Race Report | ‘Forever Wild’ – Chomolungma Challenge 2015
Ever fancied annihilating 10,000 vertical metres of descent in race conditions alongside your mates on some of the world’s sickest DH bike park tracks – essentially shredding more than Mount Everest in one shot? Damn right! That was my reaction too, and so I found myself lined for the start of the fourth Chomolungma Challenge.
As a recently-turned, one-year-old resident of the USA, I still feel like I’m living in the gold rush over here in West Virginia, as everywhere I look for trails and adventure I can’t help but keep stumbling into Snowshoe Mountain. A true gold mine for mountain bikers, it’s a case of the more riders I get to know, the more nuggets of gold reveal themselves. One such nugget of pure gold just happens to be Snowshoe’s bike park if you’re a fan of shredding.
Perched like an over-sized eagle’s nest on the highest peak of the wild Allegheny Mountains, the little ski town of Snowshoe can be found in the middle of the picture-perfect Pocahontas County. It’s a place where the mountain ranges stretch infinitely into the horizon, with white-tailed deer and black bears patrolling at dusk. Thinly populated, this area of the Appalachians still possesses that rare sense of balance between the modern world and nature.
For East Coast-based gravity riders, this bike park carries a stellar reputation. While it’s the definition of winter tourism en masse with its holiday homes, restaurants and bars, the minimal presence of tourists in the summer months is barely felt. Personally dubbing Snowshoe ‘little Whistler’, it’s a hotbed for cyclists with two high-speed chairlifts, around 40 trails, bike rental shops as well as the additional infrastructural bonuses of family-friendly activities.
It’s the legion of amazing trails at Snowshoe that hooked me, and the presence of the two chairlifts leave me a very satisfied downhiller. If you are looking to clock up the kilometres, there are far more than a weekend’s worth of trails to amuse you and you’re never reliant on the chairlifts. This is largely because Snowshoe is in untethered backcountry, and there’s no shortage of vertical metres. On the west side, the Western Territory, each descent drops up to 500 metres of altitude, enough to rival most Alpine bike parks – with plenty of throbbing arm pump and physical exhaustion to match.
The best thing about Snowshoe is how it breaks the mold, not just offering hard-packed manicured trails, like you’d find at a regular bike park. Of course, you’ve got the jump lines (Skyline) with loads of tabletops and berms upwards of a metre in height, but it isn’t these artificial, machine-built roller coasters, flattened as smooth as a baby’s bottom, that renders Snowshoe so brilliant: It boasts some serious East Coast gnarliness and wild, unkempt trails that carve through the forests. This is true enduro and downhill country, with certain trails that verge on a Double Diamond level of difficulty, testing riders with technical and challenging tracks – of which ‘The Basin’ on the East side has said carnage in abundance.
With aggressive riding a prerequisite, those natural trails still offer a lot of flow, with alternative, far quicker lines that you’ll happily miss on your first runs. Pop and airtime are called for, so if you’re tense and cautious on the brakes then you’re likely to be thrown around. Having said that, the overall trail conditions are remarkable; with so few braking bumps and mud holes, there’s little chance of being robbed of your speed, and jumps shouldn’t come with any undue stress. Without a doubt, the trail building crew knew what they’re up against, skillfully creating a stellar bike park with hugely diverse trails despite Snowshoe’s location in what is essentially a rainforest that receives over 2,000 mm of rainfall each year.
This is the very same arena that was about to stage my first endurance downhill race. I’m nervous, more nervous than ever, as the Chomolungma Challenge (which borrows the traditional Tibetan name for Mount Everest) lives up to its namesake in terms of vertical metres. Challenging in all respects of the word, riders are required to race 20 long laps in the Western Territory, with 10 runs on the Pro DH track and 10 on the combination track, the so-called ‘Powerline.’ Either taking part as a solo rider or duo (in which you split the distance), you’d be covering almost 10,000 metres of vertical drop in one day – the equivalent of the world’s highest mountain.
Pro DH is a pretty moderate downhill track, frequently used in amateur races, as it’s fast and – while not overly technical – can be tricky if you’re not in the game. The Powerline delivers a taste of everything that’s fun, and easily rivals any classic bike park track. Huge amounts of airtime, a legion of berms and a lengthy, hard-packed section with tons of loose, fist-sized rocks are some of the highlights.
Being a European natural trail type of guy, I realise that the Pro DH track is where my strengths will lie. With the Powerline supposedly taking an extra two minutes, rendering it that bit more exhausting, and bringing with it jumps that have already caused me to graft and grind to avoid crashing on my previous visit, I’m not particularly looking forward to it. Given that the terrain around Snowshoe is hardcore and I’ll be riding at the limit for hours, I decide that any extra travel would be appreciated and duly turn to my Transition TR450. It appears that many other riders have chosen lighter trail bikes to conserve power over the day, but my objective isn’t victory – it’s just to survive. For this war of attrition, my enduro bike stays at home.
Deciding to ride the duo, I was yet to meet my team partner Nathan, who goes by the name of ‘Shorty.’ Just two days prior to the race, he was virtually introduced to me on Facebook, sold as an experienced and fast local rider. I’m grateful for any partner as my other option involved racing solo and I didn’t fancy the idea of having to do the full 20 laps. But the pressure was now on; I’d heard that Shorty was not unfamiliar to the competitive scene and my pre-race nerves started to make themselves felt.
Slow and steady wins the race
The conditions are spot on, granting us the ideal weather, a little morning dew and grippy trails. The race kicks off at 9am from the Red Bull arch in the centre of Snowshoe. A short sprint and then a stair set, with the accompanying ‘urban downhill’ vibe that you’d have in the steep alleyways in Brazil’s favelas. After a short uphill, you’re on the first trail. Just don’t kill yourself too early, I warn myself. After all, slow and steady wins the race. My race strategy is simple: ride steadily, avoid crashes and hope for no mechanicals. There’s already a crash ahead of me, an over-eager rider becomes victim to the first tricky root section. Nerves got the better of him, but he’s back on the bike.
The shorter Pro DH track is my first choice, and I ride the trail a few days prior to the race, armed with my camera and some friends. My recon pays off: the best lines are as good as burnt into the retina of my eye. I hit each of ‘my’ lines, keep the speed and barely make any mistakes. The confidence-inspiring first run means I’m pumped, and I finish in around 6 minutes. My route card is stamped. 19 descents to go.
Grab the lift and I’ve got 10 minutes to relax before I’m back on the start. Nathan waits so that I can take both tracks in one go. As I said, the Powerline isn’t a favourite of mine but it goes better than expected. However, the exhaustion is already kicking it and I’m playing too much with the brakes. Some arm pump, careless mistakes. Second stamp, 18 descents to go.
Shorty takes over and I get a rest. He rides three full laps, strongly. My nemesis, the Powerline, suits him in particular. I’m up next, and I start to pedal, cheered on loudly by other teams. There’s no trace of competition here, it’s far more friendly and relaxed. I ride another two laps of the Pro DH. It’s getting better and better and the confidence is soaring. I notice that I’m letting go and getting loose. Six stamps, 14 runs to go.
Not much changes until around lap 13 and I have my first crash behind me. As Nathan has had 3 flats to deal with, I’ve basically become a solo rider as he changes tyres. I catch sight of storm clouds rolling in – this is the nature of Snowshoe’s location. “If the weather puts you off, just wait an hour,” suggest the locals with a grin. First up is ‘Weather Watch’, although this turns to ‘Weather Hold’ with the first rumbles of thunder. The lifts are consequently stopped.
When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.
While the 30-minute enforced break due to weather conditions is a welcome reprise, the race track upon our return has turned into a muddy battlefield. I go over the bars in a rock garden, the helmet catches on the bike. It hurts but I’m back up and we’re still in contention, just one descent behind the leading teams. A 30-minute gap in a six-hour race is one I can live with. It’s already around 4pm.
Then Murphy sends his little Law to come and give us a kick in the ass. I’m on the last muddy Powerline, descent number 19, but at the transfer there’s a serious case of lost in translation (or a poorly written route card). Pro DH should have been Shorty’s final run, but I accidentally send him to the Powerline, meaning one run too many and we end up falling to the bottom of the results list, although I still see us as the day’s moral victors.
Despite the mix-up, the day itself had been seriously cool and we’d ridden some super trails. As the three top teams marched away with a decent chunk of cash, I wasn’t bothered – I was just stoked to have been part of such a brilliant and well-organised event. Snowshoe, keep up the good work!
Check: Chomolungma Challenge 2015
Words: Steffen Gronegger Photos: Steffen Gronegger / Edward Anderson / Kurtis Schachner – Snowshoe Mountain