A small crowd gathers at 9:30 a.m. on the patio of Garbanzo Bike and Bean where of a yard sale of body armor, full-face helmets and gloves litters the tables. The bike-cum-coffee shop is the rendezvous spot for Elevation Camp, a two-day clinic for intermediate and advanced riders.
I sip my Americano as Javier, an instructor, grabs his clipboard and asks each of the 19 riders a few questions: Do you ride the park? Do you prefer tech or flow? What's the most difficult trail you've ridden? Some had ridden at Whistler a lot, but got out of the groove. Some were North Shore regulars with strong technical skills. Some were uncomfortable with drops, while others feared riding on wood. Javier takes the information and writes a number down next to each person's name.
Three other instructors, Dylan, Joe and Dave, inspect our bikes to confirm the brakes and suspension are sound and everything is in working order. Joe pushes and prods my Norco and discovers minor play in the rear linkage. I take it back to one of the wrenches in the shop. The guy tells me the shop doesn't have the replacement bolt, but assures me the bike is safe to ride.
We split up into seeded groups of four to five people. Somehow, I end up in Javier's group of top-tier riders. I scratch my head and wonder if I oversold my abilities all while trying to be self-effacing. I do something hardly done in the real world: I ask to be demoted.
I shift to Dylan's group, a Vancouver bunch, all friends: Tyna and Adrian, a married couple, and their pals Rob, Graeme and Ainsley. I am the interloper from the States. Our even split of men and women is representative of the overall mix of camp, a pleasant surprise. Before arriving, I wondered if I'd be the only female.
As the groups disperse, Dylan's eyes dart back and forth between the Fitz chair and the Gondola, a ping-pong of glances to suss out the quickest means to Midstation. There's no queue at the Gondy so the decision is simple. We warm up on B-Line, an intermediate flow trail. I feel a bit sloppy through the corners because I'm riding quickly, self-conscious of slowing down my fellow riders. On the next lap, we ride B-Line again and hive off to Blueseum.
"How do you guys feel?" Dylan asks. "Awake" is the consensus.
The author conquers a daunting technical line.
It's opening day for the Garbanzo Zone, the mid-to-upper elevation trail network which includes Freight Train and Blue Velvet, popular jump trails. The sun hides behind a moody, monochromatic cloudscape making it a chilly ride up Garbo.
Everyone is game for a descent of Blue Velvet. Dylan cautions us that the trail is likely soft. Indeed, there are tire-sucking holes and furrowed berms with more squish than tack. Unheroic dirt. Conditions improve on the lower section and it's hard not to smile on the airy bits. I let out a triumphant, bellicose "OH YEAH" in the apex of an arc.
We break for lunch at Garibaldi Lift Company, GLC as it's known. Most of the groups stick together. In a rare demonstration of self-restraint, I forgo a midday pint. Water seems the wiser albeit duller choice.
I pat myself on the back for my temperance as we progress to tougher terrain in the afternoon.
Dylan guides us to the original exit of Afternoon Delight, a black technical trail closed for years. "So many riders were getting hurt on it," explains Dylan. The crux is a succession of steep rock rolls requiring a change of direction from one to the next. We watch our instructor drop in, slowly and smoothly, never losing traction. I push off, roll the first feature, and my momentum slackens to zero in the turn. After a trifecta of defeat, I plead for one more chance to clean it. Everyone cheers me on and I drop in. "You got this," they yell as I enter the turn. I push through and make the second drop. I get high fives from Dylan and the gang.
With trail crews still working on the drop skills center, the drop progression in the park is discontinuous, making a quantum leap from knee-high to head-high and beyond. We scope out a series of drops about two thirds of the way down Clown Shoes. Walking up from below, I see the second drop. It's canted. A bermed corner follows. We walk up a bit more and see a knee-high drop similar to the filter drop on A-Line. The features don't require much speed, and too much velocity, in fact, can result in overshooting the landing, taking the hapless rider straight instead of into the corner.
We watched in horror as that precise scenario played out. A rider (not part of our group) crashed into a tree and lay immobile for a few seconds. Before we had a chance to scramble down the trail to triage, the casualty popped up and proclaimed "I'm fine, really I'm fine," in a defensive, clipped tone. She straightened her helmet, brushed herself off, and pedaled away before we could assess whether she was truly compos mentis.
It wasn't the most inspiring thing to witness before sessioning a section of Clown Shoes, a double black trail. Whatever. I snuff out the visual of the crash and descend.
At 5 p.m., all the groups gather at GLC to hang out and drink beer and see who scores the SRAM Guide brakes in the prize giveaway. I win a RockShox t-shirt, the last of the booty, the item rejected by everyone else.
As I'm about to leave, Tyna invites me to chill with the gang at their shared condo. I think she feels bad I'm staying at a campground because the weather has turned nasty. The prospect of a hot-tub soak and shower trumps sitting in my tent. We ride in the pouring rain back to their condo, soak in the hot tub and play Cards Against Humanity.
Dirty bikes and happy campers are not uncommon at Whistler. | Photo: Nancy Kim
On Sunday, we ride a tech-heavy assortment of trails in Garbo: Duffman, Original Sin, No Joke. Saturday night's rain has rendered the hard parts harder. We session some more rock rolls and muster some flow on Freight Train.
We took BC's Trail—chock full of greasy boulders and slick, off-camber roots—to Whistler Creekside for our lunch break.
We eat at Dusty's, a Creekside staple for pub grub. Dylan got the ribs he had be been dreaming of all morning. I had burned through my single-banana breakfast long ago and felt like a corpse revived after a burger and wedges. The resident devil on my shoulder eyed Graeme's Bloody Caeser. I ordered a second ginger-ale instead.
The sun broke out in the afternoon and we uploaded at Creekside Gondola, which opened to bikes in late 2015. Looking down the valley, we spotted several bears grazing the hillside. We only had time for a few more laps after lunch before the day was done. After the final descent, I was spent.
If you're looking for bang for buck, Elevation Camp is a good deal at $215 for the camp only, $274 for camp and lift ticket. You get the best guides, as Whistler requires the top level of certification for its Elevation Camp instructors. That value has kept avid and skilled riders like Tyna and Graeme coming back. Both of them have attended three years in a row.
"I learn new skills or fix bad habits and also manage to push myself on runs I haven't tried before," said Graeme, whose only complaint is that he wishes he could tick off more laps in a day.
Tyna said, "Things I learned in the first two camps have been subconsciously instilled and I feel more confident."
If you seek more personalized coaching, hire a guide for a half day and split the cost with a friend who rides at your level. That's what Adrian did last year. While he enjoyed camp, he preferred the more individualized instruction of a guided day on the hill.
I've done both and enjoyed both experiences. Elevation Camp pushed me, expanded my comfort zone and inspired me to keep setting goals. While that sounds like some cheesy, earnest testimonial from a five-star Yelp review, it's all true. I've fallen further down the rabbit hole of mountain biking. I can't see the bottom. It's an airy sensation and it feels good.
-by Nancy Kim