What, why and how ?
Nature as obstacle course
Passes, divides, gaps and double summits
What's in a name ?
Principal and alternate approaches
Summit elevations

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 organized.

Nature as 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 itself.

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..

Passes, 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 included.

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 1949.

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 Utah.

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.

Principal 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.

Summit Elevations. 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 Continental Divide.

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 completely unwieldy.

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.


Copyright (C) by Michael Fiebach 2003-2012