North America's Highest Descent?

Oct 3, 2012
by Bruno Long  
Over the past few summers, myself and many of my closest friends have been searching the Columbia and Kootenay valleys for the ultimate trail experience. Old mining trails, alpine ridgelines, forgotten paths still marked on old maps; anything goes on the search for singletrack. We have had amazing experiences, riding trails that may never have seen a tire tread in its lifetime, to trails that have seen more tread and traffic to last a few generations. We've also experienced amazing disappointments, walking around aimlessly in the woods, searching for trails that seemingly exist only as a dotted line on a trail map. I would be lying if I said I hadn't been sandbagged a few times by an old map or a Backroads Mapbook. Even though it is tough to admit defeat when you want something so badly, it is the potential of success that continues to fuel the fire in the search for a trail experience like no other. We have driven many kilometers of logging roads, followed countless directions drawn on a napkin and even just gone in search of a trail on the promise of success from longtime locals. But what I came to realize this summer is that maybe you don't always need to search far and wide to find what you've been looking so hard for. Sometimes, the best things on earth are just outside your front door and all you need to do is take that first step, or pedal stroke in this case, to find nirvana.

The Mt. Cartier trail is not a new experience for me. Last summer, a group of friends and I pushed, pulled and dragged our bikes up the 16kms of trail to just below the summit. Great companions, beautiful weather and over 7000 feet of descending make for an experience like no other. Recently, some Nelson friends were coming to town for a visit, envious of our ride last summer and wanting to see it for themselves. Our group blossomed to ten in total, and the evening before the ride, Callum called and convinced me that doing the ride from door to door would be a classic option. I didn't have much for an argument so I left home around 6:20am to pick him up. We warmed up our legs on the 15km pedal to the trailhead, with Cartier staring down from high above the entire ride. As our motley crew gathered, handshakes and high fives were shared by both longtime friends, and those soon to be. After making sure that we had all the tools, equipment and food needed for a full day adventure, the ten of us set off up the trail. Immediately, half the group began pedaling up the trail, while others stuck to the hiking/riding strategy. We quickly arrived at the creek crossing and from here, the true hike began.

Gotta start the day off right. Coffee, breakfast, and a 15km road ride to the bottom of the trail.

Today's objective greeting us with a fine reflection in the flooded Columbia River.

One out of every ten freeriders doesn't have a water bottle cage on their bike. The lone DH bike makes some last minute adjustments.

Even if you have a cage, bringing extra gear like a saw on a mission like this is key.

Getting to the bridge just past the 3 km point is the easy part. Time to start walking for most of the next 13kms.

Putting our heads down for the second push, 4-5 guys quickly take over the cutting of the small, yet numerous windfall on the trail. The larger logs are left blocking the trail, allowing for a much needed reprieve from the relentless descent in a few hours. On the outside, we may scoff at the logs and scold them for ruining our flow. Yet internally, we know we will be thankful for the chance to rest our burning forearms and cramping glutes. Along the way, people use a yell or a yodel to warn our forest friends that we are on a friendly mission up the mountain. We forge ahead, stopping intermittently along the trail to refuel with gels, bars, electrolytes and of course, huckleberries. Mother Nature provided us with a plethora of berries and we, of the purple-stained fingers and lips, gorge like our 'Ursaian' friends, filling our mouths with handfuls of organic energy. We try to keep moving steadily, not rushing, but also avoiding being sluggish. Our second checkpoint, the abandoned cabin, awaits us and we push to make it there for lunch.

Huckleberries + blueberries = Mother Nature's energy gels.

Knowing exactly how long you have till the top is not always helpful.

At least the hiking allows you to see some things you might not while climbing a trail. The forest is always in transition, not matter what time of year.

A few guys were really working hard on clearing trees on the way up....maybe a bit too hard for this saw.

We finally arrive at the abandoned cabin, a structure with no door, a rotting canvas cot and the looks of a place who's only recent resident is the local pack rat. The names of those visitors before us are etched into the crumbling walls of the tired-looking cabin. An autobiographical collage of each person's experience on this trail before us, is carved or scratched into the wood, telling us their story in the simplest of ways. Its history is written, much like Egyptian hieroglyphics, with symbols and drawings, leaving us to decipher their adventure in our own minds. I grab a piece of coal and put a mark next to my name, etched into a beam the previous summer. Others follow suit, then we make our way up to the lookout above the cabin. As we step foot into the sunshine for the first time in hours, we relish the chance to eat, stretch and release our feet from the grips of our shoes. Warming our feet in the sunshine is the least we can do for our tired feet before stuffing them back into their shoe-laced prisons for the next big push.

Arriving at the old cabin is the midway point.

This is not the first trip up here for a handful of us.

Stay the night or keep going?

Bringing a huge lunch and enjoying the views while eating re-energized everyone.

After fueling up on sandwiches and homemade energy bars, our tanks are topped up for the next leg of the journey. Still basking in the glow of beautiful scenic views and warm sunshine, we step back under the forest canopy, following the trail as it continues to wind its way towards the alpine. Within another few kilometers, we are thrust out into the open for a glimpse of the summit. It is still quite far off, but the prospect of riding from just below the summit gives everyone the boost they need to continue. We also come across the Greenslide avalanche path, one of the most impressive avalanche paths I've ever seen. From peak to valley bottom, you cannot help but feel extremely small and insignificant while skirting past this enormous terrain trap. We head back into the forest once more, getting teased with spectacular views only to have them taken away from us, replaced with a different forest ecosystem every few thousand feet that we gain. Water is running low for everyone and one last creek bed is the final filling station for our waterbottles and hydrapacks.

Soon enough, we break through onto the north ridge and are treated to some spectacular views, including the North Face of Cartier, the 'Ghost' and Mt. Mackenzie, home of Revelstoke Mountain Resort. A bit of ridge riding to soak in the views is in order and a few of us have small glimpse of a winter wonderland that will be a reality in the not too distant future. I push these thoughts from my brain and make my way onto the South Face of Cartier. The views of the Columbia Valley and the thousands upon thousands of wildflowers thriving in the alpine have us all hooting and hollering, knowing that we will soon turn our bikes around and ride our way through this canvas of colors. At one of the last switchbacks before the summit, I sit and wait for Aaron to join me. We have talked about exploring the South Ridge over many a beer and here we are, standing right beside it once again. Forgoing the summit since we have both been there before, we decide to make the trek along the ridge. The riding turns out to not be as easy or epic as we once thought. Chunky rocks and steep rolls have us thinking about how terrible it would be to climb all the way up here, only to get hurt and heli-lifted off the ridge without even riding down. We cautiously head down as far as we are comfortable with, knowing that we still have to head back to the trail to meet the rest of the group, who are enjoying their time on the summit.

Sometimes, random flagging, water bottles and the old telecommunications line are the only signs you are on the right track.

Finally some views, but still a LONG way to go.

Getting to the first bench on the ridge offers some amazing views of the Ghost, an aesthetic peak that is also viewed from the local ski hill.

Gotta go check out the views from the edge of the ridge, with Revelstoke Mountain Resort in the background.

Saw lots of these toads almost all the way up to the summit. Even the toads are tough in Revelstoke!

When you run out of water and there are no creeks in sight, you have to get creative.

One last look at the views and right back to pushing up the South face.

Everybody has their own style of getting to the top when it comes to this type of mission.

I waited near the last couple of switchbacks for Aaron. While everyone else went to the summit, we both had the South Ridge on our minds. Having already been to the summit last year made this decision a little easier.

While the riding wasn't as great as we had hoped, the unique views all around us were more than worth the effort. You don't really know until you go!

Doesn't look like much from the images, but we realized AFTER the fact that Aaron was riding just above a 50-60 foot cliff. What you don't know can't hurt you, isn't that how the saying goes?

We ran out of time, not out of ridgeline. Had to turn around and meet up with the rest of the group who were leaving the summit.

One more bike portage to get back to the trail. 7000 feet of descending awaits us....

Retreating back to the trail, we arrive just in time to see half the group descending the face, enjoying the long sidehills and tight, technical switchbacks. The perspective of being on such a vast, open slope is what I notice most while standing there watching my friends finally getting to descend this massive mountain. I hang back with a few friends, setting up a few shots along the way, but also just soaking in the fact that I am once again privy to a world-class descent so close to home. We ride down together, the afternoon sun warming our skin as we try to keep our eyes on the trail instead of the mesmerizing views. The team re-groups in the North Ridge, where we all head down the trail together, and soon enough we are back into the forest for good. I put the camera away for most of the descent, knowing that I have already gotten the images I wanted. Now, I just want to enjoy the trail that myself and the rest of the group worked so hard to climb, purely for the down. We race through the forest on seemingly never-ending singletrack. We spread out and regroup multiple times, passing one another while taking breaks to shake out our numbing hands or tired legs. We luckily have no mechanical issues and before we know it, we are all back at the bridge, high fiving and reliving our experiences to each other, even though we have all just shared the same trail. Our stoke meters are high and we make one last push out of the creek and get ready for the last 3kms of smooth, flowy singletrack back to the vehicles. As I make the transition from dirt to pavement, I can already hear cans of beer being opened and people knocking aluminum cans together in celebration. Someone passes me a beer and as I open it, I relish the fact that I have just shared one of my best days of biking with some of my best friends. Life does not get much better than this. As I swig down the last few drops of my beer, Callum and I saddle up and bid farewell to our friends. The pedal home will not be as enjoyable as the morning, but we take our time, reliving the day a few times over on the way back to town.

The flowers (and the riders) were going off on the descent, though the un-maintained trail and spectacular views kept you on your toes.

Leaving the summit in our wake, we descended for what seemed like forever. Once back in the trees, the camera was put away for about 4000 big deal really.

One last shot with a bit of sun shining through the trees, along with the mandatory group shot upon our return to the bridge.

The last 3 kms back to the road are fast, flowy and fairly low-angle, a nice break from the endless steep riding above it.

Beers, friends and food, what a way to end the day. Oh wait, forgot about the 15 km road ride back to the house...

Being lucky enough to have such amazing mountains and terrain so close to home is a true blessing. Most people only dream about having these kinds of mountain amenities at their disposal. Add to that having good health to be able to reach the top and great friends to share the experience with, and I should have nothing to complain about. My friends and I will continue to search far and wide for the ultimate trail experience. We will succeed, we will fail, we will get lost. And though the prospect of the unknown trail will always fuel the fire on the search for the ultimate 'mountain bikeneering' adventure, I know that to find what you are truly looking for, sometimes you just need to look out your kitchen window and take that first step out your front door. What happens after that, is up to you.

A big thanks for EVOC packs for the great bag to keep my gear safe and allows me to feel confident on the ride down. Also to Sombrio for the gear that keeps me cool on the hottest of climbs. But the biggest thanks of all goes to my amazing riding partners. You guys (and girl) made this adventure one of my best all-time days. I cannot thank you all enough. Sharing these images and story is the least I can do for all of you. Cheers!

Posted In:


  • 19 0
 Dude, thanks....with this articule it have being proof once again, that the bicycle can take you to places you wouldn´t normally know about.....this is the type of trips I love the most, just find a peak, do some research, and go for it, if it was good, you will have done the best trail so far...if not, just the joy of reaching to the top is awesome....great photos and story...thx...
  • 7 2
 we were going to attempt that in early September. probably good fortune, and righteous and proper, that a Revy local was able to capture it visually first. next year, I guess, for me. thanks for writing. absolutely stunning visuals, and you have an amazing photographic eye.
  • 8 1
 Wow. For several minutes my mind was transported out of the office into the wilds of BC. One day I plan to make it a reality.
  • 4 1
 Nice adventure, looks like you nailed a great day for it (not that weather has been much of a problem lately). It's on my hit list, for sure. Not the biggest descent in N. America though, or even BC. Probably around #3 in BC. I know you used to be able to ride Mt Whitney in California from pretty high up on the mountain. I'm pretty sure it was something like an 8k' or 9k' descent. I think there's a bunch in Mexico too. Some big mountains down there.
  • 3 0
 Great Photos and article!
But did somebody know or heard about Olleros trail in Peru? this is a 56 km singletrack starting at 3,500 mts. above sea level (more than 11,000 feet) and ending at the shores of the Pacific Ocean !!! 3,500 mts (11,000 feet) of vertical drop.
Check it out!!!!
  • 4 1
 You can descend off of Mount Elbert in Colorado from 14,440 feet. The real highest descent in North America?
  • 2 0
 Yeah, but I don't think you get as much vertical drop. I heard Elbert was a bit over 5000' of descending.
  • 3 0
 Not to make this a pissing match, but I rode off of Pikes Peak (14,100) down to Colorado Springs (6,000) in 2001. No, we didn't ride the road down. We rode off of the southeast side and hooked up with some great singletrack. Sure, we had to drive up to the top, but an 8,000' descent was unforgettable.
  • 3 0
 Hey, someone makes a bold statement like that in the title, and it begs for it. I knew Colorado had to have at least 8k someplace. The mountains are just too big. Seems to me there's some big ones into Death Valley in California, too.
  • 1 0
 The title of this needs to be changed. It's bold a claim.

The full Askom (Della) drop we did a couple years back is just a hair over 2300m (7555 ft) of continuous drop with no climbing.
  • 3 0
 Don't forget the Burro Down, part of the Whole Enchilada. It starts off at 11,200ft and ends right at around 4000. There's a bit of climbing so total vertical winds up at ~8000ft. Nevertheless, Pikes Peak is huge.
  • 1 0
 Hence the question mark after the title Smile cheers
  • 1 0
 ja I think there are a couple heli drops in the koots that are a bit more.... :-)

no matter - killer photos - and exactly, capturing the adventure of mtn biking!!!!!
  • 2 0
 sngltrkmnd I did that same ride in 96. it kicked ass!!
  • 1 0
 Yeah we have a 7900 ft descent here in Idaho too! Definitely not the biggest as everyone has been saying, but still an epic!
  • 2 0
 Hahahaha! Thanks for the list, now to plan the trip!
  • 2 0
 @oneghost: what'd you ride it on? That'd be a helluva ride back then before long-travel bikes. I was on a Rocky RM7.
  • 1 0
 it was my old Yeti (Schwinn) 4-banger.
  • 1 0
 Stund' humped by the pictures of the back yard. Black n white always contrast's the "valley of the grey people" wonderful ascent of a local gem. Longest who knows... Whoever deemed it worthy got the pics to put out there. Big ups to the crew that put another must do out to the masses.
  • 1 0
 ha, just saw this. there are alots of bigger drops around. just in southern california, i've done an 8000 and a 10,000 drop. the 8000 drops into palm springs, 8000 vert in 11 miles, pure singletrack! (you could make it 10,000, but illegal up top). the 10,000 drop is alot of fireroad, so that doesn't really count.
  • 5 1
 that seatpost is cray literally like 2 feet high
  • 2 1
 And handlebar at knee height!
  • 2 0
 Great write-up. You have many gifts. The mountain, your photographic abilities, and word-smithing. Wish I was around there to do that. Seems like a wonderful adventure.
  • 4 6
 "was riding just above a 50-60 foot cliff" he-he it does not look like "just above" (at least on this foto).
You should once visit Alps. There are some completely exposed trails, with insane switchbacks right above the edge.
  • 2 0
 Best-feature in a long time.
  • 1 0
 Great article. Awesome pictures. the transition frame looks heavy used, this is how a often ridden bike should look like.
  • 1 0
 This is on the list. im addicted to hike a bikes and big descents. saw your recent silvercup mission too
  • 1 0
 The Whole Enchilada in Moab, from the La Sals to the valley, 7000+. Can be shuttled for much of that vertical.
  • 1 0
 That was mountain biking!!! Awsome pics.An Epic, ride with a good group of freinds. Sweet.
  • 1 0
 This is the most captivating story and pictures on PinkBike for some time! Time to go fix my bike so I can ride it.
  • 1 0
 That's sweet! But I do think Joey and his boys went a little higher...
  • 1 0
 Really great job from the writing and photos! Very awesome! Thanks for sharing!
  • 1 0
 Well done Bruno.. Looks like a wicked crew to tag along with.. Wish I was there!
  • 2 0
 I would smoke a fat blunt at the top
  • 1 0
 Gorgeous pics and a great writeup. Cheers to you and your crew for a great adventure. Thanks for sharing it!
  • 2 1
 Don't eat those berries! It's nightlock!
  • 1 0
 That was great, thank you.
  • 1 0
 great article. fantastic pictures!
  • 1 0
 Great read! I look forward to your next adventure!
  • 1 0
 One more thing added to the "bucket list". Thanx PB Razz
  • 1 0
 Great pics!

Revy/Kootenays: home to some the most epic rides in BC!
  • 1 0
 great article! tup Amazing photos!
  • 1 0
 holy f+++in article man this is why PB is the best
  • 1 0
 Epic places and epic photos, thanks for sharing !
  • 1 0
 Insanely cool pictures
  • 1 0
 this is mountain biking!
  • 1 0
 Just Epic!

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