Saturday, December 29, 2012

Tolovana Hot Springs

While enjoying Christmas Eve pizza with friends here in Fairbanks, our friend Ed told us about one of his favorite holiday destinations, Tolovana Hot Springs. The backcountry springs are a challenge to access — 45 miles northwest of Fairbanks as a raven flies, and for humans, eleven miles of rugged trail after a two-hour drive to a remote point on the Elliot Highway. Those who make the beautiful journey up and over Tolovana Hot Springs Dome are rewarded with board game-stocked cabins and access to natural springs that run hot even when it's 30 below.

It sounded heavenly, but Ed offered a caveat — his winter trips are almost never without mishaps. Usually the mishaps involved difficulties starting cars after the long ski out when the wind was fierce and temperatures were minus a lot. Once, somebody brought a pot of moose chili that was not properly food handled, resulting in a "vomitorium" full of food-poisoned people. One guy was so sick that his friend had to tow him out in a sled, on foot. Still, Ed lamented that he couldn't visit Tolovana this winter because was spending New Year's in Juneau. But as we considered it further, a few of us wondered — why not plan a last-minute Boxing Day trip?

We gathered a group of five — me, Beat, Ed, Tom, and Trevor — a former Fairbanks resident who is visiting from Washington, D.C. — and reserved one of the cabins for Wednesday night. Ed promised to make a special dinner and I was excited to see what it felt like to sit in a hot spring in potentially sub-zero weather. I secretly hoped it would be minus 20 or lower so I could freeze my wet hair into a white cone hat, but then I remembered Ed's stories about frigid trailheads and frostbite, and took heart in a forecast that called for "mild" temperatures near zero.

The trail into Tolovana Hot Springs is interesting, in that it draws the straightest line it can to the closest point on the highway. This would be ideal for human-powdered travel, were it not for the 2,120-foot mountain in the way. The result is strenuous climbs and technical descents for skiers, but I thought the hike in would still be relatively mellow. And hey, we get to climb a mountain.

Again, I underestimate sled dragging. We enjoyed a two-mile fast run from the high ridge where the trailhead is located to a low-lying valley. At the bottom, I noticed all kinds of nagging pains from our White Mountains sled-dragging trip, further solidifying my conviction that to be in shape for winter-specific activities, you actually have to engage in winter-specific activities. Beat is much better at adapting to new physical strains than I am, but I struggled to pull with my tight hamstrings and sore lower back.

Since we were in the back of our group, Beat didn't want to leave me behind, but it was clear he was exasperated by how slow I was moving. In this photo, you can see I am about to get in trouble because I am wasting time by pulling my camera out to take a photo. The problem was that Beat would become too chilled when he stopped to wait for me, and I was being honest when I told him I was working as hard as I could.

After we gained the ridge at a saddle appropriately named Windy Gap, we entered a mile-long section of deep, drifted snow. Of course the skiers just glided over this stretch, but we were bogged down by punchy powder that ranged from shin- to thigh-deep. To make things worse, I was dragging the sled that sits atop two skis, so it tipped over whenever it went even slightly off-camber. Every time it flopped on its side, I had to detach my harness, grab the metal frame with my bare hands (since I use trekking pole pogies, I don't usually wear gloves), and hoist the 35-pound sled back onto its skis. After five or six repetitions of this, I finally gave up on putting the harness back on, and just lifted and carried the sled or dragged the metal pole with my hands, still bare, because I was frustrated and too hurried to stop and put on gloves.

The battle with my sled through thigh-deep drifts was a fully anaerobic effort. I gasped and sputtered and pulled my balaclava down to take deep breaths of the frigid air. Whenever I force my body into intense efforts in cold temperatures, an instinctual kind of fear creeps in — subconscious, most likely, but acute to the point of mild panic ... "You're sweating too much! You're burning all of your matches! You'll never make it out alive!" The logical side of my brain fought this overreaching fear, because I had no choice but to torch energy reserves just to get my sled over some of the drifts. Still, the effort finally pushed me to the point where I had to kneel in the snow, convinced I was about to vomit.

It was a mighty struggle that I endured alone, mainly because I was the weakest member of the group. Beat didn't have nearly as hard of a time getting his sled up the mountain. When I finally reached the top of the dome, I expected him to be angry with me for dawdling, even though I had been maxed out for thirty minutes. Instead, I found him happy with his down coat on, watching the moon rise over the mountains.

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
Beat took a fantastic shot of the moon rising over the trail while he waited for me.

I was shattered by the time I reached the cabin. Beat had been able to run most of the way down the dome, but I could only manage a half-hearted shuffle. I couldn't even join the guys for the first soak of the evening because I had to huddle next to the stove, drink hot cocoa, and shiver my way to recovery. My body temperature had dropped during the descent, because after I burned up my energy reserves on the climb, my body stopped making heat. I knew I needed to eat a candy bar to stop this from happening, but I was still nauseated from the hard effort. If I hadn't been so close to a cabin, I would have stopped and put on my down coat and dealt with it right away. Instead, I just slogged along until I reached the cabin, and by then I was deeply bonked, and thus deeply cold. Really, for an eleven-mile pleasure trip it's embarrassing, but the hike into Tolovana Hot Springs turned out to be quite the epic for me ... and only me.

The guys came back to the cabin about an hour later, and by then I was a little less shivery and more coherent. Ed's special dinner was three frozen pizzas that everyone was quite excited about. These cabins are privately owned and equipped with a source of electricity, so there's a cooking stove and LED lamps. It's quite the luxury. While the group played Scrabble, there was a cooking mishap and two of the pizzas ended up on the floor. We were in the middle of nowhere so we ate them anyway, minus most of the toppings, while joking about rat feces and "floor-tossed pizza." Still, based on Ed's stories, if that's the biggest mishap of the trip, I'll take it.

Ed salvaged the pizza disaster with two dozen fresh-baked cookies and a pint of ice cream. All was forgotten amid the satisfying sugar rush.

We went out after dinner for a moonlight soak, with the temperature at a balmy 6 degrees above zero. So not cold enough to freeze my hair standing up, but still icy. The springs were blissfully warm — funneled into three tubs set on platforms above a gurgling creek. On a dare, Beat, Ed and Tom ran naked and barefoot from the middle tub to the lower tub, a trip of at least a hundred meters on packed snow. The nearly full moon was so bright that the snow-covered mountainside looked like a bluer shade of day. It was heavenly.

The hike out was much easier, at least for me, even though that direction had about a thousand more feet of elevation gain. The trail had been smoothed over by two snowmobiles, and the worst drifts were on the downslope, where gravity made off-trail travel more manageable. At the summit, I stopped to help a guy whose snowmobile broke down the night before. He was traveling to one of the cabins with his wife and two children, towing a big sled, when the clutch gave out near the summit. The poor guy had to help his family walk four miles into the cabin, and then hike out the next day by himself to get assistance. I was able to grab a few bars on my cell phone at the top of the dome, so I waited to see if he could make a call, but it didn't go through. There is something to be said about the self-reliance of human-powered travel. Machines can become big liabilities when they break down.

Of course, I was plenty grateful when I arrived at the trailhead to find the truck had fired up, no problem. It was a great trip without major mishap, a Boxing Day miracle.


  1. That sounds great! I wish I could be there.

  2. I had a major realization the other day as to why I get grumpy in potentially epic cold, wind. It is that same fear you speak of.

  3. My, this post brings back great holiday memories from more than twenty years ago. We took two dog teams into the springs. The weather was well below zero; the springs were fabulous. On the way out we found and released a falcon which had gotten a toe caught in a trap. Our mishap was falling off a sled and losing one team for about an hour. We caught up to it finally where the sled had caught on a tree. What a great Christmas trip to an unforgettable place.

  4. beautiful shots jill, have been watching mountain men and make we want to move up there and not come back,lol hope your christmas was good and happy new year form the watkinsman,tom

  5. Sounds awesome! We were planning on Tolovana for our trip in Feb. but the cabins are booked already :(

  6. Gorgeous spot, Jill, but MAN it sounds like a pretty hellish effort to get there!

  7. I've always wanted to visit a hot spring. And it would be a bonus to hike to it. What a cool trip!

  8. I came across your blog searching for photos of "winter activities in Fairbanks". I love all the pictures you have taken of Fairbanks trails. While I don't winterbike, I do cross country ski and I love to see others enjoying the same trails.

    I'm glad you got to experience Tolovana! It is a favorite among me and my friends, we always book an annual trip. Something really magical about that place!


Feedback is always appreciated!