The full photo diary for this leg can be viewed here.
At 9pm on Sunday August 8th I arrived back in Fairbanks having spent the previous twelve days closer to heaven than I ever thought possible. Since my pedals started spinning south just after midday on July 28th, I have propelled myself 488 miles, climbing a total of 32,113 feet (3,000 higher than Everest). My journey has truly begun; in twelve days I have evolved through phases of spiritual awakening and physical remembering, from a wreck of self perceived frailty to a strong, robust cycling machine. It is as if all roads have led to the Dalton Highway, as though all the energies I have expended over my thirty years have been channeled into arriving at an aesthetically uninspiring industrial camp on the Arctic coast from where I have perhaps always been destined to start the rest of my life.
Arriving in Deadhorse on the evening of July 27th there was no way I was to know what a massive impact the Dalton Highway would have on me. I had been cooped up in the front seat of a mini van for 16 hours, riding the highways curves with interest but mostly indifference. Having started the ride analysing every slope in the knowledge I’d be soon cycling back up it, I had quickly begun to detach myself from the journey and move to a more objective viewing of the quickly passing scenery. I was tired from an early start and wracked by the feeling that I was not fit enough or physically worthy to attempt such an ambitious ride. As the bus careered down slope after slope, I struggled to reassure myself of my ability to retrace them in reverse without the aid of internal combustion. It soon became more painful to consider success than to prepare for a noble failure.
An amiable Dutchman, Stefan, had joined me on the bus with his bike. Stefan planned to ‘do’ Alaska, his only commitment being a flight out of Anchorage on August 18th. He had ridden across Canada and had no doubt that he was man enough to tame the Dalton. We spent that first evening camped up about four miles south of Deadhorse behind a huge mound of gravel. After five hours fitful sleep the morning came and by 7am I was on a bus out to the Arctic ocean. Security surrounding the Prudhoe Bay oilfields precludes free access closer than 8 miles to the water so an organised tour is necessary to reach the absolute top. I had been dithering about whether I would take the tour but found myself grateful I did. Not for the underwhelming experience of hitting the most northerly point of my trip, but for the wonder of the oil fields themselves. While in search of natural beauty I found myself in awe of the human ability to cope and overcome nature. Here perched on the top of a world was a huge and far-reaching industrial haven manned by over three thousand willing employees, an incredible sight and a tribute to human society (politics aside obviously).
In the preceding months and years I had envisaged stripping down and running naked into the frigid waters. This did not happen, despite favourable temperatures (around 70 degrees) and still air. I opted instead to follow the lead of Ned Rozell in a book I had recently read, and instead crouched down to taste the water. That water is in essence now part of me and will be carried within me down to Tierra del Fuego. With the necessary photographs snapped we bused back to Deadhorse, past a hungry Grizzly and miles of meandering pipe work. Whilst making my way over to the Deadhorse post office I encountered Marion and Andre (www.marandi.ch) as they rolled into town, literally just finishing their own journey up from Tierra del Fuego. It was belittling to be just starting out on my adventure but inspiring nonetheless. The baton was figuratively past. After a bit of time preparing postcards for the ones that I love, I was ready to move south.
Just after midday on July 28th, 2010, I was at the start of the Dalton Highway composing my own photographs in front of the signs that I’d seen feature in countless other cycle tourists records. They read ‘Coldfoot 240, Fairbanks 494’ and ‘Next Services 240 miles’. The first image of the clichéd collection I knew would adorn my album should I complete the road trip, but clichéd for the very reason of their obvious significance. With my front two panniers bursting with a handsome supply of two weeks real food (I refuse to touch the rehydrateable meals many put up with. I like good, nice food I like and eat like a king with it), I was ready to go. But before doing so I acted on something that had been running around my head for a few days. I spoke to the highway, telling her that I appreciated her bringing me out to such a beautiful and otherwise inaccessible part of the world, expressing my thanks and respect for what she was and the opportunities she was providing me. I asked her to please provide me safe passage for the day and onwards towards her end and the Elliott Highway. Then I kissed the end of my fingers and laid them on the gravel road surface. Only then, happy I had done everything I could to ensure my greatest chance of success did I push on my pedals and start to journey south. I would go through this ritual every morning before setting out on the days cycling.
Now you might perceive me as a hippy, a nut-job or general space cadet, but my talking to the road was part of the bigger picture of how I had planned to approach my passage south. I had learnt a lot from my time in Alaska thus far and had come to the conclusion that if you attack a road then it will be uncompromising and be aggressive to you in return. On the flip side, if you respect the road then it will look after you and take you safely to where ever you ask.
I have found myself becoming increasingly interested in certain aspects of Buddhist thought. With this in mind, before my departure I had read a book by Jamling Norgay that would deeply affect my attitude to my upcoming journey. Jamling writes about his experience of climbing Everest in 1996, detailing its effect on his own spiritual development and evolution. I have long been interested in mountaineering history and have read many a climbing tale, yet as Jamling retraced the steps of his father, Tenzing Norgay (partner to Edmund Hillary on the first ascent of the mountain) it became obvious to me the entwined power of the spirit world with nature. Many will have read Jon Krakauer’s depiction of the May 1996 season on Everest and another lucky few will have seen David Brashers’ very fine ‘Storm Over Everest’, but few will have considered why so many climbers died on the mountain that year. Norgay explains how the mountain had been disrespected, and that the signs were there that she would repent against those who coveted her for the wrong reasons. Miyolangsangma is the protector goddess who resides on Everest and the deity that Tenzing Norgay believed granted him safe passage up the mountain in 1953. She is powerful but just, has been there long before man renamed her body Everest and started to crawl over her, and will reside over the peak long after our interest has waned.
Looking back on how I had attacked my journey north from Anchorage it became clear that my ego, quest for numbers and obsession with movement had clouded the purity to the action itself. I had paid for this mistake with an injury that had forced me into two months of reflection and opened me up to the realities of my quest. Everything is happening for a reason, with all these roads leading me to finding my peace on the Dalton Highway, a section of road that causes so much suffering to other cyclists and breaks more than a few.
Many people cycle the highway in eight days yet I was prepared with provisions that could support me for fourteen days down to Fairbanks. I was therefore under no pressure to make ground and my first days reflected this; I cycled only 25 miles the first day and just over 30 the following three. This period took me 60 miles across the Coastal Plain and then gradually up onto the tundra covered rolling hills of the North Slope. Temperatures were mild, around 65 degrees and the air was relatively still. The massive sky was pleasantly overcast providing perfect cycling conditions over an area of Arctic that is susceptible to strong winds and icy chills. Even the world-famous mosquitoes seemed to be on my side, although this could have been aided by my regular Deet baths. I would often tell folks I’d meet on along the way that they should visit Scotland for real midges. I’m starting to see many similarities between Scotland and Alaska and my suspicions that Scotland is one of the worlds little gems are forever being reinforced.
I quickly slipped back into touring mode and was overjoyed that my injured foot, while heavily taped, was enjoying the flat road of the coastal plain. The ground is so vast and empty that to my west the earths curvature was clearly visible on the horizon. To my east I enjoyed Franklin’s bluffs that from the distance of the road, appeared to hold patches of snow cover resembling huge white molars. I was witness to the collective migration of a Caribou herd and the visual and acoustic delights of some Muskoxen. To my surprise I enjoyed the open nothingness but still delighted in the topographic humps that would suck me into my third day.
Day 3 really introduced me into the what I call the Dalton Highway community. After two days largely alone with my thoughts I would start to meet interesting folk. Ten miles into the day I was plodding along a straight section of road when I crossed paths with Pierre. Pierre, a French Canadian, is a bit different in that he is a walker, walking from Vancouver up to Prudhoe Bay from where he plans an assault on the rest of the Americas and eventually the world. Pushing his gear in a glorified pushchair, his skin is sun fried and his teeth look set to jump from his receding gums. A nice enough chap, he retired last year at the age of 64 and started walking; he will be 71 when he eventually goes home. What is it with French Canadians?!? Whilst talking with Pierre a lady pulled up in her 4WD. Travelling southbound she reported that she had just dropped her son, Justin (www.roadsunwound.com), off at the top of the highway. He also planned to cycle south to Tierra del Fuego. She described his motivations as similar to my own and let on enough that I knew him to be someone I would get along with. With my ten-mile brew and stretching breaks encouraging a physique protecting snails pace, I assumed he would be catching me the next day. For the next five days my diary entry would end with something to the effect of ‘still no Justin…’ he eventually caught me on August 4th, day 7. We were at the south fork of the Kayakuk river (mile post 156 of the Dalton). The work of the Dalton community was such that before we met I already knew how his trip was going, who he was and what he was carrying.
On day 3 I was passed by an interesting looking Mercedes camper van with writing on the side and a metal grating over the windscreen. I knew from the registration that this extraordinary vehicle heralded from the UK and had heard on the community grapevine that there was an English couple on the road. I was having a brew when they sailed past honking their horn. It was July 31st, day 4, when they would pass me again on their return southbound. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they caught me sat by the road indulging in another cup of tea. I was about half way into a 33 mile day and was for the first time experiencing hills that forced me to forget my injuries and attack the pedals. The sun was blazing and I had just finished off the long 8% to 10% climb up from Slope mountain, the start of the Dalton’s never-ending climbs. A few miles down the road I was pleased to discover the camper van parked up and was able to introduce myself to Penny and Bill Howe. Unafraid to admit they’re a few birthdays past their youth, Penny and Bill call themselves The Ageing Overlanders (www.ageingoverlanders.co.uk). It was fantastic to meet some fellow English adventures and having heard briefly about their three year cycling around the world in the mid 1980’s and the amazing journey they are now on, I came away with the feeling I had met some very special people. People that in one felled swoop have turned a lot of my philosophising on the question of whether to live young and work later or work young and retire earlier on its head… why not just live young and continue living! Penny and Bill updated me on the progress Justin was making behind me, reporting that he had perhaps been a little aggressive too early and suggesting he should eat more often.
This is how the Dalton community would work: There are a number of people going up and down the road at any one time. No matter their form of transport, be it on foot, by bicycle, motorbike, RV, 4WD or truck, people stop and share information. The result is an information network, tapping into which allows one to build a healthy picture of who else is on the road and what they are about. Thus I would often be greeted with ‘Hello Nathan, how is your foot?’ by northbound traffic that Stefan had been talking to further down the road. Similarly I could relay a message to Justin through another cyclist who was moving northbound. It was great that on a long wilderness road where loneliness could be easily come by, communication was such that you’d be made to feel like part of a family. It takes all sorts of adventurers to want to travel the road but whether 60 years old and on a bus tour or early 20’s and walking (like Matt I met just out of Coldfoot), we are all on our own little adventures. I once heard Reinhold Messner say that barriers should be broken and life risked for adventure, this is bollocks, we all have our own adventures that are subjective and should not be judged by any other standard.
I would meet many an interesting character on the highway, from the Tlingit lollypop man to the Toolik researcher on his way to Antarctic, all people I had not expected to cross paths with. Anther memorable encounter had been on the third day in the aptly named Happy Valley. Here I met Andrey and Nathan Hammer who had managed to get a couple of days work fixing up a camp for a hunting party. An Australian, Nathan had sent the previous two and a half years hitchhiking up from Argentina. Again around my age, he held the same views and was coming from the same place with his travelling. There seems to be a whole generation of us who are out there looking for something, though we are universally unsure of what that something may be. The joke is that we have no idea what our personal holy grails are, but we’ll know when we meet her! I had expected the Dalton Highway to be a largely solitary experience. There was time to think and my head was clear yet with friends all around I was never lonely, frightened or unsure.
The first five days were spent building up my physical and mental strength, enjoying my surroundings and for want of sounding naff, communing with nature. As time and distance ticked by, the gradients were getting harsher, the mountains bigger and the Atigun Pass closer. Atigun Pass is the highest pass in Alaska, peaking at an elevation of 4,739 feet (1,422m). The long and steep slopes to and from the pass are a renown challenge for the ambitious touring cyclist. In my mind the first five days had been a preparation for this pass and I accordingly camped about six miles shy of it at Atigun River Bridge 1 at the end of my fifth day on the bike. I knew that if I could make it over the Pass then I could physically complete the road and all would be well. I felt as if I was forever asking Atigun to give me safe passage.
Day 6 was the big day that Atigun would fall under my wheel. I awoke to fantastic sunshine and blue skies on a day when temperatures would hit the 80’s. Although a head wind persisted it wasn’t as strong as had been the case the previous day or two. I felt strong and although a slog, battled my way up the steady 9% climb to the pass with no problems. The final 200 metres of climb were tackled with a huge grin across my face… this was good pain. On reaching the summit, I ditched the bike and spontaneously found myself clambering up the rocks as high as I dared go before retreating back to the road for a celebratory brew. At that moment I felt the urge to write in my diary:
‘Its 12:20 and I am glowing on top of Atigun Pass. I really cannot describe how good I feel. Now that I am here I know I can make it all the way to Tierra del Fuego. I’ve dreamt and thought about this moment so many times and often feared that it would not come. I’m here, the sun is shining and it is beautiful. I love this road.’
This is when it dawned on me that my fooling around with touring this road had become a love affair. The Atigun Pass is renowned for having terrible weather yet I was enjoying an apparently unheard of and unbeatable summer window. My spiritual awakening had started and my conviction that I had been helped to this landmark point by perfect conditions on account of the huge respect I had invested in the mountain and the road up her, was further strengthened. I would write that evening that ‘I do not remember a day I have enjoyed more than this. It has been a day of solitude and contrasts. I had the schlep up Atigun Pass followed by the downhills and gentle gradients on good road through the Dietrich valley’.
On day 7 I passed through the unremarkable post of Coldfoot and stopped only to visit the visitors centre, buy a Coke and top up my cooking gas. I would eventually camp under Cathedral mountain at a point that I took to be exactly half way from Deadhorse to Fairbanks. It was a very hot day and I wore head-gear to protect my ears from the burning sun. There was not so notable 24 hours of sunshine as there had been further north but it was still just about there. The temperature was such that at 10pm it was still 83 degrees. This day was the turning point between my spiritual advance and its physical application. That very morning, after rolling past the gorgeous Sukakpak mountain, standing proud against the sharp deep blue morning sun, I reached my peace and was ready for the real physical challenge of the Dalton. Almost ten miles into the day I was drinking in the magnificence of the vistas around me when I was overcome by a wave of happiness so powerful that it forced out tears of joy. I was thankful to everything and perhaps for the first time in my life felt truly free. I had cried for the beauty of my surroundings, for the relief of finally living and the realisation that I was finally in touch with the positive energies I knew had been lurking in me somewhere.
The 8th day was the second day I would be riding with Justin and started with a very special episode indeed. We were preparing to break camp in the morning when Justin spotted that a Lynx had crept up next to his tent. She proceeded to saunter through our campsite and off down the pipeline access road on which we were camped. Unfortunately our cameras lay between her and us and thus we couldn’t get a good picture. We are probably the first humans this typically shy animal has ever seen and she definitely the first and likely only wild Lynx either of us will ever encounter. From this fantastic start to the day we set off to cross the Arctic Circle, an initial climb that would set the tone for the rest of the way to Fairbanks.
Riding with Justin provided a welcome change of focus as we forged through the comparatively unremarkable Boreal Forest and slogged our way up unrelenting climbs. Names such as Gobblers Knob, Beaver Slide, Mackey Hill, Roller Coaster and Sand Hill will mean nothing to the casual observer but stick long in the memories of those who have ridden a loaded bike up their unforgiving slopes. The climbs can reach gradients of 14% and are often a few miles long. Even when not on the landmark named ascents there are smaller, but often equally steep features to negotiate. The highway takes no prisoners in its last 150 miles; on unpaved gravel roads that we witnessed become very muddy during times of rain, the Dalton slithers a course over anything in its path. There are no cuttings through hills, just climbs over their brow. This represents a severe test of physical fitness and mental fortitude. It was however, extremely good fun and never did a negative thought enter my head. Every hill climbed was one more obstacle nature had thrown under my wheels and every rain burst offered a refreshing change the dusty detritus passing trucks would throw in my face.
Justin cycled off ahead of me on August 6th, day 10, and although we had enjoyed the break from ourselves, I am sure he would agree as a fellow committed soloist that being alone again was much like coming home. Day 10 was without doubt my most challenging day on the road. With the culmination of unforgiving hills I lost my focus and started to count miles. Starting 25 miles north of the Yukon crossing I had a target of 40 miles so that I would be left 40 miles to end of the road the next day. The rain was cold and wet, the roads muddy, and along with the relatively steep 8.5 mile climb up from the Yukon, conditions were challenging, yet it was chasing that MP40 sign that came closest to ruining my day. I would eventually camp up 35 miles from the end of the road, in good spirits but exhausted. I am just grateful that I was able to stop up for a couple of hours at the Yukon crossing visitor centre where Ray and Linda who have been manning the post for this past summer let me lay my wet clothes out in front of their wood burner, warm up and briefly shelter from the rain. It is good and kind people like Ray and Linda who are forever giving me hope for humanity.
August 7th, after 11 memorable days shitting in holes and riding south, I finally and regretfully made it to the southern end of the Dalton Highway. Right to the final miles she was throwing hills into my path; the penultimate climb hitting a record 14% grade and the last being 12%. Twenty miles from the end I also, frustratingly, got my first puncture. This was not because of the road, but because linings I had put in my tires to protect against punctures had worn a hole in the inner tubes. However, these trials and tribulations were only put there to be overcome and I found myself staring up at the sticker covered James W. Dalton Highway sign that signified the end of my road, by 5:30 pm. In typical celebratory style I got the stove out, cooked up some food and treated myself to a tasty cup of tea. After an extended photo session I got back on the bike and headed ten miles south down the blissfully paved Elliott highway. When I eventually settled into my sleeping bag that night I figured I’d have a couple of easier days to cover the 70 or so miles back to Fairbanks.
I didn’t wake up on August 8th expecting to be sleeping in Fairbanks that night but the Elliott highway was in great condition so despite the still numberous hills I was able to make good progress early. 13 miles out from Fox, which is supposedly a further 10 miles from Fairbanks I stopped to cook up some dinner. The sun was shining and the evening was a delight so I though to hell with it, why not do the whole thing today. There was much more climbing to do, not least the long climb up Skyridge to Nannes house where I was to stay, but I made it by about 9 pm. That final day I travelled 62 miles and climbed over 5,800 feet, a few miles more than the 47 mile days I had built up to over the previous few days. The daily elevation gains for the last few days are telling: Before day 9 the highest daily climbs were in the 2,000’s of feet, from day 9 onwards these values increased to 3,970, 4051 and 4653 before the final days 5832. These values say a lot about the physical challenge of the last few days of this ride. A challenge I met with the enhanced mental state I had developed over the first part of the road and the oft-repeated mantra ‘what goes up must come down’… it’s all about potential energy.
Although still in the moment only a couple of days after finishing this first leg of the trip, I firmly believe that riding the Dalton highway was one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable experiences of my life. It has the power to destroy you but if you treat it with the respect it demands it will take you to its heart and transport you on a unparralelled journey. I rode through some of the most incredible scenery, topography and wildlife I am ever likely to find. The adventure was so intensely positive that I have been set up for the rest of my journey south. A journey that I hope will continue to be both physically and spiritually expanding and satisfying.