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Digging the dirty gold: Whistler's singletrack solitaire

Unearthing the spirit of the resort's trailbuilding community Twenty Years of Monday-Night Madness



What drives us into the wild, amidst the solitude of rock and granite, desperately seeking the solace of singletrack? And what slingshots us back, on our suspended wheels, thrashed and bug-bitten, to the social evenings of beer and biking? What lies at the core of this thing we call mountain biking — before the bike park, before the industry took hold, far away from the doldrums of the 9-to-5 rat race, during that moment in which, suited up and committed, you let the bike roll over the precipice, to descend into the untracked unknown?

Questions of such a rhetorical nature should never begin a photo feature this fragmented — but this is why the lens is here, to capture some of the golden light of Whistler's mountain-bike culture, from its tightknit communities of singletrack riders to those playing solitaire in the woods, gambling alone on exploring new trails in solitude, spending months, even years, crafting the perfect line.

There are many names missing here — so apologies to all those shaping the anarchic lines out there, whose names will be marked in the circles that matter. Likewise, with due respect to all builders, a tip of the hat to anyone who has ever made a trail, and to all the volunteers that keep them shipshape, from the organized crews to the disorganized pirates who rebuild and keep trails fresh that are now regularly tracked by thousands of wheelie visitors a year.

For who knew in the mid-'90s — when I recall skidding my suspension-less hardtail down Blackcomb's ski runs — that a sport serving as little more than an afterthought between ski seasons would become the resort's second economic engine? And who knew then that the golden years were yet to come?

Dirty-Gold Diggers

I watch Tanis Shadley as she hauls a bucket of gold — which is to say, finely dug dirt from the good earth of Whistler. "Here's a little more dirt, do we need it anywhere?" she asks, speaking to a trio of assembled Swiss visitors who, despite only being in town for two weeks, were so impressed by the valley's singletrack trails that they decided to lend a hand themselves.

But before we get into the thick of the dirt, let me rewind to when our evening began. Over a dozen volunteers assembled under the late-evening sun on a splendid night in June. The Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA) Trail Night, held intermittently on Tuesdays when things aren't catching on fire — no tools in the dirt during wildfire season, please, as sparks can set alight the underbrush — have become a rite of passage over the years.

But it wasn't always this way.

Back in 1995, legendary trailbuilder Dan Swanstrom — responsible for such inventive valley test pieces as Section 102, A River Runs Through It, White Knuckles, Shit Happens, Big Kahuna, No Girlie Mans, Beaver Pass, and his namesake trail, Danimal — noted to Pique that despite attempts to garner volunteer support, only 11 people had shown up to his weekly trail workshops over a two-year period.

Times have changed.

Tonight, the crowd is more than big enough for the evening's project. "We've had 75 people out," says Dan Raymond, well more than he knew what to do with at season's start, and too many with tools in their hands. "But it's contagious," Raymond adds. "Next time you come back up, you're not just carrying buckets, but building a rock wall."

Raymond is WORCA's trailbuilding guru, having turned to all things down and dirty after retiring from a career of competing and coaching Olympic halfpipe snowboarding in 2014. He's responsible for his own trio of trails: Rockwork Orange, Korova Milk Bar, and Wizard Burial Ground and, working alongside "right-hand man" Scott Veach and (at times) Tim Haggerty with the WORCA trail crew, Raymond has collaborated on many additions across the network, including the new, epic Lord of the Squirrels, which descends from Mount Sproatt.

Some two decades later, with mountain biking culture well established and represented in Whistler — and drawing in huge tourist dollars — and the Tuesday Trail Nights have become a well-attended extravaganza of sweat and mosquitoes over the past four years. At first cliquey, the nights eventually began to draw rogue builders out of the woodwork, says Raymond, as bigger projects were put on the table. Today, the sessions attract those looking to give back to the mountain-bike community and terrain they love, learning the technique and style to build unauthorized trails of beautiful anarchy that pop up like mushrooms after rain.

With diggers assembled, Raymond leads the motley crew up and under the metal towers of the Westside powerline climb. Peeling off the old logging road, Raymond shows us where he's laid out flags to designate where the new climbing trail is to begin — a well-thought out, looping affair through the forest, reminiscent of the fine work completed on Piece of Cake and A La Mode.

"We're looking for mineral soil," says Raymond. "The best mix for building a trail compacts, resists water once it cements, and has a bit of clay, but is mostly this orange mineral stuff." A digging line is established, with one crazy guy digging out the gold, while a few folks haul buckets and the remainder use pickaxes, saws, and shovels to cut out the roots and dig up the forest floor a few inches deep. A massive log is rolled out of the way, and heavy rocks are hauled into location for the armouring of dips and corners.

The labour is challenging and, at times, backbreaking, but it's replete with jokes and laughter piercing through the nighttime calls of the forest, and drops of wisdom delivered by Raymond, who coaches the team like a master Olympian. Inevitably, the politics of trailbuilding arises, and Raymond reveals that the powerline road will be reclaimed by BC Hydro — thus the climbing trail everyone is working on — though with the added bonus that many of the Westside trails will become legit once more.

Dark Side of the Moss

Raymond and WORCA trail director Nina Cairns meet up with me in the Wedge parking lot for an afternoon climb up North Secret Trail. I drop beers in the river for the return, and we get out into the forest before stopping to chat on a sunny plateau of granite and moss. We quickly divulge how we got into mountain biking. Hailing from Aylmer, Que., Raymond began biking in the late 1980s in Gatineau Park, skidding out on hiking trails and janking on centre-pull brakes.

"You don't need much of a cool section of trail to fall in love with it," he says. Raymond has been in Whistler since '99, and attributes much of his inspiration to former WORCA race director Tony Horn's epic runs "that make you see God."

Around the turn of the millennium, recounts Raymond, there were no trail maps nor much info available on the internet, and so many of Whistler's classic trails were "outed" by Horn's legendary events tying in theme, party, and torturous course, including the big reveal of North Secret Trail (a.k.a. Comfortably Numb) at an infamous and grueling Samurai of Single Track race. Horn's masochistic affairs included multi-day epics with upwards of 50 kilometres of technical riding, such as the memorable Four Jacks and Four Kings series, and continuing with Exile On Steel St., a one-day event three years ago that saw riders destroying bits and brains over 70 kilometres of suffering on hardtail steel.

Raymond wants to showcase some of the new bridgework he and Haggerty have built, with the aim of respecting legendary builder Chris Markle's quirky style of technical challenges and rock rolls that gives Comfortably Numb its namesake. So we head towards the skinnies, where Cairns navigates a swarm of mosquitoes to nail a few narrow bridges. Though not dangerously elevated like test pieces in the North Shore, the chokes keep us on our toes, and Raymond's respect for the OG of trailbuilding is evident.

Hailing from South Africa through London, Cairns arrived in Whistler in 2010 shortly after the Olympiad of parties and pigloos, and eventually became a WORCA kids coach. After a stint at the Whistler Nordics Ski Club, she vied for the job of trails director in 2015 — but not before she had to answer a skill-testing question from Raymond: What's your favourite trail in town? Her answer came quick and showed off her singletrack savvy: Pure Vida and Three Birds on the Westside, with Tunnel Vision and Duncan's or Business Time on the east.

Exiting Comfortably Numb, we push up to a relatively new connector, Dark Side of the Moss. Built by Raymond and Haggerty with the help of 15 Whistler Waldorf School students two summers ago, it cycles up through the forest, avoiding the nearby logging-road mayhem. Raymond asks if it keeps to Markle's style, but Cairns quickly replies: Which style do you mean? Over a trail as varied as Comfortably Numb, nearly everything pops up under the suspension. The new trail has flow and elegant curves, leading out on a rocky outcrop with a fantastic view. It is as classic as the nearly 20-year-old trail to which it connects.

The Beacon bartender delivers a third round of shots, and the sweet chaser of banana liqueur masks the fire within. Dusk sets over the old Citta' patio, and parades of bar-stars make their way across what was once prime hacky-sack territory. The rides have been good tonight, and the burgers delicious. Larry Falcon is laughing as Tom Jackson spins another yarn from the time he nearly died on a wet ride through Gargamel's. Tonight's celebration of 20 years of Monday Night Rides is, as it should be, one for the memories, in fine Whistler fashion.

Monday Night Rides founder and consummate Whistlerite, Falcon has probably missed only some dozen or so rides in the two decades he's been helming the local gathering of bikes and beers. Though (forgivably) born in North Van, Falcon has been in Whistler nearly all his life, skiing here as a youngin' since the '60s, and living here since the mid-'90s. In 1997, he launched the communal social ride, with its occasional evenings of unspeakable debauchery. Thanks to Falcon's zealous newspaper advertising and cross-radio promotion, that first night was attended by an incredible 300 riders.

"Imagine trying to take 300 riders on the trails with four guides," says Falcon, with only hardtails and a limited (by today's standards) selection of trails from which to choose from. First established at Wild Willies — once located where the Nesters Market pharmacy now stands — the Monday Night Ride now sets off from the Bike Co. in Marketplace, and is a lively and spirited event renewing old friendships and forging new ones to this day.

According to longtime guide Hillary Davison, it's also one of the best places in Whistler to meet your match — whether for a night or a lifetime. Going over the handlebars some four times on her first ride with Jackson through Emerald Forest, it took a year to learn the tricks of the trade, Davison says, and today her smooth skillset on steep rock shows. A mountain biker now for 15 years, Davison is also a mentor for the women who seek support in learning the tools of steep granite, including Chelsea Sullivan, a pro-level skier but intermediate-level mountain biker. By the evening's end, Sullivan locks her focus and sends the slippery closing roll with style. Advanced level unlock achieved.

Repeat visitors hold down the fort. I'm introduced to Guillermo Rodriguez, who has been travelling to Whistler with his family from Mexico City for a little over three decades — and riding the Monday Night Rides for some 15 years after he followed a pack of riders peddling past his home. Rodriguez praises the ride for its affordability and the sense of community it nurtures — it is one of "the best deals" in town, he says, not just for the wallet, but for the spirit.

Hauling pounds of camera gear, I tag along with Falcon and Jackson — who has been leading the groups for 18 years — out to what is, by all accounts, the oldest slice of singletrack in the valley: Cut Yer Bars. Cut Yer Bars contains more terrain than most realize — including scary and savage descents, such as Hand of Doom — and the evening is a classic Monday-Night session on ever-challenging rock rolls. Intermediate riders cut their teeth with the guidance and encouragement of the senior guides in the pack. As the sun sets over the valley, grins set in on our dusty faces.

Tracking Out the Toonies

Tonight's Toonie is a short one, hitting up the puking gruntfest that is the Scotia Creek Climb before launching down Danimal and through a winding figure eight of trails that returns the pack to Alta Lake Road. The top riders barely seem to break a sweat, jokingly throwing gang signs up the climb and drifting the downhill at Mach speed, while those along for the ride slip and stumble and give each other the confidence and encouragement to finish.

Though inflation left the Loonie Ride behind, the Toonie is an institution, spawning imitators that could never quite duplicate its charms. Tonight the kids have it, killing the course with the kind of preternatural abilities that can only be crafted by growing up with a child's love for the gold.

Horse Stroking Farm

Raymond said it would be a short push up to the Flank, but the steep and decommissioned logging road is a calf-burning, dry-heaving, caloric expenditure all its own. From this point, I can't tell you exactly where we're going — because Raymond is gifting me the honour of riding and shooting his latest and unreleased project, which for the purposes of this paper, we'll call Horse Stroking Farm.

The trail is classic Raymond — shaped as only a snowboarder or skier with an eye for the pure and smooth line of gravity can, winding its way through an untapped zone of sticky granite and moss, with views out and across the great expanse of all that we hold so close. And here my metaphors must work the magic, because no giveaways will be listed here in print, even if you're all now pouring over the photos, trying to figure out precisely where this follow-up to the Rockwork Orange trilogy claims its start. This is mountain biking at its finest. Raymond has done proper work on the trail build, a master of his craft, armouring the steep descents and drifting the flow while keeping all the obstacles that push the trail to double-black: mandatory sends, steep and technical rock garden descents, and committed rolls. It's a classic in the making, and as the sun sets and I push my camera's ISO beyond safety limits to get the shot, I start to get a handle on the spirit, if not soul, of this at times solitary endeavour. For it's not just about being alone in the bush — it's about gifting such solitude to others, and seeing the community resonate with the vibe of a new flow to be found.

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