by: Maggie Slepian
Most backcountry adventurers will experience at least one perspective-changing event during their outdoor lives. It doesn’t need to be life threatening, or even result in a grandiose epiphany. It just has to stand out enough to change your perspective… or moderate your ego. Either one.
Hailey has been one of my primary adventure partners for years. She’s down for anything, and incredibly proficient at any mode of human-powered transportation. Whether it’s a ski invite, a Nordic outing, a local mountain bike ride, a destination climbing trip, a new backpacking route, a trail run, or a bikepacking trip, she always says yes. Throughout the years, our year-round outings have boosted our confidence to the point where it could outpace abilities if not tempered.
In the summer of 2019, Hailey and I had been biking and backpacking together for a few years when I suggested we combine them into something new: bikepacking. Never mind that we didn’t own touring bikes, the correct gear, or have any idea how to pack a bicycle for an extended trip. Our years of outdoor adventures together made us confident we could figure it out.
With seat-post racks found at a local cycling store and a selection of my backpacking compression sacks, we retrofitted our mountain bikes into some semblance of touring bikes. We packed my lightweight backpacking gear into stuff sacks strapped to our bikes, and took on a moderate 105-mile loop in northern Montana with 6,000 feet of elevation gain. We gave ourselves three days to complete the loop and finished in a day and a half. We were proud and tired, thrilled at having completed the loop without too much effort.
Riding the high of that success, we planned a second bikepacking trip for the end of that same summer. We still didn’t have touring bikes, but the surprise pace and ease of the first trip bolstered our confidence even more.
I found a 77-mile loop outside of Boulder, Colorado that had 10,000 feet of elevation gain. I sent Hailey a text from the comfort of my couch with a screenshot of the elevation profile.
“Want to do this one?”
She wrote back immediately: “Lol wtf. Sure.”
I thought two things going into the trip:
1) It’s only 77 miles. We can knock it out in two days
2) No matter how slow we ride, there is no way we won’t finish
We gave ourselves a tight timeline: One day to drive to Colorado, two days to bike the route, one day to drive back. But like I kept telling myself, no matter how hard it was, it was only 77 miles. We were fit, tough, and didn’t mind a challenge. We rode training routes a few times a week and packed our gear into the same stuff sacks as the first trip.
As we neared Boulder after 12 hours in the truck, I saw a flashing road sign saying something about a closure, followed by the name of the canyon where we were supposed to begin the route. I glanced at Hailey. She was also pretending she hadn’t seen it.
We were supposed to start early the next morning, but we had indeed arrived on the first day of the construction closure, so we had to figure out an alternate start.
“It’s 77 miles,” we told each other again. “We have time.” Instead of our planned 6am start, we sat at a local coffee shop and pulled out a map to plan a route around the closure.
“Flagstaff Mountain will connect us to the loop,” Hailey said. “ It’s pretty much the same climb as the first one on the route.”
I peered at the rendering on her phone screen. Flagstaff Mountain was a paved road with an 11% grade that climbed several thousand feet. It would have been a ghastly option on a sleek road bike, forget my inefficient full-suspension bike, sagging with gear.
I pushed the phone back towards her. “We drove 12 hours to get here, let’s do it.”
It was 10am when we finally started pedaling up the winding asphalt road. Within minutes I had dropped to “granny gear,” and my front tire was veering back and forth over the white line. Hailey turned a switchback and was out of sight. I was sucking wind—full-on redlining—and I could still see the start of the climb. I took a deep breath to partially inflate my lungs, and managed to wobble around the first switchback.
It was nearly 90 degrees out. The sun prickled the back of my neck, scorched my bare shoulders, and glued my tank top to my back. I ground to a halt at the next pullout and gulped down water, blinking sweat out of my eyes. I couldn’t get my breathing under control.
A fleet of road bikers blew by in a blaze of neon spandex. Two cars were close behind. I became acutely aware of my bagging bike-touring outfit and bogged-down mountain bike on this not mountain-bike optimized route. I had my front and rear suspension locked out, but the cumulative bike-and-gear weight was probably at least 50 pounds.
My phone was tucked into my pocket, but I didn’t dare look at the GPS track to see where I was. With a grunt, I pushed myself onto the bike and continued my agonizingly slow ascent. I stopped every few minutes to gasp for air, then finally saw Hailey pulled off the side at a signed intersection.
I pushed my bike the last 20 yards to where Hailey was slumped on a concrete barrier, her phone grasped limply in her hand. She held it out wordlessly and I saw our blinking dot on the elevation profile. Our location was barely registered on the climb, we were supposed to bike 30 more miles, and this peak was only the first of two for the day. We agreed to continue on and reevaluate at the top of the climb, but I had my doubts.
It should come as no surprise that we never made it to the top.
After 30 more minutes of all-out effort resulting in a three-mile-per-hour pace, I looked up through sweat-blurred eyes to see Hailey 100 yards ahead, veering off the road onto another pullout. She stumbled off her bike and left it with wheels spinning in the dirt as she dragged herself through dried grass to a spot of shade. She sat slumped under the tree, helmet still on.
I counted each painful pedal stroke until I reached the same pullout. I tipped sideways off my bike and lay face down on the side of the road, cheek pressed into the sand and helmet digging into my temple.
Gravel crunched and I heard a window roll down, music piping into the hot air.
“Hey uh… you alright?” Someone called from the car. I lifted a hand and weakly waved them on. I crawled up to where Hailey was staring at the elevation profile. We were halfway up the first climb. It wasn’t happening.
“Are we quitting?” I asked.
“Yes. We’re quitting.”
We recovered for another few minutes, then pushed our bikes across the road and gleefully zipped down the other side. We were back at the truck in less than 15 minutes, shedding helmets, unstrapping packs, and flinging the bicycles over the tailgate.
We managed to pull an about-face and wound up in Rocky Mountain National Park by early evening. We wrangled a last-minute overnight permit and stuffed our daypacks to the gills with overnight gear, not sorry to lock the bikes up at the trailhead.
We mapped an out-and-back to a lake, camping on a sandy beach and having one of the best trips of that summer. We had failed on our bike route, but had salvaged the trip and come out with an even better story.
When we returned, our friends were amused, if not totally surprised.
“Maggie and Hailey discovered they have physical limitations, huh?” Was a verbatim quote from one of our sassier acquaintances.
That trip didn’t mean we’d never overestimate our abilities again, but it did reinforce the importance of a good adventure buddy with an unfailingly good attitude. Keep the people around who are willing to try anything, but who aren’t afraid to say “Yes. We’re quitting.”
Next time though, we’ll take the elevation profile a little more seriously.