Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Back from Denali Highway

The awesome women of Pecha Kucha Mountain: Jenn Roberts, Sierra Van Der Meer, Jill Homer, and Jill Missal
Wow, the Denali Highway is an incredible place to visit in the winter. And, depending on how you choose to travel, incredibly strenuous.

I've been struggling with an extended bout of insomnia since I arrived in Alaska, and I'm nearing that point where everything becomes dreamlike and confusion abounds. In the midst of this I can't string my thoughts together effectively, so I won't attempt to write much about our Denali Highway tour quite yet. But yes, it was incredible. We rode lots. And by lots, I mean lots of hours.

Our 102 miles in three days amounted to almost 24 hours in (or near) the saddle. Right now I feel like I ran that far in that amount of time, on snow. The snowmachine trail was recently groomed over deep snowpack and only lightly traveled. The surface was soft and punchy; I had one of the heavier bikes and I occasionally ground the rear wheel into the snow until it stopped moving altogether. Pedaling was hard work; a very slogtastic snow bike tour. But everyone took the conditions in stride and it helped that the weather was ideal and the scenery was just ... incredible. We lost ourselves in a white expanse, set out at sunrise when the thermometer read 11 below zero, watched a herd of caribou run across our path, won a standoff with two moose, enjoyed the bemused but generous hospitality of the MacClaren River Lodge, gazed up at a seemingly endless horizon of huge mountains, all in fantastic company. In a string of inside jokes we've come to call our winter gathering the "Pecha Kucha Mountain Summit." Next year Sierra, Jenn, and Jill want to relocate to a sunny and warm beach. I told them I already live near sunny and warm beaches, but I will go just to hang out with them.

There's a great trip report lurking beneath the insomnia haze. But for now, I wanted to post an update on Beat, who is still trudging along the Iditarod Trail. While I was out of cell phone range on the eastern side of the Alaska Range, Beat checked in and out of McGrath and continued into the deeper wilderness of the route. His first messages out of McGrath were punctuated with apprehension. It's no longer about physical fatigue or pain at this point - the overwhelming challenge is the unknown, along with fear and loneliness. Happily Beat has found a companion in an Italian named Marco Berni, and the two have been traveling together. As of Wednesday night they were pushing toward a shelter about 14 miles outside the ghost town of Iditarod, which is mile 432.

Unseasonably warm weather continues to present unique challenges for ITI racers. Today temperatures climbed into the 40s and the snow was so soft and sticky that it clumped on the bottom of Beat's snowshoes and sled. He said just out of McGrath, he and Marco were keeping a steady 3.5 mph pace, but that's dropped to about 2 mph. Marco is also contending with severe blisters, but Beat said his feet have held up surprisingly well despite the wet conditions. The trail is not well-packed and they are running into frequent drifts. Weather is supposed to deteriorate in the region, with a storm system bringing freezing rain, high winds, and blizzard conditions. He and Marco are pressing late toward a shelter cabin tonight and may take a shorter day tomorrow depending on weather. Bivying in freezing rain is worse than 40 below.

Beat also saw the first Iditarod Dog Sled Race mushers go through, and actually stopped for a bit to chat with Lance Mackey - who at the time was in the lead - when Mackey stopped to attend to his dogs. The dogs suffer in the warm weather as well; they're built for cold and suffer in the "heat" the same way humans do when it's 100 degrees. Beat said he felt some solidarity with the dogs.

I'm headed to Fairbanks this weekend for the Chena River to Ridge 25-mile race. Hopefully I can snag some better sleep soon or I might lapse into nonfunctionality. I think my insomnia is partly caused by the continuous changes of traveling, and also by some mild anxiety about Beat's expedition. I worry about his physical safety, but I also wonder what the world will look like to him when this is all over. Even after a simple and comfortable three-day tour, when I close my eyes, this is what I see:



9 comments:

  1. You guys (you and Beat) are crazy, crazy, crazy...crazy in a good way, however!

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  2. Sandra2:16 AM

    That last picture is fantastic!!!

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  3. Durango Joe6:52 AM

    Scary looking group....

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  4. I grew up in Alaska and was glad to be done with winters when I left in '93. Your pics from this trip actually make me want to return in winter to experience it this adventurous way. Awesome that you have gal pals that enjoy that sort of thing too!

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  5. I just moved to anchorage last July. We LOVE it here (although we feel a little shortchanged on winter this year). We also have gotten into snowbiking. If we erent headed to Chilean Patagonia this weekend for a month I'm thinking Denali highway would be an awesome trip . Next year!

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  6. Oh my god, I just might beat you to this trip report! I hope you're OK with me using some of your pictures, heh heh.

    I am very much loving this Pecha Kucha tradition. Thanks again!

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  7. Corrine in Fairbanks6:47 PM

    See you at the Chena River to Ridge. It should be near perfect conditions.

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  8. Anonymous3:22 AM

    More pics of the Denali Highway PLEASE. I did that trip, ....in the summer, ....in a van.

    Thanks. Advocat

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  9. Great pics and post. I've never been to Alaska, one of 4 states I'm yet to see. I'm starting to see what I'm missing. thanks for opening my eyes!

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