Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The toughest miles

"I can't do this," Beat's voice crackled across the satellite connection. "It's not possible."

"It doesn't matter," I said. "Look what you've done already. You're amazing. All you need to do is get to Luce's Lodge. Get some rest, get some sleep. Sleep for a day if you want. All you have to do is get to Luce's."

I hung up my cell phone and stared hatefully at the snow flurries floating outside my window. The Iditarod Trail was a relative breeze just one week ago when I traveled these same miles in the Susitna 100. Now it was buried in more than a foot of new, unconsolidated snow, and not a single machine had been through to break the trail. The runners were breaking the trail, at a pace of about 1.5 mph, and the bikers were still farther behind. They had covered only forty miles in 24 nearly non-stop hours. At that pace, Beat was right — it wasn't possible. 

Geoff and Beat analyze Geoff's Iditarod sled. 
The race began so optimistically, under an overcast sky and 28 degrees on Knik Lake. Runners and bikers fluttered around and observed everyone else's gear. I spent much of the pre-race hour chatting with Geoff and Beat. One might think such a situation would be awkward, given I haven't seen Geoff since August 2010. But in the preoccupation of the moment, it was all an infectious mixture of anticipation and anxiety. At 2 p.m. Sunday, 47 racers embarked on their respective 350-mile or 1,000-mile journeys. The bikes took off toward the packed road and the runners formed a line across the lake toward the Iditarod Trail. We spectators waved and watched with admiration and, at least some of us, envy.


I felt frustrated about how demoralized Beat was when he called me at 1 p.m. Monday, because there was nothing I could say to boost his spirits. I couldn't promise that snowmachine traffic would come to save him from the wallow, and I couldn't lie away the fact there was more snow in the forecast. These aren't supposed to be the tough miles of the Iditarod; they're supposed to be the warm up. The tough miles of the Iditarod come later, over the mountains, across the deep-frozen Interior, into the unknown. I been holed up at a computer, waiting for news all morning. But I didn't want to dwell on my frustration. I packed up my gear and snowshoes and set out toward Lazy Mountain.

Beat and David Johnston model their individual race fashion.
Beat acquired the satellite phone one day before the race, mainly because he's a gear geek who can't resist a chance to use intriguing technology. I admitted that I'd love to hear from him during the race, but I certainly didn't expect it. I know how it can be out there. The outside world truly becomes another world. The first text came at 4:26 a.m. Monday: "bivy wall of death w/ anne, geoff, david and more. we're lead group breaking trail. overtook pete. Then "miss you, love you. not sure can be finished."

I received the first call just after 9 a.m. "I'm still on the Sustina River," Beat said, meaning he had traveled about thirty miles since 2 p.m. the day before with only about two hours rest. "We're taking turns breaking trail," Beat told me of the group of runners he was traveling with. "When I'm out front, I'm leading the race. All of the bikers are behind us now." I was floored by this news, because I slept through the text and had no idea trail conditions had gotten so bad. There was no trail. They might as well have been cutting a path across a remote wilderness, plodding through bottomless powder like turn-of-the-century polar explorers.


The packed surface of the Lazy Mountain trail was so icy that every step forward in my snowshoes netted two skids back. I should have packed crampons. I stepped over into the deep powder beside the trail and began the slow plod up the steep slope. Every step was an ordeal; I sunk to my knees down to an icy base, so the footing was both slippery and strenuous. The low ceiling of clouds grew closer, and I knew that soon all I'd see were shapeless shades of gray.

Out of the gate at Knik Lake.
Beat sounded so discouraged when he called at 1 p.m. Progress was almost nonexistent; he estimated he had traveled six or seven miles in the four hours since we last spoke. He had been struggling with every ounce of strength for a standstill. The temperature was above freezing and he was wet, and growing cold. He had fallen behind the lead group because his sled wasn't performing well in the deep snow. It kept tipping over and dragging like a flat tire through the wet powder. "Who knew I'd wish I used a toboggan?" he said. I felt guilty because I too pushed for skis over a plastic sled. The sled performed flawlessly in the Sustina 100, but it wasn't designed for unconsolidated snow.

"Just take it easy," I urged. "Go slow, take breaks. You have nothing to gain by pushing hard."

"I have to push hard to to go forward," Beat said. "I don't have a choice."

I couldn't help but sigh. "Yes, I know," I said. "I understand. I do understand."


As the fog grew thicker, visibility decreased to a few bleak twigs among the snow. I was drenched in sweat despite wearing only a single layer, and my poles stabbed uselessly at the powder. I was beginning to resent my Lazy Mountain hike, but for my own reasons of coping with a situation I couldn't help, I felt obligated to keep at it. I was compelled to join the slog and show my solidarity for all 47 racers in the Iditarod Trail Invitational who had yet to even see the first checkpoint.

Those who have never traveled long distances in bad snow conditions can't really understand how incredibly frustrating and difficult it is. It's the definition of futility, fighting a useless war with no end in sight. Climbing a mountain, well, that was easy. At least I had the top to look forward to. Beat only had the knowledge that there was no way he could maintain this level of effort, and no way he could finish the race at his current pace. He had no reason to believe that would change.

I reached a wind-swept saddle and decided this would have to be the place I turned around. The snow was too crusty to register tracks, and I couldn't risk forging my own trail in light that was so disorientingly flat. I was as likely to step off a cornice and plummet down a 70-degree slope as I was to follow the proper ridge. But as I stood at a rock outcropping shooting photos, I noticed the muted glare of the sun breaking through the clouds. When I looked up, I saw streaks of blue amid the gray. "Maybe I can get above this," I thought. As long as I could see rocks to help me gain my bearings, I decided it was worth a try.

Facing the long path ahead.
A 6:10 p.m. text brought a new injection of hope: "big meal at Luce's. now Yentna with Shawn."Beat had not only made it to Luce's Lodge, he was planning to continue up the river. It didn't necessarily mean trailbreakers had put a track in place, or that the going was any easier, but at least he had enough optimism to head out the door. He planned to take a long rest at Yentna Station and set out toward Skwentna in the morning. Who knows what tomorrow will bring. Still, Beat is a master at taking things one step at a time — the bad steps and the good.

Sure enough, a few hundred feet more elevation carried me out of the clouds and into a clearing. At first I could only see hints of Matanuska Peak, and then it appeared in gold-tinted brilliance. Clouds continued to drift across the mountain and I climbed as hard as I could, determined to tag the peak before they closed in again. At the top at 3:45 p.m., I sent a quick text message to Beat's satellite phone: "On top of Lazy Mountain. Climbed above the clouds and found the sun. It is coming your way I can tell. You're amazing and I'm so proud of you."