|Photo by Beat Jegerlehner|
What does it mean, exactly, to return to the point of no return? It's not an oxymoron, but rather an inevitable cycle. For every threshold we cross — and in life, there are only a few — there remains a desire to wander back to the now-closed door and re-live the moment that everything changed. Maybe with renewed perspective, we'll finally be able to bring that jarring moment into focus and understand what it meant. And then we can turn from our threshold again, onto a beautiful new path. Like Frost's two roads in a yellow wood. We want to see what remains. We want to see what's different.
Everything changes, even memories, and yet emotions can be startlingly steadfast. Five years had passed, but there wasn't even a heartbeat separating the bewilderment of gazing through a barricade of birch trees along the shore of Knik Lake. Their shadows drew trenchant patterns on the snow, and everything beyond was still unnervingly unknown.
|Anticipating the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, February 2008|
|Anticipating the start, February 2014.|
In many ways, an entire life cycle had passed in the five years that spanned the moment I hobbled out of Yentna Station with blackened toes, and the moment I marched back to the Iditarod starting line in shiny new Montrail running shoes. I had been old, and then broken, and then I cycled back to wide-eyed innocence. That childlike spark — and the desire to grasp onto it as long as possible — was why I was strapped to a sled this year. During my first two attempts in 2008 and 2009, I was a cyclist. I was only a cyclist. I rode bikes nearly every day of the year; I rode bikes in sleet and rain and streams of slush. I walked bikes for miles through places where it was impossible to ride, just to search for new places to ride bikes. I directed most of my disposable income toward cycling and fixated on parts and gear and shiny new components. My partner at the time was a runner, but I couldn’t relate to him on that level. Running seemed painful, slow; what was the point? No, I was not a runner. I was certain I never would be.
My sled was the sum of my most recent answer to the ultimate problem. Endurance sports tend to generate a whirlpool of problems without obvious solutions: What gear will help me go faster? What food can I eat at moderate effort levels for twenty-four hours without barfing? How many electrolyte tablets should I take to avoid cramping? What shoes will prevent my feet from deteriorating into a cesspool of blood and puss? For every possible answer there are many variations and exponentially more questions. It can become dizzying and is one of the reasons I appreciate Alaska wilderness-based endurance efforts, because all of these questions are trumped the one — the only one — that really matters:
“How do I stay alive?”
“How do I stay alive?”
I’ve been mulling over this ultimate problem — well, all my life — but specifically related to self-sufficiency in subzero cold, since 2005. The answer is as simple as it is obvious: One must stay warm. Ah, but how to stay warm? That is where the whirlpool commences. Adequate insulation is important, but not the sole key to self-generated warmth. Bodies that are depleted of energy don’t produce heat, so sufficient calories are needed. Cells depleted of moisture are more susceptible to freezing, so regular hydration is crucial. Clothing, food, water — on a base level, that actually is all a human needs to survive indefinitely in deep subzero cold. But what to wear? And what to eat? And how to make water and prevent it from freezing? And how to carry it all, enough but not so much that it hinders forward motion? How to customize it to my individual needs — nerve-damaged toes that are always too cold and thighs that are always too warm? In real-life execution, even the most basic problems still have seemingly endless possible solutions.
So what do we do? Trial and error, using what just happens to be the best-tested method at any given moment. Whatever this is, is bound to change — so it’s almost pointless to make assertions on paper regardless of how certain one is about their gear. Suffice to say that each item in my 2014 sled was different than those I carried on my 2008 bicycle, with one key exception: A fleece balaclava that had been a faithful head-warmer since I was a teenage snowboarder in 1997. My dedication to this pilled black fleece was more nostalgic than practical at this point, but it remained the single constant in an ever-changing repertoire.
But, to answer the question of what was in my sled, without compiling too long of a useless list, and not including the clothing I wore at the start or the two liters of water on my back: A down sleeping bag rated to fifty below zero, a closed-cell foam pad, a water-proof bivy sack, a liquid fuel stove, twenty-two ounces of fuel, pot and spoon, an expedition down coat, Gore-Tex shell jacket and waterproof pants, spare fleece socks, spare liner socks, vapor barrier socks, synthetic puffy jacket, spare liner mittens, vapor barrier mittens, spare hat, goggles, buff, wind pants, thin fleece pullover, nylon waders, spare large plastic bags, repair supplies and med kit, survival knick-knacks such as fire starters and a personal locator beacon, electronics, forty-ounce insulated thermos, and twelve thousand calories — or about two and a half days’ worth — of nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, crackers, dehydrated chicken and noodles, and gummy candy. The total weighed in at about forty-five pounds, or exactly one third of my body weight.
Beat’s sled clocked in at a whopping seventy-five pounds. An explanation is in order for this. Beat completed the trek to Nome in 2013 on the Southern Route of the Iditarod Trail, and soon after developed ambitions to trek to the South Pole. Although funding is the major obstacle to any polar endeavor, he thought it would be wise to test his abilities for an unsupported Antarctic expedition by conducting a dry run of sorts in Alaska. After much mulling on the prospect, he decided to take smaller steps, traveling the Northern Route of the Iditarod Trail over three self-supported legs. The first would be 350 miles to McGrath — the entire distance I was planning to travel — with everything he needed in his sled. Unlike me, Beat would not collect the two drop bags provided by the race organization, and at the time did not plan to go inside any buildings or purchase any food from lodges along the way. Even this truncated endeavor required more than thirty pounds of food and fuel, which Beat parsed out in high-calorie-density ziplock bags of peanut butter and dehydrated meals, among a few other items.
Both of our sleds looked obese as we sifted through them in the final hours before the start, mulling last-minute crash diets. No one, including me, wants to drag forty-five pounds of dead weight over the Alaska Range, but the ultimate problem keeps me from tossing it all in the nearest oil drum fire. Ultimately, I want to stay alive. I could probably stay alive with less gear, but life is important to me and I’m not inclined to bet on the increasingly higher stakes of fewer supplies. Beat and I are both conservatives in this regard. And as residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, our testing opportunities are limited.
We were called from the museum parking lot down a steep bank to the lake ice below. This year, there were a host of familiar faces among the competitors, and amusingly, most of my friends were runners — longtime veterans Tim and Loreen Hewitt, Laurel Highlands co-race-director Rick Freeman, fellow Californian Steve Ansell, blazing-fast sled-dragger Dave Johnston, and going for her first attempt on Nome, Anne Ver Hoef. A buzzing vibration of nerves all but drowned the chatter in the crowd, and similar to past years in this event, I never actually heard the official "Go!"