I couldn’t breathe. I sat up, took a few urgent lungfuls of air, snatched the neck gaiter away from my throat, undid the zips on my thermal clothing and loosened the hood of my sleeping bag. The tent was a cloud of white, filled with ice vapours hanging lazily in the air. My asthma did not enjoy being exposed to temperatures below –30°C. I knew it was going to be a long night.
Later that evening, as I sat up again, the zip on my sleeping bag undid itself and I could not coax its teeth back together. I had previously joked that the sleeping bag belonging to my fiancée, Lucy, was big enough for the two of us and so now we decided to find out if it really was. I wriggled in beside her as best I could and then we writhed some more to find the best jigsaw-style sleeping arrangement. We giggled at the absurdity of the situation and I mused that this was the height of our romance on my winter cycle from North America’s Pacific coast to its Atlantic shoreline.
As I rubbed my socked feet up and down my woolly thermals to warm my toes, Lucy tried to reach for something wedged between her feet. She had put a chemical handwarmer down her socks a few hours earlier. Now it was irritating her and she declared that she absolutely had to remove it. Making the most of this opportunity to exit the sleeping bag, I made full use of a saucepan in lieu of the al fresco toilet. Lucy took her socks off and reached down to remove the handwarmer. Only there was nothing there. ‘Oh, it’s my little toe,’ she said, ‘But I can’t feel it.’
I spun round to see a small white toe that looked different to its pink neighbours. I took Lucy’s foot between my hands, massaged it gently, and then tucked it under several layers of clothing and into the warmth of my bare armpit. The coolness of her skin took my breath away. I was amazed that she had not previously noticed its condition.
I ran through our medical options in my head. How would we get to hospital if the toe failed to come back to life in the next 30 minutes? I kept talking to Lucy, worried that the toe might be a sign that her core temperature was falling. We were not far from a quiet road but even if someone did drive along it I doubted the driver would stop to give us a lift. Nor would anyone answer a knock at the door in the dark. At intervals I made Lucy close her eyes and tell me what she could feel as I tapped and tickled different toes, all the while wiggling my own toes and squeezing my calf muscles to keep myself warm. She felt nothing when I touched the culprit toe and so back under my armpit it went. By now I had wrapped myself in a fleece sleeping bag liner as well as my down sleeping bag.
At the half hour mark, the toe began to turn salmon pink. Although I was relieved that Lucy had avoided serious damage, I was annoyed that one of our digits had succumbed to the initial stage of frostbite on our final night in the tent in these frigid conditions.
Lucy had joined me two months earlier on my trans-continental cycle ride as I passed through Calgary. Cycling out of the city in freezing rain and fog, she tried to acclimatise to the weight and balance of her bike’s panniers, the feel of cleated winter boots on her feet and the novelty of studded tyres biting into compacted ice and snow. However, as Lucy careered into a snow bank, I felt like I was watching a new foal find its legs. We were excited to be together after spending several months apart while I had concentrated on kayaking through the Aleutians with Justine Curgenven (see Geographical, February 2015).
A few miles into that first day, we pulled into the drive of a house on a lonely lane to ask if we could camp behind the building. A blizzard was forecast and snow was already turning the sky white. We were invited inside but I declined, saying that we would be just fine in our tent. I knew that surviving in these extreme temperatures depended on our being able to establish routines for setting up camp, getting warm and being fed.
Ever since embarking on my traverse from the city of Homer, while basking under an Alaskan sun at the tail end of August, locals had asked me, ‘You do know winter is coming, don’t you?’ I had always smiled at their concerns. But now, as we listened to snow sloughing off the sides of our orange tent, I wondered what lay ahead. Lucy peered out of her hooded sleeping bag, which was cinched tightly around her face, and asked quietly, ‘What are we doing?’
We had dissolved into giggles on that first night but the truth was I didn’t know what would happen. That is what adventure and life is all about. I knew that people lived year-round in the regions we would be cycling through, and that other adventurers had undertaken outdoor activities in even colder environments. I therefore figured that it must be possible to bike through a North American winter.
The bigger question was whether I could reach the opposite side of the continent by early April because at that point I would need to be preparing for my row home across the Atlantic. Ironically, patience would be the key to success on this cycle ride: we would need to dance with the weather across Canada’s prairies and then flee south into the Lower 48. Our target city was Minneapolis, from where Lucy was scheduled to fly to the UK at the end of January.
Blizzards kept us off our bikes from time to time. On those occasions we holed up in our tent, in motels or in the homes of strangers with whom we became fast friends. On days when visibility was good we tried to cover 80 kilometres, yet often fell short. Reduced daylight hours – which at times lasted only from 9am to 3pm – meant that we often cycled at night, our path illuminated by headtorches and bike lights.
The reflective vests we wore certainly proved their worth during these dark rides. We were often told we looked like police officers and in a strange way it was comforting to see drivers slow down in order to figure out who we might be.
During the night rides our hair, neoprene masks, ski goggles and balaclavas turned white, turning us into bearded versions of Mrs Christmas. We kept our hands warm with neoprene mitts that totally enclosed the handlebars. Both of us wore gaiters over our winter cycling tights, and down-filled skirts insulated our thighs and haunches. We normally wore merino wool base layers and waterproof-breathable jackets, except on one particular day that a sunny sky seduced Lucy into taking her gilet off. That evening she reported frostnip to her nipples.
On our last night in the tent, a few days before Lucy was due to fly home, we opened two small bottles of beer to celebrate. As I flicked the lids off, ice grew down the inside of the bottle, turning the pale liquid into a solid foam of white that pushed itself up and out of the bottle neck like a volcano. Despite being exciting to watch, it was disappointing to have to settle for a cup of tea, especially as our multi-fuel stove had once again stopped working.
I scuttled round the woods collecting twigs and small branches that I could feed into my Vargo fire triangle, and threw sparks from my flint striker into a ball of paper that I had kept dry by stuffing it inside my jacket a few hours earlier. Flames licked around our saucepan and tea eventually followed.
Our final day of riding together was bittersweet. We had succeeded in riding from Calgary to Minneapolis through the worst of the continent’s winter. But now we would be apart for another three months. Since meeting Lucy during the time I was back in Britain after being rescued during my first attempt to row across the North Pacific in 2012 (see Geographical January 2013) I found it hard to be away from her.
I guess that’s what happens when you have found your favourite person. Travelling solo no longer has quite the appeal for me that it once had. This adventure has taught me many things. But my favourite learning has been that there is nothing like love to pull you home.
TEN OF THE BEST
Fighting the cold weather is one of the key considerations when cycling across North America in winter conditions, so it’s no surprise that a large degree of Sarah Outen’s equipment is concerned with staying warm. From goose down-filled skirts and jackets, to hand warmers attached to handlebars to insulated booties for keeping toes warm at night...
Santos Travelmaster 2.8 Alu
I chose a customised touring bike for my entire London2London journey and was confident that the Travelmaster would stand up to all conditions and distances. It has repaid that faith, although in the future, I will steer away from using hydraulic brakes in winter conditions.
Schwalbe Marathon Winter Rigid Tyres
£45/995 grams (per tyre)
The surface area of a tyre is key for traction, and studs are especially helpful on icy patches. These studded tyres will revolutionise your winter riding. I used the studless ‘Extreme’ variant when ice was less of an issue.
3. Insulated jacket
Berghaus Ilam Hydrodown jacket
Down insulation is an essential part of my year-round layering system. I especially like the Ilam’s pocket arrangement, and the water repellency of its shell material.
4. Down booties
PHD Designs Xero Down boots
One of my favourite pieces of kit for the tent. These premium booties are filled with 900 fill-power down that is held in a box wall construction to eliminate cold spots. Although the outer fabric is water resistant, take care not to get them wet.
Petzl Myo RXP
Winter cycling involves pedalling through lots of darkness, and I relied on my headtorch for light and safety. This regulated torch can be programmed to favour brightness or battery life.
6. Reflective clothing
Sportful Reflex 2 Vest
I began wearing a reflective vest on my second day of cycling in North America, wondering why it had taken me until that point on my global journey to realise its value. The Reflex 2 is made from a windproof and water-repellent fabric that provides visibility day and night.
7. Down skirt
Skhoop Short down skirt
I never wore skirts until winter arrived in North America. Then I started wearing this down-filled skirt over my cycling tights and thermals every day to keep warm. A handy zip on one side of the design allows you to throw a leg over your bike’s crossbar.
Bar Mitts Mountain/Commuter Pogie Handlebar Mittens
Handlebar mittens, or pogies, are popular in places where winter is long and cold. Pogies totally enclose your hand and handlebar while you ride. Made from 4.5mm neoprene with nylon lamination on each side of the material. An extreme version, made from even thicker neoprene plus fleece, is also available.
9. Ski goggles
Rudy Project Klonyx
I liked the tint on my Klonyx goggles in the daytime to help protect my eyes from snowblindness. I was less keen on the coloured lens at night. Nevertheless, these goggles made riding in sub-zero conditions bearable.
Ortlieb Sport Packer Plus
£110/1.68 kilograms (pair)
These waterproof panniers are compatible with most bike racks. A pair can swallow 60 litres of kit. I used cheap rucksack covers over mine to help protect them from harsh throwback from slushy, icy roads. Wash your gear as often as you can when cycling on winter roads.
This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine