Story by Benjamin Whitney | Photos by Jasper Gibson
If I learned anything worthwhile in college, I learned to juggle and grind. Late nights and early mornings, due dates and mountain missions; these were the battles I waged between obligation and obsession. More than once it looked like I’d drop the ball, but with a smirking smile I crossed the stage to shake the Dean’s hand.
I was free.
Like many of my literary heroes, I set off westbound on Interstate 80 to nowhere in particular. Just like the beatniks I revered, I’d drive all night to new places hoping, maybe, to see an approving Kerouac nodding from the rearview
But in my time tramping around I never excelled at any discipline. I was too hard for the bourgeois #vanlife and too soft for a competent alpinist; too broke to write magazine articles in coffee shops and too self-aware for a raging drunk. More so, I grew tired of being a passerby. I craved roots and community. After a few transient years, my dog-eared and tattered copy of On The Road was ready for the bookshelf.
I never imagined being a working-for-the-weekend kind of guy but if life has any noble truths, compromise must be among them. Growing roots means coughing up money for the water bill and mowing the lawn. Community means potlucks and town nights. This all requires a steady paycheck.
Likewise, my love affair with trail riding sparked as a function of compromise. Weekend bike missions became the carrot to the stick that was my workweek. I’d scour the internet for trails near, nearish and not near at all.
“Hales,” I said, eyes fixed on my screen, “Have you heard of the Seven Summits?”
Shaking her head, Haleahy responded knowingly, “How far away is this one?”
“It’s definitely a send,” I admitted. “But it looks absolutely worth it.”
British Columbia’s Kootenay region has a long history of strange affairs. Notoriously, the area was a landing zone for American draft dodgers during the Vietnam War, many of whom took to farming the area’s hottest cash crop – cannabis. And to complete the hippy triad, the region’s deep-seated ski tradition has given its main road a popular nickname: The Powder Highway.
But lately it is the local bike crazies who are staking a claim as the most vocal group in the region. Organizations like the Kootenay Columbia Trails Society have been chipping away at extensive networks of dirt to satiate a growing two-wheeled crowd and the crown jewel of all this development is the Seven Summits trail.
Completed in 2004 and stamped as an IMBA Epic shortly after, Seven Summits traverses above the sleepy ski town of Rossland across some 20 miles of alpine single-track. A big climb followed by a bigger descent and enough ups and downs to keep the mountaineer in me reeling.
It takes little investigation before I’m convinced and shoot out a text: Heading to Rossland, BC this weekend to ride bikes. Bit of a drive. Any takers? Haleahy, a puritan yes-woman, takes little convincing and our Leavenworth-based buddy, Jasper, was up for the mission too. Just like that, the team assembled, the weekend carrot ready for harvest.
There’s something about an adventure on the horizon that makes the week fly. Father time slapped the workweek in the ass as thoughts of rogue camping and endless bike trails dangled in my mind. Quitting time on Friday arrived startlingly fast and we hit the road.
I think my pickup truck hums a sweeter tune twisting along mountain roads. Haleahy sings out of key as we weave through North Cascade mountain passes crawling eastward across the map with purpose. Our drive passes without incident all the way to Rossland, although a healthy population of seemingly suicidal road-crossing deer ensures an engaging drive.
It’s midnight when we arrive. Jasper is sitting on his tailgate boiling water with his Jetboil and chatting with locals. A Led Zeppelin cover band drones from the bar across the street. We laugh at the subtle irony that a band named for an exploded blimp plays inside The Flying Steamshovel pub.
Legend has it that near the turn of the 20th century a local man designed a steam-powered helicopter/plane designed to retrieve gold from the surrounding hills where Seven Summits sits now. Made with iron, brass and piano wire, among other materials, the Steamshovel’s sole flight ended in failure. We take care not to meet a similar fate in Rossland.
“Let’s be on trail for sunrise,” Jasper suggests. “It’s the best light.”
“Jasper,” I say, “It’s after midnight and we have at least an hour to the trailhead.”
“We drove all the way out here,” Jasper says. “Let’s make the most of it.”
He’s right. Weekend missions prioritize expediency. Little sleep and big ideas require buckets of stoke. I shrug, “Let’s decide when we get to the trailhead.”
We climb a steep dirt road to Seven Summits’ alternate finish at Sheep Creek trailhead. I open my window letting the wet, cool air brush my cheek as we drive. In a foreign zone with a long day ahead we make the group decision to camp at Sheep Creek. Sleep comes easy.
Sometime around dawn, a loud click-clack echoes outside our tent. Expecting a rancher to give us hell for camping illegally, I peek outside. Though there’s no rider to be seen, three large mares lope along the road in foggy morning light.
“Hales,” I whisper, “don’t move. We’ll spook the horses.”
Sitting up and crinkling her inflatable sleeping pad in the process, Haleahy startles the mare nearest our tent. The headline “American Couple Stomped to Death” flashes in my mind as the beast breaks stride and closes in on our nylon home before opting against a standoff with smelly Americans.
The alarm-by-horse leaves us fully roused. We laugh off our near misfortune with Jasper, who slept safely cocooned in his truck bed, over cowboy coffee and instant oats. We retrace our path to Rossland and onwards to Nancy Greene Summit where our ride begins.
There’s something satisfying about simply arriving. We lube our chains and exchange high fives. But a demoralizing and technical 2,000-foot climb quickly tempers our arrival stoke. We grind upwards in steep, rooty bursts punctuated by a smooth yet substantive grade. Exchanging leads, we test our grit and balance at every turn. There is a masochism unique to mountain bike climbing; unlike mountaineering, any stop on a bike climb means dismounting and dismounting is defeat.
“I hope the whole trail’s not like this,” Jasper says, sweat dripping from his brow.
“What goes up, must come down,” Haleahy laughs, pedaling by us.
It takes awhile but we find our rhythm. The long climb through BC forest breaks and we arrive at a sign that says: “Seven Summits’ Highest Point.” Our joy is unequivocal. Haleahy dances on a rock outcrop overlooking Rossland and Jasper takes photographs. Clouds build in the distance, but we focus only on the undulating ridge that marks our path ahead.
The ridge trail is developed just enough to inspire confidence, yet rough enough to encourage trepidation. Flowing single-track breaks for punchy climbs to the next summit. Clouds rise up the ridge, enclosing us in mist.
“This weather’s making me anxious,” I say. “We should talk through our options.” Trailforks, an online trail database critical to the weekend warrior toolkit, identifies two evacuation points in the next four miles and then none until our final descent.
“Let’s keep going,” Haleahy says. “It looks tame enough.” But the quickening wind makes me think otherwise. We choose to bypass our first exit option and take a poll at the next. A drizzle chills our ride, making me wonder if I’ve layered appropriately.
When we reach our second exit, I consider the tough call to bail. We’ve traveled far for this ride, yet thoughts of ale and warm food flood my mind. Jasper, an alpine climber with a hardline view on bad weather, pushes us on. “The trail is mostly downhill from here,” he says, “I bet we’ll find a fire road ahead if things really turn up.” We ride on.
The trail passes Red Mountain Resort, an old school ski area along the Powder Highway first tracked by Scandinavian gold miners in the late 1800s. This section of trail is the most built up, but the man-made berms prove challenging for cold brake fingers. I am fatigued and wonder if the long drive has caught up with me.
There’s no better high than objective hazard complying with human will. During our next climb, the rain gives way to mist and mist to blue sky. Our group stoke is off the charts. Haleahy breaks out a hefty charcuterie spread at the top while I take off my damp synthetics to dry. British Columbia dazzles us with layers of blue light.
Spirits lifted, we eagerly guide our bikes through awkward talus fields to a long, meandering descent in alpine meadows. Jasper is delighted and marvels at the light that settles across the range. Haleahy pumps her fork through flowing turns amid tall golden grasses. The mountains glow in the evening light around us and before long we arrive at the intersection for the Dewdney and Sheep Creek trails. These downhill trails mark the traverse’s conclusion.
We dip into the Sheep Creek trail, which provides an arm-pumping finish to the long day. Sections of overgrown single-track break for steep, rowdy gravel road. Jasper, having lost his front brakes some time ago, shepherds his bike expertly downslope. I, smiling ear-to-ear, ride the line between keeping it together and losing control.
And at just the point that my arms may have left their sockets entirely, I skid onto a road sighting my pickup parked down the way. I let out a celebratory whoop to Jasper and Haleahy behind me, making haste to our cooler where three well deserved ales lie in wait. Mission complete.
Sundays are a mixed bag for the weekend warrior. We run morning shuttles on Rossland’s town trails before facing the road west, to-do lists filtering back into our minds.
But the day waned and we knew it was time to go. Part of me yearned for the beatnik freedom of a previous life, a life that Jasper now lives. We exchange hugs as Jasper points his pickup towards Montana embarking on another adventure. The workweek grind looms larger in my mind.
Our drive offers ample time for reflection. Seven Summits lived up to its hype and somehow we pulled off our weekend assault without so much as a flat tire let alone lightning strike or death-by-horse.
A warmness sets in my chest and I wonder: What will next weekend bring?
Inspired by the allure of the North Cascades, Ben Whitney moved to Bellingham from Vermont. He writes about people, place and community, and is excited to contribute to the creative wellspring that surrounds the alpine.