Why we travel: extreme cyclist Emily Chappell on tackling Alaskan peaks in winter

On a transcontinental cycling race, the ultra-endurance athlete and author hadn’t anticipated how much the cold would weaken her. On a frozen highway in Alaska, pedalling between snow drifts, she learnt profound lessons about human endurance.

By Emily Chappell
Published 25 Aug 2020, 13:40 BST
A remote mountain highway in Alaska during winter.

A remote mountain highway in Alaska during winter. 

Photograph by Getty Images

I’ve never been as frightened as I was the day I rode towards Glacier View. Although barely three days from Anchorage, civilisation felt a long way behind me. My tyres rustled over a thick crust of compacted snow as I pedalled north, and the Chugach mountains that towered above the road shone whiter with every hour that passed. The cold felt malevolent, gnawing painfully at my fingers and toes, clawing at my throat and nostrils. The bright sunlight taunted me, promising a warmth it refused to deliver.

““I hadn’t anticipated how much the cold would weaken me””

I hadn’t anticipated how much this cold would weaken me. I’d been covering daily distances like this for years, but I’d rarely ridden so slowly, unable to muster the spark I needed to trundle the bike along at anything above walking pace. I was, I understood, at the mercy of a simple and brutal equation. The energy in my body was finite, consisting only of what was held in my muscles and fat. A litre of porridge (with butter, almonds and chocolate chips) would normally have seen me through most of a day’s riding, but out here, my body was burning through it at a much higher rate, trying to maintain its usual 37C in an environment more than 60 degrees colder.

The occasional houses I passed were shut up for winter, drifts of untrodden snow in their driveways. My only heat source was a puny multi-fuel stove, which I doubted my cold-clumsy fingers would be capable of wrestling from the depths of my pannier, assembling, and lighting. My water had frozen, and the only food I could access was the stash of peanut butter cups in my bar bag.

Athlete, author and former cycle courier Emily Chappell is the author of Where There’s A Will.

Photograph by Emily Chappell

With time, I adapted; I learned how to make the most of these scant resources. In my sleeping bag, my body became a furnace that dried damp gloves and socks, melted the water that had frozen solid in its flask, and kept the cold from draining batteries. I learned how to underdress gradually, so that my body didn’t sweat when I started riding, and line my jacket with frost. I learned to drink regularly from my Camelbak to stop the hose from freezing, and to keep food where I could access it without removing my gloves.

A month later, I stood at the junction with the Cassiar Highway, a remote 500-mile road through the British Columbian backcountry, formerly used by miners and loggers, now barely populated. Unlike the Alaska Highway, with its compacted snow and friendly truckers, the Cassiar was hidden under drifts, with just a couple of tracks to suggest that vehicles had ever passed this way. I glanced between the two roads. The thrill of fear, familiar now, had lost much of its sting. I turned south and set off into the drifts.

Athlete, author and former cycle courier Emily Chappell is the author of Where There’s A Will

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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