Into the Backcountry: A Virgin Experience
Words: Eric Lawrenuk
Images: Margus Riga
It all started with a text to Margus Riga: “ Hey man! I wanted to put the bug in your ear, I’m looking to do some bike/camp missions. I've acquired the gear over the past couple years, and have a lightweight setup that all fits into a backpack.”
Shortly after I got a response, “Ha ha. Yeah bud!” 10 days later I got another message, “Let's see if we can squeeze in a fall mission. I have a pretty good two-day-er above Lillooet. Could you potentially go this Thurs-Fri?”
That was only two days away, but after a phone call to discuss logistics and important supplies, I started to relax.
We met in Pemberton around lunch the next day and headed up the Duffy Hwy, far up a steep logging road, to where we parked our truck. Once parked, Margus installed a fresh tire after a failed first attempt and crammed all his gear from a duffel bag into a small backpack (how I don't know), and even made a MASSIVE sandwich from half a loaf of Terra bread, half a salami, half a stick of garlic butter and an entire block of cheese.
Just before leaving, I ask Margus, “Do you have a First Aid Kit?” He didn't, so thankfully I packed one. “Do you have any Bear Spray?” Margus just laughed and replied, “You don't need to worry about bears up there man. Other than us, they don't have any food up on the ridge. All you need to worry about are wolves, and running out of water, since there won't be any water sources.” We left the truck and started to pedal our bikes up the gravel logging road. The mellow, manageable climb quickly turned into a steep single-track trail that was too steep to ride and so we started to push. “Only 4 hours to go,” said Margus.
The first hour was the hardest, with nothing but endless thoughts of regret, self-doubt and hoping we don't see any wolves. At our first snack-stop, Margus pulled out a plastic bag filled with 4 McDonalds cheeseburgers (with no sauce). Apparently, this was a veteran move; the cheeseburgers are basically sugar, salt and carbs, and stay good for days due to the preservatives. Despite not having fast food for years, I was mildly jealous of the burgers and ate my chicken wrap while we looked over the lake far below.
The endless hiking continued. Margus was always in front and I had to push myself to keep up. I kept reminding myself to focus only on the ten feet of ground ahead and avoid the mental discouragement of the visible distance we still had to complete. The constant battle to gain elevation was mentally draining; constantly thinking about the muscle pain, and convincing myself to keep pushing forwards. Then all of a sudden, Margus stopped and slung his leg over his bike and began to pedal. We were riding our bikes! We started to descend the opposite side of the mountain we just hiked up, on a singletrack of perfect dirt and zero deadfall. The reward of actually riding after this relentless one-and-a-half hours of hike-a-bike was rejuvenating, but didn't last long. After a short five minutes of riding, we were back to pushing our bikes up the mountain ridge.
Eventually, the trees started to thin out and the golden grass of the sub-alpine terrain revealed itself as if it was a trophy. The view ahead contained massive mountain peaks, endless deep valleys and a bright blue lake below. As the sun started to lower into the horizon, I was very aware that we were less than three hours into a four-hour grind, so I asked the dreaded question: “Hey Margus, which one of those peaks are we trying to get to?” He points to a peak far ahead and started to mumble directions. Starting to think I may have just been “Riga'd”, I hear him end his sentence with “tomorrow.” Shocked. “Tomorrow”?, I said… “What do you mean tomorrow? Don't we still have hours to go before we find camp?” Margus just laughed and said: “No man, we are about to try and find our camp spot. We got up here way quicker than expected.” It had only taken two hours and forty-five minutes.
A huge sense of relief came over me; the stored energy that I had reserved for the climb quickly changed into happiness and excitement. The terrain was more beautiful than ever, and the thrill of being in the middle of the backcountry with only a bike and a backpack to survive was incredible. We hopped onto our bikes and pedalled across the slow-going alpine carpet towards a small cluster of trees. This was it, our glorious campsite.
Starting a fire was easy; a dead bush near the spot provided kindling, and the sun-bleach wood ignited immediately. We cracked the beers we carried up and had a cheers to our accomplishment. I set up my tent, and Margus unrolled his minimalist bivy-sack. We carefully measured the precise amount of water needed to hydrate our freeze-dried meals, being sure to preserve our water. Ukrainian Borsche for Margus, and Caribbean Curry for me. A dehydrated meal had never tasted so good. After dinner, we realized a Harvest Moon was dominating the night sky, and took the opportunity to capture a couple frames. After exchanging various tales of adventure around the fire, we packed it in for a well-deserved sleep.
I woke up in my tent and emerged to a beautiful view of the early sun, draping the mountains in a blanket of golden-light. It's like the view was pulled directly from my backcountry dreams; a panoramic wonder that we brought ourselves to with our own body power. We made coffee, had a quick breakfast of porridge, PB&J sandwiches and packed up camp before heading towards the peak.
There was a big day ahead of us; we planned to follow a ridge line into the meadow below a large peak, and then hike up the face with our bikes on our backs. We left a few heavy items at our camp spot to save weight since we would be passing through on our way back down. I set off down the hill from camp, following the fast, windy single-track trail across the ridge until reaching the grassy meadow.
Where's Waldo Pt.1
Wheres Waldo Pt.2
Margus and I marched like ants across the field of gold, dodging gopher holes and energy-sucking ditches before stopping to get a photo of me riding towards the peak, dwarfed by its size.
At this point we realized our water supply was low; just over two bottles each… Pointing up to the snow line, which was much higher than our final destination, Margus said: “we’d likely need to get snow to boil for drinking water”. This was something I hoped we could avoid, but we still needed to get up that mountain, ride back to camp, and ride all the way down (and up) the ridge we had conquered the day before.
My eyes drifted side-to-side as I absorbed the raw beauty that we had surrounded ourselves in until a sparkle caught my eye, It was water! “Dude! There is a creek right up here!” I exclaimed. A pond created from the snow melt was still intact, providing the land (and us) with a lifeline. After boiling the liquid gold, we filled our bottles, and placed them in the stream to cool as we refuelled on food.
After riding to the bottom of the peak, we threw our bikes onto our shoulders and began the hike up to the top. The peak I had gazed towards while sipping coffee this morning was finally beneath my feet, and we were about to reap the benefits of all the hard work. We reached the top and basked in the warm sun and enjoyed the satisfaction of reaching our final peak.
Time to get to work. Margus pulled out his camera to capture the moment as I dropped into the face of my first backcountry accomplishment. “Yea buddehhh!”, Margus screamed, as I stopped with a massive smile. It was a short and sweet descent, but there was still much more to come.
We pushed up the ridge line we would ride back to camp, and sat down for a break. Margus pulled out his massive sandwich, and we laughed at its size. After eating all he could, the beast still looked like it was the exact same size. I ate my apple while spinning in circles looking at the vast mountains and valleys surrounding us. I felt tiny, helpless, and insignificant compared to the giants around me. Anxiety was starting to set in. I needed to move, I needed to be in control, I needed to ride. Eager for some air time, we found a natural lip, and proceeded to capture my favourite image of the whole trip.
This image means a lot to me: it represents all of the physical exhaustion, the mental battles, and the important knowledge gained on my first backcountry mission.
We shredded the ridge-line back towards camp, stopping a few more times for photos. With only one hill to push back up towards our campsite, I knew the long and glorious ride down was about to come. We packed the heavy items we left behind earlier, and refilled before our last, long ride down.
The final descent was unbelievable. The single-track ribbon through the trees was fast and zesty due to blind corners and a thin trail. We only stopped for two photos on the way down; the riding was just too good. With a permanent grin I ate the dust flying from Margus’ tires, enjoying every moment of it. The endless singletrack was worth all of the pain and suffering. With that thought in mind, we blasted out of the trees onto the logging road where we began our journey twenty-four hours ago.
The feeling of accomplishment at the bottom was unforgettable, I had completed my first bike-packing trip into the backcountry. The trip as a massive success (apart from my GoPro battery dying right before our huge descent down the final ribbons of single track). NO injuries, no mechanicals. We found water when we were about to run out, and the weather could not have been better! I packed the perfect amount of gear and food, and used everything I brought. We pulled some beers from the truck and sipped the rewarding nectar as we reminisced of what we had just completed. Margus then tells me “Man, of all the trips I’ve been on; this one has got to have the most relentless, brutal climb up to camp. It’s the worst climb of them all”. I laughed hard “I’m SO glad you are telling me this now, and not at the start of the mission!”. It felt good. I had intentionally set myself up to be Riga’d, while surrounded by unforgiving terrain, and it went as smooth as you could hope for.
I can hear the backcountry calling me.