Seven Summits Trail revisited

A little over a year ago, an essay I wrote for a competition hosted by Women On Writing made it through to final judging. It didn’t place in the finals, but I’m still proud of the piece. I based it on a blog post I wrote about the trip we made to Rossland a few years ago and the epic ride we undertook, which you can read about in full here.

Reading the essay again made me yearn to get out on mountain bike trails which have inevitably been closed down for the last couple of weeks. But this too will pass, and hopefully soon, and when it’s safe to do so we can drag the mountain bikes out from the cupboard again. For now, like most mountain bikers, we’ll just have to be satisfied with whetting our appetites from our armchairs. I hope I can help with that a little, and that you enjoy my essay ‘Siren Song of the Wild’ below.

Seven Summits, Rossland

Glorious vista

Siren Song of the Wild

The world around me had shrunk to a bubble of trees and dusty trail crisscrossed by bulbous roots; raised veins on a weathered hand. My harsh breath disturbed the still air; leg muscles throbbed as they contracted with each painful turn of the cranks. My head hung over my handlebars as I fought an unspoken battle with myself – give up now before I was too far in or reach deep for some spark of internal grit. I leaned into the upward slope of the trail.

We had arrived the previous day in the Canadian town of Rossland high in the Monashee Mountains, a narrow band of ancient snowcapped peaks in British Columbia that inch over the border into Washington. I had spotted a moose – a hint of the wilderness that we were headed into – slate grey in the descending twilight, nosing through dense undergrowth in a shallow ditch beside the deserted road.
The gold rush in the 1800’s had made Rossland a city but in the intervening decades its population size had shrunk to that of a small town; the people who lived there now worked and played in the abundant snow during winter and negotiated space in their gardens with the wildlife that wandered through in the summer. We planned to ride the Seven Summits trail, 35km traversing seven mountain peaks with a gain of over 1100m in elevation. Rugged and remote, it promised an intensely physical challenge coupled with the chance to immerse myself in an elemental environment, a world bigger than the one I usually inhabited.

The night before our ride, sleep evaded me. Anxiety rose like bile as the darkness inside the tent surrendered to murky dawn. Would I be strong enough? What if I had a bad fall? What if my husband crashed? Only three exit points existed along the trail, the second was in such rough shape it was advised to avoid it altogether.
Unexpectedly dense morning fog slowly dissipated and bright sun emerged, elevating our spirits. Parking the car at the far end of the trail on Hwy 22, we were then picked up by a shuttle van, transferring us with our bikes to the beginning of the trailhead. I reread the warnings posted nearby: carry water and food, no cell coverage, remote wilderness, changeable weather. Kneepads, helmet and gloves on, water and food double-checked, I hopped from foot to foot. My teeth chattered; a mix of nervous adrenalin and early morning chill. I mounted the bike and started to pedal.

Starting gently enough, the undulating trail was in places thick with dew-dampened leaves and branches that gently slapped my legs as we rode past ferns and berry bushes before giving way to stands of cedar and fir trees, oxide green in the sunlight and backlit by a cerulean sky. Cold muscles, stiff from a night tossing on a tent pad, started to warm. Intermittent birdsong accompanied us as we easily pedaled along. Not so bad.

But after an alluring beginning, the trail revealed its true nature. Suddenly angling up, we ascended relentlessly for a pitiless two and a half hours. A couple of turns of the pedals were followed by an exhausted slump as our sea-level lungs heaved in the unaccustomed altitude. Relief and jubilation converged when we crested the first, and as it transpired, most demanding peak of the day. The West Kootenay mountain range hove into view – hazy in the early morning air, home to moose, bears, mountain goats and caribou alike – a wilderness of rock and forest that pulled me onward.

The trail thereafter bisected meadows liberally endowed with alpine wildflowers: lupines, Indian paintbrush, alpine daisies – blotches of purples, reds, whites, and yellows – before plunging into dark, dense woods, then shooting out suddenly to grassy sunlit slopes. A gentle breeze whispered as buff trail segued into a large, stubborn patch of snow we skittered and crunched across on foot as we shouldered our bikes, then into slate and sharp rock we rattled across, stones bouncing off wheel rims with a sharp clink. Sporadic clouds chased the sun, forcing us to stop and put on jackets in the sudden chill, before grinding to a halt to rip them off again as we started to overheat. We devoured sandwiches, trail mix, chocolate, shot blocks, water and energy drinks on frequent breaks. I rode as much as I could and when I was too scared of the precipitous drops to the side of the trail to pedal, I walked.

Gradually, mentally and physically drained, a kind of dogged determination took over. After 18km, an innocuous junction marked the final chance to leave the trail or carry on. We paused for a moment. I was numb with tiredness but automatically remounted, the rejected exit route tempting me back for the first few pedal strokes before I got my anxious thoughts under control. Pedal, rest, pedal, eat something, pedal, stop to look across vast treed mountainsides, pedal.

At last we crossed over a local forestry road, the sign we were nearing the end of our ride. A deep rumble of thunder sounded from the right. Panicked, we quickened our pace, the air heavy with the scent of ozone before the first drops of rain fell. Descending a steep cut, tense with fear, I hit a rock and flew over my handlebars. I stared up at a sky cleaved by fingers of lightning before heaving myself up, shaken but unharmed.

We picked our way down what was now a muddy mess of tight and narrow switchbacks, our aching hands barely able to hold onto the handlebars. The inevitable screeching of wet bike brakes heralded our arrival as we were abruptly spat out onto asphalt, steaming now in a warming shaft of sun. Eight hours of exhaustion and euphoria, glorious views and generous dollops of fear and it was over; the taste of wilderness like fresh spring water, the thrill of achievement thrumming through my body for hours, days, and months afterwards.

Keeping busy

Moutain biking

Mountain biking deserted trails

It’s a fuzzy, out of focus shot, Scott wanted to be quick; there were only one or two walkers behind us on the otherwise deserted trails, but we wanted to keep moving, to stay well out of their personal space for their sake, and ours.

A few days prior we had driven to the trailhead in the hope we could squeeze in a bike ride. Like everyone else we were desperate to be out in the sun and fresh air, but there were too many people and the trailhead was far too packed, it would be impossible to keep the prescribed six feet of distance between us and the next person. So we turned around and opted instead to set the alarm early on a day that was forecast to be rainy and cold. Our gamble paid off, the area was virtually deserted and the occasional walker we met either pulled way off the trail for us or vice versa. We rode well within our abilities, taking no unnecessary risks, and kept the ride shorter than usual. But that hour or so of puffing up steep inclines, negotiating veiny roots on the forest floor and breathing in the misty, oxygen-laden air is something I am so grateful for, particularly as we live in a tiny bachelor with no balcony to speak of and certainly no garden to hang out in. We’ll try to go once a week, as long as it’s safe for us and others to do so.

In the meantime as – along with thousands upon thousands of others – I was laid off last week for goodness knows how long, I’ll continue to use the extra time to draw, practice yoga online and join in with streamed circuit classes.

Keep well, keep safe.

drawing of trumpet flowers

Trumpet flowers

 

Green idyll

mountain bike trails

Heading into Dead End Loop

Slumping over the handlebars, I stopped to regain my breath before I began to ride into Dead End Loop. Tiny white and black butterflies flitted across my vision (cabbage white?) and as my eyes focused on the air before me, I noticed small mists of winged insects drifting around. I took it as a good sign, with the deep concern surrounding declining insect populations (and the efforts made to reverse that trend in surprising areas) it was good to observe such obvious signs of life. Perhaps the recent rains had helped after an overly dry start to the spring.

skunk cabbage

Good ‘ol skunk cabbage

We were back up in Squamish, and after the first foray of the year a couple of weeks previously when the vegetation was shockingly parched and sparse, it was a relief to see the familiar fresh, verdant green appearing; as well as a few salmonberry flowers.

salmonberry flowers

Salmonberry shrub

We pushed ourselves; three hours of riding the trails in Squamish that included the notorious Bypass trail – basically a short but mean slog up a hillside that I usually have to stop on at least once. For whatever fortuitous reason – more rest, stronger legs that day – I managed to thread my way up the trail after a fun, fast bounce around the root strewn Dead End Loop. Topping up my iron levels too over the last year or so has helped too, I hadn’t realized I was low despite the tell-tale signs of lightheadedness and sheer tiredness on rides (no matter how much I ate) until on a whim I had it tested. Gotta love those iron supplements!

Woodland, Canada

Squamish woodland

The temperature was perfect, just warm enough to ride without a jacket; the sun chased by a very few clouds. A lucky day before the rain and cloud moved back in the very next morning.

mountain biking

Scott on the trail

 

Leaping into spring

We doggedly turned the pedals; eyes streaming, glasses fogged up, snotty noses cold and damp. My feet had long since gone numb and I noticed Scott slapping his frozen hands against his legs in a vain attempt to get some feeling back into them.

No, it wasn’t an epic trip along some ice-covered road in a distant Nordic country, just riding back to the ferry after visiting a friend overnight in Victoria on Vancouver Island earlier in March. The weather had changed overnight from cold and sunny, to frigid and sleeting. It felt in equal measures foul and fun (in a masochistic way, natch). We were dressed for the cold but not the wet, a point underlined as we disembarked on the mainland and booted it along the causeway to where we’d stealth-parked the car. Riding in full-on snow at this point as we sloshed through thick pools of water and slush, terrified yelps escaping my frozen lips as yet another truck barrelled past in the unofficial race off the ferry. My eyes were still noticeably swollen at work the next day, the after-effects of the wind and sleet that had somehow worked its way under, over and around my glasses.

Now that it’s finally warming up – cherry blossom bursting impatiently forth, a dusting of green on trees as leaves begin to unfurl – the first foray into mountain biking of the season has meant upending our tiny apartment as we dig out our bikes from a jammed closet. Three grinds up a gravelled road, and three runs down a bermy, easy run and we started to feel our bodies loosen up after far too long a break.

So March has been characterized by sporadic rides, lots of reading (Ashlee Pipers’s Give a Shit: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet has caught my attention for the last little while – plentiful ideas for upcycling, recycling, reusing – and I ploughed through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which frankly drove me a bit nuts with all the ‘thees and ‘thous’. I couldn’t put it down, but I have to admit I much prefer his essays from A Moveable Feast), and fitting in more drawing around work. Lately I’ve been working on some strawberries:

botanical drawing of strawberries

Strawberry composition

And I learnt a bit more about my backyard in British Columbia in This Mountain Life; both the staggeringly beautiful scenery this area contains, and the unique people who explore it, it’s well worth checking out.

 

Discovering new mountain bike trails, part two: Cumberland, British Columbia

Mountain biking Cumberland, BC

Taking a breather, Cumberland, BC

After three days of a rural retreat on Quadra Island in July, we headed for another mountain bike hub, Cumberland, the self-styled ‘village in the forest’ nestled in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. We were booked in for three nights at a local airbnb, a cute self-contained apartment with a full kitchen – so saving us a ton of dough cooking our own food – and oh joy, a washer and dryer; sweaty, rank bike gear no more!

I hadn’t realized exactly how close to the trail system we’d be. A step out of the door from the converted attic above a nice family home, one, two, three turns of the pedals, a couple of moments coasting down the road on a gentle incline and we were suddenly in the woods and starting up a forestry road. No driving to a trailhead, no fighting traffic, no muss no fuss.

The trails in Cumberland are excellent; well-maintained, clearly marked, extensive, fun and challenging when you want. Thanks to the efforts of the local bike club, the United Riders of Cumberland, the agreements they hold with private landowners have allowed the development and maintenance of a vast network of trails in a working forest. Additionally, the Cumberland Community Forest Society has over the last few years been raising funds to buy parcels of forest adjacent to the town and in the process are protecting an important ecological, recreational and historical area.

BC BC Bike Race, Cumberland, BC

BC Bike Race

Cumberland attracts riders from around the world. The last day of our visit the town hosted the second stage of the BC Bike Race, ‘the world’s best mountain bike race’ ~ Outside Magazine. The race next year is already sold out. We watched as over six hundred riders shot past our airbnb into the woods early in the morning, the spin of so many wheels buzzing like a vast hive of bees. The local sports field was a sea of red tents set up for the riders that night, and were just as suddenly gone the next day, on to another stage of the race in another town.

MTB trails, Cumberland, BC

Scott, Cumberland

Bike races aside, for all its popularity as a mountain biking destination once we’d ridden up the forestry road and veered off on the first of many trails we saw at most a handful of riders each day. On the second day dark clouds hove into view as a deep rumble of thunder sounded. Despite its throat clearing the sky spared us all but a spattering of rain and lightning. We traversed a web of trails that led us up into great swathes of logged, open land; stumps and replanting abounded instead of thick forest. At other times we were led back into gorgeous woods that had been temporarily spared the chainsaw or were soon to be felled, judging by the brightly coloured plastic ribbon that adorned them.

I’m conflicted about the areas we rode in. The trails are brilliant: loamy, rocky, rooty, flowy, techy, take your pick. But the cleared areas jarred. The forest society notes on their website that all unprotected forest is to be logged. Replanting can’t hide the evidence of chainsaws at work (at this point of the growth cycle anyway). Where new growth reached just over our heads, it was easier to deny the logging – the inevitable out of sight, out of mind.

In a way Cumberland is a lesson in survival and evolution (I highly recommend a visit to the Cumberland Museum and Archives, we learnt a lot in a couple of hours one afternoon). With the discovery of coal in the 1800’s, Union, as the town was once called after the Union Coal Mining Company, grew rapidly, swelled by the arrival of Chinese and to a lesser extent, Japanese, immigrants to work the mines in harsh and dangerous conditions. As coal production gradually declined followed by the depression and WWII, many Chinese returned home whilst the Japanese endured forced internment during the war years. Chinatown and Japanese Town were dismantled. Logging replaced coal mining as the primary industry. Bolstered by the conviction that the forest is now worth more standing than felled, the community is ushering in a new economy. It’s nice that mountain biking is a vital part of this latest growth; Cumberland, with its artsy, craft beer, music, outdoor enthusiasts scene will have fully evolved once again.

We’ll be back.

Vanilla MTB trail, Cumberland

GoPro screen capture from Scott of Vanilla MTB, Cumberland. Flowy, bermy, fun!

 

Wild Camping (sort of) in the Nicola Valley

mountain biking near Merritt

Autumnal riding

‘Can you hear the coyotes yipping?’ Scott asked. I turned my head slightly from where it was buried in his warm shoulder, freeing my left ear from the sleeping bag pulled up to nearly the top of my head.

‘Yes, wow, there’s so many’.

Not only were the coyotes out in full force, but an owl kept up a consistent ‘whoo whoo’; good hunting I guess by the light of the three-quarter full moon. Or perhaps the wild creatures were less hesitant to make themselves heard, claiming back more of their territory as the camping season died down with the approach of late autumn. I snuggled deeper into the layers of sleeping bag, old duvet and mounds of clothes we’d thrown on top of ourselves in the freezing night. Dressed in fleece pants, thermal tops and socks we were just about warm enough in our tiny lightweight tent. The moon lighting up the flimsy grey nylon made it seem as if it was permanently twilight.

tent and bikes camping outside Merritt

Our tiny tent, and bikes, with loo roll attached! Biodegradable and burnable!

Earlier, as dusk started to fall, we’d heard what sounded like a curious cross between a grunt and a rasping cough. Spooked, we’d all looked around sharply at where the noise came from, just behind us in a small grove of trees. Images of bears and mountain lions padded through our minds but the odd sound came from high off the ground. Later we heard it from treetops on the opposite side from where we’d camped. Perhaps another owl?

We hadn’t expected it to be so cold, but it was beautiful. Looking out of the tent in the early dawn the creeping light glistened off a hard frost. I was glad of all the warm clothing we’d brought for wild camping in the backcountry, in mid autumn near Lundbom Lake outside of Merritt in the Nicola Valley of British Columbia. In an area significantly higher than sea level, I knew it would be chilly during the night at the very least.

We’d arrived early the morning before, following detailed instructions, and found my sister, brother-in-law and their two dogs warming themselves around a robust fire. Tucked up an innocuous dirt road away from a nearby forestry campground, we revelled in the space and quiet away from others. There was no rush to change into mountain bike gear – part of the reason we were out here was to discover flowy trails in more open country, very different from the coastal riding we’re used to. Eventually though, after chomping through some mammoth sandwiches and donning all the cold weather gear we’d brought with us, we set off on a thoroughly leisurely ride.

open grasslands, near Merritt

Sun peeking out

Gorgeous autumnal colours drenched the landscape – all browns, yellows and fading greens. We rode through soft dirt and stones, loosened by horses hooves throughout the year, the sun chasing the clouds. I could feel my lungs working a little harder, that above sea level thing again, plus we were both getting over a bad cold, but it was worth the raspy breathing and constant nose blowing we had to endure. I’d never been to this area before and I loved it. We rode for three hours, not long really but enough to give us a taste of this open country.

mountain bike trails, Merritt

Interesting mountain bike trail names

Huddled around a huge fire later as dark fell we ate far too much, washing the food down with a good bottle of red (natch) wine and several beers. Even with the moon we could see the Milky Way; we sat craning our necks for ages staring at the night sky, one of my favourite pastimes.

fire at night, camping

Relaxing around the fire

It was only one night away, but enough to fill up with the freshest of air. And good timing too, the evening after we left it started to snow.

 

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