The highest people in the state.
Elevation-wise, at least.
While Mt. Elbert isn’t the hardest 14er in Colorado to hike (in fact, it’s one of the easier ones), it is the tallest. Hiking the peak is one thing, but hauling a bike to the top, camping, riding back down, and making a film in the process is a whole different animal. Gravity racer Darric Roark and filmmaker Davis Yates learned this the hard way when they set out to create the short doc Chasing Altitude.
Their mission was to capture Roark descending from the summit at sunrise – meaning an overnight camp at 14,000 feet was a must. A freakin’ intimidating must.
Sponsorship delays had pushed the trek out to October 2020. Weather at 14,000 feet would be dodgy and frigid, especially overnight.
According to Roark, “We probably each had 4-5 layers to sleep in because it was supposed to be 10 degrees that night.”
Roark shouldered his 50lb pack and 30lb Commencal Meta AM 29, Yates his 70lbs of camping and camera gear, and their helper Ben Corrado a 50lb pack of his own. The crew was well prepped for a late-Fall 5,000 foot trek up the Black Cloud Trail to the summit of the state.
“We had the stupidity to think, ‘oh this is going to be so cool, let’s do it.’ But once we got up there, it was just pain,” Yates recalled. “In the middle it felt like we were doing weighted lunges up a 40 degree slope.”
They reported the first few hours being bearable, but at much too slow of a pace. So as the sun got lower, the mountain got steeper; and these intrepid individuals had to climb faster.
Three hours in, they stopped for food and finally sat down for a break. The team looked at each other and asked, “Do we really want to keep going?” They decided that they may as well, having made it this far. They were deep in it now. With treeline in the rearview, the mountain opened up and got even steeper.
Speaking with Roark after the fact, it’s easy to sense anguish in his voice when recalling the ordeal. The pain stays with him. Intense physical strain was coupled with a healthy dose of mental strain.
Five hours in, the sun was lower, and the crew reached a false summit that rewarded them with a view of their end-goal; The Top. Roark said, “I teared up a little bit and started crying, because we had been hiking for 5 hours and I was getting a little delusional at that point. It’s just like, finally, this sight – we’re close. We got this now.”
But the mountain got steeper.
Roark said he felt he was “pushing his bike straight up into the air.”
It’s always easier to work toward a goal when the end is in sight. But to get to the camp spot, they had a thousand vertical feet to go and only an hour until sunset. The time crunch was growing more severe by the second, and the temperature was dropping fast. But a collective sense of commitment drove the group to camp just in time for sundown.
A quick dinner for the adventurers, and then they attempted to sleep. No more than three hours of patchy sleep each. At 14,000 feet, oxygen was in short supply. Yates could feel his pounding heart reawakening him every 20 minutes or so. Roark hardly got any rest to recharge him for his coming freefall down the highest mountain in Colorado.
At 4:00am, the phone alarms rang, and it was time to climb the final 500 vertical feet to the summit. As Yates recalled, it was a struggle, but worth it. They saw things as they’d never seen before. “It’s so unique, the sky turns into this deep, deep blue. It’s just you and the rocks and the sky.” Yates recalled.
Fifteen minutes ahead of sunrise, the crew made it to the summit. Right in the nick of time. The dream shot was about to become reality for the highest people in the state.
Roark and Yates were totally shot by this point; it had been an ordeal. Running on fumes, they began to descend – Roark throwing his 50lb pack around with style, Yates capturing the magic of it all.
Corrado ran out of water and made a beeline for the bottom, while Yates and Roark used the last of their energy to shoot the downhill shots they came for.
Switchback after switchback, the dream became a reality for this crew. The shots and the riding in the film speak for themselves. Why read this when you can watch it
Roark, being a confident descender, chose to run a very heavy 500lb spring on his rear shock. The racer only weighs 135lbs – the extra spring weight was to compensate for his hefty pack.
According to Roark, due to the massive training weight strapped to his back, the hardest shot for him as a rider was jumping off the little rock in the trees. Which is saying something; Roark is a hard charger, one of the most confident descenders I’ve ever had the pleasure of riding with. The rock shots took 4 or 5 attempts. Pulling up with that heavy of a pack is not only scary, it’s nearly impossible. And then the slam of the pack against his back and shoulders as he landed was even harder to bear. Airtime was basically not an option for this purebred pilot.
Incredibly, he managed to lift a few manuals on the way down. As for how the pack didn’t pull him down and loop him out? According to Roark, “(The pack) helped me get my weight back at least! It was certainly difficult to keep it there, ‘cuz it’s a lot of weight to shift back and forth and keep that wheel up.” Those micro-adjustments required to hold a manual were amplified by the 50lb pack on Roark’s shoulders.
Towards the end of the descent, water shortages became an issue. Yates admits he resorted to drinking collected snowmelt. Both guys were exhausted by the time the descent leveled out. A few punchy climbs, some retakes, and the boys were done. According to Roark, “We had some life-saving applesauce packets that kept us alive at the very end.”
“It’s so worth it in the end,” said Yates. And you and I can tell it was worth it. Because their finished product is downright insane.
Written by Jacob Penick