So, the 27th of May 2009, a hotel room in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, USA on the Arctic Ocean Coast, 250 miles INSIDE the Arctic Circle, 240 miles south by mostly dirt road to the next Service Station (Coldfoot) and potential re-supply. Between here and there is the ‘North Slope’ of Arctic tundra, the 4,700 foot Atigun Pass, snow-bound and avalanche prone. Oh, and some bears. And after those 240 miles services are sporadic for the next 260. And I’m GOING TO DO IT BY BICYCLE! Alone. WHAT!?
The bike, Charles, is in a box and needs to be rebuilt by me in the hotel room. I’ll need to wild camp on the tundra / mountains / valleys, carry 2 weeks worth of food. At this time of year (spring) temperatures can still go below -10c. And then there are the infamous arctic winds.
If there is such a thing as being ‘out of ones comfort zone’ then I know for an absolute fact that I’m out of it about 10 times over. I think the phrase is ‘I’m bricking it’. I can’t remember when I was last so, well, scared.
Why exactly did I want to do this?
At the airport I make a friend in Noel, a gas-pipeline inspector (the only reason that Prudhoe Bay is settled and has a ‘road’ from here to Fairbanks 500 miles south is because of Oil & Gas discovered some decades ago). Thank you Noel for all your help and support, the conversation and your kindness.
Well, suffice to say rebuilding Charles also gives a much needed focus / distraction (…oh, I’m starting to remember…I LOVE bikes…don’t I?) and a HUGE feeling of self satisfaction at actually having planned this whole trip and getting here (the kit alone has taken many months of fastidious planning, to make sure I get the right balance of weight, strength, ease of use / repair). Since December 2008 (and on and off for some years, yes years, before), I haven’t thought about much else but the planning: finances, arrangements for my company whilst I’m on ‘sabbatical’, kit, bike, property conversion and getting my head around it all. I’d dare say that I’ve been obsessed in that time whilst on a few occasions I’ve woken in what can only be described as blind panic (alone…awwww!) and thought that I just can’t do this, its too big, too ambitious. But I kept going. Stubborn bugger.
In my training (you can always do more, as I’m soon to find out…!), I carried about 85 lbs or 30-ish Kgs. And I could feel it. Now I didn’t get a chance to weigh Charles on that (fated?) day but I’m convinced, on the basis that I could lift him in training fairly easily, knowing what I can lift from a similar angle in a gym and that I could hardly get him off the ground with all my strength in Prudhoe, that he had to be 150 lbs or 65-ish kgs, upwards, easily. 2 weeks worth of food on a 6,000 calorie a day diet is a LOT of food! 60 litres worth of ‘volume’ were in panniers of food alone.
After a tyre dip in the Arctic Ocean (still frozen!) I’m off. And there might have been the odd little tear. Joy started creeping in though, slowly, but it did. I’m here. Now. Here.
The first couple of days I take it easy and do ~30 mile days, on gentle inclines. I’m ‘taking it all in’ but at the same time, I’m not. I’m a rabbit in headlights, awed, overwhelmed, running on some kind of auto-pilot. Whilst I’ve done all of the ‘bits’ (biking, bike touring, camping, backpacking, snow camping) before, I’ve never done them together. Nor with so much time invested beforehand. And there’s the thing. Expectation, fear of ‘failure’ whatever that is. I may have started pedaling but can I actually do this? And what is ‘this’? How far? I think, writing now, I’m learning…🙂
Upset number 1: first morning out alone, having camped next to a river, getting ready to cook breakfast (¾ litre of porridge!) my stove (Primus Omnifuel) is missing a part. I must have lost it when packing away after cooking dinner last night. After initially telling myself to ‘keep calm’ I struggle to fight against the brutally matched emotional tornado of wanting to scream expletives into the wind and the overwhelming urge to burst into tears. Somehow I do neither. The words, opportunity, hope, chance and try seem to keep me going. I have no idea where I get this from!
3 hours. I search for 3 hours, telling myself I’ll find it, this little grey metal piece on a huge area of GRAVEL! I could have trodden it in to the ground, it could have been blown. A bear could be hiding it for a laugh.
I don’t find it. I contemplate giving up, after 1 day, hailing a passing truck (one of a few dozen a day passing up to Prudhoe to supply) but somehow, and I really have no idea how (and as I write this I’m quite torn-up, reliving it), I don’t. Absurdly, my mind kicks into ‘contingency planning’ (once a project manager always a bloody project manager!).
Seeing as I’m carrying enough food to stock a small army, I determine there and then that I could survive until Coldfoot (210 miles away) for 6-7 days, just, on cold food if I double-up and then try and re-supply there (although officially there is no general store but I reckon I could try and convince the truck café to help me out…). And the weirdest, weirdest thing is that I actually am uplifted by not having to go through the whole rigmarole of setting up the stove, getting water, cooking, cleaning up and packing away! Eating straight out of packets (lots and lots of Granola bars!) means quicker to bed and longer in bed. I think that rationale (that no hot food is ‘ok’), when its -10c at night, around freezing in the day and I’ve got the prospect of 6-7 days of ‘nuts’, tells you that my mental state was in part at least, well, a bit nuts!
(if you’re wondering what 6,000 calories a day actually looks like – 2,500 is the normal amount recommended for a bloke – its something like this: Breakfast of porridge ¾ litre with dried milk, few hand-fulls of nuts, dried fruit, sachets of sugar; Lunch of ½ litre of soup, whole packet a crackers, 6 processed cheese slices, 3 granola bars; Dinner of 3x helping of pasta, rice, noodles or mash with dried meat, packet sauce maybe some garlic & other spices, cocoa with half bar of chocolate, sweet crackers, gatorade; Snacks: 8 granola bars, trail mix, 4 litres of gatorade)
After setting off again out onto the North Slope (tundra before the Brooks Mountain Range to the south) in brutal northerly winds, sleet on my back I see a trucker, J.T. pulled into a road for the pipeline (more of the pipeline later) oblique to the wind. The hood on his Kenworth rig is up – I go over and say sorry I don’t have anything to offer in the way of spares (!) but would he mind if I shelter behind his truck while I eat and does he have any hot water? Yes, no problem to #1 but no, sorry to #2. Oh but hang on. “I do have this” he says. A portable spot welding torch. “You can try this if you want, but I need to swap out my alternator so will have to leave you to it”. Again, I have no idea where this comes from but, behind his truck, having warmed my posterior for a moment in the well of the trucks’ still-warm wheel rims, I get out a pan from a pannier, get a few suitably sized and shaped rocks, build a little stand, put the pan on top, filled with water and for a few minutes hold a spot-welding torch underneath, moving it around, trying not to sear a hole through the aluminum. The pan doesn’t melt. The water boils. I have some soup. As you do. The small shards of hot rock that splinter off and shoot onto my hands as I’m heating were a little concerning but the idea of some soup (the ‘instant’ type) keeps me going. I can’t think of the last time I had a more surreal moment. Thanks J.T. for the chat and tips about no-go (bear) areas for camping.
One thing he also suggests is pulling up to the security gate at the pipeline ‘Pump Stations’ which are every 50 miles or so – officially they’re not accessible to the public seeing as they’re an integral part of one of the USA’s major major (I’m talking major, did I make that clear?) sources of income i.e. the oil pipeline (for which this road, the Dalton Highway, was built) and are under major (got it?) ‘lock-down’ FBI-grade security. But, crazy Brit man on a bike (I’m the first of the season apparently, most wait until its warmer in…July!) might hold some sway and my last minute purchase of a Thermos (oh providence!) before I left may mean I could get ½ litre of hot water from the gates, every 50 miles. Initially that’s every 2-3 days. It keeps warm for maybe 6 hours. But, it’s something. I manage it twice, thanks to a very kind security guard. Thank you 🙂
Now, bears. Polar are a possibility for the first day or so, but Grizzlies and then further south Brown are ‘likely’. There is a Grizzly roaming Prudhoe Bay’s hotel car parks apparently. Hmmm. And where exactly did I start from? Did it have the words ‘park’, ‘hotel’ and ‘car’ in it? Anyway. Further south both J.T. and Kevin, a road construction chap, warn me of the stretch between ‘Ice Cut’ and ‘Oil Spill Hill’ – after a longish day (at that point) of 35 miles I push across and camp the other side of Oil Spill Hill, alone, as most nights. Having my bear spray – mace under fire extinguisher-type pressure – close at hand on the bike and bear-bell ringing (they ‘don’t dig loud noises apparently’ although opinions on this are divided) became commonplace.
During the ride I was stopped twice by truckers telling me there was a Grizzly on the road ahead. The first time I saw nothing. The second, ah, yes. Something (intuition? 6th sense? fear?) made me turn to my right…O…M…G! 20 feet. GRIZZLY, just there, right, there, at the side of the road. And me, no one else. I kid you not. One of the most intense and surreal (topping the welding torch moment) moments of my life. Ever. He (a male according to locals at Coldfoot) was looking straight at me, back arching looking ready to move, somewhere. To ME? Now they’re super fast and even on a bike (especially one this heavy) could outrun me being capable of 35mph and quickly. I could do 15 mph on flats for a few minutes maybe bursts of 20 mph but my legs would blow up after that. Split second decision. Pedal, hard, hope he wasn’t interested / that with my accouterments I look ‘big’ (yeah right, to a 7 foot, 400 lb coil of muscle, sinew, fur and teeth!). I dare to look back after a minute and he’s…not…there (in all honesty if he had laid chase I’d have had to dump the bike grab the spray and try desperately to keep it together to dose him if he kept coming). Something in me says he was eyeing me up, deciding what to do. Luckily for me, it was to stay put. Afterwards, a local card joked (which I found really funny in a dark kind of way) that because I was moving so slowly the bear probably thought “this guys being pretty laid back, must be quite tough”…as IF! And no, I didn’t stop for a photo!
(on another hill ’62 mile’ incidentally the temperature at night went down to below -10°C, I need my down jacket in my sleeping bag with me, I get a foot of snow overnight and when eating – outside, away from tent due to bear-risk – I have to get up every 5 minutes and run around to keep warm and wear neoprene overshoes and waterproof socks to wade through the snow)
And there it was, the Atigun Pass. 4,700 foot. Dirt road. Getting there had been a struggle, 6 days, with one of those days covering just 10 miles into gusting 40 mph headwinds around Toolik (even downhill I had to pedal otherwise I would literally be stopped in my tracks, seriously!) but the day before, whilst tough had worked out well, getting me to the foot of the pass in a hard push (which included briefly swollen lips and tongue following an accidental minute dash of bear spray in my lunch after a tiny amount remained on my hands from an earlier test spray – wow that stuff is hot! Yes, I felt very very silly as I washed my mouth out in a river).
“You’ll be pushing up that” everyone had told me. Now I might not be quite the climber (bike) I was in my twenties (I’m 34) and admittedly I was riding a small tank (sorry Charles, I love you really) but there was no way on earth I was not going to give it absolutely everything to try and pedal to the top. The chap who pulled alongside me in his pickup as I pedaled the start, telling me that in 20 minutes they were dynamiting some snow banks above the pass so I “needed to be clear by then”, also helped. As did the ‘Avalanche Risk Next 5 Miles DO NOT STOP’ signs. Gulp.
The emotions of the last few days and the psychological hurdle of clearing the pass (it would get warmer as I got further south and the wind should start dropping) made me give it everything. I don’t remember working so physically hard for such a sustained period (half an hour) but…I did it, Tommy, I did it 🙂 I did not stop, I did not stop pedaling. I bloody well did it.
(for sprocket and ratio fans I was running a 22 at the front and a wimps cog of a 34 at the back and I may have dropped below 2 mph but I didn’t really look at the speedo as I was wrenching with all my worth in my arms, chest, back and neck to get traction, switching between ‘tram lines’ constantly to get onto something close to hard-pack dirt from the trails of the truck tyres)
I bloody well did it 🙂
(I didn’t have a heart rate monitor on but if I had I’m sure I was pushing into the 190s which even at my relatively young age is not healthy and I may even have touched, possibly exceeded my all time – dangerous, don’t repeat this kids – max of 204 when crossing the finish line in a running race a couple of years ago)
The highway (the Dalton) may be in the middle of no where (where else in the world is there nothing but wilderness for 1,000 MILES either side of you) but I must just say something about the, beautiful (sorry, gushing) kindness and generosity of the people I met. Esther at the Arctic Caribou Inn, Prudhoe Bay, thanks for all your help; the kindly tour guide who ‘may’ have helped me get my bike onto the bus to allow me to do a tyre-dip in a high security area; Noel of course; Terry the motor biker from Florida who was so encouraging on my first day and reminded me of my dad, “Enjoy it” he said; Tommy Cate, of course, the motor biker from Kentucky with whom I shared some wonderful laughter on my tough tough headwind day, thank you Tommy (BTW, did you know I have a Geology degree..?); the other motor bikers who brought me food and water; Lou for the food, water, bike chat and encouragement; Erin for the lovely breakfast; Greg and Kelli and friends in Fairbanks for your support; Kathe and Rocco (cool car!) for the common understanding of ‘why’; Nelly et Claude pour tout; John in Fairbanks for coming to find me as I approached Fairbanks city limits (thanks to SPOT!) and everyone else, truckers (J.T.), motor bikers always giving me a high five / thumbs-up sign, the airline pilots at Coldfoot and Yoda for leading the way.
Mileage. Well. First things first as great as SPOT is (and it is fab and used by a lot of the motorbikers) it only pulses a max of every 10 mins which means that sometimes it misses curves – which you can see if you zoom in on Hybrid view. The upshot of this is that it invariably comes up slightly short but its still a great tool. I have Suunto T6 with roadbike pod (modded to fit an mtb) which tracks mileage at the wheel and using mileposts on the road proves to be accurate to within a few tens of feet per mile which is absolutely amazing.
Day 1: 28 miles (wild camp)
Day 2: 33 miles (to get to 62 mile hill carpark)
Day 3: 38 miles (wild camp)
Day 4: 33 miles (not sure on this one – wild camp)
Day 5: 10 miles (plus 5 to get to Galbraith camp site and lake-side)
Day 6: 28 miles (plus 5 to get from Galbraith – wild camp)
Day 7: 78 miles (includes the Atigun, an immense day on few hard painkillers for knees but got me to Coldfoot and a hot meal)
Day 8: rest! (Coldfoot – no internet!)
Day 9: 62 miles (a LOT of climbing to get to Arctic Circle campsite)
Day 10: 67 miles (again, a lot of climbing to get to Yukon River and a hot meal)
Day 11: 34 miles (getting seriously tired now, taking cat naps in the afternoon – wild camp)
Day 12: 34 miles (more cat naps – Colorado Creek Trailhead)
Day 13: 73 miles (last big push to Fairbanks)
Why so hard? Well, think of it this way. If you’ve gone almost a week without much (on some days any) hot food, the incentive of getting to Coldfoot, over the pass and onto a downhill ‘trend’ (plus the fact that it got 25°C warmer in the space of those 78 miles from around -5°C before) is pretty substantial. Whilst I got given (!) a gas stove (thanks again Mike) in Coldfoot it would only last so long with no re-supply until Fairbanks (my stove ran on petrol or diesel which I could have got but remember it broke!) and even though I’d resigned myself to cold food initially, it wears you down not having regular hot food, emotionally if nothing else. Also some of the (rudimentary) campsites above, basically the non- ‘wild camp’ ones had ‘drop toilets’ (work it out!) in a wooden or concrete shed (but these are spaced dozens of miles apart in the north especially) which at the time seemed the height of luxury and at the back of my mind was also a potential safe-house if there was a bear or later, wolf, incident in the night. So, warmth, warm food, people, wanting to enjoy it but also give myself a chance of finishing by balancing all of the above and not running out of anything (supplies, physically or emotionally). That’s why 🙂
I’ll never forget that bear. I saw some stunning wildlife: herds of caribou running across the road, moose (sorry no pics, was near the bear-zone), beaver, eagle (soaring, beautiful and rare north of the pass apparently); chipmunks, dozens of incredibly tame gambolling rabbits and lots of mosquitoes south of Coldfoot (ouch I had a few itchy nights!). I’ve travelled from frozen ocean across arctic plains, past frozen lakes, had snow, sleet, rain, howling crosswinds, tail winds and headwinds, slept by calming rivers snug in my bag listening to music from my solar-charged mp3 trying to keep my eyes open to take it all in, climbed snow-bound passes, done climb after climb after climb until I thought my knees would crack, descended with an enormous grin down the best I’ve ever done (‘Rollercoaster’ – 10 MILES! dirt road!), got out of shape on one descent, locked up at 30 mph, fishtailed but held it to avoid a boulder, hit 42.3 mph downhill (into a slight headwind!) on another occasion and lived, man, really effing lived. And done something part of me thought might not be possible, alone (but not alone, in so many ways of course).
And made myself proud. Whatever happens next. And before you ask, I’m still thinking 😉 Off to Anchorage in a day or so for a couple of weeks off bike with fellow partner in crime, Lee (mini-yoda).
(btw right click on the entries in the ‘Where am I?’ page to look at ‘Altitude profile’, sheesh!)
Good kit: Charles, astonishing bit of kit, just amazing. Had to clean the gears a couple of times and adjust brake pads as a I wore them down so much stopping all that weigh (my belly) and had one loose front pannier rack but that was after 20 miles of hard downhills off the Atigun. Tent, fabulous, sturdy as you like, proper bit of gear. Thermos, godsend. Neoprene overshoes (thanks Phil) although now ripped to shreds. Waterproof socks & gloves (Sealskinz). Gore jackets and fleeces (no I’m not sponsored!) of which I’ve got 3, a shell, windproof fleece and microfleece. Bib-leggings, classic, from the Scottish wonders that are Endura (no, not sponsored!). Solar panel, great but need to work out how to use it properly. SPOT – for me its not so visible (what it can do) but apparently its caused a bit of a stir amongst some of you!