Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Day three: Rainy Pass

I stepped out of Puntilla Lake Lodge into intensely beautiful weather. Direct sunlight cascaded off the crystalline snow as the last pink light of sunrise faded into the horizon. In the blindness of night I had climbed into the mountains, and suddenly they were so close I could touch them. The air felt much warmer than 0 degrees; in the sun I wore only a single hat and let the frost petrify my strands of hair. I decided this would go down as one of my favorite morning rides ever.

After a few miles, the trail climbed beyond treeline and became much too soft to ride. My position in 12th or 13th place gave me a direct view of what came before me. As the footprints piled up deeper and deeper on the trail, I knew none of the leaders, none of the really strong and really skilled snowbikers had been riding, either. Their footprints cut up the middle of the trail as their bike tires rolled to the right. All of my "bike push" training had me rolling my bike to the left, and I didn't feel completely comfortable switching positions, but I had no choice but to follow their trail. I expected to walk a lot of Rainy Pass and didn't feel discouraged about the prospect. I just turned on my iPod and chanted my new mantra ... "So! The Push!"

As the trail left the last valley in its route over the range, the incline pitched up steeply and my shoulders burned white hot as I plowed Pugsley through the soft snow. They say in an event like this, you will begin to feel every ounce: every extra chemical warmer, every battery, every last candy bar. I packed for comfort and safety and I packed a ton. Veterans go ultralight and rookies bring their insecurities. As I hobbled up toward the highest elevation of the entire trail, I realized how quickly insecurity can weigh a person down. I crested the pass right at sunset, having traveled maybe 20 miles in nine hours. I was already feeling exhausted, and questioning my ability to make it to Rohn, still more than 20 miles away. But a frigid wind whipped up the canyon and I could already feel the deep cold settling in again. I knew I would have to at the very least seek shelter from the wind.

I had heard that once you make it to the pass, the downside of the trail is usually rideable - even an icy, harrowing downhill run. But as I plowed Pugsley over the last hill and looked through the last remaining sunlight at the trail below me, all I could see were more knee-deep footprints punched in an expanse of power snow. I would find out later that no snowmachine had been able to make it over the pass all year long, and that morning, the dozen leading cyclists actually broke their own trail by sidestepping the open water down the steep Dalzell Gorge. What I followed was a mess of postholes that was probably better than literally breaking trail, but slowed me down so much that my odometer wouldn't register forward motion - slower than 1.5 mph. Lifting the front of my bike off the ground became routine. All the while I knew I had 20 miles to push to Rohn, the deep cold of night was settling in, I was crashing quickly and even as I tried to keep the food coming in, every bite just made me feel worse.

After about six miles of fighting the inevitable, I finally realized that I was going to need to recover or risk literally passing out on the trail. I plowed my bike into the waist-deep snow just off the trail and began to punch out a snow hole. I rolled out my bivy sack, grabbed some nuts and chocolate to eat for dinner, and crawled inside with my water bottle and Camelbak. Before I pulled the backpack inside, I checked the thermometer on the outside. The mercury had bottomed out at 20 below. All around me, the deep cold needled into the now-still air. Inside my bag was amazingly warm and humid. I was so, so grateful that I could rest and be warm, but so nervous that I couldn't stop hyperventilating. After about 20 minutes of nibbling on my food and sipping my water between dozens of gasping breaths, my mind finally began to accept that this sleeping bag really would keep me warm. I drifted off to sleep, cuddling the Camelbak that held my precious water, breathing a settling peace from the food and the warmth, vocally expressing gratitude to my sleeping bag and mumbling a clairvoyant message to my mom that all was OK. I had never felt so alone.