Saturday, January 18, 2020

Oh Anchorage, 'til now I never knew thee

In the past 15-plus years, I've spent a fair amount of time in Anchorage — preparing for the Iditarod in February, free-wheeling around the state in March. From April to June 2010 I lived in the Fairview neighborhood — did a bunch of spring hiking in the Chugach, rode my bike everywhere else and never really learned the city streets. I've raced mountain bikes in July, tent-camped in a rundown RV park in August, shopped at Costco before heading down the Kenai in September, visited friends during the gray months of October and November, and sled-dragged many Hillside trails to train for the Susitna 100 in December. Still, over all of these years, there's one month I had yet to experience in Alaska's largest city — January. 

For years now — almost seven — I've been a freelance contractor for several rural Alaska weeklies, working on editing and layout. Recently these weeklies were acquired by the Anchorage Daily News, which I thought meant the end of my favorite paying gig. Instead the ADN offered to keep me on and even make more work available. Yay, I can still work for Alaska newspapers! But it was necessary to learn their system, and the ADN editor thought it would be best to bring me up for a week to work directly with employees at the Anchorage office. The week that just happened to work best for everyone was Jan. 2 to Jan. 8. The main problem on my end was that I was flying to Denver from Fairbanks on Jan. 1, and had to be back in Colorado to drive across Wyoming en route to the Fat Pursuit on Jan. 9. So the whole trip involved an extremely tight turnover. Indeed, we weren't home from the Denver airport until 9 p.m. Jan. 1. I unpacked all of my winter camping gear and threw it in another pile for Fat Pursuit, compiled a small suitcase for Anchorage, then headed straight back to the airport at noon Jan. 2. 

The training started right away with long days at the office. It was fun to work in a newsroom with real journalists again, something I haven't been able to do since I left the Juneau Empire and went freelance in 2010. But I've also gotten used to doing my own thing, and it was weird to effectively punch a clock again. The weather outside was gorgeous and we were all just sitting at desks, wiling away the best part of the day. Then again, nobody I was working with seemed to agree with me. Indeed, Anchorage was mired in its most prolonged cold snap since 2012. This meant temperatures between -15F and 0F. Following ten days in Fairbanks where it was frequently -30F and lower, this seemed fairly pleasant to me. I'd walk to the office beneath the soft light of street lamps filtered by fog and sparkling from tiny ice crystals coating everything, and smile the whole way. Meanwhile, my office companions were grumbling or outright freaking out ... one because he also had to walk to work. People were not thrilled with this weather. Temperatures don't often drop below zero in Anchorage, despite its reputation.

 Over the weekend I was still doing homework but had a little more time to get outside. On Saturday, the temperature was -7F in midtown when I hopped a city bus to the eastern edge of town. My aim was to run some of the Hillside trails that I remembered vaguely from Su100 training in 2011, but I neglected to take into account just how sprawling Anchorage can be. After I exited the bus and ran through several neighborhoods, I'd already covered two miles just to reach the trailhead. I'd dressed relatively lightly, reasoning that this would be a "short" run, and didn't take into account the microclimates of Anchorage. While it may have been -7F near my hotel, the low-lying swamps near Campbell Airstrip were -18F and even -20F ... something I didn't learn until later. While running I felt comfortable, but recent snows meant the trails weren't well compacted, and the surface was too loose to be runnable. I didn't feel as comfortable walking, but it wasn't too bad, so I continued. I reached a patch of open water on Campbell Creek and nearly turned around, but decided it would be good visual practice to at least look for a safe way across the creek. Crashing through brush and knee-deep snow, I actually found a narrow bridge, which was a surprise. But I suppose these are urban trails, probably quite popular in the summer.

 Less than a hundred yards later, I met this cow moose. As soon as she noticed me, she turned from her grazing and started walking toward me. She wasn't charging, but it was clear she wanted to intimidate, and I definitely felt intimidated. I turned and walked back toward the creek, making an effort not to look back. But she kept coming. I knew if she started galloping, I couldn't move fast enough to get back to the bridge, so my plan was to cross the open creek, hope she didn't follow, and sprint two miles back to the closest commercial building (a McDonalds) before my feet froze. It wasn't a great plan. Luckily she paused and I was able to pick my way back to the bridge and beat a swift retreat off of that powerline trail. $&@#! urban moose. At least I'd warmed up.

 I wasn't ready to give up on this run just yet, and indeed I found a small trail leading up the hill. It was steep and there was only one set of footprints through five inches of powder, but it was perfect for hard hiking and continual generation of heat.

 I crossed Campbell Creek on another small footbridge and climbed an extremely steep hillside that required digging my mittened fists into the snow for leverage. Finally the trail spit me out near the top of the Stuckagain Heights neighborhood. I was relieved, and did not intend to leave the road again.

The climb was worth it. The views were fantastic. One of my heart mountains, "The Sleeping Lady" was out in full form, as were Iliamna and Redoubt to the south. Also out in force was this poodle, who become more aggressive and eventually chased me away from my revery.

To the northwest I had a perfectly clear view of Mount Foraker and Denali — more than 120 miles away. Thick fog still blanketed the Mat-Su valley and the coastal stretches of Anchorage. It had been a little rough getting here, but I was glad I came. I loped down the road, running all of the seven miles back to my bus stop. I thought I was running quite well, but Strava later revealed 11-and 12-minute miles. Aw. I suppose there's only so much you can do with cold muscles. Beyond my adrenaline-charged escape from the moose and hard uphill hike, I never felt comfortably warm. Soon my glycogen stores were depleted ... because I had no snacks and this was a 3.5-hour outing in subzero cold. Well. If you're not going to be smart, you're not going to be fast.

I took this photo in Spenard on my way to the bus stop on Sunday morning. My walks to and from the ADN offices were all in the dark, as the sun didn't rise until 10 a.m. and set again by 4. Even coming from three hours of daylight in Fairbanks, this was a bit of a sensory adjustment, as my memory is used to the relatively abundant daylight of late February. But this is why I was in such a good mood after walking to work — frost added a delicate beauty to everything.

 For my Sunday run, I took the bus to a random stop in South Anchorage, near an access point for Campbell Creek trail. I was much better prepared for this outing, although I could only do so much with the limited gear I'd brought on this trip. I didn't have my knee warmers, for example, so I wore a pair of lightweight rain pants (I had basically not checked the forecast before quickly packing for this trip, and thought I should be prepared for rain, since wet weather seems to be a winter norm in Anchorage these days.) But the four-ounce pants added a lot of warmth, and I felt much better than the previous day, jogging comfortably through what the newspaper reported to be "the coldest day in Southcentral in three years."

My destination from the random bus stop was Carr-Gottstein Park, a scenic nook along the Cook Inlet. Somehow I came across a photo of this park online and thought, "That looks nice; I want to go to the beach." Then I figured out how to get there.

It was a lovely spot, but windy and -10F. I couldn't linger long.

After my short visit to the beach, I jogged back to my hotel along Campbell Creek Trail. The wildlife viewing here was surprisingly good. I saw a bald eagle, grouse, and this moose who was considerably less grumpy than the Hillside moose.

Nearby, this red fox watched me for more than a minute before diving into a foxhole in the snow.

Making my way home via C Street. "Even C Street is pretty!" This run ended at 11 miles. It wasn't fast, but felt much shorter and easier than the previous day's 13-mile shivery excursion. I was able to have dinner with a couple of college friends, Chris and Becky, on Sunday night. The place where we planned to meet turned out to be closed Sundays, so I jogged circles around the parking lot until they arrived. Commuting on foot when it's -10 is not the easiest.

Case in point: On Monday night, my friends Dan and Amy invited me over for soup, homemade bread and Amy's famous cookies. I'd planned to take the bus, but before leaving the ADN offices decided it was "only" 3.5 miles mostly on Chester Creek Trail, and should be a nice walk. Of course I was again poorly prepared with only my "walk to work" clothes, which included a cotton shirt and pants as a base layer. Still, the trail was lovely with its frosted trees, and nobody else was on it. Google maps chirped encouraging directions, and everything was going well until my phone died — the battery was too cold.

Dammit. I've spent a fair amount of time with Dan and Amy and thought I could remember the way to their house, but it's been about four years since my last visit, and I'd never traveled the trail in the dark. As I fiddled with my phone my hands went numb, and then my legs felt uncomfortably cold. I started jogging. City lights faded farther away as I entered Sitka Street Park, and then my feet felt uncomfortably cold. A little panic started to build. "I am lost in the woods and I don't have enough layers and my phone is dead and I am lost!" I started running.

A kind of autopilot took hold. I passed several soccer fields, and knew I needed to turn somewhere at at a soccer field, but this one didn't look quite right. I came upon an intersection that I also didn't consciously remember, but thought of a photo of my bike on a bridge that I took back in 2014 and thought, "I should turn left toward that bridge." Then I passed a soccer field and thought, "I need to go to the end." Past the field was a faint foot path that I followed, emerging on a familiar 20th Avenue. Rejoice!

I was finally ready to take everything about Anchorage more seriously, and the next morning I left for work with all of my layers. I made plans to meet fellow ITI racer Lars and his wife, Dawn, for pizza at a restaurant about a mile from the office. However, I finished up my duties early enough to leave work at 6, and since we didn't plan to meet until 7:30, I thought I could squeeze in another run. I mapped a nice trail route, using my trusty Garmin eTrex to navigate rather than my phone. The route was 7.5 miles ... pretty doable in 90 minutes in normal circumstances, but on snow in subzero temps? I decided to go for it. And I felt so fantastic. I was finally dressed well, feeling strong, all by my lonesome in this big frosty city (where did everyone go? I know the temperatures were cold for Anchorage, but still. So pretty!)

I ran effortlessly down the Coastal Trail, enjoying the sparkle of ice crystals and an ethereal curtain of mist along the shore, thinking about how much I loved Anchorage, and why did I ever discount this place? It's not a bad city; really, it's a lot like my hometown of Salt Lake City: bland architecture and sort of annoying traffic and infrastructure, but incredible mountains next door. Just as I was plotting my move to Anchorage, I came upon another moose standing right on the trail. At this point, if I retreated, I'd have to run all the way back to Westchester Lagoon and wouldn't make it to the restaurant in time. The moose did not seem irritable, so I slowed to a walk, tightened my shoulders, and continued. While I was tiptoeing along the edge of the trail, a headlight approached from behind — these were the first humans I'd seen in more than three miles. As two riders on a tandem bicycle passed, the male stoker commented, "Nice night for a walk."

"Sure is," I replied. They continued, with no mention of the moose that was still right behind us.

Three miles later, I arrived at the restaurant at 7:25, taking a few minutes outside to brush off the snotcicles and make myself presentable. Dawn and Lars were waiting inside. As we got to talking, we collectively realized that they were the couple on the tandem and I was the walker, both taking the scenic way to dinner. Only in Anchorage, am I right? They said the moose also made them nervous, but they watched me pass without being stomped, so they felt comfortable riding past.

"So if that was you two, you must have been waiting here for a while," I observed, since I had to run the same distance that they rode.

"Not really," Lars said, which made me feel a little better about myself as a runner.

We had a wonderful time sharing trail stories and devouring a large helping of pizza and wine before it was time to head home. I was tipsy, still a bit damp and definitely not dressed warmly enough for walking, so I had no choice but to run 1.25 miles at my best speed. This did not feel great. And at -10F, it was still long enough to create more frost buildup around my eyes.

"Geez, it's been almost three weeks since I last did a run where my face wasn't crusted in ice," I thought. "And now I gotta go run the Fat Pursuit. Oof."

I paused at the hotel door and felt a glimmer of sadness. It had been a magical week and I wanted to stay, not travel on delayed airplanes and icy Wyoming highways to drag a sled 100 miles over two passes on the Continental Divide. But commitments had been made, to myself more than anyone.

"Well, I'll always have January in Anchorage," I thought, gazing up at purple and blue light reflecting from frosted tree branches. "Thanks for this," I said out loud before stepping inside. 
Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The years go fast and the days go so slow

"Another decade is gone,” I thought as Beat and I rumbled down the frost-heaved highway with the car heater on full blast — our last modern source of heat for the next five days. The scenery was foreboding and familiar — spindly spruce hunched beneath pillows of snow, rendered in the black shades of midnight at 9 a.m. The radio faded to static and I stared out the window, imagining eternal quiet — you know, the quiet of the universe, long after the sun has burned out. The outside temperature was 22 below, and we didn’t expect to see anything warmer for the rest of the year.

“Another decade and I’m still out here. Out in the cold.”

We pulled into the Wickersham Dome, a large and almost entirely empty trailhead. There were two other vehicles, both caked in frost and looking like they'd been there for a while. Wordlessly we removed our sleds and harnesses from our vehicle, along with additional layers that we couldn’t don until our last artificial source of heat was gone. I’d spent much of the drive reminding myself of the process of gearing up and the order of each step, so everything would come together without a hitch. My sled bag was especially laden for this trip — we saw 50 below in the forecast and went to Fairbanks on Christmas Eve to buy all of the things. A pair of primaloft zip pants for me. A sleeping bag liner for Beat. Foam insulation from Home Depot to line cabin bunks, or the bottom of our sleds, if necessary. We packed plenty of fears along with enough fuel and food for six days of racing — we still forget how to pare down the calories for “normal” trips, and brought far too much. The weight of the sled was comforting, and unbearable.

Despite the deep subzero temperatures, a Christmas Day storm coated the trails in four inches of fresh powder. When snow falls at temperatures this low, the flakes are as dry and sharp as shards of glass. My sled is five feet long and about 20 inches wide. It wasn’t a stretch to guess I had upwards of 60 pounds of stuff loading it down. And when it’s 20 below, the microscopic surface melt that reduces friction and lets things glide just isn’t there. You might as well be dragging an anchor across a sandy beach. I heaved to take my first labored steps across the parking lot and briefly stopped, looking back to make sure my sled wasn’t hooked on something. Of course it wasn’t. I felt like I was dragging a dead body, and it was just going to be that way.

So we commenced the march. The first hints of purple dawn appeared on the southern horizon. I could see the sky was overcast, and I was grateful — if it stayed cloudy, we might escape the fearsome possibility of 50 and even 60 below. The cloud-blanketed temperature hovered in the minus 20s. Globes of ice accumulated on my eyelashes and eyebrows, obstructing gray but pleasant views of rolling hills speckled with pipe-cleaner trees. The taskmaster of a sled kept my internal furnace cranked on high; I left zippers open and hands exposed to vent heat as I labored forward. 

Within three miles we encountered two parties returning to the trailhead — a solo skier with a dog and two people on a snowmachine. I wanted to ask questions about their respective cabins and wood supplies and trail conditions, but I knew it was too cold to stop, and so settled on a polite wave and nod.

“There go the other two vehicles at the Dome,” I thought. “We’re alone out here now.” But I knew we weren’t all alone, because I could see the fresh bike tracks of an acquaintance from Colorado who also traveled up here to embark on cold-weather training ahead of the Iditarod. He had a closer cabin reserved, and our plan was to seek refuge with him if necessary. We had two cabins reserved for this night — the likely one, which was 19 miles away, and a moonshot favorite spot that was 28 miles from the trailhead. I consulted my GPS for a dose of reality … 1.8 mph, 1.6 mph … “Hmm, I don’t think Carbiou Bluff is going to happen.”

We reached the edge of the Wickersham Wall, a steep descent from the ridge into the Wickersham Creek valley. “Finally, some relief,” I thought. But as I started down the slope, my dead-weight sled didn’t give an inch. There was so much resistance in this snow that I had to pull hard, even down a steep hill. I cued up an audio book on my mP3 player — “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah — and let my mind escape into a different place. I value and mostly enjoy the expansive mental space of a good slog, which is why I haven’t formed a podcast-audiobook habit before this year. But sometimes you just need to find the best ways to cope.

 The day dragged on. Pink streaks of light appeared on the clouds overhead, and then I noticed patches of blue. By 3 p.m. dusk, the sky overhead had cleared. My body was still cranking heat but my nose felt significantly colder. I had started using my bare fingers to thaw the ice surrounding my eyes, because it was giving me an ice-cream headache. “It’s probably at least 30 below now,” I thought, but Beat had the thermometer, and he was too far ahead to ask.

Darkness returned. The night deepened. Some eons had passed, not to mention a good chunk of my audio book, and we’d still only traveled 16 miles. Only halfway up an interminable hill out of the Wickersham Valley. My shoulders ached. Most of my leg muscles were burning … but at least my core was warm. I saw Beat walking toward me without his sled. He’d done this several times already, a strategy to stay warm as he waited for me to catch up. This is why traveling with another person in cold weather can be problematic, because each individual operates best at their own pace. It’s not fair to ask the stronger person to either freeze or burn extra energy walking back and forth to match the slower person’s pace, nor is it realistic to ask the slower person to keep up. This is why Beat and I can’t walk the Iditarod together. It’s hard enough to manage a cabin trip.

 “Want me to take your sled for a bit?” he asked.

 “Sure,” I wheezed. I haven’t had to cope with consistently labored breathing in some time, and the raspy sound of my voice frightened me. This is how I sounded most of the time, back when I was sick. But I’m not sick now … I’m just at my limit. I unhooked from my harness and handed the pack to Beat. As soon as I took my first unweighted step, I stumbled and nearly fell forward. My legs felt so strange, as though my bones were rubber bands. I walked beside Beat, wobbling like a baby giraffe taking her first steps and marveling at the sensation of weightlessness.

We resumed dragging our own sleds and reached the top of the hill. Scoured by wildfire, the open knoll invited a stiff breeze, and within seconds I shifted from comfortable to shivering. I zipped up all of my coats and tried to run, but the anchor would allow none of it. Limited to 2 mph on a steep descent, I still managed to warm up again and decided against stopping for an extra layer. Still, that windchill was breathtaking. It surpassed that barrier where cold becomes so cold that it feels like burning. Beat met me at the bottom of the knoll leading to Borealis cabin. He’d already been up there and dropped his sled.

“There’s a little wood in the cabin, not much,” he said. “What do you think? Want to go on?”

 I looked at my GPS. “This already took us nine hours,” I said. “It’s going to be eleven by the time we get there. At best.”

Beat nodded.

“What’s the temperature?” I asked.

 “37 below.”

 “And there’s that breeze,” I added, my voice still raspy. “Honestly, I feel fairly shattered. I mean, if this was the Iditarod, and it was 37 below and breezy and I needed to walk another five hours to reach a shelter, I’d keep going, of course. But right now we’re just on vacation. How much suffering do we need to practice?”

I heaved my anchor up the knoll. The interior of the cabin was as cold as outside, but inside cold always seems to feel significantly colder —possibly because of mental expectations about stepping into a shelter. I unpacked a few things as Beat used a small tangle of wood to start a fire in the wood stove. Then we bundled up in our big down coats and dragged an empty sled back down to the creek, where we’d spotted a snag of dead wood on our way in. Beat took out the trusty hand saw that he’d purchased just days before we left for Fairbanks, reasoning that cabin saws are often too dull to be worth much (this turned out to be the best purchase ever.) He went to work on a larger tree. I waded into the hip-deep snow and wrapped my mitts around a promising skeleton of a black spruce tree  —known in Alaska as “standing dead” — and rocked back and forth until I was able to rip the entire tree by its decayed roots out of the frozen ground. Then I dragged the 10-foot trunk through the deep snow, heaving it onto the trail to start what would become a substantial pile. This made me feel like superwoman, or better yet, a Canadian lumberjack. This kind of effort could work up a serious thirst at 37 below.

 We loaded the empty sled with our harvest and slumped back to Borealis. Beat went to work sawing the logs into manageable pieces while I collected a bag full of snow and fired up my stove to boil water. Borealis cabin is a familiar one; I know it’s well built with a decent stove, but I was still relieved when the remnant moisture in the wood finally burned off and the cabin began to heat toward zero degrees, then freezing. Within a couple of hours, the air was even close to room temperature if one stood right next to the stove. Beat selflessly took on the task of setting an alarm every two hours to stock the stove. If we let it go out, it wouldn’t take long for 37 below to seep back into the cabin.

We had Borealis reserved for the following day and no backup cabins. So we knew we’d be spending another night here, and that we’d need to gather a lot more wood. That was task number one for the second day, but we also wanted to put in a four- or five-hour sled drag for good measure.

The morning dawned brilliantly clear at 44 below. I started out in goggles, but they soon fogged up and I reluctantly removed them. The air was still, and didn’t needle into my layers the way windchill often does. I was surrounded by a bubble of warmth that allowed me to move freely, hold my fingers to my lips to bite a lemon Oreo, or pull my hydration hose from its spot against my chest and take a sip of lukewarm water. I loved all of this freedom. It felt stolen, unnatural, like I was an astronaut wearing a space suit and wandering an alien planet. "An alien planet with four times the gravity of Earth," I thought, looking back at my anchor.

How do you describe the distant world of 45 below? It’s quiet here, but if you stop and listen, you can hear a faint, high-pitched harmony. This is the chime of tiny ice crystals colliding all around you. When you walk, each footstep also chimes — the crunching sound of warm snow becomes a squeak around zero degrees, but at 40 below deepens to something more metallic, almost melodious. These tiny sounds seem to echo for miles through the heavy, motionless air. A moose could brush against a frost-covered tree a half mile away, and you’ll here a jingling chorus as loud and clear as though the moose was standing right next to you.

The temperature continued to fall. Beat announced it was 48 below. His digital thermometer’s sensor is exceedingly accurate, unlike many alcohol thermometers used in Alaska because mercury freezes at 38 below. So there was no question — this was the lowest temperature I had ever experienced. I pulled my hands out of my trekking pole pogies and clamped two fingers over the ice coating my eyelashes, noting how quick the tips began to numb.

Alaskans have a saying they like to repeat about minus 50, often attributed to famous turn-of-the-century missionary Hudson Stuck: “Everything’s all right as long as it’s all right.” It’s not hard to keep oneself comfortable and safe at 50 below, but the tiniest error can spiral into something dire in the span of a few heartbeats. Within seconds my bare fingers were tingling. I shoved them into a mitten and then back into a pogie, visualizing the potential pale patches of frostnip that might already be taking hold.

I was listening to the last chapters of “Born a Crime,” which I was captivated by and eager to hear the end. But I’d placed my mP3 player in a tight pants pocket and the buttons frequently skipped chapters. I’d pull out my bare hand to fish the player out of my pocket and hold the rewind button until I returned to where I wanted to be in the book, shoving numb fingers back into a mitten after I was done. And because I’d spent my dexterity on this, I had to wait longer to eat and drink. “This is dumb. I should not be spending all of this heat capital on entertainment,” I thought. “Note to self, for the future.”

In this valley, the sun was out for all of eleven minutes. It peeked over a low hill and then slumped into a higher mountain. I felt revived by this shot of sunlight. Energy levels were high and I believed I was moving so much better today, but when I looked down at my ever-truthful GPS, I saw 2.1 mph, 2.4 mph, 1.9 mph. We walked just over eight miles and it took us four hours. Beat hadn’t stayed as far ahead today, but it was likely he had just slowed due to lack of motivation to be anywhere. Meanwhile, I was excited by 50 below and felt like I was breathing fire, when in reality I was still just as hunched and slow as the previous day. The audiobook ended, and my wandering mind found its way to Modest Mouse songs that I loved when I was a college student in Utah, and which now evoke daydreams about the Alaska moonscape I never experienced until I was older. One song kept repeating. “Heart Cooks Brain.”

Slow walk
from land mines
It's a coal mine
It's a bad thought ...

About a mile from the cabin, Beat stopped where the trail bordered a burn and crashed into the waist-deep snow toward a group of standing dead. I did not like the idea of wading into snow at 50 below, imagining the powder would find its way into my clothing somewhere, and we were still more than a mile from the cabin. But we didn't have much of a choice. Firewood wasn't going to just topple onto the trail for us. Beat sawed as I pulled smaller trees down, heaving and wheezing as I dragged them through the deep snow and hoisted them onto the sleds. This was hard work. I could feel heat building on the back of my neck and under my arms, and pulled down hoods and zippers to try to circumvent sweat.

Eventually we had a large pile on each sled. This is only half of what we thought we needed, but we could carry no more. We hoped to find our next load closer to the cabin. The haul back to Borealis was unbelievably slow. When I checked my pace on GPS, it showed only blank lines — the device thought I was stopped. "This will take as long as it takes," I told myself in an effort to circumvent the frustration. With this mantra in mind, I perked up again. It was still nice to be outside on this dusky early afternoon, engaged in something that kept my body warm and comfortable for as long as I could maintain the effort. Movement was the space suit that made it possible to experience this alien planet. My heart was happy. That's what mattered. In the past decade-plus of cold endeavors, my heart has formed all of these tricks to convince my brain that safety and comfort is not the goal in life — no, a happy heart is the goal.

On my way to ... God I don't know
My brain's the burger and my heart's the coal.

We dropped off our first two loads and went back out to gather more. I actually removed a layer and left it at the cabin because my "walking attire" was uncomfortably warm for real survival work. I thought about old-time trappers in the Far North, snowshoeing their trapping lines and gathering wood every single day, in addition to the building and repairing and whatever else it takes to survive in this remarkably inhospitable world. Not to mention the Native Alaskans who hunted these lands for centuries before the trappers arrived. However, I admit as a white person with Scandinavian roots, I tend to reflect toward what might reside in my own DNA. Did my ancestors work this tiny margin to survive and thrive? Does their blood pulse through my heart?

We dragged, hauled, and sawed logs for more than three hours, finally acquiring a supply we felt confident would not require us to burn through our bodies' fat stores to shiver ourselves to sleep at 50 below. Indeed, we had more than enough wood to burn. We let the cabin grow hot as we sipped Fireball hot chocolate and ate ice cream bars that we had to bring inside to partially thaw, as even ice cream becomes tasteless and rock-hard at 50 below. We did that thing where we boiled a pot of water and tossed it off the porch, watching the fountain change instantly to an arc of snow. Later, after stepping outside to brush my teeth with a cup of warm water, I realized the same phenomenon happened when I spit onto my toothbrush. Warm water went into my mouth and a blast of white mist spewed out, barely skimming the toothbrush.

The next morning we had ten miles to travel to the next cabin. We had given up any pretense that ten miles was anything less than a day's haul. The temperature had risen to minus 20 overnight, but strong winds had moved in, carrying low clouds and snow flurries. It was the bleakest of days. I stepped into the mire, groaning against the unbelievable weight behind me. Overhead, black trees swayed and groaned, raining down the last bits of frost that still clung to the branches.

I struggled mightily. My labored breathing proved I was working as hard as I could, but my body was so cold. The wind wouldn't allow a whisper of heat to stick around. We dropped into the swampy Wickersham Valley, where the trees were too sparse to offer any protection. Wind blasted my face. I moved my balaclava around, regretting that I hadn't put on goggles, but finding reasons why I didn't need to fish them out of my pack just yet. I do hate goggles, but also acknowledge their crucial role in all of the scenarios in which I avoid them.

For this day I started out with an audio book about climate change called "The End of Cold." But when my pocket shut it off somewhere within the second chapter, I just left it off. The wind was a constant companion. I wanted to shut it out but felt like I needed to be present — to know when big gusts came and I needed to lower my head, and hear lulls so I could look up again. I did not feel free on this day. I felt trapped. If I stopped moving for more than a minute, an insidious cold seeped through the tiniest weaknesses in my system, leaving me with weird discomforts like a cold lower back and a burning sensation behind my knees. Later we'd learn that gusts in this region were measured at 35-40 mph, and it was 25 below. That's a windchill of -62 — and if anyone ever dares claim to my face that "windchill isn't real," I'm probably going to kick them.

I'm on my way to — God, don't know or don't care
My brain's the weak heart and my heart's the long stairs.

We made the long climb up to Eleazar's cabin, a lovely spot on a wind-blasted ridge. Here our Colorado friend Jim had left a small amount of wood behind for us, along with a cabin log entry about his two days here — slow ride out on the sandpaper snow, an excursion down to the low-lying valley to test out gear when it was 50 below, and an enjoyable retreat from the real world. One does feel insulated out here — clothing insulating warm limbs from a deadly cold, cozy cabins holding out a fearsome wind, fatigue cushioning fragile emotions from the machinations of the mind, and a vast amount of unoccupied space to feel separated from the whole world. One feels safe here, even as scary as this place can be.

We tore one down and erected another there
The match of the century, absence versus thin air.

The morning of day four brought -6F with the same blasting winds that rocked the cabin all night. We tugged our sleds down the sandpaper trail, and soon it was -20. Still windy. I started this day better prepared with extra layers and toe warmers, following my intuitive understanding that windchill feels even colder than an equivalent ambient temperature, because windchill is actively assaulting you.

Indeed, the wind had done a number on the trails, which had almost been erased by drifted snow. For this day's trek we would need to wade through styrofoam powder for more than eight of the 11 miles. My legs were throbbing, which fed a creeping dread — not about this trip, but about the Iditarod, where I will need to travel an average of 32 miles every day. Here I was killing myself to travel 10 or 11 in six hours. Could my legs, let alone my mind, even absorb 18 hours a day of this level of effort and almost no rest? I doubted it. Failure math brought on too much angst ... scarier than windchill, even. I cued up "The End of Cold" and imagined myself buying a small bungalow on the beach in Florida, a place I could spend my remaining years watching the waves roll in until they consumed me.

Ah, angst. We stopped to strap on our snowshoes, but I felt fearful of snowshoeing when the windchill was still negative a lot — it's difficult enough to keep my feet warm when I don't have straps compressed around them. Snowshoes also restrict foot flex, and the metal plates become their own cold sink. But the exercise was still exceedingly hard and I noticed little change in my body temperature. The wind howled and the legs shambled forward, until my audio book faded to mumbles and white noise, and I only occasionally remembered to shove a handful of trail mix in my mouth.

I'm trying to get my head clear.
I push things out through my mouth, I get refilled through my ears.

"Why, why, why do we always take the Moose Creek connector?" Beat despises this trail because it's seldom traveled and often blown in, but it does chop six miles off the trip to Moose Creek cabin. We were both growing weary of the slog. I am forever in pursuit of ways to wholeheartedly embrace the slog, but this trip was testing my resolve in every way. We thought battling sandpaper snow at 20 below was difficult, but then came 50 below. That wasn't difficult enough, so the gray days with basement windchills moved in. Now we were breaking trail through a mire of Styrofoam and continuing subzero cold. What could the next day possibly bring?

I was also growing weary of viewing the world through an ice helmet. I gave up the task of melting my ice-lashes, until the scenery appeared through an abstraction of white blobs and blinking shadows. When gusts blasted through I put my head down, and often forgot to raise it until my neck began to hurt. Beat and I had been out in the Whites for four days and hadn't seen a soul, besides the two groups on day one. It hadn't been long, but it already felt lonely. Even as my body adjusted to the physical discomfort, my heart grew restless. "Is this all?"

In this place that I call home
My brain's the cliff and my heart's the bitter buffalo.

We finally arrived at Moose Creek cabin to the strangest pocket of warm air — suddenly it was 9 above zero, but still windy enough to discourage any lingering outside. I was even annoyed at the warmth, because I could no longer claim subzero for the entirety of the trip. The wood at this cabin was abundant — we didn't even need to gather it — and it was almost too warm to fully enjoy the stove. We ended up letting it go out overnight. We awaited the arrival of our friend Kevin, who had told us he'd ride his bike out to meet us on Sunday night. He never showed — ultimately a late start and drifted, "slow snow" turned him around.

The next day, we decided to hike out. We had one more night at a cabin reserved, but we were weary. We found the main trail drifted in as well, but the warm temperatures at least added some glide to our sleds. When we started out in the morning it was 22 above — unbelievably tropical. But within a half mile we dropped into zero degrees, and temperatures stayed near there for the rest of the hike out.

I looked and felt rough but I also felt more content — moving toward acceptance as the end neared. "Maybe the best I can do is two miles per hour. Maybe ten miles will drain away the most of my strength, and everything beyond will be survival shambling. That's okay. I'll go as far as I can. Every mile through this far-away planet is a gift."

It was Dec. 30, not quite the last day of the decade. But close. Like many times in the past, my brain cycled through disbelief at how these cold pursuits became such a huge part of my life, and guesses as to what the next decade might hold. Possibly something very different. My heart wanted none of this rumination and speculation. It only wanted to gaze toward a thin clearing on the southern horizon, and hope against hope that sunlight would peak through.

In this life that we call home
The years go fast and the days go so slow
The days go so slow
The days go slow
Saturday, January 04, 2020

2019 in photos

Another year, another set of photos depicting my favorite theme, "This Big Big World (and sometimes the small people in it.)" I couldn't spend a lot of time with this Year in Photos if I intend to finish a White Mountains trip report at some point, but I did comb through what I could and picked a favorite from each month.

The top photo is my favorite of the year, because at first a viewer might not even notice the tiny Beat standing on the spine of a knife-edged glacier moraine. Above him is Glacier de Moming and the pinnacle of the Zinal Rothorn, during a hike near Zinal in September. Switzerland's mountains deserve every glowing superlative that's ever been uttered about them. I don't have any more to add, but my dream is to accompany my Dad to Valais, so he too can experience this mountain wonderland.

January: Homestake

Toward the end of the month, Beat and I headed out for an overnight trip near Vail, dragging sleds ten miles up an untracked road to Homestake Reservoir. We expected warm temperatures, as the forecast low for Leadville was 24, and were too casual about our approach. We both worked up a solid sweat while breaking trail through the deep snow, and were shocked when we finally stopped at the edge of the frozen reservoir and realized temperatures had plummeted to 11 below. We hurried to set up our tent, but starting a long night like when one is already damp, then using somewhat light gear to try to warm up, is rough ... to say the least. Even Beat suffered, and he has many more hours of winter camping in the bank than I do. I think we were both a little shell-shocked by morning. We set out super early to beat I-70 traffic (which of course we didn't), and mostly sleep-walked back to the highway. Through it all, it was still a gorgeous morning.

February: Rodeo Beach

Beat had a work trip in the Bay Area, and I tagged along for a weekend to run the Golden Gate 50K in the Marin Headlands. These regular weekend trail races are something I miss most about living in that region, and was excited to return to one of my favorite places. Unfortunately I placed high expectations on the race and fell short, which caused some angst. We did have to battle challenging weather with heavy rain, temperatures in the 30s, high winds and slick mud. Before all of that, though, we were able to enjoy a lovely morning on the California coast, listening to the effervescent sound of gentle waves on sand.

 March: Breakup on the Bering Sea

Nome, Alaska, was experiencing its warmest March on record, by a large margin. On March 10, hundreds of people gathered along a snow bank for the Nome-Golovin snowmachine race, which launched from the shelf ice a few hundred yards off shore. Fewer than five hours later, there was a mad dash of activity as people raced to move all manner of structures and supplies from the ice. By early evening, the ice was gone. All of it. The solid-seeming staging area for the race became blue open water. This extremely early breakup happened so quickly that many things couldn't be saved; individuals lost tens of thousands of dollars worth of crab pots, fishing supplies and mining equipment. Three men had to be rescued after becoming trapped on an ice floe that started drifting out to sea. Watching all of this ice disappear in real time is one of the stranger events I've witnessed. As the sun set that evening, I stepped outside to take this photo and noticed at least a dozen people walking out of homes along Front Street and lining the snow berm to watch. The reflection of warm colors on rippling water was a beautiful yet disquieting sight.

 April: Audubon gale

Beat and I returned from Alaska and expected instantaneous spring, which didn't quite pan out. April and May 2019 seemed colder and snowier than my past three springs in Colorado. So instead of basking in sunshine we enjoyed "late winter" adventures. This photo is one of the more harrowing days on Mount Audubon (although aren't all days harrowing on Audubon? I froze up there in mid-August.) But we had to contend with subfreezing temperatures, strong gales and blowing snow. After a while it was clear that we were just done with this nonsense — especially Beat, who had absorbed his share of hurricane-force wind in the Salomon Blowhole on his way to Nome. And yet ... those dramatic skies and sharp cornices did make for pretty scenery.

 May: Bryce 100

The Bryce 100 was a cold, muddy, and extremely tough-for-me race, but damn ... it was lovely. The first morning, with its clear skies, snow-capped redrock and skiff of new snow on ground and trees almost made the pain and weeks of injury worth it ... almost.

June: Summer on Niwot Ridge

More than a month after the Bryce 100, I was still grappling with a torn MCL that destabilized my knee and made it difficult to walk. A hike was ill-advised, but the forecast called for heavy snow on the Summer Solstice, at least above 10,000 feet. As a winter enthusiast I am all about experiencing a good dose of summer snow, but I'd have to propel myself somewhere high enough to see it. So I tightened my knee brace and soft-stepped my way to 12,000 feet on Niwot Ridge. The Front Range didn't receive a lot of snow in that storm (it mostly fell on Steamboat Springs, as seen in the movie about Lael Wilcox's 2019 Tour Divide, "I Just Want to Ride.") Still, walking among the hardy tundra flowers amid a dusting of snow was a worthwhile outing. I was so stoked just to be hiking again.

 July: Hayden Pass

My favorite photo from July 2018 was taken in nearly the same spot, but what can I say? I love Hayden Pass. Beat was again racing the Ouray 100 and I was again crewing for him and stealing hikes on the side. I was still limping on my injured knee, but I was slightly stronger than I had been a month earlier. The views from Hayden Pass encompass the best of the San Juans — the verdant hillsides and iron-infused red mountains rising above carved gray rock and deep, narrow valleys.

 August: Crow overlooking Vallorcine

Beat was again racing PTL from Chamonix and I was again embarking on all the steep Alpine hikes I could stomach. I've turned this annual tradition into my own race, trying to outdo my past self and log as much vert as possible. It's gotten to the point where I need to climb more than 50,000 feet in a week to beat my own record, and that is not an easy thing to do when one isn't racing 20-plus hours a day. Still, this silly game does take me to some incredible places. On this day I was climbing one of the trickier passes on the PTL course, spanning the border of France and Switzerland. I was nervous about the steep climb on loose scree, and seeing this crow perched next to a cross overlooking dramatic mountains seemed foreboding. But I needed my vert, so I still went for it.

 September: Dad and the Grand Canyon

How many years has the Grand Canyon made it into my list? You can't take a bad photo here! High winds overnight lifted a layer of dust into the air, creating gorgeous filtering for the rising sun. Also, Dad was gracious enough to wear a florescent orange T-shirt, so he really pops in the foreground. Despite the winds and an earlier-than-normal September departure, we had perfect whether for our 13th rim-to-rim hike together.

 October: Autumn on Timpanogos

On my way home from the Grand Canyon outing, I stole a long-awaited hike on what I consider my first mountain love, Timpanogos in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. I fought fairly terrible weather here, with high winds and temperatures in the low teens near the summit. But for a while, before I raced past everything to keep from becoming lost in the fog and freezing, I was able to enjoy nice fall colors beside Timp's iconic cliffs.

November: Snow squall over the White Rim

One day before my friend Erika and I set out on a planned four-day bike tour through Lockhart Basin and the White Rim, I hiked into the White Rim from Canyonlands' Island in the Sky to place a 3.5-gallon water cache. Heavy and overambitious, that load ... hoisting it down the sheer dropoff from Murphy Point proved tenuous. By the time I climbed out, a cold storm moved in over the Green River. I looked down at the isolated road crossing the plateau, which was being pummeled by rain and snow. Whelp. I thought this spelled disaster-by-death-mud for our bike trip, but we caught a perfect weather window. That could be another theme for my photo collage: "It was the best of weather, it was the worst of weather."

December: 50 below

Speaking of the worst of weather ... our five-day hike into Alaska's White Mountains between Christmas and New Years was quite the challenge with unbelievably slow trail conditions, deep subzero temperatures, and wind. Of course, one experience that I absolutely loved was the coldest day, day two. We awoke in a cabin on a frosty knoll above Beaver Creek to temperatures in the minus 40s. We knew we needed to gather a ton of firewood for the following night, but we still headed out for a loaded eight-mile hike toward the mountains surrounding Fossil Creek. The world, even a somewhat familiar world, is so different at 40 and 50 below (the lowest temperature we'd see was -49.8F.) It's so quiet you can hear microscopic particles of ice tingling in the air, and the snow no longer crunches or even squeaks as you walk ... even that sound resembles the chime of tiny bells. The air was completely still and my body stayed warm in not many more clothing layers than I wear at -10 or even 0F. Still, one instinctively senses the paper-thin margin, and the danger lurking just beyond.

Anyway, no doubt I'll have far more to say about 50 below and truly cold (windchill!) conditions when I finally get around to writing a trip report. Until then, thanks for reading, and Happy New Year.

Photo posts from years past: 
2010 part one, part two