Katie and Andrew Strempke: The First Colorado Trail Yo-Yo!

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Last week, Katie and Andrew Strempke became the first bikepackers to yo-yo the Colorado Trail, competing the full 539-mile route twice in just under 17 days—on singlespeed mountain bikes. Find Katie’s reflection on this massive feat here, alongside photos and their complete pack lists…

Words by Katie Strempke (@katie.strempke), photos by Andrew Strempke (@strempke)

A year ago, I found myself on top of Tenmile Pass near Breckenridge, Colorado. I called Andrew in tears and asked him to pick me up. He just completed the Colorado Trail race in under six days—from Durango to Denver—and was waiting for me to finish. I was still out there, feet bleeding and body aching. In my research about the Colorado Trail, I read you potentially spend half of your time hiking and I thought I knew what that meant. I didn’t really understand until I got out there to do it. I don’t quit things, and I quit the 2019 Colorado Trail Race in Breckenridge, 150 miles from the finish. I wasn’t physically or mentally prepared for the challenge of the trail. I knew that blisters are a legitimate reason to call it, but it was still crushing.

Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo

Over the past year, I prepared my body and mind for another attempt at the Colorado Trail. I knew I had to go back and finish what I started. I went over my failures: the blisters, the slow hiking, the difficulty picking my bike up over obstacles. I started riding my mountain bike with flat pedals and hiking shoes and designed a strength training plan to address my weaknesses and past injuries. When COVID-19 hit, and there was no grand depart, Andrew and I considered our options. A week before our start, we planned to tour the route together. After all, I tried the race and I failed. I just wanted to make it from Denver to Durango this time.

As we prepared for our tour, we met up with our friends Alexandera and Justin who were getting ready for a yo-yo attempt. Turns out (as far as we know) no one has ever successfully completed a bikepacking yo-yo of the Colorado Trail before. I saw Andrew’s eyes light up. During a summer when everything’s cancelled it seemed like a good opportunity to do something epic. Even touring the route and making it to the finish would be a success for me, but for a guy who finished the CTR in under six days last year, touring wouldn’t be a challenge. And if Andrew was going to yo-yo, I wasn’t going to be left in the dust. So, with a generous dose of peer pressure, we signed up on trackleaders in the yo-yo category.

  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo

We left Denver on July 20th at 4:00 AM and rode up Waterton Canyon together until the start of the singletrack. We shared one last hug and I watched Andrew ride away up the trail that morning. I’m no stranger to riding solo so I got into a rhythm riding all-day pace to Kenosha Pass, where I camped for the night. With the yo-yo in mind, I promised myself at least six hours of sleep.

I was three days in, about to arrive in Buena Vista, when I tried turning my phone on for directions to the gas station and to check my messages. Nothing. Must be dead. I plugged it into my battery pack, nothing. I tried my dynamo, nothing. I got to the gas station and plugged it into an outlet with a different cord, nothing. I’ve never felt more like a millennial than when I was standing at that gas station, all worked up, trying to figure out what to do without a phone. Okay, I need to think through this. What am I using my phone for? #1 contacting family. Okay, I have my inReach mini. I can let them know my phone is broken and they can still contact me if anything comes up. #2 Guidebook. I know the route from here and where I need to make sure I fill up on water. #3 Music to keep wildlife away during the late night and early morning hours. I guess I’ll get really good at talking and singing to myself. I had a good cry, gave myself a pep talk, and kept riding through the rain to get onto segment 13 to camp.

Not having a phone honestly was a relief. The previous few days, I was preoccupied with Andrew’s dot. I could see how many hours he was ahead each day and do the math for how many days he’d be back in Denver drinking beer with friends without me. Without the phone, I could focus on my ride. Andrew could be a couple hours or days ahead and it wouldn’t matter. That morning, I was hiking up a hill, deep in thought about the positive implications of not having a phone and suddenly two mountain lions appeared, trotting over the crest of the hill. They saw me, froze for a second, and split in different directions off the trail. They were so majestic and huge. I felt lucky to have the interaction but I would be totally okay if those were the last mountain lions I ever see.

Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo

I dipped off the Colorado Trail for the La Garita Wilderness detour. It was 6:30 PM, there were rain clouds all around, and I started thinking about my next resupply in Silverton. One hundred miles to get to Silverton. If I stop riding at 11:00 PM tonight and start at 5:30 AM tomorrow, I’m not going to make it to the gas station while it’s open. I knew once I got to the Spring Creek Pass trailhead, there was some difficult riding and hiking up over the high point of the trail. I figured I could go three miles per hour over that terrain. If I get to Spring Creek tonight, maybe, just maybe, I could make it within gas station hours. With that in mind, I tried to ride as efficiently as possible on the detour. As I rode up Los Pinos Pass, it started to rain. The rest of the night the rain didn’t let up. My bivy and quilt were still a bit damp from the night before. There wasn’t enough sun to dry it out that day. It could be a cold night. I still planned to camp, but getting someplace with a bathroom as an emergency shelter could be a good idea just in case I get too cold. All the more reason to make it to Spring Creek Pass where I knew there was a vault toilet.

I rolled into Spring Creek Pass trailhead and went to check out the bathroom, but there was already another bike there. Dang, someone beat me to it. I looked a little closer and realized it was Andrew’s bike. He and another bikepacker were already snuggled up in there by the time I arrived at 1:30 AM. I knocked on the door and said, “Andrew, it’s me.” He opened the door and we were giddy to see each other. Andrew didn’t have cell service and since my phone was broken, we hadn’t been able to communicate in a couple days, so seeing each other was a complete surprise. We knew we needed to sleep to get out of the toilet at a decent time, but we were like a couple of teenage girls at a slumber party, sharing stories of what we’ve been through so far.

  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo

It was still raining in the morning. The doubletrack to Jarosa Mesa was a mess. It was a long day up to high point and through the Cataract Ridge area. I broke my six hours of sleep rule and it showed. I hiked so slow and was emotional trying to deal with what it means now that Andrew and I are riding together. Is this still an ITT? Are we going to keep riding together? Will he resent me if he waits for me up this hike? It rained all day long and started getting pretty cold into the evening. After shivering the whole way down Stony Pass into Silverton, we pulled into the gas station at 8:30 PM, what I thought was 30 minutes before closing. Unfortunately, I was wrong about the hours and they had closed at 8:00. We tried a few restaurants but they were closed too. We were able to find a room at the Red Mountain Hotel and RV Park for the night to get warm, dry out our clothes, and wait for the gas station to open in the morning. I took a shower to warm up, rinsed my dirty clothes, and lay in bed wondering if we could really yo-yo in these conditions.

We slept in that morning and made a trip to the gas station to buy what we thought was enough food to get from Silverton to Durango and back to Silverton again. We didn’t want to stop in Durango for fear of getting too comfortable in town and quitting. We procrastinated and didn’t leave Silverton until noon. We were fully rested and fed, making for a pleasant and efficient day, though our mileage was low due to the late start.

Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo

The next day, we headed higher up into the mountains and watched the sky. There were dark clouds all around. We waited out an afternoon thunderstorm and took a nap in the trees. Once it passed, we continued climbing. We were getting so close. As we approached Indian Ridge at 7:00 PM, we watched the sky darken again. I surveyed the area around us. For now, if a storm came, we’d be able to hunker down in some trees a few hundred feet down the hillside. As we continued climbing the ridge, we heard thunder, then it started getting closer. Once we ascended to the top of the peak, we knew we’d be exposed for hours. That’s just not a smart place to be in a thunderstorm so we bailed to the trees and set up our tarps to wait it out. Soon, 8:00 PM came, then 9:00, and there was still thunder in the area.

By 10:00 PM, the thunder and lightning were gone, but it was still steadily raining. I proposed camping at our spot on the hill. We were dry and relatively warm. I didn’t want to make that climb or descent in the dark and rain and if our final destination was really Denver and not Durango. Getting to Durango a few hours earlier by riding through the cold and rain potentially compromises the yo-yo. We dug a trench for our butts in the hillside so we wouldn’t slide down the hill and tried our best to sleep. We finally started moving again at 7:00 AM. The skies were clear, and we couldn’t ask for a better day to arrive in Durango. Though we were tired, we already forgot how miserable it was being stuck on that ridge in the rain. The extra day we spent getting to Durango meant we needed to get to a grocery store. We went into town, had a real meal, and got the fuel we needed to get back to Silverton. We’re really going to do this.

We got back to the trailhead at 3:00 PM and started heading back the way we came, confusing a few hikers, “Didn’t I see you yesterday?” We were lucky the weather was perfect when we arrived in Durango, otherwise it would have been difficult to turn back around. At that point, we decided to stick together for the rest of the yo-yo. Our paces were similar and we felt safer together with the weather. That night, we camped halfway up Kennebec. With acclimated lungs and legs, we made quick progress up the rest of Kennebec and up Indian Ridge with clear weather and dry trail the next day.

  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo

The 5:30 alarm came too early after a 1:00 AM bedtime followed by a very persistent deer rummaging around our campsite. We had a few miles of gorgeous trail to Molas Lake before descending back into Silverton. We reached the top of Stony Pass and were greeted with a stiff wind. This Kansas girl estimates 40 miles per hour with 55 mile per hour gusts. Even though we were being blown around, we didn’t mind because the sun was out, and we could see the views of the most beautiful part of the trail.

We made it to the high point at sunrise on a clear morning, a stark contrast with the last time we were up there in the rain and fog. We rode down from the high point to Jarosa Mesa where we met a huge herd of sheep. Andrew went first, parting the sea of sheep and I laughed at the sight. We made it back to Spring Creek Pass trailhead where I caught Andrew several days earlier. We filtered water and lubed chains, getting ready to crush the gravel detour with a rad tailwind. We made it past the toughest part of the trail and the rest of the way felt like it would be a victory lap. We checked off milestone locations: Sargent’s Mesa, Fooses, Highway 50, Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, Buena Vista, the Leadville detour.

  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo

One of the toughest days for me was riding Kokomo, Searle, and Tenmile all in one day. I was nervous for Tenmile as it’s where I quit last year, and on the way west, it took me forever. At the bottom Andrew predicted we’d be at the top by sunset. My guess was 9:45 PM. This was one of the only areas of tension we had. Andrew consistently made optimistic estimations for when we’d arrive at a destination and I would always guess at least a couple hours later. His timeline made me feel like I was going too slow even when I was trying so hard and he felt like I was being too pessimistic. At the top of Tenmile, I was completely exhausted and had trouble keeping my eyes open. Finally, Andrew said, “We’re at the top!” I looked at my watch, 9:45 on the dot. We descended down the exposed trail, mostly walking because I didn’t put full trust in my motor skills at that point. We finally reached treeline where we camped and waited for daylight to continue the descent down.

Two more days to go. We were both feeling motivated that morning. We crushed the climb up Georgia, grinding on our singlespeeds. At 8:15 that night, we arrived at the Stagestop Saloon. They close at 7:00, but Pat is an avid dot watcher and we arrived at the same time as another CT racer. He heard us outside and opened up the store so we could buy some snacks. That night, we wanted to get at least half of the Tarryall detour done. I was very sleepy and Andrew asked, “Why are you so tired? It’s only 11:00.” I told him, “Andrew, we’ve been riding bikes for SEVENTEEN HOURS today, I think it’s acceptable for me to be tired.” We got to our camp spot at 12:30 AM and followed the six hour sleep rule so we would enjoy our last day.

  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
  • Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo
Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo

Our final morning, we started ticking off the miles. We finished the detour, got to segment 3, then 2, then 1. The Colorado Trail doesn’t let you off easy and there’s one more substantial hike-a-bike up from the river on the last segment. That evening, we made it to Lenny’s Rest, sat, and took it all in for a couple minutes. It’s all downhill from there. As we rode back down the canyon to where it all started, we reflected on our experiences and how we were grateful to have finished the ride together with bikes and bodies intact. Our friend Scott was at the trailhead and generously gave us a ride back to his house where we celebrated with pizza and beer.

We finished our Colorado Trail yo-yo in 16 days, 14 hours, 20 minutes. This victory was especially sweet after last year’s defeat. It’s hard to prepare for the difficulty and beauty of the trail and at times both brought me to tears. One of my mantras during the ride was growth > comfort, one I’ll continue to carry with me through bikepacking and in life.

Katie’s Colorado Trail Pack List

Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo

Custom Pedalino Ti 29er

Salsa Salt Flat carbon bars
Ergon GS3 grips and SMC Sport Gel Women’s saddle
PNW Rainier Dropper Post
Fox 34 Fork
SON dynamo and DT Swiss 350 rear hub, Stans Arch rims
Sinewave Beacon headlight
Continental 2.4” tires, Stans sealant inside
Raceface Altas crank, Wolf Tooth Oval 32t chainring. 22t rear cog
Shimano XT Brakes and Pedals
Edge 1030 Plus

Handlebar Bag

Sea to Summit Big River 8L dry bag with Voile straps
DIY bug mesh bivy
Loco Libre 30° quilt
Sea to Summit Women’s Ultralight Insulated pad
Sil poly tarp

Saddle Bag

Rockgeist Gondola with Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil 4L dry bag
Arcteryx Cerium LT puffy
Wool gloves
Long sleeve wool shirt
Wool tights
Buff
Extra wool socks

DIY Roll-Top Frame Bag

First aid kit
Food
Tool Kit
Pump
Spare Tube

DIY Top Tube Bag

Cache battery, USB cables
Snacks

Backpack

Orange Mud Adventure Pack 12L
2.5L bladder
Marmot Precip rain jacket
Marmot Precip rain pants
Rocky gore-tex waterproof socks
DIY rain mitts
Trowel
Hygiene kit: toothbrush / paste, A&D ointment, Sunscreen, Caffeine pills, Aleve
Extra food when fully loaded

Worn

Wool T-shirt
Pearl Izumi Sunsleeves
Synthetic unpadded bike shorts
Wool socks
Patagonia Dirt Roamer shorts
Giro DND gloves
Lems shoes
Lightweight cycling cap
Smith helmet
Fenix PD35 flashlight with Two Fish mount

Downtube

Grayl Ultralight Water Filter

Andrew’s Colorado Trail Pack List

Strempke Colorado Trail Yo-Yo

Santa Cruz Chameleon C

Salsa Salt Flat carbon bars
Ergon GS3 grips and SM Pro saddle
Fox Transfer Dropper Post
Fox Rhythm 34 Fork
SON dynamo and DT Swiss 350 rear hub, Nextie carbon rims
Sinewave Beacon headlight
Maxxis Rekon 2.6” tires, Stans Sealant inside
Raceface turbine crank, Wolf Tooth Oval 34t chainring. 22t rear cog
Shimano XT Brakes and Pedals
Edge 1030 Plus

Handlebar Bag

Sea to Summit Big River 8L dry bag with Voile straps
DIY bug mesh bivy
Loco Libre 30° quilt
Thin foam pad
Sil poly tarp

Saddle Bag

DIY bag with Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil 4L dry bag
Montbell Anorak puffy
Wool gloves
Wool cap
Long sleeve wool shirt
Knee warmers
Buff
Extra wool socks

DIY Roll-Top Frame Bag

First aid kit
Food
Spare Tube

Alpkit Top Tube Bag / Feed Bag

Cache battery, USB cables
Multi-tool, mini pliers, chain lube
Bandana
Bug spray
Snacks

Backpack

Orange Mud Adventure Pack 12L
2.5L bladder
Montbell Versalite rain jacket
Marmot Precip rain pants
Rocky gore-tex waterproof socks
DIY rain mitts
MSR Trailshot water filter
Hygiene kit: toothbrush / paste, A&D ointment, Sunscreen, Caffeine pills, Aleve
Extra food when fully loaded

Worn

Wool T-shirt
Pearl Izumi Sunsleeves
Wool boxer briefs
Wool socks
Patagonia Dirtcraft shorts
Giro DND gloves
Giro Terraduro shoes
Lightweight cycling cap
POC Octal X helmet
Fenix PD35 flashlight with Two Fish mount

DIY Bolt-on Downtube Bag

Tool kit
Pump
Spare tube
Trowel

Katie Strempke

About Katie Strempke

Born and raised in Kansas City, Katie is currently living and traveling in her van with her husband, Andrew. She enjoys long days on the bike, sleeping outside, and touring with a sense of urgency. See more on Instagram @katie.strempke or on her blog ridingbikeswithandrewandkatie.blogspot.com

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