December 2, 2013
The new magazine should be dropping onto doormats this week, so here’s an advance look at one of the stories contained within its lovely paper (and pixel) pages…
International Adventure: The Best Three Days of the Year.
When it comes to big riding country, Canada has most of the rest of the world beaten hands down. Dre Hestler and friends head into the Chilcotins for a good ol’ adventure threesome.
“This is the best thing I have ever done on my bike,” Seamus McGrath stated flatly after we arrived via bike at the top of Mt. Cunningham, one of the highest peaks in South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park in British Columbia.
It was high acclaim from Seamus, a two-time Olympic cyclist and World Cup racer. But he was right – this mountain biking adventure spoke to our deepest yearning to explore and was at the very core of our cycling beings. This trip had changed how I saw and felt about the world in less than 72 hours. My eyes had been opened previously to the sheer awe of alpine riding, but never before had I immersed myself in the experience to such a degree.
Just 155 winding, scenic miles north of Vancouver is an area known for its great trails and panoramic vistas. The South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park is 56,796 hectares of recreational land that includes more than 124 miles of trails through broad valleys and alpine meadows. It offers endless singletrack, picturesque mountains and big-country adventures.
This area is off limits to all motor vehicles and open to mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders. The known commodity is in itself an adventure of massive proportions, but photographer extraordinaire Margus Riga, Seamus and myself were hell-bent on taking it to the next level – a fully self-supported trip deeper into the remote corners of this amazing landscape.
Margus is a world-renowned photographer, resides in North Vancouver and has been a pioneer in charting new routes in this area, exploring some of the remoteness that can only be accessed by long, treacherous dirt roads, followed up by human-powered motivation. I will not steer you wrong when I say I had some trepidation about heading into this adventure. Though we would not be gone for long (three days), the road, the exposure, the weight of the packs and the ever-present threat of grizzly bears weighed heavily on my mind. I did not know how my body would react to the pack or the gruelling hike-a-bikes that were a staple in this adventure. Within minutes of starting, I was questioning the sanity of continuing. Perhaps this is why I’d invited Seamus, another former World Cup racer and fellow cross-country Olympian. He has always been a bit of a ‘bush man’ and was often known to be in the woods for days at a time.
It has been a few years since either of us has raced seriously. We are both retired from active duty but still enjoy pedalling our bikes, so he seemed like the perfect third man for the mission. Seamus is more recently retired than I am, and, as a result, may be a bit more averse to anything that resembles organised training. (This seems to be a theme with those who have slaved behind the bars for so long.) But knowing there is a residual passion to bike still within his heart, I believed he would rise to the occasion and hopefully enjoy this arduous outing. I have been reinvigorated by a passion for singletrack and the need to road trip. What I didn’t know was that my sense of adventure was about to be ignited beyond my wildest dreams.
This journey’s itinerary did not leave much room for error; the summer was closing out fast, and the South Chilcotins, sitting fairly far north and at altitude, receive snow earlier than the coast and lower-lying areas. Our respective schedules were chock-a-block, so our first job was to hone in on some good weather. With a window of only ten days between us, it actually came down to availability. The forecast looked promising, so into the unknown we went.
Can’t beat a good bodge.
The first leg of our journey – North Vancouver to Gold Bridge and the area known as the Bridge Valley, full of early gold rush history, pioneering stories, ghost towns and old mines – would be a drive of nearly four hours.
Long used by the local Tsilhqot’in people for hunting, the land was subsequently stomped in by mining prospectors and followed up by horse outfitters. Since 1859 when gold was first discovered, this region has been home to miners, prospectors and their families. The big gold rush began in the ’30s at the nearby Bralorne-Pioneer Mine. It was the richest gold claim in Canada, producing more than $145 million in gold; it closed in 1970. Trails have been developing over a very long period of time; they crisscrossed the land to form a vast network that ran into the North Chilcotins proper as far north as Taseko Lake and Chilko Lake and east across the Camelsfoot Range to the Fraser Valley. To the west are the Coastal Mountains and the vast open Pacific Ocean. We were riding in the pioneering history of BC and treading where the local indigenous people had laid down the first tracks.
The first day also included our car drop that would take another two hours before we would finally ride our bikes three to four hours into base camp. It was a big day, but we planned to leave early to give ourselves plenty of daylight. How often have we heard those prophetic words ‘plenty of daylight’ and ‘leave early?’. This is the bike world. We left late and suffered our first setback, a flat tyre on the truck, as we crossed the Hurley Pass between Pemberton and Gold Bridge. Finding out you are missing a key part to your jack in the middle of nowhere is rather disheartening, but knowing your team can overcome any obstacle with some creative ingenuity is amazing. We ended up using a bicycle skewer to wind the jack up and down, enabling us to continue on, but with more gravel road ahead we needed to ensure a spare tyre. More time was lost as we repaired the damaged tyre and had lunch in Gold Bridge; daylight was quickly evaporating when we finally pressed on.
The final leg of the drive wound up and along Relay Creek on a decaying gravel road. There were a few hairy moments as the truck teetered over a sheer escarpment a couple of hundred feet above the rushing, rocky river, and I kept thinking ‘Not my truck next time’. It was nearly 5pm when we coasted into the grass field that marked the end of the road; not your usual BC parks trailhead – simply a rough opening and the end of the road. From here, we would be on our own.
Sunset in these parts was slated for 8pm. This gave us three hours to make our way up Little Paradise Creek Trail to the south end of Davidson Ridge and then a quick drop down to set up base camp. Margus projected three to four hours, and it’s moments like that when you wonder ‘Is he that guy who overestimates or underestimates?’. And though we had our headlamps with us, in the backcountry safety is the better part of valour.
Ticking the boxes.
Shrugging on our 50lb backpacks, we set out on the initial part of the trail. We had toyed with different types of stowage equipment from panniers to bikepacks, but at the end of the day – with the aggressive nature of the terrain dictating dual suspension and the need to push our bikes up steep slopes – we wanted a system that cleanly separated bikes and gear. It was not mandatory to have a long travel suspension bike, but suspension was definitely required along with wider-than-normal-tyres to assist with floatation through the scree slopes. Loading the packs was a bit of a science: when you are wearing a helmet, you need to pack wide rather than tall. This allows for full range of head movement and regular visibility. Getting the hang of riding with a big pack takes some time, but you become very adept at manoeuvring the weight after a couple of days of travel.
The climbing was steep and gruelling, and I was beset with doubt – doubt about myself, the lateness of the day and feasibility of this whole adventure. Seamus charged forward, perhaps also doubting but saying nothing, and as we crested the first rise clearing the sub-alpine trees, a river valley opened up before us allowing clear views of the surrounding ridges and their beauty.
As the hours ticked by, Margus was astounded at our progress; we were making good time under the pressure of fading light. He grumbled something about ex-pros and rode on. We took precious few photos, resolutely set on getting to base camp before nightfall. The trees fell behind us and we reached the open alpine. As we soldiered up the ridge, the views steadily increased and the sun dropped behind the far distant mountains. Not knowing is often a boon and a bane; fretting the diminishing daylight, I truly would have loved to know the terrain and the distance. We reached the top of the ridge above treeline in the golden minutes of the waning sunset. Another few pictures of the 360° panorama, and we plummeted down the trail, hooting and hollering through multitudes of sweet switchbacks into the next valley and our base camp. We set up camp under headlamp power, feasted and soon thereafter snuggled deep into our sleeping bags.
I was beginning to warm up to this adventure. The beauty was amazing, the physical nature of the riding and hiking was stimulating and Margus’ time projections seemed to be accurate. This, in itself, was cause for much joy.
Axes? Where we’re going, we don’t need no axes…
Following a cold night that hovered just above freezing, we awoke to a bluebird day at a very reasonable time of 10am. Our goal for the day was to summit Mt. Cunningham, at 8,353ft the highest peak in the area, followed by a ridge ride down and west back toward the more frequented trails of Tyaughton Creek, Spruce Lake and Deer Pass. This ridge ride was a new route that we would be pioneering; the descent had never been done before. The indigenous people, pioneers and miners had trodden paths and trails into existence, but linking them up in our own fashion meant we would have to make our own path.
We began the day’s labours heading back up from sub-alpine to the ridge we had descended the night before and veering south onto a plateau that rose gently but steadily to the north face of Mt. Cunningham. All around were scree slopes, steep and shallow in varied hues of black, gray and red. Approaching the flank of Mt. Cunningham, where the pitch began to increase, there were a couple of large snowfields that still held reign on the north aspect of the mountain. They weren’t going to be a huge problem, but they would further prove this team’s backcountry skill. Without a second thought, the three of us carefully entered the snowfield and using our bikes as self-arrest devices crossed nearly unscathed. Margus took a rollicking, 30ft tumble down but managed a self-arrest, and we continued up to the summit.
As we reached the top of this mountain from the north – the last stretch slowly, pedal by pedal, inch by inch – the view of the distant range finally unfolded. Now we were at the top of the highest summit as far as the eye could see. I felt like Edmund Hillary, not for the massive undertaking of this adventure but because through my own doubts and fears we had succeeded and triumphed. As exalted as I felt, a very cheesy cliché erupted unbidden from my lungs: “I am the king of the world!” I shouted, as we thumped each other on the back and settled down to a good laugh and a hearty lunch.
Today was a day of grace in some ways, as a large part of our heavier food supplies were cached at camp. Though still packing fairly heavy for a bike ride (down jacket, head lamp and extra food), we had pared down today’s carry to a very reasonable weight. Margus, on the other hand, having to carry the camera equipment was still under a large load and was just a shade lighter than his full complement.
We descended crazy scree slopes, rough boulder fields and into the sub-alpine valley floor below. Here, the late summer flowers were blooming and tall grass rippled in fields under short, stunted pine trees. Our journey back up to camp completing this loop was not the least of the day’s awesome experiences; here, a beautiful trail wound up a short dead-end valley with our camp just at the end. This time we returned at sunset, and it was with gusto that we set about cooking our dinner under the warm orange glow of the setting sun.
The stars twinkled as we settled beside the campfire rehashing the magnificent day. It was to be a cold night ahead, and we would be warmed not just by our sleeping bags and down jackets but also by the excitement of another day’s adventure ahead. We talked late into the night about the area’s history and its reincarnation as a recreational mecca.
The burliest of the burly.
Going light into the backcountry with no tent was our summer concept of saving weight. At this latitude and elevation, the temperatures were chilly at night. Colder temperatures descended upon us the second night, and this did nothing to diminish my snoring. Poor Seamus was forced to move farther and farther away from Margus, me and the din of our combined chainsaws. Seamus finally settled down curled around the fire. When we awoke, the frost had blanketed our tarps and Seamus’ form at the fire. The day dawned blue again, and I felt lucky with the weather and the fact that we had not seen a grizzly close or far. Today we would break camp, head toward Tyoax Pass, veer north up a steep scree slope onto a flat mesa, onto a ridge to the summit of 8,110ft Mt. Davidson, then down the far side back to Little Paradise Valley and the trail home.
Shoulders worn and sore but growing stronger now easily handled our 50lb packs, perhaps a little lighter for the food we had eaten. Mt. Davidson, our route high point for the day, resembles more of a ridge than a peak, but while the high point is barely discernible, it is still more than 8,000ft. Up an unknown valley to the scree slope we trundled; this slope and the next would prove to be very vexing. There is nothing I know as burly and aggressive as assaulting a steep loose slope with a big pack and bike as rocks slip underfoot.
Every pedal stroke took us closer to another spectacular view. This crew of three was digging in, and we laughed as we pitted ourselves against the mountains. Cajoling each other, bolstering waning spirits, the scree slopes fell beneath our wheels and feet ’til, once again, we beheld the 360° vista. This time it was from another vantage point, directly across from where we had been the day before. Casting our eyes north to the Dil-Dil Plateau we speculated on the North Chilcotins and our next trip. At that point, we felt superhuman: anything was possible.
We had some distance still to travel to complete the final chapter of the journey – nearly seven hours of riding and hiking, and our drive home would be another five and change.
It was with great regret that we descended off the ridge line and entered the sub-alpine forest, even though there was more flowing, buff singletrack undulating endlessly on the final stretch. We finally arrived at the truck at 5pm – nearly the exact time we had departed two days earlier. There was little time to dawdle; the long drive out would be best done in the light of day, which was sneaking away quickly.
We picked up the three beers we had stashed in the creek just before parking the truck. It was like champagne to our lips and our enriched souls. Heading south was rather melancholy because it marked the end of our trip. But in fact it also marked the beginning of a love affair with self-supported adventure and the possibility of many more adventures to come. We had headed into the unknown and come out kings.