By nature and name, a sufferfest is not fun. It is the on-again/off-again significant other of outdoor adventure. The misery fades over time, memories get a glossy sheen, and soon enough we return to something that is kind of terrible. But is it? Take, for example, using bikes to access backcountry ski lines. It is tempting, especially in the late spring when the snow line creeps upwards and roads buried all winter begin to melt off. At first glance it seems like the perfect solution for getting up high, and back down, quickly and easily. The reality, though, is that it is usually no easier than driving, hiking, or skinning. In most cases, it is both physically and logistically more difficult.
But there is a certain allure to that added wrinkle, the curiosity to investigate a perceived personal limitation, to combine two passions in a shoulder season when conditions are perfect for neither. It is always going to be tough, but when you are biking to ski there are ways to make it not suck so much.
It’s good to be just a little bit stupid. The intelligence in doing something you know will be painful is questionable. And while it is not a requirement to be a complete moron in order to bike to backcountry lines, finding the joy in the misery of it is easier to do with dash of the dumbs and a “do it anyway” attitude.
Last November I was coaxed into accessing early season skiing at Vail via electric fat bikes. The plan was to ride the battery powered bikes up Mill Creek Road to the bottom of Chair 10 and skin to the top of the lift for pre-Thanksgiving boot top pow. The fact that I had never used an e-fat bike did not dissuade me, nor did the fact that I had only skied at Vail once prior. Nothing could ring the “Don’t Do This” alarm, not even the glaring issue that it was late fall, not spring, and I had legs that were by no means ready for the prescribed adventure.
At the time, I figured I was probably biting off a bit much for an early season mission, but not enough to choke. I truly thought I would sit on the bike, press GO, and be skiing in no time. That’s not how it went. We used three bikes, two of them battery powered, with a gear trailer hitched onto the strongest. Once we were cranking uphill I knew I was in for a long day. E-bikes are heavy–really heavy. And I did not realize that you, in fact, have to pedal an electric fat bike, which is incredibly difficult to do efficiently when you are far too large for said bicycle, and wearing ski boots. It was a slog and it took longer than anyone expected. But as we coasted downhill in the dark after skiing powder atop a grassy slope, I was smiling. And if asked again, I would probably go.
Difficulty is not reason enough to say no. In fact, that can be the whole reason for going in the first place. In April 2016, Brody Leven, Joey Schusler, and KT Miller set out to ski northern Norway and create a film for 5Point Film Fest, accessing backcountry lines and lugging all of their ski and winter camping equipment on their bicycles. Unless you are a masochist, this is not a recommended trip. Snow was sparse, conditions were questionable, everything was wet, and semi-trucks buzzed their shoulders while their 130-pound bikes wobbled at speed. Nothing about Pedal to Peaks: Norway was easy, but it was still fun. Or at least funny.
“You’ve got to laugh,” says Leven. “When you are grinding uphill and there is no skiing in sight and you are just cranking on your pedals… my derailleur broke within 50 yards of bicycling on our second day. I single-speeded my way through the Arctic with a couple hundred pounds on my bike for the next two weeks. It’s good to have a sense of humor.”
Given time, tragedy transforms into humor and looking back at this bike-to-ski adventure, Leven, Schusler, and Miller described it through chuckles and added advice for future bike skiers.
“Avoid trucking routes, unless you’re into that sort of thing,” jokes Miller. “Let your bike hold your skis instead of your back. I always try to minimize weight on my back. Joey strapped his skis to his bike for our trip and Brody and I used trailers and strapped our skis onto them.”
Schusler kitted his bike with racks to hold his ski and camera gear. And his imaginative rigging was continuously tested throughout the trip. “My bike weighed around 120 or 130 pounds with all that gear,” he says. “I couldn’t set my gear on its side and lift it up. Every time I’d set up a film shot I’d have to find a guardrail or a tree or a wall. I actually sheared a steel bolt in half just picking the bike up. I used a bunch of hose clamps and tape to hold it.”
When roads are cleared of snow but closed to cars, using bikes to access skiing makes a lot of sense. The road over Montana’s Beartooth Pass was closed for most of 2015’s Memorial Day weekend. On that Friday, my friend Eric and I trudged on foot for guardrail-to-guardrail road laps while bikers cruised to the top of the socked-in pass for slushy and much longer turns on Rock Creek. While we drank coffee and listened to the rain pop on our tarp lean-to during mornings at camp, my friends Leslie and Ben chugged and charged on their ski loaded bikes. “It’s useful but it’s crappy,” says Leslie, of the bike-to-ski approach. “Anytime you add mountain biking to a sport that’s not mountain biking, it sucks. But you can ski cool lines without the crowds when you use a bike before the roads open.”
“It’s a great shuttle tool,” says Ben. Beartooth Pass’ Rock Creek drainage holds mouth-watering spring ski lines. The ramps, chutes, and couloirs are typically ready for corn harvest by late May. But the drive out can be heinous and chances are the marmots will eat every hose in your shuttle car’s engine. Biking is the easy choice.
“For me it’s about combining multiple activities and opportunities for fun…or problems,” Leven says. “If you just like to ski, and don’t mind waiting for roads to open, drive a car. If you care about our planet, or good times, consider the options. I once got to ride a ski-laden bike through a plowed Grand Teton National Park at night, in the middle of the normally traffic-choked road, lit only by the moon. It is, to this day, one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”
Photo by KT Miller
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