Nick Sanders: the 46,800km ride from Alaska to Ushuaia and back again


From Prudhoe Bay at the northern tip of Alaska to Ushuaia, a city situated on the southerly end of the earth at Tierra del Fuego, is approximately 23,400km. Riding back to Alaska it’s twice this, a total of 46,800km. Having just completed one transit of the Americas with clients on his Yam Super Ten, extreme endurance rider Nick Sanders is going for another – the first double transit ever attempted. This is what happened…

I’m in Alaska. The sky is blue and it’s sunny but cold. Leaving Prudhoe Bay at 6am, the receptionist and the chef sign my witness book and I ride down the graded road to where a handwritten sign says ‘Dalton Highway’, so indicating my direction south for nearly 24,000km. The Guinness Record for this one-way journey is 35 days; I intend to cover it in 21.

The sea is frozen and outside of the town it’s silent. Like the sea, the wind is still. I suddenly feel overwhelmed by the freedom of being alone. There is a responsibility having to deal with self governance. Then there’s the throb of the engine, threatening to take me faster than I want to go, until, gently restraining, I pull back the reins.

The Super Tenere can be ridden on piste and paved road with equanimity. Most of the route to the first settlement of Coldfoot is unsurfaced. Before then, straddling the North Slope Haul Road on the Dalton, the famous Brookes Range is bisected by the Atigun Pass, a steep-sided treeless valley. This is spectacular, wild, spacious, raw, and inaccessible to most travellers for most of the year; I’m on the Ice Road Trucker’s route. It’s -70 degrees in the winter, a little over freezing in the summer. Now the lakes are still frozen and it’s in the warming-up period, but about to cool any time; the window riding a motorbike here is that short.

Nick Sanders - The Americas
Nick Sanders

Everywhere there are trees. Tall black spruce and aspen stand next to slender willow and birch while mountain ash pops up in clusters. Bald eagles compete with bears for trout, circling around water sources and creeks. High up in a starkly blue sky, specks of cloud hang in what is a windless day. Alternating with stretches of pavement and hard-packed dirt, the Dalton Highway is lined with berry bushes everywhere; blueberries, little red cranberries and salmonberries that look like raspberries. The road twists and climbs and falls, the noise of the big parallel twin has perfect primary balance echoing when the forest opens up to give the sound a chance to escape before being absorbed.

The bike feels tight, the engine tractable and smooth, everything taut, not a nut or bolt out of place. When small black bears come out onto the road they always run away, while moose shoot out of dense thicket, usually in pairs.

Beyond the Dalton and halfway down the Alaskan Highway, I fuel up at a 24-hour gas station at Fort Nelson, a ribbon town along the highway, and check out the cheapest motel. I haven’t slept for 30 hours and desperately need to. Within 30 minutes I have eaten and am in bed. Across hard gravel and in bitterly cold conditions I’ve ridden 2,840km in 48 hours and am at the end of day two. Four hours later I wake, dress, and set off in to the darkness once again.

Third time lucky?

In 1996, I attempted this record and failed, recording 30 days from Ushuaia to Fairbanks. I got bored, disgusted with my poor show, and went home. In 2010 I tried again and retired three days from Ushuaia, again on a 21-day schedule. I had to abandon the ride near Santiagode Chile. My lack of heated clothing while riding in the south gave my exhausted body no time to recover. My paperwork and a camera were stolen, and ultimately my incentive to complete the attempt was simply eroded.

Nick Sanders - The Americas
Nick Sanders

Now I’m ready for the battle. The bike feels solid and is growing on me; it’s a remarkable machine. But I’m still tired. As I travel quickly south I sleep for two and a half hours in Calgary and then the same in Salt Lake City where at Wrights Motorcycles, the bike receives an oil change. I’ve completed five full days, each 24 hour period covering 1,440km with two hours’ sleep each night. I wake up shaking, and at the end of the day I have minutes before I fall asleep on my tank.

It’s 1.35am and I must leave for Douglas, Arizona, before 6am. I’ve allowed myself four full hours’ sleep before attempting to ride across Mexico in three days. After 160km I see a quiet sandy side road and pull off the freeway, park the bike, and lie down beside it. I sleep for one hour. Five metres away there’s a train track and the yellow Union Pacific Railroad hauls its load right by me, sounding its horn. I barely look up. When I start again I ride 320km before fuelling up. All day I ride along a prescribed route, invisibly marked to the nearest inch. This kind of fast riding isn’t always on a conscious level. Like breathing, I become unaware I’m doing it.

Danger zone

I’m in Mexico. It has the potential to be dangerous. An estimated 40,000 people have been killed by drug gangs in the last five years here. The driver on my client tour was taken by bandits at high speed and held overnight at gunpoint. But I’ve got no choice. I have to ride through.

I stop for a cold drink 130km north of Fresnillo. Through the window of the truckstop I see people picking berries off unforgiving scrub. Much is languid; everyone friendly. With the two spare rear tyres fastened along the side fairings the bike looks more muscular. I stop again at 800km for an energy drink and some chocolate. It doesn’t take much to keep me going. I feel in great form. Nothing hurts. I worked through my tiredness carefully earlier, thinking my way through the need to sleep.

Nick Sanders - The Americas
Nick Sanders

A short distance from the Mexico-Guatemala border, an army vehicle stops me and six soldiers get out, all ordered to search my bike and have me handover my paperwork. Without saying anything they search the open pannier. The man I presume is in charge asks me: ‘Do you have drugs? Do you know there are men around here with guns and masks and that it’s dangerous to be here?’ Then they leave me alone and I ride on to the border.

I cross Colombia, Ecuador and Peru easily and simply. There’s a risk of kidnapping in the south of Colombia but there’s a greater risk of a diesel slide on a roundabout. Ecuador is calm but traffic has quadrupled in Peru. Construction has increased and there’s been a rise in banditry in the north where tourists travel to the beach.

I cross Lima at night, ready to drop the clutch in case I get jumped at the lights. In the Atacama Desert I’m so tired that I sleep as I ride. Truly there are momentary lapses of reason and actual periods where I’m no longer conscious, but as I start to veer off the road I somehow wake. It only requires a gentle correction to keep me upright, nothing so severe that it might make me over steer, and then I cross the Andes.

I rush this part of the journey; from the Andes and across Patagonia, enjoying the last embers of warm days. Sleeping on the tank in truck laybys I’m sort of rested but not quite. But I’m an adventurer. This is what I do.

Nick Sanders - The Americas
Nick Sanders

Breaking point

With the first part of the ride completed, I’m eight hours ahead of Dick Fish’s record until 297km to go when I miss the 10pm close of the final frontier at the Argentine border, San Sebastian. It’s Tierra del Fuego and I’m so close but everything feels lost. This last frontier doesn’t re-open until 9.00am the next day. I lose my advantage and trail in a few hours behind what some consider the fastest single transit. This hurts a lot. I’m two weeks ahead of the Guinness Record and hours behind the record that matters.

The last 50km take me across the Pass de Garibaldi. It’s midnight and it’s snowing; I’m riding through a white-out alone. Moving slowly my Conti Trail Attacks cope well with the conditions but several times I slide off and am buried in the snow. My foot gets trapped under the bike and, face down, I cannot move. A bone breaks in my foot. I hear it crack in my boot. The snow is falling heavily and it’s beginning to freeze. I’m shaking with cold. After a few minutes I wriggle out and slowly lift up the bike, brush myself down and carry on.

At 4am I arrive in Ushuaia and at the police post, record a time of 21 days and 19 hours. I find a hotel and sleep. Never before have I felt so weary. I’m shaking once again, but now it’s with fatigue. After riding along the Americas seven times in my motorcycling life and once on a bicycle, possibly more times than anyone alive, this journey has hurt the most.

Finding Pablo

Later that afternoon I search for a mechanic to help me prep the bike for the return journey to Alaska and find Moto Pablo in Ushuaia’s back streets. Pablo is the fifth best motocross rider in Argentina. He has an Aladdin’s cave of parts and tools and a dedicated team that astonishingly can fix anything. They examine the bike and tell me it needs little maintenance. They fit snow tyres with studs and I leave immediately and head north. I do not stop in Ushuaia.

Nick Sanders - The Americas
Nick Sanders

The Pass de Garibaldi is still covered in snow – six inches deep, but the studs on my tyres hold firm. What took me five hours travelling south is done in half the time – I’m flying. Along the South Atlantic coast, I ride through the city of Comodoro Rivadavia, following the traffic between the buildings and the sea. Crowds of gulls flit about like bits of paper hoping for a catch. It’s cold here; if it wasn’t winter when I journeyed south, it is now as I go north. What a difference a week makes.

Hitting higher ground en route to the Patagonian Welsh town of Trelew, sheet ice covers the whole road. It’s unrideable, so I’m forced to motor slowly along a narrow section of hard shoulder where the loose surface has prevented the freeze from taking hold. I cannot comprehend how any machine can keep going so relentlessly. I may be frail flesh and blood, but I’m supported by a strength of will that sometimes borders on desperate.

On the way south the Andes were warm, it was the end of summer, but on the way back, the summit of this mighty range is a frozen wasteland. The previous day the Pass de Libertadores from Mendoza to Santiago was closed. It’s now open and I’m the first vehicle to cross. My God, it’s cold! Ice everywhere and a freezing wind. I have pain in my hands; My body’s warm, but my lips are blue. Everywhere is white, silent, and desolate.

A near miss

As I descend the other side, the sun shines and it’s warm again. I begin to make time. I have a clear run along Chile, no interruptions in the Atacama, a desert I know well, and decide to ride non-stop to Peru.

It’s now night. It’s dry. There’s a kind wind and the road bears little traffic. It’s weird retracing my route so soon after completing the journey south and I’m filled with an incredible sense of déjà vu. The route is extraordinary as I hug the coast of Peru. In the daylight, it cascades down to views of the sea. The Panamericana Sur clings onto cliff edges past Pedregal, Pescadores, Chiguay and Chala. I just hold on through the night, deeply tired. I eat at late-night street stalls and sleep for a while on my bike, tucked up away from the wind.

I have to get back on track, but I don’t want to wake up. I have a last chance to stay on the 21-day schedule if I make Nazca by 6am, Lima by noon, and Chiclayo by midnight later today. There will be time for three hours’ sleep before a dash for the Ecuadorian border at Tumbes ready for when it opens at 8am on the Thursday.

Passing through Nazca I spend a few moments in a hotel I know, collecting my emails while sipping a small coffee. The receptionist watches me cautiously, as if I’m no longer human. I then bolt through this country as if my life depended on it, riding through Lima at midnight, piling on the pressure, filming and writing when I can until the morning.

Further north, the road is covered in water and looks like a huge mirror. It isn’t raining, it rarely rains in this desert, but it’s as if the cloud covering has flu. Suddenly, on a long sweeping left-hand bend, a bus comes towards me with a pick-up overtaking. If he continues along this line, we’ll collide. I see quickly that the desert is level with the road so the run off is survivable. I’ve already started to brake by time he sees me. Will he force me off the road or do the right thing? He slows; we have two seconds before impact and I see his face as he keeps traction and nudges back behind the bus. The moment passes. It’s close.

It’s then I notice the sea on my right. Unless this is an inlet and I’ve turned back on myself, I’ve gone the wrong way. The kilometre markers reduce in numbers indicating I’m now returning to Lima. It’s a while since I’ve done this. Immediately I turn the bike around and go back the way I’ve just come. Arriving at the pass where I should have been riding I find a group of people surrounding a white van with emergency services written on the side. A young motorcyclist has been killed only minutes before, at precisely the time I should have been passing this point. It crosses my mind that if each of us does have a time when we’re called in by the Great Accounter, perhaps there is a way to become invisible, a way to delay the inevitable? I see a sign that reads ‘Trujillo 268km’ and I head off in my new direction.

Nick Sanders - The Americas
Nick Sanders

Mind the gap

By three in the afternoon the cloud dissipates and the sun shines. The chilblains on my hands and feet have begun to get better and my spirits have lifted. Slowing the project down to accommodate the winter flying schedules of Girag Cargo, the company which will fly my bike over the Darien Gap from Colombia to Panama, means the return ride will drop to a 23-day schedule, which I’m hoping to close up in North America. I’m ambling through a 960km day without trying too hard but it took 64,000 training kilometres to get to a riding fitness where doing 1,000 kilometres is easy.

It’s raining. I’m in a city and too tired to know which one. The rain ricocheting off the ground makes it impossible to see beyond a few metres, so I have to guess the way. The heightened focus needed to deal with such a wet riding surface along with traffic impervious to my presence, distracts me from myself. The road is so black that against such a dark night with no street lightening I only hope my wheels are on the ground. Buses care least, followed by trucks, which have enough problems gyrating their massive bulk around cities like these. Some car drivers actually look in their mirrors and manoeuvre accordingly, but not many. Small bore bikes are at the bottom of the motoring food chain.

I fly from Bogota to Panama. My return journey across Central America takes two days and nights, after which I cross Mexico. I’m nervous once again. I decide to exit via Monterrey and Laredo. The International Bridge crossing the Rio Grande is quiet. Everyone is too afraid to be here, the second most dangerous exit in Mexico, but what would they want with me?

I’ve ridden non-stop across Mexico and now enter the USA. Three days later I’m in Canada. The storm around Edmonton is stupendously heavy. I have not slept for two days and nights, except for brief naps. Around 113km south of Calgary I sleep again on the bike, which is parked in the shade. I forget to switch off my heated jacket and sleep deeply for half an hour. When I wake I’m groggy and stagger in the quiet road until I recover what few senses I have left. The bike won’t start and I need to bump the engine by running against the traffic down the freeway entrance heading back south. It fails first time, then fires on the second short descent and I’m away.

Nick Sanders - The Americas
Nick Sanders

Four days later I’m in Prudhoe Bay once again. I’ve ridden the length of the Alaskan Highway and also up the Dalton. I’ve ridden over the Brookes Range and the Atigun Pass. The journey has been 46,880 km ridden in 46 days on a Super Tenere that never broke down once. Thanks to a flawless performance by the bike, the Campanero suit, and the Contis, the journey’s now over. I’ve successfully completed the first ever double transit of the Americas and now I can go home.