Fire In The Hole: Burning Brakes On The Fraser River

Every day is a (brown) powder day). KC Deane thigh deep in Mason’s dust.

words :: Mason Mashon photos: Jussi Grznar

Bracing into the wind, I shift from side to side to ensure my footing is secure and peer over the edge. The entire buttress is littered with lines that look like instant death, but from the air I’d noticed one that could potentially be ridden. Looking down from the top, I realize it’s way steeper than I anticipated. Vertigo washes over me, testing my balance as I stare into the chute.

Even so, I’m frothing to get into this line so I hastily clean up the top section with a pickaxe, but as daylight fades into late afternoon I cut my inspection short and return to the top. Placing a false sense of confidence in a maybe-too-soft gravel corner, I tip into the line assuming, hoping really, that I can rip it top to bottom. Not so.

Placing a false sense of confidence in a maybe-too-soft gravel corner, I tip into the line assuming, hoping really, that I can rip it top to bottom. Not so.

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Careening down the scree-laden slope, I approach the soft turn much faster than expected. Prepping for a two-wheel drift, my inside foot drops off the pedal as my tires dig in and grip. Coming in way too hot and clinging to control while navigating the rocky moguls (boulders) through the bottom section, my bike bounces sideways, ejecting me in slow motion. I smash into the jagged cobbles of the shoreline and ragdoll into the mighty Fraser River. Soaked and battered, I quickly realize the magnitude of an injury this deep in the backcountry. This is the subsequent end of my riding season…

Thirty seconds to the bottom, 30 minutes back to the top. There’s no easy way out.

I was 12 years old the first time I popped a Kranked VHS tape into the VCR at the bike shop and saw those guys ripping huge lines, I knew big mountain riding was the thing for me. As a young shop rat, clogging up floor space and bartering to fix flat tires in exchange for new parts, I had no idea that a year later I would be sitting atop the same Kamloops gravel pit I saw in the movie, taking in advice from the mechanic on how to safely navigate my way to the bottom. As a 13-year-old kid/mountain biker, riding those lines was pure exhilaration. That pit and those rides would have an indelible influence on the mountain biker I would later become and the places I’d journey to ride… I’m still chasing that feeling.

Fast-forward almost 16 years, and into the front seat of Rory Bushfield’s Cessna airplane. Flying towards the interior of BC, I convinced him to detour us through the canyons of the Fraser River. As we swooped around mountains and between walls of the canyon, my eyes traced the plateaus and embankments searching for anything that resembled a rideable line. I was looking for the lacustrine deposits that produce the steepest erosional patterns, knowing this was where the best potential would be. Scanning hundreds of kilometres of river, we were about to peel away from the Fraser when I saw the zone. I snapped a few images and upon returning home, tried to figure out if there was any feasible way to get there. Turns out there was, but after that initial drop dumped me straight in the river, plans were made to return the following summer.

KC Deane off the top. Photo: Mason Mashon

My truck “Robert RedFord” trundled down the washboard roads, winding alongside cliffs with the river thousands of feet below. We were on our way back into the twisting ridges of the Fraser River to set up camp and spend time getting to know the zone that had pummelled me a year prior. A riverbank is constantly evolving however, and that original line had completely eroded due to heavy rains in the region, leaving no possibility of redemption.

So I looked harder. And so did KC Deane, who’d accompanied me on that first trip, and Jussi Grznar, along to shoot photos this time. A lot of the potential lines had also undergone major erosion, but I figured that with a lot of digging to fill in the ruts, some would go. After countless hours of hiking around the slopes using ice axes to help navigate terrain only suitable for the big-horned sheep that seek refuge on the cliffs, I set my eyes on a spine ridge that elbowed into an 80-foot chute (with a 100-foot exposure off the right side). Scrambling down from the bench, I billy-goated in for a closer look. Inching across the gravel band that striped the entrance to the crux of the line, I suddenly slipped on the ball bearing-sized rocks. I attempted to self-arrest using the pickaxe but ended up sliding the 55-degree chute for 100 feet before reaching a sediment deposit soft enough to slow me.

I still find it hard to believe he was willing to ride the line almost completely blind, and eating that much dust.

I chiselled boot holds into the hardpan so I could work and widen the rut enough to clear my cranks. At this point I knew the line was going to be really rowdy but spending time in the most critical portion of the line also provided a calming mental preparedness. KC and I both agreed that we had definitely rolled the dice on our first session out there. Would this time produce better results?

The banks of the might Fraser River are a freerider’s dream. KC and Mason finish out the day with a less consequential sheep trail back down to the water.

We spent the next morning sessioning a warm-up line and shooting video with our friend Damien. This helped boost our comfort levels to a point where I was coming awfully close to this one wall, then slashing my back wheel against the base of it as I careened by. On the next lap, the soft dirt must have been excavated, because my rear-end slid too far and I smacked the axle against the hard dirt wall. This caused me to fully swap sideways, and in an attempt to wrangle my bike straight, I blew off one of my pedals… it took everything in my power to keep the bike upright and pointing straight. Had I lost full control, it would have been a catastrophic pinball ride through the bottom of the chute. After that death gripping near disaster, KC suggested that we ride the line again, at the same time.

Mason, cutting it almost too close for comfort.

“As long as I go first,” I told him, which was fine. I still find it hard to believe he was willing to ride the line almost completely blind, and eating that much dust.

By afternoon the sun had come around on a dogleg chute KC liked and had scoped the year prior. Eager to tick it off the list, he dropped in assuming his whole line was good to go. The chute had changed since our last visit though, and he ended up rocketing out of the crux way too fast and clipping his pedal on the wall. After a violent spill so thick and dusty it almost appeared as if he were skiing deep powder, KC popped up okay and proceeded to shred the line faster and faster as the day went on. (We later found out that he actually cracked a rib and bruised his aorta. KC is something else.)

Back at camp, we awoke the next morning to a valley chock-full of thick, hazy smoke. Much of the BC interior was ablaze with forest fires and the winds had swung overnight. We decided to ride a few lines throughout the day, but as the afternoon went on, the haze kept thickening, making it hard to even breathe. We knew there were forest fires in fairly close proximity, and after being out of touch with the world for a number of days, we decided to make a break for it. This was partially based on the fact that there’s only one road in and out, and if the forest fire decided to come ripping over the hillside, we’d be trapped. We hastily collapsed our camp and hopped in the trucks. Soon after departing I realized Robert RedFord’s brake line had rusted through and ruptured. I couldn’t fix it and we were 65 kilometres from the nearest road. We eventually crept back to civilization in 4-low with KC’s truck creeping ahead of mine as a blockade in case I slipped out of gear. It was a long and dusty descent with our hands on the door handles ready to bail, but we made it.