Cycling across Alaska —  Andy Heading — 10th October 2016   

Andy, a very wiry, tough photographer/journalist, pre­ceded his talk with a short his­tory of the Alaskan Klondike gold-rush in the late 19th Century.  Three Swedish gen­tle­men, strolling along a beach, found sev­eral large gold nug­gets, which began what became the ‘Great Klondike Gold Rush.’  Within a year of the event a small town of 30,000 inhab­it­ants had estab­lished itself.  They all lived there in the fond hope of making a quick for­tune.  The atmo­sphere was of a dis­tinctly Wild West char­ac­ter, and included indi­vidu­als such as Wyatt Earp.  Some made for­tunes, others made and then lost a for­tune, and most were dis­ap­poin­ted.

Nome became the main set­tle­ment. In 1925 an out­break of diph­theria occurred and the need for appro­pri­ate vac­cines was urgently required.  The inter­ven­ing 1,000 miles of frozen out­back neces­sit­ated the set­ting up of dog-sled relays to bring these.  After the out­break was cleared up a com­mem­or­ative dog-sled race was set up.  Today, entries from all over the world com­pete in this and it has become a major event.

This is the point when Andy and his part­ner, John, respon­ded to a widen­ing of the race to include cyc­lists, cov­er­ing essen­tially the same route.  The event was described as ‘Impossible’ and so it nearly turned out to be.  Every hazard faced by the dog-teams was faced by the cyc­lists, only more so.  The cyc­lists were much slower than the dog teams and they had to push their bikes through thick snow for 400 of the 1,000 miles.

Before attempt­ing the trip, bikes espe­cially designed and made for them in Sheffield were sup­plied.  The tyres were far wider and stud­ded with spikes!  They star­ted train­ing in earn­est around the Peak District, fin­ish­ing up finally over much rougher ter­rain in South Africa.

To add to his dif­fi­culties Andy had a a very bad acci­dent, which nearly killed him, but he recovered and they pushed on with their plans.  All the food, bed­ding and other equip­ment had to be car­ried by them.  Some of the food included very high cal­orie diets developed by NASA. In spite of con­sum­ing 8–9,000 cal­or­ies per day he still lost 28lbs during the trip.

It was imper­at­ive they stuck to the course route, as at every 100 miles a rescue cabin allowed them to rest and shel­ter.  The rest of the time they slept under the stars.  They were not troubled by wolves, but moose could be trick­ier and had been known to charge dog-teams caus­ing big trouble and deaths.

The lowest tem­per­at­ure they exper­i­enced was -41°C.  Frostbite was obvi­ously a major con­sid­er­a­tion as it could cause injury or even death.  When par­tic­u­larly cold and tired they exper­i­enced hal­lu­cin­a­tions; in one case a snow­drift appeared to be a stalk­ing polar bear.  Probably the greatest fear was having an acci­dent, for no help would be forth­com­ing if they had an injury.

At the last check­point they real­ized they had barely 20 miles to the finish in Nome!  Only 40 of the ori­ginal starters fin­ished.

You might think that would be the last of that madcap scheme – but not a bit of it.  They repeated the exer­cise on two suc­cess­ive years.  It seems their times improved.

I per­son­ally prefer a 4-star hotel with bar ser­vice, but there you are.  Each to his own.