It can be a very long cold day when you’re on the ski patrol at Mission Ridge. There’s a significant amount of down time just sitting in the shack at the top of the mountain and waiting for the call to duty to help a skier in need. Thoughts can drift to other seasons and other adventures, especially when it’s the coldest day of the winter. Such was the case during the winter of 1989 when Terry Van Dorien posed the question to his co-workers and friends, “Do you think we can ride our mountain bikes from the parking lot of Mission Ridge up and over to Ellensburg?”
As mentioned, this was the late 80s. Mountain biking was still a relatively new sport and the suspension-equipped bikes that dominate the industry now had not been fully conceived or mass produced. Yet for those thrill-seeking, adrenaline-junkie skier types, mountain biking was the perfect solution for what to do after the snow melted. Terry was familiar with the horseback trips that Leonard Jagla organized on behalf of the NCW Appaloosa Horse Club during the 1970s. About 15 riders from Wenatchee would travel on horseback from the base of Mission Ridge to the summit, then down through old logging roads in the Nanum area of the Kittitas Valley, eventually making it to Ellensburg. The trip would take roughly 10 hours and after an overnight rest the group would ride in the Ellensburg Rodeo parade the following day. To Terry Van Dorien, it seemed like a great spot to try some mountain biking. Thus, an inspiration was born and soon plans for the inaugural “Backside Ride” were underway.
On the morning of September 15, 1989, eight friends left the parking lot on mountain bikes and headed up Wayhut to the radio tower at the top of Mission Ridge. They were a group of employees from the ski area, among them Terry Van Dorien (age 39), his twin brother Gary (ditto), Brian Slusser (age 24), Eric Graves (age 23), better known as “Auggie” and his future wife Wendy Harsbarger (age 20), Virgil Hughes (age 24), Carl Tolson (age 45), and a lift operator named MaryBeth (age 22). Just like the horses on earlier Jagla trips, it took about 2 hours to ride up the area’s service road, “Wayhut,” and reach the top. From there, they followed “Back Road Maggi,” eventually peeling off down through some open meadows to the east and heading off in the direction of Ellensburg. Later they tied into well-established Forest Service roads that would lead them out of the Nanum drainage and onto the Kittitas Valley floor. They made this part of the trip much faster than the horses did, and by late afternoon reached their final destination, The Tav in Ellensburg.
Terry and Gary Van Dorien were born identical twins and like most twins growing up together, they were constant companions, often enjoying outdoor activities like snow skiing and mountain biking together. During the winter of 1989-90, Terry was employed as a full-time professional ski patrolman, while Gary was a member of the volunteer ski patrol at Mission Ridge. They were each married with young families and skiing provided an opportunity for the brothers to spend some time together. But on Monday January 15, 1990, their relationship was forever altered. To this day, Terry can recall the exact moment that he last saw his twin brother Gary alive. “We ran into each other on Sunday afternoon while skiing down Bomber Bowl, agreed to meet later in the day over at Chair 4, and then I watched him ski away.” Terry and Gary did not hook up later that day. The next morning on Monday, January 15, 1990, Gary Van Dorien was tragically killed in an accident while working for the Chelan County PUD as a hydroelectric mechanic.
Terry took Gary’s untimely death hard, but rather than dwell on the negative, he searched for something more positive and found in the Backside Ride a way to honor his brother. This year will be the 20th anniversary of the Backside Ride. Each and every year since it’s beginning in 1989, Terry has been inspired to organize the ride as a tribute to Gary. It’s very fitting that he chose this particular venue, since skiing at Mission Ridge and mountain biking were something they both enjoyed immensely and especially liked doing together.
Bob, the bus, and a shirt
Most folks who have ridden the Backside ride really don’t know and therefore can’t appreciate how much planning is involved. Every summer Terry and his good buddies Dick Olson, Joe Spry, and Mike “The Bike Doctor” Earing have done what is known as the “Backside Pre-Ride.” The purpose of the pre-ride is two-fold: one, to log out trees and other debris that have fallen across the route in the previous winter; and two, to flag sections of the route for single track riding. Mike pulls “Bob,” a suspension trailer loaded with a chainsaw and other tools behind his bike. Bob the trailer is the inspiration for naming “Bob’s Drop” the steep, sandy section of single-track that has been the nemesis of many bikers over the years. According to Mike “it’s tough enough to ride the sandy slope on just a bike alone and with Bob the trailer on, it’s a super fast free-form slide down the hill. We (Mike and Bob) do a great job of clearing the path, but you better not get in the way because it is somewhat difficult to stop.” No kidding.
Similarly, “Bowling Ball Meadow” got its name from — you guessed it — a bowling ball they found while exploring one of the upper meadows. Imagine the surprise at finding something so out-of-place that for some odd reason for which he has no explanation, Terry decided to kick the bowling ball. It was, in fact, real and he did end up breaking his toe.
On another pre-ride the guys, this time accompanied by Mike Britton, decided to ride back up the Nanum drainage to Mission Ridge instead of carrying on to the town of Ellensburg. This proved to be a really difficult task involving lots of bike pushing over a seriously long day, followed by complete remorse at missing a chance for a cold beer at the Tav. As Terry puts it, “that was just plain dumb.” Mike Britton coincidentally, has been relatively scarce on subsequent Backside Rides.
By the year 2001, the Backside Ride was popular enough that Terry decided to provide transportation back to Wenatchee from Ellensburg for a nominal fee. Bring on the bus! Riding back on the bus after a long day of riding and then a few hours of socializing at the Tav was simply sweet. It meant no extra effort to drive over to Ellensburg the day before and leave a car as well as providing a huge safety benefit in the drinking vs. driving arena. The bus itself has been as eclectic as the riders themselves, but one of the primary requirements is that the bus driver will provide at least one pit stop on Blewett Pass! There was the year the headlights quit working properly or the year the bus was billowing stinky exhaust as it struggled like the little train engine (I think I can, I think I can …) to make it up the hill. But no bus story trumps what happened in 2006 — the bus never showed. Having proclaimed to Terry “I’m on my way” numerous times throughout the day, that year’s bus driver simply decided not to come, thereby leaving about 30 people stranded in Ellensburg. Luckily a few creative individuals scoured the yellow pages, got on the phone and hired minivans from a local taxi service to drive them back to Wenatchee. The day was saved and a memorable trip was had by all!
To commemorate each year’s ride, Terry has had souvenir t-shirts silkscreened made. No two t-shirts are exactly alike, but on each there can be found imprinted the letters “G.V.D.” in honor of Gary Van Dorien. The t-shirts have become a lasting way for Terry to give tribute to his brother Gary.
The t-shirts themselves are not without controversy. There must have been something out of alignment with the planets in 2006. Like the bus that didn’t show that year, the t-shirt was inadvertently imprinted with the year 2007 instead of 2006. On the 10th-annual Backside Ride in 1999, Terry got creative designing the back of the t-shirt depicting the backside of a bikini-clad woman with the trail map stretching from her shoulder to her swimsuit line. Unfortunately, a few women took offense to the shirt and filed complaints with the trip organizer. The next year, in 2000, Terry responded by putting a frumpy guy with the trail map on his backside on the t-shirt. There were no complaints this time. Listen up folks! There’s a subtle message to be found here, “its all in good fun.”
Whoa! Hang on to them handlebars
There’s an odd saying some people have about mountain biking, “if you don’t draw blood, it wasn’t a good ride.” With its share of unusual accidents and injuries over the years that must surely mean that the Backside Ride is a great one.
Original rider Virgil Hughes was riding behind longtime participant Dave Ulrich when they came upon a deep washed-out section of the road. Dave jumped and cleared the ravine, but poor Virgil didn’t quite make it. He landed on the far wall of the ravine, breaking his bike frame in two and hyper-extending his thumb. Unable to fix the bike, they broke it down to make it easier to carry it out, spreading out the frame and wheels to other riders. Virgil rode tandem — which was not easy on just one seat on a bumpy logging rode — until they hit the pavement, whereupon his injured thumb was in perfect position to hitchhike into Ellensburg.
Or there was the time that Terry Van Dorien, while riding tail gun with Dick Olson, failed to notice the rock in his pathway because he and Dick were engrossed in a conversation. He flipped over the handlebars, was knocked briefly unconscious and broke a couple of ribs. The rest of the ride was, needless to say, “painful.”
Perhaps the most interesting mishap was when a large group of physicians and employees from Wenatchee Valley Medical Center decided to ride a few years ago. Kevin Gilbert, director of hospital operations for the WVMC Hospital Surgery Center, went over the handlebars on the infamous “Bob’s Drop” run, got up, started riding and then crashed again. As Terry Van Dorien describes it, Kevin “manned-up,” and rode the rest of the 20 or so miles without any assistance from the trained professionals in his group. Later he spent time recuperating in the hospital from a few broken ribs and a punctured lung!
By September most of the smaller natural water ways in these parts are significantly diminished and pose no threat to crossing by mountain bike. Near the bottom of the Nanum drainage close to where the long stretch of pavement into Ellensburg proper begins can be found a creek. This is not your average creek. It spans about 15 feet from side-to-side and because it has relatively smooth water for a creek, it appears that it is fairly shallow. Riders that are new to the Backside Ride will almost always attempt to ride across the creek and the fact is they will fail; no one in the history of the ride has cleared it. It has become a very reliable source of entertainment, especially the year when guest judges Debbie Workman and Robin and Curt Wolfe scored the futile attempts. Due to a shortage of score cards, however, they were only able to award a “6” or a “9.” It’s all in good fun.
It’s been 20 (oops) 19.5 years
In late September or early October when the Backside ride occurs, the weather can be iffy. It can be sweltering hot like the dog days of summer or it can be downright chilly as a mid-winter cold spell. Such was the case in the late 90’s when the riders were met with a fresh dusting of snow in the parking lot at Mission Ridge. By group consensus, they elected to ride across the Pipeline Trail and hook in to the Mission Ridge — Devil’s Gulch loop instead, eventually riding back to their cars in the parking lot. Fortunately this was before buses were organized, so no one actually got stood up in Ellensburg. This does, however, call into question the total number of years. As a matter of record, it is legitimate to round up 19.5 to the next nearest whole number therefore, 2009 will still be the 20th anniversary of the Backside Ride.
When asked to recall the highlights of the Backside Ride without question the most popular year was in 2007. There was snow again that year and lots more of it. But the group forged on this time and completed the entire ride. As described by TVD, “it was just like skiing in the trees. The snow glazed over and the track was firm. It went far down the Ellensburg side and it was the best trip I ever made.”
By comparison, one of the worst memories was in 2001 when the Ellensburg wind tunnel was in full effect. It’s tough enough riding 10 miles of pavement with knobby tires at the end of a long day when the wind is calm. Add a gale force head wind to the mix and you’ll be going really, really slow. So slow, friends, that you will need to ride in your granny gear the entire way to the Tav. It’s all in good fun.
Where the heck is Ellensburg?
By Terry’s recollection the largest number of participants in the Backside Ride was 38, while the smallest group was only 5. Although most of the riders are from the greater Wenatchee Valley, a few individuals make the trip from farther away. Dick Olson, from Monroe has participated in 15 of the rides as well as all of the pre-rides. Brian Slusser, an original rider in 1989, still occasionally makes the journey up from where he now lives in the Lake Tahoe area. Steve Dockins, a former Eastmont High School classmate has travelled from San Diego to make the ride in honor of his childhood friend Gary. For international flavor, in 2005 a fruit inspector visiting from England was enticed into riding — on a borrowed bike and bike shorts, with little riding experience no less. His comment half-way up the mountain was “bloody hell, what am I doing here?” He did survive and he loved every bit of the down hill sections.
One of the youngest riders to participate in the Backside Ride was 16-year-old Tanner Perry from Cashmere. Much like Gary Van Dorien, Tanner was a talented athlete who loved the thrill of adventure and just like Gary he left this world too soon. Tanner had heard the stories surrounding the Backside Ride and wanted to give it a try. In 2006, under the watchful eye of Terry Van Dorien he rode out with the other backside riders and made it all the way to Ellensburg. Unfortunately, Tanner couldn’t enter the Tav to celebrate with the other finishers because he was underage, but his proud parents John and Cathy Perry, met him there and took him back home. A few months after completing the Backside Ride a cancerous growth was detected on Tanner’s right leg. After enduring months of failed chemotherapy and radiation, Tanner eventually died. He was just 17.
The oldest rider of record is retired local physician Jerry Gibbons. It’s no secret that Jerry is a phenomenal athlete who can easily outride “kids” half his age. For good measure, in 2005 Jerry brought along some of his own kids, including son Wally and daughter Cathy, also good athletes in their own right. Although they are all exceptionally fit, they did not appear to be good route-finders on this particular trip. As mentioned earlier, on the pre-ride Terry and the guys flag the route so that riders don’t get lost. That’s with bright pink flagging; not faded pink, or blue or even green flagging. There is a particular spot where it’s critical that you chose to follow the right flagging, otherwise you will not likely make it to Ellensburg before the bus departs. This is exactly where the Gibbons clan ended up and after an hour or so of bushwhacking and getting further lost, they hoisted their bikes on their shoulders and climbed straight up a very steep slope. Luckily for them, it was the right decision — they found the right road and did make it to Ellensburg. It’s all in good fun.
We love you, man…
Terry Van Dorien is a humble man. When he talks about the Backside Ride, one thing he wants you to hear is that he’s thankful for the help he’s had over the years. Help from guys like Dick Olson, Mike Earing, and Joe Spry, along with their wives Char Earing and Chy Spry. And to Jim Jack for driving the bus and to Al Nuckolls at Icicle Shirtworks and Tom Wentz at Commercial Printing. And to the Tav in Ellensburg for providing great hospitality each and every year since 1989. And last, but not least, to his brother Gary for providing the inspiration to keep it going all these years.
A core group of riders that participate in the Backside Ride nearly every year are some of Terry Van Dorien’s closest friends. It’s a diverse bunch of people but one thing they have in common is their handles. As in radio handle, which is a name cleverly picked to describe the person using it. Terry Van Dorien’s handle is “Outback,” naturally. Raven, Drifter, Dancing Bear, Electric Man, and Candy will all be there early on the morning of Sept. 26. As will original backsiders Brian Slusser and Eric Graves, along with long-timers Mike Earing, Joe Spry, and Dick Olson. They all come not because they like the ride so much, but because they love the man.
Once again, cars and trucks loaded with bicycles will make the journey up the windy road to the parking lot at Mission Ridge. It’s yet to be determined what Mother Nature will provide in terms of weather, but the enthusiasm for doing the Backside Ride will not diminish. Not this time, because this year will be the last year as we currently know it. In the year 2010, the ride will return to its original form, without organized buses, commemorative t-shirts, or specialized pre-ride clean-up. It will simply be a gathering of friends in search of adventure. But until then Terry Van Dorien will still be there waiting for everyone to arrive, just like he has for the past 20 years. He’ll greet you with a big, warm smile, a serious twinkle in his eye and be really glad that you came. After the last backside rider has left the parking lot, Terry will soon depart, riding sweep to make sure no one is left behind. If you listen carefully you just might hear that familiar Outback call, “hooty hoo.” Yes, it is all in good fun.
Patty Garland-Pauly enjoys biking and skiing with her friend Outback. Her handle is “Red Hot.”