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Hike-a-biking the Whitefish Divide

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For further counsel I tapped into the obsessive subculture of diehard gram-counters in the ultralight backpacking world—especially the eggheads extraordinaire over at Bozeman's BackpackingLight.com. With their advice I whittled my gear, including rack and backpack, down to 15 pounds, in large part because my tent, sleeping bag and pad weighed only 4.5 pounds.

Still, a few evangelical ultralighters tried to convince me to go even lighter. "You're bringing a sleeping bag?" one snorted, implying that I might as well toss in a brass bed frame and king-sized mattress. But I wanted at least a modicum of comfort, and I wasn't about to use my multi-tool as a pillow.

Now that we were light enough, we just needed one more rider. When renowned mountain bike photographer Bob Allen agreed to join the team, we were ready to ride.

That left only one question unanswered: Where to go? Bob suggested a few ranges—the Swans, Pioneers, Centennials—but for me, there really never was any question. It had to be the Whitefish Range, the wild area where I first started mountain biking and exploring on two wheels.

click to enlarge A series of faint but rideable stretches link the cairns along one of the most spectacular stretches of ridgeline. - AARON TEASDALE
  • Aaron Teasdale
  • A series of faint but rideable stretches link the cairns along one of the most spectacular stretches of ridgeline.

The range overlooks the North Fork of the Flathead River Valley, a place I'd roamed regularly as a Minnesota teenager visiting my grandparents' cabin. Riding into the mountains with little more than a map, a water bottle and a thirst for adventure, I spent countless days over the years losing myself on the network of fading trails. I have a love for the North Fork like nowhere else, and this trip felt like a culmination, a crown jewel, but also something of a farewell.

Riding remote trails is risky for anyone, but for me, taking a hard spill can be even more dangerous. I have an inherited bleeding condition that I have somehow been able to ignore successfully during many years of high-stakes riding, but now I have children to care for and the demands of my life are more complex. My freewheeling twenties are gone, and being bedridden with injuries is no longer an option. I've finally come to accept that my days of riding these trails are numbered and I'm determined to savor every minute of our adventure.

Ridgetop dreaming

"What a goat trail," Matthew says the next day, maneuvering along another crumbling, no-fall section of crest. Sometimes we lose our way completely, shouldering our bikes to search for any sign of the trail. We'd expected easier going atop the divide, but the path alternately vaults or plunges, leaving us to muscle up and down what feels like the very spine of the earth.

click to enlarge AARON TEASDALE

Massive wildfires in the North Fork in 1910 inspired Forest Service crews to prep for the next big one, hewing a network of pathways through these mountains and erecting fire lookouts atop the peaks. Today the remnant trails are little more than rough etchings in the mountainsides—perfect for goats and the spirits of foresters long past, but intensely challenging on bicycles. We're required to use all our skill and strength to navigate the countless mini-summits dotting the divide.

Every 10 miles of trail brings another 5,000 vertical feet of tough climbing. This kind of riding has always been my favorite—rough, wild, and packed with spiraling switchbacks—and the Whitefish Divide in particular has long lived in my dreams. But over the years I've only experienced it in bits and pieces, after hours of lung-busting climbing. Now we're living on it, waking on it each morning and riding along it each day.

We have everything we need until our third and final breakfast, and although we're still on top of the divide we devour our remaining food. Clearly we've gone a bit overboard in our minimalism, and although ultralight is good, there's a point of diminishing returns. Fortunately, two trail workers near Red Meadow Lake merrily offer us beer at 10 a.m. We shrug, and chug.

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