In the thin air of a 14,000-foot ridge leading down from Mount Harvard, Nick Ehrhardt could dredge only general numbers from the back of his mind: maybe 750 miles of biking, 300 miles of hiking, 27 peaks over 14,000 feet in 28 days.
“That’s gotta be about how much we’ve done,” said the 23-year-old Colorado Springs native in August 2005 as a chilly alpine gust ruffled his hair. “It seems like a lot, doesn’t it? But it hasn’t been too bad.”
It was also only halfway. That summer, Ehrhardt and good friend David Paquette, 24, of Durango decided to bike between each of Colorado’s 54 peaks over 14,000 feet, and climb to the summits. From Mount Harvard, they worked down the Collegiate Range, then pedaled over to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. After the Sangre de Cristos they headed to the San Juan Mountains with 13 more peaks to go.
The mission of the human-powered tour was not simply to climb the peaks because they are there. After all, that’s already been done a few times. Instead, they have decided to use the wide-ranging trip to spread the gospel of preservation.
From the day they set out from the base of Pikes Peak, they talked with missionary zeal to almost everyone they met about how Coloradans should take better care of their delicate alpine tundra.
“Our whole emphasis for the trip is the environment, teaching people how to give back to these peaks that mean so much to us,” Ehrhardt said. “It’s not about bagging the peaks.”
Of course, on a practical level, it’s all about bagging peaks. The sweat and calories spent explaining “leave no trace” philosophies can’t compare with what goes into the almost daily summit bids.
The day before the duo climbed Mount Harvard, they had risen at 3 a.m. and hiked by headlamp toward three other fourteeners (Mount Oxford, Mount Belford and Missouri Mountain). By lunch they had topped all three, but their day was hardly over. Back at the trailhead, after 12 miles of walking, they hopped on their bikes for a 30-mile pedal to Mount Harvard.
The ride finished at 6:30 p.m. on a rocky uphill track in lashing rain. They fell asleep at 9 p.m. after vast helpings of pasta cooked over a single-burner stove. At 4:30 the next morning they got up to do it all over again.
“That is what gets hard, doing it day after day after day,” Paquette said as they sped through the forest in the predawn moonlight. “But if you don’t wreck yourself, you get stronger.”
So far, they’ve been lucky. The blisters haven’t gotten serious, and all the loose boulders have missed them. The weather has been pretty good. The scariest peaks — the Elk Range near Aspen, which includes Capitol Peak’s infamous knife ridge and the loose rock of the deadly Maroon Bells — are behind them.
“Getting through the Elks was huge for us,” Ehrhardt said. “It was something I think we’d been a little afraid of.
“After it was done, we knew we could finish this. We knew we’d make it.”
The tough part is maintaining momentum and avoiding exhaustion. Despite spirited carbohydrate fests at every meal, both have lost 15 pounds on frames that don’t seem to have much to lose. Their sleep is visited by recurring visions of junk food feasts.
“Man I’m jonesin’ for a slice of apple pie,” Paquette said as he and Ehrhardt left the blocky summit of Harvard and scrambled along a ridge to neighboring Mount Columbia.
“One of the low points of the trip was just after we had climbed Mount Evans. Nick said there was a really good burger joint about 15 miles away so we rode there as fast as we could. The place was closed.”
Ehrhardt and Paquette call their expedition “Beyond Biking” because they want to emphasize that environmental education, not mere trudging and pedaling, is the real focus. They have reached out to hundreds of people, handing out cards that give tips on minimizing hiker impact and raising money for such conservation-oriented nonprofits as the Colorado Fourteener Initiative.
But the name Beyond Biking seems to accidentally hint at other, less tangible things that can become meaningful parts of such a long, grueling trip. Day after day, the two climb a peak and bike to another. Every morning they stand on the roof of America. Every afternoon they are back in the saddle, pedaling the highways with 60-pound trailers.
Their supplies are meager: pasta, energy bars, sleeping bags, rain gear, a jacket each, a stove. They have no tent.
At the end of the day, even if it’s snowing, as it was last week, they roll out their sleeping bags wherever they happen to be. The sparseness can change a person’s perspective on just about everything, they said. More than just making them tough, it has filled them with an exhilarating sense of freedom.
“It has taught us to be at home anywhere, which is a pretty illuminating thing,” Paquette said. “The forest is our walls. The stars are our ceiling.”
He took a few steps along the rocky ridge, then Ehrhardt said, “We were used to so many comforts, now we find comfort in what ever is around us.”
It is hard to understand until you’ve been on the trail a couple of weeks, he said, but a trip like this fills a person with calm confidence. Barriers melt away. Given time and luck, anything seems possible. The two opted to carry only a few luxuries: a cell phone for updating loved ones and a copy of Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching.”
They rarely have cellphone reception, so in the evenings, the words of Lao Tzu can be a welcome distraction.
“If you want to become whole,” the sixth century B.C. philosopher wrote, “first let yourself become broken. If you want to become straight, first let yourself become twisted. If you want to become full, first let yourself become empty.”
After a long journey through the mountains, such old, paradoxical lines almost make sense. Such a trip makes you stronger because it exhausts you. You feel less lonely because you have been so alone.
And then there are times Lao Tzu throws out a line such as “A good traveler leaves no tracks” that doesn’t seem paradoxical at all to guys focused on leaving no trace.
Ehrhardt and Paquette reached Columbia’s summit at 1 p.m. after a slow, rocky traverse. On the top they spoke to a couple from Denver about the importance of staying on the trail, and scarfed down energy bars and taco chips. On the way down, they fell into exhausted quiet for miles. The path pointed southeast toward a steep granite giant called Mount Yale.
“That’s tomorrow,” Paquette said. “Then we’re riding to Mount Princeton Hot Springs. We get a rest day.”
Daily averages: One peak, 10 miles hiking, 20 miles biking
Bike-trailer weight: About 60 pounds
Number of fourteeners climbed before the trip: Ehrhardt, 20, Paquette, 3.
Most grueling peak: Pikes Peak
Hardest peak: Capitol Peak or Pyramid Peak
Longest day: 16 hours climbing Mount Holy Cross, followed by a 60-mile ride over two passes.
High point: Seeing sunrise and moonset from the summit of Castle Peak.
Low point: Riding out a rainstorm under a boulder in the dark on Capitol Peak.
Budget: About $2,000, plus about $5,000 of gear from sponsors.
Biggest surprise on the roads: The number of beer cans.
Biggest surprise on the summits: “A lot of people smoke pot up there.”