Current News – As most of you will have guessed from the lack of recent blogs we broke free of San Francisco initially only briefly to enjoy the delights of Yosemite NP for a few days and after a quick return to SF we then headed south hugging the coast of Big Sur. We are just north of Santa Barbara catching up with friends we met whilst in BC and Alaska.
Back to the blogs, in Alaska we are attempting to reach the Atigun Pass on the Dalton highway.
Blog 286 Atigun Pass
We woke to a beautiful morning in our Arctic circle free camp and subsequently moved our goal posts, we were staying on the Haul road, our new destination was now the Atigun pass some 130 miles away. Whilst this doesn’t sound very far the Haul road had a reputation for sudden changes in weather and road conditions and of course once you make it to the end you have to turn around and do it all again to get back.
If you have watched ice road truckers that is the same road in winter, constructed in much the same way as the Top of the World highway it suffers the same problem in that when it gets wet it is deadly slippery due to the Calcium Carbonate mixed in with the mud. We had been shown some of the bike shops in town that had yards full of smashed up motorcycles waiting for insurance assessors to come and write them off because of riding the Haul road in the wet. Statistically 1 in 50 bikes don’t make it back because of accidents. We hoped we would be one of the 49.
We left the Arctic circle to find ourselves on one of the stretches of tarmac almost instantly. The pipeline hugged the course of the road or was it the other way round.
At the peaks of the hills we were rewarded with stunning vistas of the route laid out in front of us and our target the Brooks range way off in the distance. This was the view from the interestingly named Gobblers knob, the road we had just traveled was just as impressive.
We even managed to see a moose in the grass land.
The Brooks range dominated the skyline with Grayling lake in the foreground.
Our next and last fuel stop was at Coldfoot about 60 miles away and 175 miles from the start of the Haul road, after that there was no more fuel until the end of the road at Deadhorse mile 414. There were no guarantees of reaching the end, road conditions and weather alter constantly so we were advised to ensure we could turn around and return to Coldfoot if needed hence why we were carrying some extra fuel.
Coldfoot began as a mining camp named Slate Creek and around the 1900′s got its present name from prospectors who got “cold feet” and turned around when they experienced their first winter. The post office in town operated from 1902 to 1912 then reopened in the early 1980′s and still operates today.
Coldfoot now serves as a truck stop on route to Prudhoe bay, the photographic reminders on the walls of the cafe showed us this was not a road to be taken lightly. Most of the accidents were in the depths of winter when the road is covered in ice or snow but there were also some summer accidents that served as a warning.
Leaving Coldfoot we were back on the dirt which was reasonable until we hit road works. The road is maintained for the truckers hauling goods to and from the Prudhoe Bay oil terminal and as such they radio in problem areas and the road crews scramble to re-grade the section that’s damaged. This was a long-term maintenance section and had a safety pilot car we had to follow.
After the road works we followed the Kovukuk river down in the valley.
After starting to climb steadily we thought we were on the approach to the Atigun pass but we saw our goal still in the distance once we reached the top.
Stopping for a photo Kev noticed the left exhaust manifold bolts had vibrated loose and the exhaust was blowing slightly so he nipped them up while we stopped. Karen used the free time to ensure the diary was up to date and a truckers discarded tyre was a comfy seat, the nail that caused the flat was very much evident.
In the distance was still the Brooks range and the Atigun pass.
We reconnected with the pipe line once more back down on the valley floor where we also caught up with the river again.
The Atigun Pass is the highest pass in Alaska that is maintained throughout the year and it crosses the Continental Divide over the Brooks range at 4,739ft or 1,444m. Rivers to the south of here flow to the Pacific Ocean or the Bering Sea. Rivers to the north flow to the Arctic Ocean.
Here and there we could still find traces of snow in July.
From the summit we could see the road ahead went down through the valley. The day was still quite young and the weather fine so we pushed on to the valley floor.
We were back in a valley once again, the only difference this time we were beyond the treeline, we had passed the line of the furthest growing spruce trees from here on in it was all tundra.
At Galbraith lake our luck changed, storm clouds had been chasing us for a while and we had been outrunning them until we came to a 17 mile stretch of road works. We had to wait for the pilot car to guide us through the road works and by the end of that the storm had caught us up.
Just after we cleared the road works the heavens opened, the dirt road very quickly turned to mush. We pushed on with increasingly worse road conditions memories of Russia came flooding back, the road was very similar. We were at a critical stage with our fuel and after a few slides we called a halt to reassess. We were exactly at the point with our fuel that we could continue to Deadhorse or return to Coldfoot things were not looking promising to continue.
Now we felt the full might of the Haul road the rain coming down in torrents, we pitched the tent in the only available space directly, yes directly over the pipeline. The rains also bought another aspect to add to our problems, mosquitos thousands of them, the black smudges in the photos were millions of tormenting, angry, hungry mosquitos. The first photo shows the pipeline access point in the background. The fifth, the inside of the tent after a minute of getting inside. It had been our intention to remain and sleep here but after a few trucks sounded like they were coming through the tent when they passed we knew sleep would be unachievable.
A decision had to be made to go on or turn back to Coldfoot. We debated whether to break out the outriggers or just turn back. We knew we had 90-100 plus miles to go and we wondered if we had 90 more miles of this slippery mush. The bike had handled the mud well on its new knobby tyres, now we had some decisions to make.
The truckers had officially named a few corners, hills and bridges, they seemed innocuous in the dry we could now realise why they were so named.
Next up – did we make it to Prudhoe bay and the end of the road.