Friday, March 18, 2011

Safety nets

It started with a quiet whisper into the thunderous void, which is usually what I feel like I'm doing when I randomly post a comment on Twitter: "To take a sleeping bag or not to take a sleeping bag in the White Mountains 100? That is the question."

I still find it hard to believe that anyone actually reads or responds to the incomprehensible babble feed that is Twitter, so I was surprised when my friend Bill fired back with a counter-question: "Well, what have you done in the past?"

The Susitna 100 forced me to carry a sleeping bag — it was part of the 15-pound gear requirement that included an emergency survival system and 3,000 extra calories of food. Unlike its sister race to the south, the White Mountains 100 has no required gear. I could show up to the frigid starting line in a jersey and shorts with a single water bottle and a couple of Gu packets, and no one is going to stop me from embarking on this remote 100-mile ride around an uninhabited, frozen swath of mountain passes and valleys north of Fairbanks, Alaska. Sure, I'd be strongly discouraged, maybe even asked to sign an extra liability release, but ultimately, these are my toes to lose. I like this about the White Mountains 100. Freedom of choice.

Last year, I didn't carry full survival gear in the race. Instead, I carried a bivy system comprised of a 32-degree summer sleeping bag, nylon bivy sack, closed-cell foam pad and fire-starter supplies, reasoning that this 2.5-pound system would probably keep me alive in an emergency situation, probably ... although I had no real knowledge because there was no testing. Last year's White Mountains 100 was cold, down to 25 below at night, and I did experience a couple hours of discomfort and deepening cold due to sweating out my base layer during the day. But ultimately, I didn't even need my lightweight bivy gear. Why bring it at all?

But Bill's counter-question also raised my defenses: What if I fall into overflow and soak out essential clothing? (as has happened to me before, with serious consequences.) What if I slip on frozen overflow and break my leg? (There were a few sections of side-sloping trails where thick ice cascaded over the slope like a waterfall. A fall in the wrong spot could have been fairly catastrophic.) What if there is a big storm I don't have the strength to push through, or that hinders my ability to navigate? In all of these admittedly unlikely situations, the ability to hunker down indefinitely could mean the difference between life and death. Not carrying my winter bivy gear will mean the difference of a less awkward packing system on the Fatback, and about six or seven pounds.

Bill's and my exchange moved to e-mail, where it promptly devolved into a philosophical discussion, probing at the existential angst of modern life and the very reasons why I might even bother to enter a race like the White Mountains 100, let alone schlep a bunch of mostly unnecessary gear across the otherwise useless, frozen distance.

"If you're teetering that much and it's pretty much a tie, just go with the bag. It's better to lose a place or two than your life," Bill wrote. "OR ... maybe without the bag you will be more in danger, which could translate to being alive and staying alive instead of just living. Did that make sense? Without the safety nets we have to struggle to live. With them ... well ... they are safety nets."

I don't always agree with Bill's methods but, to a certain extent, I do share his outlook — that modern culture and laws, population density and technology have forced us all into a comfortable corner where risk-taking in a natural setting is not only unnecessary but largely viewed as idiotic — and yet not taking risks makes for an existentially unfulfilling life. At the same time, everything in life ultimately is a risk — Bill pointed out that maybe I should consider bringing a parachute for the huge metal flying contraption that will take me to Fairbanks. What's acceptable risk, and what's not, is largely a personal and cultural decision.

"I admit the Susitna 100 scared me a bit," I wrote to Bill. "The points where it was 20 below and blowing 25 mph for a 48-below-zero windchill — those were a big confidence crusher. I was at the bottom edge of my comfort zone, and my means to control the situation were right at that edge as well. And of course the human body can endure a lot more than we believe it can — incredible survivor stories crop up every day, and prove this point. But I don't like that feeling. It's not exactly the feeling of being alive that I spend so much of my time seeking out — it's more like the feeling of being too fragile to function, of being precariously close to losing it all in a way the reminds us our lives don't amount to much. Kind of a grim outlook but that's why I try to avoid those situations as much as I can.

... That's actually also why I make a point of being so well prepared (over-prepared) for my larger outdoor activities. It's why I carry full backpacks in 50K races where there are aid stations every eight miles. I like to feel that I'm in control of my situations, of my destiny — that I don't need to depend on there being water at the next aid station, because what if there's not? Never mind that there always is."

Perhaps Bill makes a good point — that accepting risk only if it includes the security of safety nets nullifies the benefits of the journey along with the risks. Or perhaps — as has been my experience — safety nets are the greatest benefit of modern life. They enable me to explore the depths of my deeper primal urges while affording me not only comfort and longevity, but freedom — the freedom to choose, the freedom to experience my world, and the freedom to keep on living.


  1. You could go scientific and do the best two out of three coin flips. Just sayin'.....

  2. Interesting stuff. To me it's a no-brainer to bring some type of backup way to stay ok if your heat source (i.e. movement) stops for whatever reason. To me that gives you more freedom, not less. I guess I just don't put respecting the cold into the category of modern safety net, it's more along the lines of needing water, a biological fact.

    Or maybe I'm just a wuss. :)

  3. I'm fascinated with how risk tolerance changes through life. Three factors I've seen: (1) Dependents: my favorite Alaskan pilot raises his acceptable ceiling "by 500' per child". (2) Value on living: someone close to me didn't care if he lived, and took epic outdoor risks few would take. (3) Personal exposure to death: my own tolerance changed the more bodies I recovered in Alaska SAR. Great post!

  4. That's why I think those guys and girls who practice free solo climbing are NUTS!

  5. I'm with Sara on this one, and with (what seems to be) your first instinct.

    I'm pretty minimalist in a lot of ways, but I absolutely carry safety/survival gear with me. I've always been that way, but it's only strengthened with time in the field - it is so incredibly easy for something to go drastically, horribly wrong. And the number of times I've had to haul out my first aid kit to treat other people... yeah, it feels good to help someone out of a fix, and I'm happy to help, but it's also incredibly aggravating to have them out there unable to help themselves. [/grumble]

    Anyway, back to your dilemma, given that it got down to 25 below last year, it sounds like some sort of emergency bivy system would be smart, even if it's not your full 6-7 lb one.

    And have a great time! I look forward to reading about it :-),


  6. I've been following your blog for seemingly ages. (at least since alaska) Your an incredible gal, gutsy, intelligent, driven, beautiful. Beat is a lucky guy. I guess what I'm trying to say is it would really suck if your blog ended because you died. Bring the damned sleeping bag. At the very least bring a "spot" it's a 5.2oz satellite communicator. Keep on bloggin' love your adventures and love that smile !

  7. Jill,
    Please don't think of a "safety net" as something that makes your adventures less of an "adventure." Alaska is a harsh place, and if you're not prepared for what it throws at you, there are obviously very severe consequences. And, even having the right gear doesn't give you all the security you need. Karin Hendrickson, a friend and co-worker, just scratched in the Iditarod. She's a TOUGH lady, and is very well acclimated to mushing in Alaska. Here is what happened to her:

    Two Rivers musher helps fellow Iditarod racer in need

    by Matias Saari/For the News-Miner Fairbanks Daily News Miner

    Mar 18, 2011 | 1585 views | 2 | | 7 | |

    NOME — Karin Hendrickson was in bad shape when Allen Moore mushed up to her after she called his name while handling a stalled team near Golovin on Tuesday night.

    “She was soaking wet because she ran over the hill. She started getting cold, cramping, and started getting hypothermic,” Moore said on Thursday afternoon in Nome.

    Hendrickson, after a short rest in Elim, attempted to mush to the checkpoint of White Mountain but stalled on the pack ice for about five hours amid a strong wind.

    “Right out of Golovin a lot of dog teams tend to decide they don’t want to go anymore because you go through a town and they think that’s where they should have stopped and rested,” said Moore, a Two Rivers musher who placed 24th late Wednesday night.

    Others passed the 40-year-old Hendrickson, of Willow, but didn’t stop perhaps because they were unaware of her situation and worried their teams would stall too, Moore said.

    Moore said when he reached a dizzy Hendrickson, she couldn’t walk and had attempted to get into her sleeping bag but only managed to pull it up to her knees.

    Moore helped Hendrickson to her feet, walked her around for the cramping and got her to drink fluids. The pair then rearranged their teams and attached Hendrickson’s team to the back of Moore’s sled.

    “Once I got (her dogs) started, then they would go,” Moore said, and they reached White Mountain without incident in a couple hours.

    Moore thought nothing of stopping his race to aid a musher in need. Hendrickson was not disqualified for attaching to a fellow musher’s sled because it was a safety matter and neither gained a competitive advantage, Moore said.

    “The race didn’t matter because if she falls asleep out there in that wind you could die easily,” he said.

    Once they reached White Mountain at 4:28 a.m. Wednesday, a shaken Hendrickson planned to scratch. Moore said he encouraged her to take a long rest and at least try to start the final leg to Nome.

    Hendrickson reportedly did just that, but wound up scratching Thursday in White Mountain with eight dogs.

    Hendrickson was the 15th musher to scratch.

    Jill, Karin has probably had more outdoor experiences in interior Alaska than you and I put together, and despite having a sleeping bag, she nearly died. She was wet, hypothermic, and so cramped up that she couldn't get her back up past her knees! Something to think about... It could happen to anyone. Be safe - take the bag!

  8. Nice post! You could, indeed, go much more scientific here - the risk of flying without parachute is very small, and a parachute wouldn't really change it at all (given you will not be able to put it on). I found this interesting list (
    Risk of death in an air travel accident is 1:20000. Risk of dying in a car accident 1 in 100(!). Heart disease 1 in 5! So it makes a lot of sense to fly without a parachute ... :)
    If we look at winter racing statistics, you'll probably find the risk being lower than even driving a car, though the sampling is pretty minimal. Part of course is because people ARE better prepared (and don't throw back 5 tequilas before getting in the car ...).

    However, the risk of pain, injury and extreme situations is significant in a winter ultra, and having a sleeping bag doesn't change that really, because by the time you use it the shit already has hit the fan. It may remove some anxiety, but in a sense to see it as any sort of real "safety" is a false sense of security. You still have to do the right thing. And as you pointed out, actually it's fairly likely you'll find a way to survive long enough to be rescued by someone anyways even though you shouldn't count on it.

    To me, however, being well prepared really increases the chance of finishing. Especially in WM100 with its generous cut-off you could bivy and still finish. I tend to be over-prepared not to avoid death, but to increase the change of me crossing the finish line no matter what nature throws at me. This is why I usually do well in races with bad conditions. To me, it's not taking away the intensity of it - it actually increases it, because I have even less excuses to drop out. I don't take enjoyment in living with risk. I take enjoyment in overcoming obstacles. This, in my view is the fundamental difference between an adrenaline and an endorphin junkie. So unless you go light because you want to improve your time, which is a wholly other dimension to this, I think you're not really benefitting as the endorphin junkie you are from being underprepared ...

  9. Somehow, and I am not intelligent to figure it out, I suspect it is wrong to equate accepting higher levels of risk with freedom. That seems like a effete construct. I like Sara's practical approach. Be equipped to stay warm in the worst conditions. Accept the conditions and be prepared. No psychic energy is lost!

  10. A huge part of adventure is the unending and very personal journey of finding out which safety have to do with safety, and which have to do with comfort. Most of the things people think fall into the former actually fall into the later.

  11. I've gone back and forth about this as well, sleeping bags are heavy! But in the end I think, what do I need to keep myself alive in case something goes drastically wrong (i.e. falling in overflow or breaking a bone)?

    It comes down to the fact that I want to be able to take care of myself in any situation. I can't imagine intentionally going unprepared and feeling good about it.

    One of the things I get out of adventures like the White Mountain race (or ice climbing) is the feeling of self-sufficiency I get from being able to take care of myself and even thrive in the most severe conditions. That breeds confidence in all aspects of my life. For me, it's not so much about the risk and getting through it. But everyone's different.

  12. Julie, I feel the same way and seek out these kinds of experiences for the same reason. I'm not contending with the people up front, not even trying to shave a few minutes (or hours) off my time. I'm proving to myself that I can adapt and adjust to wild, challenging and sometimes outright violent conditions of the world I love. This gives me confidence that I can take on the other challenges in my life.

    And Beat brings up a good point, too. It's not a cut-and-dry, death-or-life situation. The ability to bivy — whether to nap, dry clothing, melt water, eat or simply rest during a freak bad storm — can make the difference between finishing a race and arriving at the next checkpoint completely blown because you had to push through a situation you weren't quite ready to contend with.

    Last year in the WM100, a cyclist became dangerously cold crossing the ice lakes. She was shivering, disoriented and approaching hypothermia — a condition that, once set in motion, is impossible to recover without outside intervention or change in conditions. She crawled into a sleeping bag and recovered her strength, and went on to finish the race.

    If I had simply chosen to bivy for a few hours in the Dismal Swamp during the 2009 Iditarod, I may have been able to collect myself, construct an adequate system to deal with my wet boot, and save my race. Instead, I chose to push on to the next checkpoint, contracted frostbite, and had to scratch.

    But Dave brings up a good point — gear choices are deeply personal and have as much to do with confidence, fitness and experience as they do with real biological needs. Julie's point, and the one I am leaning toward as well, is that the psychological benefit of a system you feel great confidence in is more important than simply carrying the least amount of weight possible.

    Anyway, good points everyone. Thanks so much for your input. Keep it coming! I'd be interested to hear all points of view.

  13. Hi Jill, like you, I brought a bivy and bag last year and didn't need it, but was happy to feel it on my back when it was -25 down on Beaver Creek. Before the race, Jeff said "why take a bag if you're not going to sleep?" and I'm still looking for the answer to that question. I only carried a bivy on my training skis to get used to the wieght, and savored several long skis in the Chugach with no bivy, no race support, no checkpoints - what was really the difference in risk? I hate to admit it, but the difference I came up with was largely pride - how embarrassing it would be to have Ed explain to the News-Miner that he encouraged all racers to bring bivy gear, and that Robin, while not the most experienced winter ultra racer, really should've known better . . .

  14. Ha ha, Robin. So true. A big part of it IS pride. I was trying to explain to Bill exactly why I felt it necessary to carry a sleeping bag in a well-supported race when I never carried my survival gear during all-day solo winter hikes deep into the mountains above Juneau, where the stakes really were much higher and chances of rescue pretty much zero. And I admit I think about headlines all the time. Better to vanish without a trace in the wilderness and be thought a fool, than to meet a high-profile demise in an organized race and leave no doubt.

  15. Just wanted to point out my suggestion. "spot" satellite communicator. 5.2oz you can have extra safety of summoning outside help quickly for increased safety. Just without the bulk or weight or comfort of a sleeping bag.

  16. Thanks Hartage. I do have a SPOT; Beat actually engineered a fairly brilliant tracking map complete with comments like "Bonktastic" and "Slogarific" that we hope to use to illustrate the experience in motion. It's all in good fun. However, I don't intend to bank on rescue options. All sorts of things can go wrong that aren't life-threatening, and the point is to be as self-sufficient as possible, because self-rescue is always the best (and fastest) option in non-life-threatening situations.

  17. Fantastic that you have one. I'm sure we'd all love to keep reading your fantastic blog for years to come. Good luck in the white mountains ! Keep us posted !

  18. Someone approaching this from a "net it out" mentality might say: minimalist and ultralight are for oldsters and sprinters. Jill, you are an endurance pack mule, with lots of runway in front of you. Look at getting through it with all that extra weight as the challenge, and make sure you stay alive, all toes intact.

  19. "Not carrying my winter bivy gear will mean the difference of a less awkward packing system on the Fatback"

    I'm hoping this whole conversation wasn't spurred by how to carry the proper survival gear on the Fatback? If you had figured out an easy way to carry the winter bivy gear on the Fatback would you have even written this post? That's what I see when I read between the lines. I could be wrong....and I usually am.

    Here's my two cents. Keep in mind I'm a pack rat who always is over prepared and over packed.

    If you're not carrying survival gear appropriate for the conditions and you get into trouble, you will put anyone that has to help you or rescue you at risk. That's irresponsible and unforgivable.

    My starting point for my adventures like the Arrowhead 135 are to plan for the worst case scenarios first and then make adjustments as the race gets closer and once I know the forecast for race day.

    That's my fairly blunt opinion that I realize many people disagree with.

  20. Jill I'm so pleased that you wrote this post. Your post and the responses make me think about what I do to find those beautiful endrophins. Beat found you and his response tells me where some of his endrophins were found.
    I know what you are going to decide but I'll give you another reason to do so. Take the Iditarod post from Lindsay, you are OK but find another person in danger. I don't believe you could just pass by with just a "Good luck". How this situation turns out would be an unknown but your finish time means nothing compared to your character.

  21. Doug,

    My bivy bundle actually fits very well on the Fatback. There's more clearance above the front wheel so it can hang from the handlebars without a front rack; Puglsey needs a front rack. So — lack of front rack will actually save me a pound or so, and I also have dialed in other gear (and cut back on food) to save weight as well. Combined with the fact that the Fatback is lighter than Pugsley overall, my kit will likely weight less this year than last, even with heavier survival gear.

    This post was meant as a defense of carrying this gear; as Robin mentioned in her comment, not everyone does in the White Mountains 100 and most of the fast guys don't. However, I think you'll find anyone with less experience or from outside Fairbanks does carry a full sleeping system in the WM100. As you know, it's a different game when you don't have the physical ability to move as quickly as the leaders, and you do end up in holes in the field where you can spend long hours without seeing another person.

    The WM100 has a volunteer snowmobile patrol, six checkpoints, and the longest between them is 20 miles. Last year, the winners finished in under 12 hours. Given these facts, you can see why the fast guys would opt not to carry the weight, and I think it's great this race gives them a choice. I fall better in line with the turtles, which is why I wrote this post.

    As for race day weather, right now the forecast is calling for snow! Eeek! There's a chance that this won't be a 12-hour year for the winners, and my Susitna 100 foot training may come in handy. Just have to loosen up these shoulders for the potential long push.

  22. Jill,
    You are way out of my league so I don't have much to add to this discussion except the old adage: Better safe than sorry.

    We all love being outside in the winter doing our favorite pursuits generating body heat but if something goes wrong that warmth is gone in a hurry.

    Been reading along since before the Susitna. You are great writer and inspiring athlete. Keep it up.

  23. I want to say "take the bag" but that is selfish. I like hartage above want you to stay alive so we can keep reading your blog for many years to come. A safety net like insurance keeps us more independent - so others don't need to rescue us. I can understand all your arguments above. So I'll just say, be safe and have a great time like you always do. Your journey is inspiring.

  24. "If you're not carrying survival gear appropriate for the conditions and you get into trouble, you will put anyone that has to help you or rescue you at risk. That's irresponsible and unforgivable"

    I agree with this, and from your posts you do seem to be underprepared a LOT so I am really at a loss as to why you are even having this debate. In your last race you couldn't zip up your own jacket. In normal bike rides you run out of water alarmingly often. You bonk and get sick and struggle a lot yet you don't change your system, nutrition, etc. Perhaps your preparedness needs some improvement?

  25. Actually, most of these issues you mention came up because of poor decisions on my part, not because I was unprepared. Except for the running out of water — that has maybe happened to me three or four times in total, and hasn't happened since my initial weeks in Montana last June. Only difference between me and most people who everything always seems to go right for, is that I actually own up to my mistakes. And I really do make an effort not to make them again.

  26. Love the topic we spawned. Interesting to hear other peoples thoughts. For some reason, unlike some other hot debate issues, I can agree or understand all comments. Way better read then 29er vs 26er debates.

    In the end I always hope you choose safety. I play a tough game but no where close to what I portray.

  27. I've been reading Jill's blog for several years, and at first I thought "geez, this girl makes so many mistakes!". I finally realized that, as she says above, she just owns up to them more openly than most. When I've made mistakes in my outdoor adventures, I tend to file them quietly away with a firm resolve not to repeat them (not always successful in that regard, I'm afraid). Jill is a prolific writer, so she spills it out for all to read, messy mistakes and all. Don't think I could do that!


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