Last May, Knut and I borrowed some fat bikes from Rocky Mountain Bikes in North Vancouver, with the goal of doing a sort of ski traverse by bike. That story was published shortly afterwards on Pinkbike and the Rocky website, which caused much confusion with the notoriously critical Pinkbike readers. Fat biking on snow is a winter activity! Perhaps so, east of the Rockies, but in the Coast Mountains our winter snowpack is too steep and too deep for snow-biking. Still, it seems I’ve waited eight months for winter proper, to share this tale here, on our blog. Happy winter!
I have a confession. Before this trip, I’d never actually ridden a fat bike on snow. I’d played around on some sand, and generally felt the worth of fat rubber, but coastal British Columbia is not exactly a prime location for riding bikes on snow. This area is known for steep, glaciated peaks, and bottomless powder, neither of which mix well with fat bikes. Backcountry skis are the tool of choice for moving around the mountains for much of the year.
Sadly, the 2015 winter season let me and many other backcountry skiers down. Record-breaking warm temps and low precipitation meant for a low-powder, low-excitement ski season for all but the most motivated. When that awkward time of the season arrived in late May, when there’s still snow in the alpine, but too much bush between there and the trailhead to encourage much skiing, I hadn’t had my fill. Rather than turning my attention downward to the prime riding season underway near sea level, I had the novel idea to just go ride on snow.
Knut is a man who enjoys novelty. He seems to derive a sort of sheepish pleasure from putting strange, impractical handlebars on his mountain bike, sewing quirky patches to his gear, smoking a wizard-length tobacco pipe, or eating monstrously large apples – “novelty hand fruit”. He was evidently prepared to overlook the probable outcome – that we’d bushwhack several kilometres with bikes before pushing them a short ways through knee-deep slush – when we came up with a half-baked plan to attempt a ski tour without skis.
After a long drive to the South Chilcotins, our first day of riding met all of our expectations – bushwhacking, bike pushing, bike carrying, and post-holing in slush. We weren’t riding the trails that have made this corner of the Coast Mountains famous. No, those were already, almost entirely snow-free and ready for conventional tire sizes. Instead, we followed a forgotten horse trail up Slim Creek, aiming for a snow-covered alpine plateau west of there, and the mellow glaciers beyond. By mid-afternoon we’d climbed above the trees and any sign of a trail. It was immediately clear that we could not ride on the rapidly melting snow.
We relaxed at an early camp, and set alarms for 1:30AM with low expectations. At 2AM, we rode away under a bright moon on a firm, frozen crust. We’d been hoping for this, but were surprised enough by the easy riding that we made the mistake of stopping for a protracted breakfast before the sun was even up. We wouldn’t take full advantage of the crust, which didn’t form reliably until after 1AM, and lasted only until 7AM, until the following night.
After a meal of savoury “alpine gruel“, in this case couscous with some sausage, cheese, and red pepper we read and relaxed, waiting for night.
We’d chosen the expansive alpine area at the headwaters of Slim Creek and the Taseko and Lord Rivers for its relative flatness. While I suspected that we could ride down steep slopes, and that our climbing would depend more on our lungs than on tire traction, I was not expecting much success on side-hills. Yet, as we rattled over kilometres of sun-cupped snow, tires aired-down to a few PSI, we held our elevation tightly around the side of valleys, traversing up to twenty degree slopes. A world of possibility unfolded.
If you’re motivated by speed, fat bikes are not the best tool. But progression is not all stop watches and slow-mo whirligiging. I ride because of wanderlust. George W. had it wrong; “freedom and democracy” are not delivered from the end of an M16. The bicycle is the best agent of liberation.
I measure my riding with breadth of my mental map. Our faint tracks on the pre-dawn crust become lines on crinkled pages of my cerebral atlas. I’ve found there to be an inverse correlation with the number of things I have to think about, and the richness of an experience. Too often, gadgets rob us of real living. Nevertheless, it seems that something as wholly material as tire width has a direct effect on the potential to expand my known universe. That’s what fat bikes are all about – potential. Not only are there new trails to be ridden, but places with no trails at all. Even slowly pedalling nowhere can be exciting. And has there ever been a bike at Griswold Pass?
The sun was out in full force just after breakfast time. For a minute, we thought we still might be able roll down steeper hills in the heat of the day.
So, after a a few hours of slogging in the slush, it was early to bed, interrupted only to take in the views of the sun setting over the depths of the Coast Mountains.
By night two, we knew how to make the most of the crust, and left as soon as it could support us – just after 2AM – to make a dash for Griswold Pass. After some tinkering at the pass, which is marked by the unconfined toe of a glacier, we hurried back toward camp, afraid of being caught out in the daily melt.
Somehow, despite much post-holing, bike pushing, bushwhacking – an overall terrible ratio of riding to hiking – our frustrated exclamations of “No one does this! There’s a reason no one brings a bike here!” were quickly shadowed by an immense excitement for where we were. Our mere 90 kilometres covered over four days were not a failure at all, but rather an eye-opening proof of concept. From our turn-around point at Griswold Pass, a gentle glacier climbed further west – a doorway to one of the world’s most expansive sub-polar icefields. And the key to that door might be so simple: just ride at night.
This trip, from May 29th to June 1st, 2015, was a learning experience more than anything. We’ve deemed further backcountry fat bike travel possible, with better strategy, and better snow conditions. In spring 2016, we hope to use this experience to go further, higher, and wilder. By the way, I changed my Instagram name, to reflect the fact that I’m posting as me, and not on behalf of this blog (which is a shared project by Knut and I – and maybe others in the future).