I lay sprawled on my back across a rock glistening with rain, more of which was falling on my upturned face. Thunder rolled around as arcs of lightning shot across the sky, throwing into sharp relief the power lines that were laced across the open area cleared of trees. My mind seemed to have stopped processing what was happening, I was exhausted and it showed. Is this what mountain biking is about? It was only two years later that my bike tried to kill me on Vancouver’s North Shore (flew over the handlebars and broke my thumb and elbow and concussed myself). But I love the sport and I’ve missed it this year.
Our mountain biking has been a bit truncated this summer. It’s been so unusually hot this year that our first thought was not to jump on the bikes and overheat on steep pitches but to jump in the nearest body of water we could find. Forgivable I think. But we are yearning for some riding now. Work, and more enjoyable activities like the Vancouver Film Festival, catching up with friends and such have been getting in the way. So I thought I’d revisit the Seven Summits Trail we rode three summers ago now for inspiration.
The trail is listed on the International Mountain Bike Association’s very selective list of Epic Rides, and was named ‘Trail of the Year’ in Bike Magazine 2007. This famous (perhaps even infamous) route in Rossland, BC is perhaps (but I’m contesting this) a once in a lifetime ride to attempt. It’s not for the beginner as it requires significant endurance with some technical challenges along the way. Intermediate riders are encouraged to give it a try, if they consider themselves ‘determined’. The IMBA description puts it thus: ‘The trail is remote and exposed with few escape options, the weather can get wild, and there is no water on the trail, so be prepared’.
I had just purchased my beloved Specialized Stumpjumper, the first mountain bike that wasn’t a hand me down or loaner. (I’d been using my brother in law’s Brodie which I was pretty attached to, particularly the crazy twisted spoke lacing pattern which attracted lots of attention) but had no intention of sacrificing myself on the altar of ‘serious’ rider, I just like being outside and love the adventure of riding in quiet, more remote areas. The Seven Summits seemed to fit the bill. There were no crazily obvious risks and the trail is challenging but not necessarily life-threatening. However even knowing the trail specs with its advanced technical and extreme physical ratings, we hadn’t banked on how much of an absolute energy suck that riding for so many hours, at a higher altitude than we were used to would be. Or what a fantastically great experience it turned out to be.
An Epic Ride is considered somewhat of a rite of passage in mountain biking parlance. No matter how fit you are mountain biking can be gruelling at times. There are more often than not roots, rocks, trees, sharp inclines up and down to negotiate, and a steady concentration is needed to assess the constantly changing terrain. On an Epic ride you’re enduring all that, but for hours on end. However, the potential for an unforgettable day out exponentially increases with the hours invested in the ride. Plus it’s fun, so we loaded up the car with bikes and headed for the interior. We’d heard there was a decent enough campground in Rossland, with, oh joy, showers (trust me, you need that minimal luxury after hours of sweaty riding). After a six-hour journey from Vancouver we rolled into the campground to serendipitously find the last free spot to pitch a tent.
As the trail is not a loop but is intended to be ridden point to point north to south for about 35kms we booked places on a shuttle that would drop us off around 8am at the trailhead. With 4-8 hours recommended for the ride, it’s a full days commitment. We’d heard of extremely fit cyclists completing the ride in about three hours or so, the average seemed to be about 6 or 7. There’s serious elevation, over 1000m, with the first and most demanding of the climbs using up about 600m in vertical gain. Plenty of food, water, extra layers for warmth and a rain jacket are essential for the changeable mountain conditions. With very limited cell coverage you’re pretty much on your own out there. Logistics taken care of, we checked over our ample supplies of fluids and food for the next day and chatted to a couple who had ridden the trail that day over a glass of wine. They’d taken about six hours to complete it, a good average for visitors by all accounts. Feeling mellow as we sat by the fire and carb-loaded, we agreed it didn’t sound too bad.
There’s nothing quite like lack of sleep to erode your confidence. We shifted from a wakeful but excited anticipation to an insidious anxiety, as if the fog that was forming overnight was creeping into the tent to prod silently at us with a finger of fear. Rest was elusive as we woke up multiple times and slowly drifted off back into a shallow sleep, starting awake again in the expectation that the alarm was about to go off. Doubts crept in, we’re both strong but neither of us had ridden on trails for that long before. There were no other riders booked on the shuttle and the possibility of changing weather conditions niggled at us. We’d heard tales of cold so debilitating riders could barely function and had had to retreat. There was also the knowledge that after a certain point, there is no turning back for a quicker exit, just a couple of emergency exit chutes out virtually in the middle of nowhere.
Dawn broke blearily to reveal the thick low-lying fog that had formed. Perhaps the perfect reason to gracefully withdraw from the venture had presented itself to our jittery nerves. It was advised to not set out in marginal conditions, but we had checked the forecast and admitted it was good, the mist could be just valley specific. Which is exactly what it turned out to be. As the shuttle van took us to the head of the trail on the gradual but steady incline we suddenly burst out of the gloom to a gloriously sunny, temperate day. A bluebird sky, the saturated green of the trees intense in the light. Perfect riding conditions. Funny how just a switch from gloom to sunlight can change your entire mood, from negative to positive.
We hopped around a little in the chill morning air, checking and re-checking our supplies, watching our shuttle ride vanish back towards town and read the warnings posted at the start of the trail about the challenges ahead with something approaching panic. Finally, we decided just to man up and get riding. Multiple dashes into the woods dictated by nervous bladders were cut off and we finally mounted our bikes.
Initially, we rode into what were unexpectedly pretty woods, lush grasses covered the ground on a gentle approach to the first climb. We were being lulled into complacence however, as quite suddenly the trail angled away and up, and stayed that way for the next two and a half hours. A buff but relentlessly technical trail in its steepness, we wrestled over sporadic roots, lungs wheezing. The extra altitude was immediately apparent and I seriously entertained calling it quits after an hour or so, I had no idea how I could do this for the next several hours. I was so close to calling out to Scott that I couldn’t do it anymore, but something like pride and stubbornness stopped the words in my throat. Just as we thought it would never end, we topped the first rise.
It’s not that it’s easy street after that first shock but it was never quite as hard, more of a test of how well you can settle into a rhythm of riding that goes on hour after hour. Re-fuelling regularly with water, electrolytes and food was punctuated by beautiful vistas of distant peaks, wooded slopes and wildflowers. Every climb upwards seemed to be rewarded by an exhilarating, sweeping sweet descent through open meadows, thickets of trees or exposed rocky outcrops. We barely saw another soul for hours at a time, then suddenly a lone rider or group would pass by, rarely stopping or sparing the coveted breath to say hello. I guess oxygen choices had to be made, but we were happy to know we weren’t entirely alone, at least for a few moments.
It must have been about six hours into the ride that we heard the first distant boom of thunder. Up until that point the weather had been kind to us, cloud obscured the sun at times but gave us a break from any intense heat. Looking over our right shoulders we could see thickening darkness and suddenly we were in a race to outrun a gathering storm. The lightning wasn’t far behind and we did our best to speed across open stretches to the perceived safety of dense woods. At one point we passed a group of hikers taking shelter in the lee of a hill as the rain started to fall. Calling out ‘hello’ we were answered with waves and relaxed hellos back. It was only as we dropped onto a forestry road, the first we’d seen and near to the final hour of the ride, that we realized what had happened. An ambulance was waiting and paramedics were preparing to walk for an hour up to meet the hikers, one of whom had broken a leg. A sudden reminder of the remoteness of the region and how lucky the hikers were to be relatively close to the end of the trail and to have got the word out that they needed help.
The rain was torrential by then on the final descent on Dewdney road that would ultimately lead us back to the campground. We were suddenly in an area that was muddy and slick with the detritus of cleared forest. As we descended under some power lines it was at that moment that I hit a rock and flew off the bike, which partially landed on me. Scott’s face loomed into view: ‘what are you doing?!’ I was too tired to even speak as I lay immobile staring in fright at the lightning. Staggering to my feet we lurched haphazardly down the rest of the trail, making way for a sudden glut of riders that appeared who were faster and had more technical prowess than ourselves. A trio of cyclists took a breather as they were about to pass us and in a friendly way we compared notes. ‘Great ride’. ‘Yeah, fantastic’. ‘When did you start?’ ‘8.30am, you?’. A shocked silence was followed up with ‘11.30’. Perhaps embarrassed for us that we had taken three more hours to arrive at exactly the same spot at the same time, they took off to spare us further humiliation. Ah well, we may not be the best riders but we have tenacity, I’ll give us that.
A couple more tight turns and we were back on the tarmac as suddenly as we had left the first road that morning. As we cruised toward the campground, we realized we’d left the rain bumping up against the hill behind us and entered our site to sun bouncing off the tent, the leaves in the trees above softly rustling. I’ve never felt quite so shattered and exuberant at the same time, wine and beer had never tasted so good, and…I want to do it again.