The Yukon Winter Epic at -45C is Not for the Weak

Mar 6, 2015
by Derek Crowe  
High above the goldfields near the summit of Eureka Dome a self portrait captures the remote beauty of the area.

Eureka Dome is one big hill.


It’s late on day six of my ride in the Yukon Arctic Ultra from Whitehorse to Dawson City, and I have just crested the summit. A gentle breeze moves the -10C air, triggering little notice on my part except the brief recognition that the weather is mercifully mild compared to what it could be at this elevation in the Black Hills of the central Yukon. The -45 degrees Celsius cold that marked the first three days on the trail is a distant memory. My strategy – to literally race ahead of the warm front before the trail became too “punchy” for efficient travel – is working so far.

Despite the fatigue at this point I am feeling incredibly lucky to be riding a bike through the goldfields of the fabled Klondike with perfect weather. 650k from my front door in Whitehorse

A snot-cicle that is possible only in -40c

Spotting a Yukon Quest musher's campsite, I pull over. It has become routine to use these sites as rest stops, gathering the dogs’ straw under my sleeping mat and reviving the musher’s unused wood to spark a new fire. I awake from a sound sleep to a sky awash with faint aurora. Kenji, a cameraman with Japanese broadcaster NHK, is nearby filming the scene. My light is on and I begin to break camp. As Kenji’s video light illuminates my tasks, we maintain silence. He has his job, and I have mine: to pack up and ride away down the crest of the Dome. Kenji leapfrogs ahead with camera to capture this strange scene of a man on a bicycle with 5-inch tires, rolling into the richest valley in the north. Before long I’ve descended to Indian River, winding through the claims of Tony Beets of reality TV show “Gold Rush” fame, and ultimately arriving at the Arctic Ultra tent camp.

My bike and gear tipped the scales at over 60lbs. Tires and rims are the widest available to give every advantage in soft conditions.

A remote tent camp set up at Indian River. A wood stove with hot water is a welcome luxury.

It’s a perfect day in the goldfields, and I revel in the history of the trail rolling under my wheels. Indian River Bridge, Granville, Dominion dredge piles, Sulfur Creek Road, the towering hulk of King Solomon’s Dome. Distracted by the beauty, not to mention sleep deprived, I daydream about the remarkable history of bicycles on snow in the Yukon Territory. It so happens that at the turn of the century, shortly after the establishment of the Overland Trail connecting Whitehorse to Dawson, a breed of traveler known as a “wheelman” appeared on the snowy trails of the Yukon interior. As John Firth recounts in his Yukon Sport: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, “For most of Yukon history, bicycling was a means of winter transportation rather than a competitive summer pastime…it was estimated that the journey on the frozen highway of the Yukon River between Bennett, B.C and Dawson City would take ten to fourteen days. The greatest risk was severe frostbite. The advantage was the cost.

Enrico Ghidoni of Italy attempts to warm his freehub in wall tent. It didn t work.

While the threat of frostbite remains, the economy of an overland trip to Dawson by bicycle is a relic of the past. In the Gold Rush era, roadhouses were spaced at regular distances along the trail, each an oasis of warmth where a wheelman could purchase food and dry boots and prepare for the next day. Today, all that remains of this once vital part of Yukon’s transportation infrastructure are a handful of decaying log cabins. Each year the organizers of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and Yukon Arctic Ultra temporarily restore this lost transportation artery and bring long-forgotten place names such as Dog Grave Lake back into use. This year, 31 individual have signed up to follow the overland trail all the way to Dawson, joined by 56 others contesting shorter distances. For a fee (2450 euros in 2015, with a discount given to Yukoners), competitors are welcomed at checkpoints spaced a day’s travel apart and supplied with hot water, wood heat, and companionship.

Enrico Ghidoni the Italian hardman that would go on to claim a third victory in the Yukon Arctic Ultra begins on the Dawson Overland trail in Whitehorse.

Taking shelter in a remote cabin along the trail.


I head up, up, up King Solomon's Dome, the highest summit on the Overland Trail, and my food situation is at the forefront of my thoughts. I'm low on carbs, brain food. I start counting jellybeans and peanut butter cups, and there aren’t enough. Will this hill ever end? No doubt this thought has crossed the mind of many a Klondike wheelman on this same stretch of road, so close to the comforts of Dawson yet agonizingly far away. I stop for a final favourite dinner, spaghetti with meat sauce. With meditative focus, I submit to routine for the last time: melt snow, inhale food, go. Another film crew captures all of this, and the start of the descent. It's amazingly rideable, the alignment of those pioneer trail builders not buried beneath drifted snow as I had anticipated. I'm catching up to the film crew on their snow machines. Elevation and kilometres disappear and both perfect trail and gravity usher me swiftly towards the Klondike River valley.

I opted for a rear rack to carry my sleeping system puffy layers and other personal items are strapped to the bars food and cooking gear in the frame bag.

At Discovery Claim – the site where Skookum Jim’s pan revealed those fateful nuggets in 1896 - I encounter a massive section of overflow, a virtual ice swamp that forms when meltwater meets snow and ice. It's deep and I’m wading, balancing on fragments of ice and using my bike as an outrigger. When I arrive on the other side, my bike’s wheels are coated with a thick layer of ice and instantly pounds heavier. I try in vain to chip it off. Rolling slowly, too slowly, I proceed towards Dawson. Finally, the dredge appears out of the darkness, then woodsmoke. A dog chases me, but I don't care if it bites. I wheel down the highway, crossing the Klondike River past Crocus Bluff, with no one to witness my arrival. I walk on the flat dike overlooking the Yukon River.

At last, I turn the corner and greet the sight I’ve been awaiting for a week - the S.S. Keno and the finish line. The end of my journey marks what I believe to be the first ride by a Yukoner from Whitehorse to Dawson via the Overland Trail in over a century. A small group of Yukon Arctic Ultra volunteers greets me with a finisher’s medal, which is surprisingly heavy. The jubilation and relief of finally arriving after 7.5 days, 700 kilometres, -45C temperatures, jumble ice, and overflow is quickly replaced by dismay as I realize the terrible truth: I have missed last call by a mere half hour!

At the start of the race the temperature was -28c that night it would dip below -45c

Check out all of Derek's photos from the 700 kilometre journey here. He'd really like to thank travelyukon.com, yukonbeer.com, icyclesport.com, physiopluswhitehorse.com, northernlightsoptometry.ca, Tim Horton's Whitehorse, Kilrich Industries, Mario Ferland. Special thanks to my friends and family for their encouragement and support.


MENTIONS: @derekcrowe




66 Comments

  • 121 1
 canadians
  • 14 0
 We are a "Strange Brew".
BTW, Derek is a beast!
  • 5 1
 A moose or a goose? I think i got some tonnies and lonnies in pocket pocket
  • 7 2
 but can he do it on a cold rainy night in stoke?
  • 33 2
 Finally , a story that actually uses This bike in the proper context..This is what this bike is made for people ,soak it up! fat bike champs of the world.. nice work..
  • 4 0
 But I bet full squish fat bikes are blast to bomb freeride runs in the snow...
  • 32 0
 -45 degrees? I would just pray for the wolves to get me.
  • 20 0
 This is amazing. For anyone interested in the concept of how soft we've become... you need only to pick up a copy of "Klondike" by Pierre Berton to realize how amazing the journey was. One example is a farm boy from Ohio who ventured to Seattle, San Francisco, or Vancouver to charter the most expensive boat passage aboard a graveyard-bound vessel, upon which harrowing tales were forged through shipwreck... only to arrive on a frostbitten land where mountain passes were scaled and glacial hurdles, snow blindness and avalanches were overcome.... to arrive on the other side where boats were whittled out of freshly fallen trees (and without prior knowledge) to hurtle down ancient rapids to arrive at a site that maintained only a whisper of truth to a gold mine. The lust for adventure used to lure young lads to much treacherous terrain that we could ever dream of now.
Yes, we've gone soft.
  • 4 0
 So true, the amazing thing is that the original overland winter trail that Berton writes about is still here. Kept alive by the Yukon Quest and Yukon Arctic Ultra. As great as the singletrack is in the Yukon summer it is the winter when the land really opens up for long distance travel. Thanks for posting
  • 2 0
 Devolution of a species with lives of luxury would only happen if we stop voluntarily risking our health on mtb feats. So keep on biking, knowing that you are saving humanity.
  • 19 0
 that's one helluva snot-cicle.
  • 15 0
 Joe Rogan question: "-45 is that Celsius or Fahrenheit?"... Local guy response: "it doesn't matter..."
  • 1 0
 Was this in his podcast?
  • 1 0
 He referenced there but it's also in his latest dvd Rocky Mountain high.
  • 10 0
 It was only -45 for the first few days. The event had 9 serious cases of frostbite. Not recommended or fun but possible with the right gear. Amazing conditions for snot-cicle cultivation.
  • 11 1
 "7.5 days, 700 kilometres, -45C temperatures,". Yeah - you're a bit strange there Derek ... but in a good way
  • 8 0
 Sound like an amazing adventure, I just hope someone got you a beer!
  • 4 0
 Yukon Brewing should grab him a case or two.
  • 2 0
 One of the great things about living in Whitehorse are the special brews Yukon Brewing produces that are only available by the growler. Beer worth freezing for!
  • 6 1
 That sounds about as much fun pissing on an electric fence ! My fingers go white at any thing near 0 C , I would be fucked in -45!
  • 1 0
 Love, love, love these kinds of articles! Thank you, Derek!

Questions:
1. Do you have to carry all your gear and food for the entire 700 kms., or are there fuel-up stations?
2. You are exerting yourself throughout the duration of 7.5 days. Do you ever change your clothes or bathe in any sense? If not, how do you deal with sanitary issues from sweating continuously in the same set of clothing?
3. Peeing and pooing. Yep. How? When? Is frequency the same as normal? How do you keep from freezing your nether regions off?
4. I'm sure at such low temps you deal with extreme aridity. How do you keep your face and lips and nose from chapping? If you use some kind of moisturizer, how do you keep your pores from getting clogged, assuming that you don't wash your face the entire duration of the race?
5. Would love to hear more about the Rab Vapor Rise and how it differs from typical breathable membrane gear.

Thanks!
  • 2 0
 Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. Great questions
1. The race organizers provide transportation for 3 drop bags on the route and 1 at the finish in Dawson City.
2. My previous expedition experience (see www.greenlandquest.com) at 67days set the bar high for living in the same clothes. Gore bike shorts, DeeFeet undershirt, Patagonia capilene 7 days is just getting started!
3 Not going there.
4. Above the the famous snotcicle pic you will see a strip of Buff material I put that across my nose for protection. Also I took Aroma Borealis skin stuff that I put on my face.
5. Rab Vapour Rise gear has an incredible temperature range the breathability is such that the same layers are good from -15c to -30 even to -40 if working hard enough. Membrane fabrics like gore-tex or similar stop breathing at about -20 as the vapour freezes, deadly in extreme cold.
  • 1 0
 Thanks Derek! 67 days in the same clothes, holy cow!
  • 5 0
 tough sob no doubt
  • 4 4
 Mt Everest as the next one maybe? He'd need several sherpas to prepare descent above South Col and through Khumbu, then three to carry bike in bits - if a man with no legs can do it, then you can do it as well! The summit ridge would kick Danny MacAskills Isle of Skye, Lhotse face would make no one ever post a vid of riding a steep, finally Khumbu Icefall would make Redbull Rampage look like a skate park! Do it!
  • 3 0
 That's why they invented those useful fat bikes.
  • 2 0
 Nothing like some, sub-wtf am i doing here, temperatures. To make cycling more of a challenge. Inspirational! and Insane. Its the Canadian way, Eh!
  • 1 0
 I thought it was interesting the author used a carbon fatbike, as most long distance fatbike riders usually prefer steel or titanium. Are there any downside to carbon in that type of weather?
  • 9 0
 Carbon does not take on cold like metal does. Carbon bar , brake levers, are key to avoiding frost damage in crazy cold.
  • 4 4
 That doesn't look like a really warm jacket for -45 degree weather. Companies are making progress in outerwear technology! BTW that is a pretty cool story in itself. Congrats man!
  • 3 0
 Jacket is Rab Vapour Rise. Clothing is so critical in cold like this as most membrane based fabrics ice up on the inside from frozen perspiration. So many people in this event had to stop because of issues with clothing selection.
  • 1 0
 Yeah I betcha! I just got into wearing technical clothes and MAN I love it. It makes such a big difference on how fun your rides are (Mainly skiing, backcountry and stuff) but I'm not surprise some people had problems with their clothing selection, some people think the thickest jacket are always the warmest but that's not always true!
  • 2 0
 I'm from Los Angeles, California... We complain when it's only 60degrees out... Mad props.
  • 3 0
 What a crazy endeavor... mad props you even tried! I wouldn't...
  • 2 0
 thats cold sask cold I usd to ride my bike in that kinda weather or go sleding.
  • 3 0
 I love snow riding, but -45C....daaaammmmnnn! Kudos!
  • 2 0
 An Adventure in the proper meaning of the word. Respect and congratulations!
  • 1 0
 That just does not look like any fun at all. I think XC skiing the route would be better, since your upper body is engaged more, but still wouldn't be fun at those temps.
  • 1 0
 Great effort to anyone who finishes this, bravo !
Anyone knows what are the snowshoes like things strapped to the side of the back bike rack ?
  • 1 0
 Those are overboots with traction aids used for crossing overflow sections. At these latitudes supercooled liquid water still flows out of the ground, often this water will create icy swamps with pools that can be quite deep. Overboots cinched tight at the cuff allow the traveller to wade through the freezing water.
  • 1 0
 What about the bike still works fine? like if you have a suspension Fork or full suspension frame?
  • 4 0
 No need for suspension. Snow cycling is slow-paced, and similar to riding on the footpath.
  • 4 0
 From personal experience. Full suspension and forks, tend to stiffen up at about -15ish. Depending on winds and other factors, such as oil viscosity. Hard frame and fat tires. That is how to do it in the deep and cold.
  • 5 0
 So many of the other people had major breakdowns. Enrico Ghidoni of Italy had to get a replacement wheel from Icycle Sport in Whitehorse after his freehub failed as the temps dropped on the first night. Everyone that had their bike worked on by Josh DeCloet the head wrench at Icycle Sport had smooth running in the cold. Super happy to report zero issues with running gear (xx1, Hope and RaceFace) and brake (hydro DOT) Also carbon fiber is your friend as it doesn't get cold. 20 plus pounds strapped to a NEXT SL handlebar warm hands and no issues, likewise the BodyFloat suspension post which literally saved my butt!
  • 2 0
 Thats an awesome experience.
  • 5 3
 Fack that.
  • 1 0
 45 below thats cold It like 16 above here in Vancouver.
  • 1 0
 Have fun running away from a moose on that beast...
  • 2 1
 Sorry predicted text meant nutbar!
  • 2 1
 i dont even ride under 5 degrees... (and with no snow at all)
  • 1 0
 Very cool! Tons of respect for your effort!
  • 1 0
 Thanks, Ergon GS3's are under the pogies. The only way to go for long rides!
  • 1 0
 kill me now i would die in -45degrees
  • 1 0
 Amazing race! That for taking the time to write up your journey.
  • 1 0
 Now that's hardcore! Way to go Derek.
  • 1 0
 Oh hell nah...
  • 1 0
 ever been to wales mate?
  • 2 1
 Number!
  • 1 0
 amazing!
  • 1 0
 Great work sir!
  • 2 3
 Why?
  • 1 0
 because it's there !
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