Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Fairbanks Journals, days 2-3

December 23 and 24. Sunrise 10:59 a.m. Sunset 2:41 p.m. Temperature -16F and -34F. Clear.

The second morning dawned clear and cold, and very late, as we were still conditioned to linger over our breakfast and coffee until the sun made its first appearance on the horizon. It's interesting how much people depend on the sun to regulate circadian rhythms, which just doesn't make any sense when there's only four hours of daylight — unless you plan on sleeping sixteen hours a day, which some people effectively do up here in the winter. Joel told us that local movement tends to stop altogether below minus forty. I'm a night-oriented person and can thrive in darkness, even excessive darkness. But I still can't manage early mornings, even when they skew toward 11 a.m.

 Since the second day started so late, we decided to make a short run, 5.5 miles in two hours. My legs were achy from the first day's march, and it was beginning to become apparent how much stronger the boys were compared to me. I often broke into a halting "run" to catch up, and had to hold that strenuous stride just to match their walking pace. Temperatures dropped into the minus teens and I was stripping layers as they added clothing. It seemed like I was working harder for the same pace and argued that this was probably the case, as I'm smaller than them and possess a lower ratio of muscle mass to weight. As a pack animal, I'm just not as fit as boys. If I were one of Captain Scott's ponies, I would be among the high-spirited but small and weak horses. Yes, I would be like Jehu, the pony who pulled with heart but in the end was the first to be shot.

 Beat does make up for the discrepancy by pulling an unconscionably heavy sled. He actually purchased forty pounds of cat litter to add to the load, as he was toying with (and hopefully smartly rejected) the idea of going unsupported to Nome this year. From my perspective, even 40 pounds of extra weight doesn't seem to slow him down much. He is a proficient pack animal.

On Monday night, Beat gave a talk about his 2013 Nome trek at Goldstream Sports, an outdoor store in Fairbanks. Our friend Corrine threw this event together at the very last minute, so I was surprised that the event had a respectable turnout, probably in the range of two dozen people who came to see Beat's photos and listen to some of his stories about manhauling a thousand miles across Alaska. Earlier that day, with the cat litter in tow, he confessed that he couldn't fathom how he ever did it in the first place, let alone how he was going to manage it again. His talk was entertaining, and included a popular slide depicting the relative attitudes of each participant in this obscure multi-sport endeavor:

Bikes, of course, have an indisputable advantage on good trails, and because of this bikers can become spoiled and throw tantrums when backcountry trail conditions are bad (and, oh yes, I've had some epic snow biker tantrums.) Skiers have a slight speed and workload disadvantage compared to bikers, but a skilled skier can eat up miles on good trails and still not suffer too much on bad trails — a not-so-secret reality that makes most skiers incredulous as to why anyone would ever bother with any other method of winter travel. For the manhaulers, however, life is always hard. And when trails are bad, it's even harder. Is it pretty much idiotic to want to walk 350 or 1,000 miles across frozen Alaska wilderness? Yes. Yes it is. I grapple with snow biker guilt and questions of motivation almost every time I think about this goal. But deep inside is a desire to power myself there the hard way, the old-fashioned way — on foot. It may be an inexplicable desire, but it's there. Shouldn't that be enough?

On Christmas Eve, the cold deepened, and temperatures dropped into the minus thirties in low-lying valleys around Fairbanks. We wanted to do a hill climb but couldn't find a place to park near the trail crossing. We ended up getting our rental vehicle stuck in a pullout and had to dig and push it out of a ditch at -30. Afterward, already soaked with sweat and deeply chilled from periods of sedentary waiting, we started our march at the Goldstream River, pretty much the lowest and therefore coldest point in the area.

But manhauling sure is work, and with well-rested bodies and bellies full of food, we warmed up fast. At least Beat and I did. Liehann seemed a little more cold shocked but he was surprisingly cheerful given his very first winter experience quickly dunked him into the sixty degrees of frost range, towing a sled, which is something he'd never done before this week. Luckily endurance mountain bikers are an altogether hardy bunch and Liehann weathered the challenges well.

 Although I am frightened of temperatures this low, in the relative safety of a short day trek near town, I very much enjoy the experience of deep subzero cold. I become acutely aware of my inner furnace and lovingly stoke it with effort and fuel. And in turn, my body rewards me with free movement through an ethereal landscape, immensely quiet, tingling with ice crystals and a time-halting stillness. The low-angle winter light is fleeting and magical, and the simple output of heat becomes a precious gift. Much more than fast, much more than strong, I relish the feeling of being warm amid deep-space cold.

I think Beat very much enjoys it as well.

 We trekked across the Goldstream Valley and up a barely-broken and soft Eldorado Creek Trail until we ran out of time again, and ended up with nine miles in three hours and 11 minutes. Beat has designed these great digital thermometers with sensors accurate to 40 below that log the temperature every minute and record the range on an SD card. He calls these devices "Cold-o-Meters" and they're attached to the sled poles, so we can check the temperature at any time. It was fun to watch the temperature swing from as low as 35 below near the river to as high as 18 below up Eldorado Creek, a soaring 400 feet higher.

 I got some great testing on two pieces of gear I very much like — a Mountain Hardware Monkey Man Airshield fleece jacket and Skinfit primaloft shorts. This windproof fleece jacket, combined with a thin polypro base layer, worked wonderfully in a wide range of temperatures and conditions, including this 35-below march. It actually does block wind while insulating and venting well. The outside "fur" of the jacket will become damp and frosty with expelled moisture, but the inside stayed surprisingly dry. I'm very happy with this piece of gear. It may be the secret to giving up Gortex, although I'm not confident enough to leave my shell at home just yet. The Monkey Fleece won't keep out rain, anyway. The primaloft shorts provide a bit more protection against "cold butt syndrome" compared to a down skirt. Full puffy pants are too warm for walking, but shorts insulate hard-to-heat areas (usually where we hold onto the most body fat, and for women this is often butt and thighs) while still venting excess moisture from the legs. The shorts are ugly, for sure, but effective.

Corrine served us a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner complete with presents of chocolates, peanut butter cups, Diet Pepsi and fire starters (thanks Corrine and Eric!) Later that night, since the temperatures were so low, I opted to test out my new sleeping bag by snoozing outside. It was actually Beat's Nome bag from last year, a PHD Designs sleeping bag that I inherited when Beat acquired an even better one, the Feathered Friends Snowy Owl. With the thermometer still hovering near minus 35, I donned a cotton T-shirt and fleece pajama bottoms and cozied up in the down cocoon, leaving a big enough breathing hole in my bivy sack that I could peer out occasionally and watch a weak but consistent display of Northern Lights dancing overhead. It was magical in a watching-for-Santa kind of way. I slept fitfully, dreaming about wolves and other cold-weather anxieties. At one point I dreamt that Beat came bursting outside to warn me that it was 50 below, and I felt an urgency that woke me up. I had to pee anyway, so I crawled outside in my short-sleeved T-shirt and checked Joel's porch thermometer just before my bare fingers went completely numb. It read exactly 50 below. I knew that this thermometer tends to register 5 to 10 degrees too low, but I'm certain it was at least 40 below overnight. I was toasty in that bag. Definitely a confidence booster. That confidence in my survival system would prove comforting when we set out on our first backcountry trip the following day, just as the weather started to become challenging. 


  1. Great sunset pictures. Of course, as soon as you guys left, the temperature rose to 20 above! I forgot to ask, are you and Beat going to walk together to McGrath or go at your own pace?

  2. Thanks Corrine. I noticed it warmed up there today. We wouldn't have complained. :-)

    61F in Los Altos right now. I'm planning to go out for a bike ride on skinny tires and real pavement later this afternoon. I should be more excited about it, but these Alaska trips always take quite a bit out of me. I'm feeling run down and tired, but I'll come around.

    I was hoping Beat and I would spend time together during the trip to McGrath, but to be honest I have a very difficult time holding his pace. I wouldn't ask him to slow down for me, so I suspect we'll see each other at checkpoints but perhaps not as much out on the trail. My hope is still to keep a consistent pace by minimizing checkpoint time and perhaps taking advantage of shorter but slightly more frequent sleep breaks by taking advantage of my awesome bivy set-up. I still want to shoot for 45-50 miles a day average to McGrath. This trip has made me aware of the fact that is probably an overly lofty goal, and I may adjust closer to the 35 miles a day needed to simply finish. It's going to be so hard. I'm excited. :)

  3. I've been reading your blog off and on for several years, and I'm curious about one thing - you always refer to Gore-Tex as Gortex. Are you shying away from the registered trademark? I know it's a weird thing to be curious about, given all of the exotic activities that you write about. But your writing is usually very well edited and that misspelling always makes me wonder.

    1. I guess it's just a habit of mine — similar to the way I often spell "Camelback" instead of the correct "Camelbak." Sometimes I catch and correct but I suppose more often I do not. I have no problem and there's no legal issue with citing registered trademarks, it's just often they're spelled in nonintuitive ways that are easy to forget (such as XtraTuf.) Such things are what I often miss in my cursory second read, which is all I do to edit this blog.


Feedback is always appreciated!