Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cass – Lagoon Saddle: Epicness redefined

Ollie readies himself for the Cass saddle descent.
It had been a goal of mine to explore the backcountry terrain of the Cass - Lagoon Saddle route since I first sampled it's technical treats back in May this year.

Both Michi and I had heard tales of the steep descents and long valley flats, and with estimates for the round trip being made at around 9 hours it was never going to be a short ride.

While the gale force winds and rain forecast in the preceding week cast a shadow over the weekend plans, when Saturday dawned clear and fine it was Michi who made the call. Hastily assembling tents, snacks and all manner of ancillary items that our car camping approach allowed.

The plan was to ride Cragieburn Saturday, camp the night then mount a full blown assault on the Cass on Sunday morning.

Some trail newbies joined our Cragie’ jaunt, and despite the inevitable complaints about steepness and roughness on the ascent, it proved to be just these things that left them grinning on the descent. With the first loop out of the way, Josh, Michi and I set about a second climb to Camp saddle with the final hike to the highest point justly rewarded with some spectacular vistas.

Michi armors up
Recovering from the effort, we dropped saddles for the drop from the saddle and heart rates began to spike again, this time from the sheer exhilaration of skidding down 37 degree scree slopes rather than any aerobic exertion.

This was only my second ride on the El Chucho, Ventana’s unique approach to a trail riding weapon. Designed as a 69er, the big contact patch of 29 inch front tire seemed to float over the unstable scree, while firmly locked and skidding on the edge of control, the 26 inch rear wheel sunk deep into the scree and slackened the harrowing slope by a precious few degrees.

As if to test one’s bravado, the rocks on the slope grow bigger and bigger as you approach the end, till the final 20 metre stretch where they form a full blown rock garden that could surely become the pictorial definition for ‘nuggety’.

Blasting down the track for the second time, we arrived back at the tents and scooted down the road to bathe in the cooling eddies of Cave Stream, making it through the treacherous caverns with no cases of denim induced hypothermia.

In true townie camping style, dinner was at the Bealey Hotel, where a monstrous plate of vegetable curry and venison pot pies were washed down with ice-cream sundaes (complete with nuts). Hasty preparation had left me floundering for snack options for our mission the next day, but the Bealey came to the rescue with an impressive lunch box containing a coleslaw and ham sandwich, some caramel slice, a juice box, apple and a slice of bacon and egg pie. It proved to be a seemingly endless source of delicious treats during the next days ardours, and a source of green eyed jealousy from my ride companions. Unfortunately I had to dispense with the box itself, but managed to squeeze the entire degustation into my Cactus Zero in such a way that I wasn’t left with a sandwich/pie/slice hybrid after the bike-across-the-back carry, of which there would be plenty!

Ollie guardedly tucks into his B&E pie
Waking the next day to the tune of native fauna dropping some beats, we hastily packed up camp and headed to the trail head at Cass River, beginning with a river bed ride punctuated by dashes across the flow where the gorge narrowed. Once into the forest the track climbed steeply, but the bone dry beech surface made the odd rooty pinch surprisingly rideable, except in a few extreme cases. Out into the open past the Cass hut, tussock was reclaiming the narrow bench, also providing surreptitious cover for a wheel stopping rocks which proved too much even for the sheer rollability of the 29 inch tire.

Atop the saddle and ready to shred
From Cass saddle to Hamilton hut we were rewarded for our early labour. Insanely steep and criss crossed by thick mats of off-camber roots, we were thankful of the dry conditions as were struggling to stay on line and away from rapidly approaching trees as we shredded down the valley floor. Gradually leveling off we eked round switchbacks, which were again laden with roots. As the trail mellowed with lower altitudes the flow took hold, pumping rises and drifting the back wheel around turns. Again I was impressed by the 69er. Plenty of travel in the back to smooth out the big hits (of which there were plenty), but the drifting situation was where it came alive. With a front wheel so planted and secure, I could unweight the back and get it rowdy through corners with an ease and confidence I’d never felt on a 26” trail bike. Concerns over a threading the longer footprint through switchbacks were unfounded, and as we shredded down to the hut I was approaching a stoke double whammy, with bike stoke joining trail stoke for an off the charts reading.

Josh the roadie hooks into one of many sandwiches
Onward along the undulating trail, we traversed a swingbridge and some boggy swamps before passing West Harper Hut where we hopped onto another river bank. While this riding lacked the sheer thrills of the epic descents, the mellow trails, warm air and rugged mountainous surrounds kept me sure there was no place I’d rather be.


Sequence on a particularly sick section of trail
A mixture of riding and scrambling took us up to the Cass Saddle shelter, where a final dart along a swamp traversing wooden boardwalk delivered us at the final highpoint. With the Waimakariri River visible ahead in all its alluvial glory we set course for the highway. The descent was not without its challenges, with our nemesis the tussock clump causing a number of amusing off-the-bikes. Once clear of the tussock the track entered a pine forest then natives again, where fast flowing bends gave way to tight switchbacks interspersed with the drops and root steps. Riding with a flow and pace at odds with 7 hours on the bike, the trail caught me out in a couple of places, one in particular where a gravelly drift got too rowdy and ended in a low side off a bank. Somehow no skin was lost and I was back on the bike and shredding the final run to the road.
View from the top of the Bealey to the Waimakariri
Finishing with 15km of sealed road wasn’t ideal, but ironically the weather which had threatened to put the kibosh on the whole weekend favored us with a mad tailwind. It provided a welcome push at our backs and also some attenuation for the horrendous tire noise that can only come from super tacky trail tires on chip seal.

A truly epic adventure and one that will be difficult to trump, even with the swath of mountain routes that we are fortunate enough to have surrounding us.

Mountain Pedaler out…

1 comment:

Zane said...

Sweet sweet mission that bit of track! I usually ride it in the other direction, but must give it a blast the way you guys went some day! Probably will get in there over the Xmas break. The bit of track down to Hamilton hut is a superb bit of track and one of my favourites!!