“Come on Brad don’t do it. You will kill him,” my sister says to her husband.
“Nah, he will be fine, he’s in good shape. We’ll just go slow and stop whenever he needs, he answers.
Rolling her eyes, my sister shrugs her shoulders. “Fine, it’s your call, Andrew,” she says.
I don’t hesitate. “Let’s do it!”
(Me on the right - Bro in law on the left)
Naivety can be a beautiful thing. Perhaps, I should say, it can lead to beautiful things. Recently, my brother-in-law asked me if I wanted to mountain bike the Jewell Pass Barrier Loop. 16km long and 823 meters of elevation, the trail journeys through the Canadian Rocky Mountains with technical downhill sections that can propel the best of riders over their handlebars. Until that point, I’d been on a mountain bike only twice since the age of 14 and only once had I biked in the mountains. I was neither talented enough nor did I have the conditioning to complete this daunting ride. As a naturally social guy, I get a lot of my energy and happiness in life through new experiences, socialising, and travelling meeting total strangers. Covid restrictions brought a stop to all of that, and this had done a number on my mental health. I had anxiety, depression and wasn’t sleeping well. I needed to do something more – beyond therapy and medication. Maybe this was exactly what I needed? I was intrigued and willing to give it a go.
I grew up, and still reside, in the prairies of Canada. The closest hill is within an hours’ drive and has approximately 30 meters of elevation. It’s no secret that exercising at high altitude is significantly more difficult than at sea level, which is where we find ourselves in the Prairies. With less oxygen available, and lactic acid accumulating quicker, my muscle fatigue will hit harder and faster than the bodies of those who are well accustomed to rides at those altitudes.
There are a few unwritten rules to high altitude fitness. Firstly, it’s important to reduce the exercise intensity. Due to low oxygen levels, there’s a higher likelihood of headaches and nausea, so it’s best not to redline too soon. Secondly, you must increase elevation gradually. This allows your body to acclimate to the high altitudes. Lastly, training in advance improves your cardiovascular fitness to prepare for high altitudes. Needless to say, I did not listen to one of these rules.
We turned into Bow Valley Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada, 30 minutes away from world-famous Banff. The beautiful fall colours with the chiseled mountain peaks reminded me of a movie setting. Barrier lake was turquoise, while the trees glowed with shades of red and gold auburn. The smell of lodgepole pine, engelmann spruce and subalpine fir trees wafted in the air around us.
I was mesmerised by the colours of Bow Valley that I almost forgot the harrowing climb ahead of me. My brother-in-law refers to this ride as “epic.” What he means by that is that it is an intense climb with a reward at the peak so beautiful, you must suffer a little to reach it. I had no idea the challenge that was in store for me, nor did I care to know. All I yearned for was the view from the top.
Start of the ride in Bow Valley
Riding out towards the trail head I couldn’t have had a bigger smile on my face. The raw nature surrounding me brought a peace within me which I hadn’t experienced for months. I was the kind of person who had little experience with mental illness before. The stress and crippling anxiety which started to consume me was disappearing as I continued the trail. I was present, I wasn’t thinking about the future, I wasn’t thinking about the past, I was in awe of the beauty. The colours, the smells, the noises. I am finally present.
Those feelings, however, sadly didn’t last for long as we made our ascent. Within minutes my heart rate reached 190 beats per minute, and I felt a tight sensation in my chest. I had never tried to draw a breath before I finished my last exhale like I did that day. Despite being an athletic person who stays in relatively good shape, there was little this prairie boy could do to prepare for that.
As we continued our climb through the forest, the leaves crackled as we drove over them, doing our best to avoid the large rocks and roots beneath us. With a few short breaks to momentarily catch my breath, each switch back that came and went, I was wondering when we would reach the summit thinking we must be getting close.
“Are you ready for this?” my brother in-law asked, as he looked back with a smile.
“Ready for what?” I answered, silently wondering, how this ride could possibly become any more challenging.
“The rock wall, just around this bend. It’s steep,” he replied, erupting with laughter as he pushed himself further up the mountain.
Within minutes, I had lost him on the wall. Within a few more minutes, I mustered enough energy to get off my bike rather than flopping off in exhaustion. I knew this would be a strenuous climb, but I did not realise it would be this difficult. Once I saw Brad about 50 meters ahead with his bike set on the ground next to him, I realised I was almost at the top. That was all the momentum I needed to finish my ascent.
“What a view. Wow,” I said, bent over with my hands on my knees.
“Great job man, that’s a hard climb. You did well.” Brad walked towards me, extending his right hand for a fist bump.
Pink-faced, shirt soaking wet, I responded, “It was worth it. I can’t get over this view.”
I began to ask Brad about the downhill trip when a grin formed across his face and he asked me if I wanted a photo.
He laughed. “We still have a way to go. The tough section is coming up.”
My heart dropped as my eyes started searching for some obscure path I hadn’t noticed. “I thought we were at the top?”
“Nope.” He pointed up and to his left. “That’s the top. I’m just giving you a longer break.”
The next section was partially unrideable, even for the professionals. We pushed our bikes up for a short period. Once the track became rideable again, Brad hopped onto his and started pedalling. I didn’t even try. After jumping on and off my bike a few more times, and still wondering how we could possibly reach the peak, we reached another unrideable section. This time we could not push our bikes up, and instead had to carry them on our backs. We climbed for 10 minutes, with jagged rocks jutting into our heels and tree branches peppering our faces. We slowly make our way to the top.
This was it, we were finally here. And, I could finally breathe. Peace. Accomplishment. Euphoria. Brad was right, it was epic.
They say mountains have magic and every mountain you climb will teach you something.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do”. From my work to new adventures, I have learned that magic happens when I explore beyond my comfort zone. The gruelling ride in the Jewel Pass Barrier stirred within me a new passion, an absolute love for the sport, and it reinvigorated my love for the outdoors.
Written by Andrew Penner.
Andrew Penner lives in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada and is a shareholder of Agrihub. When he’s not working he loves to travel the world, searching for new adventures, lands to explore and people to meet. Check him out on Instagram.