The St Helens Epic is an 80 mile, single loop, mountain bike ride that takes in some of the best (and hardest) trails that the Gifford Pinchot NF has to offer. The word “epic” gets pretty abused/over used up here in the PNW, but if there is an event that I am going to deem fairly worthy of the title, it would be this ride. There are no services along this route. What does that mean? Well, no gas station/quickie marts, convenience stores, grocery stores, etc. The exception to that is about 2.5-3 miles before the end there is a country store and pizza place. Even water was pretty difficult to find on this ride. Basically you have to bring everything you need with you from the start. Plus should you get injured or lost there is no cell reception and at some points you could be waiting quite a long time for help to arrive.
I had with me the following items for what was going to potentially be a 12-14 hour day.
- Snowpeak stove and titanium cup
- Lemon Poppy muffin
- PB&J Muffin
- 5 Hammer Nutrition gels
- Tube of Hammer Nutrition FIZZ (awesome!)
- Mountain House Macaroni and cheese meal
- Tabasco for said mac n cheese
- 1lb of trail mix
- Water filter to replenish liquids
I started the day with two 23oz Camelbak bottles filled with Skratch Labs mix and a 3 liter hydration bladder filled with water. Those lasted me until about 20 miles to go. In total I went through almost 200 ounces of water over 11.5 hours.
Also had tube, patch kit, mini pump, compact tool, knife, portable power pack, map, jacket, head lamp, bike light and battery, phone and charging cable (just in case).
So, before I talk about the ride let me ask one question (rhetorically of course). Have you ever had one of those exercise days where you just knew about 5 minutes in that it was going to be a bad day and that you were just off? Well unfortunately for me Saturday was that day. My legs felt like crap from the get go. I had some hope that things would work themselves out and I’d get moving…..Nope, didn’t happen. It made for a long and exceptionally hard day of bike riding. Had this been a “normal” weekend day of riding I would have done an easy spin and called it a day.
Dean brought up the ALiner , which was very sweet. It meant no tent camping for the weekend. I think I have now spent at least 4-5 nights in this thing. It’s definitely a nice way to camp.
13 of us started the day. One guy left an hour early to get a head start and 12 of us rolled out together promptly at 7AM. Dean’s goal was to do the first 40 miles and ride back on FR-25. He did the “short” option and still ended up with 65 miles and well over 8K’ of elevation! The only bail outs where really turn around at ape canyon (15-16 miles in), cut off at mile 40 where Boundary Trail cuts across FR-25 (Dean’s option) or take FR-90 at mile 60ish and save yourself from riding the Lewis River Trail, but still ride almost 15 miles back! I did a somewhat tweaked version of that last option. I rode the first few miles on the LRT and when it crossed FR-90 before venturing off into the woods again I just jumped on the pavement and dragged my beat up body the last 12 miles back to camp. When I say beat up I mean it too. I had a spectacular little crash coming down Windy Ridge into the Spirit Lake view point. Nothing broken or damaged on the bike or body, but a nice set of scrapes down my right shin that stung all day.
We did about 3500′ of elevation in the first 16 miles. Almost 1/3 of my daily total!
The Ape Canyon trail is super sweet. Juston and I did it my first year here and I hadn’t been back since, so riding it again was a pleasure. As I wrote earlier, I crashed pretty good going down from Plains of Abraham to Spirit Lake viewpoint. Luckily that was really my only mishap of the day.
In my head I was breaking down the ride into three 25 mile rides (total mileage is just over 78 for the whole thing). Spirit Lake comes at mile 24 and was a good place to stop for my first official snack of the day. I brought real food with me since I had zero desire to be eating energy bars and gels for up to 14 hours. The muffin and some trail mix really did a nice job. I highly recommend the PB&J muffin from New Seasons. The Lemon Poppy was okay if not a little dry. The trail mix would have been better if the nuts were salted too.
The next 12 miles were on pavement on FR-99. There was remarkably little traffic….like none! None of us on bikes knew that the road was closed to cars until we got to the Bear Meadows viewpoint and the start of the Boundary Trail. There was a lot of road damage to be fixed, from one hard winter I assume.
From this day forward the Boundary Trail shall be known as my arch nemesis. That trail sucked the life out of my soul over 15 arduous miles. There was so much hike-a-bike along this trail that it took me about 3 hours to go 15 miles! I will begrudgingly say though that there were some absolutely fantastic views and that the descent from Craggy Peak to Wright Meadow was super sweet. Still not thrilled with taking my bike for a nice long walk, but there was a bit of justified reward at the end of it all.
I didn’t make it to mile 50 before my next meal stop. Instead I was around mile 40 and just past Dean’s proposed “shortcut” of the route. I found a nice set of downed trees and took a breather to have something a bit more filling and also a bit warm. Temps were in the low to mid 50’s at our current elevation and having something hot to eat was appreciated.
While stopping to eat was very much needed, heck…required at this point. It was also the last time I would be riding with anybody else. The group I was with kept going and I was stopped for close to 45 minutes. The next 3 hours were just rough. Pedal some, hike a lot, pedal a bit, crap…dismount and hike some more. I took very few pictures along this section of the trail. I was pretty cooked mentally and physically at this point and the focus was more on doing math in my head of estimated finish times and just moving forward, sometimes at 1mph!
After a fun, if not somewhat sketchy, descent down from craggy peak to the intersection with the Wright Meadow Trail it was time for me to find some water and fill up. At this point I was just about running on empty in regards to liquids. There were a couple muddy ponds higher up the trail, but nothing that screamed “stop and use me”. Luckily just past the craggy peak trailhead there is an old wooden bridge across a trickling stream. This was at mile 52 per my GPS and it meant 8 more miles until the Lewis River Trail and the next option for a bailout.
Wright meadow continues a long descent down to FR-90 and it’s intersection with the LRT. I have failed to mention until now that Boundary Trail all the way down Wright Meadow is a hiking, biking and OHRV trail. While I have no problems with motorcycles out on these trails, it does lead to some crazy trail conditions at times. I was sometimes riding in 2-3 foot deep trenches that made it difficult to pedal without striking the trench walls. At other times you are hitting water bars and drop offs that definitely keep you on your toes. Being fresh this trail would have been a bit more fun, but as cooked as I was and with fatigue really setting in, I have no shame in admitting I stopped a couple times just to rest a bit.
I already told myself I was skipping the majority of the LRT when I got there. I rode about 2 miles of it so I could see the lower falls and to experience some of it. However when I hit FR-90 again I took the chance to jump on it and take pavement back to the campsite.
When all was said and done I was out there for 11:31 minutes. Ride time was 9:21 which in my head was okay. 74 miles (so I skipped 4ish) and 9,951′ of elevation gain. I wish I had some zip in my legs for this ride and I would love to do this ride with a bit less weight on my back. Stashing some supplies before hand? I could easily forgo the stove, fuel, cup and hot meal for some sandwiches of some sort. I’d still need to bring a filter though. Plus maybe about 1/2 the mixed nuts.
It sounds stupid since I told myself yesterday that this was a “one and done” event for me. However I have already caught myself saying “next time I do it…….”. We shall see what happens down the road.
In my typical fashion I don’t remember most of the names of people from yesterday. But thanks to the Olympia crew, Walter and Mike! Nice meeting you guys and perhaps I’ll see you next time?
Huge thanks to Dean for the camper, San Pellegrino, pizza and Advil! I know I can count on you. The 24 hour race should be a snap compared to this!
Thanks for reading,