Friday, January 03, 2014

The Fairbanks Journals, days 4-6

 December 25 to 27. Sunrise 10:58 a.m. Sunset 2:46 p.m. Temperature -25. Wind Force 6. 

Tolovana Hot Springs. Comfortable rustic cabins and outdoor, natural mineral hot spring bathing in Alaska’s remote interior. It sounds relaxing, doesn't it? But of our adventurous Fairbanks friends with frostbite stories, the majority happened at Tolovana Hot Springs — or, specifically, the trailhead, an exposed ridge where the wind virtually always blows at 20 knots and vehicles that have sat too long in subzero temperatures fail to start. We reserved a cabin for Christmas Day and were really hoping an experienced local or two would join us, but everyone was busy. Turns out the Californians would have to navigate this adventure on our own.

The trailhead is located here because it's the closest direct point from the Elliot Highway to the springs. The trail plummets down this ridge, crosses the low-lying valley and then climbs directly up that small mountain, called Tolovana Hot Springs Dome, before plummeting steeply into the Tolovana River drainage. Eleven miles with 1,500 feet of climbing inbound and 2,600 feet of climbing outbound. This is not as easy as it sounds.

We parked the car with fear in our hearts but set out comfortably at 12:30 p.m. in temperatures around minus 15 and a moderate breeze, gusting to about 20 miles per hour. Not that bad, all in all.

The climb up Tolovana Hot Springs Dome was a real grunt, effectively straight up the mountain on a wind-blown trail sometimes buried in knee-deep drifts. The sled tugged from behind like a boat anchor and I became so overheated with the workload that I took off my hat and stripped down to my base layer — just a base layer, at 15 below! This relative nakedness only lasted until we crested the ridge and met the full brunt of the wind, again.

Wind is a cruel taskmaster. The experience of cold is all relative, but when it comes to windchill, there's truly nowhere to hide. It penetrates every crack and exposes every flaw in your gear and your body itself. You wrap buffs around your nose, stuff rolled socks into your hat and pants, cover your eyes and mouth until you can hardly see or breathe, can't eat or drink, just march, march, march in a interminable effort to escape the wind.

Tolovana Hot Springs Dome may be wind-blasted, but it is stunning. The views up there were endless. We could see the hills rippling toward the Yukon River to the north, the dark silhouette of Denali to the south, and all around us a whole lot of seemingly uninhabited wilderness.

When we arrived at the cabin we'd rented, we found it occupied by a British man and an American women who were sort of from (or at least moving to) Santa Cruz, California — effectively our neighbors back home. They were originally going to ski the 11 miles into the cabin, but after nearly running out of gas on the highway and stopping in the village of Minto, they decided to pay some locals to shuttle them in on snowmachines — which was, from our perspective, one of the few smart decisions they made. Their outdoor clothing looked like the kind of fashionable downhill ski gear you'd find in Aspen on people who go out for a few runs and spend most of the day in the lodge. The woman admitted her rented cross-country ski boots did not fit well and her feet were still numb from the ride in, so they didn't even bother to go out for daytime skis during their time at the springs. Instead, they constructed an elaborate Christmas tree from a spruce that they apparently chopped down, and then duct-taped extra branches to the trunk to make it look prettier. They made ornaments out of bunched plastic bags, cardboard, tin foil, pine cones, and radishes that had frozen on the ride in, complete with a tin foil and cardboard star at the top of the tree. It was eight feet high and filled most of the small front room.

While they waited for their ride, they also cooked a massive dinner of rice, vegetables, and fire-roasted peanuts that they intended to share with their drivers. The snowmachiners finally arrived well after 6 p.m. — a Native man from Minto and his teenage son. The man predictably rejected the mushy vegan food, sat down at the table and pulled out a can of beer and a plastic water bottle filled with whisky. "Smooths the bumps," he explained. The woman started to put on her ski boots, and the Native man pulled out a pair of Sorels that he'd brought for her. "It's 25 below," he said, "you better wear these." She balked but eventually put them on. The Native man consumed the beer and a slug of whisky, and they set out in the darkness, leaving behind a large amount of uneaten dinner, dirty dishes, unswept floors, and of course the massive Christmas Tree. "It's just a bit more to carry out," the woman said rather unapologetically. I inventoried what they left behind — a plastic bag with about six pounds of fresh vegetables that had frozen and thawed to wilted slime, about two pounds of mushy cooked brown rice, a pound of cooked mushrooms and carrots, a half pound of coffee, some tea and sugar packets, a trash bag, and of course, the tree. I'm not sure why these people thought it was okay to assume three walkers towing sleds could carry out all of their trash, but they did come across as rather clueless. I ate the cooked carrots and mushrooms, and we stowed the plastic and foil bits, but opted to burn most of the rest of it. Liehann and Beat especially seemed to take pleasure in dismantling and incinerating a Christmas tree on Christmas Day.

After we'd completed most of the clean-up, we headed out to the springs for a soak. The hot springs sit beside a small stream that comes down a steep hillside. Small plastic tubs are fed by two pipes, one that funnels ridiculously hot water from the natural spring upstream, and one that brings in ridiculously cold water from the river. These springs are difficult to regulate. The outside temperature was minus 25 and the wind was still howling when we headed out and stripped naked. The water temperature inside the tub was on the ouch-too-hot side when we got in, so Beat redirected the cold-water pipe. I ended up at the far end on the tub, dipping my body further into the water as the wind blasted snow in our faces and turned my hair to an ice helmet. I was so preoccupied with head discomfort that I didn't notice how cold the water was getting. After about twenty minutes, my core temperature had dropped sufficiently that I started shivering, which was the first sign that alerted me to the fact this "hot" spring was actually cooler than body temperature where I sat. I was in a bad spot, because the cabin was a three-minute walk away and I'd have to expose my naked body to brutal windchill for several long minutes before I was dressed enough to walk back. I sidled over to Beat and Liehann's warmer side to try to increase my core temperature, but it didn't seem to work. My scalp was beginning to burn, and I was now as worried about head frostbite as I was about hypothermia. I jumped out, bare feet on glazed snow, and managed the clothing transition as best as I could before violent shivers took over, then hoofed back to the wood stove as fast as my wooden feet could muster. For the rest of the night, my scalp ached with minor frost nip. Needless to say, I did not find the soak at all relaxing, and I was not compelled to go back the following night. Beat and Liehann did, better equipped with hats that time around.

The clear night did treat us with a Northern Lights display. They boys discussed getting back in the hot spring to watch, but I was more than happy to stand outside in my down coat and enjoy the light ballet.

We rented two nights at Tolovana, so we had a layover day. We'd hoped to check out the first part of a longer mushing trail that heads out the Tolovana River Valley, but couldn't find access to any other trails near the springs, so we set out for a day's exercise of dragging our sleds back up the dome. The trail was considerably more wind-drifted than the day before, often obscured altogether. Because the wind was so strong in the valley, there was no inversion. It was 19 below at the cabin and 25 below on the exposed ridge. With wind sustained at 25 miles per hour and likely gusting to 35, the windchills were breathtaking, in the literal sense of the term. Windchill charts would place them at 55 to 60 below. I took this photo right before I relented to putting on goggles and a Gortex shell, and even then became uncomfortably cold all too quickly.

The sun set over what I guessed was Denali, as we marched into the wind. Our plan was to travel to an abandoned water tank with a small rabbit hole cut into the leeward side, intended as a wind shelter and sometimes referred to as the "Tolovana Hot Springs Hilton." It was only three and a half miles from our cabin, but felt like a very long march.

The ghost trees must live a hard life on these hills. My feet became disconcertingly cold on the way to the shelter, and I wanted to put on my shell pants, but opted to high-tail quickly back to the more wind-protected forest instead. I had to run much of the descent on painfully thawing "screaming barfies" feet, especially my right foot, which is still overly sensitive to cold because of frostbite damage five years ago. I vowed to figure out a better foot system for windy conditions. I didn't even bring my vapor barrier socks on this trip because I'm so frustrated by the trench-foot effects they can cause. But now I'm back to being more concerned about frostbite than I am about "Susitna foot," so a pair of VB socks will come with me on the Iditarod, along with shell pants that I will put on before windchills really get bad.

As we hiked out the following day, I decided to leave nothing to chance. I put on my Gortex shell, face mask, and wind pants before we crested the exposed ridge. I did get a bit more damp than I'd like, but I was considerably more comfortable, including my feet. That's really the thing about feet. If your core temperature drops, feet are the first to go, and more insulation will do little to keep them warm. But with a warm core, you can wear a pair of waterproof trail-running shoes and two pairs of fleece socks and remain comfy and fine in 55-below windchills.

When it's this windy, though, you do have to stay on the move. I still haven't figured out the goggle dilemma, and the ones I own fog up quickly, so I opted to rely on my hood and face mask for protection. As a result, I ended up with some frostburn (a brown, flaking scab, similar to sunburn) on my cheekbone. Liehann acquired a nice patch on the right side of his nose. As I said, wind is a cruel taskmaster.

Sunrise, which is effectively the same thing as sunset this time of year. Near Solstice, this latitude has four hours of dawn/dusk, which makes for the most amazing light. I believe that four hours of amazing light and three more hours of useable twilight is preferable to the nine and a half hours of normal light we get this time of year in California. My opinion might change if I ever actually lived this far north, but I'm a night person anyway and have a feeling that the long darkness might not get to me that much, just as long as the cold sun came out often enough to cast the land in magic light from time to time.

The trail was almost entirely drifted in, to the point where I frequently wandered off of it. Navigation became a challenge. As we descended, my mask iced up to the point where I couldn't pull it down easily. My Camelback was buried in two layers that needed to remain zipped up, so while my water was not frozen, it was effectively inaccessible. The return trip took nearly five hours to complete, during which time I did not eat and drank very little. This is also something I need to formulate a better strategy for, but wind is mean, mean stuff.

It was still 25 below at the trailhead, and our biggest fear remained — would the car start, or would we be stuck on this wind-exposed dome without protection or cell phone reception for the hour-plus it would take us to deal with the situation? In anticipation of that possibility, we'd borrowed a weed-burner from our friend Ed. It's a large torch attached to a propane tank, along with a short metal chimney pipe that is used funnel heat from the torch flame toward the engine block, warming it up enough to start. It's a trick to do this without melting plastic parts or setting the car on fire, which people have done. Arriving at a trailhead after five hours of hard marching without food or water, tired and sweaty, exposed to 55 below windchill, makes this a Herculean task. I suggested that if the car wouldn't start, we should crawl into our sleeping bags and get rested and warm before attempting the task. Luckily, happily, the car did fire up after a nervous few seconds of sputtering. The ice scraper that the rental company included was so bad that I had to use my Global Rescue card to clear the windows, and then it was a good 45 minutes on the road before the interior was even warmed up enough to start melting the ice on my hat. Good times! Really. We felt enormously satisfied.