Travel & Adventure A Beautiful NightmareJames Barkman and friends learn valuable lessons while trekking the Pan-American highway.
- Words & Images James Barkman
Mountaineering and motorcycle expeditions have more in common than you may think, because neither climbing nor riding is a one-dimensional experience. Challenging both body and mind teaches you the art of suffering. I know this because I rode 38,000 miles from Alaska to Patagonia with my two childhood buddies, Allen and Jeremy.
The Pan-American Highway is the longest, arguably the most epic, system of roads on Earth. It begins in the Arctic Circle near Deadhorse, Alaska, and terminates at the very bottom of South America in Ushuaia, Argentina. Allen, Jeremy, and I bought late ’90s Suzuki DR650s for no more than $1,500 each, and started planning a trip that would require a year and a half to complete. Our route would pass through the most iconic mountain ranges in the Western Hemisphere — from the breathtaking Alaska range to the Andes mountains — and we were determined to climb anything and everything we could along the way, beginning with Denali in Alaska.
As the trip grew closer, I started having doubts. Could our motorcycles even carry all the equipment we needed for both high-alpine climbing and over a year on the road?
As the trip grew closer, I started having doubts. Could our motorcycles even carry all the equipment we needed for both high-alpine climbing and over a year on the road? But it was too late to turn back, and the day Allen graduated from college we hit the road. Bidding farewell to our friends and family in Pennsylvania, we started a 4,300-mile ride to Alaska, the beginning of the Pan-American Highway.
Nine days of sunrise-to-sundown riding. We lost time to minor breakdowns and frustrating carburetor issues, and driving rain and high winds tested our resolve. A sudden snowstorm forced us to take shelter for a couple days — the Alaskan Highway was not for the faint of heart. Already behind schedule, Allen’s bike lost spark in the middle of nowhere and we worried we’d miss our flight to Denali’s base camp. A sympathetic passerby loaded Allen’s bike into his pickup and gave him a 400-mile lift to Talkeetna, just in time to catch our plane. It was the toughest riding any of us had ever done, and we hadn’t even started down the Pan-American.
Our Beaver ski plane punched through the clouds and gave us our first glimpse of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. Due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle, its weather is considered to be some of the harshest in the world. Denali requires a carefully prepared arsenal of high-altitude, cold-weather climbing gear. When we landed on Denali’s glacier, we met a French climber with a badly frostbitten nose that would need to be amputated. We spent the next 16 days in a terrible, breathtaking landscape, ascending with heavy packs and sleds as waves of nausea and exhaustion hit without warning. After a seven-day snowstorm and an almost disastrous fall at 20,000 feet, we somehow managed to plant ourselves on the 20,310-foot summit. Deadhorse Late August | Miles: 1,000 The James Dalton Highway is a 414-mile supply road that runs from outside Fairbanks, Alaska, to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, deep within the Arctic Circle. Our hands and feet were constantly numb for those few miserable days of riding, as passing semi-trucks coated us in mud that clung to us like cement in below-freezing temperatures. We arrived in Deadhorse — home to the northernmost road in the Western Hemisphere — and vowed never to return. On our way back to Fairbanks, Jeremy’s bike broke down, forcing him to hitch a ride back with some caribou hunters. Allen and I kept riding, forced to walk our bikes several miles through snow over the infamous and icy Atigun Pass. Allen lost his chain and sprocket, leaving him stranded in the lonely arctic town of Coldfoot, where he spent the next five days alone, waiting for parts.
From Fairbanks, we traveled 4,500 hard miles to Mount Robson, known to climbers as “The Great White Fright.” It’s the highest point in the Canadian Rockies, and only 10 percent of expeditions reach its 12,972-foot summit. Technical and exposed, there is an ever-present threat of avalanches, falling ice, deep hidden crevasses, and unpredictable storms. Climbing with backbreaking 70-pound packs, our trek to the summit was a hard-earned victory; I lost 20 pounds in five days and struggled to keep my pants on during the hike out.
I watched the sunrise from the summit of Mount Hood in Oregon, raced jackrabbits through Nevada desert, climbed Mount Whitney in the Eastern Sierras, and spent a month climbing in Joshua Tree National Park before heading south to the border. Allen, Jeremy, and I slowly wandered down the Baja peninsula, passing enormous saguaro cactuses, eating raw clams for breakfast, yellowtail for lunch, and fish tacos for dinner, and camping out on empty beaches. At the bottom of the peninsula, we ferried to the mainland to climb Pico de Orizaba, an 18,491-foot volcano. After returning from the third-highest peak in North America, we high-tailed through the jungles of Central America to arrive in the Andes at the start of climbing season. In Panama, we squeezed our bikes into a shipping container and planned to meet them in Colombia in two days.
Two days became two weeks. Our first night back on the road, we were robbed. We were robbed again the next night, too. We rode through Colombian jungles and passed through the rainy highlands of Ecuador en route to the Peruvian Andes. Upon arriving in Peru, Allen flew back to the States to receive proper medical attention for a gnarly knee infection that turned out to be Lyme disease. For several months, Allen’s recovery remained uncertain, but Jeremy and I decided to make the most of it and climb what we could in the meantime. One such climb ended with an avalanche and me reviving Jeremy with mouth-to-mouth CPR. Then Allen called to say he could come back, and soon we’d make for Bolivia.
The flooded salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni looked otherworldly, as earth and sky blended together as one. For several days we three rode side-by-side at full throttle in ankle-deep water, praying our electronics wouldn’t fry. Bolivian landscapes are jaw-droppingly beautiful: in a matter of only hours we would ride over 15,000-foot passes, then descend to sweltering jungle just above sea level. Riding over a high-elevation pass, I miraculously escaped injury after a high-side crash at 60 mph.
Arriving in Patagonia, it felt as if we’d ridden around the world and arrived right back where we started. The landscape and climate seemed identical to Alaska’s, except for the guanacos that roamed in herds and rheas that galloped across frozen plains. Allen rebuilt his top end on the side of the road, and then his bike developed a rod knock. Dangerously high winds forced us to stop often, and Allen used one such opportunity to completely rebuild his thumper. South America was beautiful, but life on a motorcycle was no vacation, and the hardships of the road had us dreaming of the comforts of home. We managed to ride into Ushuaia on a wing and a prayer, and the trip was over, just like that.