When we planned the 4:30 am wake-up, the first thought that crossed my mind was, “this better be good.” But let’s be real, when your plan for the day revolves around riding heli-access mountain bike trails, it’s probably going to be a good one.
Landing atop Nirvana at sunrise. Whisper Ridge Backcountry resort is the first heli-bike operator in the lower 48, and they're open for business. Katie Lozancich photo.
For the past five seasons, Whisper Ridge Backcountry Resort has been quietly making waves in the high-end resort world, offering cat and heli-ski services in Utah’s Bear River range. An hour’s drive north from Salt Lake City gives visitors unparalleled access to an experience unlike any other: a 70,000-acre private backcountry mountain playground complete with mountaintop yurts and other luxe accommodation options. This summer, that playground opened to mountain bikes, with the construction of a 3.2-mile, 1900-vertical-foot downhill trail.
How does a downhill trail work in the middle of the backcountry? Well, it’s pretty simple: strap your bikes on a helicopter and fly to the top. For some years now, helicopter-assisted downhill biking has grown into a bit of a trend in Western Canada, as heli-ski operations have been looking for a way to operate in the summer months. A new style of trail building has emerged from this recent boom, with bike-park worthy trails snaking their way down massive peaks in the middle of nowhere.
Cody Kelley drops into the first section of trail, complete with challenging alt lines to satiate all cravings. Max Ritter photo.
Capitalizing off the recent growth experienced in BC and Alaska, Whisper Ridge is now the first operation in the Lower 48 to offer summer heli biking. It’s relatively inexpensive, at $200 for your first drop, $100 per additional drop, and $475 for a full day. Combine that with a stay in the Canvas Camp for $250 a night, you’ve got yourself a hell of a weekend.
After arriving at Whisper Ridge headquarters in Eden, Utah for a quick morning safety briefing over delicious breakfast burritos, we made our way to the heli base. Joining us for the day were pro freerider Eric Porter and pro EWS racer Cody Kelley, both stoked out of their minds to spend a day not pedaling. Located a short drive up a dirt road from HQ, the base of summer operations centers around a canvas-tent camp set up with a stunning view of the mountain we were about to spend the day shredding down.
As we pulled into camp, our helicopter pilot was just finishing her preflight checks and fueling the ship. The aircraft was a sight to behold: a blue and white A-Star fitted with three custom-built Aero Design bike racks on each side, one of only a few in the world sporting this setup. The racks are what make this all possible - think of them as Thule hitch racks for the outside of a helicopter. Without them, there would be no way to transport your rig to the top of a run.
A peek inside the machine that makes the magic happen. Katie Lozancich photos.
Eli Harik, our guide for the day and the man behind the trail we were about to ride, gave us a quick safety briefing before loading up our bikes. With a few high fives, we were off, skimming over the treetops to the drop zone, nearly 2000 feet above us. If you think dealing with rotor wash from a departing heli in the winter is tough, try kneeling in the LZ as the bird takes off when everything is dry and dusty. After a brief ‘nam moment, we gathered our gear and moved to the start of the trail a few feet away. Pro tip: wear goggles.
With help from a crew of dedicated trailbuilders, and without any land-use restrictions (we were on 70,000 acres of private land), Harik had spent the last four weeks excavating the Nirvana trail. In the trail building world, four weeks is record time to build a three-mile flow trail in the middle of nowhere. Harik joked, “We’re not bothering anyone out here, so they kind of just let us run with it, and we get our shit done!”
As we dropped in, it became obvious that the trail is brand-new. The soil in these mountains is more like sand, and Porter and Kelley pointed out that it hadn’t rained in the area for weeks, meaning the freshly cut trail didn’t have a chance to pack in yet. Harik added that we were maybe the third group to ever ride the trail, ensuring a true dirt-surfing brown-pow experience.
Full thrust with Eric Porter. The trail is the perfect brown-pow experience. Max Ritter and Katie Lozancich photos.
The trail started with a short pedal section to get us up to speed, before diving into the woods through immaculately-sculpted berms. Fun alt-lines included doubles and log rides that dotted the side of the trail, making this blue-rated trail truly for everyone. The final section offered some spice, with a steep chute through the forest that spit us out at the XL jump section at the bottom. Porter and Kelley wasted no time sending stylish tables and whips over the jumps, jumping them as deep as humanly possible.
Just around the corner at a separate base area, the heli was ready, waiting to whisk us back to the top for our next run. This time our pilot took a different route, circling above a stunningly-situated creek where Whisper Ridge offers guided fly-fishing, before touching down at the top of Nirvana again.
Cody Kelley boosting off yet another perfectly-sculpted trail feature. Max Ritter photo.
We spent the rest of the day lapping the incredible trail, quickly getting used to the idea of riding in such deep and fresh dirt. I had to keep reminding myself to stay off the brakes and just let the bike do the work on those massive berms. There may have been a few over-the-bar moments but landing in the soft dirt left nothing more than a shit-eating grin on my face.
Harik and the trail building crew shared their plans for the rest of the season. These included building two more downhill trails, including a beginner line paralleling the existing trail, and an advanced track built with pro enduro and downhill races in mind. By the end of the season, Whisper Ridge plans to offer single heli drops for riders wishing to link their network to the neighboring trails on Powder Mountain. Fly up, take a lap, then pedal home: not a bad day in my book.
What a place to spend a cozy night in the woods. Whisper Ridge offers glamping accommodations in their canvas camp, right next to the trailhead. Max Ritter photo.
Our day ended with a re-group at the canvas tent setup, complete with delicious sandwiches, salad and on-tap local kombucha. Utterly exhausted from our 4:30 am wake-up and subsequently shredding thousands of feet of vert on our bikes, taking a nap on the queen-sized beds in the tents seemed like an enticing idea. However, we did have to make it home that night. Achieving Nirvana would have to wait for another day.
A clean bike is a happy bike. Max Ritter photo. There’s just something about a clean bike that makes you want to ride faster and push harder on the trail. Maybe it’s a placebo, or maybe it’s the fact that a clean bike typically means everything is working well, your drivetrain isn’t creaking, and your suspension is as active as it can be. Even if you only ride in dry conditions, cleaning your bike frequently will keep it happy and make all those expensive parts work better and last
Casey Brown rocking her new signature jersey, just one of the many women's kits we tested this summer. Scott Robb photo. The other day I was riding with a few of my girlfriends, and this woman in a really cute pair of bike shorts passed us on the trail. Intrigued, we tried guessing the brand and began naming off all the mountain bike apparel companies we knew: Wild Rye, Shredly, Dakine, Sombrio, Mons Royale, and the list kept going. I couldn’t help but laugh because five years ago we
While one of mountain biking’s most infamous races – the legendary MegaAvalanche – did not take place this summer, organizers couldn’t resist giving racers a chance to bomb down the mountainside at Alpe D’Huez in a mass-start race. Things were a little different this year, but looked just as rowdy as ever, with lots of carnage and pile-up crashes throughout the day. I mean, come on, what’s there not to like about blasting euro techno at the start line while you and 50 other riders all-out