Colorado Rocky Mountain Bonanza

Bagging passes in Southwestern Colorado

By Lee Klancher, Photography by Lee Klancher

Passes are a coded language as well as a form of cultural currency in Colorado. It's a phenomena created mostly by simple geography. When you're in the mountains, passes are often your sole route through them. Those who spend their time exploring Colorado, then, become intimate with the passes.

"Let's do Mosquito," for example, is a coded term expressed to those who understand the conditions. For a group of mountain bikers, the phrase evokes a six-hour odyssey of pain followed by a 45-minute adrenaline rush on the way down. For hikers, the same term designates a three-day excursion. For motorcyclists, crossing Mosquito is a half-day adventure on a GS, or an easy two-hour blast on a KTM 450EXC.

The currency comes in what you've done and how you've done it. Status in the Colorado circles I'm fond of is often a function of outdoor experience. If you want to talk the talk, you had to have bagged some peaks, passes or perhaps critters. The tougher the experience, the higher your cred.

The Plan
The BMW Motorcycle Club of Colorado has created an ad hoc contest called the Pass Bagger 50. Once you cross 50 mountain passes in the Centennial state, your name gets added to the Pass Bagger Hall of Fame. Since 2004, a few folks have made the list each year. The poster child for the event is Randy Bishop, who has extensively documented his crossings of 131 passes. He also has ridden the Iron Butt on a KLR.

The concept fascinated me, and I recruited my friend Peter Peil to join me. Pete lives in Leadville, and has been a nurse forever, which means he can set his own schedule. He and his KLR are always ready for a ride. Well, Pete's always ready, but the KLR is-more often than not-in need of some duct tape and baling wire to finish the day.

I had recently begun working with Warren Egger, whom I met after I moved to Austin with my Cagiva Lucky Explorer (trailered through 1,000 miles of snow). Warren was the sales manager at the local Ducati dealership, and came out to check out my lumpy Italian adventure rig. We've been working and riding together ever since.

He invited me to join him on a weekly ride he led in nearby Hill Country. Warren showed me the nastiest, snakiest, beat-up pieces of tarmac in the county, and judging from how he rode them, he knew every single pothole. Warren also leads just the way I like to ride. Fast in the corners, moderate in the straights, with a wheelie thrown in for good measure.

So when the Colorado passes idea was hatched, I invited Warren. He had recently done some pass-bagging with his buddies, and was free. Like Pete, Warren is single and unencumbered. When the road calls, he answers.

We lined up some bikes with Vail Off-Road Tours, which had a couple of KLRs with bags available. The gig was on.

Cool Beginnings
After landing at the Denver airport, we stepped out onto the curb to meet Pete. Warren took a deep breath, and beamed.

"Do you feel that?" he said to me.

"Oh yeah," I responded. "Cool air."

Austin in the summer is hot. May gets warm, June is a bit toasty, and July can be steamy. By August, it's just plain melt-your-shoes hot. In central Texas in August, cool air is cultural currency.

Pete rolled up in his white Ford van, a 12-passenger beast known as "The Whale." The van is equipped with a homemade bed and every piece of outdoor equipment imaginable. Pete pointed the Whale west on I-70 and Warren and I savored the air all the way to Vail, where we met Joe Drew.

Drew owns Vail Off Road Rental, and had the KLRs waiting for us. One was a minty fresh 2009, and the other was a 2005 model tarted up with the usual KLR engine and suspension mods.

The cool air was turning mountain-cold, so we put on a few layers of fleece and headed to Pete's place in Leadville. We rode Highway 24 along the Arkansas River, and I was reminded of the magic of Colorado riding. Highway 24 was a transport section, just a way to get from A to B. Not a scenic byway or anything you'll find in a guidebook. Just another road in Colorado.

By Lee Klancher
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