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Jimmy Lulua , left, and Roger William battle for second during the first heat of the mountain race at Nemiah Valley Rodeo Aug. 4, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

To rookie riders, it is a rite of passage – an obstacle course across treacherous terrain that separates the men from the boys. To seasoned cowboys, it is an opportunity to show off the skills they learned from a lifetime of living and riding in British Columbia's central interior.

But to Roger William, the mountain race at the annual Nemiah Valley Rodeo, which celebrated its 35th year last weekend, is a living memory – a harkening back to a childhood spent chasing horses.

The mountain race, founded by the Xeni Gwet'in band of the Chilcotin nation, sees riders barrel down a steep hillside, over rocks and gravel, into creeks and beaver dams and around dangerous turns through blinding plumes of dirt and dust. Some riders emerge dripping wet, some are stalled in the swamp and mud and some are tossed from their horses along the way.

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It takes riders about 20 minutes to reach the starting point up the hill and, on average, 90 seconds to get down the three-quarter-mile trail.

For Mr. William, a Xeni Gwet'in band councillor, former chief and seasoned mountain race competitor with more than 20 wins under his belt, the race is reminiscent of his upbringing in the valley, which lies between Chilko and Taseko lakes. During rough winters, band members would be forced to free their horses as they conserved hay for their cattle. In the spring, they would chase the horses back.

"The mountain race is just like chasing horses: The horses come down the side of a mountain, through bushes and trails, go through creeks and beaver dams to get away from you," Mr. William said.

"The Nemiah Valley Rodeo, the way I see it, the mountain race – it's for the people who chased horses back in the day. They get to show off their skills."

Darren Setah, 24, began riding a decade ago and said a desire to conquer the mountain race was only natural.

"What I feel is a pure adrenalin rush," said Mr. Setah, who attempted it for the first time last year. "It just feels so cool, for that minute and 30 [seconds] coming down that hill," he said. "It's just unbelievable, especially when you first start, because you're going so fast down that hill and your horse is just giving it all."

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