Feature: Come Hell or Hogwater
In constant search of the edge, a dynamic crew plots a risky route in a remote subrange of the Chilcotin
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The following story first appeared in the winter 2021 print issue of Beta. To get quarterly print magazines, sign up to be a Beta Pass or Outside+ member. Membership details HERE.
Doubt crept in as the ground blindly rolled away into a hanging valley on day three.
Staring into this giant question mark left no clearly defined answer, but a decision needed to be made—and fast, with the dark clouds overhead threatening snow. The Venus Flytrap, as the valley was dubbed, was simultaneous beauty and horror. Twin emerald-and-cobalt-colored lakes separated by a broad rocky ledge and cascading waterfall beckoned closer inspection. Encircled by sheer granite cliffs and pocket glaciers, this picturesque amphitheatre had only one exit: the one Kenny Smith had spied on Google Earth while planning the route. If attempted, could they make it out the other end? And if that way proved impassable, or if it snowed, would they be able to make it back out the way they came? The quandary of the Venus Flytrap: Does the honey merit the risk?
Questions like these form the basis of a good hog.
Hoggin,’ a term coined by Smith, is a unique form of voluntary discomfort. A big day out riding the bike is not a hog. A hog could be a single or multi-day endeavor through at least some amount of unknown terrain, but it requires shouldering bikes, navigating through big, rugged terrain without trails, bushwhacking and pushing mental and physical limits, all while questioning the point of it.
On a hog, group dynamics are key. The delicate interplay of personalities can make or break a trip and is as crucial a factor as terrain or the weather, especially in the remote reaches of the backcountry. This style of adventure is not for everyone, and the ability to have fun in tense situations is requisite. Friendships forged through these difficult experiences lightened by verbal sparring form immense mutual respect and trust, allowing a well-bound crew to push deeper into future exploration. And rule number one is always: no complaining.
The thing about honey is that you can’t see it from space—not accurately anyway. Using digital resources can provide a rough indication of the general lay of the land, but the subtle nuances of terrain, dirt and pitch define if it is rideable—and if so, how much of it—something unknowable until feet (and hopefully tires) are on the ground.
Smith has been specializing in what is possible on a bike for a long time. Remote and unexplored mountains have redirected his attention from freeride competitions to the true roots of the discipline in its purest form—just you, your bike, and the mountain. The pinnacle of this pursuit is doing it entirely self-supported, carrying everything needed for survival. A self-proclaimed map nerd, Smith has taken the helm as trip planner and the mentally taxing role of navigator out in the field. After reading about the Razorback from an obscure geology blog, British Columbia’s Niut Range had lingered on his hit list for years.
The Niut group, consisting of steep alpine peaks studded with lakes in all shades of blue and green, is like an island, separated by Mosley Creek in the west and the Homathko River to the east, with sheer cliffs barring entry to all but the hardiest of animals. Sitting at a geological confluence, the mountains are an amalgamation of the volcanic Chilcotin ranges and granitic Pacific ranges. What makes the Chilcotin mountains so special for freeriding is the fine granular mineral soil, orange and purple dirt that holds in place on steep terrain and fractures into rocks small enough to roll through with bike tires, while the Pacific ranges have larger, higher and steeper mountains forged from granite and glaciers. The Razorback is the Franken-child of both ranges and, at 10,443 feet above sea level, is the highest peak in the Niut. The massif is shaped like a fern with alpine ridges feathering from sub summits successively to the east, shortening into a point to the north end and cleaved down the center into a sheer west face. This orange-tentacled beast was the carrot at the end of the 40-mile horseshoe route Smith conceived.
On a hog, group dynamics are key. The delicate interplay of personalities can make or break a trip.
The New Guy
At the start of any big trip, shouldering a pack seems heavier than any pack on previous trips. This trick of the mind might actually be true in Peter Wojnar’s case. In addition to the necessary bikepacking supplies and food for an eight-day traverse, Wojnar brought an 8mm film camera, along with a drone and digital film equipment to document the motion side of the trip. Wojnar wouldn’t have it any other way. He is just as excited to film the trip as he is to be on the trip in the first place. For him, it’s like achieving two trips in one, especially with highly skilled and motivated athletes riding in such a visually impactful setting.
There is only baptism by fire with this crew, but with an impressive résumé of long and difficult multi-day bike and backcountry ski trips and an acute mountain awareness, Wojnar was the perfect fit. The route led straight into true hoggin’ style with dense bushwhacking en route to the alpine. Stout tangles of subalpine fir and white bark pine conspired to halt progress. Upon breaking through to the alpine, the open ridges were a stark reminder of the ambitious route Smith had chosen. The chunky terrain made it impossible to maintain momentum, and carrying bikes through micro features proved fastest. The running joke was that, to save weight, it would be prudent to leave the bikes’ drivetrains in the truck, which was not far from the truth. Progress was slow but morale was high as anticipation grew with elevation gained and the jagged peaks of the Niut slowly revealed themselves in layers.
The running joke was that, to save weight, it would be prudent to leave the bikes’ drivetrains in the truck.
The Swiss Army Knife
The rocky terrain remained unrelenting, and carrying bikes was necessary on ascents, across ridges and even on some of the descents as well. The actual pedalable terrain was survival riding in every sense. Complex faces threatened by exposure allowed zero room for error, which was as tough mentally and physically as it was on the equipment. Margus Riga’s creaking bike frame was a prime example.
It began as a dull squeak, but to the finely tuned ear of longtime mechanic Fraser Newton, it was akin to nails on a chalkboard. Newton is the kind of person you want to have around in the backcountry—a mechanical savant quick with quirky humor and impeccable ingenuity. He also excels at reactive, gnarly off-trail riding. At each rest stop, Newton would tear open his bag to find some obscure piece of gear, and Riga was surprised when his bike was brought back into focus. An errant bushing was the culprit and was quickly fixed.
Newton is known for his unorthodox tinkering, and it’s not uncommon to find him taking the rear triangle off his bike to combine with washers and linkage plates to form a makeshift bearing press to fine-tune his equipment. His mechanical skill and the constant need to make sure everything is in optimal condition is both a blessing and a curse. His attention to detail stems in part from years running sled dogs. Working with Siberian Huskies, an awareness of what each dog is doing, knowing their individual personalities and being vigilant to their needs is critical. Newton also draws parallels to running dogs and managing group dynamics on difficult trips.
The Hard Decision
Council was taken under imposing skies, and the difficult decision to turn around at the Venus Flytrap was made. Over the past decade, a democratic style of decision-making has evolved for the crew. Finding an equilibrium between ambition, media motivation and safety can be a fine balancing act between alpha males. Each member has a specialization with overlapping knowledge bases and a willingness to acquiesce, knowing the best decision is being made has created a deep sense of trust. A difference of opinions errs on the side of safety, but everyone has a chance to voice their concerns and, thus, arguments very rarely arise.
This particular decision was not made lightly, but the weather had given them no choice. Three days in, the crew was reaching the halfway mark for time allotted but was only one-third of the way in distance. The demanding terrain made for slow progress, so backtracking was not a pleasing alternative, seemingly pushing the Razorback farther from reach. Earlier in the day, Smith and Wojnar had scouted a potential route to the west. A narrow, dark valley that would provide a potential shortcut if passable. Begrudgingly, they retraced their steps to the head of the Grey Valley and put all of their chips on this large gamble.
Clinging to near-vertical rock exposed to a large drop while balancing a heavy pack and bike on tenuous footholds is a strange place to be thinking about lobsters. Sure, claws and multiple legs could be advantageous at that exact moment, but a neuro study was passing through Kevin Landry’s brain. The study poses the theory that lobsters exist in a hierarchical society and have a nervous system attuned to status that runs on serotonin levels. The more times a lobster overcomes adversity and moves up the hierarchical ladder, the more serotonin becomes available, making future gains easier. Alternatively, the more defeats the lobster suffers, the more restricted the serotonin supply becomes, which, linked to negative emotions, makes it harder to climb the societal ladder. Or in this case, a cliff.
Landry feels a direct correlation between a lobster conundrum and his decision to press on. By second-guessing and backing off an objective, the more likely it is to create a negative feedback loop, destroying confidence and setting a negative baseline. In the big mountains, when dropping into a scree chute that requires full commitment and perfect performance, confidence needs to be firing on all cylinders. So Landry keeps climbing, focusing on each hold, eventually topping out on the crux of the route as the rain unleashes another torrent.
Landry is equal parts devil and angel on these trips. Constantly scanning for objective hazards and safety concerns, he is contrarily the first person to flick the fuck-it switch and press into the unknown. His experience and optimism are indispensable in tenuous situations and reinforced by successive wins in difficult circumstances. Like a math equation weighing risk and reward versus skill and conditions, the end result is always go until you can’t go any farther.
The Sketchy Part
Day five had been a difficult morning. Two days after turning back from the Venus Flytrap, the crew had returned to the Grey Valley, a desolate high-alpine cirque devoid of color and fortified by a near-vertical headwall seemingly held in place by the fractured glacier below. A violent storm had made sleep nearly impossible. Coupled with nerve-racking thoughts of tackling the intimidating headwall, or worse, having to retreat and face the demoralizing bushwhack back the way they came. Neither option was appealing, and leaving the warmth and security of the tent that morning was nearly unbearable.
A two-hour approach brought the crew to the toe of the glacier. The steep ice would be impossible to ascend without mountaineering gear, but where the rotting glacier met the side of the mountain, chunks of rock were tenuously frozen into the ice forming an unstable ladder. The boulder field above lay on saturated soil. The unconsolidated talus shifted with each step, creating an unnerving domino effect uphill. Boulders the size of dinner tables nearly pinched Landry’s leg as he gingerly leapt sideways. Under constant rockfall, no one spoke through the harrowing hour-and-a-half mind game up the slope.
Right on cue, the clouds parted, light beams shot from the heavens and what lay on the other side was a Shangri-la.
Overcoming the challenge of the glacier and headwall was a huge success and provided a much-needed boost of motivation. Huddled beneath a small tarp in the rain atop the exposed ridge, the crew plotted their next move. Right on cue, the clouds parted, light beams shot from the heavens and what lay on the other side was a Shangri-la. Glimpsing the green rock spires and purple dirt was like seeing color for the first time compared to the monochrome landscape they had just battled through. Eyes wide, from their high camp, the evening was spent gluttonously window shopping the steep chutes.
Margus Riga has spent decades honing his craft and unintentionally created a niche as a backcountry bike photographer. On trips combining his passions of photography and remote difficult missions is exactly where he wants to be. Constantly striving for perfection, he has mentored his younger companions over the years in his unique blend of maximum output in pursuit of adventure and the perfect shot.
It’s a perpetual battle that few understand. The added mental and physical pressure of shooting on the fly, needing to be simultaneously in front and behind, and achieving his high standard of imagery takes a certain type of grit that is continually evolving throughout the trip. Thoughts of what the light is doing, unique angles and rider line choice take up residence in his head, so as Smith navigates the terrain for the best route, Riga refines it for aesthetics. Trusting Riga’s photographic vision, the crew is willing to put in the extra effort to achieve this mutual goal.
The reality that they would not make it to the Razorback had been a gradual epiphany over the past few days, but discovering the Purple Valley was consolation enough to put the original objective out of mind. Spending a full day in such a picturesque area is a seemingly unattainable luxury rarely afforded to riders and shooters alike on these types of traverses, so the novelty was not wasted.
Landry chose a steep narrow chute of magic purple dirt, while Smith and Newton settled on a burly line traversing an exposed shelf with only 10 feet of dirt separating them from a 100-foot drop. The inherent risk of the lines was not discussed and control was given over to each rider’s own intuition, while Riga and Wojnar captured the impressive display of skill until the light disappeared.
The Niut had delivered the goods, but was not without one final punishment. Nearly 10 miles separated the subalpine paradise from the trucks, and at 1 p.m. on day seven, the crew began what they hoped would be an expedient descent. After the first few hours, it was apparent they would not be released without a fight. As the dense bush grew thick with deadfall, the pace slowed and night gradually fell at the halfway mark. The crew resorted to removing pedals from their bikes and scurried like mice over, under, and around logs. There was discussion of making camp and finishing the following day, but the bush would not relent enough flat ground to accommodate a single person, so they pressed on into the blackness. Stopping was practically out of the question as a mechanical determination kicked in with the singular focus of reaching the end.
Just before midnight, the trees parted to reveal an old mining road making riding the final 5 kilometers possible. Racing down the road in a zombie-like state, too tired to appreciate the gravity of their accomplishment, the end was in sight. Thinking back, Smith poses the question: Did they find the edge of what is possible on this style of trip? Possibly, but what is more likely is that once the pain subsides into a bleary memory of laughter and good times spent pushing boundaries in the mountains with friends, the Niut Range will become another stepping stone in the next succession of difficult hogs while the lure of the Razorback remains.
Photography: Margus Riga