“I spent most of the time chasing Bart from a distance. He pushed up high mountain passes with ease, waiting calmly at the top. I pushed myself to my limits to keep up every day. When I wasn’t suffering, the views and riding was amazing. Five stars.”
I’d been given a heads up about coming on a trip to the Chilcotin’s with Bart Jarmula. My friends Russ had told me I’d spend most of the time in chase mode as Bart, a former adventure, casually pushed ahead. But when you get invited to spend four days bikepacking in the Chilcotin’s and the weather is looking perfect, you can’t say no.
The Chilcotin’s are the Shangrila of British Columbia mountain biking. It’s a small part of the province at the edge of the Coast Mountains, where people have blazed trails for centuries. The result is a network of hundreds of kilometres of single track through incredible scenery that is unique to B.C. Nowhere else can you follow trails for so long without crossing a road.
The crew was Russ, Bart, Brett and myself. Bart and Brett were Chilcotin vets and they put together a route into the far corner of the park that neither had been to before. Having only been to the Chilcotin’s once before, and only gotten a taste of the area, I paid little attention to the trip planning, but instead met them in Lillooet armed with my bike, camping gear, and four days and three nights of food. I had no idea that the proposed route involved 130 kilometres of trail with 4,800 metres of climbing. That’s a lot of climbing in not a lot of distance.
This was my first bikepacking trip on my mountain bike and I wasn’t entirely sure about my set up. I had a Blackburn Outpost Elite seatpack that worked great. My handlebar set up was not so good. The harness I use on my touring bike didn’t fit on my mountain bike handlebar, so I was forced to strap my dry bag to my bar with ski straps. The straps held the bag in place, but didn’t stop it from bouncing. File that away for later.
Our first day saw us spending a lot of time climbing up the Gun Creek Trail to Warner Lake. I’d ridden down this trail after a float plane drop in 2013, so somewhat new what to expect. It was a long, gradual climb with some punchy sections, starting on an abandon road and eventually passing through old forests, open meadows, and turquoise lakes. It was mostly rideable, but it still took most of the day to make it to our campsite at the far end of Warner Lake. The glacier waters were a nice way to refresh after a tough push.
Day two got off to a casual start as we waited for the sun to peak above the mountains before packing up camp. The first few hours were a tough push through endless scree and boulder fields up to Warner Pass. We used a mix of bike carrying techniques to get through the terrain, some preferring to carry their bike on their shoulders, myself preferring the one-handed, under the should carry when I couldn’t push.
The rockiness of the climb had me fearing we’d be in for a downhill push. Fortunately, I was completely wrong. The descent down from Warner Pass was fantastic, flowing into a wide valley amongst glacier backdrops. The trail dropped into a forest devastated by beetle kill, shockingly fast and fun the whole way. They sure knew how to build good mountain bike trails back in the day.
The fun ended at an old road, the remnants of which brought us back to the alpine. It was brutally steep, but pushing up a road was infinitely easier than technical single track. The trail petered in and out as we traversed through the alpine towards Iron Pass, but the route was easy to follow. Or you could just pick your own way upwards.
Coming down from Iron Pass was the toughest part of the trip. We’d already done two big hike-a-bikes and now we had to walk our bikes downhill. Low on energy, it was a struggle. Eventually we reached valley bottom, where the trail was practically overgrown. There was lots of cursing and frustrating moments as I bashed my way through. After some time, the brush ended and the trail passed through several gorgeous meadows before descending to our camp at Big Creek.
There was some debate about what to do on day three, but after a while, we settled on what I was told were two Chilcotin classics – Elbow Pass and Deer Pass. But first, we had to cross Big Creek and the marsh on the far side.
Elbow pass was a relatively easy hike-a-bike. As usual, Bart charged ahead, with Brett on his tail. Russ was third and I brought up the rear. It was steep, but short, gaining 300 or so metres in a little more than two kilometres. The descent down the other side was the best of the trip – a mellow grade that flowed perfectly and could be ridden at top speed. The colours of the Chilcotin’s really showed themselves here, a vibrant hue of reds, yellows, greens, and greys. For the third day in a row, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
After Elbow Pass we followed Tyaughton Creek before crossing it and starting the push up to Deer Pass. I was somewhat dreading it at the start, but it didn’t take too long to get to the top. There, we could see where the rain shadow of the Coast Mountains lies. To the west, across Gun Creek, the mountains were grey, rocky and covered in glaciers. Around us and to the east, the mountains were barren and colourful. The descent started off fast and flowy before dropping away in a series of steep switchbacks. Normally, it wouldn’t be too bad, but the big seat bag I was rocking made things somewhat spicy.
Back at Gun Creek, we began the pedal to Spruce Lake. We’d have to descend for a bit before climbing through the Gun Meadows to the lake. We weren’t far along when I noticed my rear brake were getting much squishy. I figured it was the result of squeezing them too hard coming down from Deer Pass. Suddenly, they gave way completely. There was no more fluid, and I had no more braking power in my rear. We tried a trail side fix, but fluid had already leaked out. My handlebar bag had at some point bounced down on my brake line and caused it to leak, and I didn’t realize it until it was too late.
Fortunately, it was mostly uphill to Spruce Lake and none of the remaining downs were that steep. I could cruise on one break and eventually made it to the lake. We stopped at the first campground, but after we discovered the lake here was just a big swamp, we hopped back on our bikes to the main campground on Spruce Lake. There, we jump in the lake off the dock, enjoyed a campfire, played some Exploding Kittens, and did some star gazing.
The one downside to my brake issue was that I had to bail on the final big descent. Instead of climbing up Windy Pass and exiting via Lick Creek, I took the easy way out via Gun Creek. The front brake was enough to get out, carefully. I was a few kilometres from the truck when I hit a washout on the road and crashed hard. I stuck out my right lake to brace the impact and jammed my knee as a result. I had flash backs to a ski injury from five or so years ago when I aired onto the cat track and compressed the knee in similar fashion. That time, my knee buckled the second I stood up. This time, I was able to slow stand and put pressure on it. I rode After a few moments on the ground, I was able to slowly get back up and ride back to the truck gingerly. I loaded up my gear and drove to Tyaughton Lake, where I drank beer while waiting for the rest of the gang.
The first cloud in four days showed up as we drove back to Lillooet.