Tiger Tale #1: Vaya con Dios by Dan Saimo
Editor's note: Dan is owner of Dirtco, a contest sponsor, and contest judge. His story isn't eligible to win, but is here to help kick off the contest. Ready, set, write!
Back in the early 90s when we were riding fully rigid bikes I used to ride and snowboard with my friend Sean Phillips. Sean was the ring leader of a merry band of rad seeking weekend warriors. A northwest native, Sean grew up skiing in the mountains and recreating with his family. He knew all the good spots and was always sniffing out new locations. He was our Bodhi Zafa. This was back when the northwest had distinct ski seasons so in the winter we would hang our bikes up in the garage and get the snowboard gear out. Sean had all the backcountry pow stashes on lock and knew his ways around the slopes. He’s the one that introduced me to the Alpy backcountry once I had developed enough skill to navigate and open field of powder and not fall into tree wells. His favorite saying was “Taste It!”. He would yell it out to the snow gromets from overhead on the lifts when one would venture off and bust a side hit. Once spring skiing was finished we’d dust off the rusty old chromoly hardtails, reinflate our crappy tires and make sure our plastic toe clips were still intact. Sean was always the one that determined our ride location and made sure everyone was in. This was all by telephone and beers as the internets and email was still an infant technology.
Our favorite destination was always Tiger Mountain. Over the years most of us had progressed our bike handling skills and fitness to the point where we could get to and navigate the rocky terrain of the Preston descent in a full on torrential rain storm. We had also developed some basic skinny riding skills from a couple of trails featuring them. But Tiger was still an all day adventure for us as we all wanted the full pull. We all lived in various places around downtown Seattle so getting out there and back was half the adventure. We would always try to carpool but innevitably it would take 2 or 3 vehicles to get us all there. The wives and significant others were pre-warned that we were leaving early and coming home late and there was a good chance that they might have to come rescue us if for instance someone’s car overheated going up Highway 18.
On this fateful Saturday, late in the Fall with impending weather, we had managed to make our way around the backside of Tiger and were heading back to the lot on Northwest Timber. We had all driven seperately that day and it was getting late and we all wanted to get back to Seattle for Saturday night plans. Most of us had enough left in the tank to tackle Timber with a decent pace. We took off with Sean in the back to make sure no one got left behind. The lead guys took off and quickly left me in the middle slot by myself. By the time that I made it to the parking lot there were only 3 cars left – mine, Schlaters’s and Sean’s. I packed up and as I was pulling out Schlater rolled up to his car, waved and gave the thumbs up. I remember seeing Sean’s car as we were leaving and wondering if we should wait for a few minutes to make sure he made it back. I looked at my watch and realized I was already running late. Jeannie had made dinner plans for us and had also gotten tickets to see Cat Butt at The Crocodile.
On Sunday late morning I started calling around to see if anyone wanted to hit Tape Worm for a few hours. Sean didn’t answer but a few others did so we went out to hit The Worm and wrangle with the Parasites. Later that evening I tried calling Sean again. Again no answer. At this point I was starting to wonder what was going on so I called his girlfriend Denise. And that’s when I got the story. Sean had fallen into the ravine below the right hand root corner at the half way point of Northwest Timber. We had all joked that one day one of us would fall in there but up until that point we had all escaped the plunge even in the slickest conditions. As Sean fell over the edge he managed to untangle himself from his bike and it ended up catapulting away from him and further down into the ravine. When he landed he broke three fingers in his left hand and fractioned a couple of ribs. As he rolled further down into the ravine he smacked the back of his head on a tree and sustained a concusion. At this point Schlater was already quite aways ahead of Sean and didn’t know what had happened. Earlier on the trail segment Sean had pulled over to adjust his seat height so Schlater just figured that if he caught him it wouldn’t be until the parking lot. So as Schlater was leaving the parking lot around 7 or so Sean was at the bottom of the ravine struggling to find his bike and trying to figure out how he was going to get back up to the trail with his injuries. Sean told me that he thought that it took almost two hours to get back up to the trail. At one point he was going to just leave his bike in the ravine and come back for it later or send someone to get it. But he was worried that it would be seen by someone and stolen. So he somehow managed to get himself and his bike back up to the trail and then walked back to his car and loaded his bike and drove home. Once home Denise took him to the ER and got him checked out. The doctor that examined Sean told him to stay off the bike for a few months.
After the crash we didn’t hear from Sean for a while. And as the snow ushered winter in we noticed that he wasn’t showing up for our weekend snowboarding sessions. He had gone dark. But it gets worse. Word on the street is that he had switched to skis. As Chris Farley would say “What the HELL was that?!” How could this be? We were losing our Bodhi!! As the winter closed out and the mountain bikes came back out of the garage we eventually learned that Sean was now riding road bikes. On our Tiger rides we would pour out a beer on the root corner for him and regail in the stories of the early days with him. He was lost to us now. He had left us. As Johnny Utah said at the end of Point Break “He’s not coming back.” So we had to move on. Vaya con Dios to our dear friend that inspired each of us so much.
After the experience with Sean I learned a couple of valuable lessions: 1. You never leave someone behind on the trails unaccounted for - no matter what the post-ride circumstances are. 2. Enjoy and learn from people in your orbit as your never know when they’ll find the next galaxy to jump off to.
As the years have passed I managed to stay in touch with Sean. His friendship meant too much not to. He has had a very successful run at racing road bikes at the Cat 1 level. He has survived road crashes much worse than that fateful day on Tiger. And he has also survived a bout with cancer. He’s one tough dude. If you follow him on Strava you’ll see that him and his crew do some crazy long gravel grinds from Seattle up into the mountains and back. I look forward to seeing his Sunday posts from breweries near the events that he races at around the great PNW. And each time I see at post from him I can hear him saying “Taste it!”