Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Mtbr in April, 2015, but because the backcountry travel advice is so on point we decided to re-run it. Don’t worry, it’s not going to snow in Downieville this weekend.
As soon as I saw her cresting the hill on Main Street, I knew she had taken a hard fall. Her helmet was askew and pushed back on her head, her clothes were lacquered with Sierra silt and dried blood ran down the side of her face.
I was going out for a quick pre-dusk pedal after my first day in Downieville driving the Yuba Expeditions shuttle when I saw the woman and her man rolling back into town. The couple had demoed two Santa Cruz Hecklers from us, and although they appeared to be novice or even beginner riders, as we went through the bikes with them, they didn’t seem intimidated or nervous about tackling the notorious trails above Downieville.
As soon as I saw the blood on her face I got concerned and asked if she was all right. She seemed a bit dazed, and beneath her blood soaked headband there was a significant gash needing stitches. She seemed to shrug it off with a smile, but I could tell she was hurting badly and needed medical attention.
Once back to Yuba, the couple asked my co-worker Mason, “What happens if someone gets seriously hurt way out there on the trails?” With as sincere of a shoulder shrug as he could muster, Mason said, “The best thing to do is not get hurt.”
In Downieville, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain, it’s a much easier thing said than done. Even experienced riders who know every rock, root, chuckhole and pungee stick on trails like Third Divide occasionally fall victim to the dangers of these old gold prospecting routes. Last year, while pre-riding the course two days before the Downieville Classic, I came across my buddy Dan O’Connor sitting at the bottom of Third Divide with a huge gash in his knee. Dan is a seasoned Downieville veteran, and if a guy with his experience, skill and knowledge can filet his knee here, anyone can.
Given the brutal terrain surrounding Downieville, the skull and crossbones is an appropriate flag to fly (click to enlarge).
I pedaled up Sailor Ravine Road in search of Downie River Trail, the first of many exploratory rides from town to find countless hidden routes that serpentine through some of the deepest, steepest and most intimidating terrain I’ve ever witnessed. The mountains here are so steep they resemble tree-lined skyscrapers more than they do mountains; only these natural skyscrapers are taller than the tallest buildings in the world. It might only be two miles from the bottom of a canyon to the top of a ridge, but in that two miles the relief is staggering, ascending as much as 2,500 vertical feet.
After a gorgeous day of sunny skies and 70-degree weather, the clouds were rolling in and the wind was picking up; the harbinger of a storm about to remind us that winter isn’t quite over yet. Now that it’s early April, dusk settles in about 7:30. I kept checking my watch, making sure I didn’t go too far up Downie River Trail. With no light, no food and no real knowledge of the terrain, the last thing I wanted to do was get stuck in a deep canyon as dark as an isolation chamber with no window.
The night before I had read a column written by my good friend and fellow scribe, Mike Ferrentino, who for a decade rode every square inch of Downieville. In it he described how he never, ever left the house without a pack filled with a long list of survival gear. Downieville is not a place where you just go pedal off into the woods with a GU packet and a dream of brown pow. A three-hour tour here can potentially turn into a three-day search and rescue mission. If you do get lost, the best strategy is find a stream and follow it down. You’ll eventually end up somewhere, because you sure as hell don’t want to try and climb the skyscrapers enveloping your lost ass.
This video shows how quickly things can go south for a rider in Downieville or any place with exposed trails.
Another reminder of the brutal terrain was experienced on North Yuba Trail while riding with a new friend by the name of Brian. Rolling right from the heart of Downieville, North Yuba covers about 15 miles of stellar bench-cut singletrack past Goodyear’s Bar and over to Rocky Rest campground. Thanks to the steepness of the terrain, if you miss a corner on North Yuba, tuck yourself into a nice tight ball, because you’ll be rolling downhill for a while.
Aside from not having cell service, rescue access is very difficult. Big hospitals are not nearby either. Thus, in these rugged adventures, it’s key to stay within your comfort zone and ride with friends who can assist you in time of need. And even more important, be ever ready to lend a helping hand to strangers.