Mountain biking already sounds difficult. Having to pedal uphill through gravel and dirt, on trails that would be challenging to hike, and perhaps were never meant to be trails in the first place, sounds like a wild-man’s idea of fun. And campers who sign up for these trips usually know what they’re getting into.
But after Sunday breakfast, when the mountain bike staff entered the dining hall playing low rock music moving in silence and placed trucker hats on the heads of a dozen campers, and then walking back out without saying a word, you can’t help but wonder about the mystery. What do they have planned for a group of kids that are already accustomed to challenges?
These boys signed up for “Death March,” a collection of some of the most difficult trails in Western North Carolina.
During a quick interview with co-mountain biking directors Ray-Bot and Jake Lee, counselor Colin Barrett, and campers Chris Fuge and John Peters, I learned the full extent of this foreboding trip— at least as much as someone who is not going on the trip himself can understand. These are the trails that break people; trails that will make people cry; trails like…
5. Laurel Mountain (Or Slippery, Hornet Town)
The basic purpose of mountain biking is to make it to the top of a mountain and make your way back down. When you go on a trail that is relatively straight, that can make your climb that much easier, not having to worry about technical switchbacks, or having to turn your bike on a dime.
At Laurel Mountain, a straight-path means nothing going up. The route, with few turns, takes on a steep incline that only gets worse as you go, fraught with exposed rock. And when it rains, it’s difficult. If it’s not raining, the river crossings will do the job in making your bike wet. To add to the seemingly straightforward obstacle course, tree roots and run-off trenches pepper the path in abundance.
4. Pilot Rock (Or The Place That Has Boulder Fields— Legit Boulder Fields)
When you go for a trail ride, you would think that the way down would be the easiest. You finally get to relax into that downhill ride that you have worked so hard to make it to after navigating areas where you no longer ride your bike but walk along beside it.
But at Pilot Rock, the downhill trek is the part to fear. The trail (and I use the term ‘trail’ loosely) starts out along a 200 ft rock cliff. The gravel and loose soil make this descent on par with a dirty ice-rink.
Beyond the cliff, the route goes through tight switchbacks in the same loose gravel that turns from pebbles to boulders, until you are riding in a boulder garden. When the trail straitens back out you think you’re safe before it twists again and you find yourself carrying your bike through a river crossing.
3. Daniel’s Ridge (Or Daniel’s Drop-Off)
Daniel’s Ridge starts out mellow. At first glance, you would expect simple maneuvering, given the beautiful forest view and a scattering of roots that should only give you a moderate amount trouble. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.
But you have a false sense of security as you get to the other side where you make your downhill descent. The trail follows along a creek, which makes a series of vicious switchbacks ending in not one but two-6 foot drops (that you must ride over).
From there you find yourself on a roller coaster through nothing but rocks. You ride these hills through a series of switchbacks and strong drops, while the trail plays mind games with your sense of “the worst is over.”
2. Black Mountain (Or Clawhammer [Not A Made Up Name])
Knowing that people have just refurbished the black mountain trail can give you a breath of confidence that this trail will be different from the others and offer a ride tailored to bikers. But nothing about this course is easier. Even the man-made section is littered with log-jumps and narrow bridges. The orange mud found in the area is like a water slide when put under the rainfall in Pisgah.
The way down is fast, gritty, and offers zero traction as you guide through the rooty run-off areas. Breaks count for very little by the time you make it to the man-made part of the course. Perhaps this explains the trail’s alternate name: Clawhammer, though a more demanding name might be appropriate.
It’s nothing but a outrageous runaway train ride down the 2000 ft. drop to the bottom, offering sights that you won’t be able to enjoy, like caves, mountain peaks, and the terrified look on your friend’s face as he tumbles along behind you.
1. Turkey Pen (Or That Doesn’t Sound So Ba— AAAAAAHHHH!)
Finally, a mountain bike trail with a name that sounds more like a ride through a petting zoo than a mad route up a mountain.
But to quote Rocky IV, this trail “will break you.” On your way up, you will walk more than you will ride and even the hike is nearly impossible because of the grade. Campers as old as 16 have admitted to crying on their way up this trail.
The rhododendron tunnels do nothing to shield you from the fact that you are riding (hiking) along a steep ridge-line looking out over Pisgah and Dupont for miles (the mountain sits on the border). You will also find no trace of humanity. The view would be gorgeous if you weren’t struggling up every inch to find the areas that are actually passable.
But when you make it to the top, you have the feeling of accomplishment which only Navy Seals or Superman must feel at the end of the day, a feeling that you have defeated something that has defeated many brave men. It is the feeling of discovery that your limits exceed your expectations. It is the feeling of conquering a mountain (both literally and figuratively).
- John Granatino