Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Top of The World / Khyber Pass -- Whistler, BC (8.26.2014)

For the last 7 years, Emily and I have been spending our wedding anniversary in SW British Columbia, riding our bikes on some of the best trails in the world that are created by the hands & imagination of other mountain bikers. Since we are cross-country riders, we've tended to shy away from the lift-serve trails, opting instead for the hundreds of free trails, found in Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton, and the "North Shore" of Vancouver. Even though we've had plenty to keep us busy, a few trails on Whistler Mountain, which are best accessed by the lift, had my interest for some time. One in particular was Khyber Pass, mainly for the high alpine views. It was also publicized as an adventure ride, which after finishing required you to ride either gravel roads and/or double-black trail(s) down to the valley floor. Of course I'm always up for an adventure, even if it means hiking my bike for most of it, but I wasn't sure I wanted to subject my marriage to such an undertaking.

Between those early days and now, a few things have changed. 1) Emily has become an extremely strong rider, 2) A single-ride lift pass was now available, and 3) a new trail leading into Khyber Pass, called "Top of The World", had been built. ToTW is now considered one of Whistler's showpiece trails, giving riders an opportunity to experience high alpine riding above the tree line. Apparently it wasn't supposed to be overly difficult, other than some rocky pitches at the start; after that it was noted as more of a XC style of trail. At first Emily was a bit hesitant about the idea, since she knows about the adventures I tend to get myself into, but as our trip came nearer, she started to warm up to the idea of my planned descent of Whistler Mountain.

Since we'd planned to stay the night at my sister's house (near Seattle) on the way up to BC, we left after work on a Friday night. It wasn't until Saturday evening that we finally reached Squamish, our new home for the next 8 days. On both Sunday and Monday we reacquainted ourselves to the more slow-going technical riding in the area, which is quite contrary to the riding in our home state of Oregon, where high-speed singletrack is the norm. Squamish is one of my favorite places to ride and once again it didn't disappoint, as we rode some of our go-to trails like Credit Line, Half Nelson, and Somewhere Over There, as well as some new / instant classic trails, like Rupert, Man Boobs, and Section 57.

Takin' my Man Boobs to the air
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Interesting trail marker...

Fun rock drops on Rupert
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Psycho bridge crossing on Rupert as well

Emily gets ready to drop into a meat line on Rupert

A sweet switchback on Rupert

Emily takes a detour on Credit Line

Startin' it off on Crouching Squirrel - Hidden Monkey

Emily finds a nice log ride on Crouching Squirrel - Hidden Monkey

And some technical sections too

The author midway through a great slab drop on
Crouching Squirrel - Hidden Monkey
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Emily near the start of Somewhere Over There

Emily gets ready to drop yet another granite pitch,
this time on Somewhere Over There.

The author opts for the fun rock/bridge drop on Somewhere Over There
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

When Tuesday finally arrived, we loaded up our biking gear and headed to Whistler, a mere 35 miles to the north. Since I had already reserved our ToTW tickets, all we had to do was head to the ticket counter to pick them up. Speaking of reserved tickets, they only allow 150 riders a day on the ToTW trail, so if you want to ensure you make it to the top, I suggest doing the same. It actually requires two tickets, one for the Whistler Express Gondola and one for the Peak Chair Express, which cost a total of $32 for a onetime ride.

Tickets acquired! 

Once we had our tickets in hand, we pushed our bikes up to the gondola loading area and waited for instructions on how to get on. This actually ended up being a tad tricky, requiring us to walk our bikes in vertically while rolling on the back wheel. Even though there was just the two of us, it felt pretty cramped and took us a few minutes to settle in for the 30 minute ride to the top. Riding up in our little capsule, we were provided with some pretty nice views of the surrounding area, as well as some cyclists cruising along the trails below us. I tried to take some photos from within the cabin, but with little elbow room and the dusty windows it was hard to fully capture the moment. After passing a few false summits and past the mid-mountain drop-off point, we finally caught a glimpse of where the Whistler Gondola express ended. Of course this was only the first leg of the journey and we still had one more lift we needed to take before we’d be at the Top of The World.

Emily settles in for a long ride to the Top

A bit cramped in the gondola 

After exiting the gondola, we took the bike specific trail that led to the loading area for the Peak Chair Express. This manner of getting up the hill was much less foreign to me; since I’d ridden many chairlifts during my days as an impassioned snowboarder. The sketchiest part of this ride was watching your bike hang precariously from the meat hook that was attached to the chair(s) in front of us; I was really glad that my bike had a thru-axle and that the winds were calm… As we walked off the landing dock at the top of the lift, we truly understood what was going to make this trail so special – the views!!! Being a clear day, you could see for 100+ miles in all directions, and we took a few minutes to take it in while we did our final gear preparation for the ride. I was actually a bit anxious to get on the trail, since the lift serves many user groups and it was a bit of a tourist trap around the facilities at the top of the mountain.

Emily takes in the view, between lifts

A view of the Top

A little more comfortable on this one!

Hmm... I hope the wind doesn't kick up

We made it -- Top of The World!

Great views of the Black Tusk, and more!

I think we go that way...

Once we had gotten our bearings and figured out where the trailhead actually was, we headed down the short bit of gravel road to where the singletrack began. Besides us, there were a couple other groups of bikers, preparing to drop in. A few were peering down the first bits of the trail, probably to determine what the heck they were in for. I knew from the write-ups that beginning had some steep/technical pitches but that it mellowed out after a bit -- From what I could see it looked like a hell of a good time!

Emily, well dressed for the occasion

Just as it had looked, the start of the trail provided a sweet technical descent and my all-mountain/XC bike felt right at home. After the great entrance, the trail did indeed mellow out a bit, alternating between rocky traverses and switchbacks. One thing that remained constant were the amazing and unobstructed views in every direction. One of the dominant landmarks was the iconic Black Tusk, which was easily identifiable given it's name. I couldn't name any other specific features amongst the grand landscape, but it was truly that, a prominent granite mountain range as far as the eye could see. Our immediate surroundings also provided an amazing setting, with interwoven fields of granite scree, grass meadows, and narrow stands of conifers. I couldn't say for certain, but I'm guessing this must be similar to what it feels like to bike high up in the Swiss Alps -- truly spectacular!

The start of the trail -- Super fun stuff!

Mellowing out a bit

Emily does her best to keep her eyes on the trail

A typical section of Top of The World

Nice swoopy turns

Amazing views to the north!

Emily heads down a typical rocky pitch

Getting into the trees

Way too soon the trail dropped down onto a catwalk, which would be the conclusion of Top of The World, at least for us. There are actually a few more shorter sections of this trail, but we'd be diverting onto Khyber Pass before reaching them. I had actually expected the Khyber Pass trail to be signed (like most trails in this area), but our only indication was an "out of bounds" sign, which warned us that we'd be on our own -- ah, just how I like it! I was actually quite glad that I had my phone with the Whistler Trail Map (app) installed, which I used to verify exactly where the trail started, since it was a bit obscure. Speaking of this app, you can get it for both Android phones and iPhones and it proved invaluable during our trip. If you are visiting this area for some biking, trust me when I say that you won't regret forking out the ~$10 to get it on your phone (their website can be found here).

Update - 3/16/2015:
I just became aware that we had entered Khyber Pass using the old trail. Apparently, there is a new entrance that is much more manageable/cleaner down the really steep stuff.  Here is a couple screen shots showing our tracks, followed by the tracks using the new entrance:

Our Tracks (old entrance)

New entrance -- for more info, go here.

Khyber pass started off innocently enough, riding along a thin band of singletrack through green meadows, with more epic vistas over our left shoulder to the north. At one of the switchbacks we came across a small ski shack, which we briefly inspected before pushing on. It wasn't very far past the shelter that the bottom of the trail dropped out from below us, and headed down through a series of loose/rocky gullies. This was the point in our journey where I started feeling like my Styrofoam helmet, lycra shorts, and SPD pedals were a little out of their element, at least with me in the saddle. Don't get me wrong, I love steeps as much as the next person, but this was extremely loose, with rocks as large as soccer balls, just waiting to get kicked loose and join you during the descent. I'm not sure if this is typical for this trail or if it had more to do with the time of year (dry) and the amount of traffic it had seen lately. Whatever the case, both Emily and I ended up walking a good portion of this section, which lasted for about a 1/2 mile and dropped about 600 vertical feet! I was able to ride a few of the sections, but I was certainly hiking more than biking...

An amazing start to Khyber Pass

A loose drop with some nice singletrack run out 

Starting to get a little rough (looking back up the trail from below)

Emily in the middle of a long/steep hike-a-bike

As the trail entered a thicker section of forest, the gradient dropped in half, making for a much more enjoyable riding experience. We actually encountered a couple small climbs and even got to ride past a small alpine lake. There were some more technical drops mixed in here and there, but nothing like we had just come down. Eventually the trail ended at a dirt road, ~1.75 miles from the start of the trail.

Finally on smoother ground

Down low, the trail goes though a beautiful forest setting

Some more descending near the end of the trail,
this time it was much more ridable.

From the end of Khyber Pass, we climbed up the dirt road a short distance (toward the CNRail Microwave Tower) before dropping onto Upper Babylon. Just as with Khyber Pass, the trail started out fairly mellow as it climbed up and around the backside of the tower, before starting its descent. At one point the trail bends around a left hand corner with an open vista to the north. After taking in the view for a few moments we saddled back up and dropped into the woods. It was in this section that we found a fun rock drop and other various natural features.

Granite slickrock near the start of Upper Babylon
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

A rare overlook on Upper Babylon

Just about the time I was gaining some optimism that Upper Babylon was going to provide lots of rideable entertainment, we reached the crux section. It started off with a tricky/loose S-turn switchback, which ended up being pretty fun but took me two times to get a clean line. Immediately below this we came to the notorious rock-drop, with the walk around fitted with ropes to help you get down. After spending a few minutes peering over the cliff and wondering who would be crazy enough to ride it, we came up with a game plan to get our bikes (and ourselves) safely below. Basically, I went down about halfway, where I was able to find “good enough” footing, and had Emily hand the bikes down to me. Once I had the bikes stabilized against some roots, I climbed down the rest of the way while she took my place and we repeated the process.

The author rounds the second turn on a loose switchback
(photo by Emily Pfeifer) 

Happy to still be on my bike!
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Looking over the edge

Looks like we;ll be hiking down here...

Emily, halfway through the rope assist scramble

As a side note, I had actually known about this spot from reading a few write-ups. Knowing it was there, I ended up packing in an appropriate length of climbing robe and some carabineers, just in case. In hindsight this was fairly unnecessary, and even if the ropes that were pre-setup hadn’t been there, I feel like we could have gotten down safely, it just would have taken a little more time.

Below the cliff band, the trail headed down through more loose/steep singletrack, which like Khyber Pass, had us on and off our bikes as we continued to lose elevation. That said, and as I recall, it offered a higher percentage of riding to hiking. There were a few really fun rock slabs & drops that were challenging but also very rideable.

Before long, we reached a clear-cut area (with heavy regrowth), where the trail descended in earnest down a series of steep switchbacks, complete with small rock-drops and miscellaneous wood features. I’m sure this section would be great with the proper gear and a healthy dose of “not givin’ a shit”, but it was a bit over my ability level and I once again found myself doing more hiking. If nothing else, it was cool to see places that can push beyond what you’re capable of (both mentally & physically) and imaging what it would be like for riders that are capable. Just below the steeps, the trail tee’d into an old road, which for all intents and purposes, had faded into singletrack over time. From here we made a left, following the sign to Babylon.

The start of the gnarly final descent down to
the gravel road at the end of the trail 

Before starting the next leg of the journey, we stopped for a quick lunch at a spot that had some nice rocks and logs to rest our weary bums. It was here that we saw the first people since crossing out of bounds from Top of The World. I was actually a bit taken aback that none of them had CamelBaks, even with being so far off the beaten path – we would later discover this as a trend in Southwest BC. After finishing our sandwiches and regaining some energy, we pushed on.

Looking back up at Top of The World, from our lunch spot

The first part of Babylon by Bike (lower Babylon) ended up being fun technical singletrack, but all too soon turned into a wide high-speed affair that was more doubletrack in nature. We did pass by one trail junction for "Seeing Colors of Puke", and although I was tempted to head down that, it’s considered more of a climbing trail, so we opted to stay on BbB. Although it wasn’t quite “classic” singletrack, there were some fun jumps scattered throughout and it was nice to actually be on our bikes & making good time. Eventually the trail ended at another dirt road where we turned left and headed down a ways, where we’d need to make another decision on which trail we'd next descend -- our two options were "Tunnel Vision" and “It’s Business Time” (aka Duncan’s Trail). Since I didn’t know much about either, I simply read the descriptions via the map app. We ended up deciding to try Duncan’s, since it sounded a bit more intriguing, with passages such as “an instant classic”, “one of the best new trails”, and “a must do”! With that, we passed by Tunnel Vision and headed down the gravel road until we reached the trailhead for Duncan’s.

Railing down Babylon by Bike

Emily taking in the view (of the Black Tusk)

The trail started off with a short, nicely-graded climb, which led to some granite rock slabs and the location of a memorial. We guessed that the large portrait photo that was placed there was Duncan, who had recently passed. I would later research this and I now know that this was in fact a memorial for Duncan MacKenzie, the builder who both envisioned and started this trail, and who later lost his life in an avalanche while skiing (in 2012).

Looking back down the trail from the top of the first climb on Duncan's Trail

A somber memorial for Duncan Mackenzie --RIP

Duncan’s was indeed a playground, with a nice variety of man-made and natural features. The trail also offered lots of ups & downs, which proved to be quite challenging due to our low energy reserves. I was really wishing we hadn’t ended our day’s ride on this trail, as I could see it being a real gem with a fresh set of legs and lungs. Regardless, we still had a great time, and it was quite a refreshing change from the ruggedness of Khyber and Babylon. I also wish now that I had taken more time with my camera, to document the amazing construction of this trail; unfortunately I was too tired and both Emily and I just wanted to be back to Whistler Village, where we could grab some food and a beer. With our gas tanks nearing empty, we eventually reached the end of the trail, which dropped conveniently onto the paved Whistler Valley Path, which is essentially a freeway system for bikers and pedestrians. Unfortunately, we were about 6 miles west of the village, so we still had a bit of path riding to do.

Back to the views

Bridge crossing

The more interesting line at one of the trail splits

Great trail surface throughout!

The author drops one of the steeper rock drops on Duncan's
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

The run-out
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

A sweet ladder drop toward the bottom!

Emily nears the end of Duncan's 

Once we made it back to the car, we quickly changed into our street clothes before heading into the village to find a bite to eat. I’m always concerned that we'll end up having to pay a small fortune to eat there, but you can find some pretty cheap dining if you look around – we opted for Boom Burger, which felt/tasted almost identical to Five Guys. Once we had filled our bellies, we headed back to the car and drove back to camp, in Squamish.

Top of The World is a great trail and verges on being a “must do” if you came to Whistler to ride. This is especially true for anyone that is planning to ride a day or more in the park, adding only a small price increase for a one time trip to the Top. I wouldn’t say the trail itself is worth the extra money (although I did love the technical stuff at the beginning), but the views and ambiance of the high alpine riding (above the tree line) was worth every penny! You basically have a 360 degree view of Whistler’s surrounding wilderness, which is jaw dropping and forces you to stop riding from time to time just to take it all in. I also like the fact that they limit the number of riders per day (currently 150), which helps with the solitude and will hopefully mitigate erosion from overuse. Bear in mind that we only did ToTW down to the Khyber Pass intersection, so I can’t speak for the section(s) below.

As for Khyber Pass and Babylon, they were definitely an adventure, which is neither good nor bad, depending on your flavor. Personally I love adventure / mini epics – getting away from the pack and having to problem-solve along the way is what feeds my soul. From that aspect I was completely satisfied and it fit the bill perfectly; however, from a trail quality standpoint, these trails are just too beat to shit for me to want to return to them. I wouldn’t mind the steepness, but the surface was extremely loose and rutted out for long portions of trail. I know this statement will probably ruffle the feathers of more DH/Enduro style riders, but from an XC standpoint you’ll definitely feel the limits of your gear and your own commitment level. It also could be that these trails are much nicer earlier in the season, when it’s not so dry and they haven’t seen much prior traffic, but that’s not something I can answer to – please feel free to chime in if you can. Also feel free to comment if your experience on these trails was completely different than mine, as I’m curious to get some other perspectives. As for the lower section of Babylon, it doesn’t really fit into the description above, and it actually felt more like an uneventful connector trail.

It’s Business Time (Duncan’s Trail), on the other hand, is an amazing piece of singletrack – everyone who helped build this classic trail should be proud. It offers a great mix of technical stuff (man-made and natural) which you’ll encounter on both climbs and descents. As I previously stated, I wish we would have been fresh for this one, instead of at the end of our ride with just enough energy to keep us moving.

In the end it was a good day, and I'm really glad we did the trails that are laid out in this write-up; if for nothing else, to satisfy my curiosity. Although we did a lot of walking, I feel that the experience made us stronger riders. I can certainly see myself doing Top of The World again, but would probably skip Khyber and Babylon, taking the bike park trails down instead. It would be a shame to miss Duncan's, and I would like to ride Tunnel Vision, but we could always climb up Colors of Puke to hit those trails.

All that being said, if you're into adventurous rides that are off the beaten path, do it up, you'll probably have a great time!

The tracks from our ride: