Ten years ago, the idea formed: Load my bike with camping and backcountry skiing equipment and pedal from my doorstep in Durango, CO to circumnavigate the famed San Juan Skyway, dropping grand ski lines along the way. The “Million Dollar” highway cuts through the heart of some of Colorado’s most rugged and picturesque mountains. Its 240 miles of pavement connect some the area’s most historic and colorful mining towns. Born out of two enormous continental plates slamming into each other, the resulting mineral-rich veins of the San Juan Mountains were the source of many prospectors’ dreams. Today, this steep and jagged range is paradise for skiers who seek solitude and don’t mind dealing with one of the world’s most dangerous snowpack—as evidenced by 200+ named avalanche paths, each with the potential to bury the scenic byway under feet of snow.
Eighteen days of self-supported fun requires a big bike to carry all of the gear.
My Skyway odyssey has been an ongoing failure since the idea surfaced in my human-powered-adventure brain. For one reason or another, the adventure is always stymied (partner bailed, too little snow; too much work, etc.), leaving me scheming for the next season. Each spring, I watch from my kitchen window as the snow melts away on the high peaks, leaving me with a feeling of disappointment. In 2019, everything serendipitously came together for one of my first viable attempts. I had a willing and experienced partner; we had great support from numerous sponsors including 45North, Salsa Cycles, Bedrock Bags, Dynafit, and others; and we had the time needed to accomplish our ski goals. The time however, did not match up with the inclinations of Mother Nature, and it would turn out to be my most painful attempt, literally and figuratively.
A little addition to my bike.
On Sunday, March 10th, my partner AJ and I, accompanied by a small film crew, rolled out of Durango on our Dillinger 4s traveling in the opposite direction of our plan. Over the previous couple of weeks, our once-average winter had transformed itself into one of historic proportions, with record snowfall and some of the most unstable snow conditions in recent memory. The week prior to our departure, a rash of unprecedented avalanches buried Colorado’s interstates and highways. 24 miles of the Skyway from Silverton, CO to Ouray, CO was entombed under 30 feet of snow.
AJ and I about to start the 2019 Skyway attempt.
With another storm in the forecast and the northern route closed, we reversed our route and detoured west to a friend’s historic schoolhouse-turned-cabin at the mouth of a canyon bordered by 13,000 foot peaks. As we climbed our first pass—originally to be our last—we hoped that the pavement between Ouray and Silverton would be cleared in the next few weeks for our passage back to Durango.
We arrived at the schoolhouse under bluebird skies and with cheers from friends and neighbors who had driven up to wish us well. They knew what lay ahead of us. With all of the recent snow, the stable spring snow conditions that we had planned for were not in the cards. Instead, our ski tours and consequent ski lines would have to be significantly scaled back. Dreams of skiing steep lines down couloirs had turned into a quest to make turns down low-angled slopes covered in bottomless powder.
The Mayday Schoolhouse.
As if on cue, as soon as we settled into the little red schoolhouse, a three-day storm descended upon the area and dropped three feet of Rocky Mountain cold smoke. Seeking to avoid confrontations with snowplows, we made the canyon our playground. Each morning we loaded up our twin Salsa Blackborows with ski gear, let some air out of our tires, and pedaled up the quiet, snow-packed road that splits the canyon in two. After a short spin, it was time to click into ski bindings and break trail. Climbing into the storm, we found untouched snow among the area’s beautiful aspen trees. Once at the top, we were grinning in anticipation of floating through the old-growth forest. Our descent yielded face shot after face shot and fueled our desire for more. We had become powder addicts. It is amazing how quickly our mindset adapted to the conditions. The disappointments of having to ride the Skyway in reverse and forego the steep ski lines quickly dissipated with each taste of powder. We were making the best of the situation and our snow art proved it.
A vibrant radar indicating an impending storm.
AJ grinning from ear to ear as we ride into the storm in search of powder.
Riding in a winter wonderland.
It doesn’t get any better than this.
Elation. Let’s do it again.
During the morning of day five, the storm broke to increasing high pressure. The sun revealed its rays for the first time since we had pedaled out of Durango. Hoping to let the roads heat up and clear of snow and ice, we sought out one last taste of untracked powder under blue skies. After whooping and hollering through the winter wonderland all morning, we returned to the schoolhouse by lunch to pack up for our next bike segment. While loading our beasts of burden, I waved down a passing plow driver who informed me that the roads were clear and that we should have smooth riding all of the way to our next destination. Wahoo!
Our steeds buried under more fresh snow.
After a quick clean-up of the schoolhouse and some last-minute chores, we emerged outside to find it snowing once again. Where did this come from?! Should we put studs on our tires or not? Nah. The plow driver had told us a mere hour and a half ago that the roads were clear. It hadn’t been snowing long enough for anything to accumulate. Pushing off into the snow squall, we began rolling downhill back to the main road. With the falling snow stinging my cheeks, my speed reached over 20 mph. I thought about checking my speed while approaching the slushy patch of snow and ice covering the road. That’s when it happened.
My last photo upon departure and minutes before the accident.
Crunch. Whoosh. Gasp. Pain. The amount of time it took me to write those four words is how long it took for the 2019 attempt at the Skyway to come to an abrupt and unexpected halt. I hit the pavement with the momentum of 80 pounds of bike, backcountry skis, camping equipment, and food. As five different doctors and many x-ray technicians would say as they shook their heads in disbelief, “you must have hit really hard to fracture your scapula and break three of your largest ribs.”
Fast forward to the spring of 2020. AJ and I are preparing to give the Skyway yet another attempt. Our sponsors are back on board to support us. The film crew is still willing and able to document the journey. We have the time. The snowpack is shaping up nicely enough ski those sought-after steep and stable lines. I’m not sure if this year will bring my own personal adventure odyssey to an end. Similar to Odysseus’s ten-year saga to return to his home, so too has been my journey to successfully ride and ski the Skyway. My resolve is as strong as ever. Perhaps I should heed Calypso’s words to Odysseus as he prepares to depart her grasp and continue with his journey home:
If only the gods are willing. They rule the vaulting skies. They’re stronger than I to plan and drive things home.--Homer, The Odyssey
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I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.