Words and art by Kona Ambassador Gretchen Leggitt.
The long days of Memorial Day weekend typically involve packing as much adventure as possible into a three-day window. After scouting a handful of logging roads during a previous climbing trip in the region, I had my eyes set on the Chilliwack zone of British Columbia for this year’s three-day adventure. In preparation, I pieced together a dreamy 240-mile loop, with day one being a 94-mile section of a 700-mile route I found on bikepacking.com. Glancing at the elevation profile of the larger route, it appeared our first day would ride along the shore of Lake Harrison, followed by a pass that required 4,000 feet of climbing, plus some change. Having been bike touring for well over a decade, this wasn’t my first rodeo. Although I still knew that a near-century on logging roads with a mountain pass smacked in the middle wasn’t going to be an easy feat. I like to push myself…so why not?
With plenty of provisions and ample water sources, we set out in a complete downpour, riding north along the eastern shore of the lake. Within a few minutes, we were already riding a roller coaster of short and steep hills, which introduced a surprisingly undulating start to our long day. Soon pavement turned to gravel, softening in the rain and transitioning into tire-sucking mud. The climbs weren’t letting up, growing longer and steeper, each followed by a roaring downhill back to the shore of the lake. It kept us engaged but also slowed our progress and gave our legs a premature burn.
Through my years of bike touring, I’m all too familiar with working hard for miles, but those difficult miles are usually balanced out by massive expanses of road that fly by before you’re done eating the PB&J stuffed into your handlebar bag. At this point in our trip, we haven’t received any of those free handouts. By the time we veered from the lake and headed inland to start the big climb, we were soaked to the bone and our warm-up felt overly rigorous. Regardless, the scenery was phenomenal and our ambitions were set high. As we began climbing, the road began to deteriorate rapidly, as washouts turned into soft sand for hundreds of yards on end. The entire surface of the road became a giant rumble strip. The climbing grades were skyrocketing to unfathomable grades and we began to weave through fields of baseball and brick-size rocks. My bike touring approach was getting crushed with every pedal push and I was realizing with great humility that bikepacking is clearly a discipline of its own. I know discomfort and generally thrive on it. However, I had never been so bombarded by a seemingly endless onslaught of required bursts of energy as I heaved my overpacked Sutra up the 28% grades of rock and sand. I kept surprising myself while I remain clipped in, pushing through these unforeseen challenges with no end or relief in sight. I pushed on, past a state of my total physical depletion.
Bikepacking requires you keep going and you do it…because you know you have to. Bonking happens. Frustration and pain exist. But these are all elements that add up to the brilliant equation of building character.
I pedaled onwards until the road was steep enough, and the rocks large enough, that I tipped over while pedaling out of the saddle. My ego was screaming as I pushed my bike for the next few hundred yards, feeling a false sense of overwhelming defeat. In that moment, I discovered a new truth: Pushing Happens. Bikepacking routes vary, but the reality is they often result in planned or unplanned pushing.
When we reached the top of the pass, we were welcomed not only by the setting sun but also by a few feet of snow and the return of rain. We heaved our bikes through the snow, not knowing when it would end as twilight crept in. We pushed through as we piloted our bikes with icy feet and frigid hands, and began to descend, eagerly seeking out trees to sling our hammocks. We had spent all day cycling through a utopia of aesthetically and functionally perfect hammock trees, however, this side of the pass had recently been logged and only dense brush remained. It was 10pm and I was nearing an ultimate state of desperation. One of those moments where you feel you need to simply stop riding and lay in the mud. Maybe even take a nap in said bed of mud. But we pushed on because that’s what you do.
Finally…through a spray of headlamp-illuminated raindrops, we spotted a grove of trees large enough for us to sling our cocoons with the sound of a trickling creek nearby. As we sat huddled under our wet tarps, picking spilled tortellini pasta off the mossy forest floor, we cracked up with complete joy and fatigue as we reveled in the highs and lows of the longest day of my cycling career.
When we recapped the stats, day one of our three-day journey had turned out to be over 10,000 feet of elevation gain in 65 miles with me riding a 74-pound bike. A humble welcome to the fine art of bikepacking. I am an experienced bike tourer and mountain biker, but on this trip, I learned through humbling struggle that bikepacking is truly a discipline of its own. It requires a completely different level of planning, fitness and a more minimalist approach to packing.
Venturing into the bikepacking unknown, never expect to receive easy miles. Accomplishments are measured through perseverance rather than distance. Push. Process. Sweat. Breathe. Smile. Laugh through the shit. Find purpose in the experience of suffering, because it’s then you’ll create visceral memories. Appreciate the value of grit.