Behind the Lens

BEHIND THE LENS: HELLBIKING IN ALASKA

Bedrock Ambassador Brett Davis gives a whole new meaning to "bikepacking".  Photo: Mike Curiak

Editor's note:  Most of these images (unless otherwise credited) were taken by Bedrock Bags Ambassador, Brett Davis, on a recent trip to Alaska to duplicate a route pioneered 30 years ago that led to the term “Hell Biking” - and, perhaps, was one of the first true bikepacking trips. At the very least, it was a cutting-edge endeavor and well before its time regarding the use of bikes in the late 1980’s. We asked Brett to share the words behind his images…

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F14, 1/200 sec
The goal was simple: to get from the end of the road in Nabesna, AK to the beginning of the road (or ending, depending upon your perspective) in McCarthy, AK utilizing bikes and a single pack raft. If one looks at a map, this goal thirty years ago looks to be preposterous as it goes through the heart of the wild and remote Wrangell St. Elias mountain range—over 20,000 square miles of mountain wilderness void of all roads. The route was pioneered in 1988 by Alaska hard men: Roman Dial, Carl Tobin, and Jon Underwood. At the time, these visionaries were the first of their kind to attempt such an audacious goal with bikes. Sure, you could hike it, but ride bikes through this terrain?! Crazy! Consequently, the young guns pulled it off with their victory chronicled in the magazine, Mountain Bike (http://packrafting.blogspot.com/2009/08/hellbiking-lives.html). Since then, the route has only been attempted and repeated by a handful of hardy souls. Eric Parson and Dylan Kentch persevered through ice, snow, rain, and cold weather to successfully arrive in McCarthy during the June of 2009. A couple of Spaniards suffered through the perils of the route during the summer of 2016. In tribute to our friends (the route originators), myself and three other adventurers, who are known to never shy away from the absurd suffer fest, decided to duplicate the route in true pioneer style: four bikes and one pack raft. This first image was taken on the morning of our first full day on the route as we began to negotiate the endless braids of the Nabesna River. Upon starting at the at the end of a gravel road the previous night, we had ridden and bushwhacked to the first crux of the route—which was to cross this broad river and make our way downstream to Cooper Creek. Essentially, these initial wades set the tone for what would be the norm in the ensuing days, as we crossed every waterway we encountered hundreds of times. Some crossings were simple affairs that could be ridden across. Others were potentially treacherous and would involve the inflation of our single pack raft to ferry both bikes and bodies across the swift and deep currents. Needless to say, we had our close calls and plenty of days where none of us could feel our cold feet, as with each entrance into the glacial melt our feet would go instantly numb, compromising our ability to find secure footing on a river bed of ever moving cobbles. It was a delicate dance to arrive safely on the other side of the braid.

Brett keeping his feet.  Photo: Mike Curiak

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F8, 1/800 sec
Upon intersecting Cooper Creek, we rode its cobbles upstream to its headwaters and Blue Lake. Once past its stunning turquoise waters we began an alpine descent towards Notch Creek. The game trail single track that we descended was some of the best riding that we had encountered thus far. I believe John rated it an 11+ out of 10. It rivaled any alpine single track we would find in our own back yard on the Colorado Trail. Absolutely sick! Once at Notch Creek we resumed our cobble riding as we headed down stream to the Chisana River. After picking up and following an old ATV trail through a marshland and forest, our smooth riding and wet pushing came to an end as the trail plunged deeply into an ice choked river. The Chisana was still partially frozen from its winter hibernation. For the past couple of summers my crew has traveled to the land of the midnight sun to attempt similar wild objectives. Learning from these previous experiences where the weather in late July and early August can be fickle, we decided to move our time frame upwards into June and take advantage of what the locals said would be more stable weather patterns. As with everything in life, there is a tradeoff…earlier in the summer = more stable weather, but could possibly mean higher water due to the spring melt off, as well as, the potential for residual pack ice. We had already encountered the high water affect and now we had come to a partially thawed river. Upon watching our trail disappear into a mass of glacial melt flowing quickly downstream, we scanned up and down for our options. Looking upstream towards the glacier we saw ice…rideable ice. Finding a game trail paralleling the river we made our way upstream and onto the ice. The surface was solid and our big tires took us across the river plain. Eventually, however, all good things come to an end and we had to unfurl the pack raft and begin the ferry process. It was sweet while it lasted though…

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F5.6, 1/400 sec
Occasionally, as adventure cyclists, we encounter our biking equivalent of nirvana. A place where the work to get there is justified and all of the sore muscles from hard exertion are forgotten. A place where the views are indescribable and the riding is what can only be experienced in our dreams. It’s a place that our mind creates in its deepest corners and consequently, we spend our lives seeking, like a dog chases his uncatchable tail. I lived this dream on day three. After crossing the Chisana, we began making our way up yet another river bed. Geohenda Creek, like Cooper and Notch Creeks, was negotiable by bikes. I am not sure how Roman and the boys did in 1988 on their 26 inch, 1.9” tires, but modern day fat bikes had little trouble riding the bruiser boulders and cobbles of this massive drainage. Up and up we pedaled, ticking off the miles slowly but surely. This type of riding isn’t for everyone. It is a full body affair…before you lies a sea of cobbles from 6 inches to 12 inches in diameter. You scan ahead and pick your line, taking your first pedal strokes with purpose and fortitude to stay on line. Within seconds though, your front tire careens off a cobble and changes your planned trajectory. You are now free styling. Going with the flow. All plans are abandoned with only a mindset to maintain forward motion remaining. Frustration can come easily, but a willingness to relax and succumb to the whims of the terrain can keep such feelings at bay. Only then can forward progress on the bike rather than off the bike be made. When the Geohenda was but a trickle, nirvana was realized. A faint trail of alpine single track began to materialize. It was heavenly. Before me, the ribbon snaked its way across tundra and tussocks flowing towards a massive skyline dominated by a 16,000’ glaciated peak. The riding was smooth and effortless as we pedaled into each camera frame. The early evening light only added to the etherealness of the landscape. We had found 11++ riding for sure.

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F11, 1/125 sec
The most feared portion of this route is the mountain goat trails out of the Chitistone Gorge. There is no riding to be had here. The antithesis of riding nirvana. The trails wind through loose cliff bands of rock. The exposure was daunting at times forcing pinpoint focus on shuffling one foot forward after another on a twelve-inch wide path. A rough, slow and unstoppable tumble into an abyss is the outcome of a misstep to the left. To the right is a steep hillside of ever shifting rock and earth in constant transition. It is treacherous. Two days before we tackled this formidable challenge, we negotiated our way along the lateral moraine of the Russell Glacier. Intimidating and unnerving with mud slides upon ice. Over Skolai pass and then the Chitistone pass we post holed through deep snow. Only by following the tracks of a lone grizzly bear were we able to find our way in the misty and wet landscape of nothingness. The rain gave no sign of abating. With all of us on the verge of hypothermia, the walking came to an end a mile before the gorge began. At midnight we quickly set up our shelters and exchanged wet clothes for warm sleeping bags. Relief at last. At 4 AM I was startled awake by Mike shouting to shake off the mid. The world had gone suddenly quiet. The day’s companion of rain had faded into the atmosphere only to be replaced by the acoustics of falling snow. Our world was blanketed in a layer of white. Not good. Throughout the rest of the early morning, the snow continued to fall. Ten inches in total. With each wet flake our indoor space was encroached upon. With a crack of our kayak paddle, which was used as our lone tent pole, the heavy, wet snow made its presence known. We weren’t going anywhere for a while. At 7 AM I emerged from our cocoon to dig out our shelters. The landscape had radically changed over the dusk hours with point release avalanches dominating every steep face surrounding us. We were lucky that only ten inches had fallen. A more substantial snow would have put us in the direct firing line of several different avalanche paths. Having been warned of the perils of this portion of the route, we chose to stay put until the snow melted. To attempt the exposed trails ahead would have been a fool’s errand, most likely ending in a mortal disaster. The only option was to lay prone, conserving both energy and food, until the conditions safely warranted passage around the gorge. This would take 36 hours of waiting. Please note the cyclist on the steep hillside in the foreground. Mike was just beginning yet another highly exposed and loose section of hike-a-bike.

Brett makes his way along the goat trails.  Photo: Mike Curiak.

Olympus OMD-EM1, M.Zuiko ED 12-40mm F2.8 Pro Lens—ISO 200, F7.1, 1/2000 sec
A day before our departure to Anchorage, a conference call took place with myself, Mike and Steve. The central topic was how many pack rafts to bring on the trip. Should everyone have their own craft or should we save significant weight and potentially increase our ability to move fast by carrying only one raft just for the deep river channel crossings? Forward movement on the route by water would be compromised, but we would possibly move quicker through both the hike and rideable terrain because of our lighter kits. Roman and Co. had used one raft. Eric and Dylan each had rafts and foreshadowed that we would be kicking ourselves for only bringing one craft—especially in the final days of the route when we had reached the Nizina River. The final outcome of our call was to do the route in true pioneer style and bring only one raft. This was a decision we would live to question during the final two days of the route. Once past the lofty trails of the sure-footed mountain goats we thrashed and bashed through a steep hillside of alder to regain the Chitistone River. Watching Mike huck his bike into a tree as he scrambled down a short cliff, I could only hope that our two-wheeled machines would last long enough to get us to McCarthy. Turning down stream, we began the slow descent towards the Nizina. Good riding was interrupted by hour or longer bushwhacking tortures. The mosquitos were plentiful and thirsty. These full body efforts in the bush only seemed to ramp up the suffer factor and were mentally challenging to push through. The going was slow, but possible. My mantra was simply, keep moving forward by any means. It didn’t have to be pretty. At 5 PM we came to the Nizina and a sandy expanse of river channels and braids. We had been told that we would have to do at least one mandatory raft crossing, but after that it would be smooth sailing to a road that would deliver us to McCarthy. Turning west, we made our way towards an obvious constriction in the river corridor. There, we figured, would be our mandatory crossing. Way shy of our destination however, the pack raft was removed from Doom’s back and inflated. For the next seven hours or so, we would engage in a dance with the river…wade with the bikes until too deep; retreat; inflate raft; ferry. Finally, at 2 AM, we called it quits for the day, all of us cold and exhausted from
fighting to cover a mere two miles. Under a deep dusk, we consumed our final meals of the trip. We were officially out of food except for the scraps of a snack or two. As I drifted off for a couple of hours of shut eye, I imagined each of us in our own pack rafts bobbing down the river channels to McCarthy. We would have been there a day ago. The above shot was taken the following morning as we were forced to inflate yet again after having been shut down by fast and deep currents. Consequently, a few hours later, we hungrily and happily rolled into McCarthy just in time to eat and then drive back to Anchorage to catch flights home that evening. Talk about cutting it close to the wire. 

You can follow Brett and see more photos from this adventure and others on his Instagram (@brettrdavis) or his website: www.thelessoncollective.com.

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