Boulder’s ‘Long Ranger’ recounts how he became first person to scale Colorado’s 105 highest points self-supported
Out on the remote, amazingly wild ridgelines of this state’s most dangerous backcountry locations, Justin Simoni would ask himself the most recurring question of his unprecedented trip: “I wonder why no one does this?”
“I always had these, ‘I wonder why no one does this?’ questions,” Simoni explained to a crowd at Wilderness Sports on Wednesday evening. “And then I’d got out and go, ‘Oh! That’s why. Gotcha. Right, It’s a bad idea.’”
To many, what Simoni set out to do at 3:30 a.m. on July 18, 2017, may have been a terrible idea. But with just 15 minutes of sleep, he started out for it anyway.
Sixty days, 14 hours, 2,300 miles and 384,000 feet of elevation gain later, the then-36-year-old would finally crawl back into his bed in Boulder. During the time in between, he became the first recorded person to summit the state’s 105 highest peaks in a fully self-supported fashion.
Previous Centennial State adventurers had scaled the state’s 100 highest mountains, or “Centennial Peaks,” in thru fashion. In 2016, Durango’s Rob Barlow did it in 71 days, though a couple of times he had friends help shuttle his bike to different trailheads, something Simoni didn’t do. Others have also used a car.
Simoni — a veteran of such adventures as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race and epic thru-hikes in such wild places as New Zealand — chose to undertake his own journey by biking 1,700 miles and hiking 624 miles. The lonely, solo odyssey required the former art school student to scale 247,000 feet by foot and 136,000 feet by bike. The overall elevation gain was equivalent to scaling Mount Everest 13 times, and the overall distance was equivalent to biking from his home in Boulder to Maine.
Simoni was able to complete his journey so quickly, in part, because he took the massive risk of ignoring the usual ways in which hikers climb remote areas like the Blanca Group of mountains, the Crestones and the San Juans. Simoni instead devised a route where he’d link some of this state’s most amazing and lethal mountains via typically-non-traversed ridgelines.
“If they are this close together, why not just walk to them?” he thought. “I have to get back to my bike anyway.”
Using his previous knowledge of self-supportedly thru-hiking the state’s 58 14ers a couple of years prior, Simoni strung together a, more or less, clockwise route around the state. It’d take him from Boulder down to Pikes Peak before venturing to the Sangre de Cristos, then the San Juans and then north to the Elks. The Sawatch would follow before Simoni headed home to the north, in part through this county’s Tenmile Range, before eventually concluding at Long’s Peak 40 miles from his home.
Beforehand, he trained by undertaking such atypical feats of strength as climbing the famous “Freeway” route up Boulder’s Flatiron faces as many times as he could in 24 hours (it turned out to be 20).
“But it’s hard to recon for this,” Simoni told the crowd at Wilderness Sports on Wednesday. “You kind of just have to go for it.”
So he did. Over the first 30 days of his 60-day trip, things were slow going at times for Simoni. He had scaled 36 mountains by that time. Over that first half of the journey, Simoni encountered some of the most beautiful and most dangerous experiences of his life. The Little Bear-Blanca traverse highlighted the loose-scree type climbing he encountered.
“Everything around you would move too,” he said.
Through the Crestones, he rejoiced over the quality rock that made climbing a lot more fun.
Then through the San Juans’ mass of mountains formed from an eroded-away volcanic caldera, Simoni found himself resting less and less. He not only had 20 mountains to climb, he also had the painful 12,000- and 13,000-plus mountain passes to scale as well.
In the San Juans, he had to deal with the apex of terrible monsoon weather at Rio Grande Pyramid. Here he encountered his worst day of the trip.
For the trip, Simoni packed light: a 35-degree sleeping bag, a lightweight pouch to put the sleeping bag in, a winter sleeping pad and a tarp. As for food, Simoni fueled himself on his chosen concoction of peanut butter, jelly, chocolate frosting and coconut oil. The former roommate of a pastry chef in Paris, Simoni said his own edible trail magic creation would melt in his mouth “like the finest French pastry.”
But while out there in the monsoon conditions, Simoni struggled scaling the 13,000-plus foot Cinnamon Pass several times. To boot, his mountain bike’s front tire rim blew its seal when he hit a jagged “great white shark fin-like” rock in the middle of the trail descending to Silverton. The tough conditions caused Simoni to turn into Silverton five minutes past the 9 p.m. deadline time for any food. Without dinner, he began to doubt.
“This isn’t even fun,” he thought.
With a timetable for nine more peaks in the following five days, though, Simoni countered that depressing thought with another.
“Maybe I’ll just try.”
So he did. And on deck were Vestal Peak and Jagged Mountain, perhaps the two toughest climbs on his slate.
Despite sopping wet conditions that had caused his clothes to “disintegrate” off of him, Simoni trudged along. Through it all, he put himself in position to see the amazing beauty of Upper Ruby Basin on the other side of Chicago Basin. And once he completed Jagged Mountain’s challenge, he thought one thing.
“There is nothing that can hold me back now.”
Having lost 15 pounds, Simoni next battled through “losing his mind,” as he put it, on Mount Hope to the north.
“Hungover from adventure,” he said.
After receiving a new pair of shoes in Buena Vista, Leadville became his next hub, a place he’d return to five times while knocking off 21 mountains in a week.
Once at Long’s Peak, Simoni had to battle through the howling conditions of neighboring Mount Meeker before finishing atop Long’s in a wet snowstorm.
Until that point, he’d suffered no injuries. But on the way down, Simoni managed to slip and twist an ankle. After limping 7 miles down to the trailhead, all that was between him and the finish line was 40 miles atop his bike.
Along that homestretch to his cozy bed, Simoni kept thinking one thing to power him through the final dose of pain.
“I got one Aleve in my pocket. I’ll make it work.”
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