The Mount Everest of Driving
By Eric Horst
Published in the June 2004 issue of Zündfolge, the Official Publication of the BMW Car Club of America Puget Sound Region
We rose before daylight on a quiet Monday morning to make our attempt at the summit. We were in Inuvik, a town in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and our destination was 120 miles away. The BMW started with little hesitation. We swept a light snow from the car, stowed the gear, and were off. Guesswork led us to an unmarked boat ramp that sloped down to the frozen Mackenzie River where we rolled gently onto the ice and turned downriver toward the sea. The early morning grayness made it hard to pick out the edges of the plowed roadbed and the lack of warning signs made even gentle curves surprising, but we wove up the gradually widening river at a smooth pace. Twenty-six miles up the river our teammates struck a wide fissure in the ice’s surface tearing holes in two tires. After twenty minutes of working together, swapping bad tires for good, and warm hands for cold, they were heading back to town disappointed, and we were pressing on – with fresh caution.
By mid-morning the sky had brightened, the river opened dramatically and the land started to fall away. Now it was ocean beneath us. Beyond the windblown snow banking the road, it was infinitely flat and white. The heater fan and temperature control were maxed to fight off the -20 outside temperature. We skirted the land about a mile offshore, dodging drifts of powdery snow that had accumulated in the night. The road was now 200 feet wide, smoother than any paved interstate highway, and very slippery. One slight turn of the wheel would set the car gently sliding sideways in a perfect straight line.
We flew along the ocean highway until finally structures appeared on the horizon. The ice road rose slightly turning into rocky beach and then a final bump onto the gravel main street of Tuktoyaktuk, a very small town with a very big name. We drove Tuktoyaktuk’s single road past wind and cold beaten houses until it ended at a high spot above the beach. We were looking north across the frozen Arctic Ocean. The wind was constant. The cold was biting. It was the end of the road, the summit of the Mount Everest of driving - the northernmost point of the Alcan Winter Rally.
Reaching the end of the road in Tuktoyaktuk was the pinnacle of the rally but there had been months of preparation and thousands of miles of challenging driving to get us to that point, and there would be thousands more before the finish and home.
We rally in my 1989 BMW 325iX, a model well tested on the Alcan. It’s a dedicated rally car with 240,000 miles on its original engine. (The highest mileage on the rally.) Branding it as “dedicated” makes it a lot easier to drill holes in the dash and throw it around on mean gravel roads. It isn’t young, but it’s strong and it’s never let us down or left us short of the finish. Not only did my fifteen year old BMW have to carry us to the finish on the Alcan rally, it had to go up against brand new BMW X3’s, powerful Subarus and feisty Mitsubishis for a trophy.
I spent the year prior to the Alcan working my way down a long list of major service, cold weather prep, and generally checking every aspect of the car. I do most of the work myself, so I had to fit clutch replacement, front suspension work, new skid plates, and all the minor stuff into a full year of 2003 rallies. In addition to standard items, we installed plenty of extra gadgets - an amateur radio, a business band radio, scanner, two GPS receivers and three temperature data collectors.
My navigator Steve and I have been a team for five years; since we paired up for the 2000 Alcan. After four years of entering every rally possible, writing our own rallies and serving as officials for the 2002 summer Alcan, we felt well prepared for this running. But it’s never enough preparation. On this event we were up against teams with 60-plus combined years of rally experience and many more Alcan Rallies behind them than we had.
Preparing ourselves and the car took a long time, but as we pulled away from the starting line in Kirkland, Washington on February 18th we felt as ready as we could be. Our families and friends were there to give us a final boost with encouragement and cheering. The assembled Alcan teams and vehicles, made us realize that we were indeed setting out on a major adventure. We were primed and the pressure was on.
Our first setback came in the very first timed section of the rally, north of Bellingham. Steve miscalculated our odometer calibration slightly, and we earned 8 points on each of the first two checkpoints. In this crowd of competitors, 16 points really hurt. We encountered the second setback on the morning of day-two at the first of the rally’s three ice racing venues. We were to run two laps for best time on a bumpy, iced-over, oval race track. I was anxious to do well and in the first half lap spun the car and smashed the front spoiler on a hard inside snowbank. On my second lap, I repeated the performance, blowing my time and setting the spoiler up to rip the left front tire on Steve’s first run. Two mistakes, one from each side of the car, had us disappointed. But we’d started a transition; the competitive pressure began to fade and we remembered that we were on an adventure and meant to have fun.
Of course, it’s always more fun with friends along, so for this Alcan Winter Rally we‘d formed a team with friends Jim and Dan who drove a Subaru WRX, and fellow Alcan veterans Rob and Nick in another dedicated rally car, a Mazda 323 GTX. United as TeamD, we went up against the sponsored teams from Subaru and Mitsubishi, as well as, an unofficial team of three BMW X3’s. We urged each other on, met the crises together, and shared whiskey and beer as needed.
As the miles and days passed, we hung in there. Other teams made their mistakes and our early ones started to look less monumental. The point gap between us and other leading teams got smaller. On the fourth day, at our second ice racing venue my mood improved dramatically. This track was a three-quarter mile portion of frozen lake plowed by Porsche to demonstrate their new Cayenne for journalists. It was smoother, wider and longer than the day-two oval track. Most importantly, I had experience driving my iX fast on a lake. On my first run it felt slow and on the final acute left turn I had to use reverse gear to repoint my nose, but my time was third fastest. On my second run I was more comfortable, made no mistakes, and came in fastest. Overall, my two laps combined were third best, behind only the Subaru Baja Turbo, driven by hotshoe driver Jake Engstrom, and the 300-horsepower Subaru WRX STi. I was feeling much better and from this personal high we started north toward Inuvik and the high point of the Alcan adventure.
Teamwork paid off on the morning of the fifth day on longest and most remote portion of the rally, the 500 mile drive to Inuvik. We rose to a temperature of -20 in Dawson City and drove 26 miles to Dempster Corner where the Dempster Highway starts. The gas station at the corner is the last gas and last inhabited place until Eagle Plains, 250 miles north. Our team of three cars fueled and started up the road just after 8:00AM. This was scheduled to be a hard day on its own, but it quickly got harder.
Barely 15 miles from the corner, the alternator in Jim and Dan’s WRX failed. The car was running, but no longer charging the battery. Their car had to go back to Dawson City before the battery completely died. Sticking together, TeamD backtracked 50 miles to Dawson City, negotiating on the radio about how to handle the situation. Steve and I were silently worried that missing the time control at Eagle Plains would cost us 200 points and take us out of the rally, so time was critical.
There was no service to be found in Dawson City on Sunday and there was no benefit to Jim staying behind, but it took some convincing to get him to leave his car and ride north with us. Finally, two hours later, we had Jim loaded into the BMW, Dan in the Mazda, gear reshuffled and were back on the Dempster Highway breaking new ground. The rest of the drive was hurried but the scenery was amazing. We made Eagle Plains in the mid-afternoon, late, but sparing ourselves the 200 point penalty. The remaining 250 miles to Inuvik felt longer but at least the time pressure was lifted, and Jim and Dan were glad that they hadn’t remained down south. The caribou, musk ox and arctic char at the Roundel sponsored dinner that night was a welcome treat.
After cruising the Arctic Ocean and visiting Tuktoyaktuk, we retraced our route, heading south through Inuvik, Eagle Plains and Dempster Corner. Jim and Dan turned right to recover their car from Dawson City and the rest of the rally turned left to Whitehorse and Destruction Bay. We were on the home stretch.
We finally reached Alaska on the eighth day, a straight shot in on the wide, paved Alaska Highway. A soak in Chena Hot Springs and visit to the ice hotel made it a relaxing day. The final day was a 350 mile run from Fairbanks to Anchorage. We had Bimmer magazine writer Mike Miller in the backseat for the drive and the miles passed quickly with a fresh voice in the car. Our final ice race was pure fun, the rally was behind us and we were done.
The finish banquet was excellently prepared by Subaru West, but the crowd was subdued. I think everyone was tired after nine days and 5000 miles. In the end we finished in fifth place, a disappointing five points out of fourth place, but thankfully three-tenths ahead of sixth place. Those three-tenths were earned at the ice racing on day four. In the top five were four brand new cars, two of the BMW X3’s, a Subaru Forester 2.5, and a Subaru WRX STi followed by our vintage 325iX. All in all not bad for a well traveled iX and relative newcomers among this distinguished group of rallyists.
The rally was over but not the drive. TeamD made a quick tourist trip around Anchorage the next morning for souvenirs and then hit the road for our 2,400 mile drive home. Going back south we retraced half of the Alaska Highway and then took in the scenic Cassiar Highway. We were anxious to get home but I think we had as much fun driving home as we did on the way up. Is there anything better than being on the road and among friends?
I’m not likely to scale Mount Everest, or any other mountain peak for that matter. I won’t endure extreme cold, utter exhaustion, or danger just so I can say that I battled the mountain. Mountaineers are just plain crazy. But when I describe the 7000-mile trek, the -20F temperatures, the challenges, hazards and exhaustion of the drive, and then explain that I had to drive it, people look at me with the same confusion. This marathon rally to the top of the North American continent is as extreme as an ordinary person can get in a car, and why I call it the Mount Everest of driving.
[Maps, itineraries and an archive of our live reports and pictures from the road with much more detail can be found at www.TeamD.org ]