Alaska Adventure Machine!

Alaska Adventure Machine!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Atigun Pass



Whoa, a frosty start to my big day of climbing Atigun Pass. Surprisingly I wasn't bummed at all by finding snow this morning. In fact it just added to the adventure of climbing over the Brooks Range's highest pass at 4,739', with it's 12% grades. In fact this is Alaska's highest year-round highway pass. A major challenge for the truckers supplying Prudhoe Bay, it normally means a push-a-thon by cyclists trying to cross it.

While I was packing up my icy tent, a hunter stopped his camper and brought me over some Starbucks coffee he had brewed. An angel in camo! We had a short chat and then he was off to look for caribou. A kind fellow and it reminded me of the corny "Hug a Hunter" ads being run on TV. I definitely could have hugged him!
 With a belly full of warm coffee and a recharged spirit I charged off for Atigun Pass. Tires slipping on the snowy road, I pedaled for all I was worth up that Pass. I needed to tack back and forth across the roadway, as the grade was so great. I pedaled the whole way up, out of the saddle, putting my full body weight into the cranks. Finally I topped out in dense clouds, tired but really pleased that I hadn't walked up it at all. Yeah!

The descent down the south side of Atigun Pass was a screamer, with a dangerous layer of  loose gravel. I seriously doubted my chances with the narrow 38mm tires on my bike. Even with sparing use the the disk brakes, I could smell them smoking a bit. Like a runaway train I was totally committed. I raced downwards, with the fully weight of touring bags pushing me to my doom. This was one of those times one thinks about the consequences of a potential crash. The nearest clinic was 150 miles to the north in Prudhoe Bay and Fairbanks hospital 350 miles to the south, and with no ambulances in between. I kept telling myself to stay cool and calm, as the gravel flew beneath my wheels. Yikes!


Finally the grade moderated and  I could stop and catch my breath. That had been a pretty "out there" descent. I now noticed that the clouds were thinning out to the south. It looked like Atigun Pass was acting as a sentinel, keeping the northern storm from crossing. So I enjoyed mile upon mile of downhill riding, with the weather improving with each pedal revolution.

I noticed that there was more fall colors now. The northern tundra had been quite brown, the autumn season advanced already,  even in early September. But now hints of color were showing. And then I came around a bend and my first pine trees appeared! A road sign was placed there and said these this was the northernmost treeline. In fact this was equivalent to being at 12,000' in Colorado, the same vegetation zone. Pedaling off, I soon noticed more and more trees and color in the brush. It was sort of exciting viewing, given the sterile tundra I had just been in.

The mountains soon grew larger with wild rivers and peaks for mountaineers!

I had seen a mileage sigh for Dietrich, which turned out to be just a gated dirt road for an abandoned road construction camp from the 1970's. However there was one friendly resident. I'll call him "Dietrich", a friendly bird. He eagerly greeted me, seemingly well-versed on how to beg for my food. He took as much granola as I'd give him. Winter was coming and I was his grocery store!

By late afternoon I arrived at the banks of the Koyukuk River. A beautiful spot which made a great ending for a great day. Atigun Pass had been crossed in demanding conditions, yet in good style. As I set up my camp I meet some motorists from North Dakota. I invited them over to share this idyllic camp spot on the river. We were having a friendly chat when we discovered that my wife worked for the same company back home as his nephew did, and worked just down the hall from her! Crazy coincident. They offered me some pizza and beer and we enjoyed a campfire (my first) together. At 2am the northern lights danced above. Magic!

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