We knew it wasn’t going to be good. It was terrible.
It’s mid-November. The snow should be falling. I should be waxing bases, checking avvy bulletins, getting ready for the first turns of the winter. Instead a very warm, wet spell has been followed by a very cold, dry spell, and the turns I’m waiting for are only happening in my dreams. So for now, I’ll keep taking my bike out to wild, beautiful places that help me forget, at least for a while, that I’m not skiing.
This weekend, it was finally time to explore the Garibaldi Lava Flow . I didn’t have any particular plan in mind; I just rode out to the place where the trails started, and then followed everything I came across that looked like fun. It was a stellar day: bright and clear but freezing cold, with a heavy layer of frost lying everywhere the sun hadn’t touched.
I alternated between riding and pushing up the switchbacks on Blindside, then rolled through beautiful loamy forest and out onto a plateau with open views to the Mamquam Icefield. I let go of the brakes and clattered down to the Powerhouse Plunge, flying off rocks and leaping over waterbars. I rode the strange frozen loam of the Cookhouse Connector to the Ring Creek Rip, where the final descent disappeared in a blink of an eye.
Every now and then I’d break out onto ridgelines where the views took my breath away. I can never decide: is it more about the riding, the sheer crazy rollercoastering thrill of it, or is it more about the strange and beautiful places it takes me to? Probably both, in the end.
The places I love the most are the places where I feel lost in the vastness of the world, where there are no people to break the silence and there’s nothing around me but wildness and space. The new and unknown.
With a rare Tuesday day off in hand this week, I set out with a loose plan to ride the 9 Mile/Ring Creek Rip route. After unknowingly taking a wrong turn straight out of the parking lot, I found myself on an incredibly steep, incredibly sustained climb that took me behind Habrich and Sky Pilot and out into some of the most wild, beautiful territory I’ve ridden on a bike.
I saw a few ATVs and dirt bikers early on the trail, but as I rode further out the road became more and more desolate until I passed a few hunters in camouflage gear and then, no-one. For a while Habrich towered to my right, then Sky Pilot, and then they fell away behind me as the distant blue mountains of Indian Arm appeared ahead.
At some point the nagging feeling that I was on the wrong road became a certainty. Still I kept onward, more interested in the unknown territory ahead than where I maybe should have been. At one washed out corner a creek tumbled across the road, and I splashed through it and then plunged steeply downwards through more small water crossings, down a rollercoaster of a rock garden, and finally to a bridge where I paused and realised that the sun was starting to sink ominously close to the distant peaks and the air was growing colder.
I hammered back up as fast as I could, suddenly very aware that I had less than an hour of daylight left and had no idea – literally none at all – where I was. Nor did anyone else. As I paused for breath at the top of the climb I saw the first person for miles, a mineral prospector who asked if he could take my picture because “I’ve never seen a woman out here on a mountain bike before” and told me neat stories about the geologic history of the valley.
And then, an absolute screamer of a descent back down all those vertical metres of endless, lung-searing climbing. Concerns about the fading daylight disappeared; I was back at the car twenty minutes later, the kilometres vanishing beneath my tires. Rocketing down the bone-shaking sections of loose rock, the bike skidding and leaping beneath me and yet somehow arriving upright on the other side.
This was not at all the ride that I intended, but it’s exactly the kind of day I had in mind when I bought this bike.
That’s me, in Backcountry Magazine’s 20th anniversary issue, giving a three-sentence soundbite on “why I backcountry ski or ride.”
I’m not a stranger to appearing in print. I write a bi-weekly column about cycling for a local paper, the Vancouver Courier. In 2009 I wrote a book about user-generated content and its impact on library services. I’ve written at least a half-dozen articles for professional journals and contributed to an assortment of other books on libraries and technology.
This is different. This is the first time I’ve ever appeared in print talking about skiing, however briefly. Something about which I’m very far from an expert, but that’s closer to my soul than anything else I’ve ever written about.
I remember Metal Dome, our group gathered on softening snow beneath an azure sky, gazing out at a world away from the world, a stunning landscape that belonged to us alone. And talking about why we did it, why we were prepared to take the risks to be in this place and see these things. I still don’t know if I’ve found the right words, not really. To go high and deep into the mountains, to experience and remember such incredible beauty, casts a light into every aspect of my life. It changes the days, even the mundane ones where nothing much happens, because I know that such places exist. It makes me grateful to be in this world.
Downhill biking is amazing. It turns the forest into a place of secret treasures, the hidden trails that snake between the trees and the joyride they promise. But skiing – backcountry skiing – is something else. It’s transcendent, a path into places that are high and wild and empty, vast spaces of snow and rock where descent is a flight above the buried surface of the earth, anywhere you want it to be. It’s the time I need away from the world to be able to believe in the world; it’s the time I need away from people to be able to give them time when I come back. It saves me from myself.
I’ll keep trying to find ways to describe it, but whether I take three sentences or three hundred there will always be pieces of the experience that words can’t capture. And even as someone who works with words, I think maybe that’s okay. Some things can only be lived.
This was the summer of Half Nelson, the wild, grinning joyride through the trees that makes every other trail pale in comparison. And what better way to head into fall than with a few laps on the legacy climb, followed by a first visit to Half Nelson’s big brother?
Full Nelson was everything I expected. Steeper berms, tighter turns, bigger jumps. Soaring, swooping fun from beginning to end. I wrapped up the day with a run down Pseudotsuga 1 and 2, climb back to Tinder, and then a final jello-legged descent on Pseudotsuga 3. I hadn’t realised that Tinder was a connector, so my poor weary quads – 1,700 vertical metres into the afternoon – weren’t prepared to deal with any more climbing at that point. It didn’t matter. It was glorious.
Summer is well and truly over now, and the steady rain that soaked my final lap was a reminder that before long the temperature will be dropping, the storms will be rolling in, and the long wait for ski season will be over. Until it gets here, I’m just going to keep on riding.
We take for granted our time on earth. Even when we don’t, we do. We spend our precious moments on trivialities, on contrivances, and we lose sight that far more precious than our dollars are our minutes.
~ Steve Casimiro
Not again. Please, not again. I don’t want to be writing this. I don’t want to be acknowledging another loss, mourning more bright and beautiful lights that went dark far too soon. Not again.
But of course it happened again. Because this is what we do, from the weekend warriors to the fearless mountain guides. We go out into a space that isn’t safe, that isn’t controlled or contained, where nothing is certain. Even for the very best among us – the most experienced, the most thoughtful, the bravest – there are no guarantees. It’s not a mystery why, as Steve Casimiro writes in his beautiful homage to the dead and the living left behind: “You play with fire, you might get burned. Some extreme skiers live to be old, some don’t.”
Goodbye, JP. Goodbye, Andreas. I didn’t know either of you, not really, although I met JP at a few movie premieres and have always been in awe of the contribution he made to Canadian freeskiing. I never spoke to Andreas Fransson, but I followed his blog and his documentaries and all of those insights about risk and reward, the price that might have to be paid one day for a life lived amid a stunning beauty beyond the reach of most of us.
And now, that debt is paid. They’re both gone in an incredible, sickening double whammy that punches a hole right through the heart of our community. When I saw the first news headline, it felt like a kick to the gut. Then it just felt impossible. Not Andreas, not JP. It can’t be true. Of course it’s not true. Not both of them. Not this.
Did they know? Right at that last, final moment, as the mountain fell apart around them and the white wave broke, did they know there was no walking away this time? So much experience, so much expertise; maybe they did. Or maybe they still hoped, even as they were swept away. It’s only human, to hope when all hope is gone.
And for the rest of us, as we wonder how the hell this happened to people so much more experienced and expert than we could ever dream of being, what do we take from this? If the very best among us could be snuffed out in an instant, just like that, what does that say about the calls we make? About what we do, where we go, why we choose to be in these places where the world is no longer safe or predictable?
This, I think. He said it so many times, in so many ways, Andreas.
“What I do know is that a life without seeing magic is not a life well lived. Mountains are just one tool in this quest, but it’s the one I know and the one I breathe. It’s not about going out into the mountains because they are worth dying for. I don’t think there are many things that are worth dying for, but I still need to go out in to the mountains because they give me something to live for. I want to live with excitement, love and joy…and then all those other questions just disappear.”
And be careful. Oh, be so careful. Ask the questions, and if you’re not happy with the answers then ask them again and again and again. Because there are people out there who love us, each and every one of us, and I don’t ever want the people who love me to be hurting the way that the people who loved JP and Andreas the most are hurting right now.
What better way to celebrate ten extraordinary years together than with one extraordinary day?
It wasn’t intentional. It was a moment of synchronicity. When I remembered – weeks after they first went on sale – that we’d intended to buy Mount St. Helens summit permits this summer, the earliest date there were any available was September 16th. Our tenth wedding anniversary. We didn’t even really need to have the conversation; there was never going to be a better way to celebrate than this.
For the whole week before, I’d been sweating over the weather forecast as it bounced back and forth for September 16th. On the two days when it mattered most in 2014, the weather gods had delivered in spades; all I needed was for them to smile on this one last day, the third time that counted for all. The alarm sounded early and when I looked out of our motel window, the sky was a clear blue and the sun was just cresting over the nearby hilltops. It was perfect.
We signed the register and then piled into the car and drove, almost deliriously, up the last of the paved road and on to Climber’s Bivouac. The morning air was cool and clear, and as we set out on a fairytale path through the moss-laden trees of the Gifford Pinchot national forest it still didn’t seem possible that we were on our way to the edge of the most catastrophic volcanic event ever to take place in North America. Unlike last year, when we’d driven through the blast zone to our start point and at least had some time to take in the scale of the ruined landscape around us, this hike began long before we saw the devastation.
The transition, when we reached it, was abrupt. Shady, beautiful trees one moment, and barren slopes of volcanic ash and rock the next. The middle section of the hike was by far the toughest. As we crested the first open slope, the scale of what lay ahead became apparent. The lava flow was a jumble of huge boulders, half rough pumice and half sharp, fractured basalt, all of them strewn across a series of steep ridges that led up, up, up toward ash-grey peaks an impossible distance away. It may not have required technical skills but most of it was a hands-and-feet scramble, intensely fun but slow and tiring. In spite of our slow progress the views behind us grew wider and wilder with every metre of altitude we gained, a staggering vista wrapped in surreal, smoky light from the wildfires burning in timber far below.
When we finally crested the last ridge and reached a relatively clear trail through the last few basalt blocks to the ash fields ahead, I could have cheered. To our left, a pocket glacier clung to the side of the mountain; to our right, the broad expanse of the Worm Flows made me dream of winter, of skis, of a different way of climbing and descending. Ahead, ruin. Rocks pulverized to dust and fragments that ghosted in little clouds around our feet. With every step forward we slid half a step back, but still we kept moving on. J hasn’t had much experience at altitude, so the thinner air threw her for a loop until I explained the trick of slowing to that perfect trudge where you can just keep going. Nothing but ash, ahead and behind. One step, two steps, slow and steady. Everyone’s moving just as slowly as you are. Knowing that it’s the home stretch, even though you have no conception of what that means in this strange and blasted world.
We took one final gasping step upwards, and bam! Suddenly we were two feet from the crater rim, and there in front of us was the wildest, most alien, most surreal landscape I’d ever seen. I lost the power of speech; the only thing I could say was “Holy fuck!” again and again. Beige and brown and red and orange and ochre, it looked like the surface of Mars. Huge, jagged peaks to our left and right, the remnants of a shattered mountain clawing at the sky. Smoking vents in the centre of the crater itself, fumes rising from somewhere deep inside the world. The immense breach in the side of the peak, a reminder of a force beyond imagining, canyons and badlands spread out before it. Harry’s Ridge, where we’d walked the summer before, impossibly far below.
We hung out on the summit for a while, taking it all in. It was hard to know which way to look, with the crater on one side and the beautiful blue haze of mountains behind us. When the time came to head downwards I almost couldn’t bear to leave.
Later there was champagne, and celebrating, and gratitude for the ten years we’ve shared, each other, and this amazing place we live in. There really couldn’t have been a better way to spend the day, or a better place to spend it. Ten years together called for something utterly unique, and this – well, this was it.
It feels like summer is drawing to a close, even though there’s still warmth in the midday sun and the skies are clear and blue. All of September’s anniversaries are rolling around, making me remember that I wasn’t always as lucky as this, that the days used to be duller and greyer and I did too. There have been too many reminders lately that life is short, that there will never be time enough to do it all.
And so in these golden days at the end of summer I go out into the beautiful places with my bike, looking for light, looking for speed, always trying to go higher and faster and further out. Seeing how far above it all or how deep into the wilderness I can pedal; finding descents so fast and flowing that everything disappears into a wild, grinning joyride and there’s nothing else to think about, at least for a little while.