As part four of our recent Storysite, “Hell Biking Revisited,” we brought the story full-circle and interviewed the members of the original Hell Biking expedition: Roman Dial, Carl Tobin, and Jon Underwood. Read on for their reflections on the trip that started it all, their thoughts on gear, and their advice for aspiring adventurers.
REFLECTING ON THE ORIGINAL
HELL BIKING TRIP
When you think back to the original hell biking trip in ’88, what are your most powerful memories?
CARL: Carrying bikes. A collage of things, really. I wouldn’t remember the swim if you hadn’t caught it on film. The good riding, I guess, is already memorable.
JON: Oh wow. Rafting across the rivers.
ROMAN: Not wading?
JON: That, too. That and carrying the bikes on the goat trail. That was like mountain climbing. It wasn’t that dangerous but we made it dangerous! It was so spectacular. It had everything. Big rivers big cliffs. Incredible mountains.
ROMAN: My memories are all biased by photos I took. Mostly carrying bikes, how rideable it was, how little gear we had—no stove, no tent, no spoons.
That trip is sometimes described as being the precursor to modern day bikepacking. What do you think about that?
CARL: Umm. Well, I didn’t know there was bikepacking, so it was new to me. I’d have to imagine that someone somewhere had done something off-trail. But mountain bikes were still pretty new back then, and I doubt anybody had gone that far off. Although certainly people had been camping with bikes before then.
JON: I think nothing could be truer, honestly. It was years before anybody else did anything like that—it was an outlier. What we were doing was risky as heck. No PFDs, no helmets, pool toys for rafts. Dick Griffith was decades ahead of us. But that was a seminal trip. It started bikepacking and packrafting.
ROMAN: Well, that trip eventually led to the National Geographic trip that inspired Thor Tingey of Alpacka, who started packrafting, and Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs, who started bikepacking as we know it today.
What effect did that trip have on the direction of your subsequent adventures?
CARL: Hmm. Some of them were other Hell Biking trips.
ROMAN: Like the Penthouse trip?
CARL: Yep, and the trip across Alaska and the Grand Canyon trip.
JON: It developed a hardened mentality. I learned that if I didn’t bring something with me, then I didn’t need it. You guys were veteran mountain climbers but I’d never done anything of that scale, although we did the 24-hour Fairbanks-Circle Trail and that really opened my eyes.
ROMAN: Yeah, I’d say it opened up a lot for me. The Patagonia connection and of course the National Geographic magazine story. I think in all I’d make maybe a dozen Hell Bike trips after that: 250 miles from Mentasta to McKinley Park without a map across the Alaska Range in 1989; 200 miles from Kaktovik to Arctic Village across the Brooks Range in 1990; Hope to Homer across the Kenai Peninsula in 1995; the 800-mile length of the Alaska Range in 1996; three trips across the Talkeetna Mountains (1997, twice in 2005); a trip in Utah in 1990 with packrafts; one in Arizona in 1989 with packrafts; a couple fatbike trips along Alaska’s Lost Coast (2010, 2016); and a bunch of others. It helped my Eco-Challenge racing in the 90s. They were among my most creative adventures and it’s great to see so much interest in bikerafting now.
How did you three come together for that trip?
JON: Roman, you were taking pictures of me and Carl and we beat Rocky in a local Fairbanks mountain bike race. And we started talking afterwards and we did a ride. You suggested the trip and then we tried the Fairbanks-Circle. That made me think that this might not be such a good idea and I started pushing back. No gravel bars. Granite Tors trail, we all did that together and was our first big thing together. I saw the trail on my Dad’s map and saw its potential and you made it happen with your packraft.
Did you think it was possible to complete, and if not when were your doubts?
JON: I was going to bail out in Chisana, but after a hot meal and you guys egging me on, I was ready to keep going. I was kind of freaked out by the whole thing. We didn’t have any shelter and my shoes were coming apart.
CARL: I didn’t care
ROMAN: How about when you fell in?
CARL: I was happy to get out and just keep going. It seemed like a bit of a chilly day and we warmed up in the foam pad.
ROMAN: I never had any doubt myself, having been over the route on foot a couple years before.
How did others view that trip then?
JON: People thought it was a stunt, although Rocky Reifenstuhl did repeat the route Bob Kaufmann and I did the year after and he said, “Never again.”
ROMAN: I caught a lot of grief and scorn from the 1980s snowbike community who had no clue what we were even doing.
In the original article, Roman refers to the Hell Biking trip as “The grandest adventure of our lives.” Was that just him speaking for you? Or would you have agreed back then with it? And 30 years later, does that still feel true? How does it stack up to your other expeditions?
JON: In the day, I would agree. The next one was longer and more badass: across the glaciers of the eastern Alaska Range without a map.
CARL: I wouldn’t say that necessarily, because the east ridge of Mt. Deborah and Hess were a bit more exacting.
ROMAN: I’d say it was one of my top ten adventures and certainly a springboard to more, such as an 800-mile journey from Canada to Lake Clark, the length of the Alaska Range, for a National Geographic story in May 1997.
ALASKA AS A CATALYST FOR ADVENTURE
Can you describe the role Alaska played in your growth and development as an explorer?
CARL: It’s not where I started, but it was a logical place to finish.
ROMAN: Where’d you start?
CARL: Indiana University, where one day I decided it wasn’t a good place for me and I needed to leave for Colorado. I’d done canoe trips and bicycle trips. I did the Little 500 bicycle race that got me pedaling around southern Indiana training for it. I started climbing with friends I met in a dorm room during a party the first winter in Fairbanks. Somebody invited me up Mt. Sanford, a 16,000-foot peak, over spring break. The following summer I climbed a neighboring peak, Mt Drum (12,000 feet).
JON: That’s like asking, “how does oxygen help you live?” [Laughs]
ROMAN: Nothing else in the USA comes closer to making you a well-rounded wilderness adventurer than Alaska.
How about the role Alaska played as a character in the Hell Biking trip?
CARL: Relative to the Lower 48, there wouldn’t be Hell Biking without Alaska. Any Hell Biking in the Lower 48 was because of Alaska. The terrain here is more resilient to it. You’re looking for disturbed places to ride—game trails and river bars and stuff.
JON: Well, there’s no place better in the world.
CARL: Star of the show. Unimpacted biota that make the game trails.
JON: Sheer magnitude, glaciation wilderness, access.
ROMAN: Nobody lives there. It’s wild. We used old Indian routes and old mining trails, but they’d been abandoned for forty years.
Was a bike the right tool for the hell biking route?
JON: Yes, especially for Carl
CARL: It’d been just a few years since my fall (in an avalanche down the 3,000-foot north face of Ninety-four Forty-eight in the Alaska Range), and I was not really into walking. There was plenty of biking.
ROMAN: From Chisana to Solo to Skolai: all the gravel bars and pea vine bars and game trails were great. It wasn’t so good on the Goat Trail. We also found great riding along the Chitistone and Nizina that others less familiar with gravel bar geomorphology, architecture, and ecology might not have found.
As the tools for exploration have evolved and improved over the years, if you could switch out one piece of gear from the original Hell Biking trip, would you? And if yes, what piece of gear would it be?
CARL: A modern bike, like a carbon fat bike with 3.5” tires. It handles easier and carbon is lighter.
ROMAN: Because you know you’re going to be carrying it some. If you’re not, it’s not Hell Biking.
CARL: [Laughs] Didn’t we do one where we rode like 90% of the time?
ROMAN: Yeah, the Brooks Range.
CARL: Hard to call that one a Hell Biking trip with all those caribou trails. Did we even see tussocks?
ROMAN: What about full-suspension bikes?
CARL: They’re hard to carry—no triangle to put your head through.
JON: The quality now is a lot better. Tires and rims are so much bigger. And packraft tubes are fatter. The basic design is the same, but everything is just so much more efficient.
GUIDANCE FOR OTHERS
Do you have a fundamental guiding principle when it comes to exploration?
CARL: Absolutely not…OK, maybe “get home afterwards.”
JON: Light and fast ethic. Make do with the least things possible and make use of what shelter you can find.
ROMAN: To go with others who are neither selfish nor greedy and with a good sense of adventure and a willingness to test character under adversity.
Any words of advice or encouragement that you would like to share with those interested in breaking off of the beaten path and hoping to discover some new experiences?
CARL: Believe that you can do more than you think you can do.
JON: Leave your phone. Don’t bring a map. The best piece of equipment is between your ears.
ROMAN: Work up to the big stuff. Start small with frontcountry day trips, then backcountry overnight and weeklong trips. Don’t shoot for the big-league wilderness of Alaska until you have built your knowledge and sharpened your improvisation skills and know how to go light and do without.
What other corners of the world do you think are ripe for exploration in an age when seemingly everything is mapped and documented?
ROMAN: I’m keeping that close to my chest!