It was on the Finger Mountain when I had just started my journey on Alaska’s Dalton Highway. Cycling was no longer possible. The wind was fierce and every now and then there were gusts that made it difficult for me to even hold my bike upright. I had departed in the morning from the Arctic Circle point where, exhausted, I tried to make a fire the night before. That didn’t really work out, instead I almost set my tent on fire with my camping stove. That morning I continued in good spirits but the cold combined with the steep road over the hills got me exhausting already after an hour. I was very shaky emotionally, the music I played that morning was directly touching, tears came to my eyes. That might be a beautiful thing, but it was in some sense dangerous because being it only the third day in a winter journey of months, I was already full on my reserves and emotionally going from one place to another.
When I’m cycling up a hill or mountain and it’s really hard I usually get frustrated, my energy is lost to being angry. The frustration comes from the feeling that it doesn’t make sense, that I can’t move forward and the movement is basically very hard.
With the cold I experienced this constant in -30°C and with the hills I tried to climb, the cold came right through my frustration wall. I also got sweaty and every minute I was standing still wanting to catch my breath I immediately felt the cold hitting into my body. In my energy but especially in the emotions I felt, I started to feel a lot of fear. On the Finger Mountain I already felt completely broken, the willpower was not even there to express frustrations. I got to a point where I couldn’t really think about how I was going to pull it all off for the weeks to come. I just kept going.
The higher I came up on the Finger Mountain the stronger the wind grew and I became more frightened to the merciless cold. I didn’t know whether to continue, stop or even turn around. Bright thoughts I usually have were all gone. I started to hit a wall and realized I couldn’t take much more.
Thoughts went through my mind that if it stayed that way it would simply be too dangerous. All this without having any idea of how I should turn this situation around.
I just kept going and didn’t even notice when a jeep pulled up next to me:
“Would you want to get a ride? The wind is going to stay this way for at least the next five miles!” yelled Garret through the window.
I could only nod, trying hard not to shed tears. I was so broken and this offer felt like the greatest gift.
“I’m surprised you accepted the offer,” Garret said when we got talking.
“I would have thought you would say no, most people who do this kind of thing are very stubborn, they are not so into admitting help, whatever the circumstances may be.”
I looked at him and reflected that I didn’t feel the energy to be stubborn in the first place. I just didn’t want to be there in that horrible place, on that Finger Mountain, with all that wind. I was extremely grateful that Garret offered me his help.
His comment got me thinking because he was right, accepting help in the form of a hitchhike can quickly feel like a failure as a cyclist. That drive has a downside and has already brought many adventurers into trouble. Not stopping when it’s time to leave the goal oriented approach to prove something. The bottom-line of proving myself is that I’m not enough in the first place. Which I see basically as a coping mechanism related to trauma.
I don’t see giving up as a weakness, it’s self-preservation, surrendering to a situation that is too hard for me and the act of allowing others to pull me through. I find that vulnerability more powerful than the never ending cycle of proving that I’m capable of anything. Because nobody would be that though after all.
It’s a learning process for me anyway because I definitely wanted to push myself to the limit and these extremely cold days quickly got me there. I wanted to prove and test myself to become stronger, but with two important guidelines. Firstly, when in mortal danger I would always accept the available help. And secondly, if I have a technical problem with my bike, I have to embrace help.
It is difficult to estimate when I am in mortal danger because how do I know. I could still think clearly on that Finger Mountain, but I was definitely in a situation where things could turn around quickly. I would completely lose control and become hypothermic. I look back and am grateful that Garret drove by that day and decided to offer me the help I so desperately needed in that moment.
The ride took me to the Yukon River Camp where I continued cycling the next day in -40°C. The dangerous wind was there in some places but fortunately not as strong and timeless as on the Finger Mountain. I also got better and better to feel when it was time to add or remove an extra layer of clothing. This way I could train myself to ensure that I could stay in control of emotions and wouldn’t encounter exhaustion again. Because when exhaustion comes into play, everything backfires. I turn into a zombie, just fall back on my routine and even with the beautiful northern lights in the sky I can’t enjoy myself.
It is now a month and a half later. I’ve cycled nearly 2,000 miles and came to the end of the Alaska Highway. I have experienced the severe cold a few more times, but not far below -30°C. Often those were the days when I felt emotionally negative and heavy. The descent from Stone Mountain in the Northern Rockies was incredibly tough. It wasn’t possible to descend quickly in temperatures below -20°C and when I got too fast the emotion of fear would kick right back in. Strangely enough, I’m starting to get familiar with that emotion and I’m trying to embrace this feeling more and more as a tool to steer with. The discipline of acting directly is something I’m still working on. Feeling something is the first step, but acting on it immediately is a second step that is often the most difficult. If I don’t listen to this feeling and then don’t anticipate or anticipate too late, I’m often punished with even more fear and discomfort.
The Alaska Highway started in Delta Junction in Alaska and goes all the way to Dawson Creek in Canada with 2232 kilometers. I reached that milestone and honestly didn’t expect to be able to ride the entire Alaska Highway without hitchhiking. The mild winter definitely helped with that. Really extreme cold, from far below -30°C like on the Dalton Highway, I luckily didn’t have anymore.
If the winter wasn’t that mild I would have ended up in a Garret situation way more often.
All in all, I look back on the hardest kilometers I have ever traveled on a bicycle. The hopelessness of constantly cycling hundreds of kilometers without even a place to warm up started to bite at the end. Packing food again and again for seven days and then going again for another 500 kilometers. The worsening pain in my back from putting up my tent every day, cooking on the ground and sleeping on an air mat. The traffic with the loud noise of the heavy engines that always whizzed past me dangerously close caused frustration. The processed food started to take its toll, my stomach became increasingly messy and I felt bloated and nauseous more than once. And the snow I melted probably wasn’t always that clean. It went on and on and nothing changed at all except the increasing and often negative emotional rollercoaster. In the last few days I could only console myself with the words of Eckart Tolle: “it is uncomfortable but this too shall pass.”
The milestone came in Dawson Creek, where the Alaska Highway ended. That day was cloudy and snowing when I arrived at the tourist sign where the highway officially begins. The Alaska Highway was built in 1942 during the war to connect the United States with Alaska. Since then, it’s been the only road north that serves as a logistical route for groceries, fuel, and anything not brought to Yukon and Alaska by air or boat.
I cycled to the town of Valhalla where I was invited by Lina, to sleep at the property of her mother-in-law in a renovated barn. Lina had renovated the Scandinavian-style barn with her husband Dana during pandemic. With a fire place, enough wood and a bed, I could relax there to regain some strengths I left somewhere at the Alaska Highway. The rest I can take now comes as a gift and my morale is starting to pick up again to a level where I feel like cycling and camping in the cold would be fun again. As the last weeks were tough for me emotionally I lost it for a while.
Temperatures will remain well below freezing for the time being. In the coming week there will be a few days of around -25°C and in the nights it’ll hit below -30°C. After Grand Prairie I’ll cycle into the Rocky Mountains and they will provide new challenges. Fortunately, the hopelessness of long stretches of monotone highway covered with trucks will be left at the oil and gas fields at the prairies. And hopefully more places to warm up and to stop for a cup of coffee or a chat with someone, that’s always good for my morale.
I continue the journey to Jasper National Park and over the Icefield Parkway to Banff. In Banff another break is waiting for me because there I have been invited to stay with Lina herself and her husband which also bring perspective in the new chapter of this still challenging journey.
Here is a new video of the last part of the Alaska Highway.