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...