Riding High on Colorado’s Tallest Peaks

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A Q&A with the first woman to ride all of Colorado's bike-legal 14ers

No matter the season, take a drive through any Colorado mountain town and you'll see folks getting after it outdoors in any number of ways. The state's sunny climate, towering peaks and seemingly endless trails make it a hotbed for high-level athletes across the spectrum of outdoor pursuits. But what happens when an athlete decides to blur the lines between two popular outdoor activities like mountain biking and mountaineering?

Golden's Jessica Martin is one of a handful of adventurous riders creating a unique fusion of the two sports. After honing her bike skills on favorite backyard trails like Apex Park and White Ranch Open Space, Martin set her sights on the Centennial State's highest points. After some research, she discovered that of the state's 56 peaks above 14,000 feet, mountain biking is allowed on 14. Her goal was set.

We sat down with Martin to find out what motivated her to set such an ambitious goal, how she went about achieving it and, most importantly, what it's like to summit and descend a 14er on a mountain bike.

14ers are not exactly easy to conquer on foot—what motivated you to summit your first 14er with a bike?  

Mount Elbert (14,433') was my first 14er and I did it a few years ago with an ex-boyfriend. We had heard of some friends who had ridden Elbert we knew we had to experience it ourselves. It was one of the most rewarding days I had ever had on a bike and I craved more, but there was absolutely nothing published regarding biking access on any of the other peaks.

The season to do summer ascents is short, even more so on two wheels. I attempted Sherman last year and a patch of snow on a steep side slope was impassable with my bike and footwear. This summer I went back to ride Sherman under a full moon and watched the sunrise from the summit. That experience resurrected the seed that was planted years ago, fueled my curiosity, as biking the 14ers is largely uncharted territory and the sense of exploring the "unknown" is hard to come by these days. So, I committed to researching and gathering data on the peaks, which was a long and tedious process.

I started my research by looking at maps with Wilderness boundaries overlaid. From there it took a few phone calls to figure out some of the more questionable peaks. It was during this research phase that I came across the Bikethe14ers guys and I immediately reached out. Our experiences will become the resources that others look to while planning their own adventures. It's impossible to not be inspired and feel a sense of camaraderie with anyone embarking on a journey like this, even though we've never met.

Even though you are riding legally, you could be fueling the controversy about biking in wild places. We've heard the argument that mountain bikers will now flock to Colorado 14ers, spoil the experience for hikers and destroy a fragile environment. What do you say to that?

I don't believe that this type of riding will become tremendously popular anytime soon. It takes a high level of stamina, fitness, and a high tolerance for suffering to endure the challenge of climbing at that elevation with your bike. The descents are technical, steep, exposed, and loose, so it takes a skilled rider to safely navigate the terrain.

That said, mountain biking is a growing sport, and people are constantly pushing limits and seeking new thrills. This type of riding should be embraced because it fosters an appreciation for the land, a love and respect for the outdoors, and the more people (hikers, bikers, and equestrians) we have actively engaged in nature means more people supporting and protecting these special places. The presence of the bike on the trail does not harm the trail, and it doesn't ruin a hikers' experience so long as the biker is polite, yields, and rides responsibly.

During a summit attempt, you must see other folks on the trail. How have other peak-baggers reacted to your two-wheeled presence on the trail?

The hikers that I've encountered have been awestruck, mesmerized, and curious. They often want to take a picture with me and ask for my contact info to follow me on social media or share pictures they took. We're all out there for the same reason, and they seem to genuinely respect the effort it takes to get the bike up there and support my journey.

Which peaks have you ridden so far?

I closed out this weekend with 13 of the legal peaks. I've completed them in the following order: Elbert, Sherman, Princeton, Shavano, Tabaguache, Lincoln, Cameron, Democrat, Antero, Grays, Torreys, Huron, and Evans.

How much planning do you put into each summit attempt? Walk us through your process and your gear checklist.

There's a ton of effort behind every attempt. My process starts with the data gathering phase where I'll study maps and route options, often using the information on 14ers.com as a starting point. I'll also try to ask around and research any previous attempts to arm myself with as much knowledge as possible. Whenever I've run into questionable peaks/routes in terms of Wilderness boundaries or trail closures, I always called the Forest Service to clarify my concerns and get their approval before moving forward.

The gear list is extensive and changes a little depending on the peak, but here are the basics: 30L backpack with a 3L hydration bladder, food/snacks, tubes/tools/patch kit/stans, map, first aid kit, multiple clothing layers including a puffy coat, mid layer, rain coat, extra socks, beanie, sunglasses, sunscreen, CORSAR card, headlamp with extra batteries, portable phone charger with cord, thermos with hot coffee/tea/cocoa, knee/elbow pads, camera, hand/toe warmers (2 packs of each), 2 pairs of gloves (one warmer pair), trekking poles, straps, helmet, and optional: summit beer/whiskey/champagne, summit sign, and tutu.

What was your most memorable (good or bad) experience while attempting a 14er on you bike? 

It's nearly impossible to pick the most memorable, because every peak has moved me, inspired me and taught me something. Princeton stands out as one of the more challenging peaks I've done, as it tested my limits taught me some pivotal lessons.

What’s the most rideable peak of the ones you’ve done?

Antero, Sherman, Elbert, and Huron all have a similar rideability. The fun factor is extremely high on all of those peaks!

The terrain looks generally brutal and unforgiving. How is your rig holding up? Had any spectacular wipeouts?

The terrain can be very unforgiving and my bike has a few more bumps and bruises than it did before I started this project. I've gone through a set of brake pads, had to get the suspension overhauled, as well as some general derailleur/cable and general maintenance. I am still mentally recovering from an injury that happened almost a year ago, so I feel like I'm pretty cautious with my riding and risk taking, but I have had one endo that resulted in a cracked helmet. Not too bad, all things considered.

Have you run into any other mountain bikers on the peaks?

On my first Shavano attempt, we got shut out by weather. Clouds continued to build and it was a downpour by 9am with no visible reprieve in the sky, so we turned around and ran into two bikers hiking up. I have met some really great people who have reached out as they heard about my journey. Andy Chrysler and Scott Morris have been a source of valuable information on some of the peaks they've done.

What's next, after you run out of rideable 14ers?

I think it might be time to focus on my rollerblading career and take up knitting! Jokes aside, I get pretty emotional thinking about this journey coming to an end. It's the most challenging and empowering experience I've ever had. Let's hope it opens the door to more exploration and bike-venturing.

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