Take 100 peaks between 13,800 and 14,500 feet. Add five bonus summits for good measure. Mix in 624 miles by foot and 1,720 miles by bike. Link it together in under 60 days, self-supported, and you’ve just beat the “Long Ranger,” Justin Simoni’s alter-ego, at his own game.
On Saturday, Justin Simoni finished an entirely self-supported and human-powered bikepacking and climbing trip that took him to the summit of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks—with an extra five summits along the way—in roughly 60 days and 15 hours. Over the course of his journey, he ascended 247,810 feet by foot and 136,374 feet by bike. That’s 72.76 miles, or enough elevation to get ten miles into outer space.
Simoni’s no stranger to long-distance feats. He’s biked along the Continental Divide twice, crossed the country by bike three times, and toured through eight other countries. In 2014, he did a similar version of his Tour of the Hundred Highest, summiting all 58 Colorado fourteeners in just over 34 days, self-powered, on foot and by bike. The 36-year-old is originally from Connecticut, but he caught the outdoor bug at an early age and headed west. He’s been living in Colorado since 1999.
We caught up with Simoni to learn more about the trip, from inspiration and planning to the triumphant and the not-so-awesome days.
How’re you feeling?
Physically, I feel surprisingly okay. A little fatigue, but that makes sense. I lost a fair amount of weight—about 12 pounds. The only injury I succumbed to was on the last day as I descended Longs Peak: in the Boulder Field, I slipped on some ice and fell with all my weight on my right foot. I either sprained or fractured it. I made it down the mountain and back on pure adrenaline, but now I’ve been hobbling around at snail-like speeds.
Mentally, I’m completely and utterly spent. It feels as if I just survived a plane crash, or lost a 10 round boxing match by technical knockout. Hard to concentrate. Getting up is hard, because I know I’ll have to do things, and those things are hard to imagine completing. Making the morning coffee seems over and above my limitations!
If you could have immunity against one element or trial you faced on this trip—busted toenails, dehydration, bugs, the like—what would it be and why?
I would sincerely wish for cool, clean drinking water whenever I went – or at least a magical water filter that worked instantaneous on anything I throw at it. My water filter broke after day two and it was weeks before I could find a replacement. That replacement worked so slowly, and I’m so inpatient, that I mostly went without filtering my water. Colorado has an unfortunate legacy of water contamination from mining, so even if the water doesn’t contains viruses, parasites, etc, it could have high levels of heavy metals. I would wish for our state and national government to make environmental cleanup of those mines a high priority.
What was the absolute worst night you spent? What was one of the dreamiest?
I spent most of my nights out in the open, in a sleeping bag and bivvy. Sometimes, if the weather was bad, I’d put up a simple tarp as well. Some of the most incredible nights were in the Weminuche Wilderness. I had camped just below Jagged Pass at around 12,000 feet, far above treeline. I was on one of the only patches of dry and flat earth in this tiny, tiny basin. Not another person in sight—I don’t know if I had seen anyone else all day. The sun set and hit Jagged Mountain perfectly during sunset, and the entire peak seemed to be lit on fire—the various spires and towers being the flames licking the heavens. It’s my vote for the most beautiful place in all of Colorado. The next day, I summited Jagged Mountain, and then Vestal Peak via Wham Ridge—two of the hardest peaks on my tour, which made for an unforgettable day.
Some of the worst nights were when it rained. My night after Pheonix Peak was particularly bad. Phoenix is a peak outside of Creede, which I accessed from the Colorado Trail. Getting to its slopes meant crossing a large swamp in the rain. The entire climb was in the clouds. Miserable. I got lost coming down the slope, then decide to take a “better” line through the swamp, which was anything but. I passed untold numbers of willows, whose leaves seem to collect water until you pass by them. Then, they splash it all on you. I fell face first in a creek and broke my phone, I passed a dead deer in another creek I was going to grab water from. The willows even on the Colorado Trail bowed toward the center of the trail, ready to keep me nice and wet, even though the rain had stopped. Well, the rain stopped until I had to make camp, then ramped up again. While it stormed, I had to put up the tarp. Nothing was dry that night. The next day’s peak bagging was much the same: wet and freezing, stuck in a cloud. Even when I got back into town, my leave was postponed by three hours by you guessed it: another rain storm. I ended up riding the highway toward Lake City in the middle of the night—it’s not a place you would choose to be on a bike.
What did you eat and how much did you have to eat to keep up your energy? How did you do re-supplies?
My gear list is fantastically stripped to the essentials for a 60-day adventure, and I didn’t bring along things like a stove, or plates, or even real silverware. I just had a plastic takeout spoon. The vast majority of my calories when not in town were peanut butter and jelly burritos. Dozens upon dozens of them. It’s cheap, high-calorie food. I’d supplement more calories by adding coconut oil, frosting, cheese —whatever to them to make them a bit more palatable. I sincerely don’t even like peanut butter! Eating is mostly an all-day affair of constant grazing. I’d munch on candy, and granola bars, trail mix, jerky—that sort of stuff. Resupplying at some of these small mountain towns is challenging, as the prices are stratospheric and the selection is laughable.
Resupplies were done mostly in towns, so I would have to drop down and visit a grocery store or restaurant. I did send myself a few pairs of trail running shoes in strategic locations, as the heavy mileage on all this difficult terrain would simply destroy them, and I went through a total of four pairs. I would pack fairly light when it came to food, so a resupply would only have a day or two of food in it – just enough to get me to the next town. Sometimes I had an emergency jar of peanut butter, or some almonds just in case I planned wrong. I planned wrong a lot.
On that note, what’s your number one favorite bikepacking dinner? What’s your favorite trail snack?
Favorite trail snack is Red Vines. If they made caffeinated Red Vines, that would be the end of me. Second would of course be any coffee drink, or something like chocolate-covered espresso beans. I kept it simple with my dinners, so on trail, a treat would be to get salami and cheese and, if I could source it, mayonnaise and mustard, then make a burrito out of that. A typical salami and cheese burrito dinner would top 3,000 calories, easily. I would begin by getting comfortable in my sleeping bag, and just construct the burritos on whatever I was using as a pillow. It was a race to eat everything before I was too tired to finish! I needed to eat all the ingredients, except I guess the tortillas, as an open package of meat is an amazing bear attractant, and I was not so much avoiding that, but praying a bear visit wouldn’t happen.
What do you like about doing things solo? Is there anything you dislike about being the lone long ranger?
I’m a pretty unconventional person, if you haven’t picked that up! I’m actually very shy, very introverted; I live much of my life inside my head—inside my imagination. Living in any sizable city is pretty stressful for me—I tend to pay attention to as many things as possible at the same time, and that just makes me exhausted. So being alone is actually a very warm, very comfortable place to fully express myself in. I never was afraid of not having another person nearby in case I injured myself or anything. I took great joy in having to focus my full attention on something like, a technical pitch that has real consequence if I screw it up. I never screwed up.
Like any weirdo, you get a little misunderstood, whatever the venue was. Many times I’d get blown off by other people I was sharing the trail or road with. Not the majority of the time or anything, but sometimes people would just think I was psychotic for telling them I’m riding from Ouray to Lake City in the middle of the night on an ATV trail. They just didn’t understand the type of grit I possessed, how well prepared I was, and what the mission I had given myself entailed. I can admit that most situations, you usually weren’t going to see a cyclist in the terrain I was riding, or the amount of gear I had on me seemed terrifically unrealistically small for my intended route, but it wasn’t strange to me. For every person that blew me off, there were a hundred that found stoke and inspiration. I completed the route safely, so I guess that’s validation I knew what I was doing!
What shoes did you wear? Shoes that work for snow+trail+rock+bike seem rare, and carrying extra shoes on a bike probably isn’t the easiest.
All my hiking, trail running, and backpacking were done with the La Sportiva Mutant. I wouldn’t do it with any other brand. I needed was a shoe with great traction for all those times I’m on wet grass, or a scree slope, or mud – etc, but still sticky enough that I could use them to rock climb up moderate climbing pitches, or just hop across the endless fields of talus I found myself in. I also needed the shoe to be light and compact, so they were easy to lash on my bike for almost 2,000 miles. I needed to be able to run in them and sometimes ride a bike in. Any boot would be too heavy, bulky and not give me enough ankle flexibility. I didn’t want to bring an additional pair of actual climbing shoes just for the technical pitches. The La Sportiva Mutant was the sweet spot.
When riding, I did use a pair of Pearl Izumi cycling shoes most of the time – I don’t remember the model name, but they were literally the cheapest ones I could find, and I started out and finished with a pretty old, worked pair. My pinky toe was hanging out, the velcro just sort of seemed to still work – that sort of condition! There were times when the riding terrain was too tough for me to ride, and I would need to push the bike, I would trade my cycling shoes for my pair of Mutants, and swap my Time pedals for flat pedals. That worked brilliantly. I didn’t bring any camp shoes.
If you could have added one extra piece of gear—maybe it’s something you skipped for space/weight/efficiency, but in this hypothetical world it magically wouldn’t alter your setup a bit—what would it be?
Honestly, I brought that piece of gear with me, and it was a complete game changer: a dynamo hub! I had a SON 28 Dynamo Hub, which allows you to either have a bright front light on whenever you’re pedaling, or it allows you to charge anything that can be plugged in via USB. This system saved me hundreds of dollars in batteries, and time in town waiting for batteries to charge, as well as knowing I’ll never be in a position where my front light drains all my batteries, and I’m stuck on the side of the road, unable to go forward. I don’t know why I, someone who primarily rides bikes as a lifestyle, took so long to get a dynamo hub.
What did planning this trip look like? Did you have a specific route, days, distances planned out? How much flexibility did you plan in, and how well were you able to follow your initial plan?
Planning the route took hundreds of hours poring over maps, trip reports, and guidebooks. Two things had to be planned: the bike route and each individual route to the summit or summits of mountains (if they could be enchained). I would also plan alternative routes in case my beta was off or a more technical but shorter route didn’t seem feasible once I actually got there.
Enchaining all the Centennials together is quite the circuitous route and there’s many options available, but I decided to take dirt/gravel/4wd roads or singletrack whenever possible. Those routes are generally much less busy and safer for a cyclist to be on than some of the more congested highways I could have alternatively used. No one wants a cyclist to be on the highway in the middle of the night, including myself. My route was often through national forest, so I could stop and make camp whenever I’d like. Many of the approaches would require riding a mountain bike anyways, so that’s what I brought. Having a bike that could handle so much different terrain really opened up a lot of possibilities.
For the summits themselves, the name of the gain was “enchainment.” Summiting the largest number of peaks starting from the same trailhead on the same hike would be the most efficient way to complete my challenge. Sometimes this meant doing obscure or even new routes between mountains, and facing technical, sketchy, loose terrain you would normally try to avoid. There were only a few times I backed down from a traverse, and I think I made a good call: I did not do the traverse between Thunder Pyramid and Pyramid, and I dropped down into the basin between Fletcher and Atlantic. But other technical traverses were done, like between the Maroon Bells, between Capitol and Snowmass, the Crestones, the Sierra Blancas, etc.
For the most part, I had to live in the moment and just think of my trip as a rolling list of objectives to hit and to complete each task as they came. I had no daily agenda I needed to finish. If I rolled up to a trailhead and felt exhausted, I would just sleep and wake up early the next morning to do the hike. If I needed a half day off, I took it. Some of the towns I visited could be thought of as hubs to different mountain objectives. Then I could pick which mountains I wanted to tackle, depending on the weather or how I was feeling. For example, Leadville was my most flexible hub. From Leadville, I could go to the Mount of the Holy Cross, or all the mountains near Elbert, or all the mountains near Mt. Sherman, or even go up and over the Continental Divide to the mountains near the town of Aspen, then back to Leadville. I could have done hundreds of miles of my bike route in reverse if I wanted to—it was a huge luxury.
Once the bike route and the routes to the individual groups of mountains were figured out, I would save the tracks on my GPS and just queue them up when I needed them. The GPS was one of my rockstar pieces of gear and saved me from getting lost an innumerable amount of times. I kept it tied to either my body or my bike at all times. I always had backup batteries available. But it had a personality. If it got wet, the touch screen would act in strange ways. The unit would start navigating menus if I brushed it with my arm, or something like that. Once I found the entire thing reset it itself, and changed the language of the interface to Russian. Minor meltdown trying to get that straightened out.
Is there anyone—mountaineer, long-distance athlete, badass friend or family member, etc—that you look up to or that inspired this trip in any way? Why?
The list is fairly exhaustive, but I’m particularly enamored with the local crushers from Boulder and in Colorado at large. I moved back to Boulder after swearing off the town just because I knew being so close to them would be a great inspiration to me. I’m not a competitive person at heart, so seeing people excel is simply an exciting thing for me. Some of the local Boulder crushers include Anton Krupicka, Joe Grant, Dave Mackey, Bill Briggs, and Roger Briggs. Bill Briggs especially is a no-bullshit silent crusher who also took an interest to approach by bike peak bagging, and I believe he has a lifetime goal of cycling to all the named peaks in Boulder County by bike. His brother Roger has climbed the Diamond on Longs Peak more than a 100 times, establishing many new routes. He’s just a high school teacher—it’s unreal. Dave Mackey has won Ultramarathoner of the Year multiple years in a row, and can still climb HARD. Anton and Joe—I mean, I just looked up to them, even though I’m just a little bit older than both of them. I’m sure we all just inspire each other, we’re just sometimes too shy to say so. It’s a healthy atmosphere here in the Boulder Bubble.
Outside of Boulder or even Colorado, some bike and climber crushers I’ve found much inspiration in are people like Göran Krupp, who summited Everest in 1996 without bottled oxygen, after cycling to it with all his gear from his home in Sweden. Then he rode back. Kyle Dempster is a Piolet d’Or winner who did an incredible trip by bike to climb in Krygyzstan called, The Road to Karokol. Unfortunately, Kyle left us after trying a bold new route on the Ogre II in Pakistan. I’m much less of a person for having never met him. Stupid shyness! Finally Glenn and Pete Dunmire are big heroes of mine. They were the first cyclists ever to ride to, then summit, the Colorado 14ers in 1985. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like on those vintage mountain bikes with so little beta. Simply unreal.
When did you first start doing endurance climb/bike/etc. trips? What did your first foray into this hybrid endurance adventuring look like, and what about it captivated you?
Shortly after giving up my car around maybe 2005, I started riding my bike for fun, and my trips just got longer and longer. I do remember one trip where I decided I would ride from Denver to Boulder—it seemed an impossible distance to me. I straddled up my thrift-store bought Schwinn and set off. It took me about six hours to cover the 30 miles and I was absolutely crushed from the effort. The seed had been planted. By the following year, I found myself in Vancouver pointing my fully loaded touring bike south en route to Tijuana on the Pacific Coast route. Then I spent few months in Europe, then New Zealand. Before I knew it, I was racing mountain bikes cross-country. The life certainly found me.
I was on one of my Tour Divide races across the country. The Tour Divide starts in Banff, Alberta, and ends at the Mexican border south of Silver City, New Mexico. It mostly follows the Continental Divide, so you pass all these beautiful mountain ranges, but never do you really go into them. I think I was in Idaho. I just looked at one peak, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to stop for the day, and climb that peak, instead of being chained to this bike for the next few weeks?”. It sort of was an existential dilemma after a while: WHAT am I riding TO? Most bike rides are an out-and-back or point to point. Maybe you visit a coffee shop in between. Why not something with a little more teeth, like a mountain top?
So that’s what I basically started to do. I caught the 14er bug, like a lot of people in Colorado. But I just had a bike, I wasn’t going to buy a car—how could I visit them all? Doing individual mountains at a time would take years of separate multi-day trips. It made sense to do one super-trip and visit them all on a grand bike tour. You had to go fast, since the summer season just doesn’t last too long in the mountains. That’s basically how the idea of making the Tour 14er a race was born.
I completed that in 2014 in a time of 34 days, and 12 hours. What’s next after that? Well, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson finally completed the hardest big wall climb in the world, The Dawn Wall, and then immediately asked those who were f0llowing along, “What’s Your Dawn Wall?”. The list of Centennials in Colorado – the Hundred Highest Peaks , seemed a futuristic goal to me, never achieved as an underground, self-supported bike race, so that became my new goal – that became my Dawn Wall. It took three years after my 14er tour to realize this goal.
I’ll be writing a book about this adventure. It’ll be part narrative, part guidebook. I want more people to leave their car at home and start their adventure from their backdoor on their bike. I want the brave and the bold to try the Tour 14er and Tour of the Highest Hundred and beat my times in good style. Or just do a few mountains on the route and have an unforgettable long weekend. I want to continue to inspire people on bicycles as realistic transportation choices.
After this winter, maybe I’ll make some sea to summit trips. Start out easy. Ride from the Pacific Coast to Mt. Whitney, then Rainier. Move up to Denali. With one of the Seven Summits down, why not try to do the same for the next six?
Images courtesy Justin Simoni