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May 3, 2013

North to Alaska. The rush is on!

The Sprinter vans and buses sat out during my first night on the Arctic Drive. It was late January and the temperature dropped to an almost unbelievable -48 degrees F (-44 C). Yet all but one fired up in the morning. Mine was the only one that didn’t – put it down to operator error. So we left it behind in Fairbanks, Alaska, and set off for the appropriately named Coldfoot, Alaska, inside the Arctic Circle.

Sprinters are at work all around the world – it’s one of the most, if not the most, widely distributed vehicles anywhere. This trip was to demonstrate that they can run as well in the frozen North as they do in the soaring temperatures of California’s Death Valley or on the busy streets of New York City. And the North we were to drive them in was deeply frozen in January. It was too cold to snow so we had no trouble with that. And it was cold enough to get traction on roads that were sheet ice for much of the 1,200-plus miles (nearly 2,000 km) of the round trip. But it was COLD!

Most of the day, we headed for Mt. McKinley, America's highest peak.
The Sprinters were well equipped for low-temperature operation. The most important component was the optional diesel-fueled coolant heater, integrated into the vehicle and controlled through the dashboard driver display. The heater warmed the engine and by circulating coolant, warming up the oil in the pan that had thickened overnight and getting the vehicle heater working much sooner than it would have otherwise. The vans also had the standard ABS braking along with ASR – anti-wheelspin control. And they had ESP stability control, which, through selective wheel braking, keeps the van pointed where the steering wheel says to go. All of these are highly desirable on the polished ice roads of Alaska.

The vans – two 144-inch (3.66-m) and five 170-inch (4.32-m) wheelbase hi-tops with bulkheads between cab and cargo – proved toasty warm. The cargo space has its own heater for cold-sensitive freight. The two 12-seater buses in the convoy were harder to heat. This was in part because the buses carried film crews with enough photography gear to occupy every seat and the floor as well, blocking the flow of heat, especially from the rear auxiliary heater. The side windows iced on the inside. There were minutes of unbelievably bitter cold when a cameraman would fling open the side door at 60 mph to get a shot of caribou or moose off to the right side. And for many, many minutes we shivered as one of the rear doors was opened to get tracking shots of the following Sprinters in temperatures of -37 F to -40 F (-38 to -40 C) on the first two days of our drive.

Our run to Coldfoot was the second wave of motoring journalists to join the joint Mercedes-Benz Canada and Mercedes-Benz U.S. invitation-only drive that originated in Edmonton, Alberta. The first wave spent five long days on the road – most of it on the famed Alaska Highway – through Fort St. John and Muncho Lake in Northern British Columbia, Whitehorse in the Yukon then Tok, Alaska, and finally Anchorage. They had their fair share of icy conditions and bitter cold. Now it was our turn for the next four days to gain the Arctic Circle and then get back to Anchorage.
Now we were on haul roads used by trucks carrying freight to the North Slope.
In Anchorage for our start, the vans sat overnight at -40 (F or C). The first morning, they all fired up, and we loaded our gear for the 358-mile (576 km) run up to Fairbanks. The snow was deep all around us but for the first few miles the roads were relatively clear and the tires were running on asphalt. Initially, the vans felt like they were nailed to the ground. The cold fluids in transmission axles and hubs made them hard to push along. Still, the sights were incredible. All around were snow-white mountains, hemming us in with their beauty. For much of the day, we were heading for one in particular, America’s tallest mountain, Mt. McKinley, right in the middle of the Denali Wilderness National Park.

The roads up here were sheet ice, yet a fair helping of sand and grit afforded additional grip and for the most part we traveled at 50-70 mph (80-110 kph) according to conditions, speeds easily attained with the 188-hp, 3-liter turbo diesels in the Sprinters. Transmissions were the regular five-speed autos with a neat shifter. With the dash mounted lever in D, it was simplicity itself to toggle the lever with a tap to the right to downshift a gear and a tap to the left to return to auto selection. This was much appreciated on the steep downgrades we were to experience on the haul road the second day.

The lead driver in a Mercedes ML called out the treacherous bits on the radio, yet most of the corners were taken at the posted recommended speeds – speeds that are intended for the summer-month motoring. There was no doubt that ABS, ASR and quite often the ESP stability system were in operation but they would kick in completely seamlessly. On some corners, the precise rack-and-pinion steering got a little light and the vans slid a little sideways but were always pulled back in line by the onboard computer controls. No doubt some of the credit for this unbelievable roadholding – on surfaces you literally couldn’t stand on – must go to the Continental ContiCross winter tires.

After several hours at the wheel, we stopped at a viewpoint overlook of Mt. McKinley, and the production crew asked for a few on-camera comments. It was -20 F (-29 C) with some wind blowing. "What feature particularly impresses you?" I was asked. "The heater," I quickly responded.

We resumed, now at the 2,400-foot (730m) high point on the highway across Denali Broad Pass and then caught sight of a herd of caribou at the easternmost tip of Denali Wilderness Park.

At no time during the day did we turn the vans off. The heaters were going full blast at every stop but opening the doors immediately drained any warm air from the cabs. A fuel stop, a lunch stop at one of the few roadside cafes, and then another fuel stop entering Fairbanks, all were completed to the quiet rattling of the 3-liter V6 diesels.

As we parked for the night in Fairbanks, the timers were set for the coolant heaters to be fired up in the morning, about a half hour before the engines were to be started. I was sure I had mine set, but come morning, it was the only van with a flat battery – too cold to jump start. And the problem was exacerbated by the driver display being too cold to navigate and fire up the heater – maybe a manual override would be advisable in desperate conditions like these.

My group joined another van and we set off for Coldfoot, 254 miles (409 km) north. Now we were on haul roads that are used by big doubles outfits running over 50 tons, carrying freight to the North Slope oilfields and paralleling the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. At these temperatures, the big trucks trail a huge plume from the stacks as the exhaust water vapor freezes when it meets the cold air. We had been traveling the Elliott Highway, now it was the Dalton Highway. We crossed the Yukon River that for many years had to be navigated by a ferry. Now there is a narrow bridge – much less drama. That is, unless you meet a big doubles outfit coming the other way.

But then shortly after this stop, we came upon a lone cyclist standing with his bike. The dash display said it was -36 F outside. We flashed by pondering how much it must hurt the lungs pedaling up the steep climbs and descents of the highway. But we did see his camp on the return, a tent hunkered down as much out of the wind as possible.

Next stop was at mile marker 115 to view and photograph the sign that marks the crossing point of the Arctic Circle. The temperature was still around -40 F. A few pictures, the chance of what the French Canadians call a pipi rustique, and we continued driving north the last 100 miles into Coldfoot.

Overnight was at the truckstop in Coldfoot, up inside the Arctic, and the last fuel stop before Deadhorse, which is nearly 250 miles (400 km) further north. The parking lot would have been a skating rink if it hadn’t been so badly churned and rutted by the trucks. As it was, it was just plain dangerous even with thick boots.

Taking no chances, we left the engines running through the night while we consumed a hearty meal – “you need to be well fed to keep warm” said the only other occupant at the bar – a local wearing a beaver coat and what looked like 12 layers of clothing. This night it was expected to drop to -50 F (-46 C). He then set off to walk home – 400 yards. Our overnight accommodations were in the truckstop. Basic might be too kind a term for the rooms, but at least they were warm. It’s worth noting that Coldfoot boasts the coldest temperature ever recorded in North America: -82 F (-63 C) in January 1989. So -50 F was a mere bagatelle.

The next two days saw temperatures rise as we returned to Fairbanks and then to Anchorage. Now we faced a new hazard – blowing snow. The winds had risen significantly sapping any respite as temperatures eased. This brought clouds of fine snow and the passing of heavy trucks resulted in a total white-out. Fortunately, the Sprinters had the high-intensity rear foglights that are popular in Europe. With it switched on, the following driver had a good indication of where the vehicle ahead was in the white cloud. The lights really are a big safety feature and were a major help on this trip.

As on the journey north, temperatures fluctuated wildly, now -32 F (-36 C) next -6 F (-21 C) – up and down 25 or 30 degrees for no apparent reason. Stopping at a gas station south of Fairbanks it was +23 F (-5 C), still well below freezing but 60 degrees F (33 degrees C) warmer than four days previously.

It felt quite balmy.