Altitude Sickness
July 7, 2016

Mountain biking—beginner to intermediate to advanced in a day

This was a great week. I have been taking it easier for a week or so at the Rutland climbing gym to let some de-gloving issues heal on my fingers, but I have been getting into bouldering to keep my strength up. When there is no one at the gym to belay me, I just boulder around until I’m tired. To develop grip strength, I have been doing some home suspension workouts with rings (in addition to the climbing). I really love being back in the mix with climbing!

I have been pretty consistent with my trail running, too, keeping to the basics, knocking out four-milers and only took one fall, but it was one where I jammed all of my fingers (they made “the noise”) on a root. Things were OK, some restricted mobility, but NBD (“no big deal”).

The highlight of this week was getting on a mountain bike for the second time in my life. The first time was on my wedding day, before my wedding (my best man, an avid mountain biker from Randolph, Vt., now living in Boulder, took me to Pine Hill Park in Rutland—great place—and proceeded to put me at risk of removing my face hours before my wedding . . . but no injuries were inflicted that time. This time was different. I went up to Snowshed at Killington Resort and Colter Peterson outfitted me with a helmet, shoes, pads and a crossover bike (I later tried out the performance bike).

The bikes and equipment were excellent, in good repair, and fit me reasonably well (I am unreasonably tall, so finding equipment can be an issue sometimes, even in shops with lots of inventory). I then took a couple of runs with Ben Colona, who helped me out with a few tips on positioning, braking, and other techniques. He first took me down the same trail that they take their “learn to ride” folks down, and I was grateful for the basics, because they were really helpful to me later.

After a couple of close calls (I had to learn to keep my eyes up and on the terrain in front of me instead of on the stuff directly in front of my wheels—if you stare at an obstacle you will hit it), I got the hang of tight cornering. I learned to sit way back and way down, gripping the seat between my knees and braking, I quickly progressed from the novice terrain to the intermediate trails.

A trail called Step It Up was my first blue, and it was an absolute riot, hard corners, rolls, and dips. It was a great way to get my feet wet to the possibility of getting my wheels off the ground. After successfully navigating that twice, I jumped up to Blue Magic, which was a totally fun trail with lots of air and got me comfortable with having my wheels off the ground in a more consistent way. If riders want to, they can really send it on this trail!

While on these trails, I also learned how to bail off the bike, how to be a tough guy when my shin scrapes the pedal, and how to stop suddenly when someone crosses the path. The performance of these bikes is simply phenomenal. I grew up with stiff forks and no rear suspension . . . it’s a different world.

I would like to take a moment to say how clear it is, the effort that Killington has put into its novice and intermediate terrain. The learn-to-ride instruction is valuable and relevant, and the riding terrain on the lower mountains is a complete hoot. I would have had a blast without ever going onto the upper mountain. The terrain on Snowshed is plain, flat out fun. In fact, the terrain there is far more fun than what awaits on the upper mountain. I went there next after changing to the performance bike.

I made my way over to the gondola by way of The Beast, which was my first attempt at an expert trail. It starts with a fun hop onto a concrete pad, and then a frankly terrifying drop down a wooden ramp (they have always scared the tar out of me, but I stayed off the front brakes and kept my weight low and back like a good boy). You then pick your way down a fantastic muddy rock/root single track, and get dirty like a mountain biker should. So much fun. I went slow and really learned to control my bike and step it over obstacles.

After a ride up “the gondi,” I took Off The Top to The Light to Cable Trail. All of these trails were easy and fun and far more natural-terrain-oriented than the lower park-style trails. Next, I did something that changed my life: I went down Yo Vinny.

Yo Vinny is a double black: true expert terrain. I made this choice as a person unfamiliar with signage. I wouldn’t have chosen it if I had remembered the difference between black and double black, but as a skier I am so used to just going wherever the hell I want, I simply didn’t remember my pathetic lack of biking skill.

Vinny is more fun than a bag of cats.

I picked my way slowly through single-track rock gardens, put my foot down a few times, rode a few wooden pathways that caused me abject terror, and generally had a blast. However, about halfway down the trail there is a severe drop down a very steep rock with a sort of mud ledge at the top. My first reaction to this was: “I should walk this.” My second reaction was: “Nah.”

I started to try to pick my way down this obstacle the way I had handled the rest of the trail, slowly and cautiously, and I quickly found my rear wheel coming off the ground (I was up in a neutral position, and I was riding the brakes, causing the fork to compress). Having never been in a position where my rear wheel was coming off the ground while I was in control (I have a long history of messing myself up on road bikes), I did what any thinking person would do and tried to further slow myself down to gain control of the bike and set that wheel down.

The bike flipped forward with the same zest and joie de vivre of a mousetrap.

The terrain was so steep that I landed on my shoulder and back two to three feet below the bottom of my front wheel. I hit hard, but as an experienced martial arts tumbler with years of high-speed ski and motorcycle wrecks behind me, I was able to tuck and roll to avoid much damage to anything other than the life-proof case to my phone, and some road rash and bruises. I tossed the bike while I was upside down before I had completely hit the ground, so I avoided secondary soft side injuries from the bike landing on me.

I lay on the ground wiggling my fingers and toes, regaining my breath (it was knocked out of me), and quite frankly just moaned for a minute. Then I got up, picked up my minimally damaged bike, and enjoyed the rest of that fantastic trail.

To any intermediate riders who read this and think “Hey, maybe I should try that,” I want to say this: do not! I lucked out on this. Over the decades I’ve logged much hospital time surviving dumb choices like this, and quite frankly, riding alone, there is no reason that the crows and turkey vultures should not be picking my bones clean right now, halfway down Vinny.

I had a great time, but I will not be going back to that trail without riders with me and lots more time on a bike. It was foolish for me to be there, and I am lucky to have the use of my arms, legs, and brain after whipping over onto schist like a scorpion tail.

All in all, I had a great day on the mountain—it was one of the best times of my life. I will be going back up for more rentals, then I will eventually buy a bike and a pass. I think I might like this sport more than skiing! Dare I say?

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