[In which our intrepid duo unexpectedly meets up with an equally hell-bent Seattle clan; encounters some lanky 29ers killing the climb; discovers the sartorial gifts of Club Ride Apparel; eludes the deadly sting of water snakes in a high alpine lake; cruises a ghostly burn-out and bombs a legendary descent, ending with a stunning re-acquaintance and sharing of old times.]
Older. Wiser. Better?
Sun Valley’s most famous mountain bike ride is the Fisher Creek loop, which in five trips there I’ve never actually done per se. You climb up Fisher Creek road, then circle back and absolutely rip one of the world’s great cross-country downhills, Williams Creek. The reason I’ve never done Fisher is because I typically combine it with a wider adventure, including one of my all-time favorite XC rides, Boundary Creek.
We’ve rhapsodized before about Boundary, running a 2004 version as one of our “Classics” during this most recent trip even as we rode it again real-time. It’s a true epic: 6 to 7 hours long, 27-plus hard miles, with just about every type of terrain you’ll encounter riding cross-country, from powdery singletrack to rocky descents. In 2005 it even added a forest burn with the epic Fisher-Williams fire. The good news is that stuff is already coming back, even though the trail remains post-burn limp and sandy.
There’s even a big-chainring road ride at the beginning. The way we do it is to take Highway 75 to the Williams Creek trailhead, then ride road around 6 miles to Boundary Creek’s trailhead. You climb Boundary all the way to Casino Lakes, take Marten Creek down to Warm Springs, cross a vast ethereal meadow and then dive through the Fisher burn to Williams and back to the trailhead.
You have a number of options in this region just outside of the bustling little burg of Stanley. You could do Ants Basin, a giant shuttle. You could go up Fisher Creek and take Warm Springs down to Robinson Bar, another big shuttle (you’d get to see Carole King’s for-sale estate this way). You could take Boundary up to the Casino Lakes intersection and take one of the Casino trails down.
Of them all, Boundary is the most challenging, epic and rider-specific. No shuttle is required.
We were gearing up when who should pull up but a pickup jammed with bikes … from Seattle! It was a group ride of fellow Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance bros. Unbeknownst to us, a gang had come over and was renting a house near Ketchum for the week. We found this out just by striking up a conversation, which we always try to do at trailheads. You never know what connections you have in this small, small world.
In this case, our old riding buddy David James was the link. When someone mentioned he was part of the group, Dave popped his head around and we got to say hello. Some of the gang was doing classic Fisher, others were crossing the meadow to Warm Springs and down to Robinson Bar. It was going to be a memorable day for all. You can check out their adventures via Erik Alston’s posts on GotSingletrack.com.
The road ride at the beginning of Boundary isn’t much fun. The road lacks shoulder space, but vehicles tend to give you wide berth in Idaho. It helped that a big road bike event was going on in Stanley; there were plenty of compatriots out flashing colors strung out along 75.
We registered at the Boundary Creek trailhead and began the long climb up. Around 9 miles up, the climb is a gradual ascent punctuated by a few wicked switchbacks. Most of it is rideable, and when I say that I usually mean by someone other than me. Especially on this long, long ride, you don’t want to burn out your jets early on.
On the way Jim reminded me of a pushing technique he had been introduced to by a riding buddy we would eventually hook up with in northern Idaho. Instead of the usual technique of pushing a bike alongside, left hand on bars, right hand on saddle (or whatever), with this maneuver you reverse the bike and push it backwards up the hill, both hands on the bars.
It feels funny at first and looks even funnier. But there’s an innate efficiency to the process that immediately clicks. Despite Jim’s snickers and ridicule, I found myself adapting to it quickly. Steering is at first a bit awkward, but soon enough I was negotiating rocks, step-ups and switchbacks with little trouble. Because it requires reversing the bike, it’s only practical for extended pushes. But try it sometime — you may like it.
As we continued to climb, the scenery got more and more stunning. Your backdrop is Idaho’s majestic Sawtooth range. Snow still strewed the peaks, and the morning sun gave an iridescent glow to the bluish massif. We don’t have mountains like this on the West Coast. Jim’s a Colorado native and says the Sawtooths are the closest he knows comparable to the commanding sweep of the Rockies.
About two-thirds of the way up a group of riders, led by a powerful pro (we guessed from his colors), came rolling by. They were strung out along the hillside, but to their credit all were riding all the way to the top. Several — the tall ones — had 29ers. A couple were out of Tucson, one woman was Australian, and the rest were locals. We’d see them again at the top but for now they were way off the front.
There’s a false summit on Boundary where you think whew, the climbing’s over at least. Far from it. You’ve got another thousand feet or so of really steep stuff before you crest for the best lunch spot.
We encountered the group eating and laughing on slickrock boulders — perched on a ridge that made it seem like you were looking down on the Sawtooths. One guy in particular caught our interest. Dressed in a buttoned and collared short-sleeve shirt and natty creased shorts, he looked like he’d just stepped out of a Herb Allen conference seminar. It turned out he was Mike Herlinger, the founder of Club Ride Apparel, a clothing line represented in the Northwest by none other than former distance champion John Stamstad. We took Mike’s photo (he’s on the right) and made a mental note to follow up once we got back home.
“You don’t even look like you broke a sweat,” we commented.
“It’s all in the attire,” he said with a smile.
That reminded us of a previous ride we’d done in the area with a dapper Boeing engineer named Steve Van Patten. Throughout a day-long epic in blistering heat, Steve wore a long-sleeved pinstripe dress shirt. We had to admit, for all the eccentricity of dress, he brought a touch of class to the proceedings.
The gang — whom we later learned comprised in part Team Niner-Ergon — soon departed after donning helmet cams (one had a GoPro Hero mounted on his handlebars; see video here). They were headed down Casino Lakes, the opposite way from us but an alternative we plan to do the next time. For now we were looking forward to a monster downhill.
If there’s such a thing as a challenging descent, Boundary Creek is it. Rock gardens abound, and the late spring had left creek crossings dicey. It’s fun, but you don’t want to hurt yourself or even get a mechanical this far from anywhere, and you don’t really get a lot of flow. I was heartened by Jim’s recollection of several crashes I’d had last time. This time out I stayed upright. Older, yes. Wiser, yes. Better? It must have been the Mojo.
One interlude I always take advantage of is an alpine lake fairly early on, where you can take a cool dip that brings down the core temp fast and relaxes you for the rest of the ride. I had jumped in and was floating on my back when Jim, scanning out across the lake, said bemusedly, “Hmmm, there’s a water snake out there.”
A snake! Where there’s one, there’s got to be more! After I’d finished splashing to shore, cracking up Jim to no end, he explained that we probably weren’t talking water moccasins here. In any case, I was ready to roll on in no time at all.
We rode down, down, down … through the ghostly burn, where underbrush is coming back to life … through creek crossings that were higher than normal … through the vast upper meadow bowl … up riser after riser on Fisher. The latter, coming late in the ride and the day, was leaving me pretty gassed, wondering if the intersection with Williams is ever going to show up.
But then you’re there.
It admittedly would be nice to do Williams a bit fresher. It’s one ride that invites speed so tantalizing you simply cannot resist the perfectly timed berms and roller-coaster straightaways. For the most part Williams has terrific sight lines and plenty of clearance. And you can go as fast as reflexes and fear factor permit.
You finally break out into a meadow at the bottom, then have a little 200-foot climb before the final rip to the trailhead. As much as I love this ride, it had pummeled me into submission by the end. I guess that’s one thing that keeps bringing me back. Maybe one of these days I’ll get the better of it rather than the other way around. Either way, it’s an incomparable mountain biking experience.
Back at the trailhead we’re packing up when we hear a voice … “Jim? Jim Lyon? Paul? Is that you?”
We turned around to see none other than Mr. Sartorial Splendor himself, Steve Van Patten.
After much exclaiming, hooting and greeting, we learned he was with the Seattle clan, having just been dropped back off at his camper after doing the Robinson Bar option. He had a different bike than in 2004, sans rack, but the camper was the same and Steve still was living large.
We told him the story of Club Ride Apparel.
“Was the material cotton?” he asked.
We weren’t positive but thought it a blend.
Steve shook his head. “Has to be cotton,” he said. “Cotton all the way.”
So there you have it. The last mountain biker in America to wear cotton on day-long rides. Boundary Creek truly has it all.
Elevation gain: Around 5300 feet. Miles: 27 plus change.
[Next up: Big Boulder/Little Boulder … and medium boulders, er, road apples, too!]