Hell Biking Revisited

Hell Biking Revisited

Hell Biking Revisited

30 years later: re-creating an Alaskan mountain bike odyssey

Written by Brett Davis

Photos by Brett Davis and Steve ‘Doom’ Fassbinder

There it was…the inscription that seemingly started it all.

"Live to Ride. Ride to die. Mountain bikes from hell!"

Roman Dial, Carl Tobin, Jon Underwood—August 1988

It was crudely scratched with a ball point pen into the highest timber below the roof line. Still there after 30 years. Given the raw harshness of the Alaskan wilderness, it amazed me that this cabin was still standing as a refuge for backcountry travelers in dire need. If only these walls could talk… 

Staring at the inscription filled walls and the cabin’s log book, I imagined there would be plenty of grand stories that could be spun from these four walls. Tales of being trapped for days due to unexpected snowstorms. Or perhaps, finding safe haven and a thick door to slam as a monstrous grizzly honed in for a close encounter. The story I was most interested in hearing, though, was one of three brash and adventurous men as they attempted to ride mountain bikes across the massive Wrangell-St. Elias mountain range…  

Although our traverse could be touted as the first wheeled-vehicle crossing of any kind through the St. Elias, we had no intention of presenting the trip as an absurd statement of bicycles pushed, carried, and cursed for some esoteric claim of initiative. The idea was maximal riding of the highest expedition ethic—fast, light, bold.—Dial, 1989, p. 35

It all started as it usually does with our crew. Whether on a trail, in an email, or imbibing at one of the local breweries, someone will inevitably ask, What are we going to do this summer? And thus, the creative juices are sparked and imaginations begin to run wild. From Alaska’s Brooks Range to its Northern Lost Coast, we seem to be drawn to our nation’s 49th state and its propensity for providing grand and demanding adventures. Undertakings that few would contemplate from the comfort of an easy chair, let alone want any part of. But I guess my three companions and I are all just a little off-kilter; predisposed to attempting the absurd. We seem to romanticize the suffer fest and believe it won’t be as hard as it will. We want to do. We want to experience. We want to explore. 

The “question” this spring initiated a flurry of emails as Mike, Jon, Doom and I threw out our ideas for the quest. The ideas were as varied as they always are, but as is the norm, we began coming back to one that was sparked two years prior when we were riding in soft sand against a headwind down the Northern Lost Coast. Continually looking east away from the angry seas to our right, we strained to see through the constant cloud cover of North America’s highest mountain massif. Three hundred miles of glaciated wilderness was out there with not a single road dissecting its desolation. Our added team member for that trip, Roman Dial, had ridden a bike through its heart. During the summer of 1988, utilizing rigid 26” wheeled mountain bikes with rear racks and a single packraft, Roman, Carl Tobin, and Jon Underwood rode out of the remote mining settlement of Nabesna for the equally remote village of McCarthy. In order to accomplish this audacious goal, they would have to “bash over river bar boulders, crash through wild game trails, portage over dizzying scree slopes and canyon cliffs, and paddle across raging glacial rivers” (Dial, 1989, p. 35). Their endeavor was way before its time when it came to the use of mountain bikes in the 1980s. Their “alpine style” of mountain biking was the precursor to today’s bikepacking and adventure by bike. It seemed only fitting for us to celebrate their feat on its 30th anniversary by duplicating their route. This was going to be fun.

As wild jocks establishing the boundaries of the possible, we realized that planning for every contingency meant staying at home. –Dial, 1989, p. 35

Our conference call went on for a solid 45 minutes as Doom, Mike and I debated the merits of what gear to take and who was carrying it. Should we take two mids or will one suffice? How big should the first aid kit be and who has some potent pain killers left over from a previously dire injury? Satellite phone or inReach? Single packraft or one for each of us? With just one raft we could conceivably move faster due to having lighter kits. Roman had advised that going “light and fast” was the central theme of this trip. The pioneers hadn’t even taken a stove or shelter. Having each experienced enough cold and wet days in the Alaskan backcountry, we weren’t going to go that trimmed down. In June of 2009, Eric Parsons and Dylan Kentch were the first to repeat the route by each carrying their own packraft. Upon speaking with Eric, he foreshadowed that we would be kicking ourselves once we got to the Nizina River, the final major waterway before McCarthy. They floated in four hours what would be most likely be a day and half ride. What to do? Is less gear really faster in the long run? Not knowing what we were in for and believing that our modern-day fat bikes would allow us to ride even more of the terrain than those before us, we ended the call with the decision made to go in true pioneer style. As I hung up the phone I wondered if we would live to regret this decision. There was only one way to find out. Let the adventure begin…

The terrain varied from quicksand to rock wall, from spruce, birch and aspen forest to windswept glacier. We cranked over marshy meadows, splashed through white water streams, slalomed down shrub-punctuated hillsides, shredded over steep, deep scree. Rolling single track maintained by moose, bear, and caribou exalted our souls. Upstream boulder bar bashes broke our hearts but never a rim. —Dial, 1989, p. 36

At 8 PM we said good-bye to Russell, who would shuttle a friend’s loaner Toyota Tacoma around to McCarthy. We had driven to the virtual “end of the road” and were now entering a vast wilderness encompassing 20,000 square miles of ruggedness. We would encounter no roads until the final nine miles of gravel and mud puddles into McCarthy. We each had six days of food and loads of enthusiasm for the 150 miles that we had to negotiate until then. Following the ATV trail we exalted in the ability to finally be moving. All of the discussion and planning were over. It was go time—a moment that we each relished as doers. 

Our enthusiasm for being in motion quickly dwindled as our ATV trail disappeared into a bog. Tire pressures were minimized, as were our expectations of how much ground we would cover that evening. Before long, our feet were wet from pushing our bikes through a sea of grass bathed in four inches of murky water. Seeking our first major landmark of the trip, the Nabesna River, we instead found Jacksina Creek. Our prize was a ridgeline bushwhack away. Removing our pedals, we began the first hike-a-bike of the trip. We pushed and clawed our way up a ridge and finally down its backside to the massive flood plain of the Nabesna. At midnight we decided to call it quits. The Alaskan dusk was descending upon us and we had put in a solid four hours of work. There was no reason to break ourselves on the first evening as we were just beginning this odyssey. 

Only six feet long and less than four feet wide, the pack raft proved adequate for ferrying three men and their babies…Even securely bound to the boat, my cargo of Klein, Yeti, and Victor worried Jon. Holding the boat as I climbed aboard, he pleaded, “Don’t you think you’re a little top heavy? Remember you’ve got $4,000 worth of bikes piled on there!” “Yeah, yeah, Jon. And it’s all threatening to pop this $400 nylon bubble. But I’m in this to survive, and the bikes are the last of my worries.” –Dial, 1989, p. 36

The route included the crossing of three major glacial rivers: the Nabesna, Chisana, and Nizina. For those who have yet to experience an Alaskan river that originates at a glacier, picture a vast plain of river cobbles intersected with strands of ice cold, chocolate milk-colored water that sometimes flows at excessive speeds downhill. This plain may be miles across and choked in ice depending upon the time of year and proximity to its source. Because of the murky water, determining its depth is difficult. The only way is to wade in and brave its frigid waters, which instantly numb the feet and lower body. If thigh-deep or less with a mellow current, a braid can be negotiated on foot, which saves time. If perchance, the river bottom drops off to an undeterminable depth and/or the current is moving as fast as a freight train, then the packraft must be deployed.  

Nearly a third of the way across the braided Nabesna, we came upon our first inflation of the trip. Two hundred yards of deep, fast, glacial melt had to be surpassed. With hardly a word spoken between us, we quickly assumed roles that would carry us through the significant crossings for the remainder of the trip. Doom and Mike would begin the inflation process while Jon and I began prepping the bikes for lashing to the raft. Once the raft was topped off, Mike would ferry Doom over to our scouted landing. Either Jon or I would prepare for a quick catch while Doom made his way back for the bikes. While Doom thawed out from the crossing, Jon and I would secure two bikes to the bow moving as efficiently as a NASCAR pit crew. Once the bikes were across, Mike would begin assembling them while the shuttle of Jon and I took place. Occasionally, we would mix the multiple crossings up with Mike and I taking turns, but for the most part, this was our system. Depending upon the width and complication of the crossing, it would take us just under an hour to shuttle four bikes and four men.