Adventure Grant Recap | Biking The Continental Divide Trail
Last year, Elissa Cummings was awarded one of the MEC Adventure Grants to bike along the spine of the Rocky Mountain Chain – 4300km from Jasper, AB, to the Mexican Border. We sat down recently to learn more about about Elissa and what inspired her to pursue this incredible journey. Check out the interview below!
Elissa will be presenting at MEC Canadian Adventure Show as part of our 22nd Annual VIMFF – program details coming soon!
Tell us a bit about what inspired the idea to bike the Continental Divide?
I had been volunteering in the bike industry and started working at a bike shop. My friends had done bike tours across Europe and Canada and hearing them talk about those tours, I started dreaming of waking up every morning and riding my bike. I wasn’t interested in touring on pavement so I looked up the longest off road cycling trail in the world. That’s the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (CDT) mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association. Unfortunately at the time I was injured from a bad concussion and couldn’t bike. Even though doctors suggested that I never bike again, I promised myself that I would attempt to bike the CDT after I had more time to heal. It was my light at the end of the tunnel and gave me motivation. Even though it was a long road to recovery, three years later, I was healthy again and ready to ride.
Why did you choose to do the journey solo?
I decided to the ride the Continental Divide Trail solo because it was just something I felt I had to do for myself. It became a spiritual journey for me and I learnt how to enjoy my own company. I have always been fairly independent but I have a twin sister so being alone isn’t something I was used to. The thought of traveling alone across America on a bike in the middle of nowhere surrounded by the elements made me nervous but the excitement of adventure outweighed the fears.
How did you mentally overcome the challenges that came with post concussion syndrome?
It was a long process for me. The hardest thing was not giving up hope when I was in the thick of it. I wasn’t myself for a really long time – I couldn’t think straight and I was often moody and in pain. I had seen multiple doctors and specialists, was handed dozen of return to play manuals, and still felt like I wasn’t given a solution. The only tool I had to help me heal was time.
When I finally felt like I had healed I had to dig deep to find the courage to get back on my bike. When you get a concussion they say every consecutive concussion is worse than the previous one. The last thing I wanted to do was hit my head again. I could have played it safe, but I believe I belong outside on my bike. I wasn’t going to give up on my passion or my dreams and I hope I can inspire others to do the same. This life we live and the world we live in is far too beautiful to ever give up.
My concussion was preventable and so are many others. Helmets don’t make us invincible and more precautions and informed decisions need to be made, especially in extreme sports. All athletes and coaches should understand the seriousness of concussions, how to identify them earlier, and being up to date on the return to play protocols. If could prevent just one concussion by sharing my story, I would be happy.
What was the most memorable part of biking the Continental Divide Trail? The most challenging?
The most memorable part for me was standing on top of a mountain just outside Seeley Lake in Montana – deep in grizzly bear country, without another human in sight just as the sun was setting. I just wanted to stay there in that moment forever. I was exhausted from the climb I had just done. As dusk approached and the sky changed colours across the horizon of the Rocky Mountains in front of me there was no place I would rather be.
The hardest part of the trip was when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to bike the entirety of the CDT and that I had to detour around Colorado. I had spent almost a week biking through snow storms. I was in my one man tent on the cold ground in Wyoming in the middle of no where the only thing within ten miles of me was a couple cows. My air mattress had deflated and I had to take out my emergency blanket which I had bought the day before anticipating the cold weather. I stared hearing noises outside my tent. I was hoping it was just the wind but didn’t dare make a sound in case it was a bear. I glanced over at my watch seeing the time was 4 am and I still hadn’t slept that night. I then realized the animals outside my tent were coyotes as they howled into the wind. I woke up at 7 am to a snow storm that morning. I biked through two inches of snow that day and realized it was time to make the call to detour around the mountains to the warmer dessert before I lost all my toes to frost bite and risked my safety with the threat of hypothermia.
How did you use the funding from the MEC Adventure Grant?
Having MEC and VIMFF support me was incredibly beneficial. Having the best gear on adventures like this is incredibly important: I used the micro mini Jetboil, the MEC Spark One tent, sleeping bag, panniers and Platypus water filter almost everyday. On cold mornings I was more than happy to have warm breakfast, and in the dessert my Platypus water filter was important as it was difficult to source water.
What was the biggest takeaway/lesson from the trip?
I learnt so much about the wilderness and the mountains, and how humbling it is to be among them everyday. The most important lesson was that the greatest joy in life is not the destination but the journey; to simply enjoy where we are in the present moment.
Thank you Elissa for sharing your story! To follow more of Elissa’s adventures, check out her Instagram page @elissacummings
Photo credits: @elissacummings and @bengirardi