From Death Valley to Denali
Ventura man makes history for round-trip bicycle ride
By Shane Cohn 09/06/2012
About half a dozen cyclists have ever pedaled from Death Valley — the lowest geographical point in North America — to the Denali National Forest in Alaska to climb Mt. McKinley — the highest point in North America.
Nobody has ever been inspired enough to make the bicycle trip back.
And nobody has ever attempted to do it alone.
That was, until Ventura resident and cyclist Chris Figureida, completed the journey just two weeks ago.
Figureida began the five-month, 7,761-mile round-trip bike ride and mountain climb on March 17 in Death Valley. The plan was to bike to Talkeetna, Alaska, ski 60 miles to the Denali base camp, summit the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley and climb/hike down the other side, where his bicycle would be shuttled to him to ride back to Death Valley.
“Know who you are, who you want to be, and follow your dreams,” says Figureida.
So he pedaled for 55 days in a row, averaging 68 miles a day on Interstate 15 from Las Vegas all the way to the Canadian border, up to Calgary and Edmonton, then over to Dawson’s Creek to the Alaska Highway toward Fairbanks until he reached Denali National Park.
Figureida, 31, has undertaken massive expeditions before. Since 2005, he has made six other cross-country journeys, speaking to more than 50,000 children at schools across America about living a healthy and active lifestyle, raising funds and lobbying for the American Heart Association, who endorsed Figureida after learning about his bicycle quests to promote healthy living.
It’s been his dream, says Figureida, to live as a professional athlete and inspirer.
But it wasn’t until Figureida was surrounded by timberwolves in below-freezing weather along the Alaska Highway that he realized his current bicycling expedition was unlike all the others he had undertaken.
“I’m in a tent on the side of the highway and I can hear the wolves,” recalls Figureida. “The wolves are corralling the elk, and the elk [are] surrounding my tent. The wolves are howling and it’s very primal. My heart is beating so fast that it’s shaking the sleeping bag and filling my ears with blood, and I can’t hear anymore. It was one of the scariest nights of my life.”
The desolate, frozen Alaska Highway was the most brutal stretch for the cyclist. Figureida endured a constant barrage of snowstorms, the pelting of ice and salt from snowplows and the challenge of finding food. He was burning up to 5,000 calories a day while discovering that most of the outposts along the highway were seasonal and not open for service. His body sometimes quivered as he rode, with one hand often clutching his stomach in pain as his body struggled to keep on despite the need for caloric intake.
“I would ride 100 to 120 miles and get to a place with nothing at all,” says Figureida, who began the trip weighing 155 pounds, dropping to 138 during the trek. “One guy had 16 Twix candy bars, which is about 2,000 calories. I ate all of them.”
After three weeks along the Alaska Highway, he made it to Talkeetna, Alaska, the base of operations for teams climbing Mount McKinley. In Talkeetna, known as a drinking town with a climbing problem, Figureida relaxed for two days in the company of “hippies, artists, travelers and the world’s best high altitude climbers and athletes.”
Figureida had spent the past three weeks riding through some of the most hellish conditions in North America that only begged people along the way to question his sanity. And the next leg of the trip — skiing to the Denali base camp, a nearly 7,000-foot elevation increase that most reach by plane — was perhaps more daring, even in the company of the world’s greatest climbers in Talkeetna. Skiing into Denali base camp is the natural, human powered way to reach the mountain.
“Nearly nobody tries it because it adds an extra week to the trip, extra time, money, food, fuel,” explains Figureida. “There is no established route with the best way changing every season which requires a ton of route finding, exploring, and having to trust very minimal research done by others; and that part of Alaska is about as remote as possible with bears and unknown crevasse and avalanche danger.”
Yet, in Talkeetna, nobody told Figureida he was ‘crazy’ for attempting this, which was a constant remark from folks he met along his adventure. Instead, they congratulated him for getting the chance to attempt the feat of skiing into base camp.
“I don’t want people to be turned away because they focused on the ‘crazy’ adventure,” tells Figureida. “I am very aware of the ‘I could never do that’ mentality and do my best to be humble, down-to-earth, and to encourage others that they can follow their dreams too.”
While Figureida’s mind was ready to move toward the mountain, his feet, unfortunately, weren’t ready for the transition. Spending the previous 55 days on a bicycle, and wearing narrow cycling shoes, had altered his foot structure.
“My feet had changed and the boots weren’t broken in yet. Immediately, my feet ripped apart with massive blisters . . . We had to turn around and go back,” recalls Figureida, shaking his head.
After a week of healing, Figureida had no choice but to bypass the skiing, and instead, flew to base camp where he began to ascend Mount McKinley.
For the next month, he and a climbing team made their way up McKinley’s West Buttress, the busiest climbing route, until they reached the final base camp at 17,200 feet. With the summit only 3,120 feet away, the weather shifted for the worse. Wind was blowing 50 mph, the temperature ranged from -25 to 10 degrees with a wind chill of 50 below. The team was stuck at base camp for the next eight days, spending 22 hours a day in their tents.
“We got to the point where we exhausted our options to traverse the mountain. We were running out of field supplies and food,” says Figureida. “It was really disappointing. A lot of egos and time go into this, and to make the call to go down was tough.”
On the way down, Figureida and his team passed a five-man Japanese team who planned to wait out the storm. On Thursday, June 14, a day after Figureida and his team made it to base camp; an avalanche was triggered, killing four of the five Japanese climbers.
Already, Figureida had made history for touring alone from Death Valley to Denali by bicycle. Now, at day 100, it was time to cycle back to Death Valley. Spring season was in bloom and the ride back through Alaska and Canada was rejuvenating, an affirmation that he was alive and interacting with the world in the way he had always dreamed.
He counted 28 bears, moose with calves, bison, bald eagles, beavers; went ice climbing during the midnight sun, made moonshine, went fly fishing and shooting in British Columbia, and gave inspirational speeches to Rotaries, resulting in $4000 in donations.
He then delivered half of the donations to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Association in Edmonton (the other half went to Rotary International’s Polio Plus); and was, in turn, invited to ride on a 30-foot bicycle in Edmonton’s Capital EX Parade. And there was Ventura’s Chris Figureida waving to tens of thousands of people as he pedaled on by.
From -50 degrees on Mount McKinley, Figureida rode into the 122-degree desert heat of Death Valley on Aug. 7. His arrival in Death Valley made it a 145-day round-trip bicycle trek from the lowest geographical point in North America to the highest point and back.
With gear support from many sponsors, including Patagonia and Open Air Bicycles in Ventura, the journey cost him about $20,000, most of which went toward the climb. Figureida is back to work as a specialized welder and is planning his next trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I’m a big believer in persistence and desire,” he says. “In high school, I would have loved to hear that you can be anything you want to be, not just a doctor, lawyer, astronaut or policeman. Those are all great things, but no one ever told me I can be a professional mountain climber, which I am now. Just don’t give up on dreams.”
To follow and read more about Figureida’s journeys, visit his website, Cycleforheart.org.