Saturday, March 07, 2015

Finding winter

After temperatures climbed into the 40s again and my creative energy continued to decline, I decided it was time to escape Anchorage. Originally I hoped to travel to Whitehorse for an overnight bike trip with friends, but discovered too late that my car rental policy didn't allow me to leave the country. There's also the matter that Whitehorse is 700 miles from Anchorage, and although I enjoy the drive, it's risky in the winter and difficult to justify amid the limited time I have in Alaska. Fairbanks is half that distance, and there's an incredible mountain range in the middle with extensive adventure opportunities. 

On Thursday I planned to ride my bike on snowmobile trails near Petersville, in the southern foothills of the Alaska Range. It was still warm, and misty rain and fog became driving rain after I passed the Talkeetna junction. I coaxed the rental car through gray mush to a trailhead, where I'd already decided I was going to run instead of ride. I suited up, stepped out into the downpour, and sank my foot into shin-deep slush. The trail wasn't packed ice as I expected, and any attempt to "run" through this muck was going to be a cold, soggy slog. I experienced a low point there, while slogging back to my car to remove my microspikes and grab snowshoes instead. Rain pelted down and I realized that much of my malaise over the past week was linked to constant worrying about Beat. It's strange, because concerns about his well-being and emotional state on the Iditarod Trail didn't bother me nearly as much last year. I think going to McGrath with him helped put me in the right mindset about the endeavor, and also helped me feel more connected to him after he continued onto Nome. This year, it's more difficult to see big picture when I talk with him on the phone, hear his tired voice, and imagine him stumbling over tussocks and taping his feet amid endless sloggy wetness. Sloggy wetness is not something I want for him or myself, and running the slush marshes in Petersville was close to the last thing I wanted to be doing. "I don't have to do this," I thought. The sun had been shining through a small suckerhole over Willow, and even though it was becoming late in the afternoon and Willow was an hour in the wrong direction, I turned around and drove south.

Loaded up Snoots at the gate on Willow Fishhook Road and pedaled through the icy slush until it turned to ice, and then packed snow. As I gained elevation toward Hatcher Pass, soft powder filled in the gaps and the quiet hum of the wheels lightened my mood. I let a bunch of air out of the tires and climbed higher until turning pedals through soft snow was beyond my power capacity, and the remnant hints of the sucker hole sun were sinking low on the horizon, and the night drive beckoned. This ride was a welcome respite and shifted my mindset in the right direction.

Driving north, I crossed back into the storm shadow of driving rain, which shifted to sleet, and then snow. Inches piled up on the freezing-rain-slicked highway, which was almost empty of traffic save for an occasional southbound truck. A few miles north of Cantwell, I moved slightly into the shoulder as a truck went by, hit an ice slick and slammed into a snow bank. I was alone with a rental Jeep Cherokee, no shovel, and it was just before midnight. I wondered if I might have to spend the night in the woods just off the road. After twenty minutes of kicking snow and driving the car backward and forward, backward and forward, I managed to free it from the bank. By that time, it was angled just right to flip a U-turn and drive back to Cantwell. Snow was still coming down hard, and I didn't want to get stuck anywhere where I really might have to spend a night in a ditch. I returned to the closed Chevron, parked in the corner of the lot, and set up my bivy inside the car. I awoke to a snowplow scraping nearly a foot of new snow that had fallen overnight.

I did go looking for winter. I found it.


The sun came out for the remainder of the drive to Denali National Park, which is only thirty miles north of Cantwell but only had two or three inches of new snow. There was another winter storm warning in the forecast for that evening. I had been sufficiently intimidated by snowy road conditions to want to escape the mountains before the storm came in, but had enough time for a half-day hike in the park. A park ranger recommended this loop starting at mile 12 of the park road, looping up around a ridge and then dropping into the Savage River Canyon before returning on a closed, unmaintained section of the road. In hindsight, it's crazy that the park ranger recommended this hike to me. I mean, I know this is Alaska, but this is a national park, and I didn't represent myself as a mountaineer. For all she knew, I could have been a random tourist from California who was just passing through on her way to Fairbanks. Oh right, that's exactly what I was. It was a scenic hike, but parts of the route were sketch-city. I'm guessing this is a popular summer trail, and the ranger had never been up here in the winter conditions.

It was 14 degrees where I parked my car, and once I climbed above tree line, I encountered strong winds — guessing 25 mph sustained winds with 40 mph gusts. Cold wind is a condition that frightens me, and my heart was racing as I made my way along the ridge. All in all, 14 degrees with a 25 mph wind would be a typical if not pleasant condition on the Bering Sea Coast, and I had to continually remind myself of this, since I'm still planning to head that way in a week. "If you can't take this wind, then you really can't take the coast." I ducked behind a boulder to pull on a windbreaker and neck warmer, and squinted against the gusts as I pieced together wind-scoured segments of the trail down the slope.

There were steep, boulder-strewn drop-offs to both sides, and the trail climbed onto this narrow knife ridge that only sharpened as the route descended. There was a reasonably defined trail, but it was coated in glare ice with anywhere from an inch to a foot of feather-light spindrift on top, with crusty, thigh-deep drifts in spots. I was wearing microspikes, but the points were still slipping on the hard ice layer and rocks. Safe foot placements were difficult to discern, the drop-offs were quite exposed, wind was knocking me off balance, and the odds of hurting myself were high. I should have retreated sooner, but kept thinking the ridge would widen or I'd find a safe route off of it. When these things did not happen, it was too late because I was more frightened of returning the way I came than going forward. By that time, you're pretty much committed.

Finally, after about thirty minutes of intense scrambling where I put my poles away and took my mittens off occasionally so I could use my bare fingers to grip rocks, I saw moose tracks above a creek bed, in a spot where I could climb down and reach them. Before, from my vantage point, it wasn't apparent whether the creek below would drop safely to the river or drop off cliffs. But I figured if a moose could climb to this spot, I could crawl out. Getting off that sketch human trail and following the moose was the best decision I made all day. From there it was a fairly simple powder-bound down to the Savage River, where I located the canyon trail and walked to the road. The fear that encompassed that seven-mile hike left me exhausted. It was all I could do to trudge 2.5 miles of road back to the car and finish the drive to Fairbanks.

It snowed for most of today in Fairbanks, so my friend Corrine and I went snowshoeing through the powder on the hills near her house. Lots of fun, this hike, and not scary at all. What's funny is there's now probably too much snow here for me to ride my bike. But that's all right. Running and hiking is arguably better for my physical training right now, as it might still help my fitness for a hopeful White Mountains 100 run at the end of the month. There's a cold snap forecasted next week, and practicing setting up my bivy, working on my bike, and melting snow at 20 below will really help my emotional and mental fitness going into the coast trip. Right now, after my experience with the wind on the mountain in Denali, I'd put my confidence level at about 10 percent. Today, Beat confided in me that his own confidence is flagging severely right now, with all the new snow and wind and likely slow conditions for the next couple hundred miles. He, more than me, could use a hit of positivity, and I hope he finds it in McGrath. 

2 comments:

  1. Glad you found winter! It's been pretty nonexistent in Juneau this year. Sounds like that is how it has been in the entire state. I love the pictures you got of your hike in Denali. Absolutely gorgeous!

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  2. Anonymous7:16 AM

    I am glad you found a bit of winter even though it wasn't as good as it should have been. You and Beat have so much experience with this stuff. You should start a tour guide company and offer instruction to teach those of us who can only live vicariously through your experiences how to bike tour safely, set up a Bivy and boil water in the cold. I know I would pay for that expertise and then you guys get to explore remote places while making money, but also being together and having more fun than worry about each other.

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