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

The gorge walls tightened, forcing us still higher onto successive scree bands, and we portaged like Himalayan Sherpas on a trail that was frequently little more than toe holds in vertical dirt. The exposure was substantial.
—Dial, 1989, p. 37

A shout instantly brought me out of a dreamless slumber. What was going on? Rolling over, I felt a weight on my right side. Something was sitting on me. “Hey, shake off the mid before it collapses,” yelled Mike from his nearby shelter. Reaching up I pushed against the weight that was closing in on me. I heard a whoosh as snow slid off the mid. Our rain had turned to snow…and not just a light dusting. It was snowing hard—at least two inches an hour. Ugh. Rolling over, I went back to sleep. *Crack!* An hour later a shot went off in the mid. The heavy, wet snow was testing the integrity of our shelter, which was beginning to fail. The split in the air had been the cracking of one of the blades of our lone paddle as it fractured from the snow load on the mid. With feelings of claustrophobia encasing our weighted tomb, I ventured out into a land of white in order to dig us out some breathing room. Ten inches of snow had fallen overnight. Our bikes were buried, just white features in the landscape. Looking at the peaks surrounding us, I could see point-release avalanches falling towards us. With the current amount of snow, we were in no danger of being buried. But if we received another foot of snow, things could get interesting. The snow had stopped, which was a relief, but with this much white stuff on the ground we would not be moving anytime soon.

The next part of the route is the most intimidating and feared. From our position near the headwaters of the Chitistone River, the waterway falls into a deep, impassable gorge. The only way around this formidable obstacle is to climb, hike, crawl, and claw your way through cliff bands utilizing the remnants of mountain goat trails. This is a serious endeavor, even without nearly a foot of fresh snow burying the trails. One wrong step could mean a tumble to one’s demise. Given our current state, we had no choice but to hope that the heavy flakes were finished falling from the grey skies and that the temperatures would rise enough to melt out our buried two-wheeled machines and the dizzying trails above. If we could see them both clearly, we probably had a shot at safely completing the task ahead.

For the next 36 hours we lay prone, conserving our energy and food. It was day six and we had packed just six days of food. Early on in the trip, we realized that we may have packed too little food. Thus, the conservation had begun. With our stores running low, a day of not moving was good—our bodies, which were craving calories, didn’t need as much for laying around in a sleeping bag. With stomachs grumbling we dozed; told stories; dried out our soaked clothes; and watched the snow melt away. 

At noon the following day, we could finally move. With my bike slung once again on my back, I began putting one foot in front of the other. Concentrating on each step and shuffle, to my right was a steep slope of scree and ball bearing-sized pebbles that were looking for any excuse to begin rolling to the void on my left. With my gaze focused on the sloping six-inch path before me, the airiness below was permeable. A wrong foot placement; turn of an ankle; or perhaps the slight bump of my bike frame against one of the rock faces we were climbing around; any of them could result in a plunge into the abyss. Looking at the rotten cliff bands to the left, I wasn’t sure whether a fall would be survivable. At the very least, body and bike would sustain serious injury—something we could not afford in such a remote place.

Have you ever gone to the edge and remained there for an extended amount of time, staring over the precipice and contemplating the consequences of a leap? Choosing to dance with fear but refusing to give into its allure? This act alone requires heightened focus and concentration. Our intuition for remaining safely on the edge guides us. The “fight or flight” instinct emerges from deep within our primal brains to aid in our survival. Every distracting thought recedes with only the present remaining. Have you been there? If so, you will have a sense of our hike along the goat trails. You will also know the aftermath of walking such a thin line: exultation of survival, relief, and then both physical and mental fatigue. When we traversed the final hanging aisle in the sky and descended to the grassy bench, the tenseness in my body immediately melted away. No one had succumbed to the pull of the edge.

This attempt to capsule the exhilaration of achievement in the face of adversity doesn’t tell the whole story, a story of mountain marvels that inspired us to new heights in expedition cycling. The whole story underscores the potential of mountain biking alpine style, a combination of teamwork and technique that could pedal any range in the world.—Dial, 1989, p. 38

There is always more to share about such an adventure. I could go on and describe the heinous bushwhack through an ocean of overhead alder to get off our “thank god” grassy bench, where I watched Mike toss his carbon bike into a tree from the top of a small cliff.  I could tout the superb cobble riding through a plain of wild flowers that we experienced as we neared the Nizina River. I could also mention the doubts of our decision to bring a single packraft when we reached the banks of the Nizina and consequently, spent seven hours ferrying and wading to only gain two miles. The advice of Eric Parsons echoed in all of our heads. But these are all stories for another time. When we finally rolled into McCarthy, nearly three days later than we had planned and on caloric fumes, I felt a strong sense of accomplishment for having just completed what we did. It wasn’t easy and there is a reason why only a handful of hardy souls have ever taken on this challenge. 

What Roman, Carl and Jon accomplished 30 years ago is impressive. Their vision and consequent tenacity to make it a reality was standard-setting for both its time and even for today’s golden age of bike exploration. Their “alpine style” of utilizing minimal equipment in conjunction with a strong and competent team has been an inspiration to me and the rest of my adventure crew. Because of Roman and others, we look at roadless sections of our planet and wonder what is possible rather than what is not. We know that by taking a bike into these remote landscapes, we will be hiking our machines from time to time and that we may encounter problems to solve. But with a highly skilled and savvy team, we can endure and make it through whatever we encounter. Experiences like this only push our limits and expand the boundaries of what we think is possible. Once the dust of our latest adventure has settled, we always seem to echo the final line of Roman’s “Hell Biking” article:     

Our thoughts were not, “Glad that ordeal’s over,” but rather, “What’s next?”
—Dial, 1989, p. 38

This trip would not have been possible without the support of the following:

Roman Dial for detailed route information and the encouragement to attempt the original foray into “Hell Biking.”

Eric Parsons for additional route information and post-trip transportation to the airport.

Dusty Eroh and Grande for your gracious hospitaality and for opening your home to a wild crew from Colorado. We look forward to returning the favor in the near future.

Gerard Ganey for trusting us to safely drive your truck around southeast Alaska. We couldn’t have completed the trip without your generosity.

Russell Nyberg for being our shuttle driver and making sure Ganey’s truck was in McCarthy as we rolled out of the wilderness with little time to spare for our flights home to Colorado.

A special thanks to Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Good to Go Foods, and Alpacka Raft for their trip support and for making some damn fine equipment and food.

My personal sponsors: Salsa Cycles and Bedrock Bags. As always, you guys make quality gear that can take a beating and keep on performing in some of the harshest climates.


Please note that all quotes and excerpts were taken from Roman Dial’s article entitled “Live to Ride, Ride to Die, Mountain Bikes from Hell!” in the October 1989 issue of Mountain Bike (p. 34-38).

To see additional photos from Brett’s trip, please visit his website: The Lesson Collective.