My legs trem­bled as I stood my ground,

Bike (USA) - - Grimy Handshake -

strug­gling to main­tain a foothold in the finely de­com­posed de­tri­tus with a heavy back­pack and bike on my shoul­ders. The pitch of the moun­tain­side had be­come pre­pos­ter­ously steep. Sim­ply look­ing up at the ridge­line above could eas­ily send me and my top-heavy load tom­a­hawk­ing back­ward down the yawn­ing scree slope be­low.

In­hal­ing with each tiny step, I inched my way up­ward, dig­ging one foot firmly into the loose de­bris be­fore shak­ily lift­ing the other along­side it. Ev­ery hard­fought bit of progress was met with an al­most equal mea­sure of back­slid­ing as the brit­tle shale crum­bled and shifted un­der­foot. It was truly a case of ‘two steps for­ward, one step back.’

Three of my four team­mates had al­ready made it to the top, claw­ing their way over the precipice and dis­ap­pear­ing from view. Em­bold­ened by their ec­static whoops of cel­e­bra­tion, I pressed on slowly, even­tu­ally thrust­ing my bike over the ledge and heav­ing my­self onto the nar­row ridge.

I was stunned by the ter­rain ahead: Not only was there an­other scree-lit­tered scram­ble up to an im­pos­ing spine, but one of our crew had al­ready scaled it.

“How the hell did he get up there so quickly?” I asked pho­tog­ra­pher Margus Riga as we watched our buddy, An­drew McNab, ped­al­ing along the jagged hog­back on the hori­zon.

“I dunno,” Riga mum­bled as he swapped lenses and zoomed onto McNab’s lanky sil­hou­ette. “He’s al­ways way out front. They don’t call him ‘Mu­tant McNab’ for nothin’.”

Grand Tra­verse

Mu­tant McNab was the main rea­son we were out here, in the mid­dle of Bri­tish Columbia’s re­mote Pur­cell Moun­tains, creep­ing our way from one treach­er­ous ridge to the next. It was mostly his idea to trudge deep into this bar­ren wilder­ness with a week’s worth of sup­plies on our backs in pur­suit of pris­tine freeride lines.

He’d ne­glected to tell us that there were no trails, apart from the over­grown foot­path that had led us above tree line. An ac­com­plished back­coun­try ski guide, it had scarcely oc­curred to him that this might be a cu­ri­ous thing to do with moun­tain bikes. Af­ter all, he’d spent numer­ous win­ters skin­ning around the B.C. in­te­rior with freeskiers like Chris Rubens in search of death-de­fy­ing couloirs to slash. So, to him, it was only nat­u­ral to ap­ply the same ap­proach to alpine moun­tain bik­ing.

Of course, it had been easy for McNab to con­vince our bikepack­ing-crazed posse that this was a great idea. Most of us had spent years in far-flung moun­tains all over the world, faith­fully fol­low­ing an­i­mal tracks in an end­less quest for sub­lime sliv­ers of high-speed sin­gle­track. This was a shared pas­sion, so when McNab in­vited me, Riga and film­maker/pro­ducer Kevin Landry to join him on this grand tra­verse of the Pur­cells, we’d jumped at the chance.

But now, af­ter al­most two days of lum­ber­ing up gi­ant boul­der fields and chat­ter­ing down de­bris-filled chutes on the moun­tains’ south-fac­ing sides, it was clear that there would be no trail.

“We’ve all seen ‘Where the Trail Ends’,” said Landry as we gazed at McNab in the dis­tance. “But this is ‘Where the Trail Never Be­gins’.”

Google Earth Sand­bag

De­spite the chal­lenges, ev­ery­one was hav­ing a blast. Our fre­quent tum­bles were a con­stant source of entertainment as the manda­tory piss-tak­ing be­gan to fol­low the evo­lu­tion­ary male or­der. The ‘bro-code’ was in full ef­fect, and the towering rock walls sur­round­ing us echoed with rau­cous laugh­ter.

The only prob­lem was that we were quickly fall­ing short of our pro­gram. McNab had mapped out a ridicu­lously am­bi­tious route, based on his pre­vi­ous back­coun­try ski­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and a cur­sory in­spec­tion of Google Earth.

The plan was to travel by bike from Quartz Creek—just out­side the north­east­ern bor­der of Glacier Na­tional Park—ven­tur­ing south through the maze of tec­tonic up­lift to Hobo Lake be­fore cir­cling back to the ru­ral town of Golden. As the crow flies, the to­tal dis­tance would be about 200 kilome­ters (124 miles). Ac­cord­ing to McNab’s cal­cu­la­tions, we’d be able to com­plete the jour­ney in six to eight days.

What he’d failed to take into ac­count, how­ever, was that he was not do­ing this trip alone. Rather, he was drag­ging along a spir­ited group of mere mortals—and spend­ing a shock­ing amount of time watch­ing us floun­der over ob­sta­cles he’d long since over­come.

Even Riga, who’s earned the nick­name ‘Raptor Riga’ due to his speed and agility in ar­du­ous ter­rain, was hav­ing a hard

Clockwise, top left page: An­drew ‘Mu­tant’ McNab rides a lone­some ridge­line; au­thor and for­mer edi­tor Brice Min­nigh, Max Berkowitz, Kevin Landry and McNab enjoy brief re­prieve; add North­ern Lights to mea­ger camp­ing and you have glamp­ing; even rub­ble can’t slow McNab down; a mo­saic of tire slash­ery.

He’d ne­glected to

tell us that there were no trails, apart

from the over­grown foot­path that had led us above tree


time keep­ing McNab’s pace. As the sun set on our sec­ond day, we were al­ready a full day be­hind sched­ule. Pitch­ing his tent be­fore the tem­per­a­ture plum­meted, McNab hinted that we might have bit­ten off more than we could chew.

“I guess I’m kinda known for sand­bag­ging peo­ple,” he con­ceded mat­ter-of-factly. “If you know ex­actly where you’re go­ing, it’s not a real ad­ven­ture.

“I just saw all these high ridge­lines link­ing up on Google Earth and I was kinda hop­ing we could take the high line all the way around.”

Moun­tain Mus­ke­teers

That high line was, in fact, more suited to moun­taineer­ing than moun­tain bik­ing. Punc­tu­ated by craggy spires and sheer faces, it looked like a rock climber’s wet dream. The prospect of try­ing to climb these while shoul­der­ing bikes and heavy packs was far from invit­ing.

The as­cents we’d made al­ready were har­row­ing enough. The last thing we needed was to free-climb through a no­fall zone, with­out ropes, while car­ry­ing bikes be­hind our heads. Yes, this was meant to be a hard­core, ex­ploratory bikepack­ing ex­pe­di­tion. And given the un­for­giv­ing na­ture of the land­scape, it had clearly be­come a sort of ‘freeride tra­verse.’ But it was never en­vis­aged as a free-climb­ing cru­sade.

For McNab, how­ever, such a multi-dis­ci­plinary ap­proach was sim­ply part of his moun­tain-savvy world­view. Born and raised in nearby Revel­stoke, he’d spent his en­tire life in the sub­ranges of the Columbia Moun­tains, ski­ing, climb­ing, trail run­ning and moun­tain bik­ing. To him and his hardy cir­cle of ul­tra-com­pe­tent co­horts, they were all com­po­nents of the ul­ti­mate alpine ex­pe­ri­ence. They were the Mus­ke­teers of Moun­tain Liv­ing; all for one and one for all.

This out­look, shared by a grow­ing nu­cleus of rough-and-tum­ble lo­cals in the towns of the Columbia Val­ley, has in re­cent years led to a small up­surge of riders scour­ing the empty back­coun­try for un­rid­den lines and doc­u­ment­ing ‘first de­scents.’

In keep­ing with the back­coun­try ski ethic, all turns must be earned. Bikes and gear should be brought in un­der one’s own power, and ev­ery de­scent is pre­ceded by an as­cent. Self-reliance is para­mount.

In the words of McNab: “I don’t see any rea­son why we should treat bikes dif­fer­ently than skis.”

Rub­ber Carv­ing

Re­gard­less, we were there with bikes, and lug­ging these two-wheeled loads up ex­posed rock faces seemed much harder—and more dan­ger­ous—than car­ry­ing skis on one’s back. Fur­ther­more, with mid-Septem­ber snow­storms a cer­tainty, none of us wanted to get caught in a white­out with no mar­gin for er­ror.

Be­sides, the ups and downs we’d been tack­ling for the last two days were cer­tainly no pic­nic. Scram­bling over minibus-sized boul­ders for hours on end was ex­haust­ing work, rais­ing the con­stant risk of a badly turned an­kle. Pe­ri­odic rock­slides caused by lost foot­ing sent rub­ble hurtling down the hill­sides, threat­en­ing se­ri­ous in­juries that even our hel­mets might not thwart.

And the de­scents, well, they spoke for them­selves. The south-fac­ing slopes were typ­i­cally less rocky than their northerly coun­ter­parts, but they were al­ways burly. With abrupt roll-ins to chunky rain chan­nels that spilled out onto knife-edge es­carp­ments of ver­ti­cally em­bed­ded gran­ite, there was plenty to keep us on our toes.

Even the wide-open fun­nels of soft shale—the freerid­ing equiv­a­lent of pow­der runs—pre­sented their own haz­ards. For starters, some seemed nearly verti-

With a pack full of cam­era gear, Max Berkowitz fear­lessly points it down a scree chute. No trails, no wor­ries.

cal when viewed from the top. Drop­ping into these was an in­tim­i­dat­ing af­fair, re­quir­ing ski-like carves to check speed and avoid bury­ing the front wheel. Once you were go­ing, there was no stop­ping, no turn­ing back. It was full com­mit­ment, a three-way re­la­tion­ship be­tween rider, grav­ity and the el­e­ments.

B.C. Free

I was scared shit­less, but it usu­ally seemed safer to ride than walk. I fi­nally got into a rhythm of rid­ing and stop­ping, rid­ing and stop­ping, oc­ca­sion­ally tripod­ing down sec­tions or go­ing into con­trolled slides on my bum. As much as I wanted to chan­nel my in­ner James Do­er­fling, I had nei­ther the skill nor the co­jones to com­pletely let go.

In con­trast, McNab, Landry and Riga were rev­el­ing in the may­hem, rid­ing with speed and con­fi­dence, hoot­ing their way from top to bot­tom. They were the real deal, the essence of B.C.-bred freeride in its ev­ery­man in­car­na­tion. They lived for these mo­ments, to ride fast and free, far from the sti­fling stric­tures of so­ci­ety.

Their en­thu­si­asm was con­ta­gious, and I was over­whelmed with ex­cite­ment, cheer­ing them on as they drew long, grace­ful arcs down the moun­tain­side. Our fifth team­mate, 21-year-old filmer Max Berkowitz—whom Landry had coaxed into join­ing us by un­der­stat­ing the risks—was also swept up in the fer­vor.

“This is in­sane!” he yelled as he blasted by me, wildly launch­ing into a dirt-filled trough be­fore ca­reen­ing his way down the sprawl­ing flood­plain. I had no choice but to fol­low him to the bot­tom, where high-fives were ex­changed with all the flair of a Har­lem Globetrotters per­for­mance.

Harbingers of Hazard

That night, af­ter a se­ries of lively down­hills into an ever­green-choked meadow, we pitched our tents and gazed con­tent­edly as the sun’s fad­ing rays shim­mered across the top of the day’s last ma­jor pass.

“Can you be­lieve we rode that shit, man?!” asked Riga, point­ing to the long S-turn tracks that flowed from the top. “That’s so gnarly! It looks ver­ti­cal from here!”

It might not have been ver­ti­cal, but ‘gnarly’ was no ex­ag­ger­a­tion. From where we were sit­ting, it looked down­right im­pos­si­ble. Yet ap­pear­ances can be de­ceiv­ing. It was not only pos­si­ble, but we’d done it, al­beit in fits and starts. We’d rid­den most of it, and we’d made it this far with only a col­lec­tion of col­or­ful bruises and scrapes, mostly from shale plates col­lid­ing against shins.

As we choked down our cold, freeze-dried meals (a stove mal­func­tion meant no boiled wa­ter for the en­tire trip), we mar­veled over the day’s shenani­gans and won­dered what the fol­low­ing day would bring. The night sky was clear, and as dark­ness fell we were treated to a spec­tac­u­lar dis­play of the North­ern Lights, co­in­ci­den­tal harbingers of the fire­works to fol­low.

Ge­o­logic Go­liaths

We woke to freez­ing tem­per­a­tures and a thick coat­ing of frost on the ground, a sure sign that in­clement weather was com­ing our way. Hastily pack­ing up camp while gag­ging over cold oat­meal, we set out on a mon­ster mud­dle up the most per­plex­ing jum­ble of boul­ders I’d ever seen.

Nav­i­gat­ing through this labyrinth of ge­o­logic giants was te­dious and frus­trat­ing, ev­ery hard-fought step a strate­gic de­ci­sion with im­me­di­ate con­se­quences. To keep my spirits high, I tried to make it a game: It was lit­tle me, a

pro­to­plas­mic blip in the Earth’s re­cent his­tory, ver­sus this army of Pre­cam­brian Go­liaths. They mocked my foibles with their stony in­dif­fer­ence, but to win, all I needed to do was keep Mu­tant McNab in sight and make it to the sad­dle far above us.

This was eas­ier said than done. These moun­tains boasted some of the most tech­ni­cal ter­rain any of us had ever seen. Ev­ery morsel of pur­chase was parceled with sweat eq­uity. It was do or die. The Pur­cells would take no pris­on­ers. They would of­fer us no quar­ter.

Af­ter a solid, two-hour slog, I fi­nally laid my bike down and let out a vic­tory holler, look­ing back over this an­cient, nat­u­ral quarry with sat­is­fac­tion. Upon sur­vey­ing our land­scape, how­ever, I re­al­ized I’d only won a bat­tle, not the war. Be­neath us was an­other daunt­ing de­scent, a cir­cus of off-cam­ber chaos that stretched for miles into the val­ley floor.

Custer’s La st Stand

“Let’s get it, boys!” yelled Landry, pop­ping a snus pouch in his lower lip and man­u­al­ing into his drop like a Cheyenne war­rior whose horse had just been shot.

If Landry was Cheyenne, then the as­sault on this de­scent was Custer’s Last Stand. One by one, Landry, McNab and Riga charged into blown-out gul­lies with reck­less aban­don, each whoop­ing with ex­cite­ment.

Raptor Riga’s on­slaught was re­lent­less, plow­ing straight through the chun­der as if it didn’t ex­ist. McNab was more me­thod­i­cal, ex­er­cis­ing care­ful line choice, while Landry’s at­tack was an im­mac­u­late union of artistry and ath­leti­cism. On all ac­counts, it was an awe­some dis­play of tech­nique and com­po­sure, and once again, my fear was sup­planted by pure stoke.

“I’m just gonna let ‘er rip,” I said to Berkowitz, re­leas­ing my brakes and let­ting in­stinct take con­trol. De­spite get­ting bucked around, I hung on from the top all the way through a slate-topped drainage be­fore skat­ing onto an ex­tended patch of ice and snow. I had cleaned it, and I was over the moon.

Ap­pear­ance Ver­sus Re­al­ity

My joy was short-lived. One glimpse at what was next made me shud­der with dread: An im­pos­ing tower of grey mat­ter pierced the sky, dar­ing us to draw nearer. At first glance, I ac­tu­ally thought it was a glacier.

“Yep, we’ve gotta go up that,” mut­tered Riga as he read my dour ex­pres­sion. “It’s gonna be a bitch for sure.”

It was time for a pow­wow. Ev­ery­one but McNab seemed anx­ious, and I’d con­ve­niently spot­ted a lake in the ad­join­ing river val­ley that ap­peared to have a trail lead­ing out of this mess. I wanted to bail, but there was no way I could jeop­ar­dize the suc­cess of this quest.

“If that’s a trail,” I cau­tiously sug­gested, “then it should take us to some­where near Golden. And if we make it to Golden by bike, we’ll have com­pleted our tra­verse.”

This op­tion was squarely on the ta­ble, yet each of us had mis­giv­ings. Our round-robin opin­ion poll segued into a philo­sophic dis­cus­sion on the mer­its and pit­falls of freerid­ing, un­til McNab brought us back to our senses.

“Let’s have a closer look,” he said calmly. “It might not be as bad as it looks from here.”

As we neared the base of this be­he­moth, I thought I was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing. What had at first looked like the bald face of El Cap­i­tan now seemed to have a prim­i­tive path snaking right up the mid­dle. It turned out to be a cake­walk: We sim­ply put our bikes over our shoul­ders and saun­tered to the sum­mit, laugh­ing out loud at how rat­tled we’d been.

Smokin’ Cones

Our laugh­ter erupted in ec­static cries as we peered over the side to dis­cover a colos­sal col­lu­vial fan blos­som­ing across the breadth of the moun­tain­side. This cone-shaped ash­tray of per­fec­tion was straight out of a ge­ol­ogy text­book, plum­met­ing from the base of a shal­low cliff all the way to a man­i­cured run­way at the bot­tom.

It had ‘ride me’ writ­ten all over it. McNab and Riga were prac­ti­cally rac­ing to be the first to drop in, while Landry was left re­pair­ing the lat­est in an on­go­ing se­ries of punc­tures. As I watched them glid­ing ef­fort­lessly down this time­worn basin, etch­ing sym­met­ri­cal lines with each turn, I was over­come with eu­pho­ria.

This is what we’d come here to find. In an in­stant, this made all the pain and dis­com­fort of get­ting here worth­while. McNab and Riga agreed, about-fac­ing be­yond the runout and head­ing straight back for run num­ber two. Landry was be­side him­self, fran­ti­cally try­ing to fix his flat be­fore they got their sec­ond shot. In a fit of com­pas­sion, I threw him my spare tube.

Ev­ery­one got their turn. I skipped the cliff drop and dirt-surfed my way down so I could wit­ness Landry’s mo­ment of glory. He hauled ass, check­ing his speed oh-so-slightly with gi­ant slalom turns that would make Al­berto Tomba green with envy. Mother Na­ture had shown us some of her magic.

White­out Blues

Mother Na­ture’s magic wand has two edges, how­ever. We woke up the fol­low­ing morn­ing on the sharp one. The first sound I heard was the sooth­ing pat­ter of snow fall­ing on the tent, and when I stuck my head out to in­ves­ti­gate I was greeted by a bit­terly cold gust of wind. I fig­ured it was go­ing to be a long day.

Still, the sun was try­ing to burn its way through the clouds, cre­at­ing bril­liant light re­frac­tions that sent Riga dash­ing for his cam­era. We basked in the warm glow, mes­mer­ized by the glit­ter-like daz­zle, qui­etly hop­ing that the sun would pre­vail. We had one more pass to cross be­fore we could de­scend to Kick­ing Horse Moun­tain Re­sort—a ski hill just out­side of Golden—and it was a doozy.

The most straight­for­ward way up was along a slen­der ledge that con­toured di­ag­o­nally up to the ridge, and one wrong move up there could spell death. Even McNab con­ceded it would be too dan­ger­ous to at­tempt in the snow.

As if to an­swer McNab, it started dump­ing while we were siz­ing it up. Within min­utes, there were sev­eral inches of snow on the ground, and vis­i­bil­ity was neg­li­gi­ble. This time, there was no need for a pow­wow.

“It’s way too risky to go up there in white­out con­di­tions,” McNab said wist­fully. “If one of us slips on that ledge, it’s all over. Even if we make it to the ridge, the wind’ll be too cold. We’ll be run­ning a real risk of hy­pother­mia.”

Tree Wrestling

We didn’t need to be told twice. If Mu­tant McNab was throw­ing in the towel, so were we. Opt­ing to stay low, we made a bee­line for the river val­ley, where we’d seen a log­ging cut block the day be­fore. And where there’s a cut block, there’s bound to be a dirt road that could take us to Golden.

The un­avoid­able prob­lem with this plan was the fact that where there’s tim­ber, there’s go­ing to be downed trees. Lots of them. We would have to bush­whack our way out.

Within an hour, we en­tered a dense for­est lit­tered with fallen ev­er­greens. Ev­ery few feet, an­other enor­mous wooden ob­sta­cle re­duced us to a clumsy crawl. Ten­ta­cle-like alder branches snatched our wheels, re­fus­ing to let go. This non­stop wrestling match was as mad­den­ing as it was com­i­cal, and tem­pers were start­ing to fray.

“Give it back, you moth­er­fucker!” I heard Landry scream as he fought to free his bike from an ornery clus­ter of bushes.

Roid rage

At one point, I slipped on a snow-cov­ered em­bank­ment, badly hy­per­ex­tend­ing my left knee. I felt some­thing pop, and within min­utes it was se­ri­ously swollen, chaf­ing against my kneepad.

“Get it to­gether!” I told my­self. I had to press on.

Com­pound­ing my con­cerns was the pres­ence of ul­tra-fresh bear scat ev­ery­where. Even the trees we were slid­ing over were cov­ered in mounds of barely-di­gested berries. This was griz­zly coun­try, and there was at least one of them nearby. All of us were acutely aware of this.

“Yeeeeaaaa-oohh … yeeeeaaaa-oohh!” The woods res­onated with the sounds of our in­dul­gent noise­mak­ing—any­thing to en­sure none of us stum­bled upon an un­sus­pect­ing griz­zly.

Be­tween all this yelling and swear­ing, it was a won­der we could even breathe. Oc­ca­sion­ally, some­one would see some sem­blance of a trail and get the oth­ers’ hopes up. It was al­ways a false dawn.

Af­ter a few hours of this tor­ture, I con­cluded it was the sin­gle most ex­as­per­at­ing bush­whack I’d ever had the honor of do­ing. This was bikepack­ing on steroids. And I was cer­tainly suf­fer­ing a bout of roid rage.

Hair of the Bear

Sud­denly, I heard McNab scream­ing. He’d spot­ted a cut block. Just be­yond that was a dirt road. It took us an­other hour or so to get there, but we knew we were home free. When the five of us fi­nally con­vened on the fire road, it was all hugs and high-fives.

Not want­ing to worry the oth­ers, I gin­gerly re­moved my kneepad to as­sess the dam­age. Di­rectly be­hind my knee was a golf ball-sized bulge (which I later learned was re­lo­cated tis­sue from a se­vere ham­string tear).

With the aid of ibupro­fen and a snus, I knew I could ride the 25-odd kilome­ters to Golden. But I was gut­ted I wouldn’t get to shred some of the town’s renowned sin­gle­track with the boys. I would also miss out on our planned two-day, add-on sor­tie into the nearby Bu­ga­boo Moun­tains.

My dis­ap­point­ment was in­stantly dis­placed by alarm, as Berkowitz in­formed the group that a bear was on the bank be­hind us. Just 10 feet away, a hulk­ing griz­zly was star­ing us down, back hairs bris­tled, its wet nose twitch­ing as it sniffed out the scene.

It was a beau­ti­ful beast, but none of us wanted to ad­mire it for longer than nec­es­sary. We grouped to­gether, wav­ing, shout­ing and try­ing to look much big­ger than we ac­tu­ally were, un­til it slowly started to walk away. It stopped and looked back at us twice, al­most for­lornly, be­fore wan­der­ing into the bushes.

We silently ped­aled away, and, tak­ing my cue from this mag­nif­i­cent crea­ture, I looked back twice to make sure it was gone.

Clockwise, top right: McNab gets some; Landry should be wear­ing a climb­ing har­ness; you know it’s big ter­rain when you al­most can’t iden­tify Landry and Min­nigh.

ev­ery hardÑ­fought step a strate­gic de­ci­sion with im­me­di­ate con­se­quences.

Suf­fer­ing? Yes. Good times to also be had? Also yes. Beau­ti­ful land­scapes re­ward ar­du­ous ef­forts.

Landry over­land­ing. You know what’s bet­ter than freeze-dried meals? Freeze-dried meals un­cooked. Landry and McNab enjoy the culi­nary de­light.

Room with a view.

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