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Travel stories: How to lose your wallet on a big mountain

I don’t often write about my own misadventures, partly because too many of them become misadventurous and partly because I’m too busy having them (and working a day job) to write about it. That said, yes, I managed to break my mountain bike AND leave my wallet on top of a 14er during a recent vacation out west. No one who has seen me ride wonders how I broke the bike, but EVERYONE wants to know about the wallet saga.

Well, here you go. I’d be embarrassed, but being a one-man disaster area is too much fun for that. ~Jeff


1. Mountain biking

I went to Colorado because I wanted to ride my bike. Well, scratch that; I went to Moab, UT, though I found myself enjoying Fruita and Grand Junction and the empty spaces of western Colorado nearly as much.

For five days, I devoured every classic ride I could — Slickrock, The Whole Enchilada, Bookcliffs at 18 Road, Kokopelli & Horsethief Bench, Hyamasa/Captain Ahab, Mag 7, Deadman’s Ridge & Sidewinder, Schuman Gulch — racking up nearly 130 miles of sweet, technical singletrack and some seriously tired leg muscles. On day 6, approximately six miles from my car at Klondike Bluffs, one of my pivot bolts worked loose and disappeared into the thin air of the high desert. Some distance later, a bearing popped out, and the problem announced itself with a disturbing clunk.

Suddenly, the bike was unrideable, for lack of an obscure part that would be a special order at any shop. I’d have to hike out, and the mountain biking portion of my vacation was clearly over.

2. The backup plan

That six-mile hike back to the car — across slickrock and sandy 4×4 trails in carbon-soled clipless cycling shoes, all +95F mid-day desert heat with no shade — gave me plenty of time to think. What next?

I still had one full day of vacation remaining, and I needed to start making my way back from Moab toward Denver. My original itinerary called for me to ride trails near Grand Junction, but at this point anything beyond a hiking objective was likely out of the question.

On my last visit to Colorado, I’d entertained thoughts of hiking a 14er, but battled elevation issues for the first part of the week and less-than-ideal weather for the second part; I never made it above 12,500 feet or so. It was with some irony, then, that I realized I was without a plan, in Colorado, and relatively well-acclimated after riding at 9,500 feet in the La Sal mountains two days prior.

Yeah. A 14er! I would have to pick a straightforward option, as I lacked appropriate footwear and wasn’t prepared for impromptu off-trail navigation, but this was a plausible idea.

I remembered driving up to Guanella Pass on that previous trip, on my way from Georgetown to Buena Vista, and seeing the trailhead for a 14er at the pass itself. That was Mount Bierstadt. I checked out the Bierstadt beta on Rootsrated. This could work.


3. Bierstadt

Having decided that I’d give it a try, and having settled on one of the easiest 14ers out there — obvious trail all the way up, all “class 2” terrain, etc — I chose a dispersed campsite along the road to Guanella Pass from Georgetown. At almost exactly 10,000 feet above sea level, I knew morning would tell me exactly how well I’d acclimated.

The night was a peaceful one, my MSR Hubba Hubba perched on a bed of moss and pine straw in a clearing just barely large enough to fit. Having quality gear really makes it easy to be flexible on a whim; my Marmot Hydrogen +30f bag kept me perfectly warm, even at elevation on a night with low temps that nearly eclipsed its rating. I slept like a baby.

In the morning, I felt great. Rather than drive straight to the trailhead and charge up the mountain, I drove back into Georgetown for breakfast and a few gulps of thicker air. I had an excellent meal at the Mountainbuzz Cafe. The weather forecast looked promising. All was well.

I drove up and up, to the Guanella Pass trailhead, and parked the car. The route up Bierstadt is visible in its entirety from the parking area — or, it should have been, were it not for the clouds obscuring the summit. Tiny figures were visible in the distance, inching up the exposed slope.

The air was crisp, but the sun was shining and the parking lot was full. Even in the early morning at 11,600 feet, a nearby snowpack was actively melting. I couldn’t help but wonder how much deep snow I’d encounter as I climbed into those clouds and whatever lay beyond. I locked the car, shouldered my pack and hit the trail.

4. Up the Hill

As expected, the first leg of trail consisted mostly of ankle-deep mud wallows and half-melted slush, which conspired to soak my feet entirely. Unfortunately, I’d packed for mountain biking and mountain biking only, so I was wearing non-waterproof trail runners and a pair of bike shorts. Several picturesque sections of boardwalk saves hikers from the worst of it, thankfully, but I’d have wet feet all day. As expected.

On the far side of a mountain stream, the trail bends upward and the climbing begins. Since I’ve already admitted how sensitive my body is to elevation, I’ve no shame admitting further that I struggled physically on the way up Bierstadt. I was able to avoid dizziness, but my legs felt heavy and I had to stop frequently. Despite excellent cardiovascular fitness and a week of mashing pedals between 4,000 & 10,000 feet above sea level, apparently I need oxygen to function as any kind of athlete. So be it. I took my time, definitely didn’t set any speed records and made my way up.

The trail eventually meets a scree field and mostly disappears; hikers follow this slope up to a prominent shoulder, from which only a steep 200-foot ascent up a ridge remains to access the summit. Those who’d started earlier than I were gleefully sliding down the snow on its southern edge. I stayed left, scrambling across a jumble of boulders reminiscent of breakdown rooms in the caves back home. Eventually, I ran out of boulders to conquer. The climbing was done.

5. 14,000 feet

Being on top of a tall mountain brings a surprising loss of scale. I could no longer make out the parking lot in the distance, despite the now-clear view of our entire route, but I’m not certain the distance would be comprehensible even if it had been visible. Clouds and adjacent mountains stretched out in every direction without any tangible reference points. Which was I closer to? To the north, a sawtooth line of sharp peaks stretched toward Mount Evans. To the south, ominous-looking clouds gathered.

As popular as Bierstadt is on a Saturday in summer, I had plenty of company on the boulder gardens up top. Hikers sprawled across every snow-free surface, munching snacks and taking photos and soaking up sunlight whenever the wind died down. I typically try to avoid crowds, but this wasn’t unpleasant at all. These were my kind of people.

6. Empty pockets?

After 10 or 15 minutes on the summit with a dozen friendly strangers, I was finally starting to feel a little light-headed, and decided it was time to head down to the land of adequate oxygen. While I’m not sure “sliding on your butt on slushy snow” counts as actually glissading, I couldn’t resist, and several well-established butt tracks in the snow made for a rapid (but safe) descent through the lingering snow fields of the “Northwest Gully.”

Down around 12,500 feet, the snow disappeared, so I rejoined the trail and paused to remove my jacket. It was then that I discovered that the small pocket at the top of my pack was unzipped… and my wallet wasn’t in it.


After a relatively frantic shakedown of the pack and all of my pockets, two things were clear. First, that my wallet had most definitely fallen out of my pack somewhere on the way down the mountain, likely while leaning backward and butt-sledding through the snow. Second, that I was going to have to go back up and look for it.

I turned around and started back up the mountain; altitude headache be damned! My chosen descent route robbed me of the luxury of following a trail now; instead, I post-holed my way awkwardly back up the snow fields, without snowshoes or gaiters. It was steep, slow going, exhausting, and with each glissade I completed — in reverse — my hopes for finding the wallet faded.

As I again approached the mountain’s shoulder, things were looking grim. I was starting to crash physically after trudging an extra 1,200 vertical feet or so through the rapidly-softening afternoon snow, especially as I came down from the initial adrenaline rush of charging back up-slope. I’d checked all all along my descent route, assuming I was correctly remembering the exact sequence of glissades, without success.

It was now afternoon, prime time for thunderstorms, and a nasty black cloud was peeking over the ridge (photo at right). Other hikers on the mountain were scurrying downhill to dodge the looming possibility of lightning. I’d talked to everyone I’d passed, dozens of hikers heading down, and none of them had seen a stray wallet. This was a lost cause. I turned back.


7. The Wheeler Rescue

So it was, another long hike back to the car and time to think about my options. I didn’t have a photo ID anymore; how would I board my plane back home the next day? I didn’t have any money or credit cards; how would I pay to check my bike case with Southwest, or to get my car out of airport parking in Atlanta? I hiked fast, overtaking those in front of me and continuing to ask if anyone had seen a wallet, to no avail.

Arriving back at the trailhead, I borrowed a pen and paper and taped signs to the men’s and women’s toilets at the trailhead:


Back down in Georgetown, I called Denver TSA and asked about boarding a plane without my photo ID. I was assured, essentially, that this happens relatively often, and that I would be able to board the plane — though I would also be subject to some unpleasant-sounding “additional screening” and would need to allot some extra time. That solved one problem, but not the money issue. I had plenty in the bank, but could no longer access it, and no one could wire me cash without ID.

It was then I remembered: Dawson Wheeler, co-owner of Rock/Creek, was in Colorado for the weekend, in advance of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance trade show. He was climbing a different 14er with his son Josh that very day. This made him, essentially, the only man on the planet who could help me. I sent him a text message.

For those that don’t know Dawson, well, describing him adequately would have to be another article. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting 10 feet away from him in our shared office for the last three years. I knew he’d absolutely help me if he could; I also knew he’d get a kick out of both hearing my dilemma and giving me hell for it. As many years has he climbed avidly and guided trips of all kinds, he’d done it all before, too.

D called me back and told me to meet him at their hotel north of Denver. Then he bought me dinner and gave me a place to sleep for the night. In the morning, he took care of breakfast — and Josh cleaned out his own bank account to give me the cash I’d need to make it home. I was on my way.


8. A phone call

Dawson and Josh had left to go wash their car. I’d stayed back at the hotel to break my bike down in the parking lot, carefully padding and packing each part in the flight case for the trip home. That’s what I was doing when the phone rang.

“Hey, this is Amanda,” said the voice on the other end. The cell signal was patchy and cutting out, and she was only able to transmit one more phrase before the call dropped: “I have your wallet.”

I called back, disbelieving, and learned the full story. Hiking Bierstadt with her family after an early start, she’d found my wallet laying there at the top of the first snowy glissade. Not trampled deep down into the snow, not frozen into a mountain popsicle, not lost inextricably in the jumble of rock… just laying there. Everything was still in it. I drove back to Georgetown to meet her and retrieve it; it wasn’t even that wet.

I flew home that night, finally arriving home at 7:00 in the morning after a series of flight delays, but I didn’t care about any of that. Sometimes things just work out.

(Editor’s note: I offered to take Amanda and her family out to dinner that afternoon as a way of saying thanks, but she wouldn’t take me up on it… so, when I got back to work, I bought and mailed her a pair of Chacos. Karma!!!)