PART ONE: They met in a crowded bar
As with most good stories, this one starts in a bar. A bar in Whistler to be precise. It’s not the usual “I partied too much and ended up hungover after spending too many hours underground,” as usually happens in Whistler.
Nope, not this time.
Monday morning, after poring over maps flanked by Saturday night drinks and lit by the ubiquitous iPhones, I found myself on a dock on the shores of Tyaughton Lake waiting for a Tyax Air floatplane to take myself and seven of the Enduro World Series’ finest for a three-day self-guided, self-supported escape led by Kiwi adventurer/bike racer Jamie Nicoll.
But before we get down to the actual three days in the wilderness you need to understand the how, why and what for being in Whistler. You see it was Crankworx, where every racer, photographer and video maker worth his or her salt is there to prove themselves on quite possibly the biggest stage of the mountain bike calendar. I was there for the Deep Summer photo competition and client work, while the racers were there in full race mode for the sixth round of the Enduro World Series. We weren’t really expecting to be riding/hiking all day, sleeping in cowboy camps in the frost at 1800m above sea level just a few short days after all the Crankworx shenanigans.
Now we all knew the Chilcotins have been done many times before, but Jamie had other plans than riding light and having our gear float planed from luxury camp to luxury camp. We were packing it in and out ourselves.
Our preparations were limited to a hastily arranged shopping spree in the Whistler village arranged on WhatsApp on poached Wi-Fi. I managed to round up some suitable kit from my Deep Summer riders and Whistler locals Craig and Jason, who are used to and fully prepared for these backwoods adventures. This consisted of a -20C sleeping bag, a leaking air mattress, a down jacket, a head torch and a hip flask full of tequila – they were all out of whisky thanks to us drowning our sorrows after Deep Summer.
Then, from fellow photog Paris Gore I borrowed a larger F-Stop pack, as there was no way I could fit all the sleeping gear and clothing plus food, spares, tools and camera gear for three days in my small riding-specific camera bag.
And that was quite literally it. Next stop was getting the group together at Tyax Lodge. And the group was a mixed on for sure: Jamie Nicoll; Anita Gehrig; Carolin Gehrig; Ines Thoma; Julia Hofmann; Katrina Strand; Yoann Barelli; and yours truly.
Day 1: Spruce Lake over Warner Pass
After getting floatplane arrangements out of the way we headed to the dock, took front wheels off bikes and waited for the De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver to arrive for the morning’s first flight. I’ve been to a lot of places in various modes of transport but seeing a floatplane touchdown on a glassy British Columbia lake just seemed to bring out the feeling of adventure in a big way. We flew in two trips up to Spruce Lake, flying over the exact scenery and singletrack we’d later be riding.
We touched down and gathered our kit then settled into the saddle for the day along the valley floor towards Warner Lake and the eponymous pass above it, and the inevitable hike-a-bike over it.
The racers headed off at a pace that quickly had me and my camera-laden body on the ropes, forcing me into calling out perhaps a few more photo stops than absolutely necessary – stunning scenery notwithstanding – just so I could catch my breath and get the heart rate down in order to make the entire three days. After some singletrack and the odd map/direction check we had lunch alongside Hummingbird Lake and compared each other’s provisions. After admiring and admonishing some of the culinary choices, recharged and refuelled we headed for the pass.
Hike-a-bikes are an inevitable part of any backcountry experience and I’ve done my fair share; normally I just get on with the job and pace myself to the top. But this 2.5-hour effort took a toll far worse than others. This group of racers were on a different program to me and I quickly lost sight of them over the exposed boulder fields. I was left alone taking a long hard look at my fitness levels and motivation to go on.
But where was I going to go? I was in this for three days no matter how crap my legs or back felt. After a few more self-doubting moments (well, a lot), I crested the pass to find the group looking out into a view I will remember for a long time. Endless rows of ranges receding into the distance for what seemed forever. Punishment/reward, suffering/bliss, pain/relief… You know, that kind of thing.
After almost eight hours on and off the bike, plus the obligatory photo calls in this most epic of scenes, we hit the trail for another 30 minutes of sublime singletrack to find our first campsite and get set up before the approaching sunset.
After bathing, supper and some initial concerns over bears and other things that go bump in the night we all got a good sleep, dreaming of what the new day would bring, a day in which we would have not one, but two passes to cross.
The tequila was left untouched; I passed out long before needing its help in falling asleep on my slowly-deflating bedroll.
Day 2: Iron & Elbow passes
My Boy Scout breakfast of oats, milk powder and water in a Ziploc bag sure went down well that morning. But I had that nagging feeling and humming legs that I’d be out the back before I knew it and I’d be chasing all day to try catch and capture the group. However, thankfully the pace on day two was a little more civilised for this greying photographer who by now was thinking he’d probably bitten off more than he could chew.
Speaking of chewing, our pilot had mentioned on the way in that he’d seen two families of grizzlies on the way to Iron Pass and that we should keep our eyes and ears open. I had my doubts we’d see any given the size of our group but there they were, just as described. We stood looking in awe, from a distance, at a family frolicking and foraging in the pastures below us.
The rest of this 10-hour day was just sublime, tough but sublime nevertheless. The passes were hard, but the hardest part of all was probably as we rolled through the Bearclaw camp heading to our own cowboy camp, watching with some degree of longing at another group of riders tucking into cold beers.
Day 3 Back to Tyax
Waking up to frost on the ground with a distinct chill in the air I quietly thanked Craig and Jason for insisting I took the warmest and not necessarily lightest of their loaner adventure gear. Some, who had gone the lightweight route, had got up early to pace around and try to get warm in the morning sunshine, and to wipe the sleep out of their eyes.
To be honest the last day was a bit of a blur for me as I was pretty beat from the previous four weeks of non-stop work and travel, from Madeira to Santa Cruz to Colorado then Whistler. But I can remember the turns getting better and better as we got closer and closer to the pickup, the lodge and the inevitable return to the real world.
But not before we swam in the lake, had celebratory beers in the lodge bar and started talking about the next trip.
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