Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part III – Atigun Pass

Destination: Fairbanks

Mode of Transportation: Bicycle

Route Taken: Dalton Highway

Day 3

I had a much more restful sleep last night.  There was some comfort in hearing the trucks rumbling past frequently enough that I didn’t feel completely alone in the universe and infrequently enough that I could enjoy the solitude.

I broke camp at around 9 am local and headed down the hill.  At the bottom there was a road crew flag person fully outfitted in mosquito netting.  He advised me to take a ride in the pilot car for the next section as the road was a “real mess.”  Some hard core cyclists a few days ahead of me had insisted on riding the entire way and found it pretty rough.  I’m no super hero – I’ll take the ride!

Sixteen miles and some great conversation later I was dropped off at Galbraith Lake.  My goal for yesterday!  Doh!  If only I had ridden to the bottom of the hill the night before …..  I learned a bit about the road and how it is so hard to maintain on the melting permafrost.  It just slides down the hills leaving behind giant gaping holes or craters the size of cars give way as the ground melts and subsides.  It is apparent in the Arctic that global warming is real and accelerating.  As we were driving I noted that I most definitely would not have made it past this section had I chosen to ride.  After unloading my bike, taking on water and spraying down with the industrial strength bug poison offered to me by the road crew, I continued pedaling down the road.

I am struck by how everyone I have met so far has been amazingly friendly and helpful and giving and concerned for my well-being.  I have a feeling that nobody in trouble is left behind on the Dalton Highway.

Now for the major challenge of the day – Atigun Pass …..

The clouds were high in the sky and puffy and white with sunny breaks.  The weather was looking good for summit day 🙂  I had been closely monitoring the reports for the last week or so and there had been snow fall warnings for Atigun Pass 4 days ago. Word from the work crews was that it had snowed and stuck a couple of days ago but things were looking great today.  The terrain right up to Atigun pass was gradual and rolling,  not too difficult.  And then THE PASS!  My left knee had been giving me some grief this trip but now the pain was getting intense.  So pedaling a 100 lb bike up what I estimated to be a 6 – 7% grade (based on riding up Cypress Ski Hill Road back home) with one functional leg for approximately 3km was a serious mental challenge.  I took a lot of breaks to admire the view back down the valley and am not ashamed to admit that I walked for a ways.  I finally made it to the top!  Anticlimactic much?!  There was no sign telling me I had arrived.  No sign reading “Atigun pass, elev. 4800 ft.  highest highway pass in Alaska.”  So I uneventfully rolled over the top and started the steep descent.  I took as many breaks on the way down as I had on the way up.  The road was rough and my brakes needed to cool down frequently.  Also my hands were cramping from gripping so hard.  I descended into a beautiful green valley bottom where the grade and road surface were perfect for letting go of the brakes and cruising along for a while.

The pipeline runs close to the road as I approached the Brooks Range

Approaching the Brooks Range

Approaching Atigun Pass with the pipeline running along side the road

Approaching Atigun Pass

Atigun Pass where the grade steepens

Atigun Pass – The grade steepens. You can barely make out the switchback at the base of the mountain on the left where the road turns up towards the right under the rocky part of the mountain straight ahead.

Looking back down the valley from Atigun Pass

Looking back down the valley from Atigun Pass

Trucks passing me on the way up Atigun Pass

Atigun Pass

Me on the downslope after cresting Atigun Pass

Me on the downslope after cresting Atigun Pass. Happy to be going down.

Green, lush looking valley on the south side of Atigun Pass

Green, lush looking valley on the south side of Atigun Pass

It was dreamy riding for quite a long time with the occasional rough patch.  I eventually came upon another serious downhill I later found out was called “The Shelf.”  Brake cooling, finger relaxing, and vista gazing stops were required.  I landed in another  green valley bottom and the first trees I had seen since leaving Vancouver.  I made it through Atigun pass and landed in sweet paradise!  The sun was shining, the mountains were magnificent, it was finally warm enough for shorts and the mozzies had all but disappeared ………… well, until dusk anyway.

The first trees I have seen since leaving Vancouver

The first trees I have seen since leaving Vancouver

I continued down the gradual rolling terrain that was more down than up, thinking I will for sure have no problem reaching my goal for today.  I was aiming for Marion Creek campground at mile post 179.  Another paved section started at around mile post 209.  Yes!  Smooth sailing for a while ………. wait a minute, what is wrong with my bike?  Why is it wobbling so much?  After a quick inspection I found 2 serious looking bulges in the sidewall of my back tire.  Who knows how long it had been like that so I kept going along the smooth road.  A half mile later it blew up.  Dammit!  I changed the tube and reset the tire hoping that would help.  It didn’t, the bulges remained.  I continued on for a ways until it felt like my second tube was going to blow.  Conveniently I made it to a rest stop at mile post 204.

Blown sidewall on bike tire

Blown tire

My grand total on the Dalton highway was 210 miles (340 km).

How disappointing …….. of all things to fail me, tires were just about the only thing I didn’t have spares for.  I had brakes, brake cables, shifter cables, extra chain links, tubes and screws for my racks but no extra tires.  After all, my Continental touring tires were only 2 weeks old and every other pair I’ve ever had were bomb proof.

Now what to do?

The end of my Dalton Highway ride

The end of my Dalton Highway ride

The end of my Dalton Highway ride

The end of my Dalton Highway ride

Without really thinking much about it I stuck out my thumb for the next vehicle that came by (20 min later).  They stopped but didn’t have enough room for me, my gear and bike so I stayed put.  I checked the time and it was about 9 pm which I realized that would put me in Fairbanks at a very inconvenient hour for finding a place to stay.

New plan!  Set up camp and start hitching in the morning.  At least I’m in a convenient place to pull over, with a pit toilet and bear proof garbage bins.  I noticed some handles on the back of the bin and opened it.  Hmm …….. this could be a good place to store my food bag.

I was just getting ready to bunk down when a big tanker truck pulled into the stop …….

Read the continuing story here:

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part I – Conquering the Fear

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part II – The Sun is Shining

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part IV – People

Deadhorse to Whitehorse Part V – the Last Leg

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