I was halfway up a 15-mile, 6,000-vertical-foot climb when I finally decided to take a slug of water, and the dry sucking noise that came out of my hydration hose floored me. I’d filled my bladder to the brim the night before, why was there nothing in there? The discovery would have come much sooner had I not chugged a whole Nalgene at my car before starting, but now I was 3,000 feet up from town and still had another 3,000 to go. It was hot out, and Mount 7 is a desert in the summer. Dry creek beds and spindly pine are its hallmarks—along with stupidly steep, tight trails leftover from the ’90s. Sat at the western edge of the Canadian Rockies in Golden, British Columbia, it’s most famous for having played host to Red Bull’s Psychosis race from 1998 to 2008. To this day, the event is renowned as one of the steepest downhill races in history, its 4,000 unrelenting feet recently revived for racers by a pandemic-inspired Crankworx.
But Mount 7’s true summit actually lies another 2,000 feet above the race’s start. And from it, an even more demented trail secretly traces its longest and crankiest spine, all the way to the valley floor. I’d only ridden this terrifyingly vertical lace of dirt once before, about a decade earlier, via helicopter. But nowadays a climbing trail takes care of the first 4,000 feet up, if you have it in you. It weaves gently, albeit endlessly, to the start of the Psychosis track, but there’s still a couple more hours of hike-a-biking from there if you want to make it to the real peak. Here, a 360-degree view of three mountain ranges and a windsock for paragliders forebodes the precipitous trail below.
I’d woken early that morning—July 9—and driven the hour-and-a-half from my home in neighboring Revelstoke without telling anyone. It was the 10th anniversary of my ex-girlfriend’s death in a downhill skateboarding accident. Grinding painfully to the top of Mount 7 and then descending solo from its sharp summit was how I chose to spend the day, chasing ghosts.
Mount 7’s climb trail was named for Sean Schacher, an otherwise-healthy rider who died of an apparent heart attack while out alone on a trail across the valley. Building an uptrack to the top of the Psychosis course had been his dream, so after his untimely passing, his friends spent the next four years raising $220,000 to make it real. Today, the Schacher (pronounced “shocker”) is one of the most stunningly long and intricate climbs you can find, meandering up the sides of a brutish mass of rock that trees barely want to grow on.
Pedaling and pushing my bike to Mount 7’s highest point was my way of confronting gravity, the thing that had most shaped my life: delivering its greatest joys, and greatest pain. Those were two things I never could untangle—along with my insides. As a result, I’d spent the last decade noncommittally tiptoeing in and out of nothing more than flings, which left me still single and alone. I was 38 now, afraid of love and the height to which it lifts you, because I’d learned how far there is to fall. Risking that tumble with my body was always easier, and the only distraction that worked.
But before I could do that, I would need water. Looking closer, I found the bite valve from my hydration hose wasn’t locked. I figured I had put the pack itself down on top of it that morning, and my shaggy carpet greedily drank all my water without me noticing. Any sober person would have turned around, but I put my head down and mashed my pedals anyway. There was no way I was stopping.
Pedaling and pushing my bike to Mount 7’s highest point was my way of confronting gravity, the thing that had most shaped my life: delivering its greatest joys, and greatest pain.
As my mouth dried, I passed under a wooden archway dedicated to yet another vanished rider, Jeremy Harris, who had been president of Golden’s cycling club, and the chief proponent of this trail. More than anybody, Harris was responsible for making Schacher into reality, though he never saw it finished himself. He lost a fight with depression in 2017, leaving a terrible wound in Golden’s cycling community. By the time the trail was finished in 2018, it was a memorial to two lost souls. And, on it, I was now issuing my own twisted tribute to the woman I’d lost. In the most wrenching moments over the years, when she felt the most absent, I considered it might be better if I was gone too. Passing under Harris’ archway stabbed me with memories of that time.
As I pressed on, my stomach cramped, and I didn’t know if it was dehydration or something worse. But not long after things began to seem really grim, I turned a corner to find some folks who’d already finished their own climb, and were about to descend. The serendipity almost made me feel spiritual, as they generously emptied what was left of their bottles into my bladder so I could continue.
Another two hours later, I humped my bike up a jagged mess of scree at the edge of the Rocky Mountain Trench. I was finally hovering high above the miles-wide valley that runs from Montana to the Yukon as a half-continent-long, tectonic scar in the earth’s thick skin. In it, a jade river swept back and forth between the walls of the Purcell and Rocky Mountains, flooding the valley. Mount 7 rises from the headwaters of the Columbia River, a UNESCO heritage site that feeds swaths of uncannily green grasses, bordered by muted and parched mountainsides.
On the summit, I sat and stared at the vast expanse of life below. When I finally stood and put a leg over my bike a while later, vertigo set in—it all looked gnarlier than I had remembered. I shook it off as best I could, took in a labored breath, and dipped my front wheel over the slope. As I rolled, my ass grazed my back wheel, and I felt my eyes bulge. I began to accelerate violently, and when I squeezed my brakes, traction disappeared. The trail required me to ride it out, a gripped style of descending I’d forgotten, now demanding I aim 600 vertical feet straight down. I let off the brakes and gave myself to it like a waterfall, spilling out onto the mountain’s flat shoulder in a wash of frothing loose rock only a few seconds later. I’d cleared the worst part of the exposure, and was able to stop, a brief respite I knew the rest of the trail wouldn’t offer.
I hadn’t ridden this first section as well as I had when I was 10 years younger, and I knew it. I could still bail now and go back down the ridge to the Psychosis course—which was still plenty spicy. But it wasn’t apt to deliver what I was looking for—not like the marbly, precarious chutes along the edge of Mount 7’s massive cliffside could. For the last decade, I’d skirted commitment throughout my emotional life, I wouldn’t do it here.
Drifting down into the treeline, the trail became even steeper. There were no berms, nothing to slow me as I barrelled through the sharp forest with no chance to ditch speed. My puny dual-piston brakes faded several times, and the few opportunities I found to stop and let them cool came with an intense sense of relief. Each time I managed to pause, it was as though my searing brain needed to cool too. It felt euphoric when it did. This was chemistry now, a situation where every synapse fires with such focused intention there’s no room for any stray thoughts. Every practiced motion, every sway of the hips, flick of the bars, loosening or tightening of the grips, was the lizard brain trying to save itself. But it was also bypassing any pain. Somewhere in the middle of those 6,000 vertical feet, torn downward by a bend in space-time, I found a version of what I wanted—a brief bout of relief from life’s inner weight.
That we’ve tried to curate a planet devoid of risk has left so many of us in confusion and anomie; that humans flee from nature has made her cures alien to us. But this was primordial in a way few things are: moving through the same stuff I was made of, all of it just temporary arrangements of elements 13.8 billion years old. And though it all would inevitably change, the atoms it was made of—its essence—would always be. Just like the pull they create when clumped together into a planet, mountain, or person.
When you surrender to these forces, there are no questions of inadequacy, no deep well of hopelessness, just the raw truth of the universe and how you fit into it in that stretched-out moment. For all that gravity can take away, the merciless connection it offers to everything else is why we keep visiting with it. It is one of the best paths inward we have, for whatever you want to do once you get there.
An eon passed before I finally reached the bottom of the mountain, happily and luckily unscathed. I was out of water again, and my wagging jaw left my mouth coated with dirt. As the chemicals swirling in my brain calmed, I felt thirsty. But most of what I felt was alive, and a burning desire to stay that way. I pedalled that feeling back to my car, and took it home with me to keep for as long as I could. But not before downing another full Nalgene of water.
Illustrations: Sam Needham