Justin Simoni's Amazing Bike-Hike of Colorado's Fourteeners
There are folks who consider climbing all of Colorado's fourteeners a life's work. Then there's a small, hardy corps of peak-baggers who compete with one another to nail those babies all at once, in the shortest amount of time; the current record runs at about ten days. And then there's endurance athlete Justin Simoni, who regards the standard approach of driving to a trailhead in order to commence hiking to be -- well, a bit slack.
This past summer, Simoni decided to tackle a challenge that only the most gonzo of the state's climbers have ever attempted: an entirely self-supported, self-powered tour of the Colorado fourteener circuit that involves bicycling to each trailhead and ending up back at the original starting point. The end result? More than 1,600 miles of biking, 388 miles of hiking, more than 300,000 feet of elevation gain -- all in what appears to be a new record time, in spite of one of the wettest, most unfavorable climbing seasons in memory.
Simoni is no stranger to adversity. "I'm all for failing miserably, figuring out what you did wrong and trying again," he told me two years ago as I was researching "Going to Extremes," my account of his first-place finish in the single-speed division of the Tour Divide, a mind-bending and soul-crushing bike race that stretches from Banff in Canada to the Mexican border and involves crossing the Continental Divide 39 times.
Riding his bike to trailheads, then putting down a fourteener and riding home has long been a part of Simoni's training regimen. This year, he decided to do something different. "I would love to do them all," he explains, "but I did the math, and it would take forever to do them one a time. So why not do them all at once?"
The Simoni grand tour.
The route Simoni worked out to cover all the fourteeners (see map) wasn't the most efficient, he says, "but it was the most adventurous" -- meaning it relied heavily on unpaved roads and mountain bike trails rather than highways. "It's actually much safer, especially if you're riding a bike in the middle of the night."
And Simoni was, of course, doing just that. Starting at four in the morning on July 25 at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, he headed south to the Sangre de Cristos, then west to the San Juans, then north. His camp was twice pillaged by bears. He also encountered worse-than-usual bad weather, including heavy rain and fog on the Little Bear-Blanca traverse, a tricky bit with 1,500-foot drops described on 14ers.com as follows: "There is no escape from this route once you begin. Pretty soon after starting along the ridge, it became clear to us that the only safe way down was to finish the route to Blanca. This being the case, weather must be nearly perfect."
Legging it: The toll of biking and hiking 2000 miles.
Different sources list Colorado as having between 53 and 58 fourteeners, depending on whether the list requires a minimum of 300 feet of topographic prominence. Working through the night, Simoni bagged as many as five peaks in a single 24-hour period. "The first couple would be under fair weather, and the last ones would be touch and go," he says. "I would be racing a thunderstorm or stuck on a mountain. On certain days, I was supremely lucky."
The last peak on Simoni's list of 58 was Longs Peak. He made it back to Golden on August 28, completing his route in 34 days, 12 hours, 26 minutes, 57 seconds. Records are a bit scant on this particular achievement, but as far as Simoni can determine, his time eclipses the previous record of 37 days,12 hours for a bike-hike of the fourteeners set by Roy Benton in 1995. And, though there aren't any observers from Guinness (or Ripley) logging Simoni's achievement, he says he has ample documentation.
"It is a gentleman's agreement, but I do have a GPS track of the whole trip," he says. "I took videos from the top of every summit. The record I was trying to hit was made nineteen years ago, and I have to take his word that he did it."
Simoni on Missouri Mountain.
More pix and details of Simoni's adventure are available on his blog. He's now gearing up for a climb in Mexico this winter, after he gets back from being on tour as an otherwise faceless member of the anonymous collective Itchy-O Marching Band.