FREERID­ING

With cam­eras in tow, four mad­cap moun­tain bik­ers hur­tle down treach­er­ously steep peaks in search of the ex­treme lim­its of their sport

Sharp - - CONTENTS - By Kather­ine Laid­law

An epic — and pos­si­bly crazy — moun­tain bike jour­ney where no moun­tain bik­ers have gone be­fore.

Be­fore the he­li­copter

dipped, moun­tain biker Car­son Storch pointed to a line in the dirt be­low. “I want to go down that,” he told fel­low biker Tyler Mccaul. They were high in the B.C. moun­tains, in the first leg of a two-week trip down the Tat­shen­shini River. “Do you want to walk down there and make sure the runout is clear?” Mccaul asked him. But Storch was con­fi­dent and didn’t want to waste the en­ergy on what would be a gru­elling hike. Mccaul stood at the top of a ridge and watched his friend peel down. “He was just a lit­tle ant, but we could tell he was go­ing a lot faster than he wanted to go.”

Storch’s tires hit rock, a sen­sa­tion not un­like skis hit­ting black ice, and he tom­a­hawked through a field full of boul­ders. The ter­rain looked grim — all brown shale where dirt should have been. It was rock­ier than it had looked from the air, and Storch was bucked from his bike. He landed hard. “That feel­ing when you just know you can’t con­trol your­self and you can’t con­trol your speed is pretty hor­ri­ble,” he said later. From a sec­ond peak, rider Dar­ren Ber­recloth, the third biker on the ex­pe­di­tion, heard over the ra­dio that Storch had crashed. “Out here,” Ber­recloth says, “there’s no 911 to call.”

Days ear­lier, four of the world’s lead­ing moun­tain bik­ers boarded rafts to take them 260 kilo­me­tres down the Tat­shen­shini River into moun­tain­ous ter­rain span­ning Bri­tish Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska. The four bik­ers, plus guides and a film crew, would haul 10 tonnes of sup­plies us­ing non-mo­tor­ized rafts. They’d set up and tear down camp nearly ev­ery day. He­li­copters would drop them on top of un­ex­plored peaks soar­ing 6,000 feet — or three-and-a-half CN Tow­ers tall — into the air, only for the men to ride down them again on bikes. If it sounds crazy, that’s be­cause it is.

As more and more

ter­rain on the planet gets dis­cov­ered, ex­plored, and tracked out, ath­letes are find­ing new ways to in­no­vate. Con­sider Sarah Mcnair-landry and Erik Boomer, who cir­cum­vented Baf­fin Is­land by dogsled, or Re­becca Rusch, who sum­mited Mount Kil­i­man­jaro on a moun­tain bike. And where ex­treme ath­letes go, film crews are never far be­hind. Over the last decade, com­pa­nies like Red Bull Me­dia House have started to mar­ket gor­geously pro­duced films of ath­letes per­form­ing cin­e­matic feats in a range of sports to ever-grow­ing au­di­ences hun­gry for arm-

chair ad­ven­ture. Par­tic­i­pa­tion in those films is how many ex­treme ath­letes make enough money to, in this case, keep rid­ing. For con­text: six mil­lion peo­ple watched Red Bull’s first TV se­ries.

Those who par­take in moun­tain bik­ing on the week­end, in places like Bri­tish Columbia, Ore­gon, and even Nor­way, look to rid­ers like the four that were on the Tat­shen­shini trip to show them how far the bounds of their sport can be pushed. They’re an elite squad: Ber­recloth, one of two Cana­di­ans in the group, has topped podi­ums across the world and even has a com­pe­ti­tion, the Bearclaw In­vi­ta­tional, named af­ter him. He’s been do­ing tricks since he was 12 years old and went pro at age 20. That was 15 years ago. Mccaul made his name in rac­ing down in Cal­i­for­nia be­fore switch­ing to fo­cus on freerid­ing. Wade Sim­mons is the god­fa­ther of freerid­ing, a 42-year-old rider who’s still shred­ding moun­tains. And Car­son Storch is a 24-year-old who’s known more for jump­ing moun­tain bikes than he is for rid­ing down actual moun­tains. All four have trav­elled the world on bikes, but the Tat­shen­shini trip was dif­fer­ent. For one, the rid­ers were part of a team drag­ging their own gear up a river, an un­usual added chal­lenge to an al­ready phys­i­cally de­mand­ing ex­pe­di­tion. Two, they’d be con­tend­ing with en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors — griz­zly bears, Alaskan storms, days of rain — that would add pres­sure. Three, the moun­tains they’d be rid­ing down are in­cred­i­bly tall. And four, though they’d scouted the ter­rain, the lines they’d be rid­ing off these peaks were largely un­known, mak­ing it a greater ad­ven­ture — and a riskier un­der­tak­ing.

Of­ten, real ad­ven­ture-seek­ing means de­vot­ing one’s life to lov­ing a pur­suit that doesn’t al­ways love you back. For Mccaul, that has meant break­ing his leg in the mid­dle of his 2014 com­pe­ti­tion sea­son, and suf­fer­ing from a con­cus­sion and bleed­ing lungs the fol­low­ing year. Ber­recloth has bro­ken nearly ev­ery bone in his body, in­clud­ing his back three times. In 2014, he had to re­learn how to walk, then re­learn how to bike. Five months later, he was pulling tricks on his bikes again.

But re­search from the Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in Bris­bane, Aus­tralia, shows that ex­treme ath­letes aren’t thrill seek­ers. In­stead, what they’re af­ter is the Zen-like state of­fered by care­ful plan­ning and push­ing past their fears. When I ask Ber­recloth to ex­plain why he does what he does, he pauses. “To stand on top of a moun­tain peak that no one’s ever stood on be­fore,” he says, “you have to un­der­stand that for your­self.”

Like its ter­rain, the in­cep­tion of freerid­ing as a sport was any­thing but smooth. Af­ter a few rid­ers spent years go­ing off trail in their kneepads, jump­ing off cliffs and send­ing tapes of their an­tics to bike com­pa­nies, hop­ing to land spon­sor­ship deals, Rocky Moun­tain, a Van­cou­ver bi­cy­cle man­u­fac­turer, spon­sored the first team in 1997. The first freeride film, Pulp Trac­tion, was spon­sored

“Those who bike on the week­ends look to these rid­ers to show them how far the bounds of their sport can be pushed.”

by bik­ing mega­giant Spe­cial­ized but was pulled from shelves af­ter the In­ter­na­tional Moun­tain Bik­ing As­so­ci­a­tion and a slew of rid­ers ex­pressed con­cern about the safety risks. “Back then, these guys were just rid­ing off cliffs and pray­ing for the best. No­body re­ally knew what you could do on a bike,” Mccaul says.

As pi­o­neers con­tin­ued to ride through the moun­tains, the sport caught on, and com­pe­ti­tions are now held an­nu­ally around the world by com­pa­nies such as Red Bull.

Today, rid­ing big-moun­tain lines means a he­li­copter drop-in with bikes in tow, into ter­rain rid­ers have only ever seen from high in the sky. “Ev­ery lit­tle rock we saw from above was ac­tu­ally a mas­sive rock on the ground,” Mccaul says. “You’re try­ing to use your mem­ory to re­mem­ber where the no-go zones are, where the cliffs are.” It can be treach­er­ous work.

These four are as

pro­fes­sional as they come in the freeride world, but na­ture can be un­for­giv­ing. Storch’s crash, on day three, shook up the rest of the team, which re­al­ized they were in tougher ter­rain than they were used to and would have to work harder to con­trol their speeds. There were frus­trat­ing eight-hour days do­ing noth­ing but float­ing on a raft in the rain. There was the trio of griz­zlies who saw hu­mans for pos­si­bly the first time as the four waited in chilled, fall­ing dark­ness on a moun­tain peak for a he­li­copter to pick them up. There was the day they spent camp­ing on Alaska’s wall of death near Alsek Lake, in winds up­wards of 100 kilo­me­tres an hour, caught in a storm that blew their base camp away. “We could hear the ice­bergs calv­ing. We knew that those make tsunamis some­times. When a big gust of wind would come, it was like a wall had hit our tents,” he says. “You’re just sit­ting there won­der­ing if it’s wind or wa­ter.”

And yet, some­how, it’s the added grind that bol­sters the re­ward, in­creas­ing the sat­is­fac­tion that comes from work­ing for your adren­a­line rush on and off the trail. “At the bike parks, you don’t have to do the work, rough it in the moun­tains and camp,” Mccaul says. “But there’s no such thing as a freeride big-moun­tain bike park. You have to work for it — and it’s never easy.”

A trip like the Tat­shen­shini doesn’t have any ob­vi­ous sci­en­tific or even ex­ploratory value, though a doc­u­men­tary like the one Freeride En­ter­tain­ment is pro­duc­ing will take its view­ers to a part of the world they may never touch with their own feet. To those out­side the world of ex­treme sports, it can look like noth­ing more than four men ca­reen­ing down moun­tains, one loose piece of rock away from a man­gled jaw.

Still, for as long as we have walked the earth, there have been hu­mans hard­wired to push their lim­its and, by ex­ten­sion, the bounds of what is pos­si­ble. The best, and sim­plest, jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for this comes from fa­mous Bri­tish moun­taineer Ge­orge Mal­lory: “There is no sci­en­tific end to be served; sim­ply the grat­i­fi­ca­tion of the im­pulse of achieve­ment, the in­domitable de­sire to see what lies be­yond the heart of man,” he wrote in Climb­ing Ever­est. “What we get from this ad­ven­ture is just sheer joy.”

Half­way through the

trip, con­fi­dence was mount­ing and faces that had ini­tially looked too chal­leng­ing started call­ing to Ber­recloth. Af­ter their morn­ing drop, he’d no­ticed a long chute line snaking down a moun­tain face. “It would be amaz­ing if I could ride some­thing like that,” he said to him­self. As the hours passed, that turned into “I think I want to try it,” which turned into “I’m sit­ting at the top of the line and the cam­eras are on and I’m ready to go.” He grasped the han­dle­bars of his green Canyon Sender and, as they say, sent it.

As he leaned into the line, hel­met rat­tling around his head and rock, shale, and dirt spew­ing in his wake, he felt time slow down. “I thought I was go­ing to be able to slow down in one area and re­gain my com­po­sure on a shoul­der of the chute,” he says. “I ended up com­ing in so hot that I couldn’t. You get into fightor-flight mode and fall back on your in­stincts. It’s the only op­tion you’ve got.”

At the bot­tom, he tore off his gog­gles and whooped, mind rac­ing and the ques­tion of worth­while pur­suits so far be­hind him in the rear-view that he couldn’t even see it any­more. “What’s so amaz­ing about big-moun­tain lines is that no one’s done them be­fore,” he says. “You have to think on the fly and use your re­ac­tions. That, to me, is the ul­ti­mate lure.”

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