Biking Red Heather

I gave my legs a day to rest after the Fondo (a whole day! They should have been ecstatic) and then decided it was time to get on with some dirt riding. I’ve had a ton of fun with the downhill trails we’ve ridden this summer, but I also wanted to find something a little more destination-oriented – a technical ride with a goal in mind.

Red Heather seemed perfect. I’ve climbed it enough in the winter to know that it’s got plenty of uphill without being too steep. It’s rumoured to be a good bike ride. Having skied a substantial chunk of it, I know the views are unbelievable. The forecast was good. It seemed like an excellent plan.

Tantalus Range from Red Heather trail

After a brief mishap with a leaking camelbak at the start of the trail, the climb began. Without its winter coat of snow, the trail was far steeper and rougher than I’d anticipated. On skis it has always felt like a steady, gentle ascent the whole way up. On the bike it was a heart-pounding, lung-searing scramble over loose rock, dirt and small boulders. It was just technical enough that I could keep going without ever achieving any kind of rhythm or flow. I had to keep my eyes firmly on the line and my legs pumping hard enough to generate sufficient momentum to clear all of the various obstacles in my path. Within minutes I was soaked in sweat, gasping for breath, and cursing myself for having such a ridiculous idea in the first place. The cardio alone made the Fondo seem like a Sunday stroll.

At one point where I dabbed and then stopped for a second to catch my breath, I had a slightly disconcerting moment. In the sudden silence, I heard something very big and loud crashing through the trees just below me. I stayed very still, wondering if J had been right about the foolishness of going on this particular mission alone. For a second or two I contemplated turning the bike around and rattling as fast as I could back to the car. But ahead of the me the trail stretched on and I wanted what it held so very badly: the wilderness, the alpine landscape, the moment when I’d break out on the ridge and see vistas that would stun me into stillness. I put my feet back to the pedals, and moved hastily on.

As I struggled and sweated my way upwards, the waypoints came and went surprisingly quickly. I realised that in spite of the godawful slog, I was covering ground very fast with the bike. The Red Heather hut appeared out of nowhere, marking the start of the Round Mountain climb. I knew there was a lot of vertical still to go but I suddenly began thinking that I might actually make it to Elfin Lakes after all.

Red Heather trail by bike

Round Mountain wasn’t much kinder on the cardio front, and introduced some increasingly large waterbars as I made my way up the mountain, but the general condition of the trail actually improved for a while and I found the time to stop and take a few pictures along the way. Garibaldi kept its head stubbornly hidden in the cloud, but the Tantalus range was basking in the sun behind me. The meadows looked so entirely different in the summer: green and verdant and beautiful. I picked out the rocky slopes and steep drops of some of our favourite ski runs, astonished at the contrast with the mellow lines that form once the winter snow fills in.

As I rounded the corner and emerged onto the ridge, the full vista opened up ahead. The trail winding its way along Paul Ridge, the Mamquam icefield in the far distance, Diamond Head, Columnar Peak and the Gargoyles. It took my breath away. It made every lung-busting pedal stroke seem worth it.

Mamquam icefield

The trail rapidly deteriorated into much looser rock, but apart from a few isolated ups and downs the gradient finally settled and it was a much easier ride from there on. I belted along as fast as I could, marveling at the slopes we’d skied in the winter and trying to retrace some of our skinning steps. Less than a minute after passing the final run we’d skied on our epic new year trek, I dropped over a small ridge and suddenly Elfin Lakes were right there in front of me. I had no idea we’d been that close before.

It was such a beautiful scene. The twin lakes gleaming an unreal blue in the sunshine, with the tiny dot of the hut beside them. The steep, forested slopes above that eventually gave way to shale, rock, and a few determined patches of snow and ice. I looked at my bike leaning up against a rock, and at the vista it had brought me to, and I couldn’t quite believe it. I had never in my life imagined that I could ride a bike to a place like this. It wasn’t just the views, but the isolation. There wasn’t another person in sight or earshot. All I could hear was perfect, unending silence. It stilled everything inside me and wrapped me in a sense of total peace and calm.

Elfin Lakes

The ride back was a rollicking wonder. I started out with a lot of caution and then gradually abandoned all of it, realising that the faster I let the bike run the better it handled the incredibly variable conditions. It was all just loose rock, small boulders and the odd waterbar; there was nothing on the trail that presented a large or insurmountable challenge, so all I had to do was stay loose and relaxed and let the wheels do their thing. As my confidence grew I touched the brakes less and less and the ride got more and more fun. By the time I clattered out at the parking lot, I had a grin a mile wide plastered across my face.

I think this particular trip is the best thing I’ve ever done on a bike. It was hard, but so incredibly worth it.


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