Friday, November 14, 2014

Iditarod Again, part six

Sprinkles continued to fall as our oversized group emerged from the little cabin at Rainy Pass Lodge a few hours before dawn. The intensity of the rain had diminished, but we had no forecast to guess at whether the storm would pick back up, or turn to snow, or clear out and drag subzero temperatures back into the region. No forecast meant no plan. But we'd do what we came here to do, which is walk from one side of the Alaska Range to the other, and hope for the best. 

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
Unlike some of the others in our crowded cabin, I neglected to bring my duffel inside. I'd rescued the sleeping bag, clothing, and food, but inside the duffel was an inch of standing water and several items I'd neglected to bring inside and regretted this — waders, stove, a baggie of used socks, my bag of spare mittens, buff, and hat (whoops! But luckily the silnylon sack seemed to keep those things merely damp) and a few other miscellaneous items that had now doubled in weight and diminished in usefulness. I also noticed Beat kept his sled with its built-in bivy out in the rain. He'd designed and built his own five-foot hmw-polyethylene sled with a small frame at the head, and a piece of plastic at the end to roll out to six-foot length. He then glued a silnylon shell over the top of the sled to serve as a shelter — not only would it protect his gear, but he could sleep inside. It was a fine idea in theory, but in practice the system proved to be a nuisance, as the material was loose and flapped around, it added another layer of difficulty to gear access, and he was not so stoked on sleeping inside. Beat likes to tinker with new ideas; sometimes they work for him, and sometimes they do not. But he seems to enjoy the process, even when it occasionally produces less-than-workable results. I wondered how everyone else's stuff had fared as I dumped a gush of water out of my duffel and sled. It felt particularly unfair that we had to do this. 

 At least we had enjoyed a long rest — nearly eight hours of down time in the cabin that for me included about three and a half hours of real sleep, broken up by three rain-soaked dashes to the outhouse (my kidneys seem to go into overdrive later in these long efforts, and I need to pee constantly.) But unlike the previous morning I was alert and reasonably energetic, marching up the ramp-like rise of the Ptarmigan Valley in the pre-dawn darkness. It was still too cloudy for stars, but as my eyes adjusted, silhouettes of surrounding mountains revealed the ceiling had lifted.

It was a warm, calm morning, and as daylight appeared we could see clearings to the south that appeared to be expanding. My hamstrings burned and my shoulders ached sharply, which was not unexpected for having dragged more than a third of my body weight 165 miles in three and a half days. But all in all it was a fine day for walking, and I felt pretty good. Vigilance for re-lubing and changing socks had kept my feet in good shape despite the oversized shoes, and the muscles that I'd specifically trained — such as quads and calves — felt reasonably strong despite the beating they'd taken the previous day. One of Tim's favorite pieces of advice is to not worry about early aches and pains — that your body eventually adjusts and you get stronger as you go. "The first week is always the worst," he reiterates. I only had one week of Iditarod to endure, and I certainly could not say I felt stronger than I had on the first day — but I didn't necessarily feel a whole lot weaker, either.

With everyone feeling well-rested and enjoying the warm-yet-not-rainy morning, the initial miles were relaxing and playful. This little vole popped out of the snow and dashed under Tim's sled, then tried to climb up his leg, wavering between the sled and leg while refusing to be chased away by any of us. We joked that Tim had a new pet to take with him to Nome. The vole was actually one of the few wild animals we spotted during the trip. Interior Alaska is not the Serengeti; it's hungry country and most animals are wildly dispersed. Since there are so few humans in this region, it's easy for wild animals to avoid the corridors that humans frequent, and they do — unless they have something to gain from humans, like the ravens and crows. If you want to see wild animals in Alaska, take a bus tour through Denali National Park. A thousand miles on the Iditarod Trail in the winter might get you a few moose, the hardier birds of Alaska, rodents, fox, and maybe even a possibly-real-but-most-likely-hallucinated lynx sighting.

I took many dozens of photographs. Ptarmigan Valley can be an extraordinarily mean place, with white-out blizzards, gale-force gusts, and windchills approaching 70 below. During the 2006 Iditarod Trail Invitational, a storm rushed in after the initial wave of lead cyclists, forcing everyone else in the race back. Most of the mid-pack didn't make it through, and my favorite story from this year came from my friend Brij, who stuffed socks in his hat to prevent his ears from freezing as he made three attempts into the white-out, turning around in fear of his life each time. Tim has his own collection of harrowing Rainy Pass stories, and he was the only one who actually burst through that storm in 2006. In 2008, I experienced what I was told was a "nice" day on Rainy Pass, with face-biting winds and nighttime temperatures that dipped beneath my thermometer's limit of 20 below.

 This day was just ... pleasant. Temperatures in the thirties. No wind. It was surreal.

 Then the clouds began to clear, removing any remaining immediate threats of storms.

 We stayed in a fairly tight group with Tim and Loreen, and occasionally Rick and Steve, depending on whether Loreen or Rick stopped to nap (both seemed capable of catching short snoozes on top of their sleds without freezing their feet, which I envied), or the rest of us stopped to snack or fuss over our feet. It was such a luxury, being able to stop and rest and take in the scenery. I could hardly believe our luck.

 The trail veered away from the valley and began to follow Pass Creek up the steep pitches toward Rainy Pass. My fear meter spiked here, as the trail flows through a narrow gully that creates the perfect terrain trap for avalanches. The surrounding slopes appeared to be classic high-risk angles, and the recent rain made it seem likely that there was a heavy layer of saturated snow sitting right on top of sugary fluff. "If I were hiking alone in Juneau, I would probably not go here," I thought. But there was no wind, and the odds of quiet walkers triggering an avalanche from below seemed slim. I marched hard to stick close to the group, clinging to the false security of strength in numbers.

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
As sunlight spread across the canyon, the heat began cranking. Beat announced it was 40 degrees as he and Steve stopped to roll up their tights and remove vests, hats, and gloves. The trail surface was well-set, but snow was noticeably softening up in this spring-like thaw.

 We crossed Rainy Pass Lake, where Tim pointed out a private cabin that he'd happened upon years earlier in a white-out. This cabin was explicitly off-limits to travelers, and looked half dilapidated anyway. With sweat pouring down my forehead and neck, it was becoming increasingly more difficult to imagine any scenario where shelter would be desired in this place. The frantic chill on the Yentna River three days earlier was all but forgotten.

 The temperature kept climbing. As we closed in on the pass, Beat announced it was 48 degrees. This was reasonably alarming. Thaws have the power to disrupt everything that holds winter travel together — ice breaks apart, waterways open, snow becomes unmanageably soft, swamps flood. I was not exactly thrilled to be overheating and drenched in sweat on this day.

Still, Rainy Pass is an stunning setting, a corridor of open valleys and snow-swept mountains more than a hundred and fifty miles from the nearest road. It's a stark place that not only feels, but actually is far away from the hum of modern life. Hot air and glaring sunshine only added to the surreality of the place. The surface crust was smooth and icy, and we could walk anywhere we wanted along the slope — gazing up at the white-washed peaks towering over us. I walked in a happy trance until one leg broke through the crust to sugar snow, up to thigh level. I was at least wearing gaiters to protect my shins from ice shards. But it was clear the surface snow was breaking apart. It could only be the beginning. The beginning of The Wallow.

As nervous as I already was about the prospect of bad snow and ice, I couldn't get over how weird this all felt — this was the big, bad Iditarod Trail across Alaska, and I was taking it on with just my two feet and a sled. Right now, though, it felt as though I was out on a fun day hike with my friends, in a summery month like June. With temperatures near fifty degrees, it could just as well have been June. At 3,400 feet elevation, Rainy Pass is a rare low divide in the towering Alaska Range, but it's still a divide. We were crossing over a mountain range so large that it creates an almost impenetrable weather wall between Alaska's coastal climates and the frigid Interior. And it wasn't June; it was February. These conditions couldn't be real. We posed for pictures, laughed, told stories about things that were far away from here because we were all relaxed enough to let our minds wander. A breeze kicked up at the pass, cooling my overheated skin.

 It was a little too windy at the pass to linger before the chill kicked in, so we descended a few hundred feet to the cusp of treeline for a proper lunch break. We rolled out our sleeping pads and sat down with Tim and Loreen. Beat broke out one of his gallon-sized Ziploc bags of peanut butter, and complained that this caloric fuel source was not as tasty when temperatures were above freezing. When frozen, peanut butter develops a fudge-like consistency that's quite satisfying. Above freezing but still chilled, it's just stick-to-the-roof-of-your mouth gooey, and you can only choke a few bites down at a time. I took advantage of the stop to take off my gaiters, shoes, and socks, and dry my feet out properly.

 Beat offered to let me use his satellite phone to call my parents. It seemed like a fun milestone to mark with a phone call — "Hey, Ma, I'm at the crest of the Alaska Range!" My folks were surprised and thrilled to hear from me. We chatted for a few expensive minutes and I told them how great things were going, how much fun we were having, and how incredibly different this experience had been compared to my last trip on the Iditarod Trail. When I looked down the canyon, I could pinpoint what I believed to be almost the exact spot where I stopped to bivy in 2008. At the time it was well after midnight, I was all alone, a harsh wind whipped down the canyon, and temperatures had plummeted to twenty below. I was so shattered, and so unfamiliar with that depth of cold and fatigue, that when I closed my eyes for what I believed to be imperative sleep, I felt strongly uncertain about whether I'd ever wake up.

Now, six years later on the thawing bed of Pass Fork, noon temperatures soared into the high forties, and I was surging with optimism, surrounded by friends, and drying my bare feet in the sun. I've said this before, but it was surreal.

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
Then it started to fall apart. Literally. As in, "the trail started to fall apart." We ran the first mile of the steep descent off Rainy Pass, but only descended perhaps 500 feet before the thin layer of snow deteriorated into puffs of sugar. These gritty, unconsolidated pillows filled in the spaces between tussocks and alder branches, but it wasn't solid enough to hold our weight. So every step would sink all the way to the ground below — sometimes to our shins, sometimes to our knees. It was impossible to know until our feet hit the frozen ground, twisting ankles and wrenching knees along the way.

Photo by Beat Jegerlehner
We had to don snowshoes to battle the ankle-twisting holes. The snowshoes also sank into the sugar snow, and frequently got caught on grass clumps and alder branches. Often I had to reach down with my fingers to wrestle the snowshoe free from the latest plant trap. The sled dragged and caught branches just as badly, until I had to work considerably harder, and at a much slower pace, to descend Rainy Pass than I had climbing it. It was maddening. Humorously maddening.

 Tim, as usual, kept an unwaveringly sunny disposition. As I struggled to catch up with Beat, Tim would walk with me, because he was waiting for Loreen, who was somewhere farther back. Occasionally he would flip his sled all the way around (his flexible PVC poles allowed him to do this without diving into alder thickets) and walk back to find Loreen. Then I'd see him again twenty or thirty minutes later, chatting away, in some kind of inexplicably fantastic mood. "This is really hard work," I said, and Tim agreed. He loved it.

 I wrestled alders, scratched my hands, ripped a hole in my shirt, and did some silent gnashing of teeth. But in the end I had to take Tim's words to heart — "what can you do about it?" — and embrace the Zen of resignation. The sugar layer only grew thinner as we descended, until it was scarcely a dusting on top of the fortunately-still-frozen surface of Pass Fork.

 After descending a thousand grueling feet from Rainy Pass, we dropped into the Dalzell Gorge, where the torrent of Dalzell Creek rages down the canyon as waterfalls tumble over sheer walls — whitewater that's frozen in time during the winter. Having been here before, what we saw this year was almost unfathomable. The snow was gone. Even the ice had been stripped to a minimum. My fatigued mind juggled impossible possibilities — like maybe we had warped through time to a distant summer month. A surging Dalzell Creek gushed beneath open leads and layers of thin ice, and the sheer canyon walls ensured there was no way around these brittle bridges.

Picking our way across wet, glare ice with sleds that did whatever the hell they wanted was a formidable task. I was glad to have microspikes. Beat had custom machined carbide studs in his shoes, but they didn't quite cut it, and he had to grab branches to keep from slipping onto the thin ice over the creek's center. Even the mircospikes slipped out on occasional exposed rocks, and all the while Dalzell Creek continued to rage beneath our feet. I could hear water gushing; it was driving me mad. Later we learned Rick broke through the ice in this section, up to his knees in creek water. I skirted around leads that were definitely deep enough and flowing fast enough to suck a person under the ice, never to be seen again. Already pronounced phobias of bad ice did not help me keep my cool in the Dazell Gorge. Sometimes, when Beat was farther ahead, I let a cathartic bout of hyperventilation release pent-up panics that threatened to shut down movement altogether.

 I breathed a sigh of relief when the Dalzell Gorge finally spit us out on the Tatina River, after what felt like endless bends in the increasingly narrower canyon. The Tatina valley is much wider, but after a half mile of skirting puddles and flowing streams of river water over the ice, open water became impossible to avoid. I tried my hardest but eventually plunged both shoes up to my ankles in puddles. I thought I should be really upset about this — wet shoes. The checkpoint at Rohn was only a wall tent with a tiny camp stove that does not generate enough dry heat to even begin to dry sopping wet shoes in the span of four or six hours. Beyond Rohn was the Farewell Burn, where an Interior cold snap could break this heat wave into splinters before we even had time to react. In all likelihood, I would have to deal with wet shoes for the next 150 miles, and I wanted to be really upset about it. But mostly, I was still happy that my body was not underneath the ice in the Dalzell Gorge.

A half hour after dark, we walked across the landing strip for the Iditarod checkpoint of Rohn — which is just a BLM public use cabin, a landing strip, and nothing else. The ground was utterly bare — not even wisps of snow to be seen — and the dirt was soft and wet. It felt like I was dragging my sled over a saturated sponge. My survival joy was wearing off, and I was back to being angry about bare ground and wet shoes, when Rob appeared out of the woods. He wrapped his big bear arms around my shoulders in a genuine hug, and offered a bratwurst that he was warming on a tiny grill out in front of his wall tent — Rob's Hilton.

Rob was a perennial volunteer for the Iditarod Trail Invitational since he raced the route on foot in 2003. He also was an avid outdoorsman and participant in the Alaska Wilderness Classic, a point-to-point overland race across a different mountain range every three years. Rob tragically died during the Wilderness Classic in August after his packraft flipped in the Tana River. He was a great guy and will be missed by all in this community, in particular those who benefited from his warmth and kindness in this far-away outpost.

It was Rob who transformed Rohn from a spartan wilderness encampment to a warm and inviting stop-over. He collected spruce bows from the woods to build up a thick mattress, stoked the tiny wood stove all night long, heated cans of soup and cups of Hot Tang, and apparently this year, cooked bratwursts! I devoured mine greedily as he teased me about forgetting my bike and asking me what I thought of the hiking adventure. I inquired about the state of the trail beyond Rohn, and Rob just shook his head.

"It's dirt," he said. "For at least twenty miles. There was a dusting of snow before but it's all gone now. It was fifty degrees here today."

I sighed with sincere defeat. "I guess now would be a good time for a backpack."

The crowd of our roving Iditarod party built up inside of Rob's wall tent, so I finished another delicious freeze-dried meal and ventured outside to set up my bivy in an empty snowmobile cargo sled. It was still hot outside, so I kept my fifty-below down sleeping bag open and slept on top of it, inside the bivy. It seemed like the moon was emerging, but I couldn't be too optimistic. And sure enough, about a half hour later, it started to rain.

As droplets pattered outside my bivy sack, I curled into a fetal position and mulled how I would address this. Should I just ignore it and hope it stops? Or ignore it had just not care how wet my sleeping bag gets? I came up with several more options that all began with "ignore it" before Rob shook my shoulder.

"Are you asleep?" he asked. "It's raining now. You should come inside the tent."

I crawled out and punched my down booties on the wet mulchy ground, feeling the cold water soak through to my socks as I pulled them out with a loud "slorp" sound. "I can't believe it's raining in Rohn. Raining in Rohn!"

"It's weird," Rob shook his head. "In all my years, I've never seen rain."

I threw my sleeping bag, still inside the bivy, into a narrow notch between Beat and Steve on Rob's spruce mattress, then plopped my damp body on top.

"This is maddening," I thought. "Can't someone make it stop?"

But it had only, still, just begun. 

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