Dec 3rd
Rainbow Mountain Heli Drop September 2011

There are certainly some perks to running a mountain bike adventure company such as Ticket2Ride.

One of these perks is getting to ride, on occasions, amazing trails such as our Rainbow Mountain heli drop trail, and on the 6th of September on a fantastic blue sky day the chance arose to get involved on this ride, and as it had been four seasons since I last rode the trail, it was an opportunity not to be missed.

For the ride I took one of our Commencal Supreme 6 bikes, which is ideal for the trails that run down from the peak of Rainbow Mountain to Alta Lake at the valley floor. A super fun bike, which has the geometry to cope with the steep trails and rock rolls, whilst being light and nimble enough to pedal and manoeuvre through some of the tighter turns on to the trail.  

The tour started with a drive out to the Blackcomb municipal heliport, which is located about 15 minutes drive north of Whistler. On the tour we had ten riders, which included our two guides for the day, Kris and Mark.

On arrival at the heli-port we all had to sign the standard Canadian insurance waivers that are required these days for pretty much any activity you do. So with the paper work out of the way we all headed out to the heli pad to prepare our bikes ready for their flight up to the Peak of Rainbow Mountain.

The bikes are actually carried up to the trail head on a huge strop, slung below the helicopter, so to protect the essential bits of the bikes, we used our body armour pads to protect the stanchions and rear mech by simply wrapping and attaching them to the bikes. We also loosened off our shifters and break levers so they would move rather than risk them breaking when all the bikes are pulled together when the strop tightens around the bike on take off.

Kris organised the set up of the bikes ready for the flight. He has been running the Ticket2Ride heli drops for four seasons now and knows exactly how to get the bikes up there is one piece, but the prepping for this can take a little while.

Safety Briefing on the Helicopter

Once he had all the bikes stood up, top to tail, and the strop pulled through all the frames we all moved over to the other heli pad to have a safety briefing on getting in and out of the helicopter. This is important, as when the helicopter drops off the riders it doesn’t actually land, instead it holds in position on the snow, so everyone has to know the exit plan and where not to stand to ensure safety when the rotor blades are spinning so fast you can’t actually see them.  

With ten riders in today’s group and only five seats available in the helicopter we split in to two groups to do a double drop. I flew up in the first of the two drops. Kris sat in the front of the helicopter, with me and three other riders in the back. Kris sat in the front to be able to survey the area as we arrived at the top of the mountain, so he could select the best landing areas based on snow levels and conditions.

Kris spotting for the landing place

The flight up to the top of the mountain takes less than ten minutes, but on the flight up we got to see some amazing views down the Whistler valley, and had a spectacular view of the Whistler and Blackcomb ski areas as well as the many lakes that are clustered down the valley floor.

As we approached the drop off point near the top of the Rainbow Mountain trail, Kris directed the pilot to the actual point he wanted us to be dropped off.

It was now time to get ready to get out and keep our heads down. Kris, who also has the responsibility of door handler on the heli drops was the first out on to the snow, and he then opened up our sliding rear door. We each climbed out of the back then crouched down in front of the helicopter and clustered in one corner where the pilot could see us. Then Kris closed up the doors, ensuring that none of the seat belts were hanging out. He then collected our bags from the cage that is on the side of the helicopter and then joined our cluster, gave the pilot the thumbs up signal, and he flew off up and backwards before turning and descending back to the heli-port to collect Mark and the other four riders leaving us in the silence and majesty of the snow capped mountains.

Getting out on the snow cap

Those of us on the first drop then had about 20 minutes to walk around on the peak and take in the amazing views and get some impressive photos.

View from the top of Rainbow Mountain towards Blackcomb Mountain

Before too long the next group of riders arrived in their helicopter. Again Kris supervised the doors, and collected the gear, and then once the thumbs up sign was given, the helicopter again rose up as only helicopters can before racing back to the heli-port to collect our bikes.

Second group arriving.

It’s always an impressive sight when the bikes are delivered. From the horizon we could see the helicopter flying towards us with the 10 bikes slung below it.

The bikes arriving

Kris’ next job on the heli drop is to sight the pilot for landing the bikes on the snow, whilst he hovers above. This again is an impressive feet of flying ability and is an awesome sight to behold. As soon as Kris had released the strop and given the pilot the thumbs up, we were left, all alone in the silence of the mountain top.

Kris releasing the bikes

Kris and Mark gathered everyone together to explain the next task at hand, which was essentially to re-tighten all the bar mounted controls on our bikes, de-pad the bikes and get ourselves kitted up for the start of the ride.

As soon as everyone was kitted up and ready to go, we grouped together at the top of the alpine trail on the very edge of the snowline. Kris gave some instructions as to what to expect on the first section of the ride before setting off. The group was split, with Kris at the front, Mark somewhere in the middle and then I acted as the tail guide.   

Ready to start the ride

Having been up on the Rainbow Mountain trails a couple of times each season to work on the trail maintenance, I knew the trail well, however it is always very different riding down a trail to hiking up and down it with tools.

The first part of the trail is in the high alpine. It starts from a rocky outcrop and then sets off along a number of ridges, leading to switch backs, weaving between rocky outcrops before it comes down into the first of the alpine meadow sections.

Kris setting off on the trail

Due to the record snow season that we had over the winter there was still patches of snow in shady parts of the mountain, however, the trail its self was in excellent condition and in places the alpine flowers were still out giving splashes of colour from place to place.

The alpine section is divided by three steep chutes. Two of which we had improved this season with re-routes that increased the flow of the trail and reduced the erosion risk that the historic fall line trails had been problematic with.

This was my first time riding the re-routed sections and they had made a vast improvement on the flow of the trail, and made it an easier and more fun route.

Riding through the alpine meadow

The third chute was still full of snow, as it had been when we last were up on the trail, and so we had to do a little bit of a hike a bike to get around the snow. It would have been fun to ride the snow section, however the way the sun had sculpted the snow, meant it was more like a sheer wall rather than a rideable slope, still it was impressive to see and added a new feature to admire on the way down.    

At the end of the alpine section Kris re-grouped all the riders to give a heads up as to what was coming next as we entered the tree line of the mountain.

The second section of the trail weaves through some interesting woodland, and riders need to be alert to the roots and quick turns that are coming up. The single track trail that runs through the top section of the woodland has some pretty steep sections where you need to be confident in getting over the back of the bike and helping to steer the bike down the trail with the use of your body positioning.

Riding through the woods

In the upper tree section there are a couple of rock rolls to navigate. None of them are particularly big or hard, however there is one that is off camber and rolls into a tight tree lined section which is always testing but super fun to get through. 

As the grade of the terrain mellows out a little we get into a section which has more lush vegetation and we cross over a couple of small streams. A couple of seasons ago we hiked up the mountain and put in ladder bridges over each water crossing, and I am pleased to say that these bridges have held up extremely well and again have improved the ride a great deal over the last time I rode the trail back in 2008.

Ladder Bridge

By this point we were fast approaching the Flank trail, which is pretty much the upper point of the Whistler trail network that is accessed by all mountain riders during day rides.

In 2009 we had re-routed the connector from an old fall line route down on to the Flank trail to a route that added in a couple of switch backs before bringing riders out on to the Flank trail. It’s a great conclusion to the upper part of this trail.

From the Flank trail we have a couple of options as to the route to take down to the valley floor through the open wood land.

Kris guided us through a couple of trails, taking us to an amazing look out point over looking Green Lake and the Whistler Village. This point with its great vista, also had a cool little rock step to ride down, and with it get a great photo that looks like you are literally launching from the top of a mountain down to the Whistler Valley below.

Look out point

Valley view

Once we had done all the photos that everyone wanted we headed off down to a fun trail called 27 Switchbacks, which as the name indicates is made up of 27 switchbacks. This trail brought us down to the final section of the ride through a fast flowing section of trails that eventually brought us out on to Alta Lake Road, and five minutes of freewheeling down the tarmac road before swinging across into Rainbow Park, where we were met by Andy who had driven out to the park with our picnic lunch.

It was an amazing ride on a day when the weather was simply ideal. In the park we chilled out in the sun, eating and drinking and a couple of the guys opted to cool off in Alta Lake, before we headed back to base.

Lunch in Rainbow Park

All in all, it was my best day on the bike this season, with ideal weather for a heli drop, and a super fun group of people to ride with. Thanks to Kris and Mark for their expert guiding, and for Andy who made and brought out the lunches for us.