Experience fly-in mountain biking in British Columbia.
Below a high pass deep in British Columbia’s South Chilcotin Mountains, where a narrow, curving valley stretches out beneath a band of rugged peaks, our guide, Geoff Playfair, finally slows down long enough for us to catch up. Earlier that day, we’d been dropped off by a floatplane — yes, a floatplane — and have spent most of the subsequent hours pushing our mountain bikes uphill. When we finally catch up with him, we’re a little concerned.
“At this point, most people are like, ‘What the fuck,’ ” Playfair says, reading our minds. “Don’t worry. Soon it will all make sense.”
He motions to the other side of the pass, our first descent, in one of the wildest corners of Canada, with bears and bighorns in the mountains. Of course, mostly what we see is a foot-high blur of wildflowers as we rip downhill, perma-smiles plastered across our faces. Playfair has told us to “keep an eye out for marmot craters,” and his warning is apt. The first one tosses me into a trailside bush. Unhurt, I brush myself off and hop back on my bike. We still have eight miles to go — and 40 more over the next three days.
For tent-fatigued hikers and skiers, hut-to-hut trips have long served as a way to explore wild places while lugging only what you need for the day. Now, mountain bikers are devising multiday hut trips, too, allowing them to ride deeper into the woods with more comfort come night. Few hut trips, though, are as epic as the South Chilcotin traverse, a camp-to-camp ride where, at the end of each day, cowboy-gourmet meals (roasted fish and potatoes), cold beer (Molson), and comfortable cots wait for you.
My friends Chris and Justin and I have Playfair, who works for Tyax Adventures, to guide us. At 56, Playfair is both mild-mannered and turbocharged: Canadian, in other words. We soon learn that Playfair, Whistler’s fire chief during the week, is also full of cheerful misrepresentations: “A bit of a kicker” means 1,500 feet up in less than a kilometer. “A little sketchy” means no trail at all. I can only imagine how he refers to a five-alarm fire.
Not all the trail is as tricky as our introduction to the Chilcotins. That’s thanks to the work of Tyax, as well as good-willed individuals who ride in with folding saws. Playfair has spent countless long days clearing trail in his 13 years of guiding here. In that time, he has learned you can make only three or four miles an hour on a bike, best case, even though it’s tempting to go faster. “You’re riding for tomorrow,” he says, as we skid to a stop halfway through the first day. “Go 70 percent.” Still, holding back is hard: The descents are as glorious as any backcountry run on skis — and wilder. We see fresh grizzly tracks and 200-million-year-old fossils when we dismount to hike up an unnamed peak.
When we roll into camp that first night, there are beers cooling in a nearby stream and canvas tents on wood platforms for sleeping. We eat around a fire, nursing the beers out of sheer exhaustion. Day two begins with a climb up Deer Pass — at nearly 8,000 feet, the trip’s high point. On the way down, following Playfair’s expert line, we ride a black-diamond-rated section of steep, tight switchbacks. We eat salami and brownies for lunch, drink water from a stream, and thoroughly enjoy Playfair’s bouts with trailside brush. “Lots of Christmas trees snagging the ankles today,” he says, his legs bleeding. We all have shed a little blood, which seems a small price to pay for entry.
That night, Playfair’s wife, Karen, rides into Spruce Camp and cooks dinner — salmon, salad, and roast vegetables. It’s been a 20-plus-mile day with thousands of feet of climbing. One of us puked from exhaustion. Playfair smiles. We aren’t the wimpiest riders he’s had, but we certainly aren’t the toughest, either: A six-year-old and a 63-year-old have both done it. I fall asleep fully clothed and am awakened the next morning by Chris, fly rod in hand. We catch three rainbows and then head out for the day. It is 10 miles of what Playfair calls, accurately for once, “hero riding” — smooth cross-country singletrack with swooping turns and easy ups.
I stay within sight of Playfair’s back tire for much of it, tapping my brakes as little as possible. All I do is lean back and ride better and harder than I ever have before. –Charles Bethea
. . . Or Go Here
The original hut-to-hut bike trip is a ride from Telluride to Moab, Utah, via the San Juan Huts, a series of six cabins along 215 miles of trails (sanjuanhuts.com).
Mount Hood, Oregon
Over four days and 140 miles, you can circumnavigate Mount Hood with Cascade Huts, a series of cabins set at easy intervals along forest service roads (cascadehuts.com).