Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Day four: Rohn

I couldn't believe how much better I felt after I woke up from my four-hour nap. Of course it's all relative; I still had the sensation of sandpaper scratching against my tongue, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and the deep chill of 4 a.m. seeping in through my half-dozen layers. But I was alive! Something about that fact made me so happy that I didn't even care I still had a 15-mile push into an outpost checkpoint where I was told I would be lucky to find a propane-heated tent.

I took off at a pace much faster than the night before ... at least cracking the odometer: 2.1 mph ... 2.2 mph. With all of the walking I was doing, I had been grateful for choosing light and comfortable mountaineering boots over the floppy and cumbersome overboots I had worn in both Susitna 100 races ... that is, until I came to the first open stream crossing in the Dalzell Gorge. The trail disappeared into an creek more than five feet wide that appeared to be running at least knee deep. I stood, stunned, as though I had reached a brick wall. I followed the leaders' footprints upstream to a spot that ran much more narrow and deep. It appeared they had jumped across the opening onto a steep, icy incline that slid precariously back into the water. How they cleared it with their fully loaded bikes eluded me. They must have helped each other. I knew the only way to get myself across would be to walk across the wider, shallower opening. So I rifled through my bag for the old dog musher standby: Heavy duty garbage bags. I slid one up each leg and wrapped duct tape around the bunched-up openings just above my knees. Then, before I could psych myself out of it, I hoisted my bike and stepped into the stream.

The rush of water blasted my legs and I wavered for a single terrifying moment. As I lurched to recapture my balance, my grip loosened on the bike and I could feel it sinking downward. My stomach plummeted with it. As the tires hit the water I lunged sideways to catch it upright before it fell over and soaked all of my gear. In grabbing it, I kneeled into the stream just deep enough to feel the rush of water pour into the garbage bag wrapped around my right leg. The icy water hit my foot like a hammer, soaking into the sock and the insulation like first taps from the fingers of death. I darted for the shoreline, pitching the bike forward in a surge of adrenaline before crawling onto the snow, gasping and heaving. "Don't panic; don't panic; don't panic," I said out loud. Endless darkness hovered over the canyon. I knew I had just made a race-ending mistake. I did not care. "This is not a race. This is my life," I thought. All I could do now was walk into Rohn and hope the hoofing helped heat my wet foot. If that didn't work, I would have to pull on one of my down booties and walk in it until it shredded. All that mattered now was getting to Rohn.

The hike remained hard and daylight started to envelop the canyon. I did not feel cold. I felt beaten. I stumbled into the checkpoint at 11 a.m. It was every bit as remote as I had been promised ... a single cabin and a few tents. Two snowmachines. No planes. The cabin was exclusively for Iditarod Sled Dog Race checkers, and I was not to go inside, I had been told. But the Ultrasport tent was nowhere to be seen. I took a moment to survey the damage to my bike. The front wheel bolts had been frozen in. The derailleur was frozen as well and would not shift out of granny gear. The brakes rubbed, but I was able to work them free. Still, my bike was every bit as frozen as my boot. The situation seemed more discouraging by the minute.

As I lingered outside, a man swung open the cabin door and beckoned me to come inside. He said his name was Jasper, he was from Minnesota and he had volunteered to cook for the Iditarod dog mushers for many, many years. He offered to make me pancakes even though it was nearly noon. He told me to set my boots by the wood stove and stay for a while. When I explained to him that my bike was frozen, he offered to let me bring that inside to thaw out as well. Then another volunteer laid out a sleeping pad on his own bunk and urged me to lay down. I couldn't believe these Iditarod volunteers were being so nice to me, an intrusive Ultrasport racer who did little else than get in their way. I suspected special treatment for being a woman, but I wasn't complaining. Instead, I laid in the bunk and shivered with nervous apprehension.

On the outside, I felt rested and healthy, ready to go on with the heat of day. But inside, I was a mess of fear and doubt. I had made it over the Alaska Range and had a sip from the bitter cup of hardship. But ahead of me lay the Real Cold; the Real Remote; the Real Unknown. The Interior. This is insane, I kept telling myself. I am Jill from Juneau. I am no wilderness survivalist. I never even made it past Brownie level in Girl Scouts. What the hell am I doing out here?

The Ultrasport checker, Rob, finally came into the cabin and told me he hadn't had a chance to set up the tent because he and the other volunteers had just arrived. Apparently, they couldn't get their snowmachines over the pass, which is why everyone had to break trail. Most of the leaders had already gone on. The only racers in camp were me and Ted, who hated The Push with venom and had already resolved to scratch the race then and there. I knew I had no reason to scratch so I made excuses why I couldn't yet go back out. I needed a little sleep. A little more food. A little more time to dry my boot.

At about 6 p.m. I was outside trying to work up more courage when Bill and Kathi Merchant rolled up on their bikes. The Merchants are the race organizers and were themselves pedaling to Nome. I figured they had passed Geoff at some point, so I excitedly ran up for word about how close he was to Rohn. "I have so been enjoying Geoff," Bill said. "We were having such a great time at Finger Lake."

"Geoff's at Finger Lake?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, Geoff had to scratch," Bill said.

My heart dropped.

"Yeah," he continued. "He was having real problems with his ankle. Then he started compensating for that. Then he hurt his knee. I'm worried I may have coaxed him back out with my trail stories. He limped out toward Puntilla, but then he came back to Finger Lake."

Knowing Geoff was out of the race was about the worst news I could have received at that point. Bill could have told me the weather forecast called for the storm of the century, 60 below windchill and zero visibility in the coming days, and I would have been more comforted to hear that than to hear that Geoff was off the trail. I was crushed. I was so, so alone. I wanted to scream, but there was nothing to scream at. The Iditarod Trail? The Iditarod Trail did not care. There was nothing to break on the Iditarod Trail except myself. And I did not want to be broken. I couldn't face that possibility, and yet I couldn't quite turn away from it. I decided the best thing for me to do would be to crawl into the now-staked but still-unheated Ultrasport tent and go to sleep. Things always look better in the morning, I said to myself.