Once Upon A Trail is a new column, written by Lacy Kemp. This originally ran in Bike’s April print edition.
We've all been there. A rowdy, memorable party train suddenly derails when someone hits the deck. With any luck, the injuries are minor and it's a short ride or hike out. Reality is sometimes a different story, though, and trail extraction can require some MacGyver-like intuition.
In this case, it was a typical hot, summer day in Whistler at the June 2015 Outerbike event and the crew from Transition Bikes was eager to squeeze in a ride after a long day of booth duty. Like any big group ride, sometimes getting going is the hardest part. "We were a rolling shitshow," Lars Sternberg says half laughing, half shaking his head. Sternberg is a bike-industry veteran, having raced BMX for years before switching to mountain bikes. He's been with Bellingham-based Transition Bikes for nine years. The employees of Transition are a tight crew and are well known for their humorous antics. "We get pretty fired up when we're all together," he says.
They'd heard about Gargamel, a classic tech trail on Whistler's west side. None of them had ever ridden it before, but it sounded fun and that set the plan in motion. As they were packing up the booth, Dylan Wolsky, a pro-enduro racer and longtime friend of Sternberg's, stopped by to say hello, and Sternberg invited him along for the ride. Wolsky paused. Sternberg recalls the moment, "I have a clear memory of him stopping to assess our group—clad in tank tops and half-shells—and being like, 'Yeah … nah. Are you serious? I think I'm good.'"
It was foreshadowing at its finest.
With multiple vehicles heading up the shuttle road, the party was in motion and the vibe was good. Soon after dropping in, Sternberg, his colleague Darrin Seeds, and a local friend were off the front, lost in the flow. "We had no idea the scope of that trail," Sternberg says. "We just dropped in and went for it. At the start it was challenging, but not over our skill level and after a while it just kind of sucked us in. I remember launching off stuff, and then all of a sudden, the trail totally changed character. Before we knew it, it got pretty freaking gnarly."
Eventually the trio stopped to check out a feature they'd just ridden and realized they were alone. While admiring Gargamel's trailwork, a ruckus clattered from above, shattering the summer air. They hollered dutifully in its direction. No response. The puzzled threesome retraced tire marks uphill, quickly rejoining the group.
Everyone stood calm and quiet. In the center of the group sat an injured Sam Burkhardt—another Transition employee—clearly dazed, but eerily calm. While navigating a steep shoot, he snagged a rock and was uncharacteristically tossed over the bars. He hadn't had time to brace himself and augered face-first into the ground. He was concussed and bleeding from his mouth, but the real concern was that he might have broken his jaw. Sternberg remembers the scene being somewhat surreal. "It was confusing," he recalls. "In spite of the fact that Sam was clearly injured, no one was freaking out. I guess we as a group have been through injuries so many times that we all knew it's best to stay calm."
Before apps like Trailforks, it was hard to assess proximity at any given point on a trail—halfway through, three-quarters, barely started? A new trail only further confused things. In this situation, the team had to estimate, and they opted to descend, not aware of how much more trail still remained. They'd later come to find they were actually much closer to the top. In spite of Burkhardt's injury, it was clear he could still walk and would hike down while everyone else would take turns hauling his bike. "At the pace we were going it became clear that we were running out of time and we were not going to make it out before dark," Sternberg says. In a pinch, the group decided to disassemble Burkhardt's size-XL bike, attaching parts to packs while continuing onward.
The ride resumed with the fork and front wheel on one rider's pack, the front triangle of the frame on another and back wheel and pedals with someone else. Burkhardt was coherent enough to know he just needed to keep moving. As the group descended they splintered again—the team carrying the bike parts rode slower than expected and Burkhard hiked strangely faster than anticipated. It was a dire situation, but no one emerged as a leader. Instead the group moved in a quiet, efficient manner without saying much. The front group pressed on to prepare the vehicle for the back group's arrival.
Burkhardt seemed to be trying to break through the fog that comes with a concussion and regain control of his psyche. "Before I started walking I knew to some extent what was going on, but over the course of the hike out, I realized I just needed to make forward progress," Burkhardt says. "At some point, I had a moment of clarity and realized that no one was really with me anymore. I got way ahead of the group that was riding with my bike." Eventually he arrived at a junction and was alone. He hopefully called back to his pursuers. No one answered. "This is the only time I was scared," he recalls.
Lost, he called a local friend who'd also been on the ride and was in the front group. After several attempts his call went through and he was assisted out. Burkhardt says if his phone call hadn't punched through the spotty cell service, he has no idea how long he would have been out there, or where he would have ended up. He was immediately taken to the hospital with a degloved lip, multiple abrasions requiring stitches in his cheek and eyelid, a broken tooth and a concussion. He required 14 stitches inside his lower lip to reconnect it, and had to wait until the next day for a dentist to sew him up. From the neck down, he was mostly unscathed.
This was far from a perfectly executed evacuation. None of them had formal wilderness training, yet their experiences together were just enough. "We have been through some crazy shit," Sternberg says. "We know each other so well that we know how to keep it together and look out for each other,"
While Burkhardt is grateful for the team effort he knows that if he is ever in a situation where someone else is injured, he would handle it differently. "It was disjointed and there was no real communication," he recalls. "The injured person should never be alone."
Situations like this are hard to forget. There are always the what-ifs and the should-haves, but ultimately Sternberg chose to learn from the experience. "I will no longer drop into a trail willy-nilly without knowing what the ride in and ride out is like," he says. Burkhardt adds that he knows that communication is key. In a situation that can go from bad to worse, they consider themselves lucky that they made it out mostly OK. Burkhardt healed up well from the incident, but still sports his oddly charming broken tooth.