Saturday, January 03, 2015

Slow snow and 35 below

In Fox the thermometer read minus 14, which I think boosted the spirits of every Californian in the car. We'd been told by Fairbanks locals to expect "great weather" during our holiday visit. "It might not even drop below zero the entire time you're here," said Ed the weather guy. We'd flirted with minus ten on Christmas Eve, but now a Chinook weather pattern was on the way and the forecast was so warm that I didn't even bother to pack my down pants, Gore-Tex shell, or big mittens for our three-day trip into White Mountains. Six inches of fresh snow on Friday was a surprise, as were the double-digit minuses on Saturday morning. I was excited. The air was sharply clear and the low sunlight was magic. This is what winter tourists crave; we get more than enough "great weather" at home.

At the trailhead, I worked quickly with bare hands to strap a bivy bundle and seatpost bag to the fatbike I borrowed from my friend Corrine. After driving home from Tolovana Hot Springs in sideways snow the previous night, I'd come a breath away from packing a sled instead of the bike. The early-season base would already be soft, and six inches of new snow would be packed down by a handful of snowmachines at best (even in "great weather," travel through this BLM recreation area north of Fairbanks is light during this dark time of the year.) But Corrine has a beautiful bike: A carbon 9:Zero:7 Whiteout with neon green highlights and matching pogies. It made for a pretty accessory even if I had to push it most of the way. I reasoned this would be good training, and not that much harder than dragging a sled.
After a hundred feet of pedaling through the parking lot, I stopped to let most of the air out of both tires. Steve and Beat pressed ahead with their sleds, and I followed not far behind. The first mile was a gradual climb, and I could not catch them. The trail had the consistency of a bottomless channel of sand — the fresh snow was so cold that it wouldn't consolidate, and snowmachine paddle tracks had whipped it up into a deep and abrasive fluff. At low tire pressure the surface was rideable, but that's a relative term. It's embarrassing to be a cyclist with your butt in a saddle, turning cranks, and unable to keep up with people who are walking.

I doubled my efforts and managed to increase the pace from a pitiful sub-3 mph to something closer to 4 mph. Thanks to gasping high-intensity, I was able to pass Steve and Beat. But then, of course, I had to keep it up to not get passed again. Heat poured off my back. All I was wearing on top was a light synthetic base layer, a hybrid softshell with one primaloft front panel made by Skinfit, a hat and a balaclava, and open pogies with no gloves. "Temps must be warming up," I thought. To breathe and vent heat I pulled down my balaclava, but the tip of my nose kept freezing. I used my bare fingers to warm it up, but this strategy worsened my already squirrelly steering.

Just before the top of the Wickersham Wall, mile six, I encountered local legends Jeff Oatley and Heather Best. They were returning from a night at the Caribou Bluff cabin, which is about nine miles beyond the Borealis LeFevre cabin where Steve, Beat, and I planned to stay, and about 22 miles from where we were standing. They warned me it was cold at the bottom of the wall, "At least 25 below," and the trail was consistently rideable but really slow. "We've been riding for six hours," Heather said with a tone that indicated she couldn't believe it herself. If one were to put Jeff and Heather and me on a comparison chart of snow biking strength, Jeff would be titanium, Heather would be steel, and I'd be aluminum foil. If it took them six hours to ride 22 miles, well ...

The Wickersham Wall loses a thousand feet in just over a mile. The downward slope was a welcome break, but even at that grade, coasting was such a slow crawl that I had to pedal to make the Wall feel like a descent. This seemed a special kind of indignation. At the bottom, I stopped on the frozen shore of Wickersham Creek to eat a snack and listen to the silence. The was a crystal tingling in the air, the melody of tiny bells as microscopic ice crystals crashed into each other. It's a beautiful sound. I love subzero air ... when I'm warm.

The hard work persisted. I churned and churned, winced with throbbing quads and calves, and breathed fire that was hot fire because my fleece balaclava recirculates air quite well. I'd put on a fleece jacket and liner gloves before the Wickersham Wall, but debated removing them again because I didn't want to overheat and sweat. My heart pounded. At home, I tend to gauge cycling intensity based on the level of effort needed to scale certain steep road climbs. Silently, I put this effort somewhere below "Bohlman On-Orbit" but above "Redwood Gulch." The virtual equivalent of a 12-percent grade, with a 170 heart rate, on average. Hard work! I didn't dare look at my watch, until I did, and the screen was foggy, but it was definitely registering in the high teens minutes-per-mile. So, 3 mph. I wasn't just running as hard as I could for walking speed — I was biking as hard as I could for walking speed. Grumble, grumble, grumble. I took pushing breaks for the same reason runners take walking breaks, just to catch my breath. My average pace did not drop that much. I started pushing more. It was easier, and not much slower. But ... I was there to ride a bike. It was good training. This was "only" a 19-mile trip, so I could afford to burn some matches. I cranked up the high burners until I was dizzy and almost entirely out of steam. Then I just walked, and my heart slowed enough that I could hear the ice bells jingling again. It was a beautiful night.

There's something about a good, hard effort that shuts out all the excess noise. It's an ethereal sort of tunnel surrounded by a vacuum that sucks up time and space without detection. As I trudged up the steep incline to Borealis, I couldn't believe six and a half hours had passed since I left the trailhead. If I wasn't so exhausted, I'd almost guess my watch was wrong. I shined my headlight at the thermometer above the porch. The mercury registered south of 30 below. "Maybe it's broken," I thought. It was definitely cold, but 30 below?

I unpacked my bike, started and nursed a small flame in the wood stove, gathered several armloads of split wood from outside to bring inside, and only then began to feel enough of a chill to pull on my down coat. As I tried to change the propane canister in the lantern, I noticed the indoor thermometer also read 30 below. "Huh."

Steve and Beat showed up two minutes later. In all, it only took them twenty more minutes to hike to Borealis than it took me to "ride" there. They were cold. Beat's thermometer registered temperatures as low as 35 below on the lower reaches of Beaver Creek. This was gratifying information. It may have taken me 6.5 hours to ride 19 miles, but my reward was a blistering furnace of body heat.

On Sunday, the temperature warmed up to a balmy -16. We reserved two nights at Borealis, so we set out for a day trip toward Windy Gap. Only three or four snowmachines had traveled out that way since the storm, but a night of -35 set up a nice crust that supported considerably faster riding than the previous day. Beat and Steve were bogged down and postholing on this punchy trail, but my bike could float on top of the thin crust at a cool 5 mph. It was like flying! 

While "flying" down the trail toward Fossil Creek, I hit a deep moose track and did some actual flying over the handlebars, into a snowbank. Cold snow packed into my balaclava and sleeves, and it took me several minutes to dig it all out. Now this is snow biking. Twenty miles only sucked up 3.5 hours on this day. 

I returned to Borealis to discover our friends Joel and Tom had biked and skied out, despite my satellite messenger warning about the 6.5-hour ride into an icebox. They also enjoyed a frozen crust, and the trip took both of them considerably less time than it took me. Joel only rode in with minimal gear and the clothes on his back. With the crowds he was confined to the sweltering loft, and thus was forced to reveal his silky smooth triathlete legs.

Ah, cabin life. For dinner I made grilled cheese sandwiches, buttering and flipping each one with a spoon in small pot on the propane stove. Someday, for a few months during a winter, it would be an interesting experience to live in a place like this — a simple cabin out in the Alaska woods but near a traveled trail. I'd bring only stuff I could carry on a bike or in a sled, chop wood, make trails with snowshoes, eat a lot of rice, lentils and butter, write in a notebook, and pedal out once a week or so to gather more supplies. Someday.

Beat and Steve hauling out of Beaver Creek on Monday morning. The Chinook had finally blown in, and when we left the outdoor thermometer was all the way up to 11 above.

Trail conditions had improved, but I still managed to burn all my energy matches by tacking on ten extra miles. From the top of the Wickersham Wall, I descended a steep trail that had been only been used by a single dog team since the storm, which made for a slow churning eight-mile climb before the finish. When I passed Beat and Steve, I expressed the truth that I was "so tired" and "I always forget how hard snow biking is" and "My confidence has been shattered and now I'm really scared of the Idaho race. There's no way I can work this hard for 200 kilometers." I don't think they believed me. To a person hauling a heavy sled, a cyclist pedaling by looks like they're coasting on a hovercraft. That's exactly how they look, and that's exactly what I've thought when I've stood on the other side with an anchor strapped to my hips. But put a snow bike in volatile ("real") winter conditions, and those things are harsh taskmasters.

Beat and Steve had to work plenty hard themselves, and also admitted that these supposedly easy-going training trips have a way of shattering confidence. (They're both preparing for the thousand-mile haul to Nome.) But there's something about working especially hard for something that boosts appreciation, and this may have been my favorite December trip into the White Mountains yet. But I still wonder how I'm going to survive the Fat Pursuit, let alone the Bering Sea coast trip I planned for March. Best not to think about it too much.


  1. Glad that we got to see you guys and that my bike worked out well for you! Good luck at JP's race/ride to both of you. I'm sure you will do fine. Be sure and say hi to Andrea if you see her.

  2. Thanks again for lending me your bike Corrine! As for JayP's race, we'll see. There's a winter storm in the region right now that's supposed to dump upwards of 20 inches, more snow early in the week, and a storm on Friday calling for 3-6 inches. Beat and I are already talking about snowshoes and sleds with some kind of ornamental toy "bike" to carry with us. :) No matter what it will be good slogtastic fun.

  3. You'll be OK for the 200k but your prep will need to be diligent.
    If it makes you feel any better, I've been prepping for a road 200k in FL at the end of the month. Friday at home I was riding in 27 deg weather and today 44 piddly miles at 80 degrees. I was limping along at about 11 mph by the time I returned. 53 degrees difference just shattered me.
    Ref your Alaska dream, you could get on Life Below Zero, I'd bet.

  4. I really enjoy your blog, with excellent writing and beautiful breathtaking photos!


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