Thursday, February 28, 2013

Solidarity (sorta)

After three hours and two moose, but not a single other person on the trail, I heard a chorus of low, guttural barks. "Ooo, sled dogs," I thought, and veered to the side of the faint track in anticipation of them running past. I was standing at the far end of a narrow valley surrounded by steep peaks, so there wasn't really anywhere else for them to go. But I waited a minute, and all I heard was the high-pitched moan of the wind. I looked around and thought I detected quiet yips, but saw no dog teams — no one was there. After a brief pause the thought occurred to me, "You're not in California right now." I've become accustomed to running trail systems where the deer are so habituated that they'd let me pet them if I wanted to. Out here, strange sounds can be a number of things — but they're most certainly not docile deer. A shiver trickled down my spine, but there was nothing in sight to fear. "Maybe it was my imagination," I thought. "Or the wind."

This afternoon I decided to load up my sled and take it for a training run up Hatcher Pass. I stocked full overnight gear and an extra liter of water for good measure, because all extra weight is good weight in training. The Willow Fishhook Road ended in a gate, and from there I had no idea how far it was to the pass. I decided to hike on the soft and wide snowmachine trail until I reached the better snowshoeing terrain up high.

There was a lot of overflow across the road. Some sections were so deep that my snowshoes punched several inches below the crust and my feet sank into slush, testing the waterproof capabilities of my Gortex Montrails (verdict: Not too shabby.) I also got out my Garmin to test speed versus effort levels (not my nonfunctional navigation unit. I have a 305 watch for pacing.) I very much want to figure out a way I can run on snow, dragging a sled, and have the effort pay off (versus killing myself for a measly extra 0.5 miles per hour.) The trail conditions didn't help my experiments — soft snow and slush meant I had to wear snowshoes the entire way, and added a lot of resistance. But I have to say that these running experiments were a major failure. I pushed my heart rate all the way to 180 and barely cracked the 12-minute-mile barrier. Most paces were around 14-minute miles. I can walk 16-minute miles with considerably less effort. Ah, running on snow ... such a puzzle for me! I think one has to exceptionally strong, which I'm not, or train very specifically, which I can't. It would be similar to choosing to run all of the uphills in a long ultra. I would flare out so quickly but a part of me still wants to crack that code.

And, as it turns out, Hatcher Pass is not a close jaunt from the Willow side. The approach itself was more than seven miles, and once I was there, I figured I should do the snowshoeing I wanted to do. I marched up a low ridge and then dropped back into the valley to explore until I heard the real-or-imagined coyotes-or-wolves. After that incident, I felt a sharp sting of aloneness that prompted me to move more quickly down the canyon, even running occasionally.

The hike down from the pass started to feel long. I really didn't intend to set out for an 18-mile snowshoe hike with a full sled this afternoon. An overcast pall had moved in, it was getting dark, and I was grumpy. "This is such a slog," I griped to myself. "Why did I hike all the way up there? Why am I doing 100K on foot? I wonder if I should show up to the Homer Epic with my bike instead?" But then my thoughts flashed to Beat, who I knew was marching into the Alaska Range toward Puntilla Lake at that same moment. For a few moments I felt a thread of connection in sore quads, wet socks, cold toes, and the ethereal sort of mind wander spurred by long walks alone in black-and-white worlds. I wondered if Beat felt the same things I was feeling, and then I realized that he did not — because he wasn't returning from a measly 18-mile jaunt with a junior sled. His experiences ran that much deeper and wider. The realization made me feel silly for indulging in grumpiness. I marched harder and sloshed through the overflow with a renewed sense of perspective.

I received my latest call from Beat at 9 p.m. Wednesday, shortly after he arrived at Puntilla Lake Lodge. He sounded tired and slurred his words, so I couldn't decipher everything he told me in the short three-minute call. But he did tell a funny story about traveling through the Happy River Steps with Tim Hewitt. The Happy River Steps are a notorious section of trail that drop steeply into the Skwentna River and climb just as steeply out, on short pitches of 30- and 40-degree slopes. Tim didn't want to section out his hundred-pound sled and make multiple trips, so he let the heavy sled push him wildly down the hills, and then got down on all fours to heave the thing up the steps, like a true beast of burden. "He's just so determined," Beat said, as though he could hardly understand it himself. Beat said he plans to rest a full night at Puntilla and set out in the morning for the harsh climb up Rainy Pass. Temperatures there are still mild, with highs near 20 and lows around 0, with light winds and a small chance of snow. I'm hoping they stay that way for his crossing on Thursday.


  1. You know, as I was reading this post and the one on HPD, a question popped into my head that I'm not sure you've ever answered. How many people trekking/biking the trail have children? Like small, still-in-the-home children that depend on them? While I love looking at your pictures and think I would love to attempt something much (much much much) smaller myself, I have a small son and I worry about such dangerous adventures, that maybe I wouldn't make it back home to him, which stops me in my tracks. I'm sure someone has children on the trail. I wonder how they come to grips with the possibility that they might not make it home.

  2. I was curious about footwear, especially for the trek that Beat is doing ? I imagine that you need something substantial and waterproof but also light. Thanks .

  3. Very pretty in its raw toughness.

  4. Melinda — that's a good question but I don't know the answer. Most of the people I know in this community fall into the profile of Beat and me — childless but married or partnered people in their 30s and 40s. Several also fall into Tim's and Loreen's group — people with grown children. I think the main reason for this demographic is because of the sheer amount of time one must devote to these kinds of pursuits, not because of the danger involved. But I'm sure, much like mountaineers and other adventurers, a few people in ultraendurance winter sports have small children.

    Since I don't have children, I can't comment as to how they feel. I will say that although this endeavor contains dangers, it's not inherently dangerous. Preparation is key, but statistically their chances of survival are still better than the guy who gets in his car to commute to work on the freeway every morning. Life offers no guarantees.

    I'm a strong believer in living your own life. If Beat doesn't come back, there are lots of people who love him and will miss him very much. Being childless doesn't change that. But that doesn't change my belief that he should pursue the most meaningful version of his life.

    If are hesitant to pursue what they view as dangerous because of concern for the welfare of their children, I completely understand that. But I also understand the motivations of those who do.

    Anon — Beat uses similar footwear to what I was using: Gortex running shoes with knee-high gaters, a pair of liner socks, and a pair of fleece socks. In colder temps, I usually use a vapor barrier sock because my feet get cold; he claims his do not as long as he's moving. Running or walking keeps the blood flowing and keeps feet warm. We carry lightweight waterproof waders for overflow situations. I didn't wear mine because I was out for a "short" walk, but honestly in any situation I should be more careful about getting my feet wet. I should know better.

  5. >"He's just so determined," Beat said, as though he could hardly understand it himself.

    For Beat to say that is something!

    I don't know about you, but after a few hours in the woods when -- I'm guessing -- the brain gets low in energy, I start to imagine things.

  6. Mtnrunner2 — could be. But I'm pretty sure the barks I hear were real and think it was a pack of coyotes. I actually hear coyotes sometimes in the Marin Headlands and this sounded similar.

  7. Whether wolves or coyotes Jill you were sooo fortunate to hear this...a reason why we love that big, wild place!

  8. I see your point. It makes sense to me, and I agree that preparation is key. Enjoy the next few days with the girls!!


Feedback is always appreciated!