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Riding and Skiing the San Juan Skyway: A Personal Odyssey

Posted by Chelsea on 03/27/20
Last modified: 02/17/21

Words by Brett Davis

Ten years ago, the idea formed: to pedal away from my doorstep in Durango, CO loaded with camping and backcountry ski equipment with the goal of circumnavigating the famed San Juan Skyway, dropping grand ski lines along the way. The “Million Dollar” highway cuts through the heart of some of Colorado’s most rugged and picturesque mountains. Its 240 miles of pavement connects some the area’s most historic and colorful mining towns. Born out of two enormous continental plates slamming into each other, the resulting mineral rich veins of the San Juan Mountains were the source of prospector dreams. Today, this steep and jagged range is a skier’s paradise for those who seek solitude and don’t mind dealing with one of the world’s most dangerous snow packs—as evidence by the 200+ named avalanche paths that have the possibility of burying the scenic byway under feet of snow.

San Juan Skyway gear imageEighteen days of self-supported fun requires a big bike to carry all of the gear.

My odyssey of failure on the Skyway has been on-going since the idea surfaced in my human powered adventure brain. For one reason or another, the adventure has always been stymied, leaving me scheming for the next season…partner bailed, too little snow; too much work, etc. Each spring, I watch from my kitchen window as the snow melts away on the high peaks, leaving me with a feeling of disappointment. The 2019 attempt was both literally and figuratively the most painful as serendipitously everything came together for one of my first viable attempts of completing the adventure…I had a willing and experienced partner; we had great support from numerous sponsors including 45NRTH, Salsa Cycles, Bedrock Bags, Dynafit and others; and we had the time needed to accomplish our ski goals. The time however, did not match up with the inclinations of Mother Nature.

San Juan Skyway - bike tagA little addition to my bike.

On Sunday, March 10th, my partner, AJ, and I, accompanied by a small film crew, rolled out of Durango on our Dillinger 4’s traveling in the opposite direction as planned. Over the previous couple of weeks, our once average winter transformed itself into one of historic proportions with record snowfall and thus, some of the most unstable snow conditions of recent memory. The week prior to our departure a rash of unprecedented avalanches buried Colorado’s interstates and highways. Along the Skyway, the 24 miles of pavement from Silverton, CO to Ouray, CO was entombed under 30 feet of snow.

San Juan Skyway - Skyway 3AJ and me about to start the 2019 attempt at the Skyway.

With another storm scheduled and the northern route closed, we reversed our route and detoured west to a friend’s historic schoolhouse turned cabin at the mouth of a canyon bordered by 13,000 foot peaks. As we climbed up our first pass, which was originally to be our last, we hoped that over the course of the next couple of weeks, the pavement between Ouray and Silverton would be cleared for our passage back to Durango.

Under blue bird skies we arrived at the schoolhouse with cheers from friends and neighbors who had driven up to wish us well. They knew what lay ahead of us. With all of the recent snow, the stable spring snow conditions that we had planned for were not in our cards. Instead our ski tours and consequent ski lines, would have to be significantly scaled back to meet the current circumstances. Dreams of skiing steep lines down couloirs had turned into a quest to make turns down low-angled slopes covered in bottomless powder.

San Juan Skyway - Skyway 4The Mayday Schoolhouse.

As if on cue, as soon as we got settled into the little red schoolhouse, a three-day storm descended upon the area dropping three feet of Rocky Mountain cold smoke. Seeking to avoid confrontations with snow plows, we made the canyon our playground. Each morning we loaded up our twin Salsa Blackborows with our ski gear; let some air out of our tires; and pedaled up the quiet snow packed road that splits the canyon in two. After a short spin, it was time to click into ski bindings and break trail. Climbing into the storm we found untouched snow among some of the area’s most beautiful and extensive aspen trees. Once at the top we were grinning in anticipation of floating through the old growth forest. Our descent yielded face shot after face shot and only fueled our desire for more. Powder addicts we had become. It is amazing how fast our mindset adapted to the conditions. The disappointments of having to ride the Skyway in reverse, and forgo ski steep lines, quickly dissipated with each taste of powder. We were making the best of the situation and our snow art proved it.

San Juan Skyway - Skyway 5A vibrant radar indicating an impending storm.
San Juan Skyway - Skyway 6AJ grinning from ear to ear as we ride into the storm in search of powder.
San Juan Skyway - Skyway 7It doesn’t get any better than this.
San Juan Skyway - Skyway 9Elation. Let’s do it again.

During the morning of day five, the storm broke to increasing high pressure. The sun revealed its rays for the first time since the day we had pedaled out of Durango. Hoping to let the roads heat up and clear of snow and ice, we sought out one last taste of untracked powder under blue skies. After whooping and hollering through the winter wonderland all morning, we returned to the schoolhouse by lunch to pack up for the next bike segment. While loading our beasts of burden, I waved down a passing plow driver who informed me that the roads were clear and that we should have smooth riding all of the way into our next destination. Wahoo!

San Juan Skyway - Skyway 10Our steeds buried under more fresh snow.

After a quick clean-up of the schoolhouse along with some last-minute chores, we emerged outside to find it snowing once again. Where did this come from?! Should we put studs on our tires or not? Nah. The plow driver had told us a mere hour and half ago that the roads were cleared. It can’t have been snowing long enough for anything to accumulate. Pushing off into the snow squall we began rolling downhill back to the main road. With the falling snow stinging my cheeks, my speed reached over 20 mph. I thought about checking my speed while approaching the slushy patch of snow and ice covering the road. That’s when it happened.

San Juan Skyway - Skyway 11My last photo upon departure and minutes before the accident.

Crunch. Whoosh. Gasp. Pain. The amount of time it took me to write these four words is how long it took for the 2019 attempt at the Skyway to come to an unexpected and abrupt halt. With the momentum from 80 to 85 lbs of bike, including backcountry skis, camping equipment, food, and everything else needed to live in the winter backcountry, I impacted the pavement with a decisive thud. As the five different doctors and too numerous to recall number of x-ray technicians would say as they shook their heads in disbelief, “you must have hit really hard to fracture your scapula and break three of your largest ribs.”

Fast forward to the spring of 2020. AJ and I are preparing to give the Skyway yet another attempt. Our sponsors are back on board to support us. The film crew is still willing and able to document the journey. We have the time. And the snowpack looks to be shaping up nicely to yield opportunities to ski those sought after stable, steep lines. I’m not sure if this will be the year to bring what is becoming my own personal adventure odyssey to an end. Similar to Odysseus’ ten-year saga to return to his home, so too has been my journey to successfully ride and ski the Skyway. My resolve is as strong as ever. Perhaps, I need to heed Calypso’s words to Odysseus as he prepares to depart her grasp and continue with his journey home:

If only the gods are willing. They rule the vaulting skies. They’re stronger than I to plan and drive things home.—Homer, The Odyssey

Teaser link to film:

*A recent update by the author on the Skyway Odyssey

I wrote the above blog post on March 8, 2020 with the intention of starting the 2020 Skyway attempt on Saturday, March 28. As we all know, the COVID-19 crisis is changing the world as we know it on a daily basis. Despite it all, my team and I had hoped to be able to continue forth and start this grand adventure. Alas, during a conference call on the evening of March 24th, the decision was made to postpone this year’s attempt until further notice. Given the circumstances, it does not seem prudent or appropriate to continue with our intentions.

Instead we will focus on staying positive, healthy, and doing our part in helping slow the infection progress in our respective communities. I take solace in knowing that the Greek gods are sending messages loud and clear that they are not willing for this journey along the Skyway to take place and be a success. To ignore otherwise, is how a good ole fashion tragedy is composed.—BD