My legs trembled as I stood my ground,
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’.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.