Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Frost immersion

"It's like landing on an alien planet," Beat said as the plane approached Fairbanks. Below us was a swirling pattern of white swamps, black ice, and skinny spruce trees sticking out of the ground like skewers. As the island of artificial light grew closer, a yellow glow illuminated motionless wisps of water vapor. The Alaskan sitting next to us showed us his phone — current temperature, 39 below zero. "But it's a dry cold," he grinned.

Much of my time in Alaska has been spent near the coast, so most of my extreme cold experiences have been accompanied by wind. I stepped outside of the airport expecting a shocking furnace blast of air that was a hundred degrees colder than the place I left eight hours earlier. Instead, the air sat still and lifeless, like a tomb. "It doesn't feel that cold," I thought. Five seconds later, my nostrils froze shut.

We were happy to receive an invite to a cabin in the White Mountains on Sunday, but the short notice required a quick turnover to unpack three large duffels and organize everything we needed to survive a night in the Alaskan wilderness at 40 below. Important necessities included food and fuel, so first thing in the dark morning, I set to the task of starting the truck. Our friend who owns the place where we are staying is out of town, so his truck had been sitting for more than a week. I chipped hard ice off the windshield while his roommate blasted the alternator with a hot air gun. Unplug the engine block heater, jump into the cab, and crank the starter. Rrrr, rrr, rrr. After a minute the engine grumpily fired up, and continued to whine as the truck crept down the snow-packed road. It didn't seem to want to go faster than twenty miles an hour, which was just as well, because the brakes weren't really catching, either. By the time I got to Fred Meyer, my feet were frozen. I walked through the store with tears in my eyes as painful tingling brought them back to life, and passed casually dressed shoppers with a kind of rapt fascination. Day-to-day life seems so hard here. How do they do it?

Our gear was still the better part of a junk show at the Wickersham Dome trailhead, where a fierce wind blew along the ridge and the sun was sinking into the southern horizon at 1:30 p.m. Our group was small but eclectic — Tom was on skis, Jay was on a fatbike, and Beat and I were on foot dragging very large sleds. Beat was taking a nearly full Nome load for practice with the weight and also to test out a bunch of his gear. I took just about the same amount of stuff because I always partially believe I'm going to die out in these frozen expanses. Tom and Jay started down the trail as Beat and I futzed with gear, tying snowshoes on the back of the sleds, pulling gaiters over our feet, and becoming more and more chilled with adjustments we didn't have time to make back in Fairbanks. Finally, just before 2 p.m., we were on our way.

 First winter trip of the year is hard. First winter trip of the year in deeply subzero windchill is a cold shock. We didn't know what to expect so we just picked a system and hoped it was somewhere close to appropriate. A strenuous hike up the dome cranked up the heat quickly, and I believed I was overdressed. But then a wind gust would whip around a corner, and I'd question the comfort of taking off a layer. I opened zippers to vent heat, and zipped them up in quick succession, again and again.


 The wind became constant at the spine of the rolling ridge, and Beat suggested we try running. Every time I become overconfident about my strength as a runner, all I need to do is try to run while dragging a sled to be humbled by the reality that I am not strong. My lungs burned as I pumped my arms and legs like a body builder trying to pull a semi-truck. I felt like I was running hard, but watching Beat gain more distance on me made me aware that I was probably not moving any faster than I had been when I was hiking. The cold wind seemed to be laughing at me, tossing icy powder at my face.

The first few miles were tough, and I think even Beat felt a bit unnerved by the demands of this relatively small distance. But as the last pink light faded into a clear view of the distant Alaska Range, we started to find a groove. Our trail-running-trained bodies adjusted to the slower, softer surface, and well-heated cores finally started to share the warmth with our fingers and faces. By the time we were running, slowly, down the steep face of the Wickersham Wall, I felt alright.

 The long twilight faded almost imperceptibly into bright moonlight. I didn't turn on my headlamp once, even though we were out for three hours after the sun set. The hike by moonlight was beautiful, with an otherworldly silvery glow outlining stark shadows. Despite cramped glutes and tired legs, I wanted to keep walking, and was almost disappointed to see the soft glow of windows in Eleazar's cabin at the top of a long climb, twelve miles and four hours in.

Still, cabin life is great fun. Tom and Jay had the wood stove cranking and melted snow ready to drink. Beat and I made Cup Noodles for dinner while the guys made something much better (I only had about twenty minutes at the store to gather all of our supplies, and the food was picked out randomly as I rushed down the aisles.) But the guys did generously share part of a quart of ice cream that Tom hauled in. We swapped adventure stories late into the evening, hoping to see the Northern Lights come out (the moonlight was too bright to see much, although Tom did spot a weak aurora around 6 a.m.)

Breakfast was bagels and instant coffee, and we were out the door at first light on Christmas Eve, just before 10 a.m. We moved purposefully in an attempt to not be the last  ones back at the trailhead.


 The cold snap was starting to break and the wind had dissipated, but the morning felt colder than the evening before. Temperatures in the low-lying valley were still well into the minus twenties, and the climb back up to the ridge didn't do much to break the chill.


 Still, I was feeling stronger than the day before, finally breaking into my trekking groove. Beat had dressed lighter for the daytime hike out, and was having a hard time staying warm. It kept us moving at a good clip, even though my hammies and glutes protested mightily. The low-angle sun cast orange and pink light throughout the short day, a palette of continuously warm light to contrast the cold hues of the landscape. In my opinion, four hours of light this stunning more than balances out twenty hours of darkness. Even our Alaskan friends thought we were a little nutty for traveling up to this latitude so close to the winter solstice, but I think my friend Ed is right — Christmas really is one of the best times to be a tourist in Fairbanks.

There's just something about this kind of outing that gives me a deep and purposeful sense of joy — although reasons why are difficult to parse with words. As a physical exercise, snow slogging is ridiculously tough; I'm never so tired after four hours of almost anything else. The cold wages a continuing battle, simultaneously burning my face with frozen breathcicles and freezing my thighs as sweat steams up from my core. People eventually figure this stuff out, but it takes time if you're out of practice. Still, I admit I enjoy being out of practice, feeling the cold shock and new discoveries every time. It's a visceral feeling of being alive — moving and breathing and cranking out heat in a place as quiet and cold as a tomb. And it's also a small taste of something beyond life, where breaths dissipate into swirling clouds, and the land is encased in ice, motionless and unmovable.

Jay and Tom caught up to us about three miles from the trailhead, and just like that, our 24-hour cabin adventure was drawing to a close. We had been away from California all of 48 hours, and were already nodding our heads in agreement when the guys said about the projected negative-single-digit temperatures, "it's getting warm out." Beat squeezed in a good session of gear testing, setting up his tent in the wind and melting snow with an Esbit stove. More testing will necessitate more trips as we finish up the year in the Far North.