Elevated Reflection

The author, Chris Reichel, heaves his trusty singlespeed above his head after reaching the top of Mount Elbert. Photo: Liz Sampey

Elevated Reflection Moments of Repose on Colorado’s Tallest Mountain

Living in a small Colorado mountain town has a way of changing a person. You have to get used to things happening a little slower, and to driving longer distances to get the stuff you want. But what it lacks in convenience and cultural amenities it more than makes up for in inspiration.

Whether I’m walking to the store, riding my bike to work or just looking out my kitchen window, the mountains are always there, teasing and taunting me with the prospect of adventures I would never consider if they weren’t staring me in the face, every single day.

But these mountains don’t give it away easily. If you want to attempt something, you need to show up fit and ready for discomfort. If the objective is bold, there are no guarantees that the mountain will let you pass. It’s not up to you; it’s up to her.

Fortunately for me, the peak of my fitness and wanderlust always seems to culminate in the fall. Even though this time of year signals the looming threat of snow, it also happens to be the best time to wander in the mountains of Colorado. You might disagree with this, but that would mean you are either misinformed or just plain wrong.

While legions of leaf-gazing tourists descend upon the trailheads and wander around in a daze, staring at the leaves like suburban soccer moms at a yard sale, I’m itching to get on with it and see it all. The shorter the days get, and the more yellow the leaves turn, the greater the sense of urgency I feel to cram more activities into every day before the snow starts to fall.

 "While legions of leaf-gazing tourists descend upon the trailheads and wander around in a daze, staring at the leaves like suburban soccer moms at a yard sale, I’m itching to get on with it and see it all."

One Friday fall afternoon I was chilling at work after a rather sporty lunch ride when I got a call from my buddy, Liz Sampey. She is a nomadic, professional adventure athlete who lives in her van, and we’ve accomplished some pretty ambitious objectives together in the past. Liz informed me that her compass was pointing straight at me in western Colorado.

“I’m heading your way,” Liz stated matter-of-factly. “We should meet up and do something dumb.”

“I actually have an idea you might be into,” I responded. “You ever climb a 14er with your bike? We should go up Mount Elbert.”

“Nope, I haven’t done that yet,” Liz said. “I’m in. Drop me a pin when you get to camp. I’m probably five hours behind you.”

And just like that, I knew what I was doing on Saturday. Excited, I hurried home and grabbed my singlespeed (my favorite and lightest bike for bad ideas), some camping gear and headed toward Leadville, Colorado. I was really looking forward to this. I’d been hearing so many great things about all the trail work that was being done in this zone. It had been getting rave reviews from some very credible sources. I needed to go have a look for myself.

Sure enough, Liz met me at the camp, just as predicted—about five hours and a few beers behind me. We agreed that neither of us was in the mood for an “alpine start” at the crack of dawn. I taught her the term “Arizona Alpine Start,” which means one tries really hard to get rolling before noon and packs headlights. It was a good call, as we proceeded to stay up way too late catching up, howling back at the coyotes, and poking the campfire with sticks.

We set off the next morning at the crack of 10. I left a little before Liz because she is a professional athlete and was riding a geared bike, and neither of those scenarios applied to me. I took a left out of camp and immediately started climbing. It would remain that way for most of the afternoon.

Mount Elbert is Colorado’s tallest mountain, with a peak elevation of 14,440 feet above sea level. It was named after Samuel Hitt Elbert, who was active during the state’s formative period and served as the Governor of the Territory of Colorado from 1873 to 1874. I’m fascinated with the history of the American West and climbing up this mountain made me wonder if old Sammy Elbert was a good guy or just another scumbag politician. He was a Republican and spent time with Ulysses S. Grant. What did they talk about? Did they ride bikes? Winters must have been really tough up here without puffy jackets. All of these random thoughts ran through my head as I stomped on the pedals, wheezing up the hill and trying to embrace the suck. It was genuinely hard.


There's little time to gaze at the changing leaves when you're tearing down a sweet stretch of Colorado singletrack. Photo: Jesse Levine SONY, 1/8 sec, f/13, ISO 160

My perspective changed the moment I turned off the dirt road and pedaled onto the trail. It was an absolutely beautiful piece of singletrack covered in yellow aspen leaves. This was where the suck ended, and the effort simply turned into work to get up this mountain and see everything I could see.

Liz caught up with me just below the tree line. We spent the next couple of hours chatting away and stopping for lots of snack breaks. There were some ridable sections, but once we were up high, most of it was hike-a-biking. But it was a beautiful day, and I was enjoying leaning on my bike and walking with my dear friend.

Somewhere around 13,000 feet of elevation, Liz dropped me like a bad habit. It was nice of her to have humored me for so long, but I’d honestly expected her to speed up much sooner. Now alone on the side of this amazing mountain, I stopped often and made sure to enjoy the views behind me.

I paused around 14,000 feet of elevation to snap a photo of my bike laying on a perfect little piece of alpine
 singletrack, framed on either side by deep-red, shrubby flowers. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. This was the stuff that mountain bike dreams are made of. Sixteen-year-old me would have been really stoked on what 40-something me was doing in that moment.

Noticing my freezing fingertips, I looked up to see Liz was almost to the summit. I put my head down and marched on. About a half-hour later, I reached the summit ridge to find Liz shivering behind a rock and trying to stay out of the wind.

“I didn’t want to go to the summit without you,” she explained. “Let’s go.”

It was awfully nice of her to wait for me. We got to the actual summit and for some reason the wind that was biting cold 100 yards earlier was nonexistent. We took pictures and cracked summit beers, and I stepped on top of the biggest stack of rocks at the top of the tallest mountain in Colorado. I reached into my pocket and pulled out another of my rewards. I lit it, breathed in deeply, and upon exhaling I declared that I was the highest mountain biker in Colorado.