I suppose it’s natural to wax nostalgic for the days of our youth and remember our feats of yore as our bodies age and our memories grow fuzzy. I’ve been riding mountain bikes longer than most of the kids I meet on the trail have been alive, so when they tell me they want to be like me when they grow up, I have to laugh. I used to feel the same way when some sexagenarian kicked my thirty-something butt on the trail. I also laugh because at twenty-something, they’re already riding power assisted e-bikes so it’s not likely they will grow up to be gnarly at seventy.
I was still in my thirties when a group of us embarked on an epic ride which began at a rustic campground next to the Santa Ana River. We drove up to the campground the night before the planned ride and sat around the campfire, sharing a few beers and telling tall tales of previous adventures. A couple of the guys went off to the restaurant/bar to top off the evening while the sensible men and I crawled into our sleeping bags in anticipation of the next day’s ride.
Dawn came early and hot even at that elevation. We filled our water bottles, packed some Cliff Bars (these were the first and the worst of the high-carbohydrate, calorie dense, unpalatable energy snacks touted by the experts of the time) and began the tedious, rocky, fire-road climb which ascended some 2,760′ in 7 miles, on a south-facing slope. The already dehydrated guys who had closed the bar were out of water by the time we reached Skyline Road, also known as the Five Bitches because of the five sandy climbs that follow the contours of the ridge to a giant Lodgepole pine and the start of the trail we were seeking.
While there is a stream near the pine, no one was desperate enough to drink from it at this point. We continued to the Siberia Creek Trail that promised to be the reward for the the 3,000′ of climbing we had done. Anticipating a lovely, shaded trail that would take us back to the lodge, we began the descent. Within less than a mile, the trail became alarmingly difficult. Buck thorn and holly encroached on the narrow path making riding painful as it clawed at our lycra-clad legs and bare arms. We contemplated turning back but the thought of climbing back up the last hard-won mile and then traversing the Five Bitches was more than any of us felt capable of. We pushed doggedly on and soon we were literally pushing our bikes ahead of us through the snarl of wickedly thorny shrubs. But at least it was downhill.
Coming around to the south side of the ridge, we were relieved to find the trail was less overgrown and for short stretches we were able to ride. But then we came to an exposed area where water runoff had all but obliterated the trail and it was too narrow to even walk beside our bikes, having now to lead them like uncooperative pack animals. Rounding a rock outcrop, the trail evaporated. It had completely slid down the hill leaving a bare cliff with only a few roots dangling where the trail had been. We were well beyond the point of no return, so the guys (I was the only female stupid enough to do this trail) decided that they could traverse the gap by grabbing a sturdy root and swinging across to where the trail lay intact some five or six feet away. The penalty for failure would probably not have been fatal but it wasn’t something anyone wanted to contemplate.
One of the strongest of the men went first and then the other guys swung the bikes across to his waiting arms. Once the bikes were all safely on the other side, it was my turn to make the leap. Shorter, weaker and utterly petrified, I had to depend on the strength of one of the guys to swing me across and another to catch me on the other side. We all made it to the other side and prayed that the trail would not deteriorate further.
The trail was still too rough to ride and did not travel consistently downhill, rather it followed the contours of the mountain slope, crossing dry stream beds and then ascending the next ridge. One of the men, who had an inexpensive heavy bike, and who himself was overweight, was too exhausted and thirsty to continue. He sat down and said he would have to wait for rescue. Afternoon shadows were growing long and we were some unknown distance from a road. The group splintered with the stronger riders pushing on, leaving the weaker ones to manage on their own. The strongest guy in the group volunteered to carry his own bike and my light bike if I would carry the heavy bike of the worn out chubby guy. After a rest, chubby guy regained his feet and the three of us struggled on.
Shortly before dusk, we reached the forest service road where we left chubby guy with his bike, promising to return with a vehicle and water. We still had a ride of about four miles back to camp, half of it uphill, but we came to a small stream and threw caution to the wind and drank from it. We later learned that Stronger guy had rinsed his soiled shorts in this stream when dehydration had loosened his bowels without warning.
When we pedaled into camp we found the Stronger guy sitting at the bar, freshly showered. He had hailed a passing motorist and paid $20 for the short ride back to camp. I was furious! I told him to get in his truck and go back to rescue chubby guy. He sheepishly did so without complaint.
One of the guys in the group was a retired Marine and he confided that he had never done anything as difficult in the service. I felt pretty smug until I learned that he’d been a recruiting officer.