Day 13, Friday 3rd July.
Hwy 550 to Engineers Pass and return.
is a feature all on its own. The road hugs the mountain side as it climbs over Red Mountain pass then winds through the steep glacial valley down to picturesque Today's course marking worked in reverse to the race direction. The 45 min drive over to OurayOuray. Imagine Great Ocean Road windy. Then picture sheer drop-offs on one side and crumbling rock walls on the other side. And just to add to the anxiety, there are NO guard rails and often NO shoulders on the side. Cars crawl along with nervous flatland tourist drivers gripping the wheel. I drove this road during winter back in 1989 before Hardrock was even born. The road was covered in snow but passable. Approaching the tunnel where we would start today's marking there was a motor-home parked right in the middle of the road with his hazard lights flashing. The driver was paralyzed by fear and couldn't proceed. Such is the nature of this road, one wrong turn is certainly fatal. On the trail, one wrong step could also be fatal.
The Bear Creek trail down from Engineer Basin is spectacular but treacherous. Literally carved out of the cliff walls, the trail was blasted through the canyon in the 1890s to gain access to gold and silver deposits in previously inaccessible places. Starting at Hwy 550 where it passes through a short tunnel a couple of miles out of Ouray, we climbed up the path over the tunnel and began the steep series of long switch-backs into the Bear Creek canyon. Here the trail is raked out of piles of slate winding between the fir trees. The loose chunks of slate litter the trail and literally 'tinkle' as you pass over them. The footing can be a tad tricky.
I was at the back of the pack with James and Jennifer. The others soon disappeared up ahead. Jennifer and her husband write guide books on Colorado's mountains so was a font of knowledge. I knew James might have a problem with acrophobia so hung with him. Despite climbing constantly we were still low, Ouray being the lowest point on the course at 7,680ft.
The switchbacking slate-trail emerged into the canyon, high above the raging Bear Creek. The trail narrowed and clung to the face of the cliff, tracing the contours perfectly. We were now on the infamous section of the Hardrock course that brings a chill to the uninitiated. We continued at our slow but steady pace, Jennifer occasionally kicking a loose rock or pinecone off the edge. My eyes would be drawn irresistibly to follow the course of the falling object hundreds of feet below. It was quite unnerving.
We stopped periodically for photos and James was always conscious of not stopping too long. We caught up to and passed a couple of groups doing trail maintenance, a means of gaining extra tickets in next years lottery. I managed to coax James out onto an open cut-away for a classic pic. The footing was generally good with only a few wash-aways and a couple of chutes we had to climb across.
Leaving the steep-sided cliff trail, we entered pine forest again, still climbing, and still within the canyon walls. We came upon the remnants of Grizzly Bear Mine. How they managed to get such massive, heavy equipment up here defies comprehension. We left Jennifer with Sue who had caught up while we snacked, and I decided to pour on the pace to catch the main group. We power-hiked up the trail, through spruce trees and lush grass with the occasional clearing. We caught up just as they reached the Yellowjacket mine site. Derelict buildings and massive rusting machinery marked the site of this old mine.
After a couple of stream crossings we broke the tree-line. This is where the 'packed in' Engineers aid station will be. This was the start of my low patch during last years race when I couldn't find suitable food. This year I will be much better prepared and self sufficient. The canyon was now a wide open basin, lined with alpine grasses and a veritable kaleidoscope of colourful wildflowers. The trail was indistinct but you could now see the saddle just to the left of Oh Point! where we would hit the road across Engineer Pass. We worked our way up the left flank before traversing and crossing a stream and climbing straight up. It was a steep tussocky slope that had me sucking air as I worked my poles on the poor footing. Oh Point-Engineer Mountain Pass 12,910ft, pass number 8 on the course.
Sandwiches and muesli bars came out before we started the long descent, straight back down in the direction we will travel during the race. I tightened my pack straps and launched into free-fall down the basin. The course markers whizzed by as I angled back towards the tree-line. Picking up the trail through trees was easy but I will be here at night so made mental notes of the landmarks as I went. I waited for James a couple of times before picking up the pace again. Just before reaching the cliff-trail I kicked a rock and flew out-of-control into the long grass beside the trail before recovering my footing. A sobering reminder to back-off when the trail reached the steep walled canyon.
It is hard to hold back when you have a steady down-hill grade but I did back off a little once I hit the narrow path. But I had to run it. It screamed at me to run it. Banking around the corners, easing down the straight-aways. This is what I came here for: to run trails. I passed the trail workers and looking back had lost all sight of James. The creek raged below and my senses were on high alert, every foot placement critical. I pressed on, finally peeling away from the canyon and onto the slate floored switch-backs. I opened up again and fairly tinkled my way down, down, down, back and forth, loosing hundreds of feet, my ears popping as I could hear the highway approaching. I lost count of the switchbacks at 13 before I was crossing the tunnel again and dropping down to the roadside. Wow, what a hoot.
This is clearly not a sport for the faint hearted. Sometimes we tread a fine line between enjoying the adrenaline rush of pushing our limits and taking unnecessary risks. Running down Bear Creek trail blurs those lines but if we worry about all the risks in life then we wouldn't leave the security of our lounge room. This is what I love doing: running trail, and there are few more exciting trails to run than this one.
Hwy 550 to Engineers Pass and return, 13.4 miles in 5:35, 4:25 up and 1:10 down. max elevation 12,910ft.