Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Iditarod Again, part five

Winterlake Lodge is a high-end backcountry retreat, about as luxurious as accommodations can be more than a hundred miles from the nearest road, in a location where many feet of snow fall during the winter and temperatures regularly dip to thirty below. Once, when I was mulling an independent bike tour of the Iditarod Trail, I called for a quote as was told rooms cost $600 a night, which included breakfast and dinner prepared by an award-winning chef. Although the Invitational is not exactly a budget vacation, racers don’t contribute near this amount to stay at this single checkpoint. So you’re pretty happy with what you can get at Winterlake — in 2008, it was an unheated carpark tent (used for storage in a place with no cars.) This year, we moved up to coach class, with accommodations in the shell of an unfinished building complete with a single propane heater. We placed the heater in the entryway next to a ladder where we could hang all of our damp clothing, putting it to a more useful task than emitting fumes and vaguely warm air in the plywood room where we slept.

We shared this space with Tim, Loreen, Steve, and Rick. Even though Tim snores like a 600-pound grizzly bear with sleep apnea, total exhaustion was finally working in my favor and I crashed into four more hours of dreamless sleep. Although we’d eaten our allotted meal of a small amount of rice, beans, chicken, salsa, and a tortilla prepared by a quiet kitchen helper upon arrival, Beat learned last year that $5 would get us a second disassembled burrito. And because the time was now something vaguely close to breakfast, we also received an egg. And coffee! True luxury — and I’m not being sarcastic. It may not be the five-star treatment, but a hard pull on the Iditarod Trail expands perspectives about how wonderful simple luxuries can be. 

We hauled out just as wisps of dawn emerged once again. The Skwentna River Valley had narrowed as we made our way through the zig-zag swamps in the dark, and mountain slopes towered over the canyon. Thick forests surrounded tiny lakes, and pillows of deep powder covered the ground. Winter in interior Alaska often looks like someone tried to plant anemic little spruce trees on the moon, but this side of the Alaska Range features more classic winter scenery — an idyllic Christmas card.

My drowsiness this morning was crushing, and the sled was again fully loaded down with the resupply I picked up at Winterlake Lodge. I scanned the sky for pink light that would bring the much-rejoiced sun, but a thick gray persisted until I had to admit that this sluggish dawn was in actuality just an overcast day. The air was thick and humid, and soon accompanied by snow flurries. Snowflakes clumped together in large chunks. This was an alarming development, because chunky snow means temperatures are near freezing, and precipitation is precariously close to what is arguably the most difficult weather for an Alaska backcountry traveler during the winter — rain. 

It had been a weird winter in Southcentral Alaska, and the threat of rain was always high. This was one of the reasons Beat backpedaled on his unsupported attempt, because the gear one needs to survive in temperatures down to fifty below — such as down coats and sleeping bags — do not hold up well through wet weather. Once insulated gear gets wet, it’s useless, and if you can never venture inside a heated space to dry the gear, it stays useless. In January, we took a trip with Steve to Yosemite National Park, dragging our sleds through a 37-degree storm that dumped an inch of rain onto already soggy snow. This training trip left our gear so soaked that we had to abandon plans to camp overnight, and it also helped us formulate a strategy to keep our stuff dry should we encounter similar weather in Alaska. But in order to not tip the sled scales too dramatically, this plan amounted to dry bags for our crucial gear, and trash compactor bags to wrap around the duffle. This would hold out the rain but make everything inside inaccessible during the storm. And wearing damp clothing at 33 or 34 degrees is more of a hypothermia risk than being dry at 30 below. Rain was an unnerving prospect. 

Between the threat of rain, the sinking gray atmosphere, the stinging snow, and a desire to plop down on one of the snow pillows and drift into what could all too easily become forever sleep, my mood this morning would qualify as grouchy. After Finger Lake, the Iditarod Trail follows a series of steeper climbs and descents as it winds through the foothills of the Alaska Range. In 2008, a fellow cyclist referred to this section as “The Push,” and now, with a sled, this was still the best title to characterize this segment. Both Steve and Beat were considerably stronger than me on the climbs; Steve marched out of sight quickly. Along the flatter sections, I frequently increased my effort to a running stride to shorten Beat’s waiting time. The surface snow was becoming softer and marching was exhausting work. I can’t even quantify it with a comparison to trail running, but if I were to try, I would say it was like attempting to haul a tire up a 25-percent grade that never ended. 

The whine of a snowmobile broke a long silence. The driver turned out to be Craig Medred, a long-time Alaska journalist who covers outdoor sports for the Alaska Dispatch News. He’s well-known for writing scathingly critical articles about anyone who makes a mistake in the backcountry. Back when I worked at the Juneau Empire, I’d occasionally come into the office late after over-shooting a ridge walk, and my co-workers would joke that they were glad I hadn’t disappeared in the mountains because they didn't want to talk to Medred about me. He did interview me shortly after I returned from my last Iditarod with frostbite on my right foot. I braced myself for the criticisms that were sure to rain down from online commenters the next day, but he ended up making little mention of my mishap in his article. He covers both the human-powered and dog-sled Iditarod races in depth every year, and does it well. Still, I can’t shake that old paranoia that if I mess up during one of these adventures, Medred will write about it and I'll be the most hated person in Anchorage for a day. It's funny that fear of bad publicity seems to trump fear of injury and death. 

“How’s it going?” Medred asked me.

“So far much better than last time,” I said enthusiastically, referring to the frostbite incident. 

“Don’t you wish you had your bike?” he asked. “This is a bike year.” He listed several cyclists who had already made it to McGrath, less than 72 hours into the race, and that he expected Heather Best, the lead female cyclist, to arrive soon as well. Records were being shattered. 

I shook my head in amazement. “I figured as much. That’s awesome. But it’s a different experience. The thought of biking rarely even crosses my mind." 

This was the truth. I still believe there’s nothing more exhilarating than soaring over a snow-covered trail on a fat bike. But the Zen peace and simplicity of foot travel are incredibly satisfying. February’s long thaw may have made 2014 the fastest year for cyclists that the Iditarod Trail has seen yet, but I never regretted my decision to travel on foot. I felt an urge to wax lyrical about hours of quiet meditation, about absorbing incredible scenery that I never saw in 2008 because I was always looking down at the trail — cyclists are forever searching for the best line in the snow. I wanted to explain how this slow speed afforded extensive inner and outer explorations, and how rewarding it had been to free myself from mechanical dependence. Instead, I just shrugged, silently wishing that Medred hadn’t caught me while I was in the throes of a grumpy low point. 

Medred warned that there was rain in the forecast, then continued down the trail. Beat and I continued up into the socked-in gray clouds, flowing like shredded curtains that disintegrated into snow. Based on maps I knew there were tall mountains all around us, but we could only see the low cloud ceiling, and faint outlines of rocks hinting at hidden grandeur. 

Four hours and twelve miles after leaving Finger Lake, we arrived at the Happy River Steps — a series of three steep descents into a deep gorge where the Happy River pours into the Skwentna River. Grades top thirty-five percent, and we approached each step by unhooking our harnesses, letting our sleds fly free, and butt-sliding down after them. It was a short but exhilarating hit of adrenaline in what is decidedly an endorphin sport. At the confluence, we bypassed a series of open leads that spiked my heart rate again with panic responses from a persistent fear of falling through bad ice. This was unduly draining my energy reserves, but it did give me the boost I needed to haul the obese sled up the thirty-five-percent grades leaving the gorge. The pitch is so steep that in 2008 I had to leverage my bike like an ice ax, and the sled has no sharp edges with which to dig in. My floppy clown shoes were the only thing keeping the anvil from pulling me back down the hill, and the only way to avoid slipping was to march as quickly as possible. My heart raced at what had to be close to my anaerobic threshold, and lactic acid flooded my already tenderized glutes and calves. I would pay dearly for this surge, but at least I didn’t have to resort to crawling. 

Over the next five miles, the trail gains nearly a thousand feet of elevation while continuing along steep rolling hills that add to the overall climbing. From a trail-runner’s perspective these numbers don’t sound like much, but sled and snow resistance seem to make exponential demands on energy expenditures. I’d been struggling on the flats; with these hills, I was battling real physical limits — the kind where my calves would begin quivering halfway up a hill and I’d wonder if my leg muscles were about to fail altogether. Mentally I was not faring much better, with clouds stealing the views and moist, warm air leaving me drenched in sweat from within even as increasingly sleet-like precipitation soaked my outer layers. Emotionally, I wavered between stoic and reeling in near-meltdowns.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I’d chant out loud. “It’s a hard day. And that’s okay.” (Did you ever watch Stuart Smalley “Daily Affirmations” skits on Saturday Night Live? This is exactly what I was picturing as I said “and that’s okay” to myself.)

We crossed Shirley Lake and Finnbear Lake, with a couple of cabins that did not appear to be currently occupied. The trail now skirted along a bench above the Happy River gorge, squeezing through a narrow chute beneath still invisible mountains. The route cut laterally across steep sidehills, where the trail was more frequently blocked by short sections of slanting ice. These "overflows" develop when groundwater seeps over the snow and re-freezes. There were no choices but to cross off-camber ice made incredibly slippery by the wet precipitation, knowing that any slip could send us careening down the hillside. We donned microspikes over our shoes, but the sleds still had no traction. They’d swing downhill until they were pulling directly at our sides, throwing off balance with every step. One overflow was a veritable waterfall, plummeting down a steep slope where remnants of the trail emerged at the bottom. The ice was so bad that Beat waited for me even though I was at that point nearly twenty minutes behind, and offered to take my sled down for me. I felt grateful that he had, as I struggled to pick my way down the icefall without the extra weight. In all likelihood, I lacked the strength to manage the sled’s downward pull with only microspikes to leverage against gravity. If I were alone, I would have had to choose between risking injury from slipping with the sled attached to me, or risking losing all my gear to the Happy River Gorge by releasing the sled on its own. 

The gray day faded to a darker shade of twilight, which was nearly black by the time I arrived at Puntilla Lake Lodge. Over the past hour, sleet had deteriorated into drenching rain. Beat and I held onto hope that ascending to higher elevations would keep us above snow level, but the opposite turned out to be true. It was raining, hard. 

The distance between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake is a mere thirty miles, but it had physically been my most difficult day yet. Before I entered the tiny log cabin reserved for racers, I organized my sled so I could bring every soft thing inside, out of the rain. There were a lot of people crammed in the building — Tim, Loreen, Rick, Steve, Beat, me, Donald the Scottish biker, another biker who had come down with frostbite and was considering evacuation, and Anne. Jason Boon would arrive in a few hours. The race organizers had flown in cans of soup that we could heat in vats of water on the wood stove, but I chose to use the heated water to hydrate one of my freeze-dried meals, and helped myself to packets of hot chocolate left behind by some blazing-fast bikers. 

Everyone was distraught about the rain. Even Tim agreed that it would be foolish to set out for Rainy Pass during a downpour, soaking our clothing and shoes before descending into the Dalzell Gorge, where temperatures could swiftly swing back to thirty below and there were no spaces to dry gear for more than a hundred miles. We set alarms for midnight with a plan to assess the weather when we woke up. Despite exhaustion I again struggled to sleep. The air inside the cabin was hot and dry, and the day’s overexertion radiated from my skin. I tossed and turned and listened to my iPod to shut out Tim’s grizzly bear snores. At midnight, it was still pouring, so we set alarms for 2 a.m. I slept some, and woke up feeling much better, but it was still raining. Tim agreed to a 4 a.m. alarm, but asserted that we didn’t have the luxury to wait this out much longer. He was right. The pull over Rainy Pass is a harrowing one, with navigation difficulties and avalanche dangers lurking near the pass. It’s not wise to start too late in the day.


  1. Jill, I always read your posts and am inspired to find new adventures. How did you get started in these? Did you just wake up one day and decide to conquer the Iditarod?!

    1. I'm actually working on a book about that right now — my first ventures into endurance sports coincided with the first year I lived in Alaska, and therein are amusing anecdotes I've wanted to put together in a book. But as for the initial impetus, it really boils down to venturing into REI, happening across a brochure for the Susitna 100, and remarking to my partner at the time, "Wow, bikes on snow. What a cool idea!"

      Thanks for reading! I appreciate your comment.

  2. Loving the story and the photos. Can't wait for the next post.

  3. I actually love the way the big mountains aren't completely visible, especially that first photo--it almost looks more like a charcoal drawing than a photo.


Feedback is always appreciated!