The temperature gauge on the truck reads 17 degrees as I pull into the winter parking lot at the south end of La Plata Canyon. Just like that fall is gone and Old Man Winter has arrived with authority. Just a couple of days ago I was riding in short sleeves with little thought given to adding extra layers. Sitting in the warm truck I pull on my overboots, snugg up my helmet over my fleece-lined beanie, and put on my cold weather gloves. The gloves are a bit stiff as this is their first use since being packed away in the winter gear box for the past seven months. The cold blast is abrasive and rude as I exit the truck. Welcome to winter.
Ever since I was a kid, winter has been one of my favorite seasons. Having grown up in such winter locales as Great Falls, Montana, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, I got used to western winters. My parents were both skiers so it was no surprise that I was strapped on some wooden planks by the time I was three. As I got older I took up other winter pursuits such as cross-country skiing and ice climbing. There is just something so rewarding about coming home exhausted from a day of play in a winter wonderland. Whether skinning up a ridge for hours to drop in on a deep powder run or negotiating the intricacies of a steep ice fall, the winter landscape enhances the beauty of our natural world and how we interact with it.
The bike rolls easily under my control. A little snow isn’t going to slow me down. As I get into a breathing rhythm, my legs find their cadence. As I climb the winding forest service road towards the pass, my body acclimatizes to both the extra layers and to the burn of the climbing. A mile goes by followed by another as I take in the new winter landscape and relish in the engulfing feeling of being alive. The cold dulls all sensation. My exposed cheeks and nose, at first stinging from the cold, feel progressively heavy and wooden as I climb into ever-colder air. I feel the tips of my fingers go numb as the wind chill cuts through my insulated winter gloves. A snowshoe hare bounds from the underside of a long-ago-fallen pine matching my upward momentum before scampering away from the road through the fresh snow. His coat is already snow white and full. Like a ghost the hare disappears into the winter landscape—only a few tiny prints announcing his existence.
Last March I first mounted my Mukluk—a machine originally designed to take cyclists into the winter landscape. My first ride was a frozen, icy commute by trail to work on a cold dark morning. I hiked the first off-camber ice sheet as my fat tires struggled to find purchase on the singletrack. As I hit the doubletrack that would take me to my office, I let out a whoop as the fat boys floated through the packed-out re-circulated powder. This machine was going to be fun. As I rolled to the back door of my office, my mind began to dream…access to backcountry ski and ice climbing terrain, exploration of snow mobile trail networks, winter bikepacking tours, etc. I had discovered yet another way to enjoy winter.
As I continue to climb, my internal body temperature rises and I feel sweaty clamminess generating at my core. To prevent the accelerated cool down that is inevitable once my bike and I come to rest, I unzip both my wool riding jersey and jacket. The winter air rushes in to provide instant cooling. Before long I reach the turnaround point. I step off the bike into eight inches of unconsolidated Colorado champagne powder. The 6.5 psi filled tires find no bite in the steep grade. The last mile to the pass will be a hike that will have to be saved for another adventure. Perhaps I will return later this winter with skis in tow and make the final push.
Turning back towards the truck, I find the wind has already blown snow into my tracks. I have an untouched canvas in which to lay fresh tracks. My heart races in anticipation of carving turns in the featureless powder. I apply pressure to my brake levers and let my fat tires begin the cold descent back to the truck. Boy, I love winter.