Lord of the Squir­rels

Whistler’s Hid­den Moun­tain-Bik­ing Gem

Pedal Magazine - - Contents - by An­to­nio Abreu

After a cou­ple of sum­mer trips to Whistler, B.C., we were ex­cited to fi­nally get the chance to ride an amaz­ing trail dubbed one of the best rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in the world, the in­fa­mous Lord of the Squir­rels. Built over the course of three years by the Whistler Off-Road Cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion (WORCA), this route is truly a mas­ter­piece when it comes to de­liv­er­ing scenery, rid­ing and an alpine-cy­cling ad­ven­ture to re­mem­ber.

Although lo­cals may sug­gest that on this trail you’re not re­ally that far away from civ­i­liza­tion, it often felt that we were head­ing “nowhere” or . . . into bear ter­ri­tory. The map pointed some­where up in the moun­tains, just be­neath Mount Sproatt, and the statis­tics showed us that the route was no joke. A 1,700-me­tre as­cent from the val­ley floor at Creek­side was ahead of us, fol­lowed by an­other 1,700 me­tres of de­scent. Okay, full dis­clo­sure, that de­scent was the “real” rea­son why we climbed.

One year ear­lier, we couldn’t re­al­ize this bucket-list ad­ven­ture be­cause it was snow-cov­ered, and we re­turned home know­ing that we had to come back one day. With the trail now open and only a cou­ple sec­tions of it un­der snow, there was no turn­ing back and our small crew of rid­ers im­me­di­ately un­der­took its chal­lenge. De­spite our en­thu­si­asm, 13 straight days of rid­ing in North Van­cou­ver, Roberts Creek, Pem­ber­ton and Squamish left us feel­ing a bit tired. To be to­tally hon­est, our legs cramped up from time to time. Join­ing our six-rider group was a long­time friend, Ni­cholas Sousa, who has worked in Whistler for the past two years, but never rid­den the renowned loop. In fact, de­spite be­ing a bike-park rat, he’d never even heard of it.

Into the Mys­tic – Earn­ing the Ride

“Where we’re go­ing, there’s no rush or time sched­ule. The des­ti­na­tion doesn’t mat­ter,” re­marked Fil­ipe, one of the fittest guys in our crew, with a sneaky smile. “Yeah, yeah, stop be­ing so philo­soph­i­cal. I hope you have a rope to drag me to the top,” I quipped.

The jour­ney be­gins in Creek­side, which saw five new trails open this past sum­mer, adding more route op­tions to en­joy at Whistler Bike Park. We crossed the Sea to Sky High­way with its stun­ning views of beau­ti­ful Nita Lake and then tra­versed a rail­way trail to be­gin the first part of the climb. The tar­mac road weaved along be­side some lux­u­ri­ous houses on the hill­side be­fore tak­ing us to a fire road, where we fi­nally got our tires dirty.

“We’re go­ing to suf­fer, boys,” said Ti­ago, look­ing at the Trail­forks graph­ics while keep­ing his ped­als turn­ing. “We knew that be­fore leav­ing home this morn­ing,” said a smil­ing Fil­ipe, who was su­per-ex­cited to be­gin ped­al­ing up­ward, while ev­ery­one else was tak­ing their time. Along the steep­est part of the climb, we met a cou­ple of bike-park in­struc­tors with three kids all geared up in tow. “Are you head­ing up to Squir­rels?” they asked. “Yes, first time for us,” I replied. “Lucky you. It’s quite some­thing else. En­joy the pain and have fun,” said one of the guides as we parted com­pany.

A part of me yearned to fol­low those kids down the blue line they were tak­ing, but our des­ti­na­tion was up­ward. The de­ci­sion had been made and we cut to the chase and be­gan push­ing our bikes up a one-kilo­me­tre fire road called Left­overs. The 200-me­tre climb was un­ride­able and the ped­al­ing ef­fort was cruel. Soon, my calves were burn­ing from be­ing con­stantly on my toes.

Fi­nally at the top, we ar­rived at Into the Mys­tic, a 12-kilo­me­tre trail with 1,100 of me­tres of climb­ing that re­ally kicked off our jour­ney to Lord of the Squir­rels. This ma­chine-built non-tech­ni­cal climb is wide enough to ride be­side your bud­dies and of­fers the per­fect bal­ance of steep sec­tions with small des­cents or flat sec­tions that al­low you to re­cover. “It would be so cool if the up­hill was ac­tu­ally like this all the way to the top,” said Ti­ago. “No way,” we replied in uni­son.

The climb just went on and on be­low the tree line, zigzag­ging all the way with an un­be­liev­able flow. “Now I un­der­stand why it took so much time to build. The way they took ad­van­tage of the moun­tain is in­cred­i­ble,” ob­served Roberto, who is re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing our trail net­work at home on Madeira Is­land. “It’s a work of art.” The ef­fort, the sweat and the pain paid off with spec­tac­u­lar views and the feel­ing of re­ally be­ing in the mid­dle of nowhere. We

were earn­ing this ride and the de­scent that lay ahead of us.

Once we reached the alpine, the trail took on a dif­fer­ent look. We kept ped­al­ing up, bal­anc­ing our breath­ing and en­joy­ing the in­cred­i­ble views while we toiled at the task at hand. I tried to catch up with Roberto as the al­ti­tude kicked in and the fresh air filled my lungs with oxy­gen. The sin­gle­track con­tin­ued up amidst the mas­sive moun­tains as Into the Mys­tic linked up with On the Rocks, a 3.6-kilo­me­tre ride with 200 me­tres of climb­ing. This two-way trail wind­ing through the alpine to the top of Mount Sproatt was also ma­chine-built, though a bit more rocky and tech­ni­cal. We were stoked to take on these fi­nal pedal strokes to reach Lord of the Squir­rels and re­al­ize a dream come true.

Re­spect for Builders

To reach the alpine meant we crossed fresh­wa­ter streams via wooden bridges. We took a rest stop and quickly re­filled our bot­tles after our dry throats en­joyed the brief re­fresh­ment. The sun was stronger as we gained al­ti­tude, but we were up to the chal­lenge, re­freshed by the moun­tain stream’s mag­i­cal cold liq­uid.

But get­ting to the top also meant that we’d have to cross some sec­tions that were still snow-cov­ered, and it ac­tu­ally felt great to get our socks wet in these con­di­tions. Along the way, we split into two groups.

“Where’s Paulo?” I asked, won­der­ing if he was up the road. Ti­ago couldn’t stop laugh­ing, but didn’t give us an an­swer. Ahead of us, Paulo ap­peared butt-naked as he ex­ited a small lake that was still sur­rounded by snow just be­low Tonic Peak. Be­ing quite a hairy guy, we were a bit stunned, as we thought a griz­zly bear might be upon us. “It was so hot, and you guys were tak­ing so long,” he said smil­ing. “I was sweat­ing my ass off the en­tire as­cent.” As he quickly dressed, he chal­lenged us to take a dip in the lake, but there were no brave tak­ers will­ing to jump into the freez­ing-cold wa­ter.

As we waited for Paulo, we saw a small group of WORCA trail builders com­ing from the op­po­site di­rec­tion car­ry­ing tools and small orange flags to mark the way through the dense snow. So work on the trails didn’t stop for these fine folk. We learned that it took five years of plan­ning and three years to build Lord of the Squir­rels, with an es­ti­mated 8,784 hours of work dur­ing that pe­riod of time.

Ap­prox­i­mately 13% of the trail was built in 2014, an­other 57% was com­pleted in 2015 and the fi­nal sec­tion was built in 2016. The trail in­cludes a to­tal of 60 el­e­vated rock walls and 29 bridges. We still had all of this ahead of us. “Thank you, guys,” we said in uni­son be­fore em­bark­ing on the fi­nal kilo­me­tre of trail of the leg­endary Lord of the Squir­rels.

Although I was ini­tially reluc­tant as I’m not a big fan of climb­ing, re­flect­ing on this ad­ven­tur­ous jour­ney re­vealed to me what moun­tain bik­ing is re­ally all about, and it made me ap­pre­ci­ate all the hard work put in by WORCA per­son­nel. They are true ar­chi­tects of fun. Their cre­ative think­ing and imag­i­na­tion got us from the bot­tom of the val­ley, through fir, hem­lock and cedar forests to the open mead­ows and rocky trails be­low Mount Sproatt, sit­ting at 1,834-me­tres al­ti­tude – amaz­ing!

De­scend­ing Lord of the Squir­rels

“Well, this is it guys – we made it,” said Roberto, get­ting his kneepads on. Like a mi­rage, the Lord of the Squir­rels trail sign matched our Trail­forks map per­fectly. The ex­cite­ment was brew­ing, as we would soon en­gage the fi­nal seven kilo­me­tres of trail with ap­prox­i­mately 900 me­tres of de­scent, and, of course, Fil­ipe sped up as usual.

I was just happy to sur­vive the climb – with my butt out of the seat along the way, I was try­ing to find a bit of power to keep my feet ped­al­ing. From Creek­side, it took four hours and 30 min­utes to get to this point, and while we knew it could be done much faster, we were all stoked to have ac­com­plished this amaz­ing climb. “We can stop here and there at some spots along the way down,” added Roberto. We all agreed, and the de­scent be­gan.

We left any anx­i­ety be­hind at the top of the hill and sud­denly un­der­stood that stop­ping along the way wouldn’t hap­pen. The de­scent was a roller­coaster, throw­ing us left and right down big, steep rock slabs. My bike just nat­u­rally found its way and I quickly no­ticed that there are no dan­ger­ous fea­tures, as ev­ery­thing was well built. There were no trees, stumps or badly placed rocks. There are no big blind drops that could sur­prise you in a bad way. The trail lay­out makes you feel in­stantly con­nected

to it and you slowly gain a trust­ing re­la­tion­ship with it.

Each cor­ner gave us a taste of what was com­ing up next. From the open alpine ar­eas with rock rolls to jump­ing back into the cedar for­est, the trail just kept giv­ing, chal­leng­ing the strength left in our legs with small climb sec­tions while suck­ing any re­main­ing power left out of our hands and fore­arms. As our han­dle­bars tried to take con­trol from our hands, we de­cided we needed to take a brief rest. Ev­ery­one was smil­ing, so we knew it was all worth the ef­fort.

“I wanted to stop be­cause I don’t want it to fin­ish,” shared Ti­ago, often the one who takes the lead in our group. “Should we do it again to­mor­row?” quipped Fil­ipe. We all laughed, know­ing that this mo­ment was spe­cial for all of us and would never oc­cur the same way again. This feel­ing of rid­ing one of the best trails in the world for the first time was so re­ward­ing – this is moun­tain bik­ing! “Next stop is at the bot­tom,” added Fil­ipe, as he jumped on his sad­dle once again to con­tinue our jour­ney of bru­tal plea­sure.

Lord of the Squir­rels de­liv­ered a fab­u­lous out­door ad­ven­ture. It scram­bled our emo­tions and got the best out of us. Fin­ish­ing the ride near Into the Mys­tic a cou­ple hours later and com­plet­ing the loop was an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence and some­thing that we will never for­get.

Trail Tips and Tricks

Wa­ter: There is no need to carry three litres of wa­ter to re-hy­drate. Take a wa­ter bot­tle to re­fill at sev­eral lo­ca­tions along the trail route.

Wildlife: This is bear ter­ri­tory, and we saw two bears just above Creek­side. Fol­low WORCA’s ad­vice and for more in­for­ma­tion, visit www.bears­mart.com.

Start early: It is best to start early so that you have enough time and light to de­scend to the end of the trail safely. Even if you’re a skilled, fit rider, do not be­gin this ride late in the day. Bear in mind that after com­plet­ing Lord of the Squir­rels you still have to ride back down to Creek­side on some gnarly trails.

Route: Be­gin at Creek­side and head up fire road West­side Pow­er­lines, then onto Lower Sproatt. You can then push your bike up Left­overs or fol­low the blue sin­gle­track Dan­i­mal Mid­dle to In­dus­trial Waste and onto Rain­bow-Sproatt Flank. You’ll then come to Into the Mys­tic, which takes you up to Lord of the Squir­rels. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www.trail­forks.com.

Cell­phone sig­nal: Most of the trail has a con­stant cell­phone sig­nal, though there are some zero-sig­nal points along the way.

Trail statis­tics: From start to fin­ish, we cov­ered a to­tal dis­tance of 32 kilo­me­tres. The high­est point of the trail was 1,810 me­tres and low­est point was 825 me­tres.

WORCA’s trail net­work: Visit www.worca.com.

Lord of the Squir­rels is truly a mas­ter­piece, de­liv­er­ing stel­lar rid­ing and amaz­ing scenery foran alpine-cy­cling ad­ven­ture of a life­time.

Sum­mer in Canada mixed with al­ti­tude meant we found a cou­pleof sec­tions still filled with snow.

The crew at the start of Into the Mys­tic... let the pain and plea­sure be­gin.

Fil­ipe rid­ing the first sec­tions of alpine on Lord of the Squir­rels.

Roberto on the de­scent of the fi­nal sec­tion of On the Rocks at ap­prox­i­mately 1,760 me­ters al­ti­tude

Nice touch ... a chain to help rid­ers get to the bot­tom of a river sec­tion.

The trail builders at WORCA cre­ated an amaz­ing work of art that brought smiles to our faces ... thanks.

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