Whistler’s Raddest Trailbuilder

[This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Mountain Life magazine.]

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“I feel that you can experience something in your head and get the same physical reaction, the adrenalin rush, as you do when you do it for real,” Dan Raymond chews this thought over some, takes a swig from his beer (craft beer, it has to be said) and continues. “I think that helps in snowboarding for doing new tricks but also helps in building mountain bike trails because you can imagine riding a line that doesn’t exist yet but that if you built it it would be fun.”

There’s not many people that can draw similarities between spinning high above the deck of an Olympic snowboard half pipe and spending countless hours with their hands in the dirt. But Dan Raymond has done both and can see that although the task differs greatly, the process is somewhat indistinguishable.

Dan competed at the highest level of snowboard half pipe competition for many years and now coaches the national freestyle team, but his entry into competitive snowboarding was sort of backwards – he strted out as a coach and then turned into a professional athlete. He was, as he puts it, “a nerd ski instructor” that relished the act of learning. “I found that the cognitive aspect of learning about it made me progress as an athlete really effectively. At first I just wanted to do a season competing on the World Cup so I knew what it was like to be an athlete at that level so I could be a better coach. That turned into eight years as an athlete culminating with me retiring at the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver.”

When he stopped competing he was looking for a new learning outlet, something that he could unravel and understand. Then one day in 2010 while out riding his mountain bike he came across a section of trail high up on the Flank that seemed to go nowhere. “It suckered me in…I thought to myself, I have to do something here, it’s beautiful terrain.” What he thought would take him just a few afternoons to complete took three summers and a lot of his spare time. What he created was Rockwork Orange, Korovo Milkbar and Wizard Burial Ground, a series of interlinked trails that have already become a Whistler classic.

In the same way he dove headfirst into learning every facet of snowboarding and understanding it clear enough to coach it, he approached trailbuilding with the same thirst for knowledge. Not all of his learning was done on the trail, he asked around the community for advice, sought the guidance of other local master builders and even took on an apprenticeship of sorts with the Municipality trail crew under the tutelage of Eric Berry and Leanne Patterson. “I did some serious learning, it was like when I learned to snowboard, all over again, except this time with trail building. Eric is a wizard with woodwork and Leanne is a wizard of rock work. They showed me what was possible to build, with terrain I never knew it was possible to do so with, and make it fun.” A builder has to be able to imagine a line and know how to go about creating it. It’s clear from riding Dan’s trails that he has the ability to see a line that works with the terrain – something that can’t be taught – and the skills and techniques he learned and was taught allows him to make these lines a reality.

“I see trails as aesthetic beautiful things that with time and destruction can become horrible scars. In particular I don’t like braided trails. You can see examples of where a trail builder has not anticipated the speed of riders or how riders will end up riding the trail, and that leads to damage to the trail. I like to remediate that and go where the riders will go and create it with the flow so the experience is best. I hate seeing trails that are ten feet wide because… it’s ugly.” But it’s not just a case of making a line that flows well for a rider, but create the trail in a way that it will last past the first full summer. For Dan this means working with the gradient, not just racing it down the hill, looking for features and using the materials that Mother Nature provides – rock lasts forever, dirt can be mined and placed on the trail bed if necessary, and good cedar can be employed to span challenging terrain (soft, wet ground). But most of all a builder needs patience. “Everything takes a lot more work than you think it would. It doesn’t matter if you want to add a berm to something or build a jump or clean out a rock to add a line to your favorite trail, no matter what it will be harder than you thought and take longer.”

Because of his craftsman appreciation for the techniques of trailbuilding and his ability to build memorable trails that flow through the forest and yet subtly disguise smart design features that will allow them to last, he has been recruited by WORCA to build part of the Sproatt alpine trail project, a three-year project. While the Municipality construct a multi-use climbing trail Dan and others will be working on a blue-grade descending trail that will eventually create a loop from the valley to the alpine and back, what he describes as, “sort of like the downhill version of Comfortably Numb.”

“Trailbuilding has made me obsessive to the point that everywhere I go I am looking at the terrain and imagining what a trail would look like in there. It occupies my time and my mind in the same way that imagining my half pipe snowboard runs would when I was competing.” For mountain bikers it means we get to experience Dan’s unique interpretation of the Whistler landscape, although when we do it will be our own imagine that is stirred.

[Read about Dan’s vision for trailbuilding and some essential pieces of advice for wannabe trail builders HERE]

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