'Are you going over that way?" asks a middle-aged woman, hiking with her husband. We stand atop Whistler Mountain, amid some piles of snow still a metre high in late July, outfitted like linebackers in full-face helmets, elbow pads and hard plastic knee-and-shin guards. We are indeed going over that way, that way being a headlong dip down a steep and newly cut bike trail off the back side of the granite peak.
Whistler has become a global capital for downhill mountain biking, with its web of trails lower on the mountain. Now it has pushed the bike park into new territory, opening its first trail off the peak, dubbed Top of the World. We are among the first to test its rigours.
Squirts of sun burst through churning clouds. The woman hiker and I cast an eye over the first bit of trail as the mountain top falls away into nothingness. "Oh my goodness." The record shows she was the one who spoke those words, but memory assures I was the one who felt them.
I am not a mountain biker. Still, when the offer of an early look at Top of the World came in, I was game, despite my near virginity on a downhill bike. Since I've been on skis and a snowboard since I was a boy, I figured, you know … should be fine.
Peak Chair on Whistler is the best ski lift in Canada, and without doubt the most striking, as the chairlifts climb a final stunning pitch to a granite precipice above the remnants of a glacier. Our bikes hang, one by one, by their front tires on a hook on the side of the chairlifts, dangling as we ascend.
Off the lift and readying for the ride, it is as we have been told. Passersby ogle. The hiker disbelieves. "They look at you like you're a gladiator going to the moon to slay a beast," said our guide, Brian Finestone, manager of Whistler Mountain Bike Park, on the way up. "They can't believe you're going to ride off the peak of the mountain."
Top of the World begins on a steep decline over the back of the ski area proper. The grade at moments exceeds 20 per cent.
The switchbacks cut through loose rock and dirt, and the open alpine expanse is extraordinary. Single-track trails often flow through forests, on rooty, rocky ground. This high, it is a single-track fantasia, a vista of the jagged Coast Mountains and the iconic Black Tusk in the near distance, framing a photo Instagram could hardly make more perfect.
The initial descent of several hundred vertical metres – oh my goodness – offers sweeping views, but I keep my eyes on the ground. It is exposed territory, high on the mountain, where a fall isn't just a little oops-and-dust-off. Up high, on steep ground, a simple fall could easily cartwheel into body-rending territory. So my ride, initially, is self-circumscribed. Finestone had described the first section as "pretty gnarly" and noted the option to walk the bike through too-tough sections. "It's a bumpy ride out on the rescue road," he says. Without chagrin I choose caution, as the spectre of flying body-over-handlebars to a certain busted collarbone or worse washes away any worry of appearing cowardly.
The start of the trail is rightly designated expert, a double black diamond, even if most of the rest is intermediate. I am passed by a guided group of skilled riders in a "summer gravity camp." As he passes me, carrying my bike on my shoulder, one rider blurts: "I'm not sure that guy should be on this trail." Possibly true. But once I do humbly manage the first pitch, I'm on my pedals for the rest of the rip, first into the beginnings of the tree line.
Rolling through percolating wildflowers, intermittent stands of whitebark pine and flourishing bunches of spruce, the smell of forest burls up and explodes in my nose, an aromatic tincture. My unscientific conclusion: Spruce settles the nerves. Buoyed by the perfumed blast, we cover several more steep but less fall-and-be-crippled sections, before coming around the bend of the mountain's peak. The valley emerges, Whistler Village and Lost Lake far below. We roll on, as the epic trail extends, a blissful daytime dream. The alpine recedes as we bounce and bang on a narrow road, the occasional pop through creeks of melting snow and happy splatters of mud.
Right now, Top of the World consists of half-finished, single-track sections connected by access road/ski trail, with work ongoing to complete the trail as one long single track. As we reach the bike park proper, Top of the World has covered five wonderful kilometres and a vertical descent of 700 metres, roughly half of the total from the peak to the village. The average grade was about 8 per cent.
It's steep but not wildly savage, save for the earliest turns.
I guesstimate it would probably take a dedicated day or two in the bike park navigating tricky and technical black runs in the woods before I would feel comfortable in the saddle on the toughest turns off the peak.
Still, at the end, there is elation. Words from higher up the trail echo in my ears. After the first big pitch of steep switchbacks, where I walked, several summer gravity campers confidently made their way, led by a woman in her 20s, their guide. "Oh my God," the young woman exclaimed, her smile beyond megawatt, chugging deep lungfuls of air, and exhaling: "This is amazing."
The Top of the World mountain-bike trail off the peak of Whistler Mountain opened to the public on July 28. It is open daily, as part of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park, and the trail's hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (5 p.m. on Friday and Sunday). Daily capacity is limited to just 100 riders. The cost is $15, on top of a $56 bike park pass, and space can be booked ahead of time.