After months of abnormally warm winter, a deep cold snap descended on the entire state of Alaska, just in time to catch Beat and company out in the most remote segment of the Iditarod Trail — the vast and uninhabited Interior. Beat left McGrath six days ago, and in that time has only managed to cover about 150 miles of distance, breaking trail through a foot of new snow and deeper wind drifts. This difficult travel coincided with this cold snap — if he's lucky the daytime temperature climbs into the -10s, only to drop below -40 overnight. Along this route there are only two shelter cabins, and at each one he wasn't able to gather enough wood to heat up the inside above freezing. The other nights, he slept in his bivy sack as the liquid cold seeped through clumps of frozen insulation in his sleeping bag. Every task is a small trauma, from cooking dinner to packing up his gear in the morning, racing to finish before his fingers go rigid, then exerting himself as hard as he possibly can until the feeling in his feet comes back.
It sounds *so brutal.* Each sat phone call from him crushes my spirit just a little bit more, and I find myself battling a growing mound of anxiety, chilling empathy, and unspoken wishes that he'd just call it quits, pay a trapper in Ruby to drive toward him on a snowmachine, and get the hell out of there. Yet Beat is, in his own endearing way, having the time of his life. He's out there having a full-on Hudson Stuck adventure, hearkening back to days when Arctic travelers traipsed in snowshoes in front of their dog teams, breaking trail for weeks, struggling to make ten miles a day. Yesterday Beat crossed paths with Tim Hewitt, who was moving backward on the trail with his bike. After 150 miles of breaking trail north, Tim encountered a seemingly impassable section of drifted snow, just when he was almost entirely out of food. With less than a day's supply remaining, he backtracked toward Cripple, where there were air-dropped bags of food that he hoped to scavenge. Beat was carrying enough food to feed two people comfortably for three days. His supply could be stretched on hungry rations to four or five, so they agreed to team up to turn back north and re-attack Tim's wall, near the uninhabited mining camp of Poorman. That's where they are, right now on Saturday afternoon, as I make my final preparations to fly to Unalakleet.
I have been hedging on my own planned bike trip for a week. I didn't want to head to the west coast if Beat was going to scratch and return to Anchorage. Also, the difficulties he's been having have rattled my already shaky resolve. Still, I continued with preparations as though it was going to happen. And as of today, I checked into my flight, sent bounce boxes to Nome, have purchased three days of food, and am on my way to pack up a bike box. I guess I'm at least going to fly to Unalakleet. From there, who knows? At this point, I only want to make decisions that might help Beat, however small they might be.
The cold-snap was well-timed with my stay in Fairbanks, where overnight lows dropped into the -30s. On Wednesday I headed out for a shakedown ride in the White Mountains, hauling all the gear I plan to take to Unalakleet, fuel, and two days of food. Predictably, the bike was a tank, but it's manageable and I'm so rattled and frightened of the cold at this point that I'm taking it all and don't care how sluggish I am. A few more increments of speed won't get me out of a blowhole, so I aim to be prepared. BLM had groomed the trail from the Wickersham Dome to Moose Creek Cabin, about 16 miles one way, so I headed in that direction.
The trail looked pretty atop more than a foot of fresh snow, but the base was soft and the pedaling was tough. The trail is laid like a ribbon atop a series of small but steep domes, so the pedaling is either steep climbing or descending. When descending, I could go 6-8 mph while pedaling; when climbing with my low tire pressure, I was lucky to break 3 mph. Whenever I "ride" this slow, I find myself daydreaming about my sled, forgetting that there are many ways in which walking with a sled is still harder on my body than riding a bike. Still, it was effort to power this tank down the soft trail. My heart rate was high, and even though temperatures didn't climb above -5 all day, I was down to my base layer at times to vent a steady stream of sweat.
I do love the White Mountains. The soft light, the crunch of distant animal footsteps, the tingle of ice crystals in the air, the squeak of cold snow — elements that lull me into a bliss-filled serenity even as I confront my anxieties and fears. For me, this is the strong appeal of venturing into the cold. I am frightened of the cold, and always will be. But cold has an immediacy that demands alertness and forces me to strip away the excess and focus only on the present. There is so much to learn and see when egos are quieted and eyes are open.
Temperatures plummeted after the sun set, closing in on 20 below. As I neared the spot where I planned to set up a bivy, I encountered a trail still unbroken after the new snowfall. Earlier in the week Beat challenged me to try pushing my bike through a foot of fresh snow, to see how I'd fare. This was a great challenge, and I wanted to prove my mettle, so I marched toward the unbroken horizon with a goal to push a half mile out and then back — just a mile of something Beat chose to face for 200 unknown miles. The tank of a bike balked and wallowed, burrowing deeper into the powder. I got my hand under the seat and boosted up the rear end, wrestled and gasped, and finally felt that all-too-familiar feeling of my arm muscles about to fail — like lifting a heavy barbell to the point of complete muscle fatigue. I had only traveled about 50 yards. Taking the time I'd need to rest my arms and shoulders and keep pushing for a half mile was undoubtedly going to take up most of the rest of the night. I didn't have the strength, and I didn't have the resolve. The cold bit through my thin gloves and wrists, and I felt a sudden, urgent fear that I might not even make it back to the trail. Of course I did, and it wasn't that hard, but for a few seconds I was near panic. That's the cold — everything on an edge that might just tip at any moment. Two hundred miles of this? Either I'd adapt, or I'd drive myself into hysterics. Probably I'd just adapt — because that's what people do, and it's what we're wired for, and it's how we survive.
Still, resolve isn't worth much if physical requirements aren't met, and I continue to worry about Beat and Tim running out of food. About a mile later, I stopped at an alcove next to the trail, where I stomped down a bivy spot, unrolled my bag, and took out my stove. Although I had plenty of water, my plan was to heat up a Cup-O-Noodle for dinner and practice melting snow at 20 below. With thin gloves on, I fiddled with the stove for five minutes but couldn't get any pressure in the pump. I removed the pump, ran a finger around the thread, twisted it tighter, and nothing. My fingers went numb so I put on my mittens, and continued to pump with no results. Broken pump? User error? I didn't know. I was so frustrated. I jumped up and sprinted up and down the trail at full effort, heart thumping, tears freezing to the edges of my eyes, raging against the cold and this growing feeling of helplessness, both for Beat and for myself.
(The next day, I received great advice from friends about MSR pumps and O-rings that contract at 20 below, preventing pressurization. The trick is to warm up the pump first. Now I know, and what an important thing to learn.)
I had a good but short rest in my sleeping bag, already deciding that I didn't really want to spend an entire night out here when the temperature was supposed to drop to 40 below. I packed up in the sinister darkness, without any issues, then pedaled back toward the trailhead while wiggling my toes to ignite circulation lost during the short transition. All in all, it was a good shakedown trip for Unalakleet. Weather permitting (meaning I don't plan to head out into any whiteouts that I can avoid), I'm very excited for my trip and wish Beat was going to be somewhere close by. But more than anything else, I just want him to make it safely to Ruby.