Saturday, January 24, 2015

January heat wave

It's been a productive week-plus, but more time than I care to admit was spent coughing up gunk that was still lodged in my lungs, and fretting about all the reasons why I maybe should just cancel the plane tickets to Unalakleet and not embark on a Bering Sea coast tour in March. For all the potential this bike trip has to be an incredible and intense experience, that meek little voice keeps reminding me that yes — it will be an intense experience, and yes, there are a lot of intimidating unknowns, and yes, I'm not all that strong, and yes, I'm not overly confident in my mechanical skills, and yes, that doesn't matter anyway because the terrain is going to be so exposed and the windchill so extreme that I'll be lucky if I can stop long enough to eat and drink. Even fixing a flat tire will be out of the question if the weather's horrendous, which is to say if there's typical weather.

It's funny that I'm so dubious about this trip. If it were a race, I might be able to bolster the self-confidence to get over myself and be brave. When outside influences set the parameters, it's easier to convince ourselves that something is doable. But because it's my own plan, which I dreamed up with no encouragement save for my own overactive imagination, that meek little voice has more sway. "This is kind of crazy. You're going to be scared. Maybe you should just switch those tickets to Hawaii instead."

"But I don't even want to go to Hawaii. It's hot there."

It's hot in California. Record-breaking temperatures hit the Bay Area, which means it's 75 degrees, which would make most of the human population giddy. I guess it's okay. I'd rather it was rainy again, but it's bad form to complain about perfect weather.

On Saturday Beat and I embarked on a run into Peter's Creek in the heart of Portola Redwoods State Park — Beat's favorite local trail. The 16-mile route plummets off of Skyline Ridge on a steep fire road, and then continues winding into the Slate Creek drainage on brushy and deadfall-strewn singletrack, before climbing up another wall of a ridge through perilous blowdowns, before finally descending just as steeply into Peter's Creek. The old-growth redwood grove — which Santa Cruz loggers left alone because it's really hard to get in and out of — is about as secluded of a place as you can find in this area. It's more remote than you'd expect.

The scenery is beautiful, but I even after four or five outings, I'm still floored by how tough this run is. I find the treacherous descents to be the most strenuous of all, and I was shattered by the time we worked our way around a small loop along the creek. After that, there's still 3,000+ more feet of climbing in the remaining eight miles, it all seems to be on 20-percent-plus grades laced with more steep descents, and it's all brutal. I haven't done a whole lot of running since August, and I'd almost forgotten just how brutal it can be. I'd like to blame the gunk in my lungs for how worked I feel right now, but that's pretty much cleared out. It has been two weeks, after all.

It's funny because I'd been bugging Beat all week to go for a "long" run this weekend. We only shortened it to a "medium" run when I made a plan with a friend to spend all of Sunday on a long bike ride.

"At least biking's easy," I said to Beat. Then I had flashbacks of gasping and dizziness for most of the final fifty miles in the Fat Pursuit, which made me feel sick to my stomach and renewed thoughts about flying to Hawaii and laying on the beach.

Neil Beltchenko, who took second at the Fat Pursuit, posted this fun finish line photo of Beat, me, and Andrea. At the time I was fighting off what felt like an impending blackout, and don't remember much about the finish, or the hours surrounding it. But we all look so smiley that you can't even tell at least one of us is about to keel over. I found myself thinking, "Look how fun that looks. With that big sexy bike! Think how much fun you'll have pushing that thing through a 50-mph blasting whiteout over sea ice!"

At least this photo helped convince my voice of doubt to tear up those virtual tickets to Hawaii, for now.

Time will tell what conclusions I arrive at while sweating in California over the next month. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Things that last

The shortness and breath and lung congestion persisted, so I couldn't go snowboarding on Monday — as had admittedly been my hope. My mom urged me to take at least one rest day after the 29-hour fat bike ride that often left me winded to the edge of hyperventilation. She wasn't wrong, of course. 

"But I'm only in Salt Lake for a couple more days," I protested. I won't be coming back this winter. "These opportunities are rare."

Monday's weather made the right decision easy, with more than an inch of rain that reportedly fell as sleety snain up at elevations where I couldn't breathe anyway. I retreated to the basement to go through several boxes of old things. Since my parents both retired last year, they've begun downsizing. I needed to decide what was worth keeping. It was easy to cast aside the old books and toys, but I lingered longer on the photographs and news clippings, the high school artwork that still reflected dreams of becoming an illustrator, the earnest first newspaper columns, the concert tickets and binders full of angsty teenage journaling. I read through a few entries and thought, "Wow, am I lucky to have gotten through adolescence before the Internet really got huge." After all, the Internet never forgets. I zipped up the binders and carefully placed them back in the trunk. 

 A few of the items in the trunk were a complete mystery, and I lingered over these longer than anything else. A broken seashell, a pen shaped like a skeleton, a small bottle of sand, a tiny bean bag. "What are these?" I wondered. "Why did I save these? Why did they survive every other cull of my archives?" I scoured my memory but it was a blank wall. There were a few other items whose meaning I remembered distinctly — the plastic frog that the boy with whom I was hopelessly and unrequitedly in love at 16 won in an arcade game, and gave to me; the fern-leaf "fossil" I pulled off a mountain in the Wasatch as a young child; the gold accordion pin I was given when I completed accordion lessons in second grade. Each one of these trinkets sparked a rush of warmth to my fingertips, which made the forgotten pieces all the more irksome. "They were important at one point. And now, nothing."

It's an unsettling reminder — that everything gets replaced, and everyone gets forgotten, and time erases everything, eventually. Still we all spend our lives striving to find experiences that have meaning and moments that matter, and this in itself is a beautiful mystery.

 On Tuesday my dad turned 62, whose milestone, he bragged, was that he now qualified for a lifetime Golden Age national park pass. It's another perk of retirement that he seems to be enjoying immensely. He's as vibrant and strong as I've ever seen him, if not more. I had a few free hours on Tuesday morning before my deadlines set in, so we headed for a hike up Grandeur Peak. The mountainside was carpeted in more than a foot of fresh powder, and low-hanging branches rained continuous showers of snow down on our heads and necks. Otherwise the morning was quite warm and I was stripped down to "summer" wear — pants and a thin long-sleeved shirt, no gloves or hat — as I gasped my way up the mountain. Dad broke trail and I lagged many meters behind, wondering whether I should perhaps be more concerned about this raspy breathing. Was it potentially damaging to my lungs? The night before, I had dinner with my best friend from high school, and we discussed our "30-something" aches and issues. She still feels lingering effects from a serious car accident that happened more than 15 years ago.

"When you're young, as long as you survive something, you think it's over, it's okay. And then, when you get older, you realize that no, these things stay with us."

 I decided against extending my stay to snowboard with my sister on Wednesday. Although I wanted to spend time with my sister, my lungs were still raw and sore, and my congestion was getting worse again. Also, the truth of the matter is that I'm downright terrified about the prospect of snowboarding. It's been a lot of years and my balance seems to be getting worse. I'm not 20 anymore and can't go cartwheeling down a mountain with the same consequences I enjoyed back then, which were none. 125-mile fat bike rides are something I understand well now, something I can handle. Snowboarding is ... something in my past.

Still, the lungs issue was a bit disconcerting. There were times in the Fat Pursuit when it felt like a 500-pound man was sitting on my chest, squeezing out all of the air. A friend of mine who is a physician suggested that high altitude pulmonary edema was one possible cause. Even though 8,000 feet is a relatively low elevation for such a severe reaction, a combination of sea-level acclimation, a high rate of exertion, dehydration, and the cold virus I was battling, could produce an environment ripe for HAPE. Unless I get my lungs scanned, there is no way to know what affected my breathing, or whether it might persist in future efforts. What if it's the kind of thing that sticks with me?

The drive home was uneventful, except for getting out of my car to walk three miles in the Ruby Mountains north of Elko. I just wanted to break up the drive to better my chances of staying awake, and kept the effort very low, but still fought with my lungs for oxygen flow. Still, it was a beautiful day and nice to get out; I was feeling triumphant as I hurtled toward Elko while dreaming about smothered burritos. A motivating song came onto my mP3 shuffler: the theme song from the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. This song is an overwrought pseudo-latin march from a film about Christopher Columbus, appropriately titled "Conquest of Paradise." Beat often has me make playlists for him before races. I downloaded this song before the Tor des Geants specifically to annoy him, as this song is played incessantly at UTMB events.

So I downloaded the song as a joke, but admit I find it enjoyable for the memories it elicits. As I was singing along with the lyrics — which in my mind just go "Du-du-dum, dum-du-du-du-dum" — a text pinged on my phone. "Congratulations for getting into UTMB!" Beat wrote.

Even though I'm not sure what I want to do with my summer, I signed up for the UTMB lottery last month, because I badly want to try again to finish a full race in the Alps after one partial UTMB and two DNFs in longer races, and because at my current rate of ultramarathon racing, I may not qualify again for a while. When the news pinged my phone just as "Conquest of Paradise" was playing — and I promise I'm not making this up — it seemed like a sign, an important precursor to a meaningful experience. I turned up the music, pumped my fist triumphantly to the rhythm, sang the "du-du-dums" as loud as I wanted, and felt invigorated for the long drive home. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Pursuit of experience

Between the high-pitched moan of the wind and the rasping of my lungs, I didn't hear all of the air burp out of the rear tire, again. It was sometime around midnight along the spine of the Continental Divide, amid blasting wind, dagger-like snow, and fog. The curtain was so thick and opaque that, when illuminated by a headlamp, it had the strange effect of making midnight look like a very gloomy, gray day. A dreadful place to have a flat. I didn't notice at first, either, while churning the pedals to propel my two-wheeled tank over a soft carpet of snow. The effort was always hard, and a completely flat tire made it only incrementally harder. Only when the dark spots appeared in my eyes did I think to stop, because I had to, because I couldn't breathe. When I checked the tire, as had become my habit over the day, I discovered that I had been rolling on the rim. 

Tubeless tires and snow bikes. It's an idea that could work, in theory, and that main reason I was here on the border of Montana and Idaho was to test that theory, among others. Problem is, the low tire pressures necessary to float on top of snow that had been softened by above-freezing temperatures, then churned up by snowmobile traffic, were too low to hold an air seal. Bouncing or mashing pedals would cause air to burp out of the rims until it was all gone. This had been an ongoing problem for much of the day, and I again chastised myself for holding onto optimism and not putting in a tube sooner. But now the weather was really inhospitable to a fifteen-minute chore like that.

"Bikes are so stupid," I grumbled as I knelt down with a pump that I had also grown to hate, because it screwed onto the valve and this was a difficult thing to do with cold fingers. This bike was a heartless taskmaster, making me work as hard as I was capable just to pedal at 3 mph up hills. Then, when I was no longer strong enough to keep pedaling uphill, the bike would push back on my shoulders and wrists until they ached. Sure, maybe I'm just not strong and that's my fault, but then then there are these mechanicals! My heart was still racing as I pulled on gloves and attached the pump. When am I going to learn to be better at these things, and why shouldn't I just take a sled and snowshoes to Unalakleet instead of this heavy bike, and where did all the air go, up here at 8,000 feet? When I faced the wind directly, it had a metallic taste, as though it was whisking all the oxygen from my mouth and injecting it with lead. 

My core temperature steadily dropped as I filled up the balloon tire with tiny gasps of deoxygenated air, then unscrewed the pump. To my dismay, the valve stem came out with it, releasing all the air in a loud sigh. I stood up, threw a small tantrum, and then screwed the valve stem back in after I calmed down. With fingers I could no longer feel, I tried to get it as tight as I could, then commenced pumping again. And again, I couldn't remove the pump without taking the valve stem with it. "This is impossible. I'm just going to walk to the highway from here. How far is it? Twenty miles? Bikes are so stupid." 

Obviously I wasn't thinking clearly, or I would have acknowledged that it would be simple enough to push the bike to the nearest wind-protected spot, put on all my warm clothing, and either put in a tube or try again with pliers to tighten the valve stem. But no, my head was reeling backward. My hands had gone numb and my core was shivering. "If I can't do this then I'll never survive the Norton Sound. This is easy stuff." Out of the fog, a headlight approached. I knew it had to be Beat, who left checkpoint two shortly after me. After an unsuccessful try with the pump himself, he suggested the obvious and chastised me for not even bothering to put on my down coat, let alone my poor choice to stop in worst spot of the whole race to pump up a tire. 

"But it was completely flat!" I protested. 

We pushed our bikes together along the ridge; I finally put my down coat on, and was struggling to get my core temperature back up. This pass was called Two Top Divide, because it crosses into Idaho and then back into Montana and then into Idaho again. I'd already lost track of whether we'd seen the first top yet, or not. The grade steepened, and I struggled more. Beat disappeared into the fog. I became irrationally terrified of losing him. I pushed harder, and my heart rate spiked, and then my airways closed up. No matter how many wheezing gasps of air I tried to push down my throat, my lungs stayed empty. Hyperventilating accelerated. "Asthma attack!" I panicked. I've never had symptoms of asthma before, nor an asthma attack, but this is what I imagined it must feel like. Regardless of cause, this was certainly what it felt like to not breathe, and not breathing was very scary. 

"Pressure breathing. Try pressure breathing. It helps," Beat said to me. He'd heard me wheezing. He'd been there all along. Black spots were appearing again in my eyes. 

"I'm over-exerting myself," I gasped when I finally had enough air to speak. "I'm sorry; I just can't work this hard." I was already moving about as slowly as possible within the definition of forward motion. Basically what I was saying was I had to stop. But I didn't do that. 

Jay P's Backyard Fat Pursuit was a 200-kilometer snow bike race put on by Jay Petervary, a well-known endurance biker and record-holding veteran of the Iditarod Trail. The race started in Island Park, Idaho, then traveled over the Continental Divide to West Yellowstone, Montana, before making its way back to Island Park on a series of snowmobile trails through the national forests surrounding Yellowstone National Park. 

Beat, Liehann and I all traveled out from California to race the Fat Pursuit, despite limited training in this specific regard. We were all just out here for "fun," to explore new trails scouted by an experienced rider who we respect, and enjoy a social reunion with several good friends and others in the tight-knit and inherently wonderful fat bike community. Endurance races are all about community; I think even the most competitive riders would agree. Plus, the impetus of 200 kilometers was appealing. I have an intimidating plan for an Iditarod Trail tour later this winter, and needed a good long ride to get my mind and body better tuned in to the reality of this plan. I needed experience. 

While I could certainly race a lighter bike with less gear, the loaded Snoots isn't *that* heavy. I didn't think I'd be competitive, but I also didn't expect to struggle for most of the distance. But with low mileage and limited high-resistance training these past few months, I haven't really developed my "snow" muscles. The trails were recently groomed, but above-freezing temperatures ensured this smooth surface stayed soft. And as soon as a group of snowmobiles zoomed past — which was not an infrequent occurrence — they whipped up the snow into a creamy mush. Pedaling on top of this required a lot of power output, and the mountainous terrain ensured consistent climbing and descending rather than more forgiving flat terrain. It was quite strenuous, and almost impossible to not venture into the high-intensity range, even while pushing. Remembering how I felt two weeks earlier after riding just 20 miles in difficult conditions out to Borealis cabin in the White Mountains, I thought, "Wow, this is going to be a long race." 

None of it was going to be easy, but in so many ways, spending an entire day (and sometimes more) on the move is still my favorite thing to do. The flow of forward motion calms my mind and quiets inner chaos. The physical aspect is both invigorating and soothing, even through the difficulties. I have the experience behind me to understand that discomforts are just discomforts, and negative emotions are often just a chemical response to physical deficits. The nagging pains and fatigue fade away quickly, but the satisfaction remains. 

Sometimes, when you give yourself enough time and distance, many hours will pass in a peaceful trance. The barriers between the snowy forest and your own finite body are blurred, and the landscape of your mind becomes as expansive and limitless as the universe itself. Time bends over itself, night opens amid the quiet murmurs of your heart, and the world narrows into a soft beam of light, a place of shadows and memories. It's a beautiful experience. I do not tire of the pursuit for this perspective. Unfortunately, my body sometimes does. 

 Not being able to breathe was a frustrating development, but not exactly surprising. Consistently over-exerting myself at high altitudes, when I was still recovering from a cold I caught in Alaska, was a sure path to physical breakdown. Up on Two Top Divide, I crossed a line from which I was not going to be able to return. My throat was on fire, my nostrils tingled, my head became light and my vision dark. There were 40 miles left in the race, and no way to slow down without stopping, so I'd just have to demand that my lungs keep sucking limited oxygen through a straw. Hopefully, I wouldn't lose consciousness before I finished. If nothing else, it would be a learning experience.

Beat stuck with me, as we often do in races even when we decide not to, because we enjoy each other's company and quietly worry about each other. We arrived at a wind-protecting cluster of trees and managed to fix the tire, then continued toward a steep and jerky descent down the torn-up trail into Idaho. I was in too much respiratory distress to feel sleepy, and the long night stretched out indefinitely. I thought about the things I'd do differently in Alaska: Tubes in the tires. A flip-top pump. An extra pump. Always always put on my down coat when stopped. A better multi-tool. Maybe bring some thicker gloves rather than mittens. A better face mask to protect my lungs. Do some exercises to strengthen my wrists. Wish I could make myself stronger in general, but there's probably not enough time. Still, ultimately, most of my gear performed well. Despite projecting anger onto Snoots, it's a great bike — responsive and surprisingly agile for its girth, and as I mentioned, not *that* heavy. My only complaints were my rear tire and lungs, with their infuriating refusals to hold air.

Beat and I arrived at checkpoint three just before sunrise. When it's not a checkpoint, the "Man Cave" is a frequent respite for touring cyclists — a kind of garage with a corner kitchen and a giant bison head on the wall. We enjoyed sourdough pancakes, bacon and coffee while chatting with the friendly volunteers. I was feeling downright loopy — probably from sleep deprivation, although I suspected mild hypoxia. My brain hadn't been getting enough oxygen for many hours. I was mildly buzzed, drunk on the effort and a strong desire to just sleep it off.

I finally convinced Beat we had slummed at the checkpoint long enough. We were already close to the back of the race — which I admittedly found disheartening, because although I'd taken my sweet time in a lot of respects, I'd also been trying really hard. We had 21 more miles to get'er done. A woman from Fairbanks named Andrea joined us after her short nap at the checkpoint. She'd decided to stick with us for the remainder of the race, even though I was struggling mightily and slowing even more. Andrea is registered for her first Iditarod Trail Invitational in March. She wanted to chat about that race, and was a fun conversationalist even though I was often gasping too much to exhale more than a few syllables at a time. To Andrea: I'm sorry if I came across as terse or unfriendly. I enjoyed talking with you, I just was often too winded to speak.

We arrived at the finish line just after noon, which just happened to coincide with the after-race party under the arch. Because of this, there was a large crowd at the finish, and we received quite the reception. The final four miles of the course had been especially slow, torn up my heavy snowmobile traffic, and my head was spinning with the effort of just maintaining forward motion for that distance. Grunting over the final line took every last molecule of oxygen reserve, and I very nearly blacked out (I passed out and collapsed a few months ago after stepping out of a sauna, and I now know what it feels like right before you faint — the blood pressure crash and the intense dizziness.) The crowd was gathering around us and I could feel my knees weakening. I fought it, embarrassed, but eventually I had to lay down in the snow before my body did so involuntarily.

I spent the next hour feeling heavily buzzed, tilting my head to see things clearly and laughing at everything that was said to me, funny or not. I don't remember much about that time. I had to say goodbye to good friends who I don't see often, and congratulate the podium finishers who'd been done for twelve hours. It was a great group of folks. Jay P puts on a good event, well-planned and executed with just the right amount of checkpoint support. He told us that next year he might make Fat Pursuit a multi-day distance, which I wholeheartedly support. Let the fast folks experience what it's like to venture drunkenly into the next day, and the next, with only your own untrustworthy wits and past experience to rely on.

I still can't believe I had a near meltdown over a flat tire, or that I apparently need oxygen tanks to take a loaded fat bike above 8,000 feet. But I certainly learned a lot in my pursuit of experience. I always do. 

Monday, January 05, 2015

The magical land of Tolovana

Oh, these high latitudes and their irresistible magnetic pull. Hold up any compass and the needle will point where I want to be, at any given time. Sure, I appreciate that I am not a compass and can set my path in any direction I please, and value my freedom to reside in one comfortable place and visit many others. But there's something alluring about North. I have yet to define what continues to draw me up here, or capture the specific sensations so I can carry them home. But that something clings to these places like hoarfrost, with an enchanting sparkle that never fails to incite happiness. I feel it when I walk across the Styrofoam snow of a friend's driveway at 20 below, or pass by the heat-blasting fans in the entryway of Fred Meyer, or pedal through a boreal forest in the 4 p.m. twilight. I may not live here; I might not have ever lived here. But I'm home. 

I have a wonderful, accepting family in Utah, and I think they understand why we go "home" for Christmas every year. We flew into Fairbanks late on Dec. 23, and arose not-early before the crack of dawn to organize our gear and head out to the Goldstream Valley to spend Christmas Eve with our friends Corrine and Eric and their young-adult children. Before dinner, Beat and I borrowed their fat bikes and set out for a five-hour excursion up Eldorado Creek and along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Temperatures were around -10 when we set out, and Beat had all sorts of new gear he wanted to try, so he loaded up his pack.

We didn't really choose to ride the pipeline; it's just where we ended up, having not done a whole lot of trail research before the trip. Although not exactly beautiful, the pipeline has its own interesting aesthetic, given you're riding along this 800-mile-long apparatus that carries crude from the North Slope to Valdez. You start to think "Wow, I could follow this all the way to the Arctic Ocean!" And people have done that, but it is not the most travel-friendly route. No, TAPS takes the most direct way possible, cutting straight down and then up every tear-inducing steep hill.

Oh, the gentle silence of Christmas Day. This quiet resonates through my childhood memories of the holiday. There was always that manic presents-and-food frenzy on Christmas morning, followed by the annual trip out to the grandparents' houses along quiet streets and shuttered businesses. Christmas is a wonderful time to be out and about, and Beat, Tom and I encountered close to zero traffic — save for a couple of North Slope-bound trucks — on the two-hour drive out to Manley Hot Springs Road. We'd hoped to gather a group of friends for an overnight trip to Tolovana Hot Springs, but only Tom was available to "ride out Christmas" far away from the grid. He skied in, and Beat and I packed sleds for the 11-mile hike.

As we descended into the Brooks Creek valley, a dense cold swept over my face and legs. Temperatures were actually quite nice for this time of year — 7 above with no wind  — but I'd dressed for "this is really warm" and it really sort of wasn't. One thing I am learning about myself is that I struggle to regulate my body temperature evenly when I am walking and running in sub-freezing conditions. Although it defies logic, I've actually had more success maintaining a comfortable equilibrium on a bike. On foot, different body parts are either too hot or too cold, often simultaneously. On this trip I battled cold knees and a completely numb butt (I had a pair of primaloft shorts in my sled, but I was being lazy about stopping and putting them on when there was a big climb coming up. As it turned out, my butt didn't come back to life until we crawled into the hot springs a few hours later.)

The climb up Tolovana Hot Springs Dome is often an ascent to the pinnacles of Hell. Last year, we experienced 25-mph sustained winds with a temperature of 25 below, for a windchill south of -50. These are typical conditions for Tolovana. For this reason, there's a special mystique to this place. Frost clings to alders, and rime builds in sparkling crystals on skeletal spruce trees. This delicate beauty contrasts the violence and austerity of the landscape — wind blows incessantly, streams of snow tear off the ridges, and burn zones reveal an unbroken expanse of equally inhospitable valleys and windswept mountains. Because my travels through the North are still limited, Tolovana Hot Springs Dome is one of the worst places I have ever been. The kind of place where if I stopped walking for even a moment, icy fingers would wrap around my neck and squeeze exhaustive gulps of warmth from every breath.


It was gratifying, although perhaps less exciting, to visit Tolovana on a day where I didn't think it was going to kill me at any moment. It was overcast, calm, and pleasant. Even with a cold butt, being able to stop and look around without turning my face into a powder blast of wind was nice. The trail was in great shape, with minimal snow drifts. Beat and I ran as fast as our sleds could coast down the steep descent, feeling weightless. We dropped off the inhospitable dome and into the valley where a magical spring draws warmth from the depths of the Earth. It was my fastest-yet trip into Tolovana, and I was surprised when we arrived at the cluster of three cabins — ours would be the only one occupied — well before dark. We exploded the generous contents of our sleds all over the tiny Frame cabin, and joined Tom for a pre-dinner soak. Sausage and couscous was our Christmas feast, followed by a post-dinner soak and hot chocolate before bed. Who could want anything more?

A thick fog settled in for the hike out, almost to the point of sensory deprivation, although I could feel a sharp burning in my hamstrings from pulling the sled up ~3,000 feet of climbing on this more difficult direction. The drive home fully broke the spell, with heavy snow and white-knuckle driving at 30 mph on the Elliot Highway. By the time we returned to Fairbanks, we'd have to unpack our gear, shop for resupplies, and re-pack what we needed for the White Mountains the following morning. It can be exhausting trying to cram all of my Northern love into a week here and there, and the trekking parts are often the easiest parts. But it's always worth it, always. 

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.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014 in photos

 I've fallen behind in blogging but didn't want to miss out on the "Year in Photos" review that I've been posting since 2006. It's always fun to pick one favorite photo for every month of the year. However, as I scrolled through my blog archives here at Sea-Tac airport, there was a sense of disappointment about this past year's selection. "I need to diversify my repertoire," I thought. "Too many variations on the small people in big places theme." But this is what 2014 was for me — a year of ambitious adventures coupled with feelings of insignificance in bewildering expanses.

The above photo is my favorite from this past year, as those who have seen my blog banner might have guessed. I took it in late February during the Iditarod Trail Invitational, in a region near the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River known as Egypt Mountain, while Beat and I dragged (and I mean dragged) sleds across a barely-frozen swamp. Beyond this day being one of my most physically strenuous days of a physically strenuous year, this place was spectacularly surreal. It was February, in the Far North, and we had been hauling for three days through subzero cold and snow. We crossed over the Alaska Range, into what is often the icebox of Alaska, only to watch winter disintegrate with breathtaking rapidity. We were far from the outer reaches of modern civilization, where the air was warm and still, and yet devoid of any signs of life. It looked and felt like a dystopian wilderness — the world after the end of the world, and for that reason had a special kind of uniqueness to an already unique place to visit. Now that it's over I can say it was worth dragging my sled over fifty miles of glare ice, alders, swamps, roots, and mud, just to stand in that place at that point in time. But it was one of my most difficult days of the year (it's a toss-up between that day, bushwhacking through the Stettynskloof on the last day of the Freedom Challenge, and the day I tore my LCL in the Tor des Geants. The TDG probably wins.)

 January: Tree house, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California. January was a heavy training month of long bike rides and 50K runs, and I didn't take time to compose the most interesting images. But I love a good oddity, and this tree house on Gazos Creek is a fun place to roll past while descending from a high chaparral ridge into a dark, dense forest.

 February: Loreen Hewitt on Rainy Pass, Alaska. This is another image from the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Rainy Pass is a special place that commands awe and often terror. We were fortunate to visit in beautiful weather, even if the warmth and sunshine would become more of a nightmare on the eastern side of the range.

 March: Placer River, Southcentral Alaska. While Beat continued to make his way toward Nome on the Iditarod Trail, I enjoyed a full month of rambling around Alaska. There were many fun mini-adventures that month that culminated in the White Mountains 100 in Fairbanks, so it was hard to choose one photo. I like the lighting in this image of a fat bike ride near Turnagain Arm during a failed attempt to see Spencer Glacier (three of us were stopped by unwillingness to cross a waist-deep river. My friend Jill chose a different route earlier on and managed to reach the glacier.) Despite no glacier, it was a fun and beautiful outing all the same.

 April: Santa Cruz, California. April and May were heavy on all-day bike rides to prepare for the Race Across South Africa. One upside was exploring an array of places close to home but new to me.

 May: Henry Coe State Park, California. I like this photo because it's a quintessential image of mountains in the Bay Area. In all honesty, after living most of my life around mountains in Utah, Alaska and Montana, it took me some time to develop an appreciation for the subtle beauties of grassy peaks and oak-dotted hillsides. In four years I've grown to love California's landscapes, and miss these curvy ridges and deceptively steep slopes when I'm away.

June: Lehana's Pass, Eastern Cape, South Africa. There were many images I liked from the month-plus I spent in South Africa, but I had to go with the hike up and over the Drakensberg Mountains during the Race Across South Africa. The elements of this photo illustrate the experience well — the ways in which the route was difficult and stunning, often simultaneously.

 July: Jonkersberg Nature Preserve, Stellenbosch, South Africa. Following our completion of the Race Across South Africa, we spent a few more days in Cape Town and I had a chance to embark on several trail runs in the area. The day before we left, which was the fourth of July, there was a cold and wet storm that dumped fresh snow on the rocky peaks above this preserve. Despite a pounding soreness in my legs, I ran through the downpour and relished the chance to reflect on the past month and soak it all in. This was a rewarding way to wrap up my adventure in South Africa.

 August: Mount Baker, Washington. Beat joined Bellingham runners Daniel and Aaron on a hundred-mile run from tidewater to the top of this volcano in Northern Washington, then back. I served as part of the support crew and joined the run for two choice segments, including an 18-hour summit bid that started with a treacherous river crossing and continued along a difficult bushwhacking route. The lower reaches of the route — which was the closest access point from the sea — proved to be far more challenging than the glacier climb. I took this photo on a lower snowfield in the morning, before we roped up.

 September: Alta Via, Aosta Valley, Italy. This photo is from the Tor des Geants, and thus my favorite thing about it is the stance of the runner in the foreground. The Alps make you feel very small in different ways than Alaska, and at this point I felt very, very small and very, very slow. (But not as small or slow as I'd feel two days later when I faced an extremely difficult descent with significant pain and without the ability to bend my knee.) I still believe it's rewarding to gain these perspectives, even if the Tor des Geants proved to be an admittedly large disappointment in an otherwise fantastic year.

October: Highway 6, Juab County, Utah. I was injured an unable to run or hike, but headed out to Utah anyway for my favorite tradition with my Dad, the fall Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon (instead of hiking I joined the shuttle drive-around with my Mom, which was enjoyable.) On the trip out to Utah I enjoyed a fun driving adventure by traveling small two-lane highways through the desert. Although I clearly value my health and ability to be physically active, it was rewarding to reinforce the aspect of adventure that matters most to me — the experience of moving through the world.

 November: Prewitt Ridge, Big Sur, California. Before Thanksgiving my friend Leah and I were able to steal away for an overnight bikepacking trip on Cone Peak and the surrounding ridge. In this photo you can see Cone Peak in the center, framed by this beautiful old tree.

December: Tolovana Hot Springs, Alaska. Beat and I hiked into this backcountry hot spring, joined by our friend Tom on skis, on Christmas Day. Temperatures were mild (around 10F), and it was for the most part an overcast day. But the low winter sun peeked out as we descended the upper ridge where thick hoarfrost clings to the trees, illuminating a appropriately Christmasy scene. This is the third solstice-Christmas-New Years that we spent in Fairbanks, and we had a fantastic trip. More on that in the next blog post.