Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Monarch puts me in my place

Friday morning, May 14, began ominously. After I took a day off to let the rain that chased me out of Utah clear off and catch up on this blog, I made my way from Durango, to Silverton, Colo.

The fir trees, aspens and snow-capped summits proved we weren't in Utah anymore.

I stopped along the "Million Dollar Highway," US 550, to zip in the thermal lining of my riding pants, add a sweatshirt under my jacket and liner and pull on my snowmobile gloves. Later, I stopped to take pictures at the top of the Coalbank Pass and two other riders, one on a BMW and the other on three-wheel Can-Am Spyder, passed me.

I caught up with them at the Bear Creek Cafe, a Victorian-era building in the old mining town where we had breakfast.

My first Rocky Mountain challenge was the Coalbank Pass, where the "Million Dollar Highway" connects Durango with Silverton, Colorado.

At least it wasn't snowing when I reached the summit of Coalbank Pass.

At 10,640 feet, the Coalbank Pass offers spectacular views.

After they paid their check, the two riders went outside and I followed a few minutes later.

"That guy in the truck just backed into him," the BMW rider said. The tall guy on the Spyder showed me the tear in the knee of his jeans. There was blood showing through the rip.

"The worse thing, is he broke a perfectly good camera," the tall rider said holding up an expensive-looking digital camera with a big zoom lens. He'd been taking a photo of the cafe with the bikes parked in front when a pickup truck backed out of a space across the wide main street and knocked him down. They were headed to Moab. I said I hoped the weather had cleared.

I started the KLR and continued north toward Montrose and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, while they went in search of antiseptic and a bandage. "A little duct tape on those jeans and we'll be back in business," said the BMW guy.

Stopping for gas in Montrose, I had a chat with a guy who said he was planning to buy a KLR -- either a new one or a 2000 like mine that a friend had for sale. We chatted about the pros and cons of various modifications and he said he wanted to take his son off-road riding but needed a bike he could also ride on the highway to the trail heads. We agreed the KLR could do the job and he told me to ride safe.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has overlooks, campgrounds and trails for visitors.

The Gunnison River these days isn't that impressive these days since much of the flow has been diverted or collected in reservoirs, such as Blue Mesa Lake, Colorado's largest body of water. The canyon cut by the Gunnison is breathtaking, however.

The canyon rim is more than 8,000 feet above sea level and the sheer cliffs drop 2,000 feet to the bottom of the narrow gorge.

The reduced flow of the Gunnison River means it is still making the canyon deeper, but at a slower rate.

Descending from the national park, I took my old friend US 50 east toward Canon City and Pueblo, with the thought of turning south to Taos and Santa Fe, N. Mex., which I'd missed on my first pass through that state. The snow in the Coalbank Pass had sweetened that idea.

After making my way through a thunderstorm between Blue Mesa Lake and Gunnison, I stopped in Parlin, a small crossroads east of there, for gasoline and an energy drink. US 50 was making me drowsy, despite the change in scenery in Colorado. The cashier told me he heard about an hour earlier that there were snow flurries at the top of Monarch Pass. "How far is the summit?" I asked.

"About 10 miles," he said. "You might be able to get over before it gets any worse."

Downing the caffeine, I started up the hill. At 9,000 feet, things were still looking good. A little rain, but the road was clear. At 10,000 feet, the snow began, but the road remained clear, if wet. At 11,000 feet, it was snowing in earnest, but I could tell from the trip odometer I'd reset when I filled up that I was almost at the top, so I crawled along as the visibility dissolved into whiteness.

The Monarch Pass between Gunnison and Salida, Colorado is 11,312 feet high.

A parking lot appeared next to the highway -- motorists coming the other way were getting out of their cars and stretching. The trip odometer read 9.8 miles. I was almost there.

Finally, there was a green sign: "Monarch Pass, Elev. 11,312." I relaxed.

The bike fishtailed. I steered into the skid. It fishtailed the other way. I remembered what Joey told me: "Don't touch the front brake." But the rear brake did nothing.

I was going about 10 miles per hour when the bike low-sided and slid off the road. I was bundled up in so many layers, I barely felt it when I landed on three inches of snow.

The KLR's wheels caught the soft shoulder. It flipped to the high side and lay there with the headlight on. The engine was still running and gasoline was squirting out of its nearly full tank. I ran over and hit the kill switch.

A young woman driving a big pickup truck saw it happen and stopped. A minute later a man joined her and we righted the bike, after I assured them I was fine. The fairing and windshield were pushed to one side, the mirrors and levers had twisted out of alignment and the left saddlebag was sticking out at an odd angle.

"You can load the bike in the back of my truck," the woman offered. I thanked her but said no. I figured the snow hadn't gotten bad until almost the top of the pass; so there shouldn't be much ahead of me going down the other side. Loading the bike on a truck without a ramp, chocks or straps sounded more dangerous than riding slowly down the hill.

I cranked the starter. The KLR usually starts instantaneously, but not after laying on its side for 10 minutes. It cranked for what seemed like minutes and finally caught. I was grateful for the new battery I picked up in Albany at the start of the trip.

This was the CDOT web cam view of US 50 at the pass the afternoon I went over.

The snow fell faster as I started down the east side of the pass, crawling along at 10 mph while the woman trailed me in her truck with her hazard lights blinking. Visibility was virtually nil with my visor open, so I cracked it part way and followed the tire marks on the road.

The traction was actually OK, but I didn't test it by making any unnecessary turns. We led a parade of cars for about three miles before the temperature rose far enough that the snow wasn't sticking to my visor or the road. I pulled over to let the parade go by.

The young woman stopped and got out of her truck to ask me if I wanted to get in and warm up. I said thanks, but between all the clothes I was wearing and the adrenaline, I was fine.

"Where are you headed now?" she asked.

"Salida, I guess," I said. "I'll get a motel room and regroup in the morning. Thank you, so much. You're my Good Samaritan."

The KLR needed some tweaking and straightening after our tumble on the Monarch.

I checked into the Best Western on US 50 in Salida (pronounced Sa-LYE-dah), ran a hot tub and soaked for a half hour. That should have made me sleepy, but worries about damage to the KLR, left-over affects of the energy drink and folks arriving in the next room at 4 a.m. made for a night of tossing and turning.

Salida was balmy, but Monarch Pass was getting even more snow Saturday morning.

Next morning, it was still raining. My left ankle was stiff, having been twisted in the tumble on the pass. My gear and the KLR were covered with gravel and the bike needed fixing. I stopped by the motel office and told the clerk I'd like to stay another night.

"Is there a mechanic or welder in town who might be able to help me straighten out the luggage rack on my bike?"

"Let me check," she said and made a phone call.

"Does it need to be welded?" she asked, still on the phone.

"I hope not," I said. "Not if it can be bent back without breaking."

"Good," she said. "Craig doesn't have his welder in the shop today, but he says he'll take a look."

"Where can I find him?"

"He's right across the street," she said.

The sun came out.

Craig Anderson of Rocky Mountain Rentals & Tours got the KLR's rear bags straightened out.

Craig Anderson grabbed the fairing on both sides and twisted it until the windshield was where it was supposed to be. Then, he tried using a big pry bar to straighten out the saddlebag rack. The seat was in the way at first, but once we took the seat off, he was able to bend the rack back so the saddlebag was vertical again. In fact, he tweaked the rack on the right side, too; so both bags were straighter than before.

Anderson rents off-road jeeps, SUVs, ATVs and dirt bikes to folks who want to enjoy the mountain trails around Salida. He's trying to expand the motorcycle rental side of the business and wants to get the word out to riders that this is one of the best places in the world for trail riding.

"Nah. I wasn't doing anything anyway," he said when I offered to pay for his time.

Saved again.


  1. Boy, oh boy! I am so glad you and the green KLR are okay! I hope your ankle doesn't give you a problem.

    The pictures have been spectacular, but the snow is perilous. We hit some snow on the ground when we crossed the Rockies when we were there also. It is never very warm at 11,000+ feet.

    Here's hoping you continue to meet friendly and helpful people along the way. I am recalling all who have worked on that bike for you in the past two years.


  2. OK... this is the one I've been waiting for... SCARY!!!! Brings to mind thoughts of scary movies in the snowy mountains... I'll refrain from mentioning titles..j

  3. Great story John, not sure I buy the part where you turn down the chance to warm up with the cute young woman in her truck...-Brennan

  4. Are you OUT of those mountains? Weather reports call for more snow up high! Get to the flat lands, young man!
    Your pix are spectacular. j