Words by Alison Criscitiello
In 2010, I set out with my dearest expedition pals, Kate Harris and Rebecca Haspel, to become the first all-female team to summit Lingsarmo/Pinnacle Peak – a 6955m peak in the heart of the Indian Himalaya. By the time we were descending from the precipitous summit, we were already brewing up our next expedition. A few years later, we headed to Tajikistan to ski its unruly border with Afghanistan, China and Kyrgyzstan in the cold of the Pamir winter. And again as our adventure neared its end, seeds were already germinating for what would come next.
Kate and Rebecca are Canadian, and I, at the time, was a hopeful one (now, a permanent resident). Though Kate knew that Rebecca and I might be useless without skis on our feet or axes in our hands, the idea was born to explore the frozen world by bike in our Arctic backyard. As Canada would be celebrating its 150th birthday, it would be a momentous year in the history of these northern communities. Knowing at the time that this would also be the last year of the Inuvik-Tuk ice road, we became fixated on biking and skittering on the Arctic Ocean the in last year it would be possible.
Our idea was to start on the spring equinox, at the tail end of the Arctic winter, and we hoped to finish just before spring break-up. We would begin in Dawson and bike north (because why not add the challenge of a constant headwind?) to Inuvik. After biking the length of the Dempster in winter, we would ride on the frozen Mackenzie River until we hit its mouth, bearing down across the Arctic Ocean until reaching the northern edge of the continent: Tuktoyaktuk. And if we timed it just right, we could coincide with spring jamborees in the communities along the way. And if we got really lucky, we would also catch the reindeer crossing, as they made their way to spring calving grounds.
The rub: two of the three of us hadn’t even done a single summer overnight bikepack before, let alone a multi-week 1050-km Arctic winter bike expedition. Rebecca and I – alpine climbers, skiers, but by no means bikepackers – would learn by fire (ice?) how to travel on wheels and not skis in winter. Luckily, a big piece of this was known to us – the winter camping part – the part where you know how to live and function and laugh at -30 for weeks. But when Rebecca and I looked at our pile of stuff in Whitehorse that was going to have to fit on our bikes, we were unconvinced it would even be possible. Kate, with an impressive resume of bikepacking expeditions and off-road racing, laughed herself to tears as she watched the two of us being pushed into this new and uncomfortable world; studded tires on a shifting, icy groundscape, heavily weighted bikes threatening to throw us off.
“Holy demoralizing headwind,” I wrote after the first day. How on earth were we going to bike with that weight and those temps into a headwind, 50-80km per day, until hitting the Arctic Ocean? After a couple days, we started learning new systems, and got more comfortable with this mode of winter travel though.
The lunar landscape of the Tombstones lay deep in winter. As we made our way out of that first mountain range, our world studded with sharp white peaks, one of our coldest mornings had me worried about frostbite on my feet. In that very moment of deepening worry, we spotted a paper plate on the side of the road with something written on it: “Hi girls (bikers), u r welcome to stay in small brown cabin km131, gone snowmobiling.” Bacon, brownies, and the kindness of strangers saved my feet and fueled our fannies over Windy Pass, along the Blackstone River, and into the Ogilvies.
The next night, we climbed out of the Ogilvies and into the Richardson Mountains before eventually climbing onto the high, exposed Eagle Plains.
Kate and Rebecca built a bonfire outside the tent, and we dried our frosty wet socks while roasting sausages and cakes that a passerby had given us, celebrating everything good and simple in that moment. 1 The next couple days were long, cold, mentally trying strings of minutes. We made it to Eagle Plains on March 27 where, lucky for us, we had our only forced rest days. The road was closed for two days due to extreme high winds – ample time for drying gear, fixing bikes, and making up for lost drinks in the amazing Eagle Plains bar.
Two days later, they opened the road and gave us a head start on the all the backed up trucks. We crushed some Dempster miles, crossing the Arctic Circle and winding toward the Northwest Territories. After a bitterly cold night, we spent the next day battling fierce winds through Hurricane Alley and over Wright Pass, into the NWT. Kate and Rebecca somehow managed to stay pedaling on their bikes over the pass. The side winds swept my bike out from under me, and I walked stretches of the pass, unable to stay on the bike. We pushed hard that day, and made it out of the danger zone to Rock River. It was protected there, out of the wind, and well worth the push.