Posts Tagged ‘snow and ice’

Annapurna: Cycling a circuit in crisis


In this world, few things exist alone, unworried by and remote from the rest. When heavy rains and gusts ripped through India’s eastern seaboard and cyclone Hudhud was christened as such, the sun was shining over Nepal, hikers were pounding Himalayan trails in peak season and nobody rued the interconnections of this world. Not yet, anyway.

As Indian police began the evacuation of 400,000 people on the Bay of Bengal coast Mike and I were beginning to bike-pack the Annapurna Circuit: a trial most often the realm of hikers (over 20,000 of them yearly). The trail scoots round the Annapurna range, a 55 km long section of Nepali Himalaya including 14 peaks over 7000 metres and one, the eponymous peak of the range, over 8000 metres. It’s one of the earth’s most venerated hiking trails, and in the space of the next few days, it was about to bloom in renown, but for all the wrong reasons.

Mike Roy would be my companion. Mike was part of the six strong posse of riders who, two months ahead of me, crossed Myanmar. His blog The Three Rule Ride is an awesome account of a two year bicycle odyssey from Korea in which Mike has given genuine thought to the environment.

Other things to know about Mike: he is an American, he loves food (though limits his pace of consumption, cf me), he meditates, he can speak Korean, Chinese, Italian, more than a smattering of Thai and Spanish, and has blossoming Nepali. He has an uneasy relationship with geodesic domes. He has a tendency to look intermittently mystical.


‘Now, you guys will ride down, it’s easy, and then it’s flat’ reported the confident young girl, perched on the steps of the village police post.

‘Flat?’ We chorused, from the shadow of sky-tickling mountains.

‘Well, you know, ‘Nepali flat’: Up, down, up, down, up down.’

An hour later Mike and I were still lugging our bikes down the steps carved into rock, blaming the process on not just on one optimist but two: a boy had directed us onto this hikers’ path hours ago. We wanted to be on the road which lay now tauntingly on the other side of the river, golden in the sun, like a promised land, unmeant for people as used-up and ugly from toil as us.

It was a familiar trap: you strive for ages, bent on some irrational hope that things will improve, only to learn that they will not, but by that time doing an about turn would be too spirit sapping, and anyway, things might improve, right?

Day one on the famed Annapurna Circuit drew to a cruel end.

By nightfall, we came upon a house and were offered to share a room with a preternaturally fat pigeon with diarrhoea which was perched (wedged) in between rafters. The woman showing me the room caught me anxiously appraising the thin plywood floor boards with inch wide gaps, offering glimpses of a painful landing: the dining table on the floor beneath. To prove the robustness, she jumped savagely, landing with a thud, laughed in my face and was gone, leaving us to our rickety bedroom.

The next day a line of honeyed light caught the peaks, and then dropped, filling the valley with warmth and promise. It was a return to shouldering our bikes though, traversing rivers, mounting unending steps, blaming ourselves. The circuit had promised to be tough, but not at this meagre altitude. About us was a stadium of yellow-green rice paddies, the breeze shivered them: ‘shhhhh, shhhhhh, you idiots, shhhhh’.

Finally we got to a bridge and rejoined the road. Almost immediately two hale and burnished trekkers, Scandinavians probably, jogged past. ‘Hi guys!’ they chirped. Mike looked like he might attack them, but cheered up a minute later saying ‘I’m kinda glad the start was tough. Everything will be easier from here on’. Briefly, I wanted to attack Mike.




The next two days to Manang were spent mainly on a road that only fitted that definition because people referred to it as such, and because it joined places, not because it actually resembled one. It was the sight of man sized boulders which hikers had to round that clashed most with my vision of what a road should be. Bike touring had again become bike-lugging, but there were the other things to enjoy: grand rainbowed waterfalls, purple-tinged fields packed with the stalks of harvested buckwheat, the cheery trekkers: robotic-looking in their pole-assisted mission. The British announced themselves with awkward apologetic manoeuvres when confronted with another hiker ‘Oh God’ I heard one man say ‘this is embarrassing’ as he shuffled into someone’s elbow. There were porters too, their job two-fold: to carry three rucksacks a piece, and to force everyone else into judging themselves inadequate slouches.

From the outskirts of Chame an audience of Buddhist prayer flags strung across the river waved us off and as we passed trekkers their words lingered in the air long enough to catch ‘wow, hard work’ and ‘no suspension. Alright!’ Reading the prices of food on menus on the trail involved a light-headedness to rival that provided by the thinning air, especially if you’ve been tramping around rural Nepal for a while and living cheap. ‘Oxygen goes down, prices go up’ as the saying goes. Oxygen is at a premium not just for the altitude though, methane displaces it. The local dish of Dal Baht makes up the dinner for most, and is the most flatulence-provoking food known to mankind. The fact it appears high on menus on a trail in which people walk one behind one another makes me wonder if it’s all just one big Nepali joke on the visitors.

Food. I fight the urge to ask the question that I know is not becoming of a grown up. It’s not: ‘What would you recommend?’ Not even ‘What is the cheapest?’ I want to know what is the biggest feed on the list. Mass over flavour. I ask anyway, and receive the muted smile I expected, but get a mound of potato as big as my head, so I don’t care about the faux pas.

The most delicious feature of the circuit though is the changeability of the landscape, and on the approach to Menang it altered again: from the steep valley lush with deciduous forest and sparkling with banks of rust coloured fern, woven like scrap metal, to a flatter, pine forested place, presided over by bigger mountains and beige coloured rock faces eroded into surreal shapes. Each splash of pine forest was riven by the grey streaks of old landslides.

A helping hand from a porter



We were alone, the trekkers had taken to the other side of the river and the road this far wasn’t yet accessible to vehicles. Crows cawed. Wind quivered the yellowing pines. Donkeys stilled in the road, like for them, time had ceased to pass. This is a place of stories: witches are said to wander these parts.

We passed a row of tables by the empty wind-blown road. Amid the artifacts were yak bones and two great yak heads with light bulbs in their eye sockets, old pottery, goat horns, a black necklace fashioned from the vertebra of a snake. A man appeared, chanting, prayer beads in hand. ‘Three babas’ he said nodding to his stash meaning three generations had gathered the finds on sale.

Up until this point, I had been feeling a bit envious of Mike’s bike which sported Buddhist prayer flags, the face of a bearded man carved from bamboo root from Vietnam, and the best novelty horn imaginable, which sounded like a clown’s. From the table I immediately claimed a charred baby yak’s skull and cable tied it to the underside of my handlebars. People now approach my bike, take a sudden step backwards and cast me a worried look. Children cry. Old women bring forth prayers. It’s fantastic.



As a breather, unlike most humans, I am of a singularly noisy variety when I exercise, and especially at altitude. Mike didn’t know this. Momentarily he looked back, concern written in his eyes, as if he might find me grounded, woven in my bicycle, drowning in sputum. When he saw that wasn’t the case, his face reverted to one of pleasant surprise.

As my breathlessness abated, and serenity returned to the Himalayas, I looked up at the mountains, now snow-coated and appearing impossible to reach. I mentioned this to Mike. ‘Nothing’s impossible’ he returned, grim-faced and sounding like a Nike advert. A wimpier travel companion, I realised then, might be easier on my ego.

The culture around Manang is recognisably Tibetan. On the approach to the town the small children have the paradigm rosy cheeks, and are so muffled they can hardly flex their knees or elbows when they walk, making them hilarious for their being unchangingly star-shaped. By three and half thousand metres up signs advertising the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness arrived on the scene, which just rubs it in if you’ve been suffering from 3000 metres. Exertion is a major player in who succumbs and bikers are a lot more susceptible.

The first sight to greet us in Manang might have been used on the cover of a book entitled ‘Wilderness Medicine: a practical guide’. Two western doctors charged through the village, one squeezing an IV bag of fluid attached to the arm of a Nepali woman who was being piggy backed by a porter stampeding through town. Later I learnt that the medics had to rub off melted yak butter from her forearm, a local remedy, in order to insert an IV line.

As we wheeled our bikes through the town I looked back behind us: a fleet of clouds was driving up the valley. I didn’t think to mention it to Mike.




Manang was in full bloom at the peak of the tourist season and few guesthouses had rooms to accommodate two bikers and the skull of a juvenile yak. Trekkers shuffled about the one street taking days off from the trail to acclimatise, buying books which seemed to be entirely about death in the mountains and watch films in the two small movie houses which also seemed to be about perilous quests into the unknown. Deciding I needed something a little more escapist (or just not entitled: ‘The day I starved and had to eat my frozen friend’s face off’) we headed straight to a guesthouse, ending the day with a few beers with fellow bikers James and Logan. As I walked out into the moonless night, I shivered and saw the snow. It wasn’t a flurry, not even a dusting, just a few minute white specs floating out of the night sky: pioneers, I would discover.

I was wrestled from sleep by a white light, and discovered a broad white bar occluding the view out of the upper part of my guesthouse window. It fell. Gravity has beaten the abundant snow gathering on the roof and it had joined snow heaping up on the ground. A head-scarfed old lady shuffled through the white-out, shovel in hand. There had been no weather warnings, and everyone in town was as agog as we were: a blizzard had gripped Menang, in October: a month of unchallenged blue skies in the middle of the Himalayan dry season. And we still had the steady climb of 2000 metres to climb to Thorong La, a pass of 5416 m which claimed the blue bit of my map and where the contour lines crowded together like tree rings. And if it was snowing abundantly here…

But as the snow continued to pile up, people’s minds were not on the pass, and the snowfall forced everyone’s faces into silly grins of the type that grace seven year olds when school’s cancelled. With the power out, there was nothing to do but read or crowd about the wood-burning stove which was incited with dry yak dung, as the scent of garlic and butter swirled and a snowman in sunglasses took shape outside my window. As more hikers arrived and nobody could leave, Manang became a stoppered bottle of bewildered adventurers, aiming eyes at the still-white sky.



Manang under snow
It was here we met three New Zealanders: Emily, Claire and Tim, all in shorts. This was immediately satisfying. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but in my mind, all New Zealanders wear shorts, and only shorts. I am certain that if I would go there I would find people running about glaciers in vests and underwear. They don’t have homes, or jobs. They sleep in crevasses and spend their days playing water-rugby in grade five rapids.

Emily, Claire and Tim didn’t pack trousers in order to hike over a Himalayan pass of 5400 metres. And that’s how it should be. They are the only nationality allowed to do this and not be considered foolish or ill prepared. All three were as outdoorsy as every Kiwi I have met, and Emily was keen on something called Adventure Racing (if you’re not acquainted look up masochism in a dictionary, it’ll be there).

The following day the sky was a pacifying blue, and the Annapurnas looked to smoulder as snow was whipped from their upper reaches by sun and breeze. Manang was alive again: sunglassed, pack-laden trekkers pounded through two feet of packed snow which was yet to live as slush. Above, electric cables, the ones still up, bled snow in plummeting shafts. The rock faces of Annapurna 2 and 3 were unsullied panes of white. Mountain goats, driven down to town by the snowfall, began pestering shop keepers and munching on gardens.

Mike and I trekked up to a ridge above Manang where the snow was thigh deep and eye-aching, almost forcing us to break trail. Our feet slid deliciously into it. When we returned power had come back to the town. Inside a hostel a posse of Australians sat, their eyes trained intensely on a TV: the BBC were reporting deaths on the Annapurna Circuit. Nine bodies so far, at least 140 missing. The news channels knew more about the disaster than anyone in Manang itself, one of the biggest towns en route. Everyone began playing the ‘what if’ game, everyone had a reason why they could have been two days further ahead, at the pass, when the snow-storm hit. Manang was all chatter, but facts? They were as absent as colour in the peaks.

The drone of search and rescue helicopters became as familiar as the low of yaks. They zipped to and fro, like the rumours around town: two metres of snow at the pass, body count: 21. Scores were still stranded at Tilicho Lake and High Camp. The Israelis were being evacuated first as the Israeli government had fronted the money for evacuation of all its citizens. Later, this would be a topic of controversy and rumours spread of helicopters half full refusing to take anyone not Israeli, of bands of Israelis commandeering the available satellite phones and, more farcically, of two people who’d blagged their way onto a chopper because ‘we’re half Jewish!’

We stared wistfully at maps, pondering the future of our ride, knowing it may now be impossible to proceed – already many hikers were turning face and marching back to Besishar. We decided to linger, and then, realising bike travel was fantasy (since hiking may well be too), we left our bikes and gear at a guesthouse and set out to the pass on foot when everyone else was in retreat. We bought wooden sticks as trekking poles and stuffed plastic bags down our trainers. Thoughts of avalanches were edged out by the slim chance of making it up. The events on the pass felt remote. We met two hikers, a Lithuanian and Siberian, unfussed, who ran out of beer and cigarettes from high altitude near Tilicho lake. ‘It vas tragedy’ the Siberian pined. From where others were being air-evacuated, they had left on foot through deep snow drifts, motivated by the fear of remaining without the refuge of booze and fags.

The Nepali minister for tourism arrived into Manang by helicopter and promptly presented to the medical clinic with symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness – typical, I thought, of tourists not to heed the advice, especially amusing through if you yourself promote that advice. I was asked to check in at the clinic too in case they had a rush of patients who had been stranded on the trail and needed help, but having not been called into action, I set out on foot.

Snow: the great eraser. Filching not just colour and detail, but leaving the land bereft of smell, of movement too, with the exception of avalanches and as we tramped out over the hills northwest of Menang, a huge crunch caused us to swivel and watch snow barrel down the opposing side of the valley. Our gaze waited over the mountainside before we moved on, our thoughts murky, our plan still imprecise. We met a few trekkers heading back who had been stranded at High Camp, they bore news that the Nepali army had closed the pass to collect bodies.




The next night we spent with a French girl, Maryon and American guy, Elie. ‘Hey, do you guys blaze?’ asked Elie.

It wasn’t strong weed, but it doesn’t have to be at 4200 metres above sea level. I know this because an hour later I found Mike in his room sat upright and crosslegged, meditating. He was wrapped in a yak hair blanket inscribed with Tibetan runes. He looked, in almost every respect, like a wizard. The only inconsistency was the fact that he was wearing a pair of gloves on his feet, and instead of solemnity, his expression was one of lightly controlled mania.

‘That Yak looks demonic’ said Mike. Having considered that Mike was no longer high, I peered at the beast and had to agree. A long face, big horns and a bleak, nowhere stare. I was still vaguely spooked when we came to some other trekkers who paused by us. ‘Over there, you see?’ one pointed to the shape of a man over the river, lying down in the snow. ‘It’s a dead body’.

Until that point, the events on the pass had seemed remote and marginal, too extreme perhaps to process. We had been merely held up and I hadn’t considered the reality. The reality was brutally unsheathed now, in the shape of a dead man, and a red rucksack, laid out in the snow.

There’s an expression in medicine which, typical of many of doctor’s idioms, carries a certain brutality but is useful nonetheless. ‘You’re not dead’ they say ‘until you’re warm and dead’. Hypothermia can do strange things: brain function can be preserved, heart-rate slowed so much as to affect death. I had to check.

If he’d been out there all night, or for longer, then I couldn’t see him being alive, but nobody knew. We passed a German hiker, noticeably shaken by the sight, and then to the body. He was lying down, head on a red rucksack for a pillow, a blanket over his legs, one hand balled up to a fist. He had been dead for some time. It was shocking in the juxtaposition: dead bodies belong in hospital beds, in the morgue, not alone, skin still shining, growing hard in the snow.

He was a monk whom we later discovered had walked from Thorung Phedi against advice during the night. By his posture he looked resigned to death, not as though it had come suddenly and with a fight. Later I wondered whether his religion might have played into this. Perhaps, amid the cold, with a certain fatalism, he’d thought about his next life. But perhaps not.

An army helicopter above described a curve and as we hiked around the next corner, they must have winched up the body.

As we hiked our wooden sticks created tunnels of glacial blue in the snow which was lumped over unseen boulders and shrubs – the world had been bubblewrapped. Recent avalanches churned up the snow, twisting it up into ragged shapes, like a sea bed of coral. My heart was set to pounding as I took stock of a great crack in the snow, extending down into the earth, where rocks and snow were spilling in ceaselessly. It looked as though at any moment the mountainside would snap and tear off towards the river, plunging at 20 degrees to the vertical. Maybe my perspective had changed: Would I have been as afraid had I not just stared into the frozen features of a dead man? I don’t know, but as I paced through the snow my feet found other footprints coming the other way. The lingering echo, perhaps, of a man’s last strides.



Sunlight roused the valley, waking the colours and contours of rock exposed by the melt. The crags above us were blotted with the shapes of big birds of prey, Himalayan vultures perhaps, and as the snow melted rocks shifted, at times tumbling down to the trail from on high.

It was a scramble from Thorong Pedi up to High Camp, which was at almost 5000 metres and the snow was still waist deep. We were now the only foreigners this high aside from a Chinese hiker, the rest had returned, and a few had been airlifted out. My head ached. This was the place that porters had arrived at days before, clutching notes from hikers near the pass which stated that they were in immediate and life threatening danger. Send help. No help by then could be sent. Mike set off on a short recce but even now, days after the snowfall, the trail to the pass was judged too dangerous and, dissuaded to try because we still had to return to Manang to collect our bikes, we decided to return by foot, trudging through the melting snow which was exposing sweet smelling shrubs, in a steady, pleasing silence.






Manang was a ghost of its former bustling self when we returned, and much of the snow had evaporated with the tourists. Uncomfortably, because we were in the shadow of tragedy, the Himalayas south of Manang looked as beautiful as perhaps they would ever be: the high rock faces sheeted with snow, the blue October sky, the rust and ochre of autumn, the earthy colours of rocks and pine.

We met tour groups, one British, with members in National Geographic t-shirts but so obese that the logo was distorted, stretched over geographically significant bosoms and man-breasts. A teenager in the posse received a text from a friend and said ‘Hey, hey Jack check this out. My mate wants to know if I’ve seen any dead bodies! Ha Ha Ha Ha!’ His friends joined him in the hilarity. I exchanged a look with Mike.

We arrived back at Besishar which was in the midst of Tihar (Diwali) celebrations and ornate Hindu girls dazzled onlookers with their practised dance routines.



An avalanche on the way back to Manang
That Nepal struggled to deal with the unfolding tragedy is unquestionable, that it needn’t have is under debate. Nepal is, after all, one of the poorest countries in Asia. The Annapurna Circuit is not a jaunt through Yosemite and the Himalayas are a different breed to the Alps. But with over 20,000 hikers paying 40 dollars a pop annually questions will and should be raised. Here are mine:
  • The cyclone was being monitored. The snow was predicted. Why were no severe weather warnings telephoned to the villages and camps en route before the snow fell, especially the ones after Manang where there is no public Internet access? (and if these calls were made, why were the hikers not told?)
  • Why are communications between points on the hike so patently inadequate? There are is no radio communication or relay towers, and only one satellite phone. When power went out, there was no way to relay a message to high camp and tell them to instruct trekkers not to leave.
  • Why did nobody take charge of the disaster – the trail was only closed a full 4 days after the snowfall and misinformation was rife.
  • How does TIMS (the Trekkers Information Management System) spend the 20 dollars a trekker it receives? Is any of it used in crisis prevention?
Officials I spoke with were in the habit of reminding me that Nepal is far behind the west in matters of disaster preparedness. That may be so, but it can’t be used as an excuse for mismanaging was has been an epic calamity, and the loss of 39 lives. You can argue that the responsibility lies not just with authorities but with trekkers too. I agree, but trekkers can’t make reasoned decisions without the information. A dusting of snow is not uncommon at the pass, even in the dry season. It’s conceivable that the hikers set out thinking it would soon peter out, they could have had no idea that two metres would fall, obliterating the trail and leaving them to exposure and ultimately, death.

Some of the misinformation may have been born of a vested interest, locals and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) were in the habit of telling everyone the pass was open and easily reachable in the days after, when it clearly wasn’t. This is peak season, and bad weather is bad for business. I sympathise, but this relentless optimism just added to the confusion.

Whilst the trail is spectacular, I can’t recommend the Annapurna Circuit for touring bikers, though this has nothing to do with the disaster. For trekkers it’s fantastic, but too much of the road is still unridable (for surface, not gradient) and trudging behind hikers with a 20 kg bike and more gear over your shoulder is not as fun as the Himalayas should be. That said – with a fat tyred light weight mountain bike and no gear – perhaps it’s a better prospect.



A lot more has happened this month, but alas, no space. I visited a leprosy hospital near Kathmandu, and one of the mobile health clinics that serve the city’s street children. Perhaps these will appear in a later edition.

Thank yous: Lizzie and Sanju, My Mum, Anna, Fareed, Mike (a special thank you for Korean acquired toe warmers), Mango Tree for the tranquillity I needed when the trek was over, Cory, Benny and Carolyn.

Demise of the Shadow Cyclist


There are times when it strikes me that I’ve been cycling for a very long time. In Dawson City the revelation came just after I tried, unsuccessfully, to change gear with the grip-shift. I came to an abrupt halt in the baked goods aisle, looked down at my closed hand, which had subconsciously tensed around the handle of the supermarket trolley, and thought – maybe I should have some time off. Thankfully though I did not extend my arm to indicate whilst rounding the corner into the adjacent aisle, nor did I not lock the trolley to a lamppost in the parking lot.

Dawson City has a sinister seasonal split personality, like every other town at these latitudes. In the winter hardy locals and animals hibernate as the temperature drops to minus forty. In the summer it effervesces and teems with life and shudders under the shuffling feet of tourists, who arrive into town like a migration of wildebeest on the prairie. They get shuttled over the Canadian border from docked cruise ships or else have made their own meandering way here on motorbikes or in RVs. They come to catch a glimpse of this infamous wild-west town, clinging to it’s heritage, where houses are made of wood, the sidewalk is a boardwalk and there’s a nightly can-can show. Since the Klondike Goldrush more than a century ago a tide of misfits are drawn here too, girls with shaved heads and nose rings, burly, hard drinking men. There’s even a pub where there continues an old tradition of serving drinks which contain real pickled human toes donated in people’s wills. As you chug the crowd chants ‘You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.’ And I think that says everything you need to know about Dawson.

It was here I met a Swizz couple on bicycles, Aurelie and Layko, who had been riding north from Colombia. They had spent the past few weeks picking morel mushrooms in the forest and had earned 6000 dollars in three weeks, so they bought the beers at the local can-can show where it was agreed – we would all ride together over the Top of The World Highway into Alaska. A boat ferried me across the Yukon river where they were waiting for me on the other side, and we set off on a nineteen kilometre climb up into the tundra. On the way up we passed a couple of Canadians dozing under a tree with so much gear they could have been refugees evicted from their homeland. On closer scrutiny the contents of their tumid panniers and laden trailer became clear – they were carrying enough tools to repair an aircraft carrier, a tent that could have comfortably housed a mormon family, a sitar, a mandolin and a didgeridoo.
‘I don’t get it!’ bemoaned the guy ‘it’s taking us ages!’.
I almost pointed out his problem. ‘Well maybe if you’d left the orchestra behind…’

Eventually the road crept up over the ridges and snaked across the tundra, a rash of spruce filled valleys, concealing remote streams. In the distance the mountains were blue-tinged and bleary, somewhere a wild fire had taken hold in the boreal forest, the smoke mushroomed skyward and looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. Grazing caribou, a reminder of how far north we had come, scarpered as we cycled close by, their white tails bobbing up and down. Grizzly bears hunt the Caribou, so each evening we scanned the tundra and hauled food away from our tents.



Caribou
The Top of the World Highway


I clicked with the Swizz straight away and the days towards Alaska overflowed with jokes and banter. We cycled at the same pace, although they both lived on a bean-heavy diet and were the most flatulent people I have ever met, so riding behind either of them was to invite a face-full of gas whilst evenings were supplemented by the heavy fug and music of their farts.

We approached the Alaskan border post with trepidation – none of us had a US VISA, I was banking on the guard giving me another 90 day VISA waver, even though I knew this was technically against the rules. The Swizz tactic involved responding to every question the border guard asked with a broad, inane smile and the same bright announcement.

You realise you need a VISA?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
Yes I know, but you’ve stayed in the lower 48 for almost three months, is that right?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
OK, fine, I got that. Tell me where you’re heading?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’

It worked a treat. Eventually the jaded guard stamped their passport, and mine to boot.

Chicken, a small town just across the border, allegedly got it’s name because some official couldn’t spell it’s actual name – ptarmigan, which is a variety of local bird, and so he just wrote Chicken. I’m not so sure. I think some crafty, longsighted entrepreneur saw the potential of the name change and now Chicken, which really has no right to anyone’s attention, has a steady stream of tourists who pose by the town’s signpost and buy bumper stickers and rubber chickens from the town’s souvenir shop. Every year the bustling metropolis of chicken, population 30, holds a music festival: Chickenstock.

Outside the pub in Chicken were dawdling men whose faces seemed to be hanging from their prodigious moustaches rather than being supported by their necks. They pierced cans of beer with knives and downed the contents in seconds. The road signs around here were peppered with bullet marks. There is an adjective to describe all this, and it’s ‘Alaskan’.

The road to Tok cut through a crepuscular light as smoke encroached from the nearby Moon Lake wild fire which had been sparked into action back in June after a lightning strike. There was an orange lip in the otherwise leaden sky and the air reeked – not of burnt wood, but of burning tundra. We got through just in time, two days later they closed the road. Wild fires are of course part of the natural cycle here and the fire fighting heroes of Alaska, the pilots who drop water and fire retardant and the hardcore Smoke Jumpers who parachute in front of fires with chainsaws to cut away the bush, only get called into action when the fire threatens people’s homes or areas of conservation. Otherwise Alaska is left to burn, and it burns a lot. 3000 square miles go up in flames every year, it often burns in a mosaic because of the underlying permafrost so great fingers of boreal forest are left unscorched, unless the wind changes and the fire can burn backwards, firing burning debris into the air which lands in some remote part of the forest and another fire takes hold.





The sun was blazing for my first few days in Alaska and I had to remind myself that winter here is a very different beast, the notion haunted me. I thought about the minus forty of a normal winter day, that the sun rises for only a couple of hours, that snow stays on the ground here for eight months of the year, and that below my wheels dig just a foot or so and the ground is frozen and will not defrost any time soon.

‘There is a kind of biotic riot in the summer outburst of colour, scent and sound… but always the season’s opposite haunts you: What about the winter? What must that be like?’ (David Roberts, Earth and the Great Weather, pub 1971).

Alaska was famously bought from Russia in 1869 at less than two cents an acre. A bargain if you like bog. Permafrost isn’t all that permeable so there are countless mosi-ridden pools brimming with decomposing vegetation, terrain known in these parts as the Muskeg. We cycled too across the flood plains of once epic rivers and I could only imagine the torrent flowing through them come spring. Now, in late summer, there was just a network of cement coloured streams trickling through. The Alaska range poked into view just briefly, ground squirrels scampered across the road and occasionally a moose loped onto the tarmac too forcing some emergency braking from our trio. We made it to Fairbanks where we spent the night in a campsite which was the type that featured, for free, a parade of wacked-out, bedraggled meth heads stumbling past our tents and making slurred, vague and mournful demands for alcohol and tobacco. Ahh, it was good to back in the good old US of A. Canada just doesn’t cut it in terms of desperate drug addicts.

In Fairbanks Ben, a great geezer, took me out for a film and food and then Duncan and his family put me up. Duncan had hosted several cyclists this year and had stories galore about my final stretch, the 750 km of road between Fairbanks and the Arctic Ocean, known as the Dalton highway, or more colloquially as The Haul Road. The Dalton is a supply route for the trans-Alaskan oil pipeline and oil fields of the north slope. The 800 mile pipeline runs adjacent to the road, almost always in view, and was constructed in the 70s, at the time it was the largest privately funded construction project in the world. This road north was only open to the public in 1994. The au caurant and urbane of my readership might know it from series 3 and 4 of the reality TV show ‘Ice Road Truckers’ where the tagline for the season is “In the Dark Heart of Alaska, there’s a road where hell has frozen over”.

If readiness can be measured by the quantity of peanut M&Ms in a pannier, my God I was ready. I was 2.2 kg ready. There were no grocery stores until my last stop, Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay, so the Haul Road was an apt monikor as I would be lugging eight days of food and my bike was as heavy as it’s ever been. On my second night out of Fairbanks I set up camp by the road only to discover I had lost my spoon, my only bit of cutlery. I’m experienced though, I thought. I’m adaptable. I’ve cycled from Argentina, I’ll improvise. After a spanner, a piece of wood and the lid of a water bottle I was left thinking two things – spoons are amazingly underrated contraptions, and sweet Jesus, I’m hungry.

Now I’m not entirely sure ‘trough’ is actually a verb but when I say I ‘troughed’ my plate of steaming pasta and tomato sauce, I’m sure you get my drift. And as my jaw grinded away, lips sucking up tentacles of spaghetti, sauce oozing down my hairy chin whilst I emitted a sound analogous to a walrus having an orgasm, memories danced through my mind of the journey north from Argentina, the literal one and the personal one too. And with my beard steeped in tomato juice and an indiscernible chunk of vegetable lodged in my right nostril, I thought ‘Wow. Look at how far I’ve come’.

Day three on the Haul Road began with the sound of rain drilling onto my tent and the words of Paul and Duncan echoing through my mind. ‘It’s not so bad‘ they told me ‘unless it rains‘. The unpaved parts of the road are coated with calcium carbonate for the benefit of the truckers but the bane of cyclists. When it rains the surface transforms into a brown goo, the consistency of toothpaste, which sticks to everything. That day was a mud bath as the road continued to get churned up by the downpour. I camped by a river and lugged my bike down to the bank, submerged it and scrubbed her clean, the next day was dry and I grew optimistic that the worst was over, the worst of course, was still to come.

Some drivers think they can scold cyclists as an adult scolds a child. In Fairbanks someone yelled ‘Hey buddy, get off the road, thems for cars’. It was kind of the occupant to share their opinion, and to take time out of their busy schedule of shooting road signs, scratching their balls and incest. Mostly though I get waves and a thumbs up but occasionally when a motorist has to slow down because there’s not enough room to pass and a car is coming the other direction, they get touchy. I won’t ride in the gutter and it’s better that I test their patience than they test my mortality.

‘Hey!‘ yelled the RV driver who had to slow down on the Dalton ‘You should wear something luminous, I could hardly see ya!’ What he meant of course was ‘goddam you for making me slow down!‘. I’m not sure though what was more stupefying about his complaint – the fact that I have a luminous yellow dry bag on the back of my bike, the fact that there were three more hours until sunset or the fact that he was wearing the most enormous eighties-style jet black sunglasses I have ever seen. So I gently reminded him that if he took them off, maybe he wouldn’t get locked up for manslaughter.

I arrived finally to the Arctic Circle to get my obligatory shot by the signpost. The Arctic Circle is the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours. A tribe of tourists shambled past me with a tour guide who was pointing out notable arctic vegetation whilst giving a nature documentary-like narration, but the camera lenses of the crowd became focused on me instead of the flora. I half expected the tour guide to continue…

‘And here we have a cycle tourist. It’s a solitary male, you can tell from the brown crust of peanut butter in the facial hair. They migrate to Alaska in the summer and are scavengers by nature and will eat vast quantities of anything available, often picking up morcels from the ground, sniffing them, shrugging and devouring the find. This one’s been on the road a while, notice the veneer of filth, the wild stare and the pungent odor. We like to keep the cycle tourers wild, so try not to feed them. Look, there, he’s scratching his arse, we believe that’s a courtship ritual.’






A Shamrock Orb Weever
Parts of the highway have amusing names conceived of by the truckers that ply the road all year – Oil Spill Hill, The Beaver Slide, The Rollercoaster and my favourite – Oh Shit Corner, a place where every trucker has had an Oh Shit moment, one told me. ‘Your brakes go out here in the winter and you’re at the helm of an 18 wheel toboggan’. I rode next through the truck stop of Coldfoot (singular, the other presumably amputated) where I found myself surrounded by burly, bearded men crowding their plates with fried food. I have never been in the presence of so much denim and heart disease in my life.

I rode past Prospect Creek, site of the lowest ever recorded temperature in the US – minus 80°F. Then through forests of spindly black spruce which can grow over the permafrost until I arrived at the Farthest North Spruce Tree (advertised by way of a signpost and which some joker had once tried to cut down), after which there is only bare tundra, a place too cold for trees to survive in the winter. Until the last tree the road had been bounding through the hills but now came the major climb over the Atigun Pass, crossing the Brooks Range and The Continental Divide.

The Atigun was shrouded in cloud and visibility fell to thirty metres. The headwind was fierce and slowed me to a crawl. By the evening I topped the pass, which had just a light dusting of snow, whilst the slopes of the mountains were yellowing with the coming of autumn. I dropped then, only a little, to a river where I spotted a bicycle and a tent. Leonard was a Canadian biker heading south, I camped next to him. The following day he called over to me as I shivered in my four season sleeping bag – ‘Hey Steve, there’s three inches of snow, and it’s still coming down!’. I unzipped the tent expecting a wind up, ready to scoff, only to find we had been engulfed – it was a white-out.

Climbing the Atigun Pass





I admit it – I had wanted some snow, because I wanted an archetypal Alaskan ending and a suitable crescendo to my journey through the Americas. Be careful what you wish for. I dropped roughly the annual produce of a large Colombian coffee plantation into my mug in an effort to warm me up and motivate me to ride in the snow. Leonard more sensibly decided to hitch hike because he still had to clear the pass.

I set out into the bleak white murk. Snow fell all day and the white mountains, peppered with snow yesterday became completely coated and soon blended perfectly into the cloud. My gloves were hole-ridden and wet, my hands took the brunt of the chill. I stopped for food for just 15 minutes – it was a big mistake. For the next hour my blue hands ached with the cold. I put a jar of peanuts on my handlebars so I didn’t have to stop to eat. Soon the mud that had collected on my bike froze solid and my brake levers, gripshift and brake pads were immovable. It didn’t matter much anyway – my hands were too cold to operate the brakes or gears even if they did function.

I camped early to get out of the blizzard by a road workers camp. The next day the sun was blazing and the snow had begun to melt, my bike though was in bad shape. The mud had frozen to completely lock the chain, the brakes and even the wheels. I carried it over to the road workers who had a water jet to get the mud off.

The next night I camped with a cheery bunch of bow hunters who fed me the caribou they’d killed on the north slope. They told me of six grizzly bears just two miles from here, munching on blueberries down by the river. When I left the next day in the fog I scanned the gloom for bear-shaped shadows but saw none. Then I remembered there were ten bow hunters out here scouring the tundra for caribou, with my bike I was about the right size and I hoped they didn’t mistake me for one of the herd. I wondered if I would end up on the ground, impaled, looking up at a circle of gruff, appraising faces whilst someone muttered ‘well, bit of gristle, but he’ll have to do’. Perhaps my head would end up above someone’s fireplace.

As I cycled over the north slope which was a vast, even expanse of tussocks and pools, up sprang my old compadre – the Shadow Cyclist. 21 months ago in the southern Argentinean city of Ushuaia I watched the same shadow cyclist, sinewy and sinister, stretched out to my right into the wind-blasted Patagonian scrub. As I rode north through the Americas the setting sun to my left would bring to life the Shadow Cyclist and he traveled with me. As my shadow glided over the tundra my mind was a whirlpool of memories, full of the weird places I’d been and the people that coloured them. In the distance the dark blots of roaming muskox could be seen on the plains, and up above snow geese honked as they flew in their malformed Vs and Ws, heading to warmer climes, as I continued to the top of the continent.


The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline
Bow Hunters
A Muskox making sure I didn’t come too close
Finally there it was – the town of Deadhorse – my last stop. I arrived with my eyes and face red from the wind, my hair knotted, bike mud-encrusted with a rattling chain and tinkling broken spoke and bare front tyre. I have never been as hairy or as dirty in my adult life. The oil companies, principally BP, don’t let anyone ride the three miles to the Arctic Ocean, which seemed a little unfair considering I’d cycled 22,000 miles from the Southern Ocean, but I guess they are too busy taking baths of money and dowsing sea birds in crude oil than caring about meager cyclists. Still though I admit feeling a tingle of pride that comes at each pivotal moment and each major milestone I get to. But temper that ego, I told myself, because two weeks before I cycled the Haul Road a couple of bikers were here too. They are both almost completely blind and had ridden a tandem 20,000 miles from Argentina. Now that’s impressive. My favourite part of their story is that they they had to paint their bike white, because every so often they would lose it.

Deadhorse – it’s assumed the eponymous horse died of the cold, I wouldn’t rule out boredom. Maybe it was a suicide, the horse might have flung itself headfirst into the Arctic Ocean after a week or so here. Deadhorse is a modern day, real life Mordor, and it didn’t feel like a place to celebrate. It’s the kind of place that might hold the International Agarophobia Society’s annual conference. Or it’s a place to send recurrent sex offenders. Its full of oil workers, metal freight containers, cranes, warehouses and machinery and nothing else. If there was a cemetery or a penal colony here it would actually add character. Of course none of that stops one of the town’s two hotels selling ‘I’ve been to Deadhorse’ T-Shirts. The best thing you can say about Deadhorse is that it is what it is, and what it is is a place for industry, not for travelers. There was no bar, Deadhorse is dry, which is just as well because if there was the residents would no doubt drink themselves nightly into a state of prelapsarian bliss in an attempt to forget about where they were. It was, in short, a massive anti-climax. At the end of Africa was the hubbub of Capetown and the glorious towering symbol of Table Mountain, here there was gloom, mud, bogs and ambient despair. There were no dancing girls to welcome me in and put a wreath around my neck, instead an oil worker came over to me –
‘You cycled up from Argentina then?’
‘Yep’
‘Why you wanna do that?’

For two days I sat in the Aurora Hotel where everyone assumed I was a guest or an oil worker and plundered the buffet without ever opening my wallet. I stole so much food, presumably paid for in some round about way by the oil companies – so I felt no guilt, that I could hardly move. It was Grand Theft Edible. That night I sneaked inside a deserted warehouse that was sinking into the permafrost. In the back room was some floor space not covered by the glass and assorted junk over the rest of it, and I made it my home.

Courtesy of British Petroleum, unwitting sponsors of Cycling The Six
I hitch hiked back to Fairbanks after two days in Deadhorse with Ed, every inch the stereotype – a chain-smoking trucker with a paunch and handlebar moustache. He saw me shivering in the snow and didn’t think twice about giving me a ride. As the last week of my life flashed by in hours as Ed drove back the way I had cycled, we came across another truck which had broken down so we stopped to help and Ed performed his second rescue. ‘That’s what we do out here on the Haul Road’ said Ed. ‘We help each other out.’ Alaskans have proved every bit as generous and hospitable as I’d heard they are, though having said that I will never fully understand a group of people who collectively, and one must assume wittingly and without duress, voted Sarah Palin into office.

So what’s next – well my plans have been in flux of late but suffice to say things are looking peachy and there will be some important and very exciting updates coming soon. I will spend September here in Alaska where I will be speaking at the Alaska World Affair’s Council in Anchorage (20th Sep) and in Juneau (18th). In October I will fly to Australia, continent number five – a full plan coming soon. Expect a long overdue equipment review on this blog and some statistics about my ride through the Americas.

Thank yous – Huge thank yous to Duncan and family, Ben, Ed the trucker, the hunters from Minnesota, everyone who fed me on the Top of the World Highway, and anyone I’ve left out.

I’m commencing a 60 day crowd-funding campaign in September which will enable me to finish this journey – I will post on this blog in the coming weeks – please have a read, and if I can convince you to help me realise my dream of riding the length of six continents then make a donation, otherwise this blog will be put to bed, and my Mum for one will be disappointed. You can’t donate yet but I’ll post the link on here when you can. This video doesn’t really explain why you should, but it’s quite amusing…

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Lesson one

LESSON ONE: When it’s cold outside… put your gloves in your sleeping bag at night time.

I had been awake most of the night and I was wearing almost everything I owned. The thermometer on my Kestral weather metre had recorded a low of -19°C during the early hours and I had never experienced anything this cold. Although I admit I had enjoyed the looks of incredulity on the faces of the French drivers the preceding evening as they watched me erect my tent in thick snow at 1800 metres, it was undoubtedly not the greatest idea to begin my journey over the Alps in mid-winter. But almost as painful and frustrating as the cold was the question repeatedly posed by people I’ve met en route… “and why did you decide to leave during the winter?”

I’d like to say it was because I relish a challenge, that it was all part of the plan, perhaps a calculated decision in order to avoid even harsher climes further on in my journey. The mundane truth is that it’s just when everything came together and I was ready to leave.

I slowly eased out of an ice covered sleeping bag as the sun rose, almost everything inside my tent gleamed with a frosty coating. My gloves had also succombed to this fate and were rock solid. Unwearable. I had filled up my water bottle the night before and the expanding ice had ruptured the solid metal of the container. I began the long process of packing and taking down my tent amidst the freeze. Without gloves.

I cursed a lot. The metal of the tent pegs and poles stuck to my hands. I tried to improvise gloves with other items of clothing but nothing I tried enabled me to use my fingers well enough to deconstruct my shelter. I had to blow on both the tent poles in order to separate the links between them and then on my hands to keep them warm and this I was doing now every fifteen seconds. By the end of the ordeal I was unable even to roll my tent up to get it into the bag so I stubbornly stuffed it unpacked under the bungees on the back of my bike and cycled off slowly with guy ropes trailing behind me and praying for some uphill riding to alleviate the pain of the cold. The saliva that had accumulated around my mouth from blowing on my hands turned to ice within a couple of minutes and I had ice crystals in my beard. The honks of encouragement from French drivers that I had greated with a smile and a wave yesterday now felt like taunts.

That evening I eagerly clambered off my bike and entered a roadside cafe. I looked dispairingly into my coffee but allowed myself a small moment of self-congratulation. It had been tough yes, but I’d stuck to the game plan. At least by rough camping I’d saved the thirty euro it would have cost to stay in a hotel. As I re-lived the mornings events in my memory I remembered that in my haste to get cycling I had left my tent pegs behind on that mountainside. I picked some more up in the next town. They cost thirty euros.

I thanked the lady who had served me my coffee and turned to leave. “Did you travel from England by biycle?”
“Yes”
“And you’ve been camping?”
“I have”
“So why did you decide to leave in the winter?”

So I’ve had my rant and moan. In my first post I think I even embellished to the point of comparing Western Europe to Arctic tundra. I’m just not built for the cold. My hands turn purple with just the slightest nip in the air. But being an eternal optimist I thought I’d try and come up with ten reasons why its fun, ney even better, to cycle during the winter…

1. Misty valleys. Shortly after the sun rises and you’re cycling through the hills, mist sitting low in the valley can be an awe inspiring sight.
2. You’re living in a fridge. Ham, cheese, chicken, they can all be eaten a week down the line without the fear of explosive gastroenteritis.
3. Hotels always have rooms and campsites are closed (and therefore free, albeit without facilities).
4. You dont share the road with hundreds of other tourists or cyclists. The sunset is all yours.
5. There is no need for the courtesy two metre gap between you and the hostel owner when you arrive caked in summer sweat and exuding the scent of a decomposing skunk carcass.
6. There are less winged nasties to sting and bite you as you ride.
7. No need for suncream or sandals or sun hats (I know, I’m reaching).
8. OK I failed to make the ten. Please add your suggestions below. But this one’s a classic and the clincher… “fun doesnt have to be fun”.

After my alpine “fun” I pushed on towards the Riveria. The transition from one climate to another was abrupt and monolithic. It was as if as soon I exited the 330 metre long tunnel under the Alps north of Nice I was suddenly rolling through valleys of palm trees, lemon trees and succulents. I realised that it was the first time since the day I started on my journey from London that I wasn’t able to see snow on the ground. I followed the Var river into Nice, the sun in the southern sky illuminated the valley and I cycled to the coast where it was nineteen degrees the right side of zero. I’m currently resting in Genoa before some easier riding across northern Italy and then it’s down the Adriatic coast before pushing east towards Istanbul.

The beginning…



This will be my first blog post from the road and for those who were concerned confirmation that I did indeed survive the cold snap.

It was great to see so many mates at my send off on the 5th of January at St Thomas’ Hospital. It warmed my heart. The warm feeling didnt last long. As the coldest winter in almost 30 years descended on the UK I pedalled off on my trusty steed Belinda.

As I cycled out of London, a bit emotional I admit, I glanced upwards to see this sign. It must be an omen. Soon afterwards my first hurdle. Leaving Dartford… a puncture. On closer examination a three inch nail had penetrated my brand spanking new top of the range Kevlar reinforced back tyre. You can’t plan for everything.

The following day the snow began to fall and by the late afternoon three inches had settled on top of each pannier. I cycled past abandoned cars and the air reeked of burning rubber as vans and lorries tried to ascend inclines on the ice. By 7pm I still hadnt found anywhere to spend the night after turning my nose up at two roadside Premier Inns, a night in which would equal my entire weeks budget. It was late. I was getting progressively colder. No pub I passed offered accomodation and there was nowhere to camp. I stopped to ask a passing couple in Sittingbourne. I explained my predicament and five minutes later I was sitting on the couch, mug of tea in hand and the promise of a bed for the night. A kind act from total strangers and in miserable England as well.


The next day came with the biggest challenge yet. Frostbite? No. Exposure? No. This was far worse. The children of Kent. Across the county over 200 schools had closed because of the snow. Manic hoards of kids were running wild and hurling snowballs at anything mobile. This was not the occasional cheeky chuck in my direction. This was more akin to a military operation. They flanked bridges and underpasses and fired at will and without restraint. Occasionally an arial bombardment rained down from bridges over the A2. I wasn’t just a good target, I was the ultimate prize. Kids would immediately turn their attention from passing lorries to me. With little physical preparation for the trip and with four heavy panniers I was a large slow moving and exposed target. There was little escape from the onslaught and I was ambushed frequently from Dartford to Dover. Unusually on one occasion a group asked permission to throw snowballs at me. I cycled a fair distance past and then turned to shout “Yes” before pedalling off. I turned the next corner to be confronted by an steep ascent. Behind me I could hear them gaining and letting out hysterical shreaks. “He said YES!”, “Get him in the face!”.


After drying off I arrived at Dover. The woman operating the barrier for access to the ferry declared that it was a bit temperamental. “Just like my wife” remarked a passing lorry driver. I was going to miss England. On the ferry to Calais I prayed that I would encounter the same kindness and generosity as I had in Sittingbourne but also that children on the continent would be more forgiving. Still the snow fell as I made my way south to Paris, the coastal route resembling more arctic tundra than Western Europe. After a brief rest in the capital I moved on again, edging east through the Champagne region.



Whilst cycling through the countryside outside Troyes a small foxhound saw me cycle by and gave chase. Initially I felt nervous and quickened my pace, forever edgy when I see dogs after my experience of South American canines. But he didnt look aggressive. Perhaps he’s after the food on my bike, I reasoned, so after a while I threw him some ham from my pannier. He continued without hesitation. Five miles later, with the dog still trotting next to my back wheel, I came across this sign (see left). Soon after the little guy was called back to the hunt. Perhaps he confused my bike with a horse.


I had forgotton exactly how life on a bike can be. A bit older now I have a few fleeting aches and pains, absent when I was a young un, but my gastronomic obsession has returned. A day in the saddle can make you obsess about food. I even dream of it. Those who know me well will vouch for my chocolate addiction… up until now kept in check only by virtue of working sixty hour weeks in the NHS. Now unchecked and fuelled by my new active lifestyle I am in hyperglycaemic freefall. France, with a Patisserie on every street corner, is my nirvana. If you locked me in a room of a million Yorkies I would surely gorge myself to a chocolatey death.


I’ve already gone through a set of front brake blocks (two weeks… how did that happen?) but otherwise Belinda is holding up nicely. After thawing out in Besancon I leave today on a six day ride through the Jura mountain range before hitting Switzerland. I am running out of the handwarmers provided by my mum for Christmas… undeniably the best bit of kit I have discovered to date, but I’m loving life on the road and this will be the first post of many as I continue across continent number one and ever nearer the next obstacle… Les Alpes.

STATS so far…

Distance cycled – 950 km
Punctures – 1
Got lost – 3 times
Kg of chocolate consumed – incalcuable

For my current(ish) location and to see where I have spent each night see the map above (there is usually some lag). There are more photos on Flickr (cyclingthe6).