One of the goals of this trip had been to reach Fairbanks, Alaska and its promise of Northern Lights and comforting hot springs. I had reached Denali National Park, a mere 125 miles away from Fairbanks, on Friday, cold, tired, and humbled by the Parks Highway road conditions. Having ridden many roads throughout the world, I felt I was well prepared for this stretch of highway. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The highway runs more than 237.3 miles north of Anchorage to the park entrance. While the road offers stunning views, the combination of past and present snow storms, combined with accumulated ice and high speed truck and car traffic, all resulted in conditions that were just short of suicidal to bike in. While the trucks would almost always move over, they created near whiteout, zero visibility conditions as they passed. It was never the trucks that I was afraid of, instead it was any and all traffic behind the trucks that could no longer see anything. Even with my bike and myself lit up like a Christmas tree, the fear was near paralyzing.
On more than one instance I was forced to find a spot to rest, often a snowmobile trail access point, where I could sit, make a warm beverage and calm my nerves, all the while questioning my judgement and my sanity. The worst day was the one after leaving Talkeetna when the road conditions became almost un-rideable and the weather rapidly deteriorated. It was at that moment, after an hour of quiet reflection, that I almost called it quits.
Luckily for me, I did not quit, the conditions improved, and I was able to push on and arrive safely at Denali National Park. The plan had been to set up base camp in Riley Creek campground, free to winter visitors, and take a week to explore the park by bike. The campground roads were plowed but the camp spots were fully covered in snow, requiring me to dig out a 12' x12' pit where my single-pole shelter could be set up.
It was late in the afternoon and I was pretty frozen from the ride from Cantwell through the notorious region called Windy Pass, which lived up to its name on this day. Stretches of that road saw me grinding away in my granny ring on relatively flat terrain because of the insane headwind blowing down through the pass. By the time I finished digging my trench, setting up the shelter and eating dinner, it was easy to pass out and ignore the plummeting temperatures.
Up until now, the ride had seen nothing much less than 0-degrees for a low. This was something that had surprised me, albeit in a pleasant way. The ride into the park was certainly the coldest of the trip, so I knew that conditions were changing, but I had no idea how far south they were going to go. The next morning I woke to temps around -10 which actually did not feel too bad. I slept pretty well that night which gave me a false sense of security regarding temperatures and the changing conditions.
Over the rest of the week, the highs would never go above zero, most often hovering around -5 with the lows hanging in the -15 to -20 range on most nights. The true exception to this was the night of my 50th birthday when the mercury would plummet to -36 degrees. It was a cold night sleeping, but nowhere near as painful as I would encounter the following morning. It was then, outside the comforts of a moist and warm sleeping bag, that I would learn the true meaning of frigid.
At that moment I had no idea how cold it was, only that it was colder than I had ever experienced. Everything felt and sounded different. The warm moisture in my gloves froze my fingers into painful little digits. Try as I might, I could never get them warm. The same was true of my toes, although the fingers were definitely the worst. I could feel the strange sensation of the moisture being drawn away from my face and then promptly freezing. The space between my Buff and my face became frozen solid, while whatever moisture that managed to escape upwards from my breath turning instantly into frozen icicles on my nose, eyes and eyelashes.
My rear hub froze up, meaning the hub would not engage, so after falling off the bike three times because I could not mentally grasp what was going on, this being some form of cold-induced panic, I began to push-run towards the visitor center where I knew that I could ease my pain and suffering in front of their warm gas fireplace. When I arrived at the center, face full of frosty bits, I looked at the thermometer and quickly discovered the source of my pain. It read -36 and that was at 9AM with the sun up, so who knows if it actually was a bit colder.
Now, after 20 some odd days in Alaska, I had finally experienced a night of true Alaskan Winter. I knew that if at all possible, I never wanted to experience -36 on a bike or in an ultra-lite shelter ever again. With that single event Fairbanks was taken off the table.
You can read more posts from Glenn's travels in Alaska on his website: The Traveling Vagabond