February 26, 2008
The Puntilla Lake Lodge was little more than a roof and a stove pipe sticking out of a small mountain of drifted snow.
Its elevation was about 2,000 feet, an unlikely altitude for human inhabitants in that part of the world. Weather that would be considered extreme anywhere else — 20 below temperatures, 40 mph wind gusts, white-out blizzards — was normal weather outside the Puntilla Lake Lodge.
Around its wind-scoured walls, the last strands of spruce before alpine tree line, with scraggly branches all blown to one side, provided little protection. The wood stove blasted out dry heat as the lodge’s manager — a teenage boy — handed me a can of clam chowder that had been boiling on a camp stove, and a thin paper napkin to hold it with. I took a plastic spoon and stirred the off-white glop around the blackened can. The soup burned my fingers and charred my throat, but I finally had some of my appetite back and did not want to waste it. I began to nibble on discs of pilot bread, a quintessential Alaska Bush emergency food that supposedly never goes soggy or stale. It tasted exactly like a soggy, stale saltine cracker.
Beds had been stacked together side by side in the tiny, single-room building. They were mostly empty now with the exception of Brij, who was sleeping soundly on a bottom bunk, and the teenager, who seemed grumpy about the necessity of staying awake past 4 a.m. He did not seem to want to chat with me. I tried to ply information about the trail ahead and he told me simply that two guys had been up to the pass on their snowmobiles the day before, but he had no idea if the trail was broken beyond there. I asked him if any of the other cyclists had opted to go over Hell’s Gate, a long-way around that veers around Rainy Pass but tacks on 33 extra miles. He just shrugged. “I think they all went over the pass,” he said.
For someone who lived so close to the edge of civilization, he didn’t seem to have much interest in what existed beyond. I asked him if he stayed at the lodge year round. He said he only spent the winters there, helping out his family, who operated the lodge for hunters, snowmobilers and sled dog mushers. I smiled at the thought of a winter destination resort in Alaska. The wind outside rattled the cabin’s log walls, and frost was forming near the inside corners despite the wood stove. Puntilla was a strange place to spend a winter when most Alaskans were retreating to California and Hawaii, but such is the nature of the Iditarod Trail.
I sat down on one of the beds and began to strip off my soggy clothing. I examined my problem areas and became alarmed when I saw my right knee was extremely swollen, but then again, my entire leg was swollen. I was probably just retaining water. My right big toe was surrounded in an enormous blister, which I decided I would believe was simply a blister, and not frostbite. I took three aspirin, two Tums and two glucosamine pills, covered my knees in menthol patches, popped a cough drop in my mouth and laid down on the hard mattress.
I never expected the accommodations in this race to be luxurious, but I was a bit surprised just how Spartan they actually were. People actually lived like this for entire winters. There were probably others who lived like this their entire lives, in tiny cabins set against the continent’s largest mountains, with only mortared logs and wood stoves to hold back the constant needling of the fingers of death.
The unwelcome light of dawn hit my face at about 8:30 a.m. Brij was shuffling around the cabin, packing up his gear. The teenage lodge manager was still awake, and still staring blankly out the window. No one had come in behind us yet. Not Ted, and not the last straggling Euro cyclists. I half expected to see Geoff catch up to me by now, as slow as I had been moving. I looked around the room, but all the other beds were empty. I asked Brij if I could head out with him. He nodded, but we both knew I would only be able to hold his wheel for a few miles. I opted instead to take off early, let him catch me, and that way keep at least one racer in my time zone for as long as I could.
My gut was still empty when I walked into the glare of the heatless sun. I could not stomach the thought of more pilot bread and can-flavored soup. I still had a frame bag full of nuts and Clif Bars, so I certainly wasn’t going to starve. The cold air wrapped around me, but its grip had been softened since the morning before. I tried to tally how many hours of sleep I had logged overnight and couldn’t decide if it was three or 27. It was Tuesday now, 9 a.m., and I was already losing track of time to the relentless pull of the trail. The morning was clear and cold and bathed in a kind of intense beauty that was nearly incapacitating, as delirious and exhausted as I was. All I could do was keep my feet on the pedals as my eyes darted around in awe. In the blindness of the night before, I had climbed all the way into the sister peaks of Denali. After 165 miles of watching them from a distance, I was finally carving my way into their direct shadows.
The trail, only shallowly tracked by the two snowmobiles the lodge manager had mentioned, softened quickly in the sun. After three miles, I gave up the hard pedaling and resumed walking with my bike. A red fox darted down the trail beside me, stopping briefly to look back before it raced ahead, much faster than I could ever hope to move.
Brij soon followed, wishing me good morning as he swerved through the soft snow in his strongman effort to ride as much of the trail as possible. Sunrise climbed over the barren peaks, and the last strands of spruce gave way to thin alder branches and huge, open meadows that in the summer would be covered in tundra. In February, they were simply expanses of snow, blank sheets of paper scribbled with bare branches and the deep tracks of a dozen riders who walked through here before me.
Footprints were always a discouraging sign. Having watched them appear occasionally on the trail since the second day of the race, I had ascertained that I was one of the least skilled snow bikers out there. Most of the cyclists proved able to ride in places where I could not, and their footprints were a mark of the trail’s deterioration. When there were a single set of footprints, I could often ride, but not always. When there were three or four, mine were nearly always behind them, walking. When there were eight or more, I didn’t stand a chance of mounting my bike and coaxing the wheels to turn. The snow was just too soft, the incline too steep, the effort too difficult.
Still, the long bike push up into the Alaska Range was something I had expected, and nothing could sour my mood in the midst of such sweeping beauty. I pulled out my camera and shot a self-portrait against the chiseled white peaks. I looked at the digital display, an image of my black hat coated in frost, a swirl of frozen hair, a bright red face and a huge smile. I looked so happy. It made me smile again.
I pulled out a celebratory peanut butter cup and stuck it in my mouth. I was becoming more used to the culinary experience of frozen food — tasteless, dry and repulsive at first bite, it would slowly dissolve into warm and creamy sustenance. It was still hard to coax much of it down. If I had a hundred peanut butter cups, I probably would have eaten them all, but I didn’t, so I forced down two crunchy granola bars and called my 400-calorie breakfast good.
The wind picked up more force as the afternoon approached. I crossed the last long, open meadow and turned right into a narrow canyon, the final ascent to Rainy Pass — at 3,300 feet, the highest point on the Iditarod Trail. The trail took a turn for the very steep; the pushing became backbreaking work. I dug my boots into the snow, and with my hands clenched around the brakes, pushed the bike forward with all of my strength just so I could take another step. My shoulders ached and my biceps burned. I cursed the fact I had not spent at least some of my training time in the gym lifting big weights, but in the heatless sun of that third day, all of my physical training seemed to hardly matter anyway.
Sure, I was fit, but I had probably been nearly as fit for such an effort six months before. I really should have spent more time researching light gear, learning to ride a bike on top of soft snow, and buying peanut butter cups. It didn’t even seem odd to me that, in the midst of a terribly difficult bike race, my physical fitness suddenly seemed meaningless. Not all humans are equipped to win races, but everyone comes preprogrammed with the will to survive.
My mood swung wildly all day long. In the morning, I had experienced peaks of elation so extreme I could hardly breathe. But as I clawed my way up Rainy Pass, I found myself dipping into new depths of despair. A few times, I stopped walking because I could not visualize another step up the mountain. And then, just as it had so faithfully on Dismal Swamp in 2006, my will to survive pushed the autopilot button, and the mundane miles kept coming. After a few of those deep lows, it was hard to even pull my emotions back to normal levels. The beauty of Rainy Pass, which surrounded me like a fortress, was already slipping behind a curtain of indifference. I did not even mind the impending darkness as I crested the pass at sunset. If anything, no longer being able to see all the miles in front of me might do my emotional health some good, I thought.
I dropped down the pass several hundred yards to get out of the wind. I ducked into a rocky outcropping that was just unusual enough to have possibly been built by hands. Sure enough, I found a sign, weather faded and coated in ice, with simple black letters spelling out “Rainy Pass.” I took a lot of comfort in that simple marker of civilization — proof that humans had come through there before me, and proof that I was still on the right track.
I thought wistfully of hiking with my dad as a teenager. At all of our destinations, a scenic overlook or a peak, there always seemed to be a sign or a register. We would mark our accomplishment with a phone call home and a big lunch. But there, on the wind-swept ice of Rainy Pass, there was no cell phone reception for miles. I rifled through my frame bag to look for something to eat for lunch and realized that the setting sun meant it was nearly 6 p.m. I had eaten nearly nothing since my granola bar and peanut butter cup breakfast— a few nuts here and there, a few dried cranberries and fruit leathers. I was probably lucky if I had a thousand calories in me for the entire day, and still I did not feel hungry. I settled on two more peanut butter cups — even though I already had eaten my daily allotment — half of a five-ounce chocolate bar, and a Clif Bar that I had been thawing in my coat pocket. It was a meager dinner and it tasted like frozen mud, but it was my duty as a survivor to put it down.
As I started down the pass, the footprints grew more deep and even more numerous. In fact, all I could see were footprints. There were no longer any snowmobile tracks, no evidence of any trail at all. There were simply the racers who came before me, stomping through knee-deep snow down the steep slope, laying the only path I had to follow as night descended. After three more miles of slow downhill walking and no evidence of any trail at all, it became apparent that not only did I have to walk up Rainy Pass, I was going to have to walk down it as well.
Downhill pushing was an effort I never anticipated. With big tires, bicycle riding in the snow is nearly always possible downhill, even when the trail is soft. But without a tracked trail, weight just sinks into the powder and wheels become useless. A set of skis or snowshoes could have at least offered my body some float, but I had none.
I waded through the knee-deep snow and wondered aloud, to the peaks disappearing into the night above me, how much farther it was to the next checkpoint, Rohn. I guessed it was at least 20 miles. At my most hopeful walking speed, 2 mph, I still had 10 more hours to push. In the midst of a powder slog, my pace was probably closer to 1 mph. The need for sleep was surrounding me like a smothering cocoon. I did not know if I could handle another all-nighter, but did not believe I could survive a night out.
So I walked, because walking meant life, and stopping meant death, and in that state of extremes, there is actually little to fear. I knew I had to keep moving, so I did. All of the surrounding threats — the cold, the moose and wolves, the open streams, the looming darkness, the remote location — faded behind a primal drive to stay in motion. Although I was quickly succumbing to exhaustion and becoming more aware of just how far I had still to go, I did not despair. I did not even hit the same level of lows that I had experienced mere hours earlier, when my toughest challenge was pushing my bike up a steep hill. I felt good, actually, because I was still moving. And as long as I was moving, I was alive.
Several hours passed into oblivion, not quite awake but not yet asleep, as my bobbing light cast a sickly yellow glow on the endless march of footprints. I followed them, down steep hills, beside the twisting branches of spruce trees, across thin ice over a rushing stream and into the heart of the night’s darkness. I was lucky to have those footprints. If it had been up to me to navigate myself in that state of mind, I might have walked right off a cliff or into open water. But it’s hard to say how inept I would have been if I had been completely on my own. The will to survive is strong, and it drives as effectively as it can, but only as much as it has to.
In countless hours of post-race reflection, I have tried to piece together the sequence of “what went wrong” in those final hours awake on the backside of Rainy Pass. My memories are dim at best, obscured by physical overload and mounting indifference. But I remember stopping, the way I had dozens of times that day, turning off my headlamp and looking up at the sky. A dim ribbon of green light wavered in the narrow strip of sky above the mountains, peaks so white they glowed against the moonless night. Stars glistened behind the northern lights, and I groped for the elation I deserved, the appropriate response to unspeakable beauty. I felt nothing. I turned on my light and moved to take a step, but my legs wouldn’t move. They simply refused to move. I knelt into the snow and let out a long, almost relieved sigh.
My will to survive was firing just enough to alert my retreated intelligence that I was in the midst of a serious bonk. I had run out of fuel, finally and completely. The will to survive would have let me continue if I had no other choice, but what little intelligence I had left reminded me that I did have other choices. I had pushed my body to a state of inescapable exhaustion, but I had come prepared for the possibility of motionlessness.
My bike still held survival sleeping gear — stuff I had only used and tested a handful of times. So it was strange that like clockwork, like a routine I had practiced a hundred times, I unhooked my bivy bundle, dug a deep trench in the snow, threw a few spruce branches in the hole, unrolled my bivy and crawled inside.
My body warmth filled the sack and I took several deep breaths while comforting myself with out-loud exclamations that “this isn’t that bad.” I reached out to pull my CamelBak, my only source of water, inside with me, and cuddled with the frigid bladder of half-frozen water.
Knowing I was in the midst of a bonk mandated as much food as I could stomach, but I was only able to put down the other half of my chocolate bar from dinner. At least I was warm, warm enough to let the fear encompass me again, and the quick glance at my thermometer, still bottomed out at 20 below after two minutes inside my bag, was enough to reignite my smoldering fear. What if the warm cocoon surrounding me failed? How would I possibly crawl 10 or more miles into Rohn? I heard a low, dull howl in the distance that was either a wolf or the wind. I could not remember the last time I felt so alone.
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