Saturday, February 07, 2009

Seven hours of white

Marginal weather conditions showed up this morning as promised - heavy snowfall with temperatures right on the cusp of freezing, threatening to warm throughout the day and mix rain with snow for the worst kind of riding surface imaginable (in my opinion). It's like trying to pedal through a six inches of Slurpee.

I wanted to get outside for seven our eight hours today, and it was either that or a long hike. I picked the hike. Walking, actually, is a huge part of the Iditarod race, and I learned last year it's important to be in good trudging shape for slogs that can last upwards of 24 hours and more. To be best prepared, I'd actually have to get out and push my loaded bike, thereby building the shoulder and arm muscles that I am still probably lacking. But there's a limit to the misery I'm willing to endure when I'm just training. The idea of pushing my bike through the unbroken snow of the backcountry definitely goes beyond this limit. Slogging through steep, deep stuff in snowshoes feels like punishment enough. But a little slogging is good for the soul ... in the long run.

I left from my house, hiked up the Mount Jumbo Trail, traversed along the Treadwell Ditch Trail and went up the next canyon to the Douglas Ski Bowl and eventually the ridge, where I traversed until the wind and chill rattled me back down. I lost the trail more than a few times. I snowshoed about 15-17 miles and 4,500 feet of vertical gain in seven hours, much of that mired in the slow slog of trail-breaking. The kind of work that cuts deep into the core of your muscles with every step. The good slog. And the whole time, icy snow fell in streams, sometimes to the point of whiteout conditions. The above picture pretty much sums up everything there was to see for seven solid hours.

I was pretty well soaked through and through by the time I crested the ridge, because the falling snow was so wet. The wind had picked up throughout the day, and it hit the ridge with shocking force. The gusts were probably 40 to 50 mph - enough to actually knock me off my feet once. My soaked hair froze into one solid block even after I put my hood up, and my coat and pants froze as well. It felt like I was wearing an outer layer made of wood. The fabric became almost immovably stiff, trapped as it was beneath a sheet of ice that had once been beaded-up precipitation. But in the amazing way Gortex can, the coat still completely blocked the wind and let my insulation layer (just one) keep me warm, so I hiked along the ridge for a little while.

I'm always fascinated by the ghost trees that live along the ridge. They live just a few dozen feet of elevation below treeline, the absolute margin of where a tree can even grow. They're fringe trees, and their postures show the burden of hard, hard lives. Every square inch of needle and bark is coated in solid ice (not snow, ice), for most of the months of the year. They're incessantly pounded by brutal wind. And yet, somehow, they survive. I don't pity these trees. In a way, I envy them, because through whatever twist of fate, they arrived at the brutal fringes of their environment and still decided life was worth living.

I don't have real photoshop on my computer, just this freeware photo organizing software with an "auto levels" setting that goes more than a little heavy on the contrast. But I kinda like what it does with monotone photos. Artsy.

The last miles of the hike passed in the way that many, many miles on the Iditarod Trail pass ... forever moving toward a small island of light amid an ocean of night.