Ski-heads will reverently talk of heli-serviced runs where the phrase “No Fall Zone” is both a barrier to entry and a badge of honour. High above the marked pistes, where snow clings precariously to impossibly steep slopes is close to heaven for adrenalin junkies. Screw up here and you’ll most likely die – either by tumbling a thousand metres down the mountain or being lost in an unmarked crevasse.
I’d like to introduce the concept of “No Crash Zones” for mountain bikes. And I feel more than qualified to do so with a distinguished history of ejecting stage everywhere, sometimes comedically slowly, frequently largely unnoticed, occasionally with an élan made for video, and rather too often finishing in hospital.
But there is more than a nuance between crashing somewhere good, and crashing somewhere really very bad indeed. Deep in a dark and dank forest encased in coffin sided slate is definitely one of those places. The Climach trail is roughly carved through a quarried out valley and appears to have been gloriously overlooked by the health and safety crowd, so prevalent in other trail centres.
Well the bit we rode anyway, having shown enthusiastic indifference to the delights of the XC loop. The final descent hangs on the valley edge, a perfect singletrack bench cut between slate walls and menacing trees. It’s not welcoming, it doesn’t have happy little signs, it fails to box-tick the “trail centre downhill playbook“, it doesn’t think you’re hard enough to have a go, and it will spit mud in your eye before genially trying to kill you.
Not because it is technically more demanding that anything else we had already ridden in a weekend ratcheting the adrenalin barometer between fun and fear. No, because it’s so damn fast, dispensing with the velocity inhibiting swoopy sinew of perfect apex’s – this trail is straight down, hairpin, plummet again. Hewn out of the slate, the surface is always wet and glassily frictionless, jagged edged to catch a tyre, cambering off to a dark mass of uninviting trees.
Blair Witch for bikes. You have to love it, if only for the sheer chutzpah of a designer who gone with the “fuck it, make it fast and dangerous, they’ve read the sign at the start, they know the risks” brief. One section lingers long in the memory – post hairpin a wall of slate vertically limits the right, dense trees clinging to a forty five degree slope the other way – bracketing a thin ribbon of slate, stone, dirt and mud.
Stray left and you’ll hit something bark related on the way to a 200 foot drop, catch a bar on the rock wall and the experience will be akin to diving head first into a bacon slicer at about 25 MPH. That slate isn’t smooth but cruelly serrated and so very, very close. You don’t want to crash here, you don’t even want to think about it.
I was thinking about it as we winched up for another go. First though I had to fall off the tiny section of North Shore plankage. A standard approach of not getting off on damp wood spanning grim looking ditches* was, er, ditched as I lined up confidently for a fuss-free traversal. A certain causal narrative follows; I look at the plank, I look at the ditch, I ride onto the plank, I ride into the ditch.
Musting** myself off, the trail was now mine alone with my fast riding pals already some way distant. That’s pretty much the situation whenever I’m riding with these two, and it was entirely their fault that my riding speed was way above my pay grade at this point. They need to be slower, or I need to be less competitive.
Corners may not feature much on this trail, but the trail pixies added much lumpiness and scary rock to ensure that you can spend much time in the air and most of that properly frightened. It’s a bit car-crash tv tho – you know one mistake and food shall be served in a drip, but it’s such a bloody rush that the pretence all is fine and you’re more than handling it is a salve for the delusional mind.
Round the hairpin, set up for the bacon slicer, virtual blinkers on, can’t look left, don’t look right, look over there where it’s less scary. Speed builds, split second decision to sacrifice grip, but you’re dare not brake, dare not breathe really, it’ is only fifteen seconds but you’re properly alive, absolutely focussed, living in the moment where fear and joy are just about the same. And then one second – a second I shall relive mostly waking up screaming in a cold sweat – I felt my glove graze the rock.
Two futures open up; one sees the an impacted bar launch the rider hard into the rock before bouncing him – broken – down a cliff offering all the cushioning of hard pine trunks and stumps. The other releases the pressure on that right hand, shoots the bike out of the danger zone and makes damn sure the God of Fate is properly respected from here on in.
I got lucky. In more ways that one. I got to ride mountain bikes on proper mountains with good friends, take more risks that I should, drink more beer than I can handle, and still come back with my shield rather than on it.
A month ago similar things were going on in the Pyrenees. Different mountains, different friends, same feeling of utter peace at the end of it.
That’s not lucky, that’s blessed.
* Because I’ve already got off some 10 feet before.
** A lexical fusion of “Mud” and “Dust”. A winner I think you’ll agree