First descent. These words always sound a bit strange in the context of mountain biking but have become regularly used when it comes to bike alpinism, bike mountaineering or whatever you want to call it. All these terms try to describe the adventurous combination of high Alpine mountains and self supported trail riding. You can become addicted to this type of mountain biking, always in search of higher mountains, steeper and more technical trails or simply some mountain nobody has ever been to with a bike just to make the first descent.
In real mountaineering the first ascents are always a big thing and no matter what guidebook you read it’s very likely you'll find the first ascent noted. In bike alpinism things are a bit different. Thousands of people have already been to the summit when you reach the top with a bike on your shoulders and, although you might not have heard of anybody else who did the same peak on a bike, you're never really sure. I haven’t heard of a single mountain where the first descent with a mountain bike is documented, either in a guidebook or, these days, on the internet somewhere. There are so many good riders and experienced locals out there that the chances are good that somebody crazy enough has carried their bike to the summit, perhaps even years before you first got interested in biking.
Regardless of all that, the idea of a first descent has something magical about it. Even if you can’t be sure nobody has done the mountain before at least it’s your first descent. Perhaps you saw a peak or a striking ridge line in a photo, or some red dotted line on a hiking map that drew your attention to it. Curiosity grabs you and instantly you ask yourself “Is it rideable?”
Time consuming research follows. You study the contours on the maps, look at every picture of the mountain you can find and read the accounts of hikers on the internet. From there you take a day off, a long drive from home or even plan your holidays just to get to this mountain. You get up early, ride in and hike a long way up the hill, your bike on your shoulders getting heavier every hour. Perhaps you even thought of giving up and turning back during the climb.
But, finally, you made it and are standing on top of a mountain maybe no other cyclist has ever been to, ready to begin your first descent. The downside of being the first one to ride a new trail is that you often don’t know if it’s possible and if all the effort is finally going to pay off. That's all part of the adventure and exploration that we enjoy so much.
It was those feelings I had when I stood on top of a 3200m high summit in Tyrol last summer. A very steep and exposed ride was in front of me and a possible free fall of hundreds of meters if I screwed up. Colin and I saw the summit when we reached our main goal, a subsidiary peak lower down and were freaked out looking at the amazing ridge line leading down from the summit to the glacier. We just had to get to the summit. Descending off our first summit then traversing the glacier was a bit time consuming but we made it. Finally I was on the bike and ready to roll. I slowly and carefully opened my brakes...
When you ride on schist rocks you have endless grip and even the craziest lines are rideable. But not so this time. The rocks were not as grippy as I had wished and the ideal line has been polished by the countless shoes of hikers to make it slippery.
I'm glad that I mounted high volume tyres with the stickiest rubber that Schwalbe make on my front wheel. I lowered the pressures too in an effort to maximise the contact area of rubber and rock. Besides the slippery rock surface there were many loose stones acting like ball bearings to unbalance me in unwanted directions. Slowly and as in control as possible I rode one steep section after the other. Colin followed and leap frogged ahead of me with his video camera and caught the action.
Finally, I completed the section and reached the top of the glacier. Compared to the exposed rock section before it was great fun sliding down on the snow. Soon we hit our original traverse line and were back on our first peak of the day. I knew it was still a long way back to the valley, but I’m happy about my safe descent from this remote mountain peak on a summit that maybe no other mountain biker has ridden down from before.
Writing by Johannes Pistrol ( www.bikewithpassion.com ), Video & Pics by Colin Stewart.