Driving the Frozen Tundra of the Yukon—In February


I wrote this within the spring of 2003, a month or so after Pat Irwin and I selected to epic ourselves in Inside Alaska at a time of yr when nearly everybody is aware of higher than to be there. Folks reside their complete lives on this area however in mid-February they don’t get removed from their cabins, and their woodburners are all the time kicking inside. We knew we had been stepping outdoors of our consolation zone, however we had no concept how far till we had been totally dedicated. – MC

After the 2002 Iditarod Path Invitational, most of the race regulars determined that they’d had sufficient of the “same-old same-old”, in order that they went looking for a brand new venue. What they got here up with was sensible — a 500-mile route by the Alaskan Inside, dubbed the Nice Yukon Problem. Beginning at Tok, the route headed north by the historic Fortymile nation to Eagle: 165 miles of snow-covered mountain street, packed by snowmachines. As soon as racers had thawed out and resupplied, they’d face 170 daunting, tortured miles on the Yukon River to get to Circle Metropolis. There they’d flip south, leaving the Yukon Flats, and grunt one other 165 miles over the steep domes of the White Mountains.

The Alaskan Inside is notoriously inhospitable in February. I had researched climate traits when testing and getting ready my gear and clothes, and got here to Alaska anticipating that the mercury wouldn’t see the completely happy facet of zero for all the race. As soon as on the bottom in Anchorage I grabbed a newspaper and realized that:

A big high-pressure system transferring into Alaska from Siberia introduced gale-force winds to most mountain tops final night time and stays stationary at this level. Temperatures have dropped to -50F and winds have calmed because the climate system settles over Alaska. The coldest air will settle into valleys and river beds. Out of doors vacationers should be ready to endure uncooked temperatures of –60 and wind chill of not less than -75F. Forecasts point out no change within the climate sample for the subsequent a number of days. Whereas extraordinarily low temperatures with clear skies are forecast, vacationers will probably be rewarded with unobstructed views of the total moon and northern lights.

At 50 under zero, it’s essential to take turns fixing flats. One individual runs up and down the path to get heat, whereas the opposite works on the flat till all feeling is gone from their fingers. You then change.

Forearmed with that welcome, Pat “A single pace isn’t a handicap” Irwin and I rechecked our gear, caught a trip from Anchorage to Tok, after which headed out within the fading twilight to start out racing. Though a number of others had preregistered, for some motive (climate?) Pat and I had been the one two to start out. Pat has received the final two 350-mile Iditarod Path Invitational races, whereas I’ve managed to squeak out two wins within the 1100-mile model of that occasion. All proof factors to Pat being quicker within the ‘shorter’ occasions, whereas I are likely to shine within the longer ones. Acutely conscious that this race break up the distinction between the 2, we started racing one another from the get-go.

On the rolling hills as much as Hen, we had been evenly matched — Pat would draw back on the flats together with his single pretty tall gear, then I’d catch him on the climbs and descents the place his gear wasn’t supreme. Even with a show-stopping storm atop American Summit that pinned me down in a single day whereas Pat narrowly squeaked by, we managed to reach in Eagle inside a couple of minutes of one another.

These first three days had been memorable because of the beautiful, forlorn mountains and valleys all the best way as much as Eagle, with not one human, automobile, snowmobile, nada. To say that we had been alone wouldn’t be true — you’d be forgetting concerning the wolves, moose, coyotes, caribou, and lynx that we noticed and heard on the path. It might solely be correct to say that there have been no different people, for we had been nearly continually accompanied.

The subsequent 160 miles had been all on the Yukon River, which at this level in its course is pretty quaint in width (in comparison with the 5-miles-wide at Ruby that I’m used to) and scale, framed in each course by bald domes or hanging peaks. Jumble ice was a novelty to me — for some motive, the ice downriver on the Iditarod course all the time freezes up comparatively clean. Right here the ice was sometimes featureless beneath its blanket of snow, however extra incessantly it had cracked, bulged, torn, overflowed itself, piled excessive, refrozen, after which began over in a distinct order.

Much more perplexing had been the open leads of water, hissing steam in defiance of the bitter temps. To get by among the rougher stretches and across the leads the path had been routed from financial institution to financial institution and again, switchbacking upon itself to search out the smoothest route. Many instances we traveled 5 miles of precise path to progress one mile downriver.Driving the Frozen Tundra

That is the bike I rode, precisely as I rode it, excluding the fork: I put in a customized inflexible Sycip the day earlier than flying north.

We had a little bit of a chilly snap on the best way as much as Circle Metropolis — 5 days straight with a excessive temp of 35 under, and all the way down to 65 under at night time. “Night time” is a relative time period at the moment of yr, as we had a scant 7 hours of low-angle solar earlier than switching our headlamps again on for the subsequent 17. It looks like each time I believe I’ve by no means been this chilly earlier than, I discover a option to be colder.

I used to be marginally comfy when using, strolling, consuming, and sleeping, even all the way down to -55 levels. The issue grew to become getting my arms heat once more after fixing flats, which required taking off my mitts and dealing with the naked steel of the rim to attain higher dexterity. It took a number of anxious hours for me to get my arms again to regular after the primary flat. Every time thereafter I made positive to have a chemical toe heater heat and ready contained in the flap of my mitten. Even nonetheless it might be 10-15 minutes earlier than my arms would begin to throb and the anxiousness would begin to recede. This was the primary time I’ve ever had to make use of the chemical warmth packs, although I’ve carried them for years for such an eventuality.

At 20 under zero (at dwelling in Colorado) all the pieces had labored simply advantageous, however when the temp began dropping, little issues began to rear their heads:

-At 25 under zero my suspension seatpost froze stable, so there was no suspension motion. Curiously, the pivots shrunk within the chilly, so there was loads of side-to-side slop.

-At 30 under zero our headsets (and thus handlebars) had been very tough to show, permitting perhaps 45 levels of whole motion with a LOT of effort.

-Goggles didn’t take lengthy to fog when the differential on both sides of the lens was 130 levels, and particularly when the nice and cozy facet (your face) was producing a bit of moisture from exertion and exhalation. As soon as they fogged we merely took them off and cinched our hoods down tighter.

-At 40 under zero, we began to have tube failures. We had WTB, Kenda, and Avenir tubes with us and so they all pulled aside at their seams. The flats had been so prevalent that we now not had to take a look at our thermometers to know when the temp had hit -40. After the race, a product supervisor defined to me that 40 under zero falls a bit outdoors of the design parameters for bicycle internal tubes.

-At 47 under zero, my pump head shattered after I snapped it onto the valve of a tube. Realizing that I had 150-miles to the subsequent village (with a flat tire) I jumped up and began working with the bike, almost exhausting myself making an attempt to maintain Pat in sight. Thankfully (and I can’t overstate how lucky I used to be) Pat turned to verify on me earlier than rounding a bend of the Yukon and stopped when he noticed me working. With over 300 miles left to go and just one pump between us, Pat made the decision, “We’re stickin’ collectively.” Had his pump died on the market we would have adopted swimsuit.

-At 50 under zero, it’s essential to take turns fixing flats. One individual runs up and down the path to get heat, whereas the opposite works on the flat till all feeling is gone from their fingers. You then change.

-At 52 under zero, our headsets didn’t flip greater than 10 levels.

-One night time, at -55 levels on the Yukon River, Pat had three flats in 30 minutes. The third was the final — we had no extra good tubes and patching in these temps wasn’t an choice. Sadly, we nonetheless had about 12 miles to go to get to shelter that night time, so it was an extended, anxiously chilly shuffle/run that ended at 5 am. Locals positioned the temp at -65 levels on the river.

The nights had been so chilly that I couldn’t cease to crane my head again to benefit from the aurora — I’d begin shivering the minute I ended pedaling. I attempted to observe many instances as a result of the colours, shapes, and fluid patterns of the lights had been so alluring, however violent shivers rapidly snapped me again to actuality. At -65 I wore all the pieces I had, with chemical warmth heaters in every mitten and one in opposition to my stomach. I used to be as comfy as I believe is feasible, however the information of that temperature results in a sure anxiousness that precludes ever actually with the ability to simply calm down and revel in.Frozen Tundra1

As soon as in Circle, we had a comparatively mundane stretch of ice-road to Central, adopted by a portage of the notorious Eagle Summit. I’d as soon as examine this go in Archdeacon Hudson Caught’s flip of the century account, Ten Thousand Miles with a Canine Sled, and had preconceived concepts concerning the grandeur and scale of the mountains by which we’d be passing. The mountains didn’t disappoint, however the path up the go was much less spectacular. Maybe hauling a 55-lb bike sporting fashionable, light-weight gear is a bit simpler than pushing a many-thousand-pound freight sled pulled by overworked, unmotivated and underappreciated huskies? Regardless of the motive, the descent of the go bought my coronary heart charge up greater than the climb had, as I spent many anxious moments with my butt behind the saddle, rear brake locked, entrance brake delicately feathered in an try (key phrase right here) to maintain the entrance finish of the bike from diving by the sastrugified crust. It stays one of many steepest sustained descents I’ve ever ridden.

My entrance tire went gentle someplace within the valley under, mandating a pressured stroll. I’d have gladly fastened it on the path, however the earlier days of arctic chilly had cracked and ruined our 13 different tubes (Unfortunate quantity? You make the decision…) and I hadn’t a serviceable one left. Actually, the tubes in our tires had already been double patched and wrapped with duct tape in an try and coerce the air into staying for not less than a short time. We’d hoped to maneuver quick sufficient to beat the failing tubes to the end, however our luck, just like the patches, wasn’t holding.

Splashing by overflow up onto the Steese Freeway, I caught as much as Pat and a short dialog ensued. Whereas our supposed route wound for a number of extra miles to finish in Fairbanks, the shortage of serviceable internal tubes made persevering with unattainable. Strolling that distance by slushy-overflowed swamps and rivers, to not point out pushing up, over, and down two extra passes with a 55lb flat-tired bike sounded a bit of like medieval torture, or not less than a superb begin for subsequent yr’s occasion.

In finishing the route from Tok to Mile 101 of the Steese, Pat and I grew to become the primary we’d heard of to finish this route beneath human energy (elements of it are traveled as soon as a winter by a handful of canine groups and snowmachines within the Yukon Quest dogsled race). Pat’s general time was 33 minutes quicker than mine, making him the victor within the first, and presumably solely, Nice Yukon Problem.

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