By Betsy Williford
Photos by Rich Loftin
Alaska, the Last Frontier. A land so vast, so wild, full of beauty, wildlife, big mountains and impressive glaciers. One can only fully grasp all of these descriptors by traveling there and experiencing it for yourself. A few weeks ago I, along with my husband, finally made my first trip to Alaska, something I had dreamed about doing for a long, long time.
Our plan was to fly into Anchorage, pick up fat bikes from Speedway Cycles and then make the 5 hour journey to Valdez, Alaska. In Valdez, we planned to connect with a friend and local resident for multiple fat bike rides over three days and finish out the week by attending the annual Chugach Fat Bike Bash over the weekend.
The Chugach (pronounced chug-atch) Fat Bike Bash, held the first weekend of April, is a weekend long celebration of all things fat. A local fat parade through town, a cross country race at Valdez Glacier and an extreme downhill race at Thompson Pass. When I happened across the event a year ago, the pictures that I saw of the event captivated me instantly and set my mind on fire with questions of how can I get there? I MUST go. Over time I became friends with a Valdez local, Rich Loftin, who shares the same passions for adventure and fat biking and was also the course builder for the event. We chatted back and forth many times about the event and things to do in Valdez. He would share countless pictures of his adventures in Valdez and greater Alaska hoping to inspire just one person to go play outside and enjoy what life can offer. Little did he know at the time that he was speaking my language and I needed no convincing whatsoever. I made my request to my husband that we would be celebrating my birthday together in Alaska.
We flew into Anchorage on Tuesday night April 2nd. Since we arrived late at night we grabbed a hotel and planned to pick up our fat bikes from Speedway Cycles in the morning after breakfast. Before heading to Valdez for the rest of the week, I had hoped that we could do a few local rides in Anchorage but spring break up came early this year and the snow was all but gone in Anchorage when we arrived.
Wednesday morning we arrived at the shop as soon as they opened. Greg, the shop owner and founder of Fatback bikes, set us up with two Fatback Rhinos. I was given a medium Rhino set up with the new Fatback Big Su 26″ rims and 4 inch studded Terrene Cake Eaters. My hubby was given a large Rhino also set up with the Fatback Big Su rims and studded Terrene Johnny 5’s. This would be our first experience riding with studded tires. I was honestly excited to see how these fat bikes would handle. I was used to my Beargrease and 9:ZERO:7 Whiteout from home so I welcomed the chance to ride a different fatty for a week.
Loaded and ready to go, we left Speedway Cycles and began our road trip to Valdez. Leaving Anchorage we took in spectacular views of the south central mountains of Alaska. There was SO much grandness to take in with King Mountain (shown above), the Chugach Mountains to the south, the Talkeetna mountains to the north and the Matanuska River. Miles and miles of wild, open spaces surrounded by majestic mountains, all of it unspoiled by human development. The expansive glacial river bed showed only a fraction of the flow of the Matanuska River winding through the Mat-Su Valley. Glenn Highway paralleled the Matanuska River for almost 70 miles until you could see the river take a turn towards the Chugach mountains and reach the source of its life, the impressive Matanuska Glacier.
Eventually my mind wore down, becoming overloaded, from the goodness of Alaska that I was seeing from my front row seat. I think I finally dozed off for a little while between Eureka and Glenallen. From Glenallen we turned south onto Richardson Highway and met up with Rich near Pippen Lake. We then followed him to Thompson Pass, for our first ride of the week. The weather had turned out perfect at the pass. A bluebird day with sweeping views of grand mountains and perfect riding conditions. Within an hour and a half, we were parked at the pass and unloading the bikes for a ride on some groomed track. John, another Alaska resident and friend of Rich’s also joined us.
Thompson Pass, a gap in the Chugach mountains, sits at 2,678 feet above sea level and is famously known as the snowiest place in Alaska with an average snowfall of over 500 inches a year. This year, we had lucked out. Conditions were all time for fat biking due to warmer daytime temperatures and nighttime temperatures dropping to just below freezing thus creating a perfect layer of crust over the snow. When its ‘crustalicious’ like this, you can literally ride anywhere, it was perma-grin inducing. We spent the next nearly two hours exploring the northern lower rolling slopes of Little Odyssey Mountain with amazing views of Loveland Basin, Twenty Seven Mile Peak and glacier, Catcher’s Mitt, Worthington Glacier and Girls Mountain to the south. The fading daylight and hungry bellies were the only reasons we reluctantly called it a day once we had finally made our way back down to Richardson highway.
Thursday was the day I had been anxiously awaiting for. The ONE thing I REALLY hoped to do while we were in town was to ride Valdez Glacier. I wasn’t 100% certain it would happen as three weeks of warmer temperatures and constant rain threatened to ruin that dream. Valdez had been experiencing an unseasonably warm and early spring, just like the rest of Alaska. Thankfully, my prayers were answered as the weather turned around and started cooperating mere days before our arrival. Temperatures had finally dropped again during the nights, just cold enough that the overflow on the glacier had finally re-frozen and we should be able to ride if we can get up early and beat the heat of the day. I could not wait.
Two words. Otherworldy. Stunning. Being able to ride Valdez Glacier was an exceptional lifetime experience for us. Thursday morning April 4th, we arrived at the parking lot for Valdez Glacier Lake excited to ride. The weather that morning was cloudy and cold. The biting wind coming from up the glacier set a chill in our bones. Rich explained the cloud cover was good since the blue hues of the glacier will actually be brighter without the sun shining. Lee, the co-founder of Valdez Adventure Alliance that puts on the Chugach Fat Bike Bash, also joined us for the ride. As we set off across the lake, I listened closely for crackling of the ice beneath me. This was only the second time I had ever dared to ride across a frozen lake. Admittedly, I was a little nervous. The studs on my tires proved to be ever faithful as I started riding over the sheets of frozen overflow. Not a single slip of the bike under me could be felt. This was amazing! In Colorado we don’t have much ice to deal with so I never bothered with studding my tires. This first experience of riding ice with studs made me a firm believer in how much freedom you gain from such tiny, yet innovative, bits of technology in fat biking.
After riding a mile across the lake we finally reached “Glacier Boulevard”, the outer reaches of the glacier. Massive blocks of ice started surrounding us on each side as we followed the frozen overflow deeper into the reaches of the glacier. Already within the first few stops of exploring, we discovered multiple eye-popping blue ice caves. The most memorable ice cave, “The Secret Cave”, had a spectacular blue color of the ice that was unlike anything I had ever seen! I marvelled at the translucent and scalloped walls and admired how chiselled it had become with the process of meltwater streams hollowing out the ice in the summer months.
We left the “Photo Booth” another named ice cave and continued to explore other areas of exposed ice formations. The “Wall of Blue” was equally impressive, an ice formation nearly as tall as a one story house with its crystal clear wall allowing light to filter in and transmit the cool glacier blue color back to our eager eyes. Narrow passageways lined with frozen overflow led us through the maze of similar sized blocks of ice.
As we left the confines of the maze of ice blocks and continued further up the ablation zone of the glacier we came across large heaved sections of snow and ice. Beneath one section laid “The Crown Jewel”, a gleaming block of ice which appeared to have been carved out of the surrounding ice and polished over time through the process of glacial meltwater. We lingered there for quite awhile, both my husband and Rich climbing inside the natural amphitheater for pictures of the sculpted ice.
Hours go by unnoticed as we rode all over, stopping often for pictures and exploring each unique formation. I struggle to find the words to accurately and vividly describe all the wonders to the eye and the features that we were able to explore by fat bike for three hours at the glacier. It was jaw-dropping, humbling, mind-blowing, exciting. It was incredible to feel so small when riding next to giant icebergs. To witness with our own eyes every magnificent shade of blue transmitting through the clearest ice is something I’ll never forget. To learn the history of the area, to understand the constant change, to realize that what we see today may not be here one year from now, I felt lucky.
Similar to what happened on the drive from Anchorage to Valdez, after awhile my mind became exhausted trying to process the vast scenery of the glacier and surrounding mountains. I eventually went into auto pilot and followed the guys back out to the lake as we made our way to the “Berg Garden”. These gargantuan sized blocks of ice had separated from the glacier and remained frozen in place further out on the lake. I dreamily wondered about returning during the summer months with a packraft and paddling about the same lake, exploring the same icebergs. Trip number two to Alaska already in the works.
We wrapped up our adventurous day two in Valdez later in the evening with a peaceful low tide beach ride. Before we had left Valdez Glacier, Lee had invited us to join her at dusk for a beach ride. A few blocks from our rented house, we rode the Homestead Trail out to where it leads to the delta of Mineral Creek and to the Port of Valdez. According to Lee, during the summer months you are sure to find grizzly bears feasting on salmon along the creek right next to the trail. As we rode by, images of the movie DisneyNature’s Bears flashed in my mind and I could totally see that spot being very popular with the local bruins. At least that’s the best thing about winter, I thought, not having to worry about a bear encounter.
The low tide revealed a mix of deposits of smooth rock, thousands of clam shells and stretches of fine sand deposited in a ripple pattern leaving behind clues of the recent movement of the ocean waters. The surrounding views of the mountains rising sharply from the calm sea was just as humbling to view as everything else we had seen up to this point. As much as I love mountains, I also cannot help but be drawn to the ocean and it’s tranquility. The air was still and quiet, only the soft sounds of tiny waves lapping the shoreline interrupted the silence when we stood quietly at the edge of the beach. Families of otters swam not too far from shore, curiously watching us. A lone bald eagle stood silently next to a low tide pool, its reflection cast perfectly in the water. As we finished our ride, I thought about the hundredth reason fat bikes are awesome, they are just as capable on sandy beaches and rocky coastlines as they are on snow. The perfect all terrain bike. Soaking in the surrounding views while riding was a fantastic end to the day.
Friday morning, April 5th, my birthday! By 8 am, the bright sun was already shining and clouds were giving way to blue skies. It would be another beautiful Alaskan day. Rich and Lee had planned to take me back up to Thompson Pass for another fat ride at Blueberry Ridge.
As we neared Thompson Pass we left one vehicle at the bottom entrance to Blueberry Lake State Recreation area then drove a second vehicle with the bikes two miles further up the pass. At the last pullout before the top of the pass we unloaded the bikes, dropped down off the road and pedaled a quarter mile or so down the crest of the first ridge before dropping again to the next ridgeline. From there we pedaled up Blueberry Ridge and had amazing views of several peaks and glaciers to the south. “Whistlers Mother, Stone Mountain, The Books” to name a few peaks and “Wortmanns, Bench and Heiden” glaciers to name a few of the glaciers. The serrated ridges of the mountains and steep drainage canyons carved into the slopes from the glacier meltwaters were a sight to behold. That’s exactly the thing I have fallen in love with about Alaska. How big and dramatic the landscape is and seeing the power of glacial erosion. Being here stirred up the geology nerd in me that had long since been buried.
We continued along the ridge, winding between exposed rock outcrops, stopping often for pictures and playfully rolling up and down the natural mini halfpipe between the two ridges. It was another perfect crust day. We could choose to ride the groomed track or we could venture off on our own path, riding wherever our hearts desired and our imaginations propelled us. Eventually the crest of the ridge dropped in elevation until it met the upper entrance to the recreation area. We took a few turns racing down the fading crest of the ridge taking a little bunny hop on the last small transition to more level ground. Finally, we turned down what would have been Blueberry Lake road (it was still very much snow covered) and dropped down to the lake and campgrounds, riding at the base of the ridge we had just been on top of. We moseyed along eventually riding one more ridge before dropping back down to the highway. This ride was the type that takes you back to feeling like a kid again. Just out with friends, riding, playing and having a great time.
Chugach Fat Bike Bash
The Fat Bike Bash finally kicked off the weekend activities on Friday evening at the Fat Mermaid, a local hangout with good food and great beer. I was in heaven when I found they had my favorite beer, Marionberry Sour. Before grabbing drinks, we headed to the registration trailer to fill out waivers and grab our number plates for the cross country race the next morning. The race was to be held at Valdez Glacier, making it a one of a kind fat bike race in Alaska. Nowhere else can you ride in a cross country race on a glacier!
Fat bikers and locals alike congregated outside the restaurant. Everyone was getting ready for the bike parade around town to officially kick off the weekend festivities. Some wore costumes, families brought out their young rippers. There was even a dad with a fat bike and pulling a kayak, which doubled as a kid trailer! Alaskans really know how to live adventurously I decided. Considering how Valdez is remotely located, I was really impressed with the turnout. After a welcome announcement from a board member of the Valdez Adventure Alliance we all set off on a ride around town.
After a short cruise around the harbor and town, everyone gathered back at the Fat Mermaid for a bike rodeo and other fun bike games. My husband and I, wiped from an adventure filled day, headed home and crashed early to be ready for tomorrow’s race.
Fat Bike Bash Cross Country Race
Saturday, race morning, my phone chimed several times with new messages. Rain had moved in overnight. The streets were wet and it was still lightly drizzling which prompted a last minute course change. The race was going to be moved up to Thompson Pass at the backup course. There was no way the course at the glacier was going to be rideable with the rain overnight and the warmer temperatures. Later I would find out that when Rich went to check the course early that morning, as soon as he stepped onto the lake, he sank to his knees in soft conditions and melted overflow. It appears we will have been the last ones to have ridden the glacier for the winter.
After a good breakfast we headed up to Thompson Pass for the race. The rain at least turned to snow as we got up to higher elevation. At the top of the pass, it became all white and visibility was low. All the surrounding mountains and glaciers that we had been able to see the previous few days were completely hidden from view. We pulled into the parking lot where the event trailer and all of the other racers had parked. My usual habit before a race is to get out and ride the course a little to warm up, so, we geared up and headed out. Almost immediately after getting onto the course a feeling of panic started to rise up from the pit of my stomach. I could hardly see anything. The light was flat, everything was white and I could barely distinguish the groomed track from the surrounding white landscape. As we topped the first climb and made a wide turn to head back down, I realized I was very intimidated to gain any speed on the downhill when I felt like I was riding blind. My hope of racing was now gone. I resolved that I would just ride the course for “fun”.
All the racers gathered at the trailer for the pre-race meeting to get the course details. The backup course was only going to be approximately 8 miles and mostly downhill. With thirty racers showing up, we would start in waves of five riders every minute or two to help spread the field. The first half of the course would take us along the north side of Odyssey Mountain with a few climbs and a few fast descents. We’d ride along DOT lake, Ptarmigan Creek and eventually cross the Richardson Highway for the second half of the course. On the other side of the highway we’d ride the lower slopes of the Twenty Seven Mile Peak eventually coming down Pipeline Hill and finishing the race at the entrance to Worthington Glacier.
A rider expressed worry that they would not be able to remember all of the details, but everyone was reassured the course was well marked with orange arrows. A few minutes before 10 am we started to gather at the starting line. The organizers called the first group of five to the line and sent the first wave off. I modestly placed myself near the back of the gathered group hoping to skirt by and join the last wave to leave the starting line since I wasn’t going to race. But as the first group took off, only two guys lined up for the second wave. “We need three more riders!” yelled the organizers. No one budged. “Three more!” they yelled again. Still no movement from everyone around me. Sigh, I guess I’ll jump up there. Two more guys also reluctantly joined me. I decided I would just wait and see what the other four guys were going to do before I decided how fast (or slow) I was going to take off. Five, four, three, two, one, GO! Two of the guys took off quickly and I noticed the other two guys were not going to take off quickly, so I got going. Guess I’ll be in the middle, I thought to myself.
As we made it through the initial roadside crust chunk then turned to head up the first climb on the lower slopes of Little Odyssey mountain, I noticed visibility had improved greatly. The snow had stopped and the sun was trying hard to shine through the cloud cover. I could see the course finally. I immediately felt my attitude shift and a competitive fire suddenly sparked within. I was going to give chase to the riders in front of me and see how I could do. In my mind, this course was the shortest race I’ve done all year so I knew I could red line my effort and last the entire race. It was on.
I crossed the finish line, out of breath and smiling, in 54 minutes and 42 seconds after a sprint in the home stretch. The fastest rider finished in 44 minutes and 56 seconds. Racers, volunteers and spectators cheered for every single racer that finished. What a fast, fun race! For having to make a very last minute course change, the event still ran smooth and everyone had a great time. Later that evening at a local establishment racers, volunteers and race organizers enjoyed live music, drinks, a feast of homemade soups and desserts, socializing, a screening of the film “Blue” which was produced at last year’s Bash and also the announcement of the podium for the race. Top three male and top three female finishers were given a glass trophy that resembled an iceberg with Chugach Fat Bike Bash and placement inscribed on it. Likely one of the coolest trophies I’ve seen so far in my super short amateur racing career.
Fat Bike Bash Extreme Downhill Race
The second major event of the Fat Bike Bash took place Sunday morning. The extreme downhill race is not for the faint of heart or inexperienced biker. Also a one of a kind race in Alaska, and likely anywhere in the world, riders are shuttled up to the top bowl of Loveland Basin by snowmobiles. From the top, at 5,200 feet elevation, they drop into the course, choose to ride the groomed track or risk riding the surrounding natural snowpack and navigate the glacial drainage for a fast descent over 1.81 miles losing 2,500 feet of elevation. The rider who could complete this downhill the fastest was crowned champion of the Chugach Fat Bike Bash Extreme Downhill event, a title that is reserved only for the true bad ass.
I will be quick to add that neither my husband or I had any will to participate in this event. Considering how Saturday’s descent down Pipeline Hill went for me at the cross country race, I did not have a death wish to try my hand at descending a big mountain on a fatbike. Snowboard yes, fatbike no. We showed up to watch the race for fun and to hear about the carnage, as I was certain there would be some great stories from the racers as they completed their runs.
When we arrived at the base of Loveland Glacier, the weather was cloudy and the visibility was again low with flat light. No new snow had fallen since the previous morning so the groomed section of course was expected to still be packed nicely. All but 3 riders had already been shuttled to the top by the time Josh and I pedaled our own fat bikes from the parking lot up to the finish line. It was fun listening to those three waiting riders speculate about how the race was going to go. The animated discussion of whether or not brakes would be working by the time riders reached the finish line was a source of entertainment.
Once the first round of shuttling activities were done and key safety volunteers were stationed at various places along the course, Lee who was at the starting line up top, radioed down to the organizers at the bottom letting them know who the first rider was dropping in. A resident of Valdez who goes by the nickname “Spook” was the first victim. From our vantage point we could see a tiny black dot slowly coming down the face of the mountain. Slowly would be a gross misrepresentation of what the rider was actually facing. Minutes ticked away as we eagerly watched for Spook to hit the final stretch and cross the finish line. Suddenly he popped down the last section of the descent and came flying across the finish. As he came to a skidding stop and staggered off his bike, I could tell by his body language he had been beat up good. At his expense, the rest of us giggled and waited to hear his report.
The reported condition of the course was soft and powdery snow up top with poor visibility and flat light followed by compact snow in the glacial drainage cut and then a crusty hard speedway on the lower three quarters of the course. The soft, powdery conditions up top was difficult to navigate and gain speed often causing spectacular crashes while the compacted snow lower was was a little chewed up from the snowmobile traffic and made for sketchy fast descents. The three riders who had not yet been shuttled to the top started asking Spook for advice on their run. While they appeared nervous but excited to have their turn, I was most thankful that I would not be participating!
Two more riders made their runs before another wave of shuttling whisked away the three riders that had been waiting. The whole operation was seamless. Even Rich’s homemade bike rack secured in a sled behind the snowmobile was an impressive and crafty approach for getting riders and their rigs to the top of a mountain. Watching the interactions of the racers, I admired the level of crazy that these guys had for coming out and taking on this competition. The stories of their wild crashes brought on a lot of laughter and overall stoke. Only here at the Fat Bike Bash could you find such a unique experience. The winner of the Extreme Downhill, Brandon Reed, completed the course in a sizzling 3 minutes and 40 seconds. I would guess that time was largely due to the fact that his brakes were completely spent by his second and final run. Either way, that is truly impressive and a big congratulations to all of the riders who survived!
Spectating the extreme downhill wrapped up the Fat Bike Bash for my husband and I . We still needed to make the 5 hour journey back to Anchorage to return our fat bikes and get ready for our flight home the next day. The hospitality and friendliness we experienced from everyone in Valdez was really heartwarming and made Alaska feel like home. The event held in remote Valdez gave it a small town feel that we hope can continue in the coming years. Aside from the event, riding fat in Valdez was everything I had hoped it would be, obviously the top highlight being able to ride Valdez Glacier. We lucked out with great weather, great conditions and made awesome new memories with new friends. We are overwhelmingly grateful for our fat Alaskan adventure.
Full details of the trip are on Betsey’s blog – The Last Frontier Part I and Part II at https://4theluvoffat.com/