palisade plunge cyclist dies
(Photo/Nika Lerman via Shutterstock)

Mountain Biker Dies After ‘Heat-Related Illness’ on Strenuous Colorado Trail

A mountain biker died on Colorado’s 32-mile Palisade Plunge after running out of water while riding alone on Saturday. Temperatures in the area soared to a record 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office announced on June 12 that a 52-year-old Colorado Springs cyclist died following a “heat-related illness” on the Palisade Plunge the previous day. Three other riders found the man near mile marker 28, just a few miles outside Palisade, Colo. They called 911 around 6:45 p.m. local time.

Officials issued a heat advisory to all outdoor athletes in the Grand Junction area on Sunday. The death on a famous singletrack trail over the weekend prompted recommendations regarding the trail itself.

Authorities said that the man was riding the trail alone and had run out of water when the other cyclists found him. Several local rescue teams, including a CareFlight helicopter, responded to the area when they received the call. Despite lifesaving measures, the man died at the scene.

Record Heat Spells Danger for Cyclists

The three cyclists who called the authorities reportedly ran out of water after starting with a gallon each. Authorities treated them for dehydration on-site, “rescuing” them.

The incident occurred near the end of the 32-mile trail, which demands approximately 2,000 feet of climbing on terrain that renders little shade and extreme exposure. Temperatures on Saturday hit a record-high 102 degrees Fahrenheit in nearby Grand Junction, where a weekend heat wave recently abated.

Local authorities have not publicly identified the deceased cyclist. But they did issue a de facto heat advisory for the outdoor community in the wake of his death.

“Strenuous activity during extreme heat is strongly discouraged. Community members are advised to limit outdoor activities to the early morning hours. The CDC recommends drinking at least 8 ounces of water every 15 minutes while doing activities in the heat,” the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office said.

“Due to the remote location of the [Palisade Plunge], riders must carry all water, food, and emergency supplies,” it added, encouraging cyclists to bring at least 2.5 gallons of water each, plus electrolyte boosters, for summer rides.

Palisade Plunge: Not Just a Dowhill

Officials are urging cyclists to prepare to significantly hydrate themselves on the Palisade Plunge this summer and be ready for the various unique conditions the trail presents.

The recommendations dovetail with preparatory documents the trail organizers make available to all riders via the Palisade Plunge website.

“This trail is for experienced riders with excellent judgment,” it says. “Be aware of personal ability, mileage, weather, time of day, appropriate clothing, heat, food, water, and bike condition.”

Megan Terlecky, Mesa County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, elaborated on that checklist. She pointed out that high elevation change (both downhills and climbs), challenging terrain, the perspective of rescue access, and the trail’s back-loaded difficulty all contribute to how demanding it can be in practice.

“Because of the huge difference in elevation, it can be 70 [degrees F] when you start the ride at Mesa Top, but by the time you get down to Palisade, it can easily be over 100 [degrees F],” she said. “Something else to keep in mind is that [rescuers] have very access points along the trail.”

The trail cuts through a labyrinthine network of desert washes, mesas, mountains, and plateaus. As a result, Terlecky said, help can be miles away if an emergency occurs.

“In the vicinity, the incident occurred, the closest helicopter landing is a mile away — a mile of strenuous hiking away,” she said. “But SAR help is a minimum of 2 or 3 hours away for anyone who gets hurt on the trail because of how hard it can be to access it. In some locations, you’re 5 miles away from a helicopter landing.”

The four cyclists involved in the weekend incident also needed help on the trail’s hardest part: the very end. Terlecky emphasized that the last 10 miles of the Palisade Plunge are its most technically challenging. Hopefuls should keep that in mind when considering mileages.

“There’s no water anywhere on the trail, and there’s no shade on the last half of the trail either,” she concluded. “For all those reasons, we highly recommend everyone who wants to ride the trail research it beforehand and prepare themselves to carry everything they might possibly need.”

Officials Await Cause of Death Confirmation

Officials said they would not publicize the man’s identity until notifying his next of kin. Meanwhile, the Mesa County Coroner’s Office will work to determine his cause and manner of death.

The sheriff’s office made no more information on the case available as of this writing.

Sam Anderson

Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.