Rolling Back the Years: The 2023 Annual Pearl Pass Tour

First held in 1976, the annual Pearl Pass Tour continues to take riders on one of the earliest organized mountain bike challenges: riding (and pushing) bikes to the top of Pearl Pass (12,705′) from Crested Butte, Colorado. Inspired to ride new terrain and get to know the burgeoning mountain biking community in Crested Butte, Wende Cragg and a band of Californians loaded up their klunkers and made the trip out to take part in several early editions of the now-iconic event.

Following a forty-two year hiatus, Wende Cragg returned to Crested Butte for this year’s ride. Read on for her tales from Pearl Pass, past and present…

Rolling Back the Years

When a happenstance invitation from bicycle advocates to the picturesque town of Crested Butte, Colorado was offered back in April, the idea seemed ludicrous! I had not been there in decades, and its charming, homey vibe was but a warm, distant memory. But a request to join a small entourage of German and Swiss riders in the quaint, gingerbread-trimmed village was an alluring inducement.

The old mining settlement turned tourist mecca lures wildflower seekers in the summer, downhill skiers in the winter and mountain bikers in fall. The dazzling, dramatic display of high alpine flora, chartreuse-hued Aspens and snow-covered peaks is a seasonal draw for outdoor enthusiasts and extreme sports addicts alike. And the annual Pearl Pass Tour draws the truly madcap, avant-garde extremists. The 47th Pearl Pass Tour was held in early September, and it did not disappoint.

My return to Crested Butte for the event—after a 42-year absence—was like the full rotation of a wheel. Back to where it all began, in the wee hours of a most excellent adventure. When I and others among Marin County’s band of cyclist renegades first ventured east to take part in the event back in September 1978, we had no idea what was in store. On a wing and a prayer, we crossed our fingers and hearts. More on that experience follows below, after a few words on this year’s event.

The 2023 Pearl Pass Tour

The 70-some attendees who gathered for the 2023 run were decked out in full regalia. Our bikes, including vintage steeds, and bodies, adorned with the latest gizmos and gadgets, high-tech hardware, stood ready to tackle the first leg of this two-day event. Basecamp, at 10,500 feet, was our intended destination on day one. An early 8 AM start at the bike museum ensured an eager and enthusiastic crowd of devout contenders, some veterans of numerous ascents to the top of the pass.

The Marin crew—Charlie Kelly, Jacquie Phelan, Marc Vendetti, and I—added to the contingent of seasoned old-timers. It was our mission to complete the route from town, hopefully to the top and back, which would be a change in course as our previous runs had been point-to-point, from Crested Butte to Aspen.

Equipped with e-bikes, our posse had the advantage of pedal assist. On an easy roll leading out of town to Brush Creek, a healthy group of sun-screened participants traveled en masse. Cloaked in the glow of a new adventure, we shared a united goal. Akin to a mini tailwind, a little jet stream of boost enabled us to power through the roughest, steepest sections with ease. Even the creek crossings, and one stretch in particular, dubbed the goat trail, were navigated with newfound confidence. This shortcut, a three-quarter-mile section of singletrack, hugged the side of a steep, sharply pitched drop to the creek below, not for the faint of heart or easily distracted. It was imperative to sight up your line well in advance of contact, as the bike often had a will of its own! We welcomed the surge but moved with caution. One erratic misdirect or error in judgement left little room for correction.

Pedalers spread out quickly but re-grouped at times to engage in a rolling party within a party. Ta-kill-ya shots, bong hits and my fave, Fat Boy ice cream sandwiches were shared along the way. A relaxed and easy-going vibe permeated the crisp, thin air. Our celebrated milestone was within reach. Basecamp, the anticipated, après-workout hangout for survivors, was a welcome sight. We wheeled into camp like a slow-motion train: engine — Charlie Kelly earned this distinction — boxcars and caboose. The slower pokes eased in at their own pace, a welcome reminder that this was, indeed, a tour and not a race!

Oxygen was thin at that altitude but the colorful cast of characters who inhabit our extreme cycling community were a breath of fresh air. Eccentric, charismatic, magnetic, and highly entertaining, we were regaled with wild stories. These hardcore individuals have traversed life’s roughest edges, and their insight reflected their wisdom. If every picture tells a story, many of these lively and animated mavericks have seen a thing or two, a testament to their longevity and passion for pushing the limits. Pearl Pass was obviously not an intimidating endeavor, and they were back for more. Masochists or masters of their universe, maybe a little of both. One zany gent, a first-timer, decided to best the rest and conquer the summit in one day. He may go down in the annals of Pearl Pass history as being in a league of his own, riding on the lunatic fringe of adventure. He could be dubbed Edward the Wayward, a suitable moniker.

Our accommodations, our home away from home, were a comfortable, relaxing refuge from the impending chill. Tents set up, sleeping bags laid out, we finally settled in for the remainder of the day. I was to share a tent with Jacquie, who was not feeling well and decided to bail early afternoon and return to town via four-wheel drive. A suitable spot had been located and with the help of organizers, my temporary, overnight lodgings included a starlit sky, sans rain fly.

Musical instruments were deployed. Potent potables circled the intimate fireside encampment. Cannabis perfumed the pine forest, mingling with the sweet, smoky campfire. We laughed, we sang, we tapped our feet and celebrated our achievement. Tuckered but content, all our needs had been tended to, many thanks to the proactive organizers. Delicious food was prepared in abundance. Do you know how difficult it is to get water to boil at high elevations? Well, it’s not easy but these guys are pros, and patient. A feast was had by all. Bountiful and robust, it satisfied cravers and vegetarians alike. There were even brownies for dessert, a feat for even the most skilled baker. Ditto for breakfast, we were satiated with delectable coffee and morning grub, power food for the daunting climb that awaited.

I had retired to my tent early eve, hoping for a good night’s snooze, and awakened to the sound of a mad rush of wind, right before the rain! I felt it before hearing it, the moist drip, drip, drip of water into my tent. In a quick scramble to salvage my dry gear, I shoved everything into my bag and struggled to dress.

Soon, all were awake amid a hub of activity. Folks sprang into action, eager to resuscitate the hungover, feed the hungry and prep for the final climb to Pearl. Our fledgling group was dismantled by early morning; we all went our separate ways. Charlie Kelly, nursing an injured ankle, opted to ride back to town. Marc ventured forth, his first ascent! Several dozen made it to the pass, including a handful of women. It snowed briefly at the summit.

I packed it in and hitched a ride back down with Howie Hammerman and his gal pal, Beth, in their rental Jeep. I enjoyed the opportunity to chew the fat and take in the sweeping vistas from the backseat of a warm, dry vehicle.

Well, if it all sounds like a dream, in a way, it was. The gauzy, heady feeling some of us were experiencing was Covid, not the elevation, lack of sleep or dehydration! Weak, battered and beaten, we were suffering from the consequences of the contagion.
A huge shoutout to Matt Hebbard, owner, and operator of Rim Tours for the past 40 years! He is my hero, a blur of non-stop energy who gave his all. His dedication to creating a memorable experience surpassed all expectations, and then some. Genuine and unassuming, he was a powerhouse who exhibited professionalism and personal commitment and great food, par excellence. Hail, Matt, you made a major deposit to my memory bank. Priceless!!

Special thanks to Don & Kay Peterson-Cook, Austin Weaver, Alex Reshetniak, Rob Korotky, Matthew Hansen, Sandy Hague, Marten, and Glow — and everyone else.

Back to the Beginning: 1978, Klunker Standard Time

Is it possible to kiss heaven and hell at the same time? Auspicious opportunities present themselves rarely in one’s lifetime, and timing is everything. Like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the brass ring on the merry-go-round or the four-leaf clover, such was the good fortune of an earnest litter of mud pups who ventured from California to Crested Butte, Colorado in the fall of 1978.

Earlier that year, we had gotten word of a loosely organized klunker event, an alcohol-fueled endeavor, taken on as a dare by a local group of brazen firefighters. Each knew the backcountry like the back of their hand, which was usually tilted upwards and wrapped around a brewski, in their off hours. They liked to hang out at the local saloon, the Grubstake, a town favorite. Here, they indulged in the typical chitchat found among the newly converted, the language of klunking. They had ridden their old town bikes, up and over Pearl Pass, at 12,400 feet, to Aspen via an abandoned mining road, a rocky and perilous pursuit. Almost masochistic, it is a true test of tenacity and torture. Intrigued, Marin County’s bike pioneers had to see for themselves.

We rented a car, loaded bikes, gear and cameras, and headed east. Duane Reading, informal leader of the pack, had been in contact with our Marin crew and anticipated our arrival sometime prior to the planned event on Saturday. We rolled into town on a Thursday mid- afternoon. Much fanfare ensued. And instant celebrity! Our flock of fatties was deemed noteworthy by the locals, and we were heralded as the second coming. Regarded as royals, our very presence evoked a genuine respect and awe. A few of us were interviewed by the local radio station and word of our presence spread quickly. After all, we had ventured all this distance, with no guarantee the event would proceed. Was it a fable or urban myth?

In late September, the fall colors display a variegated rainbow of tonal intensity, all shades of the autumnal spectrum. It did not disappoint. We were overwhelmed at first sight. A watercolor-like fusion of golds, greens, ambers, and umbers painted the dramatic, craggy peaks and valleys, providing a visual smorgasbord of hues and views. The aspens ablaze were striking, and my camera was on fire. Shot after shot, I was in Kodachrome heaven. Roll after roll, my Nikkormatt met its match. I realized, however, that my limited supply of slide film was rapidly diminishing. Jeez, I hadn’t even noticed, so engrossed in the panoramic eye candy! From that discovery, it became apparent I needed to shoot more judiciously. There were no Kodak kiosks atop Pearl Pass!

Our California contingent consisted of Joe Breeze (Breezer Bicycles), Charlie Kelly (Fat Tire Flyer/Mountain Bikes) Mike Castelli (Photographer/Point Reyes Bicycles) and me. Gary Fisher (Bicycling Magazine/MountainBikes) was flying in from the East Coast and would arrive by week’s end. Three of these riders were seasoned roadies. Their bike handling skills gave a certain leverage to the mix. And a few of us sported brand, spanking new Breezers. State-of-the-art, these technological wonders were the talk of the town! Fattitude…we brought it.

The history of the original trek from Crested Butte to Aspen via Pearl Pass is steeped in plenty of alcohol and true grit. Pursued more as a bar game than genuine contest, the Butte boys proved to be formidable challengers throughout the 40-mile assault and made their mark. The match was on.

For the uninitiated, the first leg is an easy roll out of town. We hit the dirt in unison, about a dozen diehards strong. The first mishap occurred shortly thereafter, a flat tire. According to the local newspaper, the Crested Butte Pilot’s, account of the tale: “The California boys immediately jackknifed into action. Tools selected after years of experience glimmered in sunlight as the intrepid Californians removed the wheel, replaced the tube, tuned the spokes, remounted the wheel, slacked the cones a tad, adjusted the chain and had Archie’s bike back on the road in 35 seconds flat!”

The slow slog to basecamp at Cumberland Basin went without serious incident. At 10,500 feet, we anticipated an overnight pit stop to rest, fuel up and share some stories. With plentiful food, beverage, and camaraderie, we basked in the warmth of newfound friends. Gathered around a blazing, sock-drying campfire and fueled by high-octane schnapps, tales were told. A bond quickly formed.

We arose to a frosty Sunday morn, eager to set out for the final segment of our climb. This section, a labyrinth-like gauntlet of rough rock high above the timberline, challenged even the fittest of our fat tire folks. Two thousand feet in less than two miles, we gradually reached the summit, a communal victory! Under threatening skies, a group photograph was procured. In total, 13 rugged individualists conquered the peak, securing a place in the annals of fat-tire history. Still, we were not prepared for the brutal, bone-shaking aggravation we were about to experience on the descent to Aspen. The ruthless pounding of person against bike was relentless. For miles, we hung on for dear life. Finally, we hit the pavement for the final roll into Aspen and our intended destination, the historic Jerome Hotel. We caused quite a stir, drew a crowd of curious onlookers, and chatted up the locals.

Our incredible journey was a life altering experience. The presence of the Marin crew was credited with keeping the wheels turning, year after year, a tradition shared by countless devotees of the wild and wacky. This event continues to draw a healthy mix of townsfolk and out-of-towners, eager to push the boundaries and test their mettle.

We reluctantly departed Crested Butte for the return home, our hearts still back at the Grubstake Saloon. We couldn’t wait to return! And return we did. Repeatedly, and en masse. The annual gathering has created a brother and sisterhood of extreme cyclists. If you can lay claim to this undertaking, and survive, you are in an elite club of crazies. That first year was transformative, our first junket to this otherworldly summit saw 13 survivors, in total. Decades later, that number grew exponentially, and this event is now regarded as one of the foremost downhill tests of fat tire endurance.