Saturday, January 05, 2008

Living outside

Date: Jan. 4
Mileage: 54.2
January mileage: 129.9
Temperature upon departure: 24
Precipitation: 0"

I was burrowed deep in my billowing down cocoon when I awoke, again, in a fit of gasping. I groped among piles of discarded clothing layers for my soggy snot rag and blew my nose until the pressure in my sinuses diffused to a low boil. I shook my head violently, hoping in vain the gunk could somehow exit through my ears. Frost flakes rained from the top of the bivy and stung my cheeks. I knew this head cold had been idling for two days, but it had to pick tonight to steamroll through. I gasped some more and tore open the bivy, gulping for oxygen in the cold air.

Above me, Mars still burned orange among a splattering of stars, but a hazy white gauze had stretched over the sky. "Oh man, it's clouding up," I thought. It was the third time that night I had woken up unable to breathe. I decided it was probably worth it to leave my toasty burrow on a faint hope that Dayquil pills had made it into my rapidly expanding portable pharmacy.

As I slithered out of the sleeping bag, I noticed the white lines across the sky were flexing and retreating with considerable velocity. "Strange thing for clouds to do," I thought. But as I stood up and looked around, I saw waves of bright green light flowing over the snowcapped peaks to the north. The white clouds weren't clouds at all, but south-reaching streaks of the Northern Lights. Having momentarily forgotten about the explosion building in my head, I stood in my sock feet and booties in the snow and watched the white flares streak across the sky. Even the frigid wind needling my naked fingers couldn't tear me away from my slack-jawed stance beneath those horizon-caressing fingers of light.

I had set out with my loaded bicycle at 2:30 p.m. Friday, just before sunset, knowing that I would probably not set foot indoors again for nearly 24 hours. The street shoulders were coated in a terrifying layer of glare ice, and I kept the tire pressure low just to regain some sense of control. My momentum slowed to a crawl, but I didn't care. It's strange how speed stops mattering once time has no meaning.

A few near wipeouts had me grateful to hit snow, even crusty snow, and I spent as much time on trails as I could before heading out the road to meet Geoff at our predesignated camping destination. The trail to Herbert Glacier was rideable in a bad way ... a deep ski track barely wider than my tires that had been punched out by footprints. I took a few arm-smashing falls before I decided those four miles to camp would be a good time to test the walking comfort of my boots. I slogged through knee-deep snow as my bike rolled happily on the trail alongside.

I still beat Geoff to camp and set to gathering wood for the great fire I was planning to build, knowing that all the exposed dead wood had soaked up several days of rain before refreezing. I then exhausted all the newspaper I brought for firebuilding purposes, plus all the notepaper I had planned to write on, plus the French and German sections of the directions to my stove, and never even coaxed a tiny twig to catch fire. Geoff arrived shortly after I had given up and exhausted his own paper supply in the effort. In the end, we resorted to pouring liquid fuel all over a bunch of spruce bows. Even that didn't work, but I did enjoy a split second of warmth when I lit the fuel-soaked needles and jumped away from the resulting fireball.

We finally gave up on the whole campfire idea and fired up the stove to melt snow for water and hot chocolate. I have yet to receive my new Camelback in the mail, and my old leaky one had long since frozen. I didn't realize how thirsty I had become until I gulped down the still-slushy water from my cooking pot like a famished refugee. A chill was starting to set in as Geoff and I stood by our non-flammable stack of twigs swigging hot chocolate. His thermometer read 10 degrees.

By the time we went to bed, I had been mostly idle at camp for more than three hours. I was pleased by how warm I stayed, given that I was dressed to ride a bicycle in temperatures that started out in the mid-2os. It wasn't until I laid down that I realized how much my cold had progressed. I whittled away most of the restless night consoling myself by chanting "At least I'm still warm. At least I'm still warm." But seeing the Northern Lights was a nice treat.

I spent 45 minutes this morning cuddling with my Camelbak bladder until I finally was able to coax some of the water through the ice-glazed hose. Even then, it froze on me again less than five minutes after I crawled out of bed, so I resorted to pouring its slushy contents into my cooking pot so I'd have something to drink. I had planned to ride all the way home, but my throat was on fire and I was feeling more than a little thrashed. Geoff and I stumbled back to the trailhead and I caught a ride home with him. Geoff told me he felt surprisingly tired after a mild 4.5-mile run. "That's the thing about winter camping," I said. "Keeping warm when you're inactive almost feels like more work than staying active." Even though we didn't struggle with the effort, we never really felt like we could just kick back and relax, either. And the fact is 10 degrees above 0 would be a warm night on the Iditarod Trail.

"All the better reason to keep moving," Geoff said.


  1. "All the better reason to keep moving"

    I'll add, all the better reason to keep eating and drinking. Keeping your body warm for 24 hours requires a huge amount of calories and water even without the bicycling or running. When I'm out winter camping I eat and drink virtually non-stop. I think of my stomach as a furnace. The only way to keep heat coming from that furnace is to keep it stoked with fuel and never let it run empty. Food is your fuel and water is your delivery system.

    I'll never forget the first time I woke up in the night while camping and saw the Northern Lights. It was my first winter camping trip. It hasn't happened since.

  2. Maybe you could develop a passion for Sudoku instead of winter camping?

  3. Sounds like a pretty good night in the snow, despite the virus.

    Here are a couple of thoughts to add to the tons of suggestions I'm sure you get: small pieces of corrugated cardboard soaked in paraffin do well as fire starters (newsprint is useless; it doesn't seem to burn like it used to), a siltarp weighs almost nothing and is invaluable as windbreak or snow shelter (REI has them).

  4. Way off the Subject: Is there any way to get the CDs or DVDs of your pictures? I sure hope so.

  5. I know looking stylish isn't the first concern when winter camping, but PLEASE tell me Geoff borrowed your booties and the ones he is putting on in the picture aren't really his... :-)

  6. This is the way. Well done! More time you spend outside, better for the race.


  7. mellan - click the "Help me ride the Iditarod" link in sidebar. Jill sends a CD w/ her awesome photos to everyone who makes a donation.

  8. Your doing great venturing out into the world of the unknown!! Experience will be your best friend come race time, best of luck.


  9. A couple of hydration pack techniques we use that may be helpful.

    1. After drinking make sure that line is full of air not water. Blow back into the hose until you hear a bubble. Don't blow excessive air, so your breathe is not wasted and the bladder does not turn into a balloon. This keeps the line from freezing.

    2. Note this second technique is used to 2-3 hour rides not endurance racing. Any electrolyte sport drink will freeze slower than water especially at a high concentration. On our group rides when it is extremely cold we add a favorite distillate. maybe at a 1:10 rum to sport drink ratio.

  10. Hey Jill,

    I really don't see you swigging diluted rum DURING the Iditarod Invitational, but on second thought ... why not! Life is short, celebrate early.

    As for your posting, it was yet another beautifully written piece. You are spoiling us. Which reminds me... have you begun that book of yours documenting your riding experiences? If not,,, get cracking young lady! I'd like to be able to give that as a gift next Christmas!

  11. Here's something that might help with the fire:

    I've used these (or cut up duraflame logs for that matter) many times to light wet wood and brush. Once you light these they burn well and will dry out your wood. They are small enough to allow you to carry several instead of paper-etc. Good Luck!!

  12. Jill,
    Love your photos, Love your bike, Love your attitude towards life, Love Alaska, and...Love You! Keep on pedaling!

  13. There's thing called Fire Paste. A friend always has it when we are winter camping. It's on line a REI but I see they won't send it your way. Maybe a source near you has it. Love the site with the great pictures and writing.

  14. I like your blog, and have been enjoying your adventures.

    I'm sure you get way too many tips but I've found that the only sure way to have a fire when winter camping is to bring a small hatchet and split bigger branches and twigs in half (the long way). that way the fire will catch on the inside first and dry the rest of the wood. Most likely too much weight but for these overnights I bet it would help. Plus chopping keeps you warm!

    good luck!

  15. I just came across your blog, it is really beautiful with a wonderful rhythm.

    My apologies for yet more gratuitous advice on the fire - I used to guide in some pretty wet places and I used a MSR XGK turned on full bore and poked in the middle of a pile of wood or under a log to get a fire started - I don't remember it ever failed. It is kind of brutal on the stove but that is what they are never blew up - I am sure I would remember if it did.

    Good luck on the iditarod - I didn't know there was a human powered version until I read it just now. Tis definitely a cool concept.


Feedback is always appreciated!