“The good news is, there will be NO bushwhacking!” I yelled back at the crew.
The trail we were on just took a turn for the steep and the “bikes-on-backs” suffering had begun. We were 1 hour into a 5-day traverse between 3 alpine bowls nestled in a quiet section of highway in the central Canadian Rockies. Earlier in the summer, we did a 2-day shakedown trip in preparation for this trip. It rained…a lot, we bushwhacked for hours and we got bogged down in the mud. It was a tough trip but what we were heading into now had the potential to spank us even harder. I couldn’t wait!
Cheryl and Jobbo getting into it on day 1, hour 1
Becoming a dad has been the biggest shift my life has ever taken. Being the sole provider for my family, working away from home for stretches up to a month at a time, means that my time at home with my family is very valuable. I miss so much with my son when I work away and when I get home I try my best to balance my time with him, household projects and chores that inevitably pile up when I'm away. There is also a hunger that grows slowly in the back of my mind.
I have been blessed to have lived a life full of adventure. I spent a good chunk of my adult life working in the guiding industry teaching rock climbing and backpacking skills to youth and adults. In my spare time mountaineering, ski touring and mountain biking has taken me on some great adventures around the world. I have worked and lived adventure. My university diploma even says "adventure guide" on it. When my wife and I decided to have children I thought I was ready. The shift in lifestyle however has proven to be a big challenge. Sometimes finding the patience to slow down to toddler pace is very difficult. The hunger grows.
Packing our bikes back in Golden, competing for space with the kids
Having less time to adventure has actually been a blessing in some ways. When I do carve out a week for a trip I don’t want to squander it. I’m committed to following through, the excuses seem less legit. I'm hungry for it. Indirectly, this angst is what led our group to this 1000m hike-a-bike kicking off 5 days of self-supported alpine mountain biking. Bikepacking if you will ... though our plan was a far cry from the usual trips you see associated with that term. As far as my plan went, it was true there would be no bushwhacking, however, boulder-hopping, steep hike-a-bikes, and bad weather would be a definite possibility.
I started mountain biking in the late ’90s and spent my teenage years watching freeride mountain biking swell to a craze. Heavy bikes, rickety wooden stunts, and a punk attitude formed me as a mountain biker and young man. I guess that's where I learned to throw my bike over my shoulders and suffer up to the top of the run. We weren’t far off from those early days here, halfway up the first of many climbs. The idea was to combine bikepacking ethos with riding more similar to those early days of freeride mountain biking. I had a new baby joining our quickly growing family and needed to fill my belly with adventure before hunkering down for a while.
Kid me riding the ever-popular ladder bridges of old
Reaching the top of the pass we were rewarded with a view into a big alpine valley with a large turquoise lake where we would be camping for night one. To my surprise, we saw tire tracks descending down steep scree slopes to our left. I knew this pass got ridden from time to time but it still caught me off guard that we would see signs of other riders. We chose a line for our descent starting off down the main ridge then dropping into a scree slope. The bottom braided out into a number of deep gullies formed by erosion; the perfect flow line created by Mother Nature. As we dropped into the scree we had to quickly adjust to the added weight of our bikes. Reaching the bottom of the valley after a long descent, a childish glee bubbled amongst the crew! It reminded me of the joy my son gets from riding the pump track back home in Golden BC.
Discussing the finer points of slashing fresh turns
Kirk droping into the gullies
After a pleasant ride on old hiking trails we pulled into a well-used campsite. We set up our shelters, got a fire going, and with fish swimming around my feet, I took a cold dip in the lake. Falling asleep that night a deep loneliness took over my mind, a major shift I have noticed since I met my wife, got a dog, and eventually our first son came along. The first night or two on a trip is hard for me. It gets harder and harder to be away from them and the enormity of the wilderness seems to accentuate this. I drifted off into a broken sleep feeling small and alone in a vast ocean of rocks and trees.
A pleasant ride along the lake
Alpine lake, by bikes
The latest in Packduro technology
Day two was supposed to be a short traverse between lakes on single track with no major elevation gains. I hoped that it would be good riding starting with a long descent down the drainage and then mostly rideable trail up the drainage of the second lake. With only one detour off the correct route, we rode down a rough and rocky trail beside the lake and quickly made it to the trail leading us out of the alpine. This trail was a mix of fast descents broken up by punchy climbs and the occasional downed tree. I was surprised at how good the riding was considering it was a hiking trail and not designed for mountain bikes. We had to stop every now and then to re-group and strap our loads back down to our bikes. On one such stop, we were surprised that Kirk had fallen far behind the group. Usually near the front of the pack it was clear something was wrong as he rocked up pushing his bike.
Logan fighting with the rocks along the lake day 2
Off route, off bikes
Jobbo, droping into familiar terrain
Part of packing for a big trip is having a larger than normal spare parts kit ... a new freewheel, however, was not in our bag of spares. This meant that Kirk would no longer have the ability to pedal for the next four days. We had to make a decision, bail together, leave kirk to bail on his own, or continue on waiting for Kirk to catch up. A few years back, I lived in the area we were currently riding and the owner of the local liquor store (a retired mountaineer) would always quiz us on mountain safety before letting us buy our beer.
Assessing the damage to kirks freewheel
“What is the first rule of traveling in the backcountry?” He would ask with his thick British accent. “Never split up!”
This was also the answer to his second rule of travelling in the backcountry. I doubt he had ever seen fight club, so you know he was being serious. I figured that there wouldn’t be a whole lot of peddling as we would be mostly in hike-a-bike terrain. In the end, we decided that we would stick together as a group and it was Kirk's call. He decided to keep going and we reassured him that we would wait for him often.
Crossing entry creek in style!
Kirk, on foot but not at the back
Logan, rockin' up to the lake
Ten minutes down the trail it became obvious that waiting wasn’t going to be a problem. Kirk quickly mastered the art of the scoot pump and not only kept up but at times passed us. A few more hours and two hike-a-bikes later we arrived at the second campsite. I had hyped this place up with tales of the 13+ waterfalls that usually cascade down the cliffs into the lake. I had never been here this late in the season and the waterfalls had dried up, I hoped the pristine alpine lake surrounded by imposing cliffs would do. We quickly set up camp, filled our bellies and had an invigorating dip in the lake. Tired from the day's efforts we didn't linger around the fire for long. With sleep clouding my brain, I set my alarm for an early start as the descent on the other side of the pass was what we had really come all this way for. I remember referring to it as the best scree descent in the Rockies years ago while backpacking. I was sure it would be just as good on bikes.
The authors' bike...too early in the morning
I woke up early to my alarm and by early, I mean my phone was set 2 hours too soon by accident. I promptly made a donkey of myself by waking Kirk beside me and then yelling good morning to the rest of the crew that had “slept in”. Upon realizing my mistake, I brewed up another cup of coffee and waited for the rest of the crew to wake up at the correct time. Finally we were off, bikes-on-back climbing up an ever-steepening slope. As we climbed into the alpine the views got bigger and the load of our bike felt heavier. 3 out of 5 of us were foreign so the conversation eventually turned to whether or not we would see any bighorn sheep or mountain goats. Just as we started talking about seeing sheep, Logan spotted a herd right above us. We kept our distance but got a great view of the sheep feeding in an alpine meadow.
The big hike, right out of camp
Taking a break part way up "Normal stoke is here, our stoke up here"
The views getting better as we get higher
Giving the sheep their space
Kirk blasting up the final slope to the pass
Topping out afforded us incredible views into the next bowl we would be riding into but I got a sick feeling in my stomach. Looking around, all the slopes looked much steeper than they were supposed to. Memory is funny, what seems reasonable to descend on foot could be impossibly steep by bike. To say I was disappointed would be downplaying it, this was supposed to be the focal point of the whole trip. It hit me hard. We put all this effort to get back here, packing 5 days worth of gear on our backs and it looked like we would be walking our bikes down most of the slope. We talked as a group and nobody seemed to be taking it as hard as me, on the flip side the crew was more interested in the valley before us. There was a peak at the far end that looked like great riding from the summit to the valley bottom. We continued down to easier terrain where the water runoff had made a series of gullies with natural berms drops and jumps. We salvaged the run in the end and re-grouped for high fives and a look back at our tracks.
The crew on top of the ridge with lots of time left in the day
Scoping out lines in the valley, our descent the next day would be from the peak in the middle down the ridge to valley bottom
Getting into lower angle terrain
I began to take in the beauty of this valley. There was very little tree cover and steep cliffs guarded the valley from all sides except where we had come down. Behind us was a small blue tarn and a braided river that drained the valley above and poured over the cliff band guarding this valley from being accessed by the established hiking trails below. Standing in this seldom visited rocky landscape made me think of standing on the moon, unfortunately, gravity still behaved normally.
Obviously talking about something important
The setting for our camp with the ridge we rode rising behind
Looking back at our descent line
It was still early in the day and we began to discuss our options. Our initial plan was to continue over one more pass then back to the first lake we had camped at. Though crossing over this next pass would be a beautiful hike, I wasn't sure how good the riding would be. After spotting the peak at the back of the valley we came up with an alternative: we would set up camp, ride something closer to camp unladen, and then make for the summit the next day. After summiting we could pack up camp and make a faster exit out the valley below back to the established hiking trail. Everyone got excited about this idea, but there was a caveat ... there was a good chance this plan would involve bushwhacking.
Camp for the night
The tarn looked very appealing for swimming so we rode across the valley towards the little blue pool to set up camp. As we approached it, we couldn’t help but notice the rising ridge curling above our proposed camp, it looked rideable. After setting up camp and stripping our bikes of bags, Kirk and I began pushing our bikes up the ridge proper. Starting up low angled slabs, the ridge made a sharp turn before it broadened out and slowly steepened until it ended in a cliff band below the summit of the peak above. We picked our way up the ridge line full of technical rock gardens until it didn’t make sense to go any further. Riding back down with a light nimble bike felt great and made the idea of summiting the peak pack free the next day even more appealing!
Climbing up the ridge line above camp for a quick afternoon hit sans bags
The view back towards camp from the ridge above
Logan descending the ridge above camp
The sky had been partly cloudy all morning but rolling back into camp the sun broke through and lit up our little alpine meadow. Taking advantage of the "heatwave", we swam in the tarn and then spent the rest of the evening lazing around camp. Laying in my sleeping bag waiting for sleep to come that night I thought of the balance between my drive to explore new places like this and the longing I had to be home with my family. I drifted off to sleep with a strong conviction that it was important for my sons to see their role model as someone with passion. I hoped them witnessing me pursue my passion and eventually sharing this type of adventure and exploration with them would encourage them to pursue these values in their lives.
I woke up in time to see the sunrise that morning. We were in for a big day. I sat on the ridge above camp thinking about the potential hitches in our plan. I suspected the cliff band at the mouth of this valley prevented anyone from pushing a trail up the drainage, which also likely meant there was no way through the cliff band on the bike. About 8 years ago a friend and I designed a route into this valley over the same pass we rode the day before. We were carrying the gear to outfit the cliff with rock anchors for a short rappel. My mind went to the 45m of rope I had been lugging around in my pack the whole trip. I hoped we had enough rope. I hoped that we would be able to rappel with bikes on our back. And most of all I hoped, that 8 years later, I could find two small bolts hidden somewhere in 400m of cliff that ran between rock walls on either side. The next obstacle would be a potential soul-destroying bushwhack. I'm fine with a good old bushwhack, even a brutal one but bushwhacking with bikes is a whole new level of misery.
Bikes stripped, ready to ride
Bikes stripped of all but the essentials, we set off at a fast pace. As we ascended into the back of the valley the walls rose steeply on either side of us. We worked our way up a broad ridge and started to get a sense of the quality of the riding we would experience on the way down. It was about as good as you could ask for! Fine scree with varying options for descent depending on how steep you wanted to go. We crossed a small patch of snow before breaking out onto the saddle between a large craggy summit on one side and the small peak we were aiming for on the other. From here we could look back down into the valley and see the highway we had left a few days and a few thousand vertical meters ago. We didn’t linger long as the ridge to the summit looked very inviting. ummiting quickly with light bikes on our backs we found a summit register full of goodies. After a quick snack, we got geared up to descend back down, we still had a long day ahead of us if we were going to make it back to the main hiking trail by nightfall. We descended party style hooting and slashing turns in the scree. Fast fun riding alongside friends, surrounded by craggy peaks of the Rockies, and in a remote location which had likely never seen bike tracks ... Descents like that are not easily forgotten! Back in the saddle, we were greeted by a pair of hikers who were shocked to see mountain bikers. We continued down the steeper terrain back into the main bowl.
Crossing the valley, our objective the skyline from top left summit to valley bottom
Our descent coming closer
Steep snow. Rideable or not?
Beginning the final ascent up the ridge
/Looking up towards the summit
Logan demonstrating the proper lunge step technique
The Author and Logan pulling onto the summit block after a pleasant bag free ascent
What dreams are made of
Bringing up the rear after some drone piloting Jobbo playfully descending to the saddle
Big lines down to valley bottom with Logan
Logan loving the steep scree Kirk getting the hang of it
Big slashes to valley bottom
Logan and the author debating the subtleties of drivetrains as usual
The stoke was high as we crossed the alpine meadow back towards camp. Tents were repacked, bags were strapped to bikes, and we set off with our overweight bikes once more. Cresting the little ridge that made up the cliff we were greeted by strong gusty winds. Traversing along the edge of the cliff looking for two little silver bolts in the rock was sketchy enough without the occasional gust of wind testing my balance. 8 years is a long time for one's memory. As I walked the cliff, willing the formations in the rock to look familiar to my stale memory, I began to worry that we might not find them. I started thinking of plan B when out of the corner of my eye the sun reflected off two tiny pieces of metal, thank the gods of chain and tire!
Packed up and heading home
Looking down the valley towards the rappel Starting up towards the cliff we would be rappelling The author coming down last
Not wanting to hang out in the high winds any longer than we had to, I began rigging the rope and Logan volunteered to go first. There was a small overhang at the bottom of the cliff and we couldn’t see whether the ropes touched or not. With our limited gear, it would take some serious improvisation if the ropes were too short. As Logan began to prepare for the rappel, it quickly dawned on us that we hadn’t really thought about how we would get the bikes down. The top of the cliff wasn’t steep enough for lowering bikes to be an option, so we began to experiment with strapping bikes to packs. Soon after he was shouting up that the ropes made it! We got in a rhythm of rappelling, hauling the harness back up and working together to load bikes onto each other's backs. I took some time to look into the valley below. We were rappelling into a big drainage full of bowling ball sized boulders with a small waterfall about 300m down the drainage. It looked like we could avoid this by traversing to the right of the waterfall but I couldn’t see what the terrain looked like. We would have to take a step into the unknown for this next piece of terrain. The crew was starting to get tired and I hoped things would go smoothly through here setting us up for a straightforward exit down the main hiking trail the last day.
Descending out of the alpine into the 'shwack
We pulled our rope, mounted our bikes, and began to pick our way through the chunky loose boulders that lined the bottom of the drainage. We went riders right around the waterfall and found grassy slope with little patches of boulders strewn throughout, it was steep but rideable. We began a slow controlled descent as the slope ended abruptly in a wall of trees. Surprisingly it was really, really fun. As we all regrouped in the valley bottom it was clear that a bit of bushwhacking was inevitable so we decided to stay high and avoid it as much as possible. Staying above the trees pushed us higher and higher up the mountainside away from the creek that drained this valley. Eventually, we decided that staying close to the creek made more sense as it appeared that the trees would continue pushing us up the mountain. I began descending on foot straight down through the clearest path I could find. All of a sudden a hoot rang out beside me and Logan came tearing down the mountain weaving his way through the thick trees on the bike. It looked fun and I swung my leg over the bike and tried to keep up. The next two or three hours consisted of boulder hopping back and forth across the river with the occasional dive into the thick forest. We passed by a really beautiful waterfall with fish swimming around in the clear water below. I felt a deep appreciation as I doubted many people had seen these falls.
Finding some misery between trees and creek crossings
Following along on the GPS, it seemed like we were right next to the hiking trail. I began to push straight into the thick bush and was rewarded with the sight of 4 guys sitting around a campfire just off the main trail. I waved with a big grin and called the crew over. The guys looked bewildered as five haggard people piled out of the thick brush carrying mountain bikes on their shoulders. After a quick hello we shot off down the trail to find a vacant campsite. It felt so good to be on singletrack again It was the labour day weekend so the trail was full of hikers looking surprised to see us ride by. Eventually, we found an empty site and laid claim to it. The day had been big and everyone had a mild case of the "grumpies". Setting up tents quickly we prioritized filling our bellies and our mood began to swing towards the positive. With a campfire keeping the darkness away we began to reminisce about what we had just done. We had pulled off a fairly complicated trip without a hitch. The weather had cooperated, the route worked, and we made a sound decision to adjust our route so that we could tag a summit. I fell asleep looking forward to the continuous single track out to the highway and reuniting with my family.
Waking up low in the valley the first thing I noticed was my sore legs, the second was a dampness in the air. Packing up quickly our wheels were spinning down the trail hoping to avoid getting rained on as the clouds threatened to release their damp contents upon us at any moment. The trail was more or less downhill from here as we followed the creek to the river that emptied into the dam filled lake beyond. The further we rode the better the riding became and we found ourselves tearing down buff single track only interrupted by the occasional downed tree and perplexed hiker. At some point, we jokingly coined the term Packduro for this style of riding, just in case the mountain bike world needed more specific genres to market to. With thoughts of burgers and poutine on our mind we pushed through the ascents and tore down the descents. Just after 11 o'clock, we found ourselves popping into a packed parking lot where five days ago we had dropped off Cheryl and Jobbo’s van. While the crew laid back to relax, Jobbo and I went on a quick retrieval mission of my truck.
Back at the first parking lot, Jobbo broke out a round of beers they had stashed in their fridge and we had a little celebration before changing into fresh clothes. It felt so good to have pulled the mission off. The weather had remained stable, the route had more or less worked out and the riding had been great! Most of all five friends had checked out of the world for a week while pushing our mental and physical comforts. We now had an adventure to share for the rest of our lives. I was excited to head back to my family and prepare for the next big adventure that would come with the birth of my second son. The hunger was quenched for the time being. Though this next adventure wouldn’t be as sexy as what we had just done, in time it may well be the biggest adventure of all.
Cheers to adventure
Fast forward a month and I sit here writing this while my new baby boy sleeps in the other room with his mom. There is a growing movement in the mountain biking world. More and more riders are casting aside the confines of purpose-built bike trails and dipping into their imaginations to create unique adventures that happen to use a mountain bike as the main mode of transportation. I am inspired by these adventurers and hope that our trips can spark that same sense of adventure in others. Let the Packduro tribe grow.
Here is a teaser for the full-length film for this trip that will come out early next year: Thanks to Cheryl and Jobbo for spearheading the filming. Cheryl for editing. The whole crew contributed to the photos. Thanks to Dogtooth Packworks out of Golden BC for hooking us up with our bags. Thanks to my wonderful wife for supporting my adventure habit and holding down the fort while I'm away.
You can read the article from our first trip here https://www.pinkbike.com/u/Bike-guy2323/blog/embrace-the-suck.html