Motorcycling is an act of trust. Some believe it to be an act of recklessness, but like almost any pastime that purports to cheat death, motorcycling is ultimately an act of trust. The rider has to trust his machine and by implication he must trust its engineers, its designers, and the workers on the assembly line. He has to trust that nothing was dropped or damaged during the shipping and delivery process that might later turn the bike into an searing fireball at 90mph. And he must trust his mechanic to do his job with care. The good news is statistically the rider's trust is well placed. Fewer than 5% of accidents result from mechanical failure and a high proportion of those are due to poor maintenance by the owner - simple things like failing to check the tire pressures or fluid levels and such-like.
Thus when a rider's abilities are stretched by challenging conditions like mud or loose gravel, he is usually far better off trusting his bike and the laws of physics than overestimating his meagre skills. Humans instinctively pull back from danger, but when dealing with challenging terrain, like so many situations in life, it is often better to grow a pair, man up, and press forward with more speed rather than less. It turns out that physics, not testosterone, is on the side of reason here. Thanks to the two big gyroscopic wheels and the spinning cylinders of the engine, motorcycles want nothing more than to stand upright. Like the bicycle you learned to ride as a child, it wasn't your natural gift for balance, but the rotation of the tires that allowed you to make that first, terrifying journey between your parents' outstretched arms at either end of the pavement. The faster its wheels turn the more stable a bike is. The lesson then is to trust physics, not testosterone, and let the bike do it's job.
That's all fine in theory. Ninety-four miles south of Deadhorse we'd pulled off the side of the highway for a break. It had been a long, cold, overcast morning's ride and we needed to warm ourselves up. The pipeline stood a mere 150 yards away on the other side of the road and a sign indicated we were on Oil Spill Hill. The surrounding tundra spread out from us in a carpet of fiery reds, browns and greens. The landscape's serenity was broken only by the occasional lorry trundling by and spitting stones at us. Sledge fired up his Jetboil cooker in anticipation of reconstituting some freeze-dried chili mac and cheese and a nice cup of tea. A few minutes later a large maroon dump truck wound its way towards us, slowed, crossed lanes and lurched to a stop. The driver leaned out of his window and shouted something, then thinking the better of it, cut the engine so he didn't have to yell to be heard. Are you guys heading north or south? he asked. North, we said. That's what I figured. I wanted to warn you guys that about four miles down the road from here is a slope called Ice Cut Hill. It's pretty steep and has a tight right hand turn at the top, you can't miss it. I don't know what they were thinking, but the idiots from the state highway have been working on that part of the road for the past couple of days and poured a ton of water on it to keep the dust down. Then it rained all last night and it's turned into a mud bath. A few rigs have almost jack-knifed coming down it, so be careful, okay? Sledge and I looked at each other and said in unison, Crap! Thanks for the heads up! Yes, we'll take it easy. Good, the trucker said, we try to keep an eye out for you guys on bikes. It can be tough out here! He leaned forward and cranked the deafening Mack diesel to life and waved us good luck. Sledge and I turned, tight lipped, and stared down the road. Once more unto the breach, my friend, I said.
Four miles further on, just as we were told, Ice Cut Hill (69°01'02N, 148°49'39W) came into sharp relief. It wasn't as high as I had imagined, but as Sledge received words of warning from a young British couple on Chonda 90's who had just ridden down, it was obvious the conditions were nasty. (With baskets and teddy bears hanging off the front of their wholly unsuitable motorbikes, the couple could only have been British. No other nation, except perhaps the Dutch, are as silly as the Brits when it comes to adventuring.) I paused to let a huge Peterbilt slurp past us before we headed up. Ruts half the depth of my wheels grabbed on and threatened to tip me over. I wavered and wobbled and fought Lily's natural instincts until, in a moment of rare lucidity I reminded myself to lift my head. (Get your eyes up, you git! Don't worry about what's under your front wheel - look ahead!) Picking up the revs, Lily miraculously (physics is something of a miracle, right?) sat up, pointed herself up the hill where I was looking and we plowed forward. At the top, the road surface dried out a bit and the worst was over. Neither Sledge nor I crashed, but neither were we looking forward to our return trip the next morning. There is, after all, only one road in and out of Deadhorse.