Argentine Pass Madness

A while ago, I hiked Grays and Torreys which are a couple of popular 14ers near the front range. When I was back in civilization I looked around at the surrounding area on Google maps and noticed a road that went up to a nearby pass. I switched to satellite and I noticed a trail dropping down the opposite site of the pass. And then I noticed that the trail dropped down to another road connected to roads that went over another pass. On and on that went, until I figured out a loop of mostly 4WD roads, a bit of unknown-to-me trails, and some pavement.

I plotted this for a while, making notes and tweaking the plan a bit. I went out and took on some scouting rides in the area to make sure a few roads connected and get a sense of what I was in for. In the process I sent out feelers to see if people wanted to ride with me (part or full) or crew for me.

Overall, the ride plan was simple: set out early with lights and knock out the ride in 8 – 10 hours. In total there would be three passes, mostly dirt except for the finishing climb and descent. In all honesty, there was a good bit of hesitation for me personally as this would be the longest mountain bike ride I’ve done in Colorado and likely would be the most climbing as well.

The ride started in Silver Plume, CO on the Argentine Grade trail, an old railroad grade trail and then over Argentine Pass, at 13,200 feet and the highest vehicle accessible pass in Colorado. I drove up and arrived just before 5 a.m. and started getting changed. My car was telling me it was 38°F as I changed into layers while still in the warm car. I started out, up the unknown Argentine Central Grade with lights and an easy pace. While this trail was a railroad grade, there were some things to keep it interesting: a few rocky sections, a tight switchback or two. In the dark I passed some old mining areas and got to an old chimney about the time the sun was starting to rise. For the most part, this road was straightforward but there were a few more turns then what I noted on my cue sheet. For those interested, I found these two maps of the trail: south north

Argentine PassThe sunlight crested the ridge just about the time I reached the Waldorf mine while a nearly full moon rested on the horizon. To this point, I saw one or two people out on 4-wheelers but not another soul. Certainly I was the only one riding a bike! After taking in a bit of the sights around Waldorf, I started the next section up to Argentine Pass. At first this was just a loose rocky climb, like what I expected. Since I could see much of the road I was expecting a few sections to get too steep and require a bit of hiking. Little did I realize the “normal” portions of the road were indeed steep in there own right and the other sections were merely truly steep. At one point I hoisted the bike on my back as I tried to crest one of the blown out switchbacks.

As I reached the summit (an hour or two later than I expected), the wind was gusting strongly enough to lift my bike into the air. I didn’t really hang out on the pass summit and started hiking down the Argentine Trail. With the strong wind and a rocky trail, I opted for walking the beginning of the trail. Then I realized the “trail” was just so narrow, rocky, and exposed it really wasn’t safe to ride. At a few points the bike and I could not both walk down the trail side by side. Half way down the scree slope there’s a large rock face that required down hiking with my bike — which was a unique experience. As the trail leaves the scree slope, you still deal with some chucky rocks and some wet trails as water rolls down the trail itself. Then you get to cross Peru Creek, a fast moving cold flow of water before reaching the Peru Creek Rd.

I took a break, ate some food, removed my light and changed for the warmer temps. As I did all this I encountered the only other cyclist I would see the whole day, a guy on his new cross bike exploring the road. I debated if I should continue this crazy ride since I was already off schedule or if I should bail and climb Loveland Pass back to Silver Plume. The decision came down to hoping that the Peru Creek Rd would help me gain a bit of time, but also I was feeling pretty good despite the hiking of the last couple hours.

When I reached Montezuma Rd, I tried to send out a tweet/messages saying I was going to head over to the second pass. Webster Pass is a 12,100 foot pass that’s accessible from the north via Montezuma or from the south from Hwy 285. A few weeks before the ride I had scouted this pass from the southern approach and knew that for the most part this pass was much more rideable (if I still had the energy!). From Montezuma you have a nice smooth dirt road climb until you reach the turn for Webster. It becomes steeper and rockier, but is still a fun bit of riding. At one point you reach Snake River (the one that flows into the Keystone resort), which I crossed by a narrow log bridge.

Immediately after crossing this road, I started getting passed by a few groups of 4WD vehicles. One of the few headed down stopped to tell me he thought I was crazy for riding this pass. I smiled and didn’t tell him I had been up above 13,000 feet already!

Webster PassWebster Pass from this north side is viewable from pretty far up the road and the road is actually a pretty fun climb until you get into the first switchbacks when it starts getting slightly steeper. The switchbacks themselves are slightly loose and bermed out for downhill traffic which adds to the challenge. In retrospect, this was a key point when I should have been putting in more calories into the tank. I didn’t clean this climb even though it was much easier. I did eat at the summit of this climb, but wasn’t feeling very hungry. One of the lessons I was good about picking up for Dirty Kanza and other long rides was: eat, no matter if you feel hungry or not.

So I bombed down this road, realizing part way down that every descent today has felt really rough … meaning I had the front end locked out. A good thing to realize 30+ miles into a ride, right?

About two thirds of the way down Hall Valley Rd, I opted to takeBurning Bear trail on the left. I stopped and grabbed a bit of food and rearranged some clothing that I had added at the top of the pass. The start of the trail is a bit narrow and rocky, but after that it opens into a long, continuous climb. For much of the time it’s not too bad … but I was starting to bonk. I was entering a familiar stage of riding: ride for a bit, feel like you’re going to explode, and then rest. I walked much of this just because it required just enough finesse to make riding it difficult. About two miles in there’s a switchback that dumped onto the an abandoned road that had degraded to a steep path covered in loose orange-sized rocks. It made for a frustrating hike a bike at that stage in the day. If you happened to be near by I think you would have heard me lecturing the woods about how the trail would be better off to one side or the other of this horrible path.

At the top of this climb, I got to enjoy some fun descending through some rooty and rocky woods. By the time I got next to the meadow by Guanella Pass road, I was thoroughly cooked. Even few seconds I would look over at the road and then curse the trail for not heading there immediately. But eventually I made it, grabbed some food and then hit the paved climb. For a while this felt nice, simple. I can spin an easy gear and just get up the hill. But as the climb left the meadow, the road started climbing higher and the effort went above the threshold that was left me. I climbed. Stopped. Picked some new sign/rock and rode to that and stopped. Repeated this process a dozen times. Stopped on the side of the road and sat down. Walked up the road a couple times. Finally I could see the last bit of the South Park trail as it gets close to the summit. I could see the willows below Bierstadt. And finally, the “Guanella Pass Summit Area” sign. I pulled off the road, tried to check if I had signal to tell people I was alive, at the top of the final pass but didn’t have signal. I sat on a rock for a bit, layered up some more for the descent, tried to eat. I realized I had essentially made it. All I need to do was get back to my car…

Guanella Pass

The Guanella descent was a blast, especially on big wheels. But I could tell the back tire was getting a bit low. And I was still cooked. When I got near the water plant, the little riser there drove me to zone 5 instantly. I stopped near where Leavenworth Rd meets this road, partially to rest but also to debate heading up it to get back to Argentine Central Grade. At this point some jeeps were headed down the road and that gave me a good impression of just how steep it was. I decided to take plan B: descend to Georgetown and take the bike path back to Silver Plume. I also decided I should have just parked at Georgetown and saved myself from the humility of stopping to rest along the bike path while traffic on I-70 blazed by.

And the final march down the path and into Silver Plume, I watched as the sun began to drop below the mountains to the northwest. The hillside where I had started was glowing green and the aspens that were slightly yellowing welcomed the bit of a breeze. Finally my crawl ended when I made it back to my car. My gear was unceremoniously dumped into the back of my ride, the bike put on the bike rack. I battled a bit changing clothes, sat in my car spaced out. Eventually I drove down to Georgetown, got myself the worlds worst recovery snack: a Coke, chocolate milk, and some chips.

I’m proud of knocking out this ride. It had a chance of being too difficult, of being a bit dangerous, but in the end it was just a long, but fun day. I also wish it was something more than what it was. After spending a week writing about it, thinking about it, looking back at photos, I just wish the trail sections were more magical, that the road to Argentine was more manageable. That’s not something that you can just discover finding things on a map. But I also enjoyed riding Webster pass and I would like to try Burning Bear again sometime and maybe ride South Park trail too.

Now I can wait another year to find another crazy ride to go on…