Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Camping in January

Date: Jan. 29
Mileage: 6
January mileage: 761.8
Temperature upon departure: 7

I slipped out the door at 12:31 a.m. and pedaled beneath the orange glow of suburban street lamps. Blasts of hard wind amplified the already tiny temperature, but only the crackle of rubber on ice betrayed a bewildering quiet. I rode toward the black mass of mountains that would swallow me for the night. I was consumed with the loneliness and awe of the conditions I was simulating. I had to keep reminding myself I was only a few blocks from my house.

I couldn’t remember the climb up this hill ever being so laborious. I had severely overdressed and was paying for it in a shower of sweat. I thought about returning home to change my base layer, but remembered the full set of clothing in my frame bag and decided this sweat was a good test ... a simulation of a full day’s work. I took off my balaclava to steam off some of the heat. My helmet froze to my hair.

I pushed my bike through soft snow for two miles up the steep trail. The three-mile effort took nearly one and a half hours. When I trudged into an open meadow flat enough to call home, it was 2 a.m.

The stark face of Mount Juneau burned red above a glitter of city lights, now hundreds of feet below me. I pulled on my mittens and started unpacking my gear, methodically loosening straps and rolling out the sleeping pad. It was all happening much too slowly. Overheated as I was, I opted for the quick-and-dirty, bare-fingers camp set up. There would be time for warmth when I slept.

I slithered into my down cocoon and cuddled with my Camelbak bladder. It felt like an ice baby against my stomach, and I shivered a little as I gazed at the wash of stars overhead. Finally, I slid all the way in and shut the bivy, breathing heavy as I drifted to sleep.

I curled up as much as I could to rest my whole body on the sleeping pad, but parts kept finding their way onto the frigid bed of snow. After one hour, I woke up with a cold butt. The next, cold feet. Never cold enough to be a concern, but enough to rob me of any deep rest. I cherished every square inch of that pad and vowed to get a bigger one.

When daylight finally broke, my feet were approaching a concerning level of cold. I haphazardly set my Camelbak in the snow and began to pack up. Mittens were required this time, and I couldn’t move as fast as I wanted to. I felt frustrated because I had put my cold feet in my cold boots, and I really wanted to start walking to generate some heat. I decided not to bother compressing my sack and was grateful for the leeway of my front rack. I was on my way. I had learned a lot. I felt exhausted. I had spent less than nine hours in nighttime temperatures that would be relatively mild in central Alaska. And traveled six miles.

This multiday winter endurance racing thing is completely crazy. On the surface, it looks hard. Then you peel back its rigid veneer only to find an inner layer of hard. And even as you chip away at its core, you continue to find layer upon layer upon layer of hard. Every part is hard.

And I love it.