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Putting the Mountains Back into Mountain Biking

08 March 2022

Words, Videos and Photos: Jamie Nicoll

"Putting the mountains back into mountain biking" has been a hobby horse of mine for a few years now. And a general conversation trend not just here, but globally.

Mountain biking started as a fringe sport or not even a sport really, just an activity unleashed from society’s fringe... mainly by hippies and alternatives on the Californian coast. A wild time on bikes not originally designed for off-road punishment, pushing the boundaries and getting out amongst nature.

The mountains have never left my mountain biking, but as our sport evolves I see much of the nation's riding taking place at easy-access parks. Absolutely bike parks are great - a valuable asset and proving ground for the developing rider and busy-lifers... but off-camber corners and rooty messes are a hard find.

I revel in sessions at the park, yet mountain biking is so much more than that for me. Putting the mountains back into mountain biking is a deep seed for me - a natural draw to the fringe, to corners less explored, and I believe does not have to be gnarly multi-day trails. Just places less visited, making space to find some wild in your world.

I'm lucky that this is my job. I regularly indulge my passion for connecting people with nature and community through mountain biking. And tell my stories through blogs like this, magazine articles and @jamienicolladventures social media. This tale is definitely at the more extreme end of my riding and local exploring repertoire. 'Just an overnighter', but challenging due to the tech and nasty trail, and the need to (try to) ride as much of it as possible. 

The Mission

An East-ish to West-ish traverse of the Richmond Ranges just south of Nelson. Possibly the first by bike.

The Crew

Myself and three 'boys' from Wellington... but who probably know the Richmond Ranges better than anyone, except perhaps my dentist Hunter and his mates. Anyhow, Tom, Rhys and Scotty are, well, unique and definitely fringe in their riding tastes. So unique that I believe they are pioneering a new MTB discipline and absolutely pushing the edges of what is ridable on our current bikes.

The Idea

Start above Lake Chalice (inland from Blenheim), head Northwest to Old Man Peak, Slaty Peak and Slaty Hut for the night. Then continue to Mt Starveall and out down the Hacket, emerging near Richmond.

Day 1

Picking up Tom late from Nelson Airport, we headed around the ranges and camped at the Lake Chalice trailhead. I woke from weird dreams to discover a misty, wet morning outside.

Out of the gate it was a big fast descent to Lake Chalice before the pushing and carrying started. Plenty of great chat about trail advocacy and saving the world through increased responsibility around warranty bike repairs all helped speed the long climb to peak 1522m.

From here the ridge traversed to Old Man Peak 1514m. Even in the wet we uncovered trail riding that was soooo good. At Old Man we hit the junction with Te Araroa Trail (the length of New Zealand trail network) and turned due north, pushing deep turns in scree as we descended towards Ada Flat.

Near here the moss-lined ribbon trail wound its way through stunted Beech forest. Expansive views out to the bigger peaks were still hidden from sight. Amazing terrain to ride through.

A shorter carry took us back above the bushline to 1538m and saw us riding the tops as the weather closed in. Waterproofs on as the rain came at us in a  sideways fashion. Slaty Hut was close. A wee tech traverse under Slaty Peak spat us out at the door. A welcome sight emerging  from the mist. The hut was already warm and toasty with two trampers having arrived earlier on their Te Araroa trek south.

Boiling the billy for a few cuppas and an impromptu pizza cooked on the fire passed the hours until the evening cleared into one amazingly clear sky. We climbed Slaty Peak for sunset and boy was that worth it. Views out to the Richmond plains and my home beyond. Turning around I could see Blenheim in the distance as the light changed and the colours grew into a magic mountain sunset.

Off to bed with laughs and chatter. We all got a good night’s sleep. No weird dreams for me!

Day 2

Slaty Hut to Mt Starveal was yet more amazing riding. Still quite slippery but with clear, all round views. One very challenging chute was mastered by Rhys.

This gave me the motivation to drop-in too, but it wasn’t my day (yet). Struggling for control, a horizontal tree contacted the side of my helmet. My jaw and neck took the initial hard impact and a saddle to the pubic bone took the rest of the energy. I took a little lie down until I stopped feeling dizzy.

From Mt Starveall I was back on form, cleaning the whole top section down to Starveall Hut.


Rhys cleaned it also. Tom and Scotty knocked off new sections from their list of goals. This top section is well off the charts compared to bike park tech - even when considering Nelson’s sanctioned grade 6 double black trails. So, I felt pretty pleased to dial it in. It’s been years since I last attempted this section, and was even more pleased not to add a chopper ride or more bruises to the list of collateral.

Many Nelson riders would know the descent from Starveall Hut to the Hacket River as a top backcountry descent. And so with eager anticipation, our train of four rolled into our final downhill.

A wee nude swim in the damn cold Hacket prepped us for the trail out to the carpark. A fun and ever increasingly smooth trail had us feeling fast, stoked and ready for another swim at the popular Aniseed Valley Road Footbridge swimming hole.

Now there's a sample of the delights on offer when putting a bit of mountain back into a fringe pursuit!