Gold In Them Hills: The Queenstown Saga Pt. 1 [Unearthed]

Forward:  This is a piece I put together a bit over a year ago when I was in Queenstown, NZ.  It didn’t get picked up, and I sort of forgot about it, not sure what to do with it.  After a conversation the other day, I realized I had never published it in any form.  So, here it is now, I think it is still quite relevant!  Thank again to everyone who took time out of their day to have a chat with me about the finer points of the scene, looking forward to returning for the ’18 summer!  

Strolling down the boardwalk with The Huck Wizard towards the local haunt, Atlas Bar and Cafe, he remarked that people stay in Queenstown, not because of the ample biking, but because of all the other cool options for activities in the area.  This thriving town sandwiched between the sloshing waves of Wakatipu and the steep pine-riddled sides of Ben Lomond, is best known for its amazing single track and wild bike parks.  Beyond pedal-powered adventure, there is fantastic backcountry dirtbike riding, canyoning, world-class hiking, and endless eateries – all within a very tight radius.  In the winter time, the ski fields bring people in by the bus load, but the climate actually allows for riding year-round if you’re hearty enough, as the snowline starts very high up in the hills.  Queenstown and the Otago Region really are full of endless possibilities for outdoor adventure and exploration.  The staggering backdrop of The Remarkables and Cecil Peak rising up from Lake Wakatipu make for a picturesque reminder of the beauty and majesty of the South Island.

The view from the top of the Fernhill climb is worth the effort alone, but what awaits in the wooded descents is really the true prize.
The view from the top of the Fernhill climb is worth the effort alone, but what awaits in the wooded descents is really the true prize.
Queenstown has views that never get old.
Queenstown has views that never get old.
The peaks dominate the landscape here in Queenstown (middle left); The Remarkable setback in the middle, Cecil Peak on the right, and Ben Lomond lurking around behind this photo, which was taken from residential Fernhill.
The peaks dominate the landscape here in Queenstown (middle left); The Remarkable setback in the middle, Cecil Peak on the right, and Ben Lomond lurking around behind this photo, which was taken from residential Fernhill.
Bob Dylan said it best, "May you always be courageous/ Stand upright and be strong/ May you stay forever young" ; Be this man, pursue the thrill.
Bob Dylan said it best, “May you always be courageous/
Stand upright and be strong/
May you stay forever young” ; Be this man, pursue the thrill.

 To better understand the core scene here in the haven among the Southern Alps, I reached out to some friends who also happen to be in positions of strong influence among the knobby-tire crowd.  Humble and hardworking, these dedicated and passionate bunch help with everything from trail maintenance and land access, to event coordination and publicity.  What is particularly interesting about these riders, is that none of them work in the mountain bike industry – they all have professions in varying fields, from educator to arborist.  They all deeply care about the community that has formed around the common enjoyment of riding.  Individually, they set aside a great deal of their personal time to see that the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club runs smoothly.

Fraser, making sure everything runs smoothly behind the scenes at KJet.
Fraser, making sure everything runs smoothly behind the scenes at KJet.
Jimmy, taking lunch while sat against the morning's work.
Jimmy, taking lunch while sat against the morning’s work.
Al kicks back in the setting sun, as he is officially on vacation for a good while - perks of being a teacher!
Al kicks back in the setting sun, as he is officially on vacation for a good while – perks of being a teacher!

 A decade ago, there was only a single real trail at what is now the 7 Mile trail network, a handful of pirate trails up on Ben Lomond, and a few backcountry hiking trails which remain from the 1860’s gold rush in the Otago region.  Now though, you are hard pressed to decide which trail to ride first, as the selection of XC, BC, and DH is just shy of overwhelming.  The original visioneers Lance Brown, Nathan Greenwood, Carey Vivian, and Marty Azlenark, put in the initial hard work that created the foundation for the current scene.  They set the tone for what was to come when Tom Hey [slopestyle and trail building guru] arrived for the 2007/2008 summer.  At the time, the scene had reached a bit of a plateau.  Tom saw that he could build onto what had been created, and bring his unique vision to life.  Up to that point, there had been no new trails or features built for a number of years.  Initiative was taken, and with the help of locals and friends, Tom and company set out into the backcountry, armed with GPS units, handtools, and enthusiasm, to sculpt fresh ribbons of dirt.  

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it's mid-summer, so a lot of the colorful flowers have come and gone, but there are still a few lingering about on the side of the trail.
it’s mid-summer, so a lot of the colorful flowers have come and gone, but there are still a few lingering about on the side of the trail.
Kachoong is the best trail to end on at 7 Mile because it is just jumps, corners, and more jumps right down to the water.
Kachoong is the best trail to end on at 7 Mile because it is just jumps, corners, and more jumps right down to the water.
A sunny Saturday is an ideal time to ride with friends. 7 MIle is a great candidate if it's esepcially hot because there is ample shade, and it finishes right at the beach in Closeburn.
A sunny Saturday is an ideal time to ride with friends. 7 MIle is a great candidate if it’s esepcially hot because there is ample shade, and it finishes right at the beach in Closeburn.

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7 Mile is a maze of trails, so it's wise to grab a map or a friend to lead the way. Craig Munro finds some airtime on Kachoong.
7 Mile is a maze of trails, so it’s wise to grab a map or a friend to lead the way. Craig Munro finds some airtime on Kachoong.

 What turned out to be a “perfect storm” of timing, Tom and his volunteer army of diggers were busy working their magic to turn out the unseen gold-in-the-hills, right as the Skyline Gondola opened up to mountain biking in 2011.  With the pirate trails of Turd Sandwich (now known as “Single Track Sandwich”) and Vertigo (Tim Ceci’s handy work) already in place, the riding community suddenly was thrust into a new epoch of land access.  The “GSD” [Get Shit Done] mentality of the local riders meant there was no lack of hands to heft picks and shovels. Soon, Skyline and the surrounding foothills were alive more than ever, with the sound of drifting tires and excited shouts of riders.  

Fraser leads out Jimmy, Pang, and Al (just out of frame) into the Woops on Original.
Fraser leads out Jimmy, Pang, and Al (just out of frame) into the Woops on Original.

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We had a new for friends join in the fun, and ended up with a 28-wheel train steaming down Thundergoat. Jimmy leading JT.
We had a new for friends join in the fun, and ended up with a 28-wheel train steaming down Thundergoat. Jimmy leading JT.
How many teachers spend their weekends doing this? Alan, enjoying school vacation.
How many teachers spend their weekends doing this? Alan, enjoying school vacation.

 Tom Hey stepped down from his presidential position in 2014, and Jimmy Carling became the new head of the QMTBC because, in his own words, “I was the only silly bastard to put my hand up”.  As an arborist, his days are spent with a chainsaw in hand at dizzying heights, or on the steep sides of the hills, felling trees and doing preventative maintenance.  He also helps a great deal with trail maintenance and repair due to his expertise with power/hand tools.  Jimmy is the perfect person to help lead the club and scene into the future, as he shares Tom’s vision of trail access and exploration, but perhaps on an even deeper level.  He sees the riding community, not as a sport-specific group, but as a proper “Outdoor User Group”.  It’s less about the bike, and more about where you’re going, to paraphrase Jimmy, and that’s why the club’s logo is a tree, not a wheel or something else sport-related.  The core concept for QMTBC is about enjoying of the environment, the forest, and the natural playground surrounding us all.  

Jimmy, taking lunch while sat against the morning's work.
Jimmy, taking lunch while sat against the morning’s work.
The President can shred! Jimmy Carling, president of Queenstown Mountain Bike Club, puts on a clinc via the big line on Huck Yeah - the club-sanctioned jumpline at Skyline Mountain Bike Park.
The President can shred! Jimmy Carling, president of Queenstown Mountain Bike Club, puts on a clinc via the big line on Huck Yeah – the club-sanctioned jumpline at Skyline Mountain Bike Park.

 QMTBC isn’t a motley crew of young punks:  the club received the “Supreme Award”, which is a Community Contribution Award.  They were nominated for, and won it, on a regional level, which put them into the running on a national scale for the overall title.  The award is sponsored by a power company, who actually use the club as an example as a great business model.  The club does not receive funding from the local counsel, so all funding for new projects must be raised in a grassroots fashion: sales of memberships, t shirts, stickers, event entries, and seasonal raffles.  All of the money goes right back into the project pot, with no cents leaking out from unnecessary spending.  Due to the success of the efforts put forth by Jimmy and the QTMBC, local businesses and individuals have started seeking out the club as a place to donate money e.g. sponsor events and/or partner with the club for discounts and promotions.  QMTBC is a brand, and a cool one at that, so much so, even non-industry brands and companies around town are asking to join in the fun via donations and partnerships; quite a stark contrast to what once was, “Squeezing blood from a stone” in regards to gathering funds.

 Fraser Gordon is another key figure in the club hierarchy.  His day job involves being the Operations Manager for KJet, one of the premier jetboat companies that run up the Shotover River on heart-pounding tours.  Fraser grew up on a small family farm in Tapanui, Otago.  With farming and hard work in his blood, he is a true embodiment of the Kiwi spirit.  He understands the need for organization, while keeping things friendly and fun.  When riders are in the gate at the local race series, he is often the last face they’ll see before hammering out of the gate, as he has been heavily involved in the local QTDH series as well.  A family man who knows the importance of community involvement, Fraser emphasizes the need for volunteers and getting more people to donate their time for club projects.  Leading by example, he spearheaded the construction of two prominent and popular trails in the bike park:  GSD, and the brand new Huck Yeah jump line.

Fraser, making sure everything runs smoothly behind the scenes at KJet.
Fraser, making sure everything runs smoothly behind the scenes at KJet.
Fraser shimmies his way down a freshly revamped version of the former skid-track, KY, during our impromptu group ride ride up the gondola.
Fraser shimmies his way down a freshly revamped version of the former skid-track, KY, during our impromptu group ride ride up the gondola.

 While we were chatting, he emphasized that QMTBC isn’t just two people “making the calls” though, it’s group diplomacy, managed by a Club Committee.  The members who comprise the brain trust are Jimmy Carling, Fraser Gordon, Alan Birkett, Ronnie Baker, Adam Carson, Bruce McCloud, Pete McNally, Brendan Callaghan, and Helen Watling rounding out the group as the part time administrator for social media, funding applications, and soft good sales.  

JImmy lives just up the street from me, and Salmon Run finishes just down the street from both of us. We went over to the lower section of the track one day to ride some sections before the rain moved in.
JImmy lives just up the street from me, and Salmon Run finishes just down the street from both of us. We went over to the lower section of the track one day to ride some sections before the rain moved in.
While standing around cracking jokes, we were nearly run over by Kepler Rek, local pinner and Skyline trail builder.
While standing around cracking jokes, we were nearly run over by Kepler Rek, local pinner and Skyline trail builder.

 Al Birkett manages the the memberships for the club, the main source of “income” for the club.  He also helps with the race series, marketing, and managing the QMTBC image.  Being that he is a teacher at the local high school, he jokes that he is actually a government sponsored rider, he just has to donate his time to shaping the minds of the youth, Monday through Friday.  Quick with a joke and a laugh, Al is another great example of the kind of person involved in the club, and how it is all about having the right attitude here in Queenstown.

Al kicks back in the setting sun, as he is officially on vacation for a good while - perks of being a teacher!
Al kicks back in the setting sun, as he is officially on vacation for a good while – perks of being a teacher!
Corners don't get much more challenging that what can be found on Fernhill. Al squares up one of the top berms on Salmon run.
Corners don’t get much more challenging that what can be found on Fernhill. Al squares up one of the top berms on Salmon run.

 New Zealand is a young country in terms of global history.  The population is mostly that of European immigrants who came to this far-away land looking to start fresh.  The land is harsh at times, but hard work and grit make it livable and worth living in such stunning scenery.  It was impressed upon me, that this is where the “no ego” and laid back Kiwi attitude comes from – no one had anything to prove in the very beginning, and that nearly-humble-to-a-fault sort of social structure is what keeps everything moving forward to this day.  On occasion the club faces issues with land access, but more often than not, are able to resolve the matter and get the private land owners on board.  Biking is accepted and recognized in New Zealand, it is not seen as rebellious or as some sort of sideshow like it often is in U.S. or U.K.  The next big focus is the development of a massive backcountry loop e.g. a 55km loop with a hut halfway.  All eyes are set toward the future and how to expand the trails and continually grow the scene.  Youth participation is on the rise, and for the club, getting kids out on the trails, racing and riding, that is the next user group to bring into the fold.

The lastest, and some have said greatest, addition to the Fernhill trail network; The sign says it all.
The latest, and some have said greatest, addition to the Fernhill trail network; The sign says it all.

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Craig and I became friends during my first summer in Queenstown last year, as we have a shared interest in hanging a foot and smashing corners.
Craig and I became friends during my first summer in Queenstown last year, as we have a shared interest in hanging a foot and smashing corners.
I asked Alan if he would show me the new climb and descent on Fernhill, and he was more than happy to ablige. Craig Munro and Jake Hood joined us for the excursion.
I asked Alan if he would show me the new climb and descent on Fernhill, and he was more than happy to oblige. Craig Munro and Jake Hood joined us for the excursion.
Jake Hood is the head mechanic at one of the local bike shops, Bikeaholics, and revels in his after-work rides.
Jake Hood is the head mechanic at one of the local bike shops, Bikeaholics, and revels in his after-work rides.
The light is always right over head in Queenstown. Jake Hood finds himself in the spotlight on the new track up Fernhill, Salmon Run.
The light is always right over head in Queenstown. Jake Hood finds himself in the spotlight on the new track up Fernhill, Salmon Run.
Al's look of mild trepidation is quite understandable, as every corner on the hill is steep, tight, and technical.
Al’s look of mild trepidation is quite understandable, as every corner on the hill is steep, tight, and technical.
A lot of Salmon Run is benchcut into the grond, but the insane pitch of the hill is still felt in all of the traverse corners.
A lot of Salmon Run is benchcut into the grond, but the insane pitch of the hill is still felt in all of the traverse corners.
The new track on Fernhill, Salmon Run, is full-on right from the start. Jake Hood airs a blind rise into an off-camber patch of brand new trail.
The new track on Fernhill, Salmon Run, is full-on right from the start. Jake Hood airs a blind rise into an off-camber patch of brand new trail.

 Adventure tourism is on the rise, so there is never a lack of people cycling through Queenstown, making the pilgrimage to the epicenter for Southern Hemisphere summer fun.  The running joke is that there are not actually many Kiwis in Queenstown, it’s all expats and tourists, but one thing is for certain though:  there is a special magic about the tight-knit outdoor user group here.  With the right attitude about pitching in and/or participation in events, being welcomed into the community is as easy as checking your ego at the door, joining in on a ride, and hanging out for a beer and chat after the dust has settled.

If a ride doesn't finish at Atlas, did it even really happen?
If a ride doesn’t finish at Atlas, did it even really happen?
"This meeting is now in session!" L to R; Jimmy, Alan, Fraser, Indri, Amy, Bob, JT, Gnome.
“This meeting is now in session!” L to R; Jimmy, Alan, Fraser, Indri, Amy, Bob, JT, Gnome.

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