Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Champion Mine

A Toyota FJ with Texas plates rocked carefully down the grade, a welcome excuse for me to stop mid climb and catch my breath. Slowing so we could squeeze past each other, the man stopped to chat through his open window.

Are you riding all the way up to the mine?
I hope so, or as far as I can get before it gets too late in the day.
Have you been up there before?
Yeah, but only on skis.
On skis. Wow.
Yeah, but it was December and the river was frozen over, much easier to cross.

Shoulder your bike. Higher. It's thigh deep. And it's snowmelt-cold, but don't rush. If you fall-- alone, with no extra clothes, this close to sunset-- hypothermia in August could be a real possibility.

As I rode away I realized that saying I’d been up on skis made me sound not just like a local, but like a pretty badass local at that. I hadn’t mentioned that my previous visit to the mine had been over 16 years ago. This ride was a partial revisitation of the first time I had been to the Collegiate Peaks, when I was only 19.

See the railroad ties there?

A two hour ride that isn’t in any of the mountain biking handbooks. Up Halfmoon Creek, on the grade of the old Champion Mine railroad, to the ruins of the Mill. In places the old railroad ties even still present, splintering away into the dry dust of the road. How much had this place changed in sixteen and a half years? Not much. The mill looked exactly the same. Gravity slowly taking down the weathered wood, erosion taking down the foundation, but the rate of decay imperceptible.

My visit here on skis had been an important one. A couple weeks out in the shortest days of the year, with a pack and a Pieps. Rationing fuel, watching avalanches let go as high cliffs caught the morning sun, leveling off the snow each night for tent space. A few tele turns in fresh snow now and then. A kernel of humanity in an unpopulated landscape. I can look back on it now and see it as the moment I had begun to feel capable and comfortable in the deep wild. Confident in my skills and my fitness to carry me over distances where getting lost, breaking equipment, or coming up short on food could get serious fast.

That ski trip was also the first time I heard of Leadville 100. A friend, a companion on that trip, spent his summers running ultramarathons—Leadville, Badwater, Western States—and this was the first time I’d heard of these races. Our route on skis took us within two miles of the course. Although running that far had never appealed to me I couldn’t help but respect the fight involved in his race, and the day-and-night dedication needed to compel a body to do such a thing.

The year he inexplicably fell on rappel—dying instantly—was the year Leadville started a mountain bike race. I raced XC a little back then, and racing the mountain bike 100 held clear appeal. Since the race started, off and on as the years unfolded, I’ve thought about entering. I thought last year was my year but back surgery derailed my entire summer. Here I am again. This one is for me, but it’s for these memories too, and for the life I’ve put together since 19, and for a party with 1500 people on bikes, and for the simple joy of going fast and light in the high country.

It’s a race, but it’s also a celebration.

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