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

But paddling was safe and painless compared to wading some of the creeks too fast, narrow, or shallow to deploy the raft. Like Lime Creek on day four…Jon and I watched anxiously as Carl struggled midway across, the brown water piling up to his hips. Helpless, we saw him stumble, the wicked current snatching his front wheel as it dipped down, sucking the loaded bike off his shoulder and into the surge. To drop the bike was to lose it. Carl desperately clung on, struggling to wrench the bike free of the current. The torrent relinquished nothing. Instead, it sucked Carl down as well. Tripping and staggering to regain control of the bike, Carl dropped out of sight. The waters washed and tumbled him downstream. –Dial, 1989, p. 36

Not long after getting across the Nabesna, we experienced first-hand the treachery of creek crossings. Given the ruggedness of the terrain with high peaks, deep gorges and glaciers dominating the landscape, the rideable route consists of following waterways from one to another while climbing over passes between them. Nabesna to Cooper Creek. Cooper Pass to Notch Creek. Cross the Chisana River and then climb up Geohenda Creek. Pass by Solo Mountain and then descend to the White River. And so on. Bouncing around on the cobbles was doable and our fat tires made the riding a fun and engaging pursuit. Following such corridors also meant lots of wet crossings and thus, lots of opportunities for something to go wrong. 

As we gained the upper reaches of Cooper Creek, the walls began to squeeze in upon us, with the creek’s braids becoming fewer and more channelized. Acting as the probe and depth tester, Doom waded into a fast-moving channel. Cutting diagonally downstream, he shuffled his feet, working hard to find secure footing on a creek bed of ever-moving cobbles. As he emerged safely on the other side, Mike and I waded in with bikes high on our shoulders so as to keep our wheels dry from the current. The onslaught of water wanted to have its way with us, forcing complete focus on each foot placement. Moving slightly with the current—rather than fully across it—was helpful and made maintaining balance reasonable. Once across, we all three turned to watch Jon negotiate the mayhem. The scene was tense as the lightest member of our group stumbled over an unseen boulder a third of the way across. In doing so, his front wheel touched the current, pulling him completely off balance. Struggling mightily to right himself, a hand came off of his bike as a natural reaction to reach for something solid. This move is all it took for the flow to take control. With disbelief we watched Jon go down and begin getting dragged downstream. Maintaining a hold on his bike, our friend bounced along the creek bottom. In what I can only imagine was a herculean effort, he somehow staggered back to his feet and hoisted his bike free of the monster. Whew! Surviving the last couple of steps to the bank we were all there to help him get out of his soaked clothes and into something dry. His tumble resulted in some severely banged up knees, shins, and knuckles. Looking back at the torrent we had just barely crossed, I realized how badly this could have turned out. We got lucky on this one. 

Ten to 12 hours of pedaling each day demanded more than hammer-headed enduro-fitness, it demanded dialed-in handling skills. Moves that jazzed us on hometown trails became routine. The “power turn,” “front-end load,” “cut-bank drop,” and “creek splash churn” became tricks of the tour. Our technical repertoire increased an order of magnitude after 12-hour days, every day, for a week, cranking off the moves that most riders do once a weekend, if at all.—Dial, 1989, p. 35

The majority of our riding consisted of being jostled by cobbles as we picked our initial lines and hoped for the best. My goal was to just keep the crank arms turning, as maintaining momentum was the key to navigating the technical topography. The route isn’t all boulder hopping however—near the top of the drainages we found slices of biking nirvana, at least for us adventure cyclists. Places 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 usually started as a faint trail in the alpine. Near Solo Mountain, a ribbon of singletrack 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 and rivaled any high-country ride found in the western U.S. Very few humans had ever ridden these game trails created by grizzly bears, caribou, mountain goats, moose, and wolves. As I danced down the trail, I experienced a moment of gratitude for where I was and what I was doing. It didn’t get much better.   

Beyond, we endured more hardships. We were forced onto the glacier’s rotting skeleton, its moraine. Hazards threatened every step: unsorted gravel, unstable boulders, cracks and fissures, mud holes sucking boots, and black ice covered in sand. As we climbed higher we discovered an ice-choked glacial lake, its waters trapped by ice cliffs on one side and the mountain slopes on the other. We traversed its steep and unstable edge, bikes slung over backpacks, hearts in our throats as we considered the consequences of a slip down the abrasive, steep slopes.—Dial, 1989, p. 37

On day five, all riding came to an end. Before us lay the imposing Russell Glacier. Fifty square miles of ice creeping downhill. Our route pushed us onto its lateral moraine. A place where the landscape is in a constant state of change. With my bike packaged neatly on my back and the others pushing their two-wheeled burdens, we picked our way among boulder fields and hillsides of mud. Underneath all of this was bullet-hard blue ice. Watching Doom pause before me, I wondered what caught his gaze long enough to make him pause as we all tried to quickly make our way through this particularly eerie section.

Upon reaching his stance, I saw why he was hesitating. The mountain slope that we had been traversing abruptly fell away into a slide of mud, rock, and ice as it tumbled into a glacial lake below. Upon seeing this formidable obstacle, my avalanche senses were awakened. Though we were not standing on snow, this slope could continue its avalanche downhill with just the slightest disturbance. Employing the same protocols we would utilize in the winter environment, Doom eased onto the slide. He immediately was ankle deep in shoe-sucking mud. Everything was quiet on the slope. Two steps later, the mud began to move, causing trepidation for Doom and those of us watching from our position of safety. The unstable earth slid on the ice in slow motion towards the lake. Doom stood still maintaining his footing as the earth moved around him. After a few heart-thumping seconds, all was quiet once again, allowing Doom to move to more secure ground. It was my turn.

Upon entering the slide path, a small trickle of mud began its slow descent to the water below. I could see the blue ice that remained after the mud moved downhill. We needed crampons. Gingerly I made my way to Doom’s safe zone looking for any signs of a major fracture that would release the entire slope. It was spooky and unnerving. Once we were all across the slope and on easier terrain, I think we all breathed a sigh of relief that we had made it across without incident. Especially since behind us was an impending dark cloud of moisture. We were about to get wet.

Our morning of negotiating rock and ice turned into an afternoon of climbing a steep hillside of moss and tussocks under heavy drops of rain. As we climbed upwards into the clouds, our daylight faded into a sea of off-white. Little was discernible from above or below as we had reached the snow line, which melded into the dreary atmosphere. We post-holed in the footsteps of a lone grizzly bear as this local knew the way across the Chitistone Pass better than we did. Cold, wet and on the verge of hypothermia we finally made it over the pass and out of the snow. At midnight, with the rain still dampening our spirits, we set up our shelters and crawled exhaustedly into our sleeping bags. What a day. We were all thankful for our unseen companion who escorted us over a high pass through low visibility. Without those tracks we could still be falling step after step through an endless series of snowfields. Sleep came quickly.