenly and rudely interrupted by a dramatic change in road conditions. Not only was the road ahead not plowed, but a season’s accumulation of high-country snow had settled, drifted and suffered the diurnal cycles of sun/darkness/wind that turn stale snow into a wizened old foe.
I shifted down a gear and twisted the throttle to get a feel for what I was up against. The road ahead slabbed across a flat saddle, so gravity wasn’t working hard against me, but the virgin snow pulled at my tires, resisting my passage.  Undaunted I forged on, keeping enough momentum to lighten the front wheel slightly and catching enough traction with the drive wheel to push the bike through the deep snow. For a hundred yards or so I kept grinding forward. The ungroomed road was indistinguishable from the bare meadows on either side up here on the saddle. But ahead in the distance where the forest took up again, I could see a clearing in the trees indicating the road’s course.
Crossing the windblown open ground, I found myself fighting for traction, and losing the battle. The crusty snow on the surface, an inch or two thick, would give way and collapse, exposing a deep layer of protected crystalline powder below. This was as slippery as talcum, and too deep for the studded rear tire to find traction below. Try as I might, I could not maintain progress in this morass, and when the bike gradually slowed to a halt, the game was up.

Stuck in Winter

When I stepped off the motorcycle to evaluate the situation, it was so well stuck in the heavy snow that it stood straight up of its own accord. The drive wheel was buried up to the axle, and clearly was not going forward. Alas. Suddenly the reverie I’d been enjoying was ancient history. Suddenly, I was living in the moment, acutely aware of my surroundings, face to face with my arrogance and folly. The solitude I had found so gratifying now mocked me.
As far as I could tell, there was not another human within miles. The sun was now low in the west, air temperature was dropping fast and I was ill-prepared to overstay my visit on the mountain.  I was at risk of becoming a tragic character in a Jack London novel, or at least the subject of a human interest story in the newspaper.
Perversely amused by my circumstances, I took a brief walk to enjoy the view before setting about to resolve the predicament. Every footstep met initial resistance before my weight broke the snow’s crust and left me thigh-deep. No wonder the bike stood up by itself.
Back to the situation at hand and keenly aware of the fading sunlight, I tried to muscle the bike up and out of its tight quarters. But even though the KTM was a relatively light machine, at 11,000 feet the thin air takes its toll on human stamina. All attempts at winning this battle through brute strength were met with stubborn inertia.
Brute strength to no avail, I resorted to engineering. With my gloved hands I began to scoop snow away from around both wheels. After considerable time and effort I was able to tip the bike over on its side, with just enough strength remaining to haul on the handlebars and drag the bike around, little by little, until it was facing back downhill. Then I rested, my strength sapped.

Turned Around

After I caught my second wind, a Herculean effort got the bike upright, and once the dizziness abated I stabbed repeatedly at the kickstarter until the beast finally came back to life. No sweeter music have I ever heard than that 400-cc single returning to service when nothing else would do.
Grinding back through the thick stuff was more difficult bearing the weight of fatigue, but mortality is a strong motivator. With more determination than finesse the bike and I squirreled our way back the way we’d come. Once we reached the relative security of the plowed and packed roadway, I was home free. Fatigue still dogged me, but the giddy recognition that I’d dodged a bullet – a bullet I’d fired my own damn self – offered up a smugness that carried me those twelve miles back to the truck.
But the road was now largely in shadow, which made the surface slicker. Even with the studded tires, one hairpin turn got the better of me. The rear wheel swung around and I came off the low side, stuffing the bike into a snow bank. No harm, no foul, though it was tricky to stand the bike (and myself) back up on the slippery bank. Nonetheless, I got the job done, and before the sun hit the horizon I was back at my pickup.
The other vehicles were gone. The air was quiet. I still was alone, but once again safe and secure, enjoying my own company. I shut off the bike, lit a cigar and posed contentedly for my own camera.

winter scene

RC Herman
Crestone, CO
October, 2007