What, why and how ?
divides, gaps and double summits
What's in a name ?
and alternate approaches
What, why and how ?
These three questions are at the start of everything
it seems. Let's start with the first one. What is a
mountain pass anyway ? Since the beginning of time
mankind has asked this question. Well - no they
haven't. Still, if you like to cycle in the
mountains, the question probably crosses one's mind
eventually. For now let's just say, a pass is an
established path across a divide, where a divide is
a separation of watersheds. The divide can separate
watersheds of any size, say North Muddy Creek from
South Muddy Creek, or the Pacific from the Indian
Ocean - no, that would be unlikely - the Pacific
from the Atlantic then.
Why ? Now that we have a
reasonable definition of "pass", the question
becomes "Why ride a bicycle over it". The short
answer is "because it's there". If you understand,
you already know. If you don't, no argument will
be convincing. But maybe the question does deserve
a longer attempt at an answer, rather than a short
flippant phrase, although it did sound very
profound when Edmund Hillary first used it. The
answer amounts to preaching to the quoir. But it's
fun to preach to the quoir so here it goes.
Colorado's wealth of mountain passes make great
cycling workouts and offer fine alpine scenic
experiences in the process. High mountain passes
have given me a high for many years, in more ways
than one. Often there's the climb towards the tree
line. You see the ecosystem change around you.
With it changes the temperature, the weather, even
the climate, and your vantage point on the land
around you. You start to wonder, just how high up
this path is going to take you. Finally comes the
view that answers all the questions. Often the
pass crests with climaxing switchbacks near the
top. However, sometimes the word "pass" has to be
taken with a pound of salt. Early crossings of
mountain ranges were selected for the ease with
which they could be crossed, not for their alpine
characteristics. These passes often have a rich
history. In general there is something like an
inverse relationship between the historic
importance and the scenic spectacular quality of a
pass. So there is another attraction, separate
from the change of the immediate surroundings.
This second interest is imagining all that went
before over this pass.
The last question is how, and the answer is of
course - by bicycle. After all - what else is
there ? The bicycle is the world's most versatile
transportation device, and certainly the world's
most versatile device for crossing mountain
passes. It can cross any pass that a motorized
vehicle can, regardless if paved or dirt, and
compared with any type of motor vehicle, no matter
how many wheel drive the gas hog has. Additionally
bicycles can cross many paths and trails that are
open to horses or walking. The only thing
restriction bicycle travel has are regulations.
Regulations favor horses and discriminate against
bicycles. That's the situation in America anyway.
So much for the short answers. What follows is the
long version, which also shows how these pages are
obstacle course. For some people life is a
problem to be solved, for other's it's a mystery to
be experienced. Maybe a corollary to this is
"for some people nature is an obstacle course, for
others it is ... well maybe an art gallery". This
could be construed as looking at the world with just
one side of the brain, the emotional or the logical,
the left or right side. Luckily people aren't born
with just a socalled left or right brain. Instead
it's a little of both for all of us. It's just the
proportion that varies. The natural art gallery and
the mystery aspect provides the impetus, the
motivation to explore nature. Some want to see
what's over on the other side of the hill. The aim
of other's is to go as far and/or fast as they can.
Yet others want to lead social groups on outings and
provide a special social atmosphere. All this
time the other side of the brain is occupied with
the logical aspect of how to get up the mountain,
being physically able to do so, having the
appropriate equipment. Or perhaps doing it without
the appropriate equipment is a special challenge in
Another answer that the "nature as obstacle course"
side of the brain provides is the organization of
these pages. After all, what is a pass anyway ? When
is a pass established ? Who decides if the divide is
named ? Just what bikable mountain crossings should
be included in a set of pages like this ?
To see how other people approached this or similar
problems we can look to two other examples, the
"club des cent cols", a French club that keeps
records of cycling passes and people who say they
have crossed them, and the Colorado Mountain Club.
The latter is engaged in hiking up mountain peaks
more than with cycling. But there is a lot in common
between people who spend a majority of their free
time ascending mountains in some way, whether it is
on wheels or feet. The Colorado Mountain Club, In
their magazine Timber Line, has engaged in a public
debate in exactly what constitutes a separate
mountain, as opposed to a shoulder of another
mountain, and how many peaks of a certain minimum
elevation exist in the state. The club has pretty
much reached a consensus to this question, a neat
mathematical answer that can be applied and always
reaches a neat answer that says yes or no and never
maybe - except for a few difficult cases. Later in
this introduction I will argue the similarities of
the two questions, what constitutes a separate
mountain and what makes a pass for cycling purposes.
For now let me argue the differences, actually just
one important difference. Many passes have an
important historical aspect. Of course mountain
peaks also have a history associated with them, a
story about the people who climbed them, and the
physical aspect they endured to accomplish this. But
the history of mountain passes often ties in with a
larger history. These are stories of early pioneers
who discovered and crossed mountain passes
while trying to accomplish a completely different
objective. They are stories of the migration of an
entire population, tales of economic conditions that
lead to constructing new forms of
transportation across these passes, anything from
camel caravans to cog railways, stage coaches, horse
drawn wagons, cars, trains and interstate highways,
maybe even a bicycle trail. Finally there may be
stories of how these passes were abandoned and left
to return to some earlier state of being, due to the
advance of yet another form of transportation device
or economic condition, that made crossing the pass
no longer a necessary or attractive option.
Clearly a set of pages about mountain passes can
contain more history than a book about mountain
peaks. All this human activity of scurrying across
these passes had a side effect. The pass acquired a
name so that it would be easier to refer to while
conveying information about it, and people produced
maps marking the passes and summits. This is what
really constitutes a pass, the fact that it became
important enough to carry a name.
The other group that concerns itself with the
question of what constitutes a mountain pass, the
club des cent cols, seems to think so too. However,
they call it something different. In their "rules of
the game" page, the club states that it "never
creates passes", but only counts the crossings of
passes that are already established. According to
their rules, an established pass is one that is
either identified by sign or labeled on a map. When
you read the page you may get the impression that
both together are necessary criteria. However, I was
informed by the club that one is enough, ie a sign
without corresponding map label is enough to qualify
the crossing as pass. To the best of my knowledge
all passes identified by sign or map in Europe have
the names of the passes on them too.
This still leaves many open questions. What about
dirt roads and trails and mountain bikes ? The "club
des cent cols" page says nothing about this. But I
was informed by email, that the club counts these
summits. In the words of the email, "if you want you
can carry your bike to the top, that's okay too".
There are other ambiguous situations. What about
water divides ? What about approaches to passes that
reach different higher altitudes. My email to the
club des cent cols about these open questions
remained unanswered. Some questions are peculiar to
the English language, others to America..
Divides, Summits, Gaps and Double Summits.
Languages are live things, and live things are
messy. Before we can have a meaningful discussion
about anything, we have to have a discussion about
what the words in the discussion mean. The word
"divide" is often used to mean the same thing as
pass, as the Colorado "Dallas Divide" for example.
But strictly speaking "divide" alludes more to the
"water divide" aspect. It refers to a line along a
ridge that can have more than one established pass
crossing it. Consequently the tables may list more
than one crossing of a divide. Divides are included
in the "named passes tables". If there is more than
one divide crossing, it is further identified by the
road or trail number.
There is only one examples of a small divide with
more than one crossing, that I'm aware of.. But
there is also one occurrence of a rather large
divide with many crossings, and that is the american
Continental Divide. Many crossings of the
Continental Divide are named passes, but not all of
them. These, not further named Continental Divide
crossings are also candidates to be included in the
named passes section. As with any other divide, they
are identified as "Continental Divide" followed by a
road or trail number and optional nearby towns,
landmarks or junctions.
Gaps are generally accepted as being the opposite of
a pass. Rather than crossing a water divide they are
breached by a water gap. But often the path
paralleling the gap has to climb precipitously above
it. Generally named gaps are not considered named
passes. But there are some map features named as
"gap", which in reality are divides or passes. These
can be included as named pass, if this is pointed
out in a publication. Helmuth's encyclopedia does
this for several gaps.
There comes a point when we have to acknowledge the
differences between hydrologists and cyclists. Named
summits have no allusion to directing falling water.
But named summits have to be included in pages about
cycling in mountains. But the difference is clear,
one is called a pass, and the other a summit, even
if all passes are summits but only a few summits are
passes. Named, published or signed summits are
included in the table of named passes(/summits).
The designation "saddle" also shows up periodically.
Saddles are often thought to be passes with a gentle
section at the top. But everything is relative. Take
Sunnyside Saddle in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
for example. Its profile looks more like a mountain
peak. Saddles are also included as named passes..
In addition Helmuth's "Passes of Colorado" also
identifies passes across watershed divides that use
none of these designations, but instead include the
word "gate" or "hill". Examples of this are Floyd
Hill and Crow Hill both west of Denver, and Haystack
Gate, and interesting, but obscure divide south of
Silt, Colorado. None of these are currently
Plateau topography is susceptible to having large
climbs on one side, followed by a flat section,
followed by another large downhill. This situation
may lead to maps that indicate two close by summits,
or a double summit. Double summits will be treated
in a single page if there is no way to approach each
summit separately in a day ride. For example, the
passes on Trail Ridge Road are in a single page,
because there really is virtually no way to descend
from Milner Pass on the east side without having to
go over Iceberg Pass. Even if some trail exists, you
can't ride a bicycle on it legally. On the other
hand, the double summit Molas Pass/Coal Bank Pass
have separate pages. The reason is a dirt road
alternative to Coal Bank Pass. The Lime Creek road
can be used to cross either pass without crossing
the other one.
What's in a name ?
If a pass or other entity discussed above is named,
or has been marked as pass or summit in a map or
book, it may be included in the table of named
passes/summits. The name does not have to originate
from an official organization such as the USGS or
the highway department. Names often originate from
common usage, and end up on local maps. Historical
books and maps also label passes, such as the maps
made by the1874 Hayden Survey of the Rocky
Mountains, or more recent publications such as
Marshall Sprague's book "The Great Gates" or Ed
and Gloria Helmuth's book "Passes of Colorado,
an Encyclopedia of Colorado's watershed divides".
Many of these historical designations survive today,
but not all of them are still in common usage. This
in no way diminishes their attraction to cyclists.
Take Campion Pass for example. A point along the
route over Campion Pass is the highest point
reachable with a road bike in Colorado. Many
people know the road, the pavement up to Mount
Evans. Campion Pass is a shoulder located below the
summit on this road. But today few people call it by
the name that the highway department gave to it in
This definition for a named pass is also bound to
include passes which are clearly disputed. For
example Marshall Spragues excellent history of Rocky
Mountain passes includes an appendix that includes
several "passes" that clearly do not cross a
hydrological water divide, such as Provo Canyon in
Since many passes have a long and illustrious
history, it is not surprising that different names
were used at different times. I will try to include
some of the major historical names in the alphabetic
tables and mention all of them in the detailed
versions of the pass pages.
Then there is the opposite case, the case of maps
showing summits without naming them. Modern highway
maps of Utah show practically no topographic
details, almost as if trying to keep it secret. Too
much knowledge of it might spoil it. However in past
decades, both state highway maps and commercial maps
published by Touraide, had an extraordinary number
of summits marked with pass symbols. These summits
are also candidates to be included in the "named
passes" tables. The designation in the name field is
as follows: If one or more well known canyons lead
to the summit, it or they are used in the name.
Otherwise the road number is followed by two nearby
landmarks, towns or road junctions. If a road has
several numbers, the road number used is the largest
regional designation, ie US before state route
(Co,Ut or other) , before county road (rd),
before forest road (FS) before BLM road.
Seemingly in order to make up for its lack of
topography on its current state highway maps, Utah
has a extraordinary number of summit signs located
on its paved roads. Since this is also a form of
publishing or publicizing a summit/pass, these
summits may also be included in the tables of named
passes, even if the sign does not include a name.
and Alternate Approaches. The principal
approach to a pass is the easiest and most efficient
way to get to the top. If a paved road exists, it is
designated the principal approach. But since the
advent of the mountain bicycle, man has not felt
constrained by this condition any longer. He can now
cycle darn well any surface he likes. He is now free
to follow wherever his front wheel may lead him
(Sorry, I couldn't resist the melodrama). In
Colorado and Utah this often leads to one day MTB
loop ride possibilities, while the road cyclist, who
is out for a day, is engaged in an out and back ride
across the pass. From the many possible approach
variations I usually pick the ones that lend
themselves to these loop rides and list them under
the "alternate approach" section.
More often than not, the pass/summit is also the
point of highest altitude. This way, falling rain on
the summit drains in the correct direction. But
actually there are more exceptions to this, than one
would suspect. Often the road follows a ridge line
up a mountain that is inside a drainage, and it does
so while approaching a pass. Take Trail Ridge Road
for example. It crosses the continental divide at
10747 feet, only to keep on climbing to 12180 feet.
After spending some time along the ridge line it
descends to 11860 feet in order to cross Iceberg
Pass, which is a very minor divide compared to the
roughly 1000 feet lower Milner Pass on the
When riding up a pass, maximum altitude is at least
as interesting as the pass altitude itself. The
tables will list the highest altitude along the
route. If this altitude is different than the pass
elevation, it follows in parentheses.
Again the mountain bicycle has complicated things
further by providing alternate approaches. These
alternate approaches may lead over higher summits
than the principal approaches. This is often the
case when more than two routes meet at the principal
summit. The third route is almost always a dirt road
or trail of some sort. When different approach
altitudes exist for the same pass or summit, they
are listed separately in the altitude tables. But
they lead to the same pass page.
Only alternate approaches that meet at the summit
are considered for this. The reasoning is as
follows. The approach still has to be a direct route
to the summit. If the alternate approach meets up
with the principal approach below the summit, a loop
ride can be constructed that skips the summit, and
crossing the summit is not necessary. Another way to
look at it is this: Any route that branches off the
principal approach below its summit, and leads to a
higher altitude, could become an alternate summit
under these conditions, even if it is far removed
into a different mountain range. The result would be
An example where all this comes into play is unpaved
Taylor Pass near Aspen, Colorado. In addition to its
principal approaches, the 11928ft high pass can be
approached over Richmond Hill, which is not a named
pass and reaches a 12339ft maximum altitude. The
Richmond Hill route meets Taylor Pass at its summit.
However an alternate trail can be used to get from
Richmond Hill down to the lower part of the Taylor
Pass road, cutting off Taylor Pass summit. However
when using this short cut you also cut off the
12339ft summit. Consequently the ridge route is
considered as alternate approach. There are two
entries for Taylor Pass in the elevation table, one
for the principal approaches, and one for the
Richmond Hill route. The highest point of the
Richmond Hill road is not included as named summit.
For completeness sake, I should also mention that an
alternate approach leading over another named summit
is not considered as higher alternate approach to
the first summit. This insures that Rabbit Ears Pass
in northern Colorado is not a higher alternate
approach to Muddy Pass.
Normally we would be done now. We have a good
working definition of what passes/ summits/ divides/
and even gaps are to be included, and we have a way
to determine their maximum elevations. We have
logical rules. The right side of the brain is happy.
There is just one problem, the road over Grand Mesa.
This well known, paved road climbs arguably higher
and harder than any pass, summit or saddle we have
included so far. Yet, based on these criteria,
it cannot be included. The Grand Mesa road manages
to climb over 5000 feet on excellent pavement, with
far reaching views in every conceivable direction.
It is not called a pass. It is not marked as pass or
summit in any publication that I know of. The top
has an elevation sign. But it is not labeled as
summit. Also, what about Richmond Hill ? Maybe it
too should be treated as a summit in its own right.
So it's time to start from scratch again.
to be continued.