I ride my mountain bike a lot. But I live in the UK, so the irony is that my riding very rarely involves mountains. Big hills? Check. Mounds of earth at bike parks? Check. Actual mountains, with snow and stuff? Not so much.
I thought I should do something about that.
My good friend Dave, a mountain bike guide from Moab in Utah, and considerably more experienced in this kind of thing than I am, invited me to join this Canadian backcountry trip over several drinks at the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival in March this year. Drinks that we enjoyed indoors, where there was a shower, nearby restaurants, and comfortable beds. ‘Sure!’ I said, and opened another beer.
Which is how I found myself on a tiny wooden jetty, five months later, handing my bike wheels to a pilot young enough to be my daughter, who then strapped me and four friends and all our bikes and gear into a 61 year-old biplane, and took off. From the surface of a lake..
My idea of a great ride normally involves a diner breakfast, a few laps of the uplift park, then fresh clothes, and restaurants, and Netflix and stuff. I feel a long way from home. I absolutely suck at camping. Plus, you know, there are bears. Actual bears. I have to carry a small fire-extinguisher thing full of pepper extract to spray in a bear’s face, if I need to. And a special bell, which feels less reassuring.
The trip proper (after a day’s warm up riding in Squamish to test bikes, gear, morale, general competence, etc) starts with a float plane transfer from Tyaughton Lake on the edge of the South Chilcotins mountains, and takes us 50 awe-inspiring, stomach-churning minutes over the southernmost mountain to nearby Lorna Lake. The plane drops us off, flies away, and…that’s it. We’re off. Feels oddly sobering to know that the only way back is to ride it out, get rescued by horseback or air, or walk over rough ground with a bike for a very, very long time. Best get on with it then…
Cry me a river
The first three miles are oddly familiar to me, and undoubtedly horrifying for my Moab friends, because they’re muddy. Really muddy. Soaked feet and dead stops in deep puddles muddy. Very…Welsh. And when we’re not slipping and sloshing through the boggy soil, we’re crossing rivers. There’s a lot of snow left on these mountains, and the meltwater has swollen all the creeks, so we hold our bikes over our heads, take a deep breath and walk across them, trying not to fall headlong into the freezing water. We’re carrying three days of clothes and tools and other gear in our packs, and it would suck if they got wet. Plus, you know, drowning and stuff. Turns out there’s only one way to get the job done – wade in up to your tender parts and wet shoes be damned.
Bear with us
I kind of hoped we’d see a bear, when I was basking in the comfort of my home and imagining myself as a rugged bike pioneer, but now there’s an actual one above us on the mountain pass and I’m less keen. Someone points out we should be scanning the other side of the ridge in case we’re between the bear and its cubs, and that doesn’t reassure me at all. I know type 2 fun means a bit of pain with your pleasure, but what kind of fun is this? Type 8? Thankfully Yogi decides to seek his picnic baskets elsewhere and rumbles off up the mountain. I will not complain about sore legs on this trip – significantly less painful than having your throat opened with a claw.
The stuff we came for – the riding – has been great so far, but I’m not prepared for just how thrilling the main descent of the day toward Bear Paw Camp actually is. One minute we’re trudging through snow fields with our bikes on our backs, next we’re plunging down rocky singletrack with pebbles smacking into our drivetrains, racing across a singletrack ribbon in a candyland of alpine flowers all around. It’s genuinely breathtaking, and all the more so for the complete absence of human activity. Just this hour of descent would be worth the entire trip.
Unexpected Canapes in the camping area
There’s excitingly rugged, and then there’s plain self-hating. I fall very much into favouring the former, and so I’m extremely grateful for the fact this is a hosted camping trip. Both our campsites are hosted – paid staff live in them over the summer – so we don’t have to carry tents, cooking equipment or extensive food supplies. Our tents are ready, there’s beer cooling in the creek and our hosts cook dinner and breakfast for us. But even I feel a bit silly when we roll into camp and there’s a cheeseboard.
But it’s been an incredible day’s riding. After dinner, we crack a beer and sit by the fire, telling and retelling the highlights to each other over and over. I’m relieved I could hack it, I’m relieved to have a real bed to sleep on, and I still can’t believe I’m actually here.
Climb Every Mountain
Another day, another perilous river crossing. This time I decide to try to walk across the log rather than wade, then slip and smash my crotch into the wood as my legs straddle it. Managed not to drop my (expensive, borrowed) bike into the water. Thank god for padded liner shorts too.
The hour’s pedalling proves to just be a warm-up for the serious ascent of the day – 3000ft of mostly walking, with the occasional carry, over a series of late summer snowfields. It’s serious, don’t slip, one-foot-carefully-in-front-of-the-other stuff, and it’s slow, and it hurts, and it’s windy, and it’s raining. But it produces one of my favourite feelings in the world. There’s nothing quite like being in adverse conditions and knowing that you’ve got the right stuff (my shoes work, my jacket’s keeping the wind out, my pack’s not too heavy) and the gumption to finish the job – I can tell we’re all going to get up there, and it feels incredible. When we reach the summit, despite tumbles, freezing feet and wind so strong we have to yell in each other’s faces, there’s enough energy for an impromptu dance party before we realise we’re in the coldest possible position and head down the other side for lunch.
The descent down the other side is one of the most thrilling rides I’ve ever done. It begins on the shifting scree of the exposed mountainside, with clouds rolling past below us, and we plunge up and down the side of the valley, trying to power through small snowdrifts and ride high enough up the banks to avoid big ones. As the open rock gives way to the treeline, it’s a constant supply of twisting switchbacks, sudden drops, roots and water, like a dozen different trails rolled into one. It begins to dawn on me why people like this big mountain stuff so much – the descents just keep on going. It feels like hours, and it’s probably much less, but there’s so much packed into it that every turn, jump and slither stretches the seconds out as far as they’ll go. ‘That was like a really hard skills clinic” announces Natalie, as she rolls into our rest stop, and everyone’s totally buzzed to have made it down. Turns out we yelled so loud for so long that another bunch of riders we cross paths with have been hearing us for over an hour. As my vision starts to blur from tiredness, we eventually stumble into Spruce Lake camp, and beer, and salmon, and a wash in the creek, and, and…zzzz.
A river runs next to it
Last day. We’re feeling it. Over 8000ft of climbing, 12 or 13 hours in the saddle, a couple too many drinks around the fire (including a cocktail of Fireball and Chartreuse that I sincerely don’t recommend) and bikes that are starting to creak. Our initial plan to summit Neal Peak – another 4000 ft climb before descending back to Tyaughton Lake – is scuppered by the snow. It’s do-able, according to the scratchy voice on the camp radio, but likely involves a lot of snow on the descent. That means less time on the bikes. The alternative, which is to follow Gun Creek all the way back to the lake, is less gnarly – only 2000ft of climbing, and more gentle descent, but that turns out to be OK. Because our last day’s riding is pure, unadulterated fun from beginning to end. I know we climbed – but it’s hard to remember, because it felt like we spent all day descending. Narrow singletrack through the woods, the occasional punch climb over rock shelves and tree stumps, with Gun Creek raging away beneath us all the way. It just keeps on giving, kicker after kicker, rock hop after rock hop, corner after corner. As a finale, it’s hard to imagine anything better. When we get close enough to civilisation to spot cars through the trees, and pass through the gate that leads us back up the fireroad to the Tyax Lodge, there’s a sadness. We’re tired, we’re wet, we smell pretty awful, and I’d personally commit a fairly unspeakable crime in return for a cold beer, but we all know it’s nearly over, and we don’t want it to be.
We’re not allowed into the lodge – there’s a private wedding event. I’m sure their precious memories of the day aren’t sullied in any way by the sight of ten filthy mountain bikers stripping down to their chamois, examining their cuts and bruises, and stretching out on truck flatbeds, but thankfully Dave’s van has a fridge, with many cold beers, and a general store’s-worth of Kettle Chips, so we can celebrate the end of this epic trip in style. A short drive takes us back to the campground, and within a couple of hours we’re all washed in the creek, wearing our cleanest clothes and fortified by a fresh bottle of Glenlivet, specially procured for the occasion.
As I sit by the fire, watching some slightly drunk people trying to hit a tree trunk with pebbles from a slingshot, I take a moment to reflect on what we’ve just done. Ten people rode for three days without any mechanicals, serious falls, loss of energy or getting on each other’s nerves, in some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen, in a way that’s probably bonded us forever. Canada – you delivered the goods. I’ll be back.
Thanks to helobc.com for their help with this trip.
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