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Ultralight Foolishness

Will Cadham  /  August 11, 2022  /  9 Min Read  /  Mountain Biking

Delusional optimism and alpine immersion in British Columbia’s South Chilcotin Mountains.

Will Cadham drops into North Cinnabar trail. The first section is loose shale that can slash a tire before you even get up to speed. Just outside the South Chilcotin Mountains Prov. Park on September 9th, 2021

All photos by David Kenworthy. All captions by Will Cadham.

It was nearly 7 p.m. when we finally broke into the alpine on the southwest side of Battlement Ridge, ascending toward Iron Pass. The final climb was brutally steep and riddled with downed trees and trail washouts, forcing us to push our bikes as we clambered over seemingly constant obstacles. Apart from nervous shouts of “Hey, bears!” our group had hardly spoken for the last few hours.

We were in grizzly country, after all.

As we emerged from the treeline, the expansive alpine for which British Columbia’s South Chilcotin Mountains are famous spread out before us, the towering peaks bathed in deep oranges, reddish purples and swathes of slate blue. Our voices were hoarse from a day of yelling and a lack of water—we’d run out several hours before, as each creek we’d passed contained enough silt to clog our water filter.

But it wasn’t thirst or wildlife or fatigue that kept us in sullen silence, growing more tense with each step. It was the collective realization that the sun was near setting, we’d already ridden 18 miles and we were still 20 miles from camp.

It was going to be a long, cold ride home.

Ultralight Foolishness

Apparently Elbow Pass cuts through one of the densest grizzly bear populations in the South Chilcotins. Luckily for Mark Taylor and Will Cadham, the breathtaking view of Elbow Mountain does a great job taking their mind off that fact. September 6th, 2021 Big Creek Provincial Park

Our journey to Iron Pass began in Whistler, British Columbia, at 9:30 a.m. on the first Saturday of September 2021, when Mark Taylor, David Kenworthy and I started the 3.5-hour drive north to the South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park (SCMPP).

The trails of the SCMPP and adjacent Big Creek Provincial Park (BCPP) are well known to mountain bikers, and for good reason: Collectively, the two parks encompass one of North America’s largest contiguous networks of subalpine and alpine singletrack, built on a foundation of ancient trails used by the St’át’imc, Tŝilhqot’in and Secwépemc nations and popularized by miners of the Cariboo Gold Rush in the 1860s. The network stretches nearly 180 miles through a wilderness of hulking mountains, glacial lakes and extensive wildlife—including mountain goats, moose, bighorn sheep and over 220 grizzly bears.

Most mountain bikers access the SCMPP and BCPP’s trail network via a float plane taxi service operated by Tyax Adventures, which drops riders on Spruce, Warner or Lorna lakes. The trails connecting the outfitter’s various backcountry operations are both the most popular and well maintained.

The BC Parks’ limited maintenance budget means the rest of the trails are largely looked after by volunteers and conditions can vary wildly from year to year. We wouldn’t be using a float plane for access, and since we’d purposely selected less-frequented trails, the state of much of our route was largely unknown.

But we didn’t care. The purpose of our trip was total immersion in place, six days and five nights of completely human-powered exploration in the two parks’ deeper, more remote regions. With no other destination but that night’s camp, our days were dedicated to mountain biking.

First, however, we had to get there.

Day One – September 4, 2021

We’d originally planned the trip for late October, but an unseasonably cold August storm had temporarily blanketed much of the park with the first snow of the winter and left us scrambling to pull things together a month ahead of schedule. The last thing we wanted was to spend six days riding—or, more likely, hiking—our bikes through snow.

After navigating the infamous Hurley River Forest Service Road we dropped our retrieval vehicle—Mark’s truck, loaded with a carefully curated celebration cooler—at a dusty pullout near Tyaughton Lake, just downhill from where we’d end our ride five days later. Then we all hopped into my venerable 1995 Ford F-150 and continued up the service road for 15 miles to our launch-off point.

We came into our first day with fresh legs, which was good news for multiple reasons: 1) Our bikes were loaded with over 40 pounds of gear, with another 30 pounds on our backs, and 2) only a mile or so of the Little Paradise Creek Trail—our first section of singletrack in the park—was clear enough to ride.

Ultralight Foolishness

Will Cadham leads Mark Taylor into the South Chilcotin Mountains
Provincial Park on Little Paradise Creek Trail. September 4th, 2021

Ultralight Foolishness

Mark Taylor tries to find somewhere to hike his bike through a maze of
thick alder and deep mud on Little Paradise Creek Trail. September 4th, 2021 in the South
Chilcotin Mountains Prov. Park

The slog took far more time and effort than we anticipated, but the thrill of our first singletrack descent was enough to alleviate all that ailed us, making every turn and roller feel more rewarding than the last. Despite setting up camp in the dark, a feast of homemade freeze-dried chili left us beyond satiated.

Day Two – September 5, 2021

Having spent countless hours poring over maps and two prior weekends scouting trails, plus conversations with several Bridge River locals, we felt optimistic—bordering on confident—that we had devised a route prioritizing high-quality singletrack descents and minimizing the laborious hike-a-bikes for which the Chilcotins are infamous.

We did, however, leave a few things up to fortune; two of the six days embraced the concept of “adventure,” and our chances of completing either was based on pure conjecture and a healthy dose of delusional optimism.

Day two was one of these, and the route was undoubtedly ambitious: nearly 10,000 feet of climbing over 38 miles, including multiple mountain passes.

Ultralight Foolishness

Will Cadham pushes up what he hopes is the last of the unforgiving, sandy slopes on Deer Pass Trail in the South Chilcotin Mountains Prov. Park on September 5th, 2021

Ultralight Foolishness

This vantage point of Warner Pass means there is no turning around. Heading west along Warner Pass Trail, Mark Taylor and Will Cadham know they are half way back to camp, except they’ve already been out for more than half the day. September 5th,

Ultralight Foolishness

Ultralight Foolishness. Chilcotin Mountains, Canada.

Day Three – September 6, 2021

If the previous day’s theme was delusional optimism, day three’s was unfamiliar exploration. Graveyard Creek Trail leads into some of BCPP’s northernmost mountainous region, an area none of us had ever explored but which looked promising on the map. It left us caught between excitement and uncertainty: It could be overgrown and barely rideable, or it could be world-class.

Ultralight Foolishness

After arriving in camp well past dark and downing a silent, late-night meal—followed by some unfortunate bowel irritation—it was easy to sleep past dawn the next morning. But below-freezing temps made getting out of our sleeping bags a challenge of its own. It also gave us a reason to go over the day’s route while we waited for things to warm up (and for our bikes and frozen gear to thaw out). Riders: Will Cadham (left), Mark Taylor (right). Manson Creek Camp / South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park.

Ultralight Foolishness

Graveyard Creek Trail dumps you into some of Big Creek Provincial Park’s most northern reaches. Having never before explored this area, Mark Taylor and Will Cadham descend with a combination of excitement and uncertainty. September 6th, 2021 Big Creek Provincial Park

Ultralight Foolishness

Graveyard Valley was the battleground where the Tsilhqot’in and St’at’imc nations fought for hundreds of years. Mark Taylor and Will Cadham do their best to focus on the singletrack while in their minds, the history of the area takes over. September 6th, 2021 Big Creek Provincial Park

Ultralight Foolishness

Pine bark beetles had ravaged the forest along the latter half of the Graveyard Creek Trail, and we were thankful for whoever had cut and moved the hundreds of downed trees that had fallen across our path. The great sightlines and fast corners made for an incredible ride—even if you did have to duck around some fire-scarred stumps. Riders: Mark Taylor (left), Will Cadham (right). Graveyard Creek Trail / Big Creek Provincial Park

Ultralight Foolishness

Will Cadham and Mark Taylor riding south with a breathtaking backdrop of Tyaughton Peak and the glacial headwaters of Lorna Lake and Big Creek. September 6th, 2021 in Big Creek Provincial Park

Ultralight Foolishness

Big Creek Trail is appropriately named. Here, Mark Taylor wades through one of the trail’s many creek crossings. Depending on the time of year and what weather systems have passed, these creeks can greatly differ in flow rates. September 6th, 2021 in Big Creek Provincial Park

Day Four – September 7, 2021

Typically, when you carry your bike on your back for over an hour, you are rewarded with an incredible descent, made sweeter by the sweat equity it took to get there. The climb over Dorrie Ridge, however, didn’t offer such a gravity payoff.

We’d been looking for a way to link Grant Creek Trail with Lorna Lake and decided to follow a mountaineering route over Dorrie Ridge and down the Sluice Creek drainage, with hopes of finding some form of trail. Instead, we found a talus field and spent nearly two hours hiking with our still-hefty bikes slung over our shoulders.

Sometimes you win. Sometimes you walk.

Ultralight Foolishness

If you ain’t hiking, you ain’t biking. Mark Taylor and Will Cadham navigate their way through a boulder field with the impressive Battlement Ridge in the background. September 7th, 2021

Day Five – September 8, 2021

A good pair of waterproof socks is a key piece of gear when spending multiple days in the backcountry, but when it rains for 36 hours straight, even waterproof boots won’t keep your feet dry. Yet the day didn’t start with a storm; it started with a creek crossing and a punch over Elbow Pass. The rain came a few hours later.

Ultralight Foolishness

Will Cadham has never been a big fan of heights or swimming, so this downed tree spanning Grant Creek in the Big Creek Provincial Park wasn’t high on his priority list. September 8th 2021

Ultralight Foolishness

A good pair of waterproof socks is a key piece of kit when spending multiple days in the backcountry. Mark Taylor wrings out a days’ amount of moisture near Spruce Lake in the South Chilcotin Mountains Prov. Park on September 8th, 2021

Day Six – September 9, 2021

After a week in the mountains, it’s fitting we’d experience a hair-raisingly close call with a grizzly bear on our last day. We’d seen evidence of them the entire trip—prints in the mud, fresh droppings and glowing eyes reflecting back from our headlamps in the dark—but by the time we left camp on our final morning, we had yet to see a bona fide grizzly.

It happened while we were ascending the west side of Windy Pass. The bear was drinking from a creek and must have not heard me approaching; maybe my hoarse cries of “Hey bear!” were drowned out by the rushing water, as my vocal cords were too exhausted for much volume. Whatever the cause, we didn’t notice each other until we were uncomfortably close—less than 50 feet—upon which the bear immediately stood on its hind legs and began sniffing the air. It was well over 7 feet tall and the size of a compact car.

I froze for an instant, then yelled and mustered what little energy I had left to raise my bike over my head. Backing away slowly, I kept my eyes fixed on the magnificent beast and didn’t blink until I was “safely” back in the trees and out of sight … at which point I high-tailed it back down the pass to rejoin the others below.

Taking the “safety in numbers” approach, Dave, Mark and I—flanked by a scrum of strangers we’d picked up while waiting for the bear to leave—headed back toward the treeline. The grizzly, however, was nowhere to be seen.

Ultralight Foolishness

Mark Taylor and Will Cadham descend one of the many pristine sections of the South Chilcotin Mountains Prov. Park’s most known trail. This time of year, the vibrant yellow vegetation along High Trail’s tread is quite the contrast to the conifers that divy up the singletrack.

Ultralight Foolishness

Will Cadham and Mark Taylor racing down North Cinnabar trail just
outside the southeast reaches of the South Chilcotin Mountains Prov. Park on September 9th,
2021, the final day of their 6 day trip. Torrential rain and cold temperatures weren’t the parting
gift the guy’s had hoped for.

When we pulled up to Mark’s truck at the dusty pull-out along Tyaughton Lake Road, we hadn’t completed any fastest known times or Everest challenges, and we definitely weren’t worried about counting calories. We had, however, achieved what we set out for: traversing one of the continent’s most stunning places to ride a mountain bike … and finally reaching our cooler of donuts and beer, a worthy reward for a week of ultralight foolishness.

Things You Should Always Do in Bear Country:

  • Stay on maintained trails, and respect trail closures.
  • Make noise as you go and make noise often to avoid surprising a bear.
  • Keep your eyes on the trail ahead to spot a bear as soon as possible, especially while descending.
  • Ride with other people when you can.
  • Don’t leave packs or bags containing food unattended, even for a few minutes.
  • Never attempt to distract a bear by dropping your pack (or anything else).
  • Carry bear spray and know how to use it in an emergency.
  • If you encounter a grizzly bear at close range, stay calm, never run away and avoid sudden movements. Be confident, make yourself big and slowly back away.
  • Read more about best practices here.

Source: U.S. National Park Service

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