Historic Argentine Central Grade
The Argentine Central Railway was a narrow-gauge railroad operating between 1906 and 1918. The line served silver-mining operations above Silver Plume, Colorado, at the Waldorf Mine. Moreover, above and beyond the Waldorf Mine, tourists were transported to the 13,000-foot level of 13,587-foot Mount McClellan. From McClellan's flank, tourists enjoyed an exotic view of Grays Peak and Torreys Peak rising to 14,270 feet and 14,267 feet, respectively.
Several miles south of Mount McClellan, the Continental Divide runs the crest of the Front Range Mountains. In this area, easiest access over the Divide is via Argentine Pass. The pass hovers at 13,207 feet and is cradled between 13,850-foot Mount Edwards and 13,738-foot Argentine Peak. The pass is reached from the east via steep 4x4-trail from the old Waldorf Mine. The pass can be reached via bicycle, or foot, from Horseshoe Basin on the west side. I've wanted to ride as far as I could up Argentine Pass for quite some time. Let's see if I can do it this late in the riding season.
It's a late October morning and I'm beginning a mountain bike ride at 9,100 feet of elevation. I shut the car door as quick as I open it. Brrrr, I'm not ready for winter yet. I change into riding gear in the tiny confines of my small pickup. My objective is to get too warm with my gear on, thus wanting to jump out in the cold. It works almost every time. Soon, the familiar click-click of shoes mating with pedals indicates a new adventure has begun. The historic rail grade begins about a quarter-mile from the pickup and fills in as a nice warm-up.
Forests can be resilient, if given time. Aspen and lodgepole pine are slowly encroaching onto the old rail bed. One hundred-years ago a narrow-gauge steam locomotive chugged (possibly gasped) up this route.
It's cold in the forest, and water scattered along the trail is frozen in flow. However, I've chosen the right mix of clothes, and I stay warm without overheating too much. Several miles later, I huff and puff into a sunlit clearing where an old fireplace has refused to die. The historic grade and the single track end here. The old rail line soon becomes Forest Route 248.1, a jeep road ascending the Leavenworth Creek drainage to the Waldorf Mine.
I'm absorbing the sun as fast as I can. That's just what lizards do. Not only will I be on sunny aspects until late afternoon, the wind hasn't kicked in yet. After shedding an upper layer, my crawl up the rough road toward treeline continues.
Mount Edwards becomes my stick and carrot as I continue to crawl over rocks and hike-a-bike frozen stream crossings.
Treeline is reached in a respectable time. Despite some ice, snow cover has been minimal and confined to shady areas. Climbing on, I enter my favorite part of the high peaks – the tundra. I keep an eye peeled for mountain goats. Although, as nice as it is, I'm sure any goats are lounging in the sun on surrounding summits.
It's time to tackle Argentine Pass. Wait, let me restate that; it's time to walk up the pass. Not only does the jeep road ramp up steeply, the majority of the trail is covered in drift snow, leaving a sliver of non-rideable loose rock along the downhill edge. There are few rideable segments. I'm about 10 miles from the pickup, and I have the hills to myself. Hence, I decide on a 3:00 p.m. turnaround to get back to the pickup before dark. Descending the rough road won't be as fast as I would like.
At 2:30 I call it good. I'm at 12,700 feet; 0.8 mile from the Pass and getting tuckered. I could leave the bike and hoof-it straight up the tundra, but that would still take an hour to get up and back. Besides, the idea was to get a bike up the trail in fall/winter conditions. Having summited many of the peaks in this area, I don't feel too bad about not gaining the saddle.
My oatmeal has worn off and I grab a Powerbar; I might as well eat. As often happens, "the hills are alive with the sound of music" pops to mind as I take in this high alpine setting. A lot of rockfall catches my attention too. I wonder if goats are on the prowl. Perhaps, but most likely it's due to thawing.
A windswept Argentine Peak rises above me. The sun is getting low and the afternoon shade, along with cooler temps, are not far off.
Yes, the jeep road is steep. Although it looks rideable, it really isn't with the snow.
There are acres and acres of golden tundra waving below the pass. If not windblown, this area might yield some good backcountry skiing next spring. I'll keep that in mind; I need to enjoy winter first.
A small tarn just above the Waldorf Mine never did thaw. Yet, the stream draining the tarn did melt some. I wasn't forced to find iceless rocks for crossings, as was required while ascending. Stream crossings can be rather interesting this time of year. It's not a good idea to get wet. I carry several items of dry clothing in case of a water landing.
Only one out-building remains standing at the Waldorf Mine.
Descending Leavenworth Creek, many of the side-streams were beginning to freeze back up for the evening. I was careful descending in and out of shady areas.
Back onto the rail grade, it's a short descent to the car. When I finished, I realized I had misjudged the difficulty of the route because it was a 4x4 road. Had I started an hour earlier, I would have reached Argentine Pass. Nonetheless, I had an entire day to myself. I didn't see anyone up high, not even a billy, a nanny or a kid.