There we were, pedaling along a snow-covered ridge to spend New Year's Eve the traditional way — in a primitive one-room cabin 40 miles from the nearest road — when I noticed Beat was really mashing his pedals.
"Oi, this is tough," he announced.
"Yeah, the trail is super soft," I agreed. A stiff wind whisked across the spine of Wickersham Dome, where the temperature was 37 degrees above zero. The warm weather was a result of a fierce Chinook storm that was raging across southern Alaska, pushing high temperatures so far north that the Geographic North Pole registered a temperature above freezing for only the second time during winter in recorded history. These aren't welcome conditions for snow bikers, who depend on below-freezing temperatures to harden compacted snow into a rideable surface. Thaws break up the surface layer, which traffic whips up into thick grains of loose snow, resulting in rides that feel very much like slogging through the soft part of a sandy beach. My GPS registered speeds in the 4 mph range, when I was pedaling about as hard as I could.
Beat, however, wasn't struggling with the soft trail as much as the bike itself. The cranks turned more slowly until they seized up altogether. The bottom bracket was shot.
After about ten minutes, Beat turned around again. "You know, a mechanical like this can easily happen in the ITI. There are almost certainly going to be multiple sections where we have to push bikes for 40 or more miles at a time. Let's go out anyway."
"And push our bikes the whole way?" I shook my head. Sure, pushing a bike is good training, and in good to marginal conditions, isn't more difficult than pulling a sled (poor conditions are another story altogether.) Still, pushing a bike is, for whatever reasons, a much more mentally taxing endeavor. You always want to ride the bike. Even if you can only ride a hundred feet at a time, you'll get off and get back on and get off, again and again, just to avoid pushing. Beat's bike could coast, but in these soft conditions, it only rolled on the steepest descents. We were faced with taking these bikes for a 35-mile walk today, then 40 miles back over the next two days.
"You can still ride some, and wait for me, or turn around," Beat suggested. "We'll switch."
I shrugged, suddenly excited about the prospect of still being able to spend the rest of our holiday in the Whites. "Sure," I said. "If we're lucky, maybe we'll even get there before next year."
It was all hard work. Twilight came and the hours wore on. Beat ran out of water. I still had a liter and a half, so I shared mine. We had all the supplies to camp and melt snow, but it was still fairly early in the day, and we had no good reason not to keep moving. Almost imperceptibly, the cloud ceiling dropped and a light drizzle began to fall. Winds intensified and the drizzle picked up intensity, morphing into a driving rain.
"Ugh, it's raining," I moaned. I spent several years in Southeast Alaska and still shudder at memories of rides in 35-degree rain, of which there were many. I don't have many experiences in 30 or 40 below, but I still consider near-freezing hard precipitation to be the worst weather, especially when combined with wind.
We guessed we were only five miles from the cabin, but in the state of fatigue we'd worked ourselves into, it felt like an impossibly far distance. We were both out of water, but the wind and heavy snow made stopping to melt snow a formidable task that we wanted to put off as long as possible. My fuzzy fleece jacket looked like a wet dog, and I became chilled whenever I paused for more than a few seconds. On we slogged for another hour and a half — less than four miles — when we reached open water on Fossil Creek. Since we couldn't discern the depth from the shore, we took the time to pull on our lightweight waders. I'm glad we did, as cold water surged around my knees while I wrestled my bike through broken sheets of ice and slush. I greedily eyed the creek water but decided to refrain from risking giardia. After all, the cabin couldn't be more than a mile away at this point.
Cabin chores always add up, and by the time we'd warmed the cabin, chopped more wood, spread out our soaked gear, cooked a freeze-dried dinner and apple crumble, and guzzled hot chocolates, we missed New Year's altogether. Beat noticed the time at 12:16 a.m. "Happy New Year!" I said hoarsely, and we shared a kiss.
Sometime before dawn, two dog teams came through on this remote section of trail, laying a smooth track that the colder weather hardened to a nicely rideable trail. Temperatures had dropped to -5 on the creek. The knee-deep water we crossed the previous night had frozen enough to hold our weight. We put the waders on just in case, but didn't break through.