Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Alpine Style: Gear geeking and wrap-up.

Most people whom traverse Nabesna to McCarthy don't take bikes.  It's a great route to walk and float, and omitting the bike frees your mind to enjoy the route without the extra weight, bulk, and hassle of what can, at times, be nothing more than a heavy and oddly shaped hassle to cart along.

My ankles are in their literal death throes from a lifetime of (ab)use.  I have some modern/newfangled braces that I wear to help stabilize them, but the braces only keep me upright most of the time -- I still hit the deck with astonishing regularity when traversing uneven terrain, and sometimes even on level and non-technical surfaces.  Such is life.  I'm pretty sure I couldn't walk this route in one go -- ankles are too wobbly to begin with, would be too sore very quickly, and would probably fail outright long before McCarthy.  Thus, for me it was an easy choice -- I'd need to do this route with a bike or not at all.  Even if it wasn't as rideable as Roman remembered it, at least I'd have the bike to lean on when walking.  That last bit might sound flippant, but isn't meant to be.

Which bike?

I own a snowbike but it was designed and assembled to excel on deep, dry snow.  It would have worked on this traverse but it also would have been overkill -- more float, and weight, than necessary -- and it would have taken a pile of abuse.  Like a beloved old dog I'm not going to abuse my best-on-the-planet snowbike by dragging it through swamps and glacial rivers.  But increasingly I spend time off-piste in non-snow months, so to the end of having something for these ventures a few months ago I assembled a non-snow fatbike.  Niche of a niche?  Not really -- most people with fatbikes never touch snow with them.  The goal of this rig would be the same.

Past trips have shown that full suspension and even front suspension were probably not necessary.  I knew I didn't need rear suspension, and would prefer the open front triangle space of a hardtail to store more gear and food not on my back.  I considered using a Bluto or Mastodon up front, but also knew that the glacial silts and muds we'd be painting our bikes with daily would quickly kill either of those.  Maybe not *during* the trip, but probably not long after.  I buy my stuff -- it isn't just given to me -- and as such I won't just throw money away by killing something that doesn't need to die.  So a suspension fork seemed to be 'out'.

That said, both Roman and Eric had leaned hard on the fact that this route is really rough -- 'bumpy' was the word they used -- largely because of river cobbles.  And although a fat tire at low pressure can eat up much of that, on day 4 with 4 to go very few people would complain if they could somehow eat up more of it with no real drawback.  Enter the Lauf fork.  I've owned one for a few years and used it on select trips, and I love the combo of light weight, lack of need for maintenance, and its ability to take the edge off of rough stuff.  Using the Lauf made good sense to me.

Added bonus to the Lauf?  They seem tailor made to install a Revelate Jerrycan on each leg to hold light ride snacks.  Again the goal was to keep some weight off my back, but I also know that adding weight to fork legs changes handling.  The more you add the worse the bike handles technical terrain.  I know from experience that the added weight of, say, a bottle of water on each leg is a dealbreaker.  So I kept the Jerrycan's light (one contained Clif Shot Blocks and the other had Frito dust and chocolate)  but still appreciated that that weight didn't start on my back.  Note electrical tape on fork legs to protect them from abrasion.

On past off-piste trips I've learned that drivetrain simplicity is important.  Singlespeeds are great -- especially for beach trips -- but this route has heaps of climbing and for many reasons I'm just not into (nor really capable of) pushing a SS with this load over this terrain.  IGH's are compelling on paper but heavy, expensive, surprisingly externally complex once you think about bushwhacking, and with frictional losses that haven't yet been solved.  Traditional derailleur-based drivetrains also have their limitations, but you can find 9 and 10 speed setups (for me they mostly came out of an old parts box) for cheap that work really well.  Or at least well enough.  I knew that in order to "trust" a der setup I'd need the ability to rip a bent or broken der off the bike, shorten the chain, and thus go SS if needed.  Which meant I needed a frame that could easily accommodate that eventuality.  I'd borrowed a Trek Farley for a roadtrip last winter and remembered that it had adjustable dropouts that would allow me to tension the chain.  I really liked the way that frame felt, so I haunted the MTBR classifieds, eBay, and Craigslist until I found one at a reasonable price.

I micro-sized my gearing (24t ring, 11-36 cassette, short-cage rear der) to minimize the amount of exposure my dangly bits had to vegetation.  Other than lubing the chain I had no cause to think about the drivetrain -- it worked flawlessly.

Wheels were laced around DT Swiss Big Ride hubs, because they are the most durable fatbike hubs on the planet, but also because they happen to be among the lightest and cheapest -- somehow all at the same time.  I've been using these on my own expedition bikes since forever, and I endeavor to put them onto as many of my customer's bikes as will allow me to.  If they have a drawback it is that they only come in black, which suits me just fine.

I laced them to a set of cheap chinese carbon rims in 65mm width x 27.5" diameter, then shod them with Bontrager Barbegazi 27.5 x 4.5" rubber.  These tires are tall, light, supple, plenty grippy, roll very fast on hard surfaces, and have a bomber tubeless interface.  I debated at length whether to use the smaller Bontrager Hodag's in 27.5 x 3.8", but ultimately decided to stick with the Barbe's since they're at once taller (fewer pedal strikes), lighter, and roll faster. 

The rims were just OK.  Great width for this trip -- certainly nothing wider was needed -- but by the time we'd crossed the Chisana I could feel (and hear) water sloshing around inside the rim cavity.  Not sealant in the tire, I'm talking about water that had worked it's way inside the rim from the umpteen stream crossings we'd already done.  This weight would become more and more noticeable as the trip progressed.  When at last I got home and was able to drain that water out, there was 3oz inside the front wheel and almost 5 in the rear.  I might have been better off to have started with a heavier single-wall aluminum rim -- Bontrager Jackalope leaps to mind -- because that would have cost less and it wouldn't have gained any water weight as the trip progressed.

3 of the 4 of us used quick release pedals.  See them in use at 12:20 of the video.  These are weird but awesome and I am completely sold on them after 5+ years of use now.  You can have them off the bike and stashed in a pocket faster than you could find the tool to remove a traditional pedal, which means schwacking is both less painful and the bike is less likely to get caught on veg.  Jon didn't have these and I'm betting he's already bought a set since returning home.

I completed the build using basic, proven, and usually inexpensive stuff -- like an old set of XT brakes that I don't want to give away and probably couldn't get anything for if I tried to sell 'em.  Some cheap ergo cork grips that I found in a closeout bin.  A WTB Rocket V saddle that a customer left here because it wasn't _____ enough for them, but seemed to fit me perfectly.

On the subject of perfect fit, I installed a new set of handlebars just a few days before leaving for the trip.  I'd been anxiously anticipating -- nay, salivating -- about these for more than a year.

Drew @ Regular Cycles has been obsessing for literal years over the design, implementation, tooling, materials, and safety testing of custom light, comfy, durable composite bars.  This set is 720mm wide with 20* of sweep, and (critical to me) no forward sweep -- meaning that even though they have no rise they actually put me in a more upright position compared to pretty much any other bar out there.  Off-piste riding requires keeping your head up and seeing everything (the line, wolves and bears, upcoming terrain changes) clearly, and these bars put my torso, neck, and shoulders into the ideal, neutral position for that.  Why so narrow?  In a word, bushwhacking.  These are keepers.

The frame I bought is a 19.5".  I've also ridden the 17.5" size.  Halfway between the two is my ideal fit, but Trek doesn't make the Farley in that tweener size.  I compensated for the slightly too long cockpit by using this super short/upright stem.

Pretty ugly/unconventional, but hell -- function before fashion and all that.  I wanted a short, upright position on a frame that was a bit too long for me, and the combo of this stem and Drew's bars got me there.

Soft goods.

I used a stock Revelate Ranger frame bag in the Farley frame.  Inside of it I stored my bike multi-tool (we carried only two of these for the group), my mini-leatherman (which I used for cutting tubes to patch my shoes, to pry brake pads apart that had been inadvertently squeezed closed when the front wheel was off, to trim my toenails, and to cut chunks of cheese or meat.  Not necessarily in that order...), a tube, some emergency tire sealant, a little baggie with spare parts (one of every bolt on the bike, chain links and quick links, tubeless plugs, a few zip ties) and all of my meals.

Under the bars I had a Revelate Yakataga Dry Pocket.  It is truly a waterproof bag that also happens to be really light, really easy to get in and out of, and a great fit tucked up under the bars.  I moved various need-to-be-dry things in and out of this bag as the trip evolved -- sometimes camera batteries and my spare shirt, other times my puffy jacket and sleep hat, even once had my sleep pad in there.  And then there were times -- the big hiking sections on Cooper Creek and Skolai/Chitstone -- when I wanted the bike as light as possible to manhandle through veg or up steep broken terrain so I pulled it (and just about everything else) off and stuffed them into my backpack.

I used the new small Terrapin seatbag and it has quickly become my all-time favorite seatbag.  I filled it with my sleeping bag (a 30* down bag that's 10 years old and probably closer to a +45* rating now), pillow, sleep socks, undies, and hat, and a Patagucci Nano Puff hoodie that's old and ratty and comfy as old slippers when it comes time to sleep.  I love that the Terrapin is small, light, and compact, yet fully waterproof at the same time -- important when what it's holding is your literal lifeline.  Imagine if our sleep gear had been wet when we arrived hypothermic at the snowy camp?!  

I also love that the harness stays on the bike and with one buckle release the dry bag comes inside the tent to unpack and repack in the morning.

Above you can see that I limited the travel on my dropper so that I only got ~2.5" of drop, which meant that I never buzzed the Terrapin on the tire.  That amount of drop might not seem like much but I loved having it -- not just for steep descents (I'd guesstimate that I rode close to a mile of the Goat Trail that no one else did) but also for quickly creating a smaller, tighter, more compact package when schwacking, paddling, or shouldering the bike across creeks.

I had a Revelate Gas Tank on the top tube that held my phone (we navigated with Gaia), my GoPro Session, toothbrush and paste, Aleve, and some chain lube and a rag.


I used an HMG 2400 Windrider.  It's my all-time-favorite quiver killer of a pack.  Most of the time it held my sleep pad, one inflatable PFD, the inflation bag for the boat, the paddle, a couple of mesh bug headnets, TP, and a 1L Platypus fulla water.  In other words, it was pretty damn light.  Our loads evolved at times though -- so I'd made sure before leaving that it could handle everything *but* the bike, and it did this easily both on upper Cooper Creek as well as (more or less) from Flood Creek to the end of the Chitistone/Goat Trail.


I carried a Canon 5D3 with a cheap Canon 28-200 'kit lens', plus 6 spare batteries, plus a GoPro Hero Session.  The DSLR lived in an Ortlieb Aqua Zoom ~waterproof camera bag.  The squiggle before 'waterproof' is intentional because this bag has never proven to be exactly that.  It is water resistant -- fine in light rain or sleet or snow -- but if you dunk it there will be water inside.  I like the easy access via the simple zipper, and it feels ok when worn on my chest as pictured below.  It's not a perfect or even really good solution, it's just the best that I've come up with when factoring in all of the other stuff that needs to be carried and the other compromises that need to be considered.  You'll note in the other pics and the video that both Doom and Brett are using these now too.


I wore a pair of Patagonia quick-dry pants, with a chamois liner under them.  I've had these same pants for ~10 years now, and am continually amazed at how durable they are and how quickly they dry.  Can't remember the model name, but I'm sure there's a new and improved version available and I'll buy those in a heartbeat when these die.

I wore a synthetic quick dry shirt that I found at a thrift store a ~month or so ago.  I think it's LL Bean?  Same as above -- dries fast and that's the main thing.

Knowing that we'd have a wide range of temps and weather I also had a long-sleeve wool hoody base layer.  I wore it mostly when sleeping but it did come out on a few of the colder sections when it wasn't raining.  I kept it stashed and dry to have at camp and just shivered through the day if it was raining.

Rain jacket was HMG's The Shell.  There is nothing cheap about this piece but it is wind and waterproof, stuffs down to the size of your fist, and weighs the same as a handful of feathers.  Total keeper.


We carried an HMG UltaMid 4 that got used every night.  It is super light and kept the rain and snow at bay just fine, but we probably should have taken two UltaMid 2's instead -- more overall space in two smaller shelters.  Realizing the above, at the last minute we borrowed an old BD circus mid and it saved us (well, me) during the snowstorm.  We really should have planned better here and brought two 'real' mids from the start.

The boat.

We took a single Alpacka Caribou with us.  This is my personal boat, in use since back in January.  Because we were loading 2 humans + packs or a human + 2 bikes, we needed the added space that the Caribou brings to the table.  

A 'normally' sized-to-me single boat (like the Yukon Yak) would not have been able to fit our writ-large and awkward loads.  The Caribou achieves this both with added length and with it's unique bow shape, which also allows you to stack bikes on and strap them down without the boat falling forward on it's face while you're working.  That last feature is not what I'd call a deal maker nor deal breaker, it's just really nice to have.

The light (3.8#) weight of the Caribou is also really nice.  Mine has a Cargo Fly zipper, which we never employed on this trip.

We shared out group gear before starting.  Doom always had the boat -- sometimes he had it wadded up and stashed inside his pack, other times it was quicker just to loose fold it and leave it out -- like if we knew another crossing was coming up quick.

Our single paddle was an Aqua Bound Manta Ray.  Cheap, durable, easy to break into 4 pieces and stash away.  I carried the paddle and regretted it on every bushwhack, because the shafts stuck up out of my pack and caught on every piece of veg I came close to.

We had 2 inflatable PFD's, because we only ever had one or two of us in the water at any given moment.  Both were more or less snorkel vests.  I've used these for years because they have big buoyancy, are made of a durable coated cordura fabric, pack down small, weigh little, and are easy to inflate and deflate quickly.  Not everyone likes or trusts them and in certain places I can understand why.  Were I to do this trip again I'd take the same thing.  


After literal decades of eating freeze dried or dehydrated crap, I've moved mostly away from it.  Hard to argue with the weight per calorie ratio that it offers, but I'm sick of the taste, excessive salt, and flatulence that it gives.  On this trip I took 4 pounds of precooked brats, 4 pounds of muenster and provolone, and a pound of tortillas, and I spiced these up with mustard and ketchup packs I snagged from Wendy's on the way out of Anchorage.  Fee-eye-uck what a revelation to eat real food twice a day and not need to snack constantly to keep moving!  I had a total of 5 freeze dried meals and I gave three of them away to the others late in the trip when things started to run thin.

Mistakes, or at least oversights.

Doom and I both needed to use a tool -- he a 5mm hex, me a 6mm -- to remove and reinstall our front wheels.  I'd done this deliberately as I thought that having a hook-shaped lever hanging off the side of an already wide fork -- right down where it'd get caught on branches and grasses -- would be a liability.

I'm not sure that was prudent, because digging out the tool became kind of a PITA on both ends of every ferry.  I'm not sure if Doom did it intentionally or inadvertently.

Within a few days of returning from the trip I'd replaced the stock tooled version with a DT Swiss RWS unit.  Handy.  Bonus that the lever bit kind of nests in between the fore and aft legs of the Lauf, thusly keeping it out of the way of anything it's likely to get hooked on.

I carried a set of rain pants the whole way and never used them, other than inside of my bag at night to take up space and maybe save me a few calories overnight.

My shoes completely shit the bed.

It is worth noting that these are the $30 "eBay Salomon's" and not the full-bucket genuine versions.  Although honestly, because of the aforementioned ankle issues I walk on the sides of my feet and I'm not sure any shoes would have survived.  By the Chisana I recognized that they were failing and patched the holes with AquaSeal every night, but by the time we hit the next camp that patch would be gone and the hole would be yet bigger.

At Solo Mountain Cabin I used the last of the AquaSeal (it was supposed to be for boat repairs... oops...) and supplemented it with the burliest grass I could find, hoping that the 'composite' would hold better than just glue.  

It might have, but by the time we hit camp that night the holes looked like the first shoe pic above (Bailey thought a wolverine had attacked my feet...) and my shoes were constantly full of gravels.  So I came up with the tube sleeve idea -- lacking anything better -- and would ultimately use up my tube and Doom's as well.  These worked surprisingly well at keeping gravels out and slowing the erosion of the shoes.  The last piece of tube sleeve failed as I walked into The Potato in McCarthy.  Jon and Brett still had spare tubes in reserve.

Not really sure what to use for shoes on the next one.

I didn't take any gloves.  The cork grips kept my hands ~warm enough on the snowy/rainy days.  But no gloves was a mistake in that my hands were cracked, dry, and bleeding from multiple places by the halfway mark of the trip.  Gloves would have prevented most of that damage.  Silly mistake -- made because I'd reasoned that gloves were just one more thing to have to dry out every night and keep track of every day.

I used SealSkins socks.  I really like having something "more" than a standard fabric (regardless of wool, blend, what have you) sock to take the edge off of the cold water crossings.  Anything neoprene would probably work fine.  The Sealskins are far from waterproof and *don't* dry quickly, so once wet (within 10 minutes of leaving Nabesna) they literally never completely dried out on the trip.  But having wet feet beats (in my mind) having numb feet every time your feet hit water.  No 'right' answer here, just shades of gray.

We left Nabesna with 6 days of food per man.  We made it out in 9 days.

We began rationing very early on and we all ran low on food, but not completely out until we were ~an hour from McCarthy.  Fortunately i carry a lot of subcutaneous energy, so I was able to give away several thousand calories -- more than a day of my larder -- to those skinny bastards to keep them on-line.  You'd think that would make them want to wait for the old guy but no -- they'd finish eating my food and then take off like bats outta hell again.

I didn't need the eight pounds I lost.  Don't want 'em back either.  Despite that, less than a month later six of them have found their way home...

The Elephant in the Room.

Would I do this trip, with a bike, again?  Maybe.  I think the bike was overall a benefit and much of the riding was truly world class wild animaltrack.  If I did go back I'd take my own boat and probably a light drysuit, such that I'd be able to float all of Jack Creek, all of the Nabesna, some of Notch Creek, a chunk of the Chitstone, and all of the Nizina.  Doing so would eliminate ~80% of the bushwhacking we had to do this year, which would completely change the overall feel for the better.

My only hesitation on going back to do this again is that there are so many other places in AK that I haven't yet seen, and I'm not sure how many more big hairy traverses I have in me -- my ankles are shot.  Given a choice between a known/good quantity and something new, I'll usually opt for something new.

My partners on this trip were, and are, amazing.  They are competent, capable, easy going, hilarious, considerate, tolerant of my quirks and just some of the best people you could ever want to spend time with.  That said, this might have been my last big trip with them: They are still so fit and fast and I am neither.  Thus I simply cannot move at their pace, and making them wait for me all day every day just wasn't fair to them.  

* * * * * *

Phew.  If I somehow left something out of that deathsplosion of a nerd-out post, don't hesitate to ask.


  1. What a great trip report. Well done. Well suffered!

    Totally random, but what do you use for Gaitors?

    1. Need to find something new. The ones I had on this trip (MLD?) had to be sewn and resewn -- almost nightly -- and they were completely trashed with days yet to go.

  2. I enjoyed the hell out of this series. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I have enjoyed reading about this trip immensely!

    Your "ugly stem" - what kind is it? I have a large fraction of my spine surgically fused so I am always looking for oddball parts to make my bikes comfortable. TIA.

    BTW, I am loving the 28-200. It sounds funky so I understand your worry about relying on it. However, it's still working! Thank you!!!!!!

    1. Glad the lens is working. I used the replacement on this trip. Not awesome image quality, but good enough I guess.


  4. Love your report. As a mechanic I really appreciate the details about the gear you used. It made a lot of sense and am quite stoked to know that a Lauf will hold up to that kind of ride. I have been toying with the idea for 19 months. Also, having seen some of that terrain and knowing how Alaska is, I applaud your traverse.

  5. Awesome and inspiring write up Mike. Which model of inflatable pfd do you have experience with, or what specs do you look for in an inflatable pfd for ~class II.

  6. Greetings from South Africa...
    I love your work, Mike and the video and blog of your recent trip is truly awesome.
    I also enjoy your technical input and product knowledge. Keep them coming!!
    Just a question: How did you keep your electronics charged?

    1. we used our phones in series so that we didn't need a battery brick.

      i had one go pro and used it sparingly, knowing once it was dead it was, um, dead.

      i had 5 or 6 batts for my SLR.