Thursday, September 23, 2010

BC MTB Trip: Part 4 - Alice in Wonderland (8.26.10)

Continued from part 3.

After completing our epic ride on Comfortably Numb the previous day, we decided to have a relaxing day of riding close to camp, in Squamish. The plan was to first get coffee and breakfast at my favorite java house, Onatah; then head over to Tantalus Bike Shop to get some ride recommendations for the day. As always, the coffee was superb and very similar in taste to Full City Coffee, here in Eugene. I fueled up on a breakfast “Manwich” which was also quite tasty. After breakfast we headed over to Tantalus, where we were greeted by a friendly fella behind the counter. After asking him for ride suggestions, he enthusiastically pulled open a map and began tracing a route with his finger. He stated that since we had gotten rain the night before, he was going to send us to some trails that would normally be too dusty. The plan of attack would be to follow a series of connecting trails whose names were based on Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland”. Not only was he extremely helpful with helping us plan a ride, he also offered us a ride back in his car if we wanted to shuttle the road portion. Are you kiddin’ me, talk about service! We thanked him for the offer and trail beta before leaving the store, and although we planned to ride the road portions we were touched by his hospitality. Both Tantalus and CORSA Cycles in Squamish are excellent XC bike shops with super friendly staff, this is in contrast to our experience with the bike shops in the Whistler Village, which are mainly DH specific and not as friendly to us lycra wearing folks. If anyone knows of a good XC shop in Whistler please let me know in the comment box below.

Map and tracks from our ride

After studying the map again, we decided to park at the intersection of Hwy 99 and Depot road, just north of Squamish. From here, we rode our bikes up Hwy. 99 for 4 miles (and ~750’ in elevation gain) to our turnoff, the access road to Cat Lake. As we rode along the gravel road, we noticed that the skies were threatening rain, but hey we’re from Oregon, a little rain isn’t gonna stop us from getting on some quality singletrack! Soon enough, we reached a parking area with a kiosk for Cat Lake. Knowing that we were close to the trailhead, I pulled out my trusty map to determine where it might be. After a quick study, I was pretty sure we had just passed it, unfortunately down at the bottom of a steep pitch we had just climbed up. Emily offered to ride back down to see if she could find it, which I graciously accepted. Sure enough she found it and shouted back up to me to let me know.

A view of the Tantalus Range and forming storm clouds
 The first part of the trail is rated as a blue and dumps you out at the northwest end of Cat Lake. I'm not sure if this trail has a name or considered the beginning of "Cheshire Cat", the trail we were looking for. Once we got to the lake we had a little trouble finding the main trail, but after some looking around, we found it heading straight west out of a trashed out camping spot. The Cheshire Cat is rated as a black, which was definitely fitting for some of the sections; although as a whole I would have put it on par with some of the harder blue rated trails in the area. Probably the hardest part of the trail was based on the surface conditions, super fine and deep dust on the steep descents. Apparently this is where the guy at Tantalus thought the rain would have helped things. Other then the dust, the trail had lots of short climbs and downhills to work your legs and lungs, and I was definitely feeling our long ride from the day before. There was also some fun bridge work here and there to make things interesting. At the very end of the trail, and after a steep switchback, comes another one that transitions into a bridge over a creek. It's a really sharp turn and if you blow it you’re going for a dip off the high dive.

Cheshire Cat

Some bridge work early on in the trail

A fun log ride in the middle of Cheshire Cat

The ladder switchback at the end of Cheshire Cat

Don't miss the turn!
 The next trail we jumped on was “Cheshire Kitten”, a short connector trail. My recollection was that this trail featured natural technical obstacles that weren’t too tough. After the trail ended we headed south on Hwy. 99 for a short distance until it passed over the Cheekye River. On the other side of the highway bridge is where our next trail would start, “White Rabbit”. This trail was a great XC loop with intermediate terrain and fun roots, rocks, and bridges. This trail ends at the intersection with Alice Lake Road, which was familiar territory for us.

Emily rides over a small rock feature on White Rabbit


More bridges on Wonderland

Creek crossings too!

 The imprisoned boulder on Wonderland. Quite a sight!

The last trail we hit in the “Alice in Wonderland” network, was Wonderland! This was by far my favorite one of the ride; I can’t believe it is so close to our campground and it took us four years to discover it. Basically, this trail parallels Hwy. 99 on the east side all the way back to Depot Road, where we had parked the car. The flow on this trail was amazing. Em and I rallied over bridges, roots and through small rock gardens. There were also some fun skinnies here and there to test your balance on the way down the trail if you so choose. At one point, to the side of the trail is a massive boulder that fell off the cliff to the east. This piece of rock has been completely caged in by trees that have grown up around it, and it’s a pretty impressive piece of natural trail art. By the time we reached Depot Road our smiles had not worn off...what a great trail! As we turned onto Depot, we agreed that we hadn’t gotten enough riding in for the day, and decided to extend it with a quick lap around the “The Dump Trails”.

The Dump Trail system was actually Emily’s and my introduction to mountain biking in Squamish, and it was also near the start of Em’s mountain biking career, so it does hold some good memories for us. That said, if you’ve come to Squamish/Whistler as a ride destination this would not be my first recommendation for a ride suggestion, but it is a good place to put down some miles on easy to intermediate trails with natural root and rock features. It should also be noted that there is a clear-cut smack dab in the middle of the trail system, which cuts off a couple of trails and can make route finding a little challenging. I still remember the first time we rode here and came across the clearcut, it took us about 15 minutes to find where the trail picked back up again.
On this ride we rode up "Sweet Judy" and “Rusty Bucket” before heading over to “Larry’s Loop/Cheekeye Fan”. On the way over to Larry’s/Cheekeye we ran into the clear-cut once again, but luckily this time there was some flagging and a faint trail which allowed us to find our way through with minimal effort. The cut did allow an unobstructed view of the sky and what looked to be a big storm coming over the Tantalus range. Since we were about as far as we had planned to be from the car, it didn’t affect our remaining ride plans. Once we reached Cheekeye Fan, we headed west a short distance to the powerline road, and then headed south on to hit the next planned trail, “Cracked Patella”. This trail was probably a little harder than the others, and you could also tell that it doesn’t get much traffic; it was however a good alternative to riding back on the trials we had just ridden up.

Threatening skies over the Tantalus Range (taken from the clearcut)

The last trail we had planned to ride was “Two Fist”, which was rated as a black diamond. Basically this trail seems to be one that time forgot, and a graveyard of wooden stunts. At one point in time it must have had quite an elaborate system of elevated ladder bridges and skinnies, based on all the leftover braces still attached high up on the trunks of the trees. I’m not sure why this trail was left to decay, but it was kinda cool to see. Once we finished Two Fist, we connected back up with Sweet Judy which we rode down to finish the ride.

Remnants of the ladders that used to be on Two Fist

More of the graveyard

In summary, I would say when I do this ride again I’d skip Chesire Cat, for it accounted for a majority of the climb, and was just too dusty to be considered worth it. I might reconsider if a lot of rain had fallen recently. Instead, I would ride up the dump trails and Hwy. 99 to White Rabbit and back down Wonderland; from there eat lunch and then hit one of the other great Squamish Trail systems (e.g. Garibaldi Highlands/Alice Lake, Crumpet Forest).

After the ride we headed over to Howe Sound Brewing for a beer and some hot wings, two of my favorite things! As people who know me will tell you, I’m somewhat of beer snob, and relish in the taste of a strong/rich microbrew. That said, I really wanted to like Howe Sound, as the only local brewery in Squamish. However, if you also like the taste of strong hopped-up Northwest style beers, I can’t recommend Howe Sound. To start with, pints cost ~$6.50, pretty outrageous if you’re used to paying 3 to 4 bucks; I’m sure the cost has something to do with the high alcohol tax. I actually wouldn’t mind dishin’ out that much for a pint, but I'd better be knocked out of my seat with flavor, or at least on par with what I drink at home. I had the IPA, and to be honest, it didn’t taste much different than an American lager (e.g. Bud). By no means do I intend to insult the brewmaster or locals that enjoy their beer, for I’m sure a lot of it has to do with how spoiled we are in the PNW. My other complaint has to do with the cost of the hot wings, $12 for 9 pieces?! Come on! At least they were pretty tasty. OK, enough bitchin’…

After the brewery, we headed back to camp to cook dinner (since we were now broke). After dinner we once again relaxed, planned our ride for the next day, and headed off to bed.

To be continued…

Monday, September 20, 2010

BC MTB Trip: Part 3 - Comfortably Numb (8.25.10)

Continued from part 2.

The day had arrived, our nine year wedding anniversary, and time for our “epic” ride of the trip, Comfortably Numb. “Numb”, as it’s affectionately known, is only 15 miles (24k) long, and that length anywhere else would hardly be considered an epic, but this is Whistler, where trails are usually tougher and slower going. Even IMBA has labeled it as such (see here). Also, to ride the trail, there is a road ride to get to the trailhead or back to your car, which increases the mileage to 23 total. I have a love / hate relationship with Numb, which depends on where I am on the trail and my current physical condition. This trail never really lets up; you are either climbing, going over & around technical root & rock gardens, or descending on tough rock features. There are a couple of mellow sections here and there, but they don’t last long. By the time I’d finished the trail both times I’ve done it, I was physically and mentally spent from the full concentration and endurance this ride requires. This I’m sure is partly due to the fact that our last few Whistler trips have been my re-introduction to the riding season, and essentially riding “off the couch”. With all of this said, I would consider this one of the best trails I’ve ever ridden, and it just might be my all-time favorite. A bold statement I know, but this trail can back it up. The creation of the trail is just as impressive as the trail itself. It was constructed almost entirely by one man, Chris Markle, a trail building legend in Whistler. Supposedly it took him 6 years to build as he worked from both ends. It was also a secret trail for awhile, used by only people in the know, but is now recognized as one of the official trails in the Whistler Valley network. I could gush about the quality and history of this trail all day long, but in the end it’s really something you need to experience for yourself, it’s that good!

The tracks from our ride

The elevation profile from our ride

Knowing that it would probably take between 5-6 hours for the trail portion alone (assuming no problems), we wanted to get an early start to ensure enough daylight and beat the heat. My goal was to start the ride no later than 11am, and gosh darn it, that’s when we left the Whistler parking lot on our bikes. As stated, it’s a ~6 to 7 mile road ride to get to the north trailhead from the Whistler parking lot. This actually gives your legs a great warm-up prior to jumping on the singletrack. The bike paths and views while getting to the trailhead also make it a very pleasant spin.

Emily on the road ride to the trailhead
(taken on a previous trip)

We soon made it to the Wedgemount / gravel road turnoff just past the north end of Green Lake. After crossing over the river, making a left, and then a quick right we were at the trailhead for Numb at ~11:45am. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought this was a good starting time, as there were three German riders taking pictures at the trailhead sign and ready to ride. We took a quick breather and ate a snack to allow them a few minutes head start so we didn’t end up crowding them, and after taking some pictures at the sign ourselves, we were off!

Emily poses in front of the sign at the trailhead

A closeup of the trailhead sign

The first part of Numb has you climbing at a nice steady incline with switchbacks and granite rock slabs. There are also small rock & root gardens to navigate through, as well as some fun ladder bridges along the way, but most of the obstacles on this trail are all natural. Em and I were both feeling great and making good progress while stopping for a view or to take photos every once in awhile.

A granite-laced section of trail

One of the wood features early on the trail
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Emily exits a fun little bridge

A typical granite pitch

More fun bridge work
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Emily uses the skinny to get over a wet section of trail

Before long, we reached an intersection with a doubletrack road that climbed sharply to the right. After another quick rest and a shot of Gu, we started the steep climb. The doubletrack soon turned back into singletrack and the sound of a creek could be heard in the distance. I’d remembered this section as a fun climb, where there were many back-to-back bridges which crossed over the same creek as the trail wove back and forth across them and up the side of the mountain. After the climb, we made our way south along a benched-in ridge which gave some great views of Rainbow Mountain/Glacier to our right. I stopped at a few places to take pictures while Emily continued up the gravel singletrack.

The double track climb

The bridge we came to over the small creek

Emily rides up the switchback bridges
over the creek (dry this year). It's hard
to tell but there are 3 creek crossings in
this one picture.

A view looking northeast up the
Hwy. 99 corridor from the top of the climb

The gravel benched in trail
that rides along the ridge

A view of Rainbow Mountain/Glacier from the ridge

The trail soon ducked back into the forest through a beautiful grove of yellow poplar trees. As we started a descent we heard the sounds of water rushing through a small canyon, which told us we were nearing Wedge Creek. As we got closer, we were faced with a couple of fun switchbacks, technical rock pitches, and two rather steep ladder bridges. Soon, a sign appeared in the distance, and as we got closer it signaled for us to either turn left to continue on Numb, or straight to hit a downhill trail known as "Young Lust". Since we were doing the epic, we headed left which led down to the creek crossing.

Emily stoked for the next bit of trail, a descent!

More ladder bridges

The author on the first steep bridge
into Wedge Creek. It's steeper than
the this photo would suggest.
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

The second steep ladder bridge
(also steeper than the photo
suggests, and just as fun)

Comfortably Numb/Young Lust junction

After rounding the last right-hand switchy of the downhill, we rode across the famous Al Grey Bridge which spans Wedge Creek. This bridge/creek is a great place to take a lunch break and enjoy the amazing canyon and waterfalls that cut through it. There is even a nice little bench set up to make things more comfortable. As we sat there, I couldn't help but study the geology and try and figure out how they erected the bridge in the middle of nowhere and on the rugged gorged-out terrain. Finally forced back onto our bikes by swarms of flies (which would hassle us all ride), we started the climb out of the Wedge Creek drainage.

The last switchback before the Al Grey Bridge

Emily rides across the Al Grey
Bridge over Wedge Creek

Wedge Creek above the bridge

The waterfall just above the bridge

The Al Grey memorial plaque

Emily eatin' some PB&J.
Obviously the flies were getting to her.

Now faced with ~6 to 7 miles of technical climbing, we settled into a slow and steady pace. This section of the trail takes you through a deep moss-covered forest that makes you feel like you’re in some kind of mythical fairy land. It is also a section that requires full concentration and stamina to get through the rock and root strewn ascent. Occasionally, the forest trail would give way to slabs of granite slickrock, mixing things up a bit. Just like last year, this is where I suffered the most, and had to take several short breathers throughout the climb while Emily sped out ahead. After what I thought was sure to be a never-ending climb, the sign for the “foul weather shelter" came into view, signaling that we were within a kilometer or two of the signed "Half Way" point. The last few pitches to the shelter are granite slickrock and steep; I was almost out of gas but managed to push it out and make it to the top without stepping off the pedals. Phew, time for a break!

The start of the climb out
of the Wedge Creek drainage

A section of granite trail

A typical view of the section after
Wedge Creek. Lots of roots and
rocks to navigate.

Emily takes a sun break during the climb...

Then continues the climb.

Lots of roots...

and bridges!

The steep granite pitch to the "half-way" point

Once again we ran into the German guys that we had seen at the trailhead. They were just finishing up their snack but stuck around for a few minutes to chat with us. They were super nice guys and seemed like decent riders, so I was glad to see that we weren't too far off their pace. I took some more photos of the mountains peeking through the tall forest trees, and was able to get a shot of Wedge Mountain which is easily identified by its name. I also gobbled down a energy bar and another Gu while dancing around trying to dodge all the flies that were very interested in me. Just like at the bridge over Wedge Creek they scared us away sooner than we would have liked.

Woohoo, halfway!

The "halfway" point. The "foul weather shelter"
can be seen on the far right of the picture.

Wedge Mountain from the "halfway" point

Back on our bikes, we started another short descent before climbing once again toward the highpoint. This section has a couple of nice overlooks that give great views of the Whistler Village, Green Lake, Rainbow Mountain/Glazier, and even the Tantalus Range way off in the distance. This part of the trail is also stacked with lots of technical and slickrock granite, and is probably my favorite section. Even though I was physically pooped at this point, this is my favorite style of riding and it kept me energized. Without even stopping or noticing the "high point" sign, we carried on through the granite until we reached another lookout, this time facing south. From here we had a clear view of both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountain and the peaks above them. After a quick gaze we started Numb’s longest descent back to the Whistler Village and our car.

A rock bridge on the short descent
just after the "halfway" point

Emily powers up some granite slickrock

A view of Whistler from another lookout

Green Lake and Rainbow Mountain from the same lookout.
Where the road makes a bend on the other side of the lake
is where the first photo of this write-up was taken.

The author rides through a techie granite section
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

A fun granite pitch
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Another fun granite pitch.
This one was pretty exciting!
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

More granite (photo by Emily Pfeifer)

Whistler Mountain/ski resort from
the last lookout before the descent

The descent back to the village is somewhat of a mixed bag. There are lots of fun sections, but there are also a lot of tough parts that had us hiking our bikes down. Toward the end there is also a lot of loose rock that can be quite difficult (and sketchy) since it remains fairly technical. This is actually the section that Emily took her spill on last year that required us to cut our trip short. There is also a disc golf course that cuts through the trail and can make route finding a little difficult; luckily some friendly disc golfers pointed us in the right direction. After the descent, there is another short climb that really took it out of me, and by the time we reached the gravel road at the end of the trail I was spent.

A typical view of the descent.
Technical loose rock.

Emily exercises better judgment and
walks the steep pitch in front of her

Emily poses in front of the infamous crash site
that ended our trip early the previous year

There were a few short climbs during the
descent, including this fun ladder bridge
(photo by Emily Pfeifer)

More slickrock during the descent

This was a pretty intimidating drop.
Bridge to rock to bridge to runout.
My legs felt too much like jello at this
point to even consider it.

More loose rock near the bottom

From here, we had the option of riding more singletrack on some newly built Lost Lake trails, but since I was so tired I convinced Emily that we should just ride the easier gravel path back to the car...I’m glad she agreed.

Elevation/Speed plot from our ride

The stats. Not too bad, but room for improvement.

Now back at the car, we changed into some nice clean cotton and gobbled down chips and beer. After that, we headed to the Whistler Village and got some ice-cream in celebration. We also stopped by the Whistler Bike Guide shop where one of the friendly owners gave us some good ride suggestions for the following days, and he also gave us a great paper map for free!

On the drive back from Whistler I thought a lot about the trail we had just ridden. Even though it beat me up pretty good, I can’t wait to do it again next year, although more time in the saddle prior to our Whistler trip should probably also be in the cards. We drove back to Squamish and celebrated again by stopping at our favorite dinner spot, The Wigan Pier, for fish & chips and poutine. For those that aren't in the know, poutine is fries with gravy and melted cheese on top, a Canadian delicacy! As usual, it was a great dinner, after which we headed back to camp to rest our aching muscles and catch some sleep before another day of riding.

Celebration time!

Fish & chips and poutine, a well deserved prize!

To be continued...