Tires and Ice: Fat-Tire Biking into Alaska’s Hinterlands to Search for Frozen Bounty

Publish date:
Brave “fat tire ice climbers” cruising on solid ice, Nizina River Valley, Alaska.

Brave “fat tire ice climbers” cruising on solid ice, Nizina River Valley, Alaska.

The blue ice cracks and groans as Dustin “Dirty” Eroh spins the screw deeper. It sinks to the hilt—a perfect placement. “If only pro was this easy to place in vertical ice,” I say, and we three—Dirty, Andrew Busse, and I—laugh nervously.

It’s January 2015, and we’ve come from various parts of the Lower 48 to the Chugach Range outside Anchorage, Alaska, to climb ice. Our trio comprises me, a Utah desert rat; Busse, a helicopter pilot from the Black Hills of South Dakota up in Alaska for a six-month stint flying for a local hospital; and Dirty, a Pennsylvanian who’s been in the Last Frontier for a decade, having left behind his beloved 1969 Ford Torino Cobra Fastback for the less-than-glamorous job of short-roping clients up Denali. We’ll be approaching on fat bikes, bicycles with big, squishy, oversized tires for travel in wet or sandy areas. It’s an idea that while absurd on its surface actually works perfectly for navigating Alaska’s wilderness. Cloaked in freezing mist, we stand 100 feet from the shore of Eklutna Lake, whose frozen surface we must cross to reach Serenity Falls Hut in Chugach State Park. The hut will be our base for the next several days while we explore the frozen waterfalls above the cabin, as well as rumored flows farther upvalley toward the Eklutna Glacier.

We stand around the screw discussing the “wisdom” of our plan to beeline straight across the lake, instead of taking the bumpier, more time-consuming trail that skirts the shoreline. We’ve just rode onto a pane of vibrant sapphire ice, and now we’re using a screw to test the depth. With our bikes, body weight, and climbing and camping gear, we probably each weigh close to 300 pounds. Will this be enough to break through? I wonder.

Ripples in the ice present themselves upon closer inspection, looking like sagging windows in an abandoned house. The lake is a mile or two wide and over 12 miles long—and we must ride its length. Once we commit, there will be no turning back.

Giddy, we back the screw out. The ice is thick—at least 8 inches based on the length of our screw (22 millimeters)—here near the edge. But what about the middle, where we’ll be riding? With no experience with frozen lakes—with ice fishing or ice snowmobiling or the like—and no way of knowing if the ice stays thick until we’re already committed, we nonetheless go for it.

As we head onto the ice, the shore recedes. Shortly thereafter, the ground fog disappears to reveal a crystalline sky. The ice is smooth, nearly as flat as the sky above. If it wasn’t for the forested hillsides and jagged peaks that surround us, I’d almost say we’re pedaling across the sky itself. We grind along with a slow but rhythmic cadence. Shooting cracks emanate from our tires, and violent, thunderous rings echo within the ice. The farther we move from shore, the more anxious we feel—you can hear it in our quickened breathing, see it in the way our eyes dart around, evaluating. As the ice creaks and reverberates, we distract ourselves with the beauty of the scenery, tamping down an electric nausea that won’t quite subside.

What the lake lacks in technical terrain it makes up for with technical balance, particularly when starting and stopping on the frictionless ice. We quickly learn to deflate the tires to a pressure so low the wheels look nearly flat. Turning is out of the question, except for Busse, whose loaner bike has studs. With body weight centered over the frame, we pedal steadily until two hours later we reach an inlet at the top of the lake. We’ve survived! Even though it was a constant concern, nobody plunged to the bottom—Darwin Award dodged yet again. We stumble around in the snow, searching for the dirt airstrip and road beyond, which leads upvalley to the cabin.

Pedaling down the runway and up the Eklutna River Valley, we come to the cabin, which turns out to be more mountain mansion than rustic shack. Fresh metal siding stretches toward a pitched roof, and exposed beams line the ceiling. Log columns hold up the corners, while the building’s southern facet boasts an array of clerestory windows opening onto the Chugach Mountains and our climbing objectives: ice gullies that spill from the highest peaks, undulating like fiberglass waterslides. As several of these drainages race toward the valley, they plunge over cliffs, sometimes a few hundred feet tall, forming curtains. We can’t wait to climb! But first, we need to get warm—the only guests present, we wall off the back bedrooms with plastic tarps for heat retention and sprawl out in the main room.

The cabin is frosty—the thermometer reads zero degrees Fahrenheit. We chop wood and load the stove. The mercury begins to climb, and soon a one precedes the zero. Stoke is high. Piling logs on the fire, we bed down and dream of the tantalizing ice just outside our windows.

We awake to a warm, cozy cabin. Teeming with confidence, we rack up for the day, applaud our heating success, sip coffee, and head out the door—to rain. It turns out our masterful heating was not “mastery” at all. Instead, a warm front blew in overnight, and much to our headshaking disbelief it’s warmer outside the cabin than within. So much for our woodsman skills.

Rain or no, we’ve put in all this effort, so we might as well climb. We pedal the half-mile trail to Serenity Falls, the waterfall closest to the hut. There is very little beta about the area’s climbs, so we’ve pieced together whatever we could find on the Internet. Alaska very much has a DIY mentality—information is not openly shared, coming hard earned only after gaining the locals’ trust.

The first few low-angle pitches flow with relative ease, leading to a steep constriction in the gully. Here, the chute is raging, with water flowing over the ice. Still, we trudge on, boots full and soaked to the bone. Four pitches up, we bail. We leave the soaked ropes and ice tools by the stove for the next two days and, stymied by the poor conditions, explore the glacier on foot. Epically long wet streaks, some adorned with delaminating shards of ice, course down the cliffs, and we are consumed by thoughts of what could have been with colder temperatures. Back at the cabin, we crack the bourbon and make plans to return the following winter, either here or somewhere else in Alaska.

In February 2016, I find myself standing in water again, an upsetting development that was likely avoidable had I sought a better crossing. We—Todd Tumolo, Dirty, and the late Scott Adamson—have come to the Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park in eastern Alaska for more fat-tire ice climbing. Today our goal is the landing strip and accompanying cabin at Glacier Creek, 18 miles in. But first, we must navigate the semi-frozen Nizina River, which separates the Wrangells from the St. Elias Mountains.

With the ever-shifting obstacles inherent to river corridors in winter—wandering riverbed channels, mounding overflow ice, collapsing ice bridges—the going is complex, slow, and risky. After a few easy miles, the snow-machine tracks we’ve been following disappear, and it soon becomes obvious why: A miles-long stretch of open river comes into view (the winter has been unseasonably warm again), and within a few hundred feet we will be cut off by a cliff band to our left. Our best option is to cross open water to the right bank, hoping that the apparently shallow river doesn’t creep higher than our pedals. Our strategy is to charge across on the bikes and hope that momentum carries us to the other side before we bog down or topple.

I shoot photos of the others’ successful crossings, then it’s my turn. I pack up the camera and blast into the river … and immediately fail as my bicycle hangs up on submerged baby-head cobbles. I’m bummed about what lies ahead—a day in wet boots—but try not to show my dismay to my friends, so as not to drag them down.

We trudge, mostly pushing our bikes up the Nizina. A fresh inch or two of windblown snow covers the landscape, hiding the blue ice of the main channel, complicating the route-finding. Everything looks the same—the gravel, the ice, the rocks; it’s all flat and white, but reacts differently to our tires. When we’re on the ice, riding is a breeze. But when we’re not, we bog down in bottomless gravel, and so resort to pushing our bikes along the undulating terrain, losing hours to the struggle.

Eventually, the Chitistone River drainage appears and we fork right. The snow deepens, and our progress slows again. We reach Glacier Creek just before nightfall and spot a structure toward the end of the airstrip, small as a bus shelter and shredded by bear claws. We quickly discern that this isn’t our destination, and so follow the GPS coordinates provided by the park service, orbiting outward, searching as the light turns a gloomy blue-black. Finally, after a few desperate satellite text messages to friends in Anchorage, we learn we have the wrong data, and a new string of numbers is sent. It’s pitch black now; there is talk of open-bivying. But with my wet boots, I fear trenchfoot or frostbite. Close to midnight, Dirty finds the cabin.

We awaken in the morning, abandon the bikes, and trudge upvalley to cascades of vertical ice. Here, the legendary duo of Roman Dial and Carl Tobin has spent decades exploring; they first stumbled up the Chitistone River in the late 1980s. They along with others established a handful of 1,500-foot ice climbs up to WI5 on the south-facing ramparts of Chitistone Mountain, Alaskan gems like Asian Lady, Lone Wolf, Star Babies, Boys of Summer, and the mega-classic Broken Dreams. Unfortunately this warm year, the Alaskan sun has baked the top half of all these south-facing routes into nonexistence.

“Maybe we should have come a month earlier,” I almost say, but then bite my tongue. We crag on the first few pitches of several routes, playing on long, vertical rope-stretchers of real-deal WI4 consisting of pleasantly soft hero ice. The lone north-facing formation on the other side of the valley, Full Bore, reminds me of a giant Astropop with its fat bottom and ever-narrowing cylindrical top. We check out Full Bore the next day. The 200-foot flow is so broad that chimney systems have formed, and the climbing is more akin to a desert squeeze than a frozen curtain. On our final day, we wake up at 4 a.m., pack up, and begin pedaling out. A couple miles downvalley, we spy an appealing, technical-looking 130-foot flow, steep and draped in daggers. Unsure if it’s been climbed before, Scott takes the sharp end and climbs the line in impeccable style. He names it Peavine Poet (WI4). Perhaps it’s a first ascent or perhaps he’s just climbed and renamed an existing line. We may never know.

As we’ve learned about fat-tire biking in the Alaskan hinterlands, the bikes can be both burden and boon. When the going is rough, biking feels like a waste of energy. But when the riding is good, it’s an amazingly efficient way to travel the backcountry. You can carry far more on your bike than on your back alone, and the miles fly by when conditions are prime. The bikes also add a touch of mystery to approaches that might otherwise be routine—e.g., venues like Caribou Creek up the Matanuska Valley from Anchorage and the Copper River out toward the town of Chitina. Meanwhile, you can even spice up the roadside ice cragging in Valdez by biking from town—just watch out for the haul trucks screaming by running oil and other goods. They probably aren’t looking for ice climbers on fat bikes, and really, who could blame them?

Andrew Burr is the senior contributing photographer at Climbing Magazine.

More by Andrew Burr: