“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.” ~ Alex Cooper, September 2020.
I’d been warned about going on a trip to the Chilcotin’s with Bart Jarmula. My friends Russ told me I’d spend most of the time in chase mode as Bart, a former adventure racer, casually pushed ahead. I’ve known Bart for a while because year’s ago I wrote a story about his adventure racing, and I’ve known he’s a machine who doesn’t stop. 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 South Chilcotin’s are the Shangri-La of B.C. mountain biking. It’s a small nook of the province on the dry side of the Coast Mountains, where people have blazed trails for centuries, if not millenia. The result is a network of hundreds of kilometres of single track through incredible alpine and sub-alpine meadows that is unique in 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 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 was rocking a barely-tested set up. I had a Blackburn Outpost Elite seat pack that ended up working great, but 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. I strapped my air mattress to my downtube, shoved snacks in my top tube bag, and filled a small backpack with food. Random items were strapped to the bike where they fit.
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 knew what to expect. It was a long, gradual climb starting on an abandoned road and eventually passing through old forests, open meadows, and turquoise lakes. There were some punchy sections but it was mostly rideable. It still took most of the day to make it to our campsite at the far end of Warner Lake. The icy 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 the over-the-shoulder carry, some pushing, and myself preferring the one-handed, under-the-shoulder technique 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 a glacier backdrop. 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 mining road, the remnants of which brought us back to the alpine. It was brutally steep, but pushing up a road was infinitely easier than pushing up rocky slopes. The trail petered in and out as we traversed through the alpine towards Iron Pass, with a set of peaks known as the Battlement above us. Our destination was obvious, so we picked our way upwards through terrain when we couldn’t make out a trail.
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 and just barely rideable. There was lots of cursing and frustrating moments as I bashed my way through the thick brush. The scenery was stunning as we were flanked by a gorgeous hue of yellow, brown, and red mountain faces. After some time, the trail opened up and 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. First, we had to cross Big Creek and the marsh on the far side, which was a soggy affair.
Elbow pass was a relatively easy hike-a-bike in comparison to what we’d already done. 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 patina of reds, yellows, greens, and greys. For the third day in a row, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
We descended to Tyaughton Creek, which we followed a ways before crossing over and starting the push up to Deer Pass. I was somewhat dreading it at the start, but I found a second wind and slowly pushed up to the top. I was the last one up, as usual, but not too far behind. 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 dry, barren and colourful. Below us, we had a long, wild descent down to Gun Creek. It started off fast and flowy through the alpine before dropping away into the forest in a series of steep switchbacks. It was a little spicier than usual thanks to the big seat bag.
Back at Gun Creek, we began the pedal to Spruce Lake. We weren’t far along when I noticed my rear brake was getting squishier. I figured it was the result of squeezing it too hard coming down from Deer Pass. Suddenly, it gave way completely. There was no more fluid and I had no more braking power in my rear. We tried a trailside fix but the brake fluid had already been squeezed out. My handlebar bag had at some point bounced down on my brake line and caused it to spring a leak, and I didn’t realize it until it was too late. Or I realized, but didn’t stop quickly enough.
Fortunately, it was mostly uphill to Spruce Lake and none of the remaining downs were that steep. I cruised along on one break and we eventually made it to the lake. The first campground had a very swampy shoreline so we hopped back on our bikes to the main campground, home to a nice dock, food lockers, and outhouses. We took a cooling swim in the lake, enjoyed a campfire, played some Exploding Kittens, and did some star gazing. It was a great end to a long day.
The biggest downside to my brake issue was that I had to bail on the final big descent (and hike-a-bike to get there). Instead of pushing 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, as I rode carefully through beautiful meadows. I got through the hard part and was back on the old road leading to the truck when I went down. I was just a few kilometres from the finish line when I came around a corner hot and hit a washout. I stuck out my right leg to brace the impact and jammed my knee as a result. I flashbacked to a ski injury from five or so years ago when I compressed the knee in similar fashion. That time, my knee buckled the second I stood up. This time, I was able to slowly get back up. I picked up the bike, checked for damage, and slowly rode away, breathing a huge sigh of relief. I was on my own, with my only method of communication being an InReach device. I was back at the truck a few minutes later, loaded up my gear, and drove to Tyaughton Lake, where I drank beer while waiting for the rest of the gang. We reunited and started the long drive back home.
The first cloud in four days showed up as we drove back to Lillooet.
Note from 2021: Turns out I tore my ACL and it needed surgery, which took place in April 2021.