Sunday, January 14, 2018

Winter training — sometimes ridiculous, never boring

The past couple of weeks since we returned from Alaska have been ... well ... they've been interesting. Similar to last winter, I've felt dubious about intentions to return to the Iditarod Trail yet again, but our trip to Fairbanks renewed my zeal for the endeavor. I'm actually sort of strong! I want to train well while I still can, before my next slump settles in. (Believe me, I am trying to talk myself out of magical thinking about a cycle of good health and bad health, but fear of an unavoidable pattern persists.) 

Since Colorado's Front Range (and most of the Intermountain West) still lacks snow, I talked Beat into putting our California cart back together. Beat originally designed this cart as a training tool to mimic sled-dragging on snowless trails in the Bay Area. Better than dragging a tire, the cart has some real weight to it, along with two disc brakes that can be partly clamped to add snow-like resistance to the wheels (the brakes also have levers attached to the pole, which are useful when you're about to be mowed down on a steep descent.) Officially, I despise this thing. I was surprised to learn it survived our move to Colorado, and has been languishing in the wood shed all this time. With six gallons of water plus the weight of the cart, the load is between 55 and 60 pounds. Once I engaged the brakes just a smidgeon, I could barely coax the cart (whose name is "Allen") to inch forward up our driveway. Perfect. 

 Since we only have one cart, Beat set up one of his old-and-busted sleds with 40 pounds of dumbbells. We made it out for four miles a week ago Saturday. I was feeling the initial symptoms of what turned into a crushing head cold. It was my first viral illness in two years (maybe this is a sign that my autoimmune disease is weakening, because my immune system is no longer so over-engaged that it torches everything in its path, including organs? I'll take hopeful magical thinking where I can find it.)

 The cold really put me on the floor for a few days. I usual disregard these types of illnesses (beyond being careful not to infect others), but the sore throat and head-clamping sinus headache were not to be ignored. Sunday passed in a congested daze; in training terms, I was "resting." On Monday the weather was irresistible, sunny and 65 degrees at 3 p.m. Warmer outdoors than in. What I should have done was take my laptop outside and sit in the sun. Instead, I thought, "I'll go for a bike ride!" 

My mountain bike still has pogies attached to the handlebars. Out of habit, I loaded my pack with mittens, a fleece cap, a thin shell, and a puffy jacket. Then I set out in bike shorts and a short-sleeved jersey, bemused about wearing such an outfit in January. By the time I reached the top of the road a half hour later, my head was pounding and I was shivering profusely. I stopped to put on all of the layers and continued around my planned route. The shivering worsened, and I realized that I was probably running a fever — either that, or feeling cold while wearing a puffy jacket and fleece hat in 65-degree sunshine is totally normal. I cut the route short and battled a throbbing headache all the way home.

Tuesday I again spent the day mostly sprawled on the floor, but by Wednesday, I really did feel better. Or so I told myself. Beat and I planned to meet at his office for a car swap. Usually when we do this I bike into town, but I felt guilty about doing relatively little running since we returned from Alaska. I didn't have a route planned when I left the house on foot, and surprised myself when I turned left rather than the usual right. "I bet it's not too much farther if I descend Eldorado Canyon," I thought.

It was farther. Ten miles for the usual route, nearly 20 veering all the way around the Flatirons. Well. At about mile 14 I was making my way up and down the steep rollers of Mesa Trail, grumbling about the interminability of Mesa Trail, when the sky unleashed a fearsome deluge. Rain pelted my back with impressive violence. Even wearing my good rain coat, shivering soon followed. My head was pounding, my shoulders were quaking, and then the trail turned to bacon grease, with a fresh coat of mud over patches of old ice. I slipped and skidded, tumbling forward and catching myself, only to soak my mittens in mud.

"I have never been this miserable, ever," I thought. Which of course wasn't true. Then again, every time we utter this statement to ourselves, it might as well be true.

The rain let up and I kept on the rain coat, hat and muddy mittens as I made my way along the bike path through town. Looking back, I realized that running pavement while remaining stubbornly overdressed on a warm, humid evening was even more miserable than anything I'd endured earlier. College-aged runners were out in their tank tops and shorts, giving me a bit of side-eye as I plodded past.

With weight-lifting and another cart-tug, that was pretty much my week. By Saturday I really was feeling better, so we invited Wendy and Jorge for a snowshoe outing on Niwot Ridge. As we drove along the Peak to Peak Highway, I was so enthralled with actual snow on the ground that I failed to look up at the ridge we'd be climbing. Wendy took this photo during their drive — looks a bit blustery. Just a bit.

 The early miles of the hike were fun and games. I had a 35-pound sled, which is so much more cooperative than a 55-pound cart. Beat tried hitching a ride on Jorge's sled.

As we approached treeline, things got real, fast. Temperatures plummeted from the 20s to low teens with a driving, 40-50 mph wind. Beat's feet were frozen. Wendy didn't have enough layers for the wind, and turned around at mile four. I put on my wind-shield fleece and primaloft shorts, and felt comfortable until we broke out in the open, where conditions were comparable to standing inside an industrial-strength vacuum filled with snow. Stupidly I did not put on goggles when we stopped to add layers, and had removed my sunglasses after they iced up. I pulled my hat down and buff up until I was viewing the whiteout through a thin slit of fabric. Snow shards still pelted my face until I couldn't keep my eyes open for more than a second at a time. During those single seconds I'd blink rapidly against a blast of white, and process nothing. I couldn't see at all.

 I stumbled and crawled through Beat's tracks until I was close enough to yell in his ear, and told him I was turning around. He and Jorge planned to continue. As I turned to face my sled, I realized that weather like this is something I need to handle. There won't always be opportunities to run away. So I anchored my trekking poles, pressed my harness pack as deep into the snow as I could, and lunged for my sled before it could blow away. With thinly gloved hands I pulled open the zipper a small amount and reached inside, rifling for the stuff sacks I'd packed haphazardly, because who thought I'd actually need any of this stuff? The first stuff sack was filled with books — the ballast I'd added to get the weight to 35 pounds. The second had to be emptied in its entirety before I found my goggles at the bottom. All of this rifling had to be done blind with my arms extended inside the mostly closed duffel, to avoid losing anything in the wind. Not that I could see much anyway. But as soon as I put on those goggles and blinked a few times, the raging whiteout became so much brighter, and the world so much friendlier. I strapped on my harness and continued up the mountain.

I didn't make it much farther before I saw Beat and Jorge descending toward me. Beat told me it was worse, so much worse, just a few hundred feet higher. I admit to feeling a little disappointed. With goggles, the blasting wind became manageable. I was surprised how warm I felt in my trusty fleece jacket. But I was not about to argue with the likely accurate assessment of "so much worse." We rushed down the mountain, barely able to control our sleds as the wind pushed us violently. I took this photo after we were well below treeline, back "out of the wind." Beat decided he wanted to take a break and eat his sandwich. I have to laugh at the image of Beat coated in spindrift, facing the driving gusts with a "whatever" look on his face. He was happy to have that sandwich.

Sunday returned to typical January (2018) conditions — warm and sunny. Beat decided he wanted to do "Fern repeats." The mile-long route gains or loses 1,800 feet of altitude on a relentlessly rocky trail. Beat once did an "inFERNo Half Marathon" in Fern Canyon, for 13 miles with more than 10,000 feet of climbing. I struggle mightily with these descents ... I consider the climb more restful. Thanks to slower climbing and much slower descending, I can only do two repeats in the time it takes Beat to do three (with the West Ridge approach, two repeats amount to 4,600 feet of climbing in 7 miles.) I put on the same outfit I have worn for many a summer run, and set out. I felt good. My hamstrings are finally calming down after Friday's extra-horrible cart drag. I think I'm officially recovered from that cold. No hints of a slump yet, but I bide my time. I don't take anything for granted. 
Monday, January 08, 2018

... from living out in the snow

Day 3. It was Friday, I think. December 29, closing in on the end of 2017. Another year. Midnight-like darkness shrouded the window as Beat restocked the wood stove at 7 a.m. I sat up and blinked away a half-memory, half-dream about New Year's Eve 2008. I was training for my first Iditarod, so I loaded up newly acquired gear in a backpack and snowshoed up the Mount Jumbo trail in Juneau. The temperature at the time was -5F with a fierce, needling wind. Even though I planned to camp just two miles from the safety of my warm apartment, I was deeply frightened. But that emotion is not what I remember. What lingers, a decade later, still burned into sharp memories of snow-shrouded "ghost trees" and city lights twinkling through an icy fog, is slack-jawed astonishment. Astonishment at the beauty, at the savagery, and at the unlikely series of events that led me to that moment — not just surviving, but thriving on the world's hard edge. The sensation was intoxicating. 

"I haven't changed," I thought. "I haven't changed at all. How healthy is that?" 

At first light, Beat and I set out from Caribou Bluff. The temperature dipped to -30F. Until you've experienced colder temperatures, they're difficult to qualify, because cold is cold, right? But you feel the sharp difference between 30F and -30F, every bit as much as you would distinguish 30F from 90F. I've compared deep subzero cold to wolves lurking in the shadows, because as the early-20th-century Alaskan adventurer Hudson Stuck famously said, "everything is okay just as long as it's okay." But your body's natural defenses are meager at best. One mistake can spiral out of control with astonishing quickness. You know this instinctually, so you're always on alert. With experience, you learn the importance of managing everything within your control. Relinquishing vigilance to sleepiness, exhaustion or hunger is a dangerous game. 

It is amazing how you can slap a few layers of synthetic material on your hairless tropical animal body, then move comfortably through stratospheric cold. I enjoy shuffling through my cozy biosphere, feeling warm-blooded heat radiate into the atmosphere and relishing the freedom of — to dredge up a religious quote from my childhood — "being in this world, not of this world." The universe gifted humans with remarkable freedom. That we've used this freedom to lock ourselves into increasingly rigid standards of comfort, success and beliefs is an interesting dynamic of human nature. Despite this resistance, our ability to adapt and thrive remains, so far, limitless.

I'm reminded of the famous quote from your favorite existentialist and mine, Albert Camus:

"In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."

Our souls free us to explore the limits of time and space, but our bodies remain those of fragile tropical animals who long for the sun. Beat and I were three days into this trip before we saw our first (and only) rays of direct sunlight, creeping over the hillside above Beaver Creek.

Beat celebrated the occasion. The temperature rose as high as -27F, and for a time I felt so comfortable that I'd unzip my fleece jacket and push the pole pogies down to vent a bit of heat through my bare hands. But then a stiff gust of wind would rush up the valley, searing naked skin like a flash of flame. These sudden shifts were breathtaking reminders about the razor-thin margins we skimmed.

At least I finally got the positioning of my balaclava right — ice-lash free! When the wind picked up, all I needed to do was duck my head, pull up my jacket zipper and pogies, and relief returned. If it had been consistently windy, I would have pulled on goggles.

Ten miles passed relatively quickly, and we arrived at Borealis cabin, our home for night three. We planned to continue out the seldom-traveled Big Bend trail for an out-and-back exploration. First we stopped at the cabin to make hot lunch from instant macaroni and cheese cups, and semi-thaw our icy gear above the wood stove. Admittedly I didn't want to take this break, knowing the afternoon's short daylight was swiftly fading. I paced the cabin and prodded Beat annoyingly as he mulled over his feet and torso layers. I should have given my own layers more attention, because the minute I stepped out in the -30 air wearing slightly damp base layers, I caught a chill that took hours to recover.

Big Bend was a rare opportunity, almost never broken out this time of year. The trail wends down the Beaver Creek valley before crossing the creek and climbing onto an adjacent ridge. I didn't think we'd make it past the crossing, which was six miles from the junction, but Beat was somewhat interested in pushing for the ridge. Spoiler alert — we didn't make it. We probably wouldn't have made it regardless of ambitions. A later reading of the Borealis cabin log revealed that the trail likely wasn't broken beyond the creek crossing (the snowmobilers who claimed to break the trail a week earlier hit open water they couldn't cross, and returned to Borealis.)

Beaver Creek is already the lowest spot in the Whites, and we were following it downstream. The cold air continued sinking. It was -31, then -33, then -35. I wasn't comfortable. "I am okay with minus-20s," I thought. "But I'm afraid of minus-30s."

I had extra layers in my sled, of course — a light down coat that I specifically brought to wear while walking in extreme cold, plus my expedition down coat for breaks and emergencies. We also had all of our survival gear, so I had this sense that, while uncomfortable, I wasn't in danger. I wanted to see how well I could recover on my own. I wanted to try bring my core temperature back to baseline, utilizing only motion.

The frigid air against an already cool core had a deadening effect on my muscles — almost as though I'd been injected with mild anesthesia.  Beat was fading in the distance, but when I tried to employ a running stride to catch up, my legs felt like they were moving through molasses. The snow underfoot was soft and punchy, the cold air seemingly as thick as water. These steps were exhausting. So exhausting. Looking back on this segment of the trip, I wish I'd put on my down coat — if nothing else, to test how much my perception and performance improved with an extra layer. But at the time I thought I was doing okay, well enough at least. I didn't want to risk tipping the status quo.

Three miles out, Beat proposed going another 45 minutes. At four and a half miles, he turned around again and said, "another 45?" Actually, he said "it's been 45," but I misinterpreted his statement. My face must have betrayed how crestfallen I felt about the prospect of diving deeper into this frigid valley, because Beat asked if I was okay. I admitted that I was struggling. "I know you think minus 40 is where things really get difficult, but I'm still having a hard time with minus 30."

Beat looked at his thermometer and said it was -36. We turned around. The moon rose high over the craggy ridge of Big Bend, bright enough to cast shadows even before the mid-afternoon twilight disappeared. We agreed leave our headlamps stashed away as stars appeared in the indigo sky. Quietly the world faded to abstractions, dark geometric shapes and gradients. As my eyes adjusted to low light, the boreal forest took on soft definition, like a watercolor painting. Snow-covered tundra resembled the surface of an ocean, with gentle waves glittering in the moonlight.

By the time we returned to Borealis at 6 p.m., I'd forgotten about the cold. The moonlight walk was exhilarating, and I felt blissed out from long hours amid a sweeping beauty and silence. But I was tired, a kind of bone tired that left me feeling a little discouraged. "I shouldn't be so tired after just 19 miles," I thought. Of course I made mistakes that were easy to spot. I should have been more proactive about not letting my core temperature stay cool for so long. And I should have eaten more calories — I'd failed to make snacks easily accessible, and used up my limited "free-hands" moments to take photos or drink sips of water from a deeply buried hydration hose. After I added mittens, about halfway through the hike out Big Bend, I don't even think I drank any water. Poor maintenance leads to poor performance. Motion can been sustainable if you treat your body like the machine that it is.

Beat again took on the unsavory job of waking up every two hours to stoke the stove. I was more open to just letting the fire go out on this night, and curling into our sleeping bags to stave off the subzero cold that would quickly creep into the cabin. But waking up to a warm cabin is undeniably a welcome luxury. I hydrated well before bed and had to get up several times in the night to pee. The first time, I walked outside in my underwear and down booties and stood still for several minutes to scan for Northern Lights. By the time I returned to the cabin, the skin on my legs felt like it was on fire. Subsequent shivering in my sleeping bag reminded me that, oh yeah, when it's close to -40, you actually can't just walk around in your panties without consequence. Margins become so much thinner. The wolves are right at the doorstep.

Day 4. For this night we booked Moose Creek cabin, which was 17 miles away along the most direct route — also a seldom-traveled trail that often isn't broken out this early in the season. We saw tracks at the junction when we passed on day one, but there were no guarantees the trail was broken all the way through. With lots of conjecture from an entry in the Borealis cabin log, I concluded that whoever broke the Big Bend trail must have come in from Haystack/Moose Creek, thereby breaking the entire route we'd walk that day. But we didn't know for sure. How far was the point of no return? How far were we willing to break our own trail in snowshoes along a tripod-marked route that we didn't know well, versus backtracking and adding ten or more miles to the day? We assessed the deep powder conditions along the trail and concluded that any more than three miles of trail breaking wasn't worth it — 12 extra miles of walking on trail would be easier, and likely faster. And with that, we set out into the unknown.

Subzero temperatures persisted, rising as high as -9F early in the day along a high bench, and plummeting back to -26F along Moose Creek. I had all the things unzipped at -9, and felt comfortable and content at -26. I dare say this felt almost balmy compared to the previous day. We are adaptable creatures, we humans.

Strenuous trail conditions persisted, and I had grown weary of trying to boost my pace in order to keep up with Beat. Instead I languished behind him, drifting through the universe of thoughts that reveal themselves in these open landscapes. Over this section I ruminated on the book I'd been reading at night. I'd promised Corrine I'd find some "light reading" for the trip. (Originally I downloaded a book about the current political climate, until she reminded me that I'd explicitly stated my desire to escape the news for five days.) I tried a couple of adventure memoirs and grew bored, then drifted to a title I have no memory of downloading: "How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter" by Dr. Sherwin Nuland. This book is about as light as it sounds — it's brutally blunt — and I didn't realize how dated it was until I came to the chapter on AIDS (published in 1994.) But it did give me much to think about, dragging the long hours away in a place that can feel close to death, but in fact is bursting with life. 

It's always an interesting thought experiment, reflecting on death. Some would call it morbid, but I disagree. Life is a whole lot of striving and not a small amount of suffering, but the realization that it's finite is how we form our values, and our reasons to continue. Nuland's heart-wrenching chapter about Alzheimer's really drove home the harsh reality that we ourselves, our living experiences and identities, are much more ephemeral that we want to believe. I think I'm the same person I was ten years ago, but I'm not. If space-time somehow wrinkled and she and I bumped into each other on the street, I'd probably be surprised at the things I didn't recognize. Our experiences have diverged. Some of her idealism withered. Some of my wisdom remained.

Someday my life will definitively end, but really, we reach smaller ends and new beginnings all of the time. We move forward and large pieces of ourselves — the forgotten moments and experiences, the passions of youth and people we loved — remain behind. Who could even guess which moments might comprise the self we'd wish to occupy into eternity? Given eternal life, we'd still change beyond recognition, eventually. Perhaps the transition of death is just that.

Nuland offered: “We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died—in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.”

Or Thoreau: "There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill ..."

Amid this revery I reached the junction of the main trail, with much relief. A hard wind swept along the valley, and Beat was long gone up the hill toward the cabin. I could see a light twinkling in the window, and wondered if Corrine and Eric were already there. Well, of course they were. They were on bikes. It probably only took them three hours reach this spot that felt a lifetime away from the "real world."

It occurred to me that Beat and I hadn't encountered a single person in four days out here — no travelers on snowmobiles, no BLM employees, no one at all. I couldn't ever remember the last time I went four days without seeing another human besides my partner. A rare occurrence indeed.

It was fun to see Corrine and Eric at this large, modern cabin built high on a dome. All of the contrasts were striking. From Moose Creek cabin you can see the trans-Alaska Pipeline and lights from the Elliot Highway, shattering the illusion of Nowhere Land. I'd hardly noticed how the wind was sweeping away the cold air, but up at 2,100 feet, the temperature had risen to 17 degrees. Above zero! I lingered outside for several minutes after arriving, procrastinating with my sled chores because it was so satisfying to stand still, comfortably, outside.

Eric had already chopped a bunch of wood and had the stove cranked to near-broiling temperatures. We laughed and finished off the Fireball and went to bed early. We let the fire go out, but around 4 a.m. Eric started it again. About 45 minutes later I awoke dizzy and drenched in sweat, and in a half-panic rushed outside in my underwear and down booties. For ten minutes I stood at the edge of an overlook, gazing at the hazy moon behind an overcast sky, and breathing the refreshing coolness of winter air. After just four days, I was one with the cold.

Day 5. December 31, the final day of the year. We started the hike out under overcast skies and temperatures around 20 degrees up high, and a few degrees below 0 down low. We had 16 miles of steep, rolling hills to reach the trailhead, but this segment was by far the easiest day of travel. The trail was well packed and temperatures were just so warm — my leg muscles felt like they'd been released from an invisible vice.

About an hour after we set out, Corrine and Eric coasted by on their bikes in a low-lying valley. I was ambling along taking photos of frosty branches and a deep orange glow over the Hayes Range in the distance (I left my camera in the wrong setting, and none of the photos turned out.) Later Corrine remarked about how strange it was that I wasn't wearing gloves, but who needs gloves when it's a balmy 0 degrees? I can see how Alaskans become so snobby about the cold.

We wrapped up the walk in a rather relaxing five and a half hours, and rushed back to Fairbanks to pack up our luggage. Our plane was set to leave at 1 a.m. January 1. Similar to past years, 2018 came for us in the Fairbanks Airport. I was devouring three oranges that I bought at the only open vendor — a bar — because I felt so desperate for fresh produce. The clock rolled over to midnight and an Alaska Airlines employee came on the intercom to wish customers a happy new year. Nobody cheered. I smiled because it was so appropriate, because it had been a fantastic holiday week, and because, hooray, I'd survived another year. But I really wished I was still in the White Mountains.

Next year, perhaps. I was grateful for those five short days, which not only created a wonderful memory, but also helped me forge some confidence for the Iditarod Trail in March. But no, Beat, I'm still not ready to walk to Nome. 
Sunday, January 07, 2018

Then our skin gets thicker ...

With nine days in Alaska, we managed to spend eight in the backcountry. Yet we still returned from Tolovana in time for Corrine and Eric's Christmas Day feast with their family and friends, and I crammed in 15 hours of work between Monday night and Tuesday. Yes, it was a good week. And I've come a long way since we started planning these holiday "training trips" to Alaska in 2011. Back then, I would still shiver at the thought of spending more than one winter night many miles away from a working heater or humans with snowmobiles. Now I realize that five days alone in the Alaska wilderness is not enough. Not nearly enough. (But no, Beat, I'm still not ready to walk to Nome this year.) 

Fairbanks was about to wrap up its warmest December on record. One week before our planned four-night cabin trip in the White Mountains, the forecast was so bland that Corrine questioned whether we'd even see temps below zero. Of course the forecast changed, so abruptly that I'm not sure Beat and I were fully prepared, mentally, when we arrived in the pitch darkness of 9 a.m. at the Wickersham Dome. The temperature was 0F. "Brrr!" I exclaimed as I rigged up my sled. It was the warmest temperature we'd see for four days.

Languid daylight slowly revealed a low cloud ceiling and hazy fog. We futzed with adding and removing layers as we made our way along Wickersham Dome. The anemic spruce forest was colorless and soft around the edges. Our sleds were bloated with five overly generous days of food and fuel (each of us ended up carrying about a third of our supply out at the end of the trip) and all of the gear we thought we'd need to walk long hours in subzero weather, cross open creeks, or camp outside at 40 below, should that become necessary. Even with everything we theoretically needed to survive, the first miles were intimidating — walking into a silent fog at 0 degrees, feeling the cold air needling at the sweat on my shoulders as I grunted up a hill, and wondering if I really had what it takes. Though I'd been through this before, and had confidence in my experience, the margin for error is undeniably thin. Uncertainty persists.

Beat's home-made digital thermometer was borked. As we climbed and descended the undulating spine of the Dome, it read 66 degrees. By the time we dropped into the valley under clearing skies, the reading spiked to 80 degrees, and then 82. "I can say with some confidence that it is not 80 degrees," I said. Only a couple of days later did Beat realize what was happening — when he programmed the code, a mis-entered digit skewed the reading. To determine the correct temperature, we needed to subtract 64 from the reading, and then subtract that number from zero. So 80 degrees meant it was -16F. If we saw 90, it was -26F. The dreaded 100 degrees, oh, we'd see that too. Extreme heat became a cruel joke from Beat's thermometer.

So it was 18 below and dropping. I'd subtracted too many layers, so I stopped and added my fleece jacket, a balaclava, and my custom (sewed by Beat) double-walled knee warmers (I may be the only person in the world who can have toasty hands and feet, and cold knees.) Each year, my gear just becomes more eclectic. Half of it is homemade. The rest is stuff you don't typically see in any mainstream outdoor gear catalogue: A cheap off-brand (but windproof!) balaclava, primaloft shorts, a wind-shield furry fleece jacket that Mountain Hardwear took off the market years ago (sob), primaloft mittens with an opening in the palm so I never have to wear liner gloves (I so dislike having to eat with gloved fingers.) Time passes and we become more set in our ways — our heavily-individualized-and-not-recommended-for-anyone-else ways.

Cozied up in extra layers with the thermometer slowly ticking upward, we marched up and down the rolling drainages beside Wickersham Creek. Beat maintained a brisk pace, which I could not match at my own walking speed. I felt strong and energetic, but more limited by my own biomechanics and muscle strength. With a 50-plus-pound sled dragging behind me, my shuffle-jogging pace is no faster than my walking pace, so I have to mimic an all-out run to gain ground. Of course, an all-out run is maybe four miles per hour. Whenever I attempt to run with my sled, I imagine an old Looney Tunes cartoon: The character thinks he's running away, but Bugs Bunny is holding onto his suspenders, so he's not actually going anywhere. I'm running as fast as I can, but my sled just holds me in place.

Walking with a sled is not really like walking at all. It's not even like walking with a heavy backpack, at least on solid ground. The combination of heavy resistance behind you, resistance underfoot, and subzero temperatures cooling your muscles, all conspire to demand the limits of strength. Sled-dragging is strenuous. But not in the same way running is strenuous. The impact is lower. Heart rate is lower. It's sustainable, but just barely. Your body is fully engaged in the task, without relief. Every muscle fiber seems to be firing, with heart beating strong and steady, warm blood pumping, and all four limbs straining for every step of forward progress.

I love sled-dragging. I really do. It's almost impossible to explain succinctly, because the outside observer will correctly assess: "it's cold, it's slow, and now you're telling me you have to work hard all of the time? No coasting at all? No thanks." Even those on the inside of this esoteric sport know that I own a fat bike, a very good one, and used it well enough to ride a thousand miles across Alaska a couple of years ago. So why. Why? But there's this thing about bikes. You're always thinking about them. You can't even help it. You're forever searching for the best lines in the snow to maximize efficiency, so intently that even I all too often fail to look up at the scenery. Use of a bicycle manufactures a dependence that demands constant attention — "is my tire pressure too high? Too low? The brakes need adjusting again. What's that clanking? Is my crank arm going to fall off? If my crank arm falls off, I'll be stranded out here! I'll die!" ... etc.

Sure, there are things that can break on my sled, or my survival gear, or my shoes. But for the most part, it's just me. Me and my body, straining against its anchor to this hard world, and a singular focus that frees my mind to wander to the edges of the universe.

We'd covered about 22 miles by the time twilight faded for good, and headlamps were needed to avoid the knee-deep moose holes that threatened to fracture a fibula. I'd scarcely noticed the time passing. My body felt strong with no complaints, so my head was free to drift into tranquil revery. But trail conditions were deteriorating. Where we climbed a long bench above Fossil Creek, winds had swept several inches of spindrift over the older snowmobile track. No one had been through in days. Walking felt like wading through ankle-deep sand, occasionally sinking to our shins. The grainy nature of the snow meant snowshoes wouldn't help much. My hamstrings groaned, tightening by the minute. All through our Tolovana trip, I'd labored under the delusion that when my breathing is good, all physical efforts are virtually free. But clearly that's not the case. Clearly I have limits beyond my lungs.

My pace slowed to 2mph. Unacceptable. I looked for motivation from iPod, where I can often find a maudlin yet catchy pop song to play on repeat and sing out loud to rev up my cadence. In this case, it was "Choke" by OneRepublic:

"I'll keep a picture ... of you on the wall, of you on the wall,
and choke on the memories.
I'LL KEEP A MESSAGE OF YOU IF YOU CALL ..." (I imagined myself shouting. I really wasn't.)

I was having fun. Enough so that I slipped into happy memories and forgot to take the song off repeat, so every once in a while my recollections of Rainy Pass in the sunshine would be broken by a background church chorus singing "Choke! ... Choke!"

Through occasional knee-deep drifts, we plunged awkwardly into Fossil Creek Valley. After an icy overflow crossing, we encountered the first fresh tracks we'd seen in miles. My first thought was, "That's a weird dog team. Where did they enter this trail? They're all over the place. And there's no sled track." Beat was the first to point out what were obviously fresh tracks from a pack of wolves.

Enormous wolves. The realization sent a chill down my spine, even though I knew that the pack was probably long gone — their tracks headed one way in the opposite direction down the valley. And logically I understood that documented wolf attacks on humans are so rare as to be statistically zero. I knew all of this, but that primal fear lingers, just the same. Through this valley, wolves travel the same narrow corridor as humans. Would they come back?

Admittedly this fear factored into my vote when decision time came. Originally we booked Windy Gap cabin, 38 miles from the trailhead, as our day one stop. Trail reports indicated the route was impassable to snowmobiles due to open water, and we didn't expect the trail to be broken after recent snowstorms. So we booked our "backup" as Caribou Bluff, 30 miles from the trailhead. We stood at the trail junction at 8 p.m., looking at a trail broken only by wolves, knowing it would take at least five more hours to travel ten miles. Temperatures were closing in on -30, but over the swift-flowing creek, there were no guarantees that open water crossings weren't still a problem. I backed down and voted for Caribou Bluff. I'm not totally proud of that, but hey, we were on vacation! Sure, it was a training trip for the rigors of the Iditarod Trail, but as a wise Alaskan friend once observed, "You don't need to practice suffering."

Caribou Bluff was still a 30-mile day, ending at a cute little cabin perched on what must be the most scenic setting in the Whites — a narrow bluff overlooking two mountain drainages, surrounded by craggy peaks. And we even arrived early enough to complete cabin chores before the clock rolled over to a new day — chopping wood, melting snow, drying frost-crusted clothing, thawing too-cold toes, cooking dinner, and knocking back a couple of Fireball-enhanced hot chocolates. Cabin life is the good life.

We also had Caribou Bluff booked for the second night of the trip, with ambitious hopes to explore a side canyon we'd never visited. But Fossil Gap trail wasn't broken at all, and traveling through deep snow over the unknown ice conditions on Fossil Creek seemed unwise. Instead we opted for a loaded day trip toward Windy Gap. Although we both thought it a little silly, I did not object when Beat offered to carry the cabin ax as protection against wolves, just in case.

Temperatures plunged to the mid-minus-20s as we descended into Fossil Creek. Towering limestone cliffs lined the narrow valley, ensuring we wouldn't see a speck of direct sunlight. Beat seemed not all that enthused about this day hike, but I thought it was the loveliest segment of the trip, and took many photos with half-frozen fingers before stuffing my hands back in the pole pogies. (As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to not use liner gloves, although I do carry them just in case. I learned that as long as my core is warm, I can go bare-handed down to -30, but the amount of time I can use my hands outside of my pogies becomes increasingly short. Below -30, it seems, my preferred mittens become necessary at all times.)

All day long, the sky was painted in the soft pastel light of sunset or sunrise. I never kept track of which was which. Really, this time of year, they're one in the same.

We started out wearing snowshoes for the punchy trail, but eventually took them off because both of us had cold feet. Later, we added overboots, which was the best idea yet. For winter biking, I subscribe to the theory that "feet cannot be too warm" and load up my feet with multiple layers at all times while wearing vapor barrier socks to contain the inevitable moisture. This practice is more dangerous on foot, where constantly wet or overheated feet result in blisters, painful maceration, swelling, and even heat blisters from literally steaming skin in its own juices .... as I learned during the 2012 Susitna 100. But when temperatures are well below zero, it seems fairly safe to use vapor barriers and overboots, and the alternative of always-cold feet is definitely worse. This is why we embark on these training trips. The Alaska-specific lessons are valuable.

The softest hints of sunlight swept over the limestone crags. I was warm and content, but Beat had cold feet and seemingly low motivation. We bickered a little on when to turn around.

Trail conditions weren't great. BLM employees broke the trail three weeks earlier, then posted a dire trail report that probably deterred most traffic since. So although there was a base that looks not bad in these photographs, it was punchy and deeply drifted in spots. I like to watch my pace on my Garmin eTrex, and along Fossil Creek I was often dropping below 1.5mph even when I felt like I was moving well. If we'd continued to Windy Gap the previous evening, we probably wouldn't have arrived until 1 or 2 a.m. if we made it at all. Ouch.

Still, I was perfectly content, cocooned in a warm feeling of bliss. This Fossil Creek corridor feels out there by any stretch of imagination — more than 30 miles from the nearest road, which itself is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of uninterrupted wilderness.

The morning's breeze calmed and silence was absolute. When I stopped walking, I could hear ice crystals chiming like tiny bells. Something was crunching through the snow. The sound had a loud yet distant tone, a result of subzero atmospheric conditions bending sound waves toward the ground. It could have been a moose behind a nearby tree, or a mile away.

The trail hit a bumpy crossing of Fossil Creek, and after that, evidence of any former trail faded away. I didn't take photos in that section, which was closed in by the narrowing canyon walls and a dark spruce forest, but we spent about two miles following only the wolves. They put in a good path, but the going became more difficult, and the woods increasingly more spooky. The cold clamped down and sunlight was fading. Beat convinced me it was a good time to turn around.

It was just as well. This gave us a chance to catch a few more sunset views in the open areas of Fossil Creek before the 20-hour night returned.

There goes the sunlight, clear up there. It never came close to reaching the valley floor.

And here comes the moon, nearly bright enough to throw some light of its own.

Since I felt warm early in the day, I never pulled on my balaclava, and paid for it with vision-obstructing ice-lashes. It's difficult to thaw ice-lashes, because by the time you've held your fingers against your eyelids long enough to melt the ice, your hands become painfully cold. Instead, I just blinked and squinted against a increasingly blurry and white-spotted landscape.

My head gear also is based on personal comfort. I dislike having my vision and breathing obstructed in any way, so I dislike wearing goggles and face masks. The vision issue is the main reason I haven't been interested in using a fur ruff like Beat's. I carry goggles at all times, because they're non-negotiable in cold wind without a ruff. But I find I don't need goggles otherwise, even in extreme cold, as long as I have warm air circulating around my face. This warm air circulation is easy enough to contain with the cupped mouthpiece of a balaclava, and creates a cozy little biosphere for easy breathing. The main drawback is that all of this respiration freezes to the material, and eventually I'm wearing an ice helmet. But I've found this doesn't bother me — even frozen solid, balaclavas still retain their warmth. So I'm a buff and balaclava person. I probably won't change.

We ended this day with 11 miles in five hours of walking. It was a tough five hours. "In the ITI we just need to go four or five times that far each day, hopefully in fewer than 25 hours." I pondered the harsh realities of the adventure I am training for. The bare minimum mileage I need to achieve each day during the race is 35, and the goal is around 50. Future failure math was needling its way through my bliss, and I tried to shove it away.

For this day, even in a remote canyon with persistent subzero chill, the demands were not nearly so harsh. We just had to hike up the bluff to our cozy home for the night, where a "real" (not freeze-dried) dinner of couscous and chicken sausage awaited. The thermometer outside the cabin had plunged below -20 — up on this bluff above the cold air sink — and we wondered if we'd see minus 40 the following day. Beat volunteered to wake up every two hours and restock the stove with wood. Though I felt bad, I didn't object (I'm the type who tends to get up in the night and stay up for hours, so I don't like to voluntarily interrupt sleep.)

The wood stove was cranking, but I felt compelled to cozy up in my Arctic sleeping bag all the same. Even with all of this comfort surrounding me, there was something primal about that depth of cold ... like a pack of wolves closing around us, just waiting for the fire to go out.