Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Winter of discontent

Cache Mountain Divide during the 2012 White Mountains 100: So bonked, so tired, so having the time of my life
In late February 2013, Beat is going to load up his sled and set out from Knik Lake, Alaska, and walk toward Nome — 1,000 miles on the Iditarod Trail. For many reasons, such an ambitious undertaking is well beyond my scope right now, and yet the desire to find an Alaska adventure of my own burns deep. On the whole, I'm an adaptable person who could happily change a lot about my life — but, as of yet, I feel unwilling to let go of my annual winter "pilgrimages" through the wildernesses of the Far North. Why this particular activity has become so deeply woven through the fabric of who I am, is still a mystery to me. But a winter without Alaska is still as unthinkable to me as a summer without mountain biking. If I *had* to choose one to give up, well ... most of my biking friends would probably not be happy with my answer.

Happily, Beat's month-long commitment to Nome will likely give me a lot of time to work with in winter 2012-2013. Less happily, my usual, convenient and fun solution of racing is not an option this year. The three races that have played the largest role in my personal development — the Susitna 100, the White Mountains 100, and the Iditarod Invitational 350 — are all unavailable to me this year. I do believe the Susitna 100 will be back someday, and I've mostly been able to let go of the ITI 350, but the White Mountains 100 lottery outcome has been hard for me to cheerfully accept. I admit I was one who didn't understand why some runners are so devastated when they fail to make it through the Western States or Hardrock 100 lotteries. What's the big deal? There are lots of other opportunities. But now I get it. It's hard when you've been part of a small community for three years, channeled so much effort and devotion toward one event, and suddenly you're shut out. I understand why it has to work that way. It's still hard.

So the question remains: What to do? I appreciate the votes on my blog poll. The results were interesting:

Rainy Pass during the 2008 ITI 350: So frightened, so destroyed, so loving every minute I'm alive
"Independent, self-supported bike tour of the Iditarod Trail from Knik Lake to McGrath," 107 votes (31%): A longer, self-supported snow bike tour in Alaska is something I've been considering since late 2009. The main reason I haven't followed through is because I moved away from Alaska, and now lack what I consider to be the necessary conditions to adequately prepare for such an adventure. Attempting 350 miles of the Iditarod Trail on my own would be, in my opinion, considerably more difficult than participating in the race. I would have to be absolutely prepared for every contingency because there are no bailouts. I would have to carry all of my food and fuel, at least seven days' worth, from the start. I would have to prepare for camping every night, in potentially horrific weather conditions. There are a few lodges in the early miles where I could book a room and buy a hot meal, but beyond mile 165, I would be deep in the wilderness and completely on my own. There's also the issue of the short window when such a tour is even possible. Basically, the whole Iditarod Trail only exists for a few short weeks in late February and March. It's almost impossible to plan an independent tour and not bump into either the human-powered or the dog sled races. These two race organizations do so much to facilitate the maintenance of the Iditarod Trail that I do feel it's important to not get in their way. For all of these reasons, I admit I'm still more intimidated by the prospect of such a tour than I am drawn to it.

One of my ideas when I first started considering this in 2009 was to launch an initial "shakedown tour" on the first 165 miles of the trail, closer to "civilization" but far enough out that I could still make a day trip over Rainy Pass and see a lot of amazing scenery. At this point, having never done a longer winter outdoor camping trip, this is probably a better idea. Another idea suggested by Phil in Nome was to fly out to a village much farther west on the Iditarod Trail, connect two points, and see some incredible and completely new-to-me country. This, in some ways, would be more manageable than a McGrath tour since I could mail myself food packages to all the villages along the way. I could arrange it to finish in Nome and wait for Beat there. This is also, of course, an intimidating and probably expensive prospect.

2012 "Pecha Kucha Mountain" fat bike weekend: All of the fun, none of the suffering.
"Snow bike or sled tour on the Denali Highway, Resurrection Pass, and other shorter routes in Alaska," 90 votes (26%): Yes, it is possible to have an adventure in the Far North without resorting to a big sufferfest. I admit I like the challenge of more "extreme" adventures, but I also like vacations that are driven toward fun. The awesome women who invited me on a snow bike tour of the Dawson Trail last March — Jenn and Sierra in Whitehorse, and Jill in Anchorage — are all interested in putting together another tour this winter. One idea I had was the Denali Highway, 135 miles of somewhat maintained snowmobile trail in the shadow of the eastern Alaska Range. There are two lodges along the way to help minimize the suffering, although there is one 65-mile stretch with no commercial structures. Depending on weather and trail conditions, this could either be a very long day or a long two days. I'm not sure how far my friends want to venture into the suffer zone.

There are other possibilities for great tours as well — the 48-mile wilderness trail on Resurrection Pass, snowmobile trails around Homer, and the Denali Park Road, although I'm not sure whether that's maintained at all during the winter. There's also the White Mountains loop in Fairbanks, and of course lots of options in the Susitna Valley. I could certainly spend a happy month seeking out 2- to 3-night snow bike and snowshoe/sled tours, working on my book, riding my Fatback around Anchorage, and hiking a few small mountains. Wait ... why am I considering anything else? Oh, yeah, because I would genuinely miss my annual slogfest. If nothing else, I'm likely to be very lazy the rest of the winter with nothing to train for.

The Dawson Overland Trail, home of the Yukon Quest and Yukon Arctic Ultra. It is beautiful.
"Suck up the exorbitant fee and run the Yukon Arctic Ultra on foot," 45 votes (13%): This is one race I would love a shot at running. Paying for it, however, is not nearly as enticing. For whatever reason, the YAU is considerably more expensive than any other winter race I've participated in, and I mean considerably. The price of the 100-mile event is basically insulting. The 300-mile or 430-mile events might be more justifiable, but again, these distances would be extremely hard, especially because if I race this winter, I want to do so on foot. The YAU is notorious for cold weather and bad trail, enough that winter cyclists have all but abandoned this race (I looked at the results from last year, and they were all runners and skiers.) Plus, it's in early February, so it takes place before I'm going to be in Alaska, making travel another considerable expense. As much as I'd love to run this race, it's out of my price range this year. Perhaps my Yukon friends and I will be able to organize another independent trip on the Dawson Overland Trail, which I'd love to see again. I will mention in this section that I am strongly considering registering for the Homer Epic 100K. It's an awesome course that utilizes the snowmobile trails where I used to ride my mountain bike when I lived in Homer. However, regardless of how I approach that race, I'm not sure it will become a focus.

Walking the Yentna River in December 2011: I will say this, there's a lot of time to think out there. 
"Buckle down and finish writing a book for crying out loud," 57 votes (16%): I'm happy that this option received even more votes than the single winter racing option in my poll. It means there are a few out there who care whether or not I ever actually finish my book project(s). With all the fresh inspiration I was seeking in Utah, I've been trying to sit down and work on it this week. It's tough to explain, but my mind feels so "mushy" much of the time and my writer's block persists. I'm convinced this is a result of devoting so much energy to my outdoor pursuits and travel, and also having what is in reality so much time to work on my writing. I'm a journalist; I honestly work better under impossible deadlines. Well, this winter I'm vowing to set some impossible deadlines for myself. Having no sufferfest to train for might, in the end, be the best thing for me. This isn't to say I'm giving up on the possibility of a longer tour. But maybe it won't be so devastating if it can't happen.

"Experiment with speed work and see if I have a 'fast' 50K in the old legs," 23 votes (6%): I mentioned in my last blog post that I wouldn't mind aiming for a ~5:30 50K, acknowledging that I would need to focus my training in order to achieve this. This and the Homer Epic 100K could the efforts I train for in California while planning other short Alaska adventures. The problem is, the race I'd like to train for, Crystal Springs 50K, is in early January — right after Beat and I return from a dark and cold training weekend in Fairbanks. It's not the ideal taper for a fast 50K. I might look into other trail races and keep this possibility on the table.

The Douglas Island Ridge in Juneau, Alaska, in November 2009: Fleeting beauty worth experiencing
"Nothing, winter is for hibernating," 15 votes (4%): We'll just have to agree to disagree.


  1. Choose whatever makes you feel inspired enough to work on a book (she said selfishly). ;) Phil in Nome's suggestion sounds fun to me as a reader. Actually, all of them do. Except hibernating.

    Also, I'm envious of Google's seemingly European approach when it comes to the amount vacation days - will Beat still have time off next summer, or is he using most of them in Alaska?

  2. I'm really looking forward to a trip this year and am very interested in trying the Denali Highway route. I'm nervous too - do I have (or can I borrow) appropriate gear, how will I fare if it is really cold, can I ride that far, etc, etc. It would be a good challenge for me but I hope we can make it happen. Indeed..... some emails to be exchanged.

    Other than my own personal desires to see you, it might be interesting for you to train for a fast race. Just something a little different.

  3. I hear you on the winter Alaska thing. For me, the year doesn't feel complete unless I've got some snowy playtime, and the local options here mostly are downhill skiing (which I can't do anymore).

    Personally, if I were you, I'd do the Homer Epic. After all, duh, your name is Homer. Too perfect.

  4. Maybe you could combine options - schedule a bunch of those shorter adventures with friends, and then use them to create your impossible deadlines (I must have X completed and swear an affadavit of its completedness to my friends (ok, maybe not really - unless maybe that's needed for accountability's sake!), otherwise I cannot go on YZ fun adventure)?! Get enough events scheduled, then Viola!, you have a book! (Not to mention a lot of fun.)

    Anyway, whichever way you choose, sounds like you're going to have a great time! It's always a bummer to miss out on a beloved tradition - but sometimes I've created new traditions I've loved even more! Happy trails,


  5. It's too bad that there were no bikes last year at YAU as the trail would have been really good for it.

  6. Tough problem to have. Have to say I am jealous of all the opportunities though not the suffering. I'm sure you will find something great. Alaska is awesome, but there are also incredible wintery mountains elsewhere. Canada?

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  8. At first I voted for the YAU. That was until I googled it. The price really IS ridiculous.

    I changed my vote to the smaller routes after that.

  9. I'm curious how you two, especially Beat, have so much time to do these really cool things. When I say time, I mean time away from paying jobs. Given my paid vacation time is a bit small by some standards, even if it were double, I'd still not have that much time off. What's your secret/scheme/arrangement?

  10. I voted for the book project, but I have another suggestion: learn to XC ski. Then come ski with me across the Yellowstone Ecosystem in March.

  11. All the things!!! All these ideas sound great. I'm especially in favor of anything that secretly leads to interesting blog posts and more books. I also like the idea of the Homer Epic. I'm sure it will be a great winter. We're already getting our early snow dustings in Juneau!

  12. Adventure is in my blood. When I seek some place for adventure, I always go for hiking, camping, beaching (i mean going to the beach!), swimming, flying and other so-called extreme sports. Thanks for sharing such a nice experience with us.

  13. Walk a thousand miles to Nome? Now THAT's a crap load of suffering! Beat must be all over the Google newsletter.

  14. 1. Denali Highway. It can be a trudge if it's cold, as the snowmachines 'lift' the snow, then it freezes... as you ride over that, it breaks and compresses under your tires. This is what my buddy & I had last March at 30 below and windy. Even in these conditions, you can make it to Alpine Creek Lodge in a day if you start early. Plus, they are awesome.
    2. Denali Park has all the mushing trails that are in & out of great condition all winter. Call the park and ask to talk to the kennel.
    3. I agree with DaveC :)

  15. Jill,
    have you heard of the Tuscobia Winter Ultra in Wisconsin?


  16. I'd save the Resurrection ride for a year that the trail is open to snow machines (it's open every other year). I believe it's closed this year.
    A couple friends rode it two years ago. It turned into a rough hike-a-bike at -30F because moose had so badly post-holed the narrow ribbon of semi-ride able trail. They ended up coming out more than a day late and had to go back and get their bikes (14 miles in) the following weekend.
    These guys weren't cheechakos either. Just my $0.02

  17. Thanks for the input. Actually, I was thinking if I went to Resurrection Pass, I would snowshoe and/or run the trail with a sled. My friend Anne recommended we do that tour when we visited last year. I'd prefer that method of travel to snow bikes on ski-tracked backcountry trails regardless of their condition, so I agree with you.


Feedback is always appreciated!