Sunday, March 17, 2013

White joy

By Tuesday morning, Fairbanks was Fairbanks once again. Daylight was still gaining at a rate of seven minutes per day, but all the heat faded from the glaring March sun. I'd hoped to embark on a long solo ride in the White Mountains while I was up north, and wasn't going to let subzero weather deter me. Still, the prospect was intimidating. As I drove to the trailhead at the relatively late hour of 9 a.m., I saw the temperature fall to as low as 23 below zero in a low-lying valley.

I packed up all of my camping gear, mostly for safety, but also included a few comfort items in case I actually did decide to camp. I knew the prospect of camping by choice wasn't likely given the possibility of minus forty, but adventure hopes spring eternal. All of the cabins in the Whites had been booked that night, so any "camping" I did would mean unrolling my bivy bundle and taking a desperate nap in the snow. Not actually fun, but it would allow me to ride farther into the Whites. I was still torn on the decision to camp or not, so the down booties came with. So did a gallon of fluid, because when it's that cold I'd rather go thirsty than stop and melt snow, but snow biking is hard work and I tend to get terrible headaches and feel chilled if I don't quench my thirst. The result was a ridiculously heavy bike, but I did feel prepared for the worst — a good feeling to have when I'm alone in the Arctic cold. 

The trailhead sits at 2,400 feet near the top of a high dome. In this region, higher elevations generally mean more wind and higher temperatures because cold air sinks. It was still seven below zero at the Wickersham Dome, and breezy. Back in December, Beat and I went on an overnight trip where we saw eight above at the Dome and 25 below as soon as the low winter sun went down and we dropped into the Wickersham Creek drainage. I braced myself for this kind of temperature swing. 

The day was stunning — clear with the severe contrast of deep black and sparkling white. The trail was in great shape, too. Even my loaded bike coasted well over the hardpacked snow. My legs, however, were still sore and fatigued from the Chena River to Ridge race and other adventures in the days prior. I did not have much oomph while climbing the rolling hills around the dome, and my appetite seemed to be missing as well. I couldn't stuff down more than a few handfuls of cereal before I started, and the last thing I wanted to do was stuff icky frozen candy under my iced-up face mask and into my dry mouth. Fueling would prove to be a problem for the rest of the day.

When riding in the Whites, you never see the same trail twice, so it's always an adventure. The trail along Wickersham Creek was mired in overflow — some sections still wet and ankle deep, and others refrozen to a sheen of glare ice. On my overloaded bike I had packed microspikes for my boots, specifically for navigating these slippery obstacles. However, the spikes collected slush while I was wading through the wet overflow. The slush then stuck to snow, which quickly refroze into ummovable tennis-ball-size clumps of ice on the bottom of my boots. I kicked them against the pedals, trees, trail signs, to no avail. The ice balls were completely stuck in such a way that my only hope seemed to be melting the ice, which wouldn't be happening at 15 below. The ice also froze the spikes to my boots so I couldn't remove them. This happened early and would make everything from pedaling to pushing more difficult for the rest of the day.

Especially when I had to walk across sections such as this with balls of ice stuck to the bottom of my boots — glare ice that slopes downward into a wet swamp covered in only the thinnest film of ice. Scary, scary. Eventually the walking wore the ice balls down to a point that the spikes stuck out again, but for a while the ice crossings were dicey.

I pedaled 18 miles into the Beaver Creek drainage, where Borealis cabin sits. This was my original planned turnaround point, but I reached it faster than I expected. I considered pedaling a few miles farther down the main route toward Fossil Creek, but felt more drawn by a route that veered west and climbed a high ridge beside the limestone mountains — Big Bend. Only three hours had passed since I pedaled away from Wickersham Dome, so I figured I could get away with two or three more hours on an out-and-back trip.

The Big Bend trail was softer due to lighter traffic, and deeply drifted in sections. Even though it was spring break and all of the (three) cabins along this part of the route were booked, I only saw one snowmachine and two people on bicycles during the ride into Borealis. I was all but guaranteed to see nobody on this remote connector trail, which was exciting in its own way. I could hear my own solitude when I stopped pedaling — that depth of silence is something I don't often experience anymore. Small sounds would occasionally break through the quiet — low howls and crunching footsteps, seemingly from miles away, carried through the air like a frozen whisper.

My pace slowed considerably on Big Bend. The soft surface combined with significant climbing meant I was walking most of it. An hour passed, then two. The trail climbed to crest of the ridge and turned to the north, contouring the spine. It was all steep ups and downs but stunning in its scenery, and quite a bit warmer, too. I was even higher than Wickersham, close to 3,000 feet, and the temperature may have even climbed above zero degrees. I could camp up at elevation, I thought, where it might not get that cold overnight. But anywhere high in this area was going to be far away from the trailhead, which would mean a long ride out the next day. Plus, Ed was working when I left and I hadn't had a chance to fill him in on my tentative plans. He only knew I was "riding in the Whites" and knew I didn't get a cabin, so if I didn't come back that night he would probably worry about me. It wasn't fair to him and may have even spurred unnecessary searching. I scanned the sky with my cell phone, hoping for reception, but there was none. That cemented the no camping plan, which was disappointing and a huge relief at the same time.

Even knowing I'd be pedaling all the way back that afternoon, I couldn't help but press farther up the ridge trail. Stoke was running high and pains were few, although I still had no power in my legs and I still wasn't eating. Strangely, I didn't feel sick or bonked, but my energy levels were plummeting rapidly. I sucked on some chalky M&Ms and marveled at Beat's adventure, again. "He has to eat this crappy frozen junk all day, every day. How does he do it?

After I finished up all of my nice and lukewarm Camelbak water, I pulled out a bottle of Gatorade that I had been storing in an insulated container on the rear rack. The Gatorade was still fully liquid with no ice particles at all. But as soon as I cracked open the lid, I witnessed one of the strangest science experiments I've ever seen. After I took the first sip, I noticed ice crystals forming inside the bottle. They floated to the surface and started multiplying like snowflakes, gathering momentum in a purple blizzard. Within seconds my liquid Gatorade had morphed into a thick slush, icy throughout. I'd never seen anything like it — instant Slurpee. Unfortunately, at the time I would have much preferred hot tea to Slurpee, but I was still very thirsty so I choked it down.

As soon as my watch indicated a little over six hours from the start, I decided to turn around despite continued resistance from my adventurous side. I had traveled thirty miles from Wickersham Dome, and far enough along the ridge trail that I could look down into the valley that holds the Colorado Creek Cabin, where Beat and I camped on New Years Eve, accessed from a trail much farther up the highway. It seemed like a long way into the frozen backcountry. I was pleased with the ground I'd covered.

The ride back was serene — still immensely quiet, and I was fatigued enough to shed my fears of the cold and slip into the mechanized mindset of forward motion, breathing, and occasionally stopping long enough to force myself to eat something — dry frozen cookies, drier Wheat Thins. It was strange — I was still so thirsty that I had gotten to the point of rationing my last Nalgene of water. My base layers weren't too wet, so I hadn't been sweating profusely, and I also had only peed twice that day in twelve hours. I'm not even sure where all of that water went — perhaps freeze-dried out of my body and sucked into that cold, dry air.

Clear skies remained and the deep cold returned as the sun went down. Despite low energy it spurred me to pedal faster, until I reached the Wickersham Wall 53 miles into my ride. I've pushed a bike up this wall four times, and it's left me shattered every time. The depth of my low energy became apparent and the remaining ice on the bottom of my boots slipped on the steep slope, causing me to fall to my knees several times. Ah, Wickersham Wall. You never fail to break me.

I finished my ride in the dark after 11 hours and 44 minutes in the deep cold, with sixty miles for the day. A grand day out.


  1. I have the same problem with snow and ice clogging up my cleats so I carry a small screw driver to chip the ice and snow away. It seems to work very well.

  2. Quel courage, et bel exemple, pour ceux comme nous, affolés dès que nous avons 5cm de neige sur nos routes.
    Bons voyages

  3. I'm sure the silence/aloneness can be unnerving as well as empowering...

    A similar Insta-Freeze on Mythbusters:

  4. A wonderful description of a beautiful day on a bike. The sound of silence in a white clear world.
    Thank you.


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