I wrote this in the spring of 2003, a month or so after Pat Irwin and I chose to epic ourselves in Interior Alaska at a time of year when almost everyone knows better than to be there. People live their whole lives in this region but in mid-February they don’t get far from their cabins, and their woodburners are always kicking inside. We knew we were stepping outside of our comfort zone, but we had no idea how far until we were fully committed. – MC
After the 2002 Iditarod Trail Invitational, many of the race regulars decided that they’d had enough of the “same-old same-old”, so they went in search of a new venue. What they came up with was brilliant — a 500-mile route through the Alaskan Interior, dubbed the Great Yukon Challenge. Starting at Tok, the route headed north through the historic Fortymile country to Eagle: 165 miles of snow-covered mountain road, packed by snowmachines. Once racers had thawed out and resupplied, they’d face 170 daunting, tortured miles on the Yukon River to get to Circle City. There they’d turn south, leaving the Yukon Flats, and grunt another 165 miles over the steep domes of the White Mountains.
The Alaskan Interior is notoriously inhospitable in February. I had researched weather trends when testing and preparing my gear and clothing, and came to Alaska expecting that the mercury wouldn’t see the happy side of zero for the entire race. Once on the ground in Anchorage I grabbed a newspaper and learned that:
A large high-pressure system moving into Alaska from Siberia brought gale-force winds to most mountain tops last night and remains stationary at this point. Temperatures have dropped to -50F and winds have calmed as the weather system settles over Alaska. The coldest air will settle into valleys and river beds. Outdoor travelers must be prepared to endure raw temperatures of –60 and wind chill of at least -75F. Forecasts indicate no change in the weather pattern for the next several days. While extremely low temperatures with clear skies are forecast, travelers will be rewarded with unobstructed views of the full moon and northern lights.
At 50 below zero, it’s necessary to take turns fixing flats. One person runs up and down the trail to get warm, while the other works on the flat until all feeling is gone from their fingers.
Forearmed with that welcome, Pat “A single speed is not a handicap” Irwin and I rechecked our gear, caught a ride from Anchorage to Tok, and then headed out in the fading twilight to start racing. Although several others had preregistered, for some reason (weather?) Pat and I were the only two to start. Pat has won the last two 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational races, while I’ve managed to squeak out two wins in the 1100-mile version of that event. All evidence points to Pat being faster in the ‘shorter’ events, while I tend to shine in the longer ones. Acutely aware that this race split the difference between the two, we began racing each other from the get-go.
On the rolling hills up to Chicken, we were evenly matched — Pat would pull away on the flats with his single fairly tall gear, then I’d catch him on the climbs and descents where his gear wasn’t ideal. Even with a show-stopping storm atop American Summit that pinned me down overnight while Pat narrowly squeaked through, we managed to arrive in Eagle within a few minutes of each other.
These first three days were memorable due to the stunning, forlorn mountains and valleys all the way up to Eagle, with not one human, car, snowmobile, nada. To say that we were alone wouldn’t be true — you’d be forgetting about the wolves, moose, coyotes, caribou, and lynx that we saw and heard on the trail. It would only be accurate to say that there were no other humans, for we were almost constantly accompanied.
The next 160 miles were all on the Yukon River, which at this point in its course is fairly quaint in width (compared to the 5-miles-wide at Ruby that I’m used to) and scale, framed in every direction by bald domes or striking peaks. Jumble ice was a novelty to me — for some reason, the ice downriver on the Iditarod course always freezes up relatively smooth. Here the ice was occasionally featureless beneath its blanket of snow, but more frequently it had cracked, bulged, torn, overflowed itself, piled high, refrozen, and then started over in a different order.
Even more perplexing were the open leads of water, hissing steam in defiance of the bitter temps. To get through some of the rougher stretches and around the leads the trail had been routed from bank to bank and back, switchbacking upon itself to find the smoothest route. Many times we traveled 5 miles of actual trail to progress one mile downriver.
We had a bit of a cold snap on the way up to Circle City — 5 days straight with a high temp of 35 below, and down to 65 below at night. “Night” is a relative term at this time of year, as we had a scant 7 hours of low-angle sun before switching our headlamps back on for the next 17. It seems like every time I think I’ve never been this cold before, I find a way to be colder.
I was marginally comfortable when riding, walking, eating, and sleeping, even down to -55 degrees. The problem became getting my hands warm again after fixing flats, which required taking off my mitts and working with the bare metal of the rim to achieve better dexterity. It took a few anxious hours for me to get my hands back to normal after the first flat. Each time thereafter I made sure to have a chemical toe heater warm and waiting inside the flap of my mitten. Even still it would be 10-15 minutes before my hands would start to throb and the anxiety would start to recede. This was the first time I’ve ever had to use the chemical heat packs, despite the fact that I’ve carried them for years for such an eventuality.
At 20 below zero (at home in Colorado) everything had worked just fine, but when the temp started dropping, little problems started to rear their heads:
-At 25 below zero my suspension seatpost froze solid, so there was no suspension movement. Curiously, the pivots shrunk in the cold, so there was plenty of side-to-side slop.
-At 30 below zero our headsets (and thus handlebars) were very difficult to turn, allowing maybe 45 degrees of total movement with a LOT of effort.
-Goggles didn’t take long to fog when the differential on each side of the lens was 130 degrees, and especially when the warm side (your face) was producing a little moisture from exertion and exhalation. Once they fogged we simply took them off and cinched our hoods down tighter.
-At 40 below zero, we started to have tube failures. We had WTB, Kenda, and Avenir tubes with us and they all pulled apart at their seams. The flats were so prevalent that we no longer had to look at our thermometers to know when the temp had hit -40. After the race, a product manager explained to me that 40 below zero falls a bit outside of the design parameters for bicycle inner tubes.
-At 47 below zero, my pump head shattered when I snapped it onto the valve of a tube. Realizing that I had 150-miles to the next village (with a flat tire) I jumped up and started running with the bike, nearly exhausting myself trying to keep Pat in sight. Fortunately (and I cannot overstate how fortunate I was) Pat turned to check on me before rounding a bend of the Yukon and stopped when he saw me running. With over 300 miles left to go and only one pump between us, Pat made the call, “We’re stickin’ together.” Had his pump died out there we might have followed suit.
-At 50 below zero, it’s necessary to take turns fixing flats. One person runs up and down the trail to get warm, while the other works on the flat until all feeling is gone from their fingers. Then you switch.
-At 52 below zero, our headsets didn’t turn more than 10 degrees.
-One night, at -55 degrees on the Yukon River, Pat had 3 flats in 30 minutes. The third was the last — we had no more good tubes and patching in those temps wasn’t an option. Unfortunately, we still had about 12 miles to go to get to shelter that night, so it was a long, anxiously cold shuffle/run that ended at 5 am. Locals placed the temp at -65 degrees on the river.
The nights were so cold that I couldn’t stop to crane my head back to enjoy the aurora — I’d start shivering the minute I stopped pedaling. I tried to watch many times because the colors, shapes, and fluid patterns of the lights were so alluring, but violent shivers quickly snapped me back to reality. At -65 I wore everything I had, with chemical heat warmers in each mitten and one against my belly. I was as comfortable as I think is possible, but the knowledge of that temperature leads to a certain anxiety that precludes ever really being able to just relax and enjoy.
Once in Circle, we had a relatively mundane stretch of ice-road to Central, followed by a portage of the infamous Eagle Summit. I’d once read about this pass in Archdeacon Hudson Stuck’s turn of the century account, Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled, and had preconceived ideas about the grandeur and scale of the mountains through which we’d be passing. The mountains did not disappoint, but the trail up the pass was less impressive. Perhaps hauling a 55-lb bike wearing modern, lightweight gear is a bit easier than pushing a many-thousand-pound freight sled pulled by overworked, unmotivated and underappreciated huskies? Whatever the reason, the descent of the pass got my heart rate up more than the climb had, as I spent many anxious moments with my butt behind the saddle, rear brake locked, front brake delicately feathered in an attempt (key word here) to keep the front end of the bike from diving through the sastrugified crust. It remains one of the steepest sustained descents I’ve ever ridden.
My front tire went soft somewhere in the valley below, mandating a forced walk. I’d have gladly fixed it on the trail, but the previous days of arctic cold had cracked and ruined our 13 other tubes (Unlucky number? You make the call…) and I hadn’t a serviceable one left. In fact, the tubes in our tires had already been double patched and wrapped with duct tape in an attempt to coerce the air into staying for at least a little while. We’d hoped to move fast enough to beat the failing tubes to the finish, but our luck, like the patches, wasn’t holding.
Splashing through overflow up onto the Steese Highway, I caught up to Pat and a brief conversation ensued. While our intended route wound for several more miles to end in Fairbanks, the lack of serviceable inner tubes made continuing impossible. Walking that distance through slushy-overflowed swamps and rivers, not to mention pushing up, over, and down two more passes with a 55lb flat-tired bike sounded a little like medieval torture, or at least a good start for next year’s event.
In completing the route from Tok to Mile 101 of the Steese, Pat and I became the first we’d heard of to complete this route under human power (parts of it are traveled once a winter by a handful of dog teams and snowmachines in the Yukon Quest dogsled race). Pat’s overall time was 33 minutes faster than mine, making him the victor in the first, and possibly only, Great Yukon Challenge.