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15 September 2020

E-MTB Adventures in the Gifford

Shimano STEPS takes Leslie Kehmeier deep into Washington State’s wilderness

Leslie Kehmeier scoping out her line


“I can’t guarantee anything out here but adventure,” says my friend Anne as we buckle our helmets and get ready to pedal out of camp. Sensing a serious tone in her voice, I reply, “So this is the verbal waiver?” She nods her head firmly yes, and we ride out on the first of six mega-rides in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest of Washington State. 


Shimano STEPS bikes


“The Giff” is not for the faint of heart. In fact, we got a few puzzled looks and concerned comments from friends after sharing the details of our quest. This part of the world, located in south-central Washington, has some of the steepest, most remote trails I’ve ever found myself on. Nestled into the other-worldly landscape, the juxtaposition of lush green forests with giant trees flanked by rugged volcano mountains is second to none.  


Emtbing in Washington



Traditionally, the Gifford is a popular place for riding motorcycles thanks to oodles of long-distance singletrack options. It's these same trails that make it an ideal zone for e-bike expeditions. So, when Anne invited me to join, I jumped at the opportunity. I always look forward to “type 2” fun, especially when it comes with an adventure waiver. Although I have a decent amount of experience with e-mountain bikes, it’s mostly been in front-country trail systems. I hadn’t pushed the limits in the backcountry realm just yet. So many things seemed intriguing about this type of riding: Pushing battery life, testing fitness and the bike’s capabilities, riding through a variety of landscapes and seasonal conditions, and the challenging nature of the trails in a place that isn’t frequented by mountain bikes. On paper, it was one of the deeper experiences I’ve participated in. 


Gear laydown


Mapping out the next adventure


Six days, 130+ miles, and 26,000 feet of climbing later, I had fully tested myself and my bike. It’s hard to pick a favorite trail - we covered a lot of ground between the small Washington towns of Cougar and Randle.  From the dense, lush forest zone above the Lewis River area to the exposed ridgelines around Sunshine Peak and beyond, we overwhelmed our senses with an extraordinary program.  Happy, exhausted, and fulfilled, we deemed the Gifford Expedition a success. It was a growth experience for me, a chance to reinvent myself on a bicycle. 


Emtb mountain biking


Part One: Learning How to Ride a Bike Again 

It seems silly to say that I had to learn how to ride a bike again, and really it was only little things. For the most part, it was about how to maximize the pedal-assist while climbing. On our first ride, we climbed steep grades straight out of the gate. Normally, this is soul-sucking. However, with the e-MTB, I knew I could pedal up slopes that I usually had to hike-a-bike. This led to lots of giggles and laughter. It also inspired me to ride up and over vertical rocks and roots that I don’t usually tackle. 


Ebike sitting on trail sign


Shimano STEPS system


Part Two: Battery Management 

Throughout my life, I’ve had a lot of fun testing new things— it’s all about exploring and discovering. During the second part of the expedition, I focused on battery life, finding it more interesting than stressful. For one thing, I knew Boost mode was only for special occasions if I wanted to finish these rides without having one heckuva workout on a very heavy bike. Been there, done that. On days three and four, I learned the fine art of managing power between Eco and Trail modes. Ultimately, battery life is straightforward — the more power you use, the less time and distance you can go. 


Mountain biking


Part Three: Pure Bliss

After four days of respectably big rides, it was time for us to go “next level." We were striving for more mileage and more climbing. With confidence from the previous days, we were ready to see if we could cash the batteries. I packed an extra battery for our fifth ride, which we anticipated to be our longest with the most elevation gain. It was worth all the weight and effort, allowing me to access one of the most beautiful zones I’ve ever pedaled through. At one point, we had Mt. Adams hiding behind a ridge to our backs and an amazingly clear view of Mt. Rainier ahead. With jagged peaks and wildflowers flanking us to the left, we had immersed ourselves in an all-time scenario. 



Trail sign


Hanging around the camp fire


following day, we concluded our e-fueled odyssey with pure bliss. The sixth ride was a combination of Juniper Ridge and Tongue Mountain. A scrappy climb and traverse led us to the shoulder below Juniper Peak where we soaked up the atmosphere. After some quiet moments, we dropped our saddles for the much-anticipated, 3000-foot loam-tastic descent through a magically glowing Pacific Northwest forest. There was no better way to end a week of nothing guaranteed but adventure.


Single track emptying