Tuesday, March 02, 2010

ITI, day three

photo by Cory Smith, Pass Creek, March 2009

This is the kind of weather I empathize with the most. I see it frequently in Southeast Alaska. It's 34 degrees. A gray mass blots out both ground and sky, and everything is swirling in a dynamic cauldron of slush. Gusting winds drive the sleet into skin like a thousand tiny bee stings; they needle into the tiniest imperfections in clothing until nothing short of an ocean-going survival suit is going to keep you dry. 40 mph winds drive the chill down to 0 degrees, and the frigid blasts of air find their way into your clothing as well, pummeling your wet skin until the entire surface of your body goes numb even as your core burns hot with the exhausting effort of pedaling. Ease up on the hard effort even a little, and hypothermia will find its way to you faster than all but the most sinister "freezing" conditions. Cyclists in this kind of weather pine for anything else, even 30 below. I know, because I have. You see, when it's 30 below, it's dry.

Now imagine you're walking out of a remote wilderness lodge, above timberline where the wind and sleet blows free, and it's 45 miles to the next outpost of civilization, 20 miles to the next scrap of wind shelter, and there's hardly a trail. Even if you're strong, even if you're the strongest, it's going to take you 12 hours to get there. You bundle up your coat even though you know it isn't going to do you a bit of good, and you head out into the cold, gray, liquid infinity.

"This is Alaska," Kathi Merchant says. "Crazy weather is normal here."

Pete Basinger arrived in Rohn, mile 210 of the Iditarod Trail, around 8 p.m. Tuesday, 54 hours into the 2010 ITI. He left Puntilla Lake, mile 165, at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, in weather described as "warm and wet" with 25 mph winds gusting to 40. There were reports of driving rain. Seriously horrible. Pete powered through the deluge, up and over Rainy Pass, and is now at least five hours ahead of his closest competitor, Jeff Oatley, and 10 hours ahead of third-place Jay Petervary. In more than two days of racing, Pete's had a little less than six hours of down-time at checkpoints, probably only a fraction of which is actually sleeping. But Pete didn't stop to rest long in Rohn. As of 9 p.m., Pete was listed as "OUT."

As of 9, many others were still resting at Puntilla Lake, including Louise Kobin, the leading woman cyclist, who is in fifth place overall. Temperatures in the late evening at Puntilla Lake were listed to be in the low-30s with light snow. Fresh snow makes trails slower, but anything is better than slush.

Meanwhile, the weather in Rohn, on the other side of the Alaska Range, was comparitively pleasant — 29 degrees and overcast with light winds. Not bad if you're fresh and dry. But when you're soaked, strung-out and exhausted, even 70 degrees and sunny can feel extreme.

And what awaits Pete as he pushes on into the night? According to reports, there's little snow on the other side of the range. And what little snow there was has mostly blown away. The Iron Dog snowmobile race trailbreakers, those brave sled-runners who are essentially responsible for creating the Iditarod Trail every year, took this picture a couple of weeks ago:

Farewell Burn. No snow. Frozen tussocks. Glare ice in every crack. No white snowcover to reflect a little visibility in the inky darkness of the night. Even the most skilled technical mountain biker wouldn't touch this stuff with a 4-inch tire, but that's where Pete's going tonight, and where every other person who pushes over the pass will go tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

Is this fun yet? Why yes, actually, it is.