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Anchorage to Coldfoot in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Published February 13, 2013

Once I said yes to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, I burned a path to the nearest mountaineering store. Supplies were needed for the 980 kilometre drive taking us from Anchorage, Alaska to Coldfoot, 96 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Each body part would be wrapped in layers, so that in the end I would be hard to distinguish from a pierogi.

The first balloon burst when my driving partner showed up in Anchorage in running shoes and a spring jacket. He was from California and he didn’t give two hoots about dressing for the cold.

Driving the fiendish route, which includes the freeze-dried Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks to Coldfoot, was a way for Mercedes Benz to demonstrate the extreme cold weather driving capability of the Sprinter cargo and passenger vans. The whole trip, a 5,300-kilometre epic slog along the famed Alaska Highway, began in Edmonton and carried on to Anchorage on leg #1. That was completed by Wheels journalist Mark Richardson. Leg #2, my assignment, looped from Anchorage to Coldfoot and back again.

The Dalton Highway — also called The Haul Road — is a testy slice of gravel, ice, and potholes, built during construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Depending on your need for human contact, the road is either bleak, or 600-plus kilometres of rolling meditation.

In Anchorage before we got behind the wheel, we got the full deep freeze schematic from the Mercedes Benz camp councilors. This was no CAA TripTik we were taking on.

While my California Dreamin’ partner melted back into his chair, I took notes, underscoring phrases like “survival gear,” “spend the night in the van,” “bands of wildlife” and “no phone service.”

More comforting were the descriptions of the diesel-powered Sprinter vans. Equipped with sophisticated stability controls designed to mitigate rollovers and skids, the vans seemed ready to handle most misadventures the auto journalists might put them through. There was little doubt the Sprinters were cold-weather capable; the current model was tested for two years in Sweden at -30C. We were about to learn how competent the tall vans were on desolate, icy roads.

So we left Anchorage, a caravan of nine sprinter vans and two support vehicles. On the 576-kilometre trip to Fairbanks, we travelled on roads ranging from bare to snow covered to icy. It was calm mostly, but windy sometimes. We passed Troublesome Creek without a hitch, and didn’t stop when the Avalanche Warning sign told us to keep moving. In the distance, the sunlit and statuesque Mount McKinley was like a torch marking the way north. The big Sprinter van windshield framed the view from the mountaintops in Denali National Park to the ghostly road disappearing beneath us.

The Sprinter was easy to drive, surefooted on ice, balanced, and car-like in its steering and handling. Downhill descents on ice were controlled by shifting down to 4 or 3 gear, and staying off the brakes,

We arrived in Fairbanks in the dark, with the temperature -43C and headed downwards. By morning it was -47C, and all the Sprinters woke like a charm, after being warmed up by a pre-heater that makes the diesel engine easier to start. All of them but ours. A suspected programming error set the wrong time for the preheater to come on. Rather than delay departure, and risk rolling into Coldfoot in the dark, we piled into other vehicles in the caravan, and planned to pick up our Sprinter on the return leg.

We headed for Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway. First announcement of the day: No washrooms for more than 200 kilometres. It was going to be survival mushing toward the Arctic Circle on a frozen gravel road, made blurry by the trail of transport trucks barreling toward the oil fields. They haul petroleum, heavy machinery, and ATCO trailers that sometime edge their wide loads into oncoming traffic. Mostly though, the truckers track with surgical precision north and south along the icy road.

The convoy crossed the frozen sweep of the Yukon River and knifed on toward the Arctic Circle, where there’s a pull-off and a sign rigged for photo ops. The souvenir moment was easily eclipsed by the landscape that followed: A vast, harsh slice of the earth that makes you feel lonely even as you travel in a pack. No phone calls possible, no radio chatter for company, just ridges covered in beat-up trees, bare and black or slathered in snow.

Our convoy sluiced up and down grades with stealth. In blowing snow, the single rear fog lights on the Sprinters glow in the haze of white. We saw moose, and plump ravens at the roadside, and in one shocking moment a cyclist, walking his bike on the road. On the return trip, we saw him once again, camped on the permafrost, his tent shaking in the wind.

The town of Coldfoot, population 10 at the last census in 2010, is where we rested and recharged before the trip back to Anchorage. It’s at mile 175 of the Dalton Highway. Coldfoot Camp is a truck stop and a pit stop for tourists, who arrive in winter with dreams of seeing the Aurora Borealis. There’s a place to eat, where the food is served hot and fast, and a place to sleep. The rooms are simple, a bit of paneling, a bit of plywood, two single beds and a hot shower to shake off the cold. Trucks idle overnight in the parking lot (in fact many diesel trucks never shut off during the winter), some on their way to or from the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay on the coast of the Arctic Sea.

On the return trip to Anchorage, sharp winds fanned snow high into the air, but didn’t seem to upset the steady pace of the Sprinter vans. In fact the convoy averaged speeds from a low of 40 kilometres per hour, up to 110 km/h on stretches where the grip is good.

At a place called Finger Rock, we blasted out of the vehicles to take pictures. It’s -29, the wind was fierce, and it felt like a dentist was drilling into my forehead. How does that cyclist survive in a tent?

Six days before, as I flew into Anchorage, I watched the moonlit Alaska Range of mountains pass underneath the aircraft’s wing. The man sitting next to me, a local, said it was so pretty I wouldn’t want to leave. He was right: The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive gave us a glimpse of wild Alaska, where remote roads open a window to a cinematic landscape, a land so big you feel small as a snowflake.

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