From travel

Fears, Tears and Beers: My First Mountain Bike Race

Mountain Biking through a Casino PC - Photo John
Why I entered my first enduro. Photo: Photo John

It was the casino part that hooked me. When else would I get to ride my mountain bike through a casino? The Fears, Tears and Beers race in Ely is not your typical mountain bike race, as it begins riding through the Jailhouse Casino. The inherent whimsy in that made it appealing to this non-racer.

Let me back up. If you had asked me to enter a mountain bike race a few years ago, I’d have laughed at your audacity. It’s taken me a long time to embrace this sport. I’ve owned a mountain bike for well over 10 years, though it’s only been in the last few that I’ve come to understand the joy of gravity, and the gratification of earning my descent.

An enduro race, especially one like Fears, Tears and Beers, meant that I only had to race a few timed downhill sections, with the rest of the course being essentially a ride with friends.

That seemed manageable.

Because it was my first race, I started small by entering the Fun category. Only twelve miles and two timed descents. I could do that. But when a good friend learned my intentions, she called me out.

“You can totally do more than that. You should be in at least the Beginner category, but probably Sport.”

I may not have a lot of confidence in my ability, but pride prevented me from being perceived as a sandbagger. I capitulated, and convinced the three women who made the trip with me from Lake Tahoe to upgrade to Sport too. None of us had any idea what we were getting into, but at least we would be discovering it together.

The morning of the race dawned sunny and clear, and we gathered with the other riders in Ely’s Broadbent Park to wait for the start. I let my utter ignorance of the course be my guide, and tried to be in the moment. This meant enjoying the novelty of inhaling stale cigarette smoke as I rode past slot machines; savoring the views of the mountains, wildflowers and juniper trees on the untimed climbs; chatting with my friends as we took ample breaks; and pedaling my lungs out whenever I hit a timed section. I finished the race tired, happy, only slightly bloody, and full of a sense of achievement.

That I rode faster than nine other women to take first in the Sport category was a confirmation that I was capable of more than I thought possible.

Fears, Tears, Beers Sport First Place Award 2014
My lovely parting gift.

Lesson learned. I am not a sandbagger.

Return to Powder Creek

Powder Creek Lodge panorama
View from the lodge helipad

A couple years ago, N surprised me with what was the Best. Gift. Ever. for this skier – a week long trip to Powder Creek Lodge, a backcountry lodge located in British Columbia.  It was a fantastic trip, and we both hoped we could do it again.  When one of the folks we met that week let us know that he was organizing a trip for this past January, we didn’t hesitate.

Skier in Powder Creek Drainage, Purcells
N found his backcountry legs pretty quickly

What was even better this time around was that my brother came along.  He’s become a backcountry skier – I’d like to think in part because of the many tales that N and I have recounted, but I can’t be sure – and since he had a significant birthday recently, he wanted to fete it in a significant way.  We all agreed that a week of backcountry skiing in Canada was significant.

Views from Powder Creek, Purcells, British Columbia
Views like this never get old.

Cue to this winter.  Or rather, non-winter.  We’d had no opportunities to backcountry ski prior to the trip, thanks to little precipitation at Lake Tahoe.  We were not alone, since many of the folks going on the trip were from Oregon, which had also seen little snow by January.    It meant excitement ran high, even if ski fitness ran low.

powder creek lodge sunset views
The views from the lodge weren’t too shabby either

Our timing was perfect this year.  While our helicopter flight in was delayed a few hours due to weather, and while said flight in was much bumpier than I would have preferred, we got into the lodge on arrival day just before the real weather moved in, leaving us with over 3 feet of new snow in the first two days.

Skiers climbing up slope
Ridiculously beautiful scenery made the uphill part less painful

One of the many things I love about Powder Creek Lodge is the location.  It’s situated at 7000 feet, just above treeline.  There are low angle slopes in the trees, along with a variety of slopes in the alpine, ranging from wide open gentle slopes to steeper chutes.  So we had ample options even when avalanche danger was high.  It meant we skied 5-6 hours a day in search of untracked snow, which wasn’t hard to find.

Throw in running water, solar electricity, hot showers and a sauna, a full kitchen (we were self-catered, so this was important), stunning views and comfortable beds, and you can understand why Powder Creek Lodge is my perfect vacation.  I’m pretty sure it became my brother’s as well, as he had a big grin the whole time – especially when he got turns like this.

Powder Creek powder skier
Living up to the name at Powder Creek.

Overall it was another great week.  The group got along well, and had no real gear issues or injuries outside of some colorful blisters.  And we found out later that it didn’t snow again there for another two weeks.  Confirming that our timing could not have been more perfect.

If You Go

Powder Creek Lodge – This popular alpine style ski lodge offers both catered and self-catered options.  Plan to book out a year in advance at a minimum.

Getting there – From Spokane it’s approximately a 3 hour drive to Nelson, where Powder Creek Lodge’s helicopter transportation is located.   There is a shuttle service that goes from Spokane to Nelson if you don’t want to rent a car.

Hume Hotel – This recently renovated historic hotel in central Nelson is my favorite place to stay.

Mountain Hound Inn – These affordable accommodations are located on Nelson’s main drag, and the combination of location and price make it popular with skiers.

The Outer Clove – Groovy garlic themed restaurant with a pretty extensive menu and the ability to accommodate a large group makes it our go-to spot for dinner before we leave for Powder Creek.   Two words – quasar burger.

Oso Negro Coffee – Nelson’s best coffee roaster and café.  Your lodge mates will love you if you bring a pound or so of their beans with you.

Full Circle Café – Tasty breakfasts, and the fact that it opens at 6.30 am makes it a great option if you have to be at the helipad at 8 am.

Fresh Tracks Café – Located at Whitewater Ski Resort, it’s got an amazingly diverse menu (my favorite is the yam poutine with miso mushroom gravy).  Perfect place for lunch on your way back home (assuming you’re not taking the shuttle).  Also worth exploring if you have an extra day to ski or ride before or after your trip.

Taking a breather in Mammoth Lakes

me minarets

The tragic Rim Fire outside of Yosemite hit close to home last week, when the fire’s smoke traveled up to the Tahoe basin – and decided to stay awhile.  We’ve not seen smoke this bad since the Angora Fire, and it affected our morale as much as our ability to breathe and sleep.  With no respite forecast for the weekend, we decided to head south to Mammoth Lakes, where we had heard air quality was much better, thanks to the wind direction.

dog stick convict lake

Since we had the dog with us, our first stop was for her.  Convict Lake is just south of Mammoth Lakes, and while it’s a popular fishing spot, the 2.5 mile trail that circumvents the lake is the perfect distance for a nearly 13 year old dog.  We love the views of Mt. Morrison and Mini-Morrison, and the clear blue skies were only additional incentive.

Nils Mammoth

The real reason for traveling to Mammoth was to mountain bike.  It’s been a few years since I had been to Mammoth’s mountain bike park, and while I had upgraded my bike, Mammoth had done a lot of work to the trail system, adding trails and working on existing ones.  The net result was a whole lotta fun.  Think plenty of banked turns, bridges, more than a few pavers, and a ton of views.

With great meals at Toomey’s and Campo Mammoth, along with food, wine, live music and fascinating people watching at the Mammoth Rocks event Saturday, it really felt like a mini vacation.

For both me and my lungs.

If you go:

Mammoth Mountain Bike Park: Open 7 days a week through September 15, then weekends through September 29.

Convict Lake: In addition to hiking, there’s also fishing, boating and a terrific restaurant.  Go here in the autumn to see the technicolor brilliance of the aspens along the lake.

Toomey’s: Matt Toomey, former head chef at the Tioga Toomey’s at the Whoa Nellie Deli, has returned to Mammoth.  His new restaurant, located near the Village in the old Ski Surgeon building, boasts many of his classics (think lobster taquitos) and some new favorites, like the ½ pound burger served with caramelized onions and blue cheese.

Campo Mammoth:  This Mammoth outpost of the popular Reno rustic Italian restaurant offers wood-fired pizzas, great cocktails (try the Campo Manhattan), and an awesome kale salad.

Old New York Deli & Bakery:  The best (read: authentic) bagels you can find in the Sierra.  Seriously.  Located in the Village, it’s got great breakfasts and happens to be conveniently located on the way to the ski resort.

Ski Safari, Part 5: Mt. Baker

Mt Baker
Smiling ’cause his jacket was waterproofed recently.

While our drive to Bellingham along the Trans-Canada Highway was sunny and clear, the next day’s forecast was wet.  So wet that Mt. Baker’s snow report had the rare statement of ‘light rain’ at the base.  That’s a forecast no ski marketer usually admits to, so we went up expecting a downpour. It wasn’t that bad.  Wet snow, yes, and I quickly learned that I needed to re-waterproof my ski jacket and pants, but the terrain is super fun, and I finally had a chance to ski with my niece.  That she insisted on skiing a double black diamond chute (her first) with us really capped off the day.

It also capped off a fun trip, since from there it was all about the marathon drive back to Tahoe, broken up with a few stops along the way.

Would I do it again? Absolutely - ski vacations are fun, and something we’ve not done often, seeing how we live in such an awesome ski destination like Tahoe. Though the next time I want to stop at some other smaller Oregon and California resorts, like Willamette Pass, Mt. Hood and Mt. Shasta Ski Park.

So, next year – who’s up for it?

Ski Safari, Part 4: Revelstoke

Missed Part 1, 2 or 3?

Revelstoke
Big views & big vertical

The Whitewater to Revelstoke leg of the trip was one of the longer drives, involving high mountain roads, beautiful scenery, some snow, and a ferry crossing.  That was my favorite part of the drive, and not just because it was free.

We arrived in Revelstoke along with the snow, which resulted in our second official powder day of the trip.  New snow + 5620 feet of vertical + high speed chairlifts meant that we quickly racked up vertical, along with face shots and grins.  Revelstoke’s terrain includes some fun hiking, a ton of trees, and sustained steeps.  That there was nothing resembling a lift line during our two days was further reason to love the place.

In its current incarnation, Revelstoke Mountain Resort is a new ski resort, only opened in 2007.  Admittedly there was another smaller ski resort and a cat ski operation before that, so it’s not like skiing is new here.  But it doesn’t come across as your typical destination ski resort.  There’s no lodge around every corner, and not everything is groomed to perfection.    Like Red and Whitewater, this is a skier’s mountain.  And like those two resorts, there are a lot of people that drive up the Powder Highway to hit them all.  We saw a few of the same people at the three resorts doing just what we did.   So clearly this Powder Highway thing has caught on.

After two days of powder, steeps and trees, it was time to start the journey south.  Our next stop was Bellingham to visit family and ski Mt. Baker.  Having visited Bellingham numerous times over the past 4 years, I had never skied there, so I was super excited.

Coming up: Mt. Baker

Ski Safari, Part 3: Whitewater

Snow ghost trees
Snow ghosts at Whitewater

Missed Part 1 or Part 2?

When you’re on a ski safari, it’s as much about the driving as it is the skiing.  Getting from Red Mountain to Nelson, the closest town to Whitewater Ski Resort, was one of the shortest driving legs of the trip, a little over an hour.  Our route took us through Trail B.C., which was the location of the JP Auclair’s creative urban ski segment in Sherpa Cinemas All.I.Can.

Nelson is a town I spent just enough time in last year to want to go back.  It has many of the things I seek in a ski town – great coffee (Oso Negro), lots of ski shops, and a number of interesting restaurants.  Oh, and a ski resort just outside of town, one known for great powder and great backcountry access.  Win-win-win-win!

Just our luck we arrived in Nelson on the eve of a holiday – Family Day. It’s a new holiday for British Columbia, but new or not, local citizens took it very seriously.  As such, all stores, including most restaurants, were closed, outside of the one located at the Hume Hotel, where we were staying (the newer rooms have great beds & groovy decor).   Americans, particularly those of us living in resort towns, might learn from this example.

I was eager to ski Whitewater, as much to explore the terrain as to enjoy another awesome lunch.  Our timing meant mid-week ‘crowds’ and a cloud layer up high, the latter which kept us gravitating towards the trees, and the former meaning there were not many people besides us in said trees.

Endless vertical
Endless vertical

Like Red Mountain, Whitewater doesn’t have a whole bunch of lifts, and ZERO high-speed quads.  But its geography means that the two lifts we rode accessed a lot of fun (and steep) terrain.  By lunchtime I had worked up an appetite, and since I had eaten well the last time we were here, I was looking forward to lunch.  Whitewater’s Café is still as interesting and delicious as I remembered.  We split an order of vegetarian poutine with yam fries that I was still talking about the next day.   Were we not on a schedule to get to Revelstoke that night, I might have insisted on returning to Nelson to find the Whitewater cookbook with that recipe.  As it was, we were on a mission ski safari.

After another few hours of endless turns past snow ghosts, we packed up in order to get to Revelstoke by dinner time.

Next stop: Revelstoke

Ski Safari, Part 2: Red Mountain

Red Mountain ski resort
Bush league sidecountry at Red Mountain.

Missed Part 1?

From Wenatchee we headed north to the small town of Omak, which is near another small ski resort we didn’t hit – Loup Loup Ski Bowl – but it got us closer to the Canadian border, and our next destination, Red Mountain.  Red’s located near Rossland, B.C., a mere 10 km from the U.S. border.  It’s also part of the Powder Highway, and the official start to that part of our ski safari.

Red’s one of those ski resorts that’s a bit under the radar for many Californians.  I’d heard of it as having great terrain, and remembered its tongue in cheek ad from a few years ago.  Most people, when they asked me where we were headed, automatically assumed Whistler-Blackcomb, and when I mentioned Red Mountain and Whitewater, had never heard of them.

Red Mountain ski resort
No steeps at Red either.

But as the ad so clearly states, Red sucks.  So you definitely don’t want to check it out.  No fun steeps, no easily accessed sidecountry, huge crowds, only 4,200 acres of terrain, and it has no personality.

Yeah.  That’s it.

Red Mountain
No powder snow either.

It sucked so much we spent two days there, including a day where a 15 minute hike resulted in some fun powder turns…days after a storm.

Next stop: Whitewater

Ski Safari

When much-anticipated plans to take a ski vacation to France didn’t quite pan out, we found ourselves looking north.  Canada north.  We had passports and fat skis, vacation time, and a yen to ski new terrain – ideally with new snow.

This idea wasn’t totally out of the blue.  Last year’s trip to a backcountry lodge near Nelson, B.C. piqued our interest in exploring that part of the world, and an article in a ski magazine on the Powder Highway further encouraged us.  The final straw was the dry and springlike weather in Tahoe, with a forecast that offered no immediate relief.  So off we went.

Mt Bachelor powder skiing
First day of vacation – not bad.

Considering that Canadian border is nearly 1,000 miles from Tahoe, we decided to hit a few U.S. ski resorts on the way up.  First stop was Bend, OR, to see N’s parents…and sneak in skiing at Mt. Bachelor.  This is not a new resort to us – it’s where N learned to ski, and we’ve had more than a few memorable powder days there already.  But to have fresh snow after weeks of sunshine and high pressure in California was a welcome start to vacation.  

Mission Ridge Ski Resort
Short hike, big payoff.

From Bend we drove to the town of Wenatchee in eastern Washington.  Located on the east side of the Cascades, it’s home to Mission Ridge, a 2,000 acre ski resort right outside of town.  It’s not your typical PNW resort, in that there’s a lot of sunshine (300 days a year – like Tahoe) and the snow is drier than those resorts on the western side of the state.  Like a few other ski resorts we visited, Mission Ridge does not boast villages or lodging.   There’s a base lodge and a smaller lodge mid-mountain, but it was refreshingly simple – and the lift ticket rates reflected it ($53).  Our timing was good, for a recent storm meant that fresh tracks could be had if you were willing to hike.  And we were.

Mission Ridge ski resort
Fun terrain…and a bomber plane!

Mission Ridge’s terrain is varied, with plenty of advanced/expert steeps to keep us skiing until the end of the day.  It offers night skiing as well, but we had to get on the road for the next stop on our ski safari.

Next up: Red Mountain

Last minute injuries

Where I was supposed to be this weekend.

Last week over cocktails a few friends and I decided to go hike Mt. Whitney this weekend.  While none of us had actually actively trained for a day hike of that magnitude, a friend had a few permits, and we figured, why not?  We cleared our calendars, booked a hotel, and in my case, tried to remember where the hiking poles were stored.

Cue to last night.  While packing up my gear I managed to walk, barefoot, smack into the weightlifting bench, smashing my previously broken pinky toe.  It hurt.  A lot. And then it turned a nifty shade of black and blue.

This isn’t the first time I’ve managed to injure this toe before a hiking trip, so I’m not sure if it’s karma or some deep seated issues I have with hiking in the Sierra.  But Mt. Whitney was decidedly more of a commitment than the last time round, even if it was much more spontaneous.

Predictably, I’m not driving down to Lone Pine today.  Instead I’m icing my foot and contemplating whether I can put on my bike shoes.

Glory Bowl Dressing

Spinach salad with glory bowl dressingThe one tangible souvenir that I brought back from Canada during our recent backcountry ski vacation was a cookbook.  The Whitewater Café Cookbook, to be precise.  Whitewater is a ski area just outside Nelson, and we were strongly encouraged by our Calgarian comrades to stop there for lunch on our way back to the U.S.  I should note that these Canadians are die-hard skiers, yet they were recommending that we stop by a ski resort not to ski, but to eat.  That is a telling sign.

The Whitewater Café is not your run of the mill ski resort restaurant.  It offers an incredibly varied and large menu for its size, featuring dishes that go beyond the greasy burgers and fries that are commonplace. Think bison burgers,  homemade soups and a ton of tempting baked goods. The cookbook includes signature recipes like samosas (which someone made while we were at Powder Creek and I’m still dreaming about), granola bars, and the Glory Bowl, a rice and tofu bowl with the most addictive dressing.

I’ve become a fan of nutritional yeast of late, so the dressing for the latter was particularly interesting.  But instead of going to the effort of cooking rice and tofu, I decided to riff on it with a salad.  We’ve been home a little less than a month, and I’ve made this salad in some variation at least once a week.  The dressing is that good!

In parsing the ingredients, it appears to be a version of the peanut sauce I use on noodles, albeit with less peanut butter and more nutritional yeast.  The original recipe does call for tahini, but as that’s not something I keep on hand, I subbed out peanut butter and added a tablespoon of toasted sesame oil, and it works just fine.

Glory Bowl Salad (Adapted from the Whitewater Café Cookbook)

Salad
5 oz spinach leaves, washed
½ cup grated carrots
½ cup grated cooked beet
Optional– ½ cup each diced cucumber, diced red pepper, blanched and chopped broccoli
¼ cup toasted and crumbled pistachios or pumpkin seeds (optional)
¼ cup feta, crumbled (optional)
Glory Bowl dressing to taste

Glory Bowl Dressing
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup Braggs or soy sauce
1/4 cup apple cider or rice vinegar
½ cup nutritional yeast
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp peanut butter
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 cup vegetable or canola oil

Blend all ingredients except oil in food processor.  Add oil in a fine stream through the top of the food processor until emulsified.