Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A symphony of cold

Movement I, allegro
Even the air seemed frozen in place, a thickly compressed stillness that shattered as I darted toward the outhouse wearing only my running shoes, a base layer shirt and underpants. I didn't suit up for the 4 a.m. chore because I so feared the deep cold that I wanted an extreme test run before the consequences expanded exponentially out on the river ice. Sure enough, the thermometer next to the heated entryway of Luce's Lodge already read 23 below zero, Fahrenheit. On clear nights, this thick, cold air sinks into the river basins like a rock. I expected it was ten degrees colder on the trail just fifty feet below the lodge. Were we going to see 40 below before dawn emerged — at least what passes for dawn in December in Alaska?

But my more immediate concern was a full-body revolt against the 90-degree temperature swing just outside the door. I could almost feel the blood in my extremities retreating toward the hidden refuge of my core. The fragile cells trapped on the surface of my skin sprung to full attention, struggling to fight the blood's escape through their rapidly diminishing armor. It was a full-blown riot that penetrated the fragile realities of my warm-blooded nature and unleashed a more primitive, abstract kind of energy that never fails to stir my soul. Every molecule in my body was vibrating — naked, exposed, and alive.

My brain joined the fight by urging my numb arms and legs to start flailing, an erratic dance that reflected the simultaneous elation and desperation I was experiencing. I knew a heated cabin was just meters away, but that didn't stop the panic of cells that understood on a fundamental level exactly what dying feels like. They raged and screamed at the curious part of my brain that continued to urge in a gentle voice, "Wait, just wait. There's no real harm yet. This is really quite interesting. I'm kinda sorta wondering just how dead we can get." But of course, primitive survival instincts easily won that intellectual battle. I finished my business and raced back to the cabin before my core temperature started dropping. I still had to shiver beneath the covers for several minutes before my fingers found the wherewithal to at least tingle.

The Luce's Lodge experiment left me feeling simultaneously exhilarated and terrified. It was madness, really, that I was going to take conditions that my nearly naked body could barely survive for five minutes, and with the minimal use of technology, fitness and intellectual prodding, push through the extreme cold for hours and even days. But I had just been out there — for 26 miles, actually — walking away from the safe haven of the ice-coated Parks Highway and into Southcentral Alaska's deep-frozen backcountry. Our ambitious plan had us trekking overland to Shell Lake, a distance of about 90 miles, in three days, followed by day trips and New Year's celebrations launched from a primitive cabin above the lake. We dragged behind us all of the necessities for such a trek, including food, fuel and survival gear. We hoped to camp out if conditions were conducive to "fun winter camping." But if temperatures tipped the scales toward "struggle for survival," we agreed we would invest the extra miles and money to seek refuge in commercial wilderness lodges. This was, after all, our vacation.

Our friend from Anchorage, Anne, along with Beat and I, launched from Deshka Landing on Wednesday, December 28, in light snow and a "balmy" temperature of 5 below zero. The air still held a sharp bite as we fumbled with last-minute sled assemblies and gear adjustments. It was after 10 a.m. and still only the faintest hints of first daylight managed to penetrate the ice fog. It would be dark again by 4 p.m. I wrapped a series of layers around my body and finished it off with my new down skirt, currently my favorite piece of gear as it provides the perfect combination of heat-venting and protection for the cold-weakest part of my body, my butt. Beat eyed the skirt jealously and expressed his desire for a piece of gear that would similarly protect the front side of his undercarriage. "I should just wear a skirt like that," he said. "Who cares? I'm already out here. It's not like I need to assert my masculinity."

I had a hunch that minus 5 might be the warmest temperature we would see all week. As we shuffled toward Mount Susitna — now fairly well-known territory for me — I was filled with anxiety about the unknowns. The unknowns of independence. Honestly, the main reason I like winter "racing" is because an organized event means someone is probably looking out for you, even if only on a base level. Out here in the "pre-season" of December's darkness, we weren't even likely to see much cursory snowmachine traffic. We were truly on our own. I was also anxious about the unknowns of the forecasted cold snap and what that meant for long-term exposure to low temperatures. Some of my friends who live in milder climates often fail to understand the depths cold can reach. They say to me, "Once it drops below 30 degrees, isn't it pretty much all cold?"

"Well, yeah," I reply. "But you know the difference between 30 degrees and 90 degrees? You can feel that, right? Well, that's the difference between 30 above and 30 below."

Even in the minus-single-digits, the snow was sharp and dry enough that the runners on our sleds dragged through it like sandpaper. I felt like I was pulling a reluctant dog — in that way animals make their bodies inexplicably heavy when they don't want to move, so too do sleds on frigid snow. But this was new snow, still soft and powdery enough that every huffing step resulted in a heel-deep posthole. I faltered for about a quarter mile before I stopped to strap on my snowshoes. Beat and Anne, who are both runners and therefore prefer to cling to the hope of running, continued on trail shoes alone. For all of us, moving at 3.5 miles per hour was intensely hard work, the kind that makes my ten-minute miles up steep trails in California feel like woefully inadequate training. But at the same time, hard work produced our own personal bubbles of heat, a safe haven of warmth in the stark and terror-rimmed landscape. As long as we could keep moving — and stuffing down the calories to to keep our furnaces cranking — we actually had much less to fear. This is a kind of self-reliance I cherish — that even the best in insulating technologies can still be matched by human perseverance. Of course I was still grateful for all the heavy gear I dragged in my sled in case things went horribly wrong — after all, I don't trust my perseverance to those extremes.

We arrived at Luce's Lodge just before 6 p.m. It had already been pitch dark for more than an hour. We struggled to hoist our sleds up a steep embankment toward the oasis of warmth. Bright lights illuminated the cabin and a friendly Christmas tree sparkled in the front window. I nearly teared up with nostalgia. The first time I saw Luce's Lodge was as the mile 52 checkpoint in the 2006 Susitna 100, my first endurance race. The race volunteers plucked me out of the darkness at a similar time in the evening, gave me drinking water, told me I was doing fantastic even though my eyes were bloodshot and my clothing soaked from a disheartening rainstorm. I think often about that race. To some extent, I feel like every big endurance challenge I've embarked on since has in some ways reflected a desire to duplicate my novice experience — the intensity, the hardships, the raw beauty, and the personal triumphs over fear and weakness. Of course I can never again return to the same wide-eyed naivety that made the 2006 Susitna 100 so soul-awakening. But I can return to these places that still fill my heart with happy memories, and remember exactly what it was like to feel so afraid and so alive, all at the same time.

But the minute we stopped, the bubble of warmth broke and reality punched back through. It was cold, really cold, and getting colder. At least for now, Luce's had hot chocolate and warm chili, and a pre-rented cabin already heated up for us, so we wouldn't have to think about trekking as many as forty miles the next day, deeper into the backcountry, in temperatures down to 40 below, toward a possible overnight bivy in the wilderness. These were all realities we didn't really need to think about. Not yet, at least.