Highest Hundred: An Interview With The Long Ranger
Just a few weeks ago, Justin Simoni (AKA “The Long Ranger”) finished bikepacking and climbing 105 of Colorado’s highest peaks. The self-supported, non-stop trip required 380,000+ feet of elevation gain and was completed in just over 60 days. We interviewed Justin to try and wrap our heads around this insane accomplishment…
Early afternoon on September 16th, 36 year-old Justin Simoni, a performance artist, ultra-endurance veteran, and self-proclaimed whiskey snob, rolled into Boulder, Colorado after a two-month bike and peak-bagging odyssey. One might call the expedition epic, but that would be an understatement. First, picture a bikepacking trip covering 1,720 miles with 136,374 feet of of ascending. Then tack on an additional 247,810 feet and 624 miles hiking and climbing… all linking together Colorado’s highest 105 peaks ranging from 13,809 to 14,433 feet. Then consider doing all of this non-stop in roughly two months. This is the Highest Hundred, a project Justin has been training for and planning for some time. And it’s a feat that The Long Ranger is still recovering from, a little over a month after finishing it.
Justin originally left his home in Boulder on July 18 at exactly 3:42 AM pedaling his trusty Surly Ogre. 60 days, 14 hours, 59 minutes, 42 seconds, and countless flour tortillas later he finished this 2,344-mile adventure that racked up 384,184 feet of elevation gain, the equivalent of 13.23 sea-level to summit hikes to the top of Mount Everest.
We had the chance to catch up with Justin and ask him a few questions…
What’s the “Highest Hundred”? Has anyone else attempted such a thing?
The Tour of the Highest Hundred is THE ultimate self-powered, self-supported peak-bagging grand tour of the Colorado mountains. The goal is simple: summit the 100 highest peaks in Colorado. Ride to the trailheads using a bike, summit them on foot, and do so without stopping. Take whatever route you choose, so long as it’s legal. Accept no outside support.
The physical challenges are great: the bikepacking route is 1,700+ miles with 135,000’+ of elevation gain; the on-foot portion is 625+ miles with 245,000′ of elevation gain. The majority of the route is well over 9,000′ above sea level. The bikepacking route alone features three mountain passes over 13,000′. And don’t forget you’re going to be above treeline for endless hours while on foot actually summitting those hundred highest mountains! Weather is unpredicatable except that winter will eventually come to shut your attempt down, so you need to go as fast as possible to try to beat it.
The rules are in the same ethos as other self-supported ultra endurance bikepacking races, like the Tour Divide, Arizona Trail Race, Colorado Trail Race, etc. In the self-supported style, I’m really the only one who’s ever tried, or finished the challenge and it’s a miracle I was so successful on my first try!. I hope others in the future will step up to try the challenge, now that I’ve set the bar.
The sister challenge to the Tour of the Highest hundred is the Tour 14er – same rules apply, but you “only” are summiting the top 58 mountains in Colorado whose elevation is above fourteen thousand feet. That challenge was first finished by two brothers: Pete and Glen Dunmire in 1985, in a time of around 60 days. Since then, only a handful of people have taken on the challenge in any style, and only a few that I have found in my research have taken it on in what we would consider self-supported.
When I accepted the challenge of the Tour 14er in 2014, the fastest known time was around 37 days and 12 hours by Roy Benton in 1997. I finished in around 34 days 12 hours in 2014. Joe Grant finished his version of the Tour de 14ers in 32 days and change. Joe’s ride is the last completion I know about, although others have tried since then. Both of these challenges are so massive in scale, you have to essentially commit to training for most of the winter and spring, most of the summer to do the challenge, then use most of the fall for recovery.
The Tour of the Highest Hundred is something out of my own imagination forged during long, dark winter days when the weather shuts me down from any outside activities and I’m left dreaming of what next level thing to do in the mountains. Nothing like it has been attempted before except one very daring trip by Rob Barlow in 2016 who completed a fully-supported version of the Highest Hundred challenge in 71 days. I feel that the fully-supported and self-supported versions of this challenge should live independently of each other – I wasn’t trying to beat Rob’s time or anything, but I can’t stress enough how much Rob’s trip got my ass in gear, and in shape, so that I could give a self-supported version a go.
So what motivated you to take on such a crazy endeavor? What or who was your inspiration?
My main motivation is my love for the mountains and wanting to approach them using a bike, rather than a car. Having an adventure start from your front door is just the coolest thing ever. In Colorado, there’s just so many adventures awaiting me a few miles away! Having finished the Tour 14er was a huge accomplishment, but I really wanted to see what else could be done and doing the Highest Hundred seemed just a little bit more out there and futuristic.
Colorado Centennial Peaks (Top 100)
To illustrate the shear scale and volume, here is a list of Colorado’s Centennial Peaks. Note the ones in italic are not in the ‘peak-bagging’ 100, but were extra-credit for Justin.
Mount Massive (14,421)
Mount Harvard (14,420)
Blanca Peak (14,345)
La Plata Peak (14,336)
Uncompahgre Peak (14,309)
Crestone Peak (14,294)
Mount Lincoln (14,286)
Grays Peak (14,270)
Mount Antero (14,269)
Torreys Peak (14,267)
Castle Peak (14,265)
Quandary Peak (14,265)
Mount Evans (14,264)
Longs Peak (14,255)
Mount Wilson (14,246)
Mount Cameron (14,238)
Mount Shavano (14,229)
Mount Princeton (14,197)
Mount Belford (14,197)
Crestone Needle (14,197)
Mount Yale (14,196)
Mount Bross (14,172)
Kit Carson Mountain (14,165)
El Diente (14,159)
Maroon Peak (14,156)
Tabeguache Peak (14,155
Mount Oxford (14,153)
Mount Sneffels (14,150)
Mount Democrat (14,148)
Capitol Peak (14,130)
Pikes Peak (14,110)
Snowmass Mountain (14,092)
Windom Peak (14,087) 2167)
Mount Eolus (14,084) 1004)
Challenger Point (14,081)
Mount Columbia (14,073)
Missouri Mountain (14,067)
Humboldt Peak (14,064)
Mount Bierstadt (14,060)
Sunlight Peak (14,059)
Handies Peak (14,048)
Culebra Peak (14,047)
Mount Lindsey (14,042)
Ellingwood Point (14,042)
Conundrum Peak (14,040)
North Eolus (14,039)
Little Bear Peak (14,037)
Mount Sherman (14,036)
Redcloud Peak (14,034)
Pyramid Peak (14,018)
Wilson Peak (14,017)
Wetterhorn Peak (14,015)
San Luis Peak (14,014)
North Maroon Peak (14,014)
Mount of the Holy Cross (14,005)
Huron Peak (14,003)
Sunshine Peak (14,001)
Grizzly Peak (13,988)
Stewart Peak (13,983)
Pigeon Peak (13,972)
Mount Ouray (13,971)
Columbia Point (13,960)
Ice Mountain (13,951)
Fletcher Mountain (13,951)
Pacific Peak (13,950)
Cathedral Peak (13,943)
French Mountain (13,940)
Mount Hope (13,933)
Thunder Peak (13,932)
Mount Adams (13,931)
Gladstone Peak (13,913)
Mount Meeker (13,911)
Casco Peak (13,908)
Red Mountain (13,908)
Emerald Peak (13,904)
Horseshoe Mountain (13,898)
Phoenix Peak (13,895)
Vermilion Peak (13,894)
Cronin Peak (13,870)
Mount Buckskin (13,865)
Vestal Peak (13,864)
Jones Mountain (13,860)
Clinton Peak (13,857)
Dyer Mountain (13,855)
Crystal Peak (13,852)
Mount Edwards (13,850)
California Peak (13,849)
Mount Oklahoma (13,845)
Half Peak (13,841) 1481)
Atlantic Peak (13,841)
Hagerman Peak (13,841)
North Apostle (13,840)
Turret Peak (13,835)
Redcloud Peak-Northeast Peak (13,832)
Holy Cross Ridge (13,831)
Jupiter Mountain (13,830)
Huerfano Peak (13,828)
Jagged Mountain (13,824)
Lackawanna Peak (13,823)
Mount Silverheels (13,822)
Rio Grande Pyramid (13,821)
Teakettle Mountain (13,819)
Redcloud Peak-Far Northeast Peak (13,811)
Dallas Peak (13,809)
I mean, this is a huge feat. Have you done anything similar in the past?
I was tempered for the Tour of the Highest Hundred when I completed the Tour 14er in 2014. Same idea: bikepack to the 58 Colorado 14ers and summit them. Big difference for the Tour of the Highest Hundred is that there’s almost twice as many mountains to summit! And the bottom mountains on the list are actually on average more remote and technically difficult. So, it takes about twice as long to complete. A month into my Tour of the Highest Hundred, I realized I still had a month more to go. Totally mental! The bikepacking route is very similar, so it was nice to revisit some areas I hadn’t been in a while, and supplement new parts of my route using some recently attained beta.
Of course before both of those trips, I did two runs at the Tour Divide, one Colorado Trail race, and I’ve toured in a more traditional style across the US, Europe, and New Zealand. My biggest backpack before this past summer was only about 5 days in total! I’m not a big backpacker – I prefer to travel over distances with a bike!
Where and how long did you sleep every night? did you use a bivy bag?
I usually preferred to sleep close to the trailhead of the mountains I needed to tag, so that I could get an early start to summit them, before the afternoon thunderstorms would inevitably hit. I did stay in a few hostels when I needed to repair gear, grab supplies in town, take a shower, clean clothes, or just take an extended rest. Most nights were between 6-8 hours of rest. I found that I needed a lot more recovery time than I did when I raced the Tour Divide or the Colorado Trail Race. I guess this was because of the length of the Highest Hundred – two months is 3x as long as people are now finishing the Tour Divide; and how much exertion there is with the hiking portion of this challenge.
Long story short, yeah, I bivied. No other way to go! Long story long, I had a pretty tricked out sleep system:
Ultimate Direction FK Bivy (sub 200 grams)
Ultimate Direction FK Tarp (sub 300 gram tarp)
Sierra Designs Cloud 35 degree sleeping bag (1 lb 7 ounce)
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Therm 4-season sleeping pad (425 grams)
Added up, it weighed less than 4 lbs. I fit that all in a Sea to Summit XS eVent compression dry sack. I could fit that snugly into my 35 liter pack for long fastpacks, or into a Revelate Designs Sweetroll quickly. I have a big writeup about the sleep system gear here.
Were you completely spent once you finished?
Well, it’s been over a month after I’ve finished, and I still feel pretty much hammered. I haven’t ridden more than 10 miles in a day on a bike, and I haven’t taken more than 100 steps on foot! A few yoga sessions a week is really all I’ve felt like would be a good idea. Giving yourself some downtime after a huge year is not the worst idea. I’m pretty sure I’m suffering from some GI infection, and I crushed my ankle falling in the Boulderfield of Longs Peak on my last day. I hobbled out the last 5 miles, and rode the 40 miles to the finish, but once my adrenaline tapered off, it started to hurt. I’m mostly practicing yoga, trying to untuck my body, and giving the sympathetic nervous system a break.
What were your best and worst moments on the trip?
The worst moments are the easier ones to describe! The first few weeks for me featured almost guaranteed rain, thunder, lightning, and hail. I don’t believe I escaped a day without deluge until well into the second half of August. Getting rained on, being wet all the time – it’s difficult to keep the stoke going. This weather pattern seemed more severe that the usual Colorado Monsoon season. I would wake up, ride to the trailhead in the rain, hike in the rain, summit surrounded in rain clouds totally socked in with no payoff views, then reverse everything and go back to town. Instead of something fun and adventurous, it felt like a grind. To take that much time off work, to have trained so hard, to have saved enough money to start the trip – the question I posed to myself was: is this all worth it?
One of the worst thunderstorms to have hit me was on Redcloud Peak between Lake City and Silverton. An angry and enormous storm came cruising directly towards me at around 10:00am, which is really early for such a storm to come through. I was on my way to Sunlight Peak traversing from Redcloud – only a mile or so away, all above treeline with no bailout options along the way. I had cached most of my gear/clothes back at Redcloud so that I could quickly run and tag Sunlight, before picking up my gear back on Redcloud. But, before I could get back to Redcloud, the storm moved right above me: high winds, cold temperatures, hail, and lots of lightning. Getting struck by lightning is a very real danger up so high. More people die of lightning strikes than any other reason in the mountains.
The storm was too violent, and I couldn’t risk trying to reach my warmer clothes on top of Redcloud, so I hunkered down a few hundred feet below the summit and waited until the storm blew out, while I slowly become colder and colder. Where I was, wasn’t exactly safe, but it was slightly better than being on the summit. I was starting to get hyperthermic staying in one place with only like, a pair of running shorts on – I couldn’t move my hands or arms, so I was forced to make a dash to the summit to grab my warm clothes and just hope I wasn’t hit by lightning. Pretty scary to make those sorts of decisions. I grabbed the gear and got down to safer ground without getting fried. I still had two more peaks in that area to summit, before trying to make it down to Silverton on my bike, via Cinnamon Pass. If I arrived in town too late, I would miss anything being open, and I’d have nothing to eat for dinner. In my haste, I hit an iceberg of a rock and dented my front wheel badly while rocketing down the talus-laden ATV trail. I limped into town late, and spent the night ditched right off the highway on a strip of BLM land, entirely spent. In the morning, I grabbed a bunk at the grimiest hostel you could imagine, while it rained and rained and rained. I made sure to buy an emergency poncho and space blanket to always have with me at arm’s reach that day. The wheel I damaged was beyond repairable, so I just made sure to baby it while riding until I could get it looked over at Absolute Bikes in Salida, weeks later. I was worried the tire would come off the rim, the inner tube would bust out and get tangled with my fork, causing a dramatic braking of my front wheel, and I’d go ass over teakettle. All this could have happened at any time, which was kind of freaky to think, while riding. Denting the rim and blowing the tubeless seal turned out to be my only mechanical! And the dent caused no further problems. Another miracle.
But, if it wasn’t raining too badly, I was absolutely in a joyful mood, even though I would be beyond tired, underfed, and exceptionally dirty. I was just happy to be out there doing what I set off to do. The best day for sure was in the Weminuche Wilderness. I got a weather window through that terrible monsoon weather, and was able to summit Jagged Mountain and Vestal Peak in the same day – some of the most remote, technically difficult and beautiful peaks of my entire trip. Just an incredible feeling to knock those off, and be able to hike all night out of this enormous Wilderness area able to finish up a huge section of my trip!
How did you plan your route? And were you able to accurately estimate the time it would take?
When it came to the bikepacking route, my goal was really to link up all the mountains I had to visit by taking an offroad route that was still an efficient way to get to where I needed to go. Luckily, the Colorado mountains have an amazing network of old dirt roads, 4WD tracks, and trails to work with! Then, it was just a matter of figuring out the most efficient path to each trail head. Maybe that’s where my experience with touring so much in Colorado as well as racing the Colorado Trail Race and Tour Divide kicks in. But a lot of my route was just faith it would work out. The summer season in Colorado is so short, it’s not possible to recon huge parts of the route right before the trip. You just have to go for it.
I avoided as much pavement as possible to give myself the safest route possible – I don’t mind riding a random ATV trail in the middle of the night, but I’d think twice about riding some of the paved highways we have in Colorado at night – many feature narrow lanes, incredibly steep dropoffs and little if any shoulder. Traffic during the high tourist season can be intense. Some times I would have to take a paved road at night, like Independent Pass, which I tried to do right after dinner. Bad idea. I bailed at around 8:30pm, pretty much scared to death to keep going.
In contrast, I would do all-night missions out in the ATV trails in the San Juans, and they were usually just amazing. Most jeepers and 4WD enthusiasts would pack it up at night, so I had the entire track to myself. Great stargazing bivyed above treeline right below a giant mountain pass. Good times.
What did you eat?! How many calories were you burning through per day and how did you plan your resupply points?
Eating was certainly an interesting problem to solve, but it boiled down mostly in trying to get enough calories into my body as possible, as cheaply as possible. I would shop items by comparing the price to the amount of calories! I’d have a calculator out, scratch paper – I’m sure I looked extremely strange comparing different brands of like, potato chips.
I usually carried more than a day of food with me at any one time as I rarely made it to town every day, preferring to be out in the mountains as much as possible. Out of necessity and thrift, the majority of my calories were different ingredients wrapped up in tortillas. Peanut butter and jelly, often supplemented with other things like chocolate frosting, nutella, or even coconut oil were regular dinners. Sometimes I would use cold cuts and cheese and just make a tortilla wrap or something. I had to be very careful with bringing along any sort of unsealed meat, as there’s just nothing better to attract bears, which I certainly wasn’t trying to do!
Along with the burrito platter of the day, I’d eat lots of candy, granola bars, ice cream – that sort of thing. Standard junk food diet of a bikepacking ultra racer. If I treated myself to a sit-down meal, it was usually a burger or pizza. If I was lucky, I could grab some sort of protein/maltodextrim-based hammer product, and make little baggies of all-day nutrition “shakes”, by adding chocolate milk powder and powdered coffee.
I only kept track of calories I ate per day when I needed to go on multi-day fastpacks off my bike. For those days, I made sure to have at least have 3,000 calories a day rationed. That almost certainly was not enough, but I found that if I didn’t add up the calories from the food I packed, I’d seriously underpack for the mileage I needed to cover. Food’s heavy in the pack!
How did you handle mapping and navigation? Any necessary reroutes?
I saved the entire route in my Garmin GPS before heading out, including alternatives to give myself options. The bikepacking route had a lot of flexibility built into it, as it was a series of interconnecting loops, so in many instances, I could pick if I’d like to do an inner loop clockwise or counter-clockwise. I could also treat a resupply town like Leadville, or Silverton as a hub in which I then made separate trips out into the mountains then back to town to resupply. Depending on the weather, time of day, my mental and/or physical state, I could choose which route and mountain to take on. When I needed to come back into town, I could be a little more efficient finding the food I liked, or any gear I needed.
That’s a nice luxury you don’t get in a race like Tour Divide, since you’re going point to point. It also hides just how much riding there is on this challenge, even though you never leave the mountains of Colorado!
What was your favorite piece of gear you brought along?
I got a Son 28 dynamo hub laced up by Chris Murray of Elevation Wheel Company, coupled with a Busch and Mueller Luxos U light. I really entered the dynamo hub/light game late, considering I ride bikes exclusively for transportation. Total game-changer as far as I’m concerned. Having the capability of an always-on, bright light is one huge worry removed when riding long distances, and the convenience of being able to charge electronics without stopping in town is way cool.
Greg at Bolder Bikepacking was kind enough to make a custom seat pack for me, featuring side bungees that allowed me to carry my trail runners securely. Losing a shoe would be a little bit more than a inconvenience, for sure! Greg also made my frame bag, and he added reflective fabric to both, to give me a little more confidence when riding at night.
I did all my hiking, running, fastpacking and climbing wearing the La Sportiva Mutant. For a trail runner, it makes a descent approach shoe and long-distance backpacking boot!
And of course, my trusty Surly Ogre. The build isn’t very flashy – everything is black and detuned looking. Remember, I’m leaving the bike out for hours, if not days while I’m up summiting the peaks. I kinda wanted to have it still there, on my return! Bringing too fancy of a bike just didn’t make sense to me.
Any future plans for trips or otherwise?
Winter is certainly coming in quickly in Colorado. I’m hoping to experiment with doing winter bikepacking trips of some form – even if it’s just overnighters in and around the local hills. The access to National Forests, Wilderness, and Rocky Mountain National Park right outside my house is just incredible, and I’d like to explore this terrain in a different season than I usually do. Winter camping, mountaineering, and approaching ski tours by bike is certainly on my radar. Experiment and have fun!
I’m also planning on putting together a guidebook of some form for people who would like to take a bikepacking and hiking hybrid trips in Colorado like the Tour 14er and Tour of the Highest Hundred. I believe Colorado has some of the best bikepacking you’ll find in the country – routes like The Colorado Trail and the Colorado segment of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route will attest to that. But, there’s so much more to Colorado than those two routes. And once you’re in the mountains, there’s so much to do! On my trip last summer, I bumped into, and heard about a lot of people hoping to, and getting after these types of trips. It’s the future I’d love to see!
After this Winter, I’d love to try and take on a few sea to summit trips of some high peaks in both North America and beyond. Denali from the coast is an obvious objective, but I’d also like to start out with peaks like Whitney and Rainier.
Anyone you’d like to mention or thank?
Too many, for sure. Some people to thank: Buzz Burrell and all the people at Ultimate Direction are huge supporters of my mountain mis-adventures, Quinn Carrasco and the rest of La Sportiva North America, Greg Wheelwright of course at Bolder Bikepacking, Kjersti Christensen at Outdoor Research, Brendan Leonard of Semi-Rad, Aaron Domeier at Surly Bikes, and the Colorado Mountain Club who awarded me a small grant towards the trip.