Monday, December 03, 2007

To the wind chill

Date: Dec. 3
Mileage: 25.1
Hours: 2:15
December mileage: 45.6
Temperature upon departure: 4

Geoff and I set out to sleep in the back yard last night as a way to test out gear neither of us had used before, and bridge the wide gap between normal camping and winter survival. It was 6 degrees outside with 30 mph winds gusting to 50 when we rolled out our bivy sacks on the sharp, frozen grass. I lingered outside in my long johns and sock feet just to soak up some of the wind chill and carefully prep my gear. It seemed like cheating to go straight from the warm house to camping, but it was definitely the smart way to start out.

As I slipped inside my sleeping bag, the effect was instantaneous. Warm air swirled around me as I slithered deeper into the down oven, wrestling with zippers and finally coaxing the bivy shut. The wind ranged and howled and violently jolted my bag, but I couldn’t feel the gusts. It was so comfortable that it wasn’t long before I slipped out of my meager clothing so I could use it as a pillow. After about an hour, Geoff announced that he was sweaty and clausterphobic and didn’t feel like accepting a crappy night of no sleep just so he could confirm that his bag could probably handle temperatures 30 degrees colder. I stayed outside and eventually fell asleep, but not for long. The howls and bangs of the gusting wind woke me up with regularity, shaking my bivy and blasting my face with the sharp, frozen flakes of my own respiration. At one point, I woke up because I was actually sliding sideways across the grass, pushed by a hurricane-force blast like a helpless burrito. At about 4 a.m., I decided that I agreed with Geoff. I didn’t really need to spend any more time awake out there to gain confidence in the toastiness of my sleeping bag, which, at least in temperatures above 0, is absolute. And now I know that if I ever need to hunker down in the wind, the bivy will protect me well, but I might as well not count on getting any sleep.

The wind didn’t let up at all this morning, which I decided was all the better for an extreme biking experience. After yesterday’s hike, completely exposed to the full brunt of windchill at higher elevation, I took a lot of liberties with my layering. I headed out with the strong gusts at my back. I knew there was tailwind back there, but I didn’t feel like it was helping me. I just wasn’t going very fast. I probably just needed to work a little harder to warm up, but I was already working hard enough just to keep gulping down that frigid air and pry my eyelashes open as they continued to freeze shut. After a while, I just tried to minimize blinking.

But with the wind at my back, the ride out North Douglas was eerily calm. The temperature felt much colder at the end of the road. It was 4 degrees when I left the house; it was easily 5 or 10 degrees colder out there. When I turned to face the full force of the wind, which was still blowing at 30 mph and gusting to 50, wind chill temperatures easily reached 25 to 30 degrees below 0. At least, that’s what the NWS wind chill chart would put the "feels like" temperature at. As I gasped my way to a blistering 8 mph into the howling wind tunnel, I believed it. I was happy for the opportunity to work hard.

I was amazed how quickly the normally swift-flowing creeks and waterfalls of Douglas Island had frozen to quiet solidity. White steam poured off the open water of the Lynn Canal. It was fascinating to see my rainforest home transformed into a barren Arctic landscape. It helped put my struggle in perspective. I was moving slower because the world was moving slower. There was congruity in it all, and peace.

I hear a lot of comments about my sanity in regard to the conditions I chose to bike in. But it’s moments like these that make all of the pedaling worth it to me. When I can plunge into the 30-below windchill with a smile on my face, I feel like I can do anything.

Sorry for all of the head shot pictures. You probably can't tell, but in this one, I'm smiling.