Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Pushing through another year

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.

Unless you just happen to be carrying a spare bottom bracket and a crank removal tool, there isn't much you can do about this type of mechanical. You have a bike that still rolls but can't do anything else. We were five miles from the trailhead, so defeatedly, we turned around and started hiking back to the car. I was deeply disappointed — Alaska's White Mountains are one of my favorite places of all, and I knew I wouldn't be returning in 2016 — but took consolation in the fact we had another, closer cabin reserved on Jan. 1, and we could still hike out with our sleds the following day.

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."

We agreed on the tactic that I would ride for one mile, stop and wait for Beat, and then we'd switch bikes for another mile. Initially my plan was to ride back toward him to avoid getting chilled. But as we descended into the Wickersham Creek drainage, trail conditions did not improve and I did not succeed in increasing my 4mph average. With a determined effort, Beat can walk 3.5mph in these conditions, even pushing a loaded bike. The comparison started to feel a little disheartening. I would pedal as hard as I could, until my quads were throbbing and I was venting swirls of steam off my back. One mile would buzz on my watch, and I'd stop to grab a quick sip of water and a snack before I turned around, only to look back and see Beat right there. He was never more than three or four minutes behind me. Meanwhile, I'd be so fatigued from my pedaling efforts that it was usually a relief to take my turn pushing. I thought Beat would feel the same about riding, since he was walking so quickly. But he often only went about a half mile as I fell further behind, then relinquished his pedaling shifts early or altogether.

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.

Gale-force winds drove hard at our backs while the precipitation deteriorated into sleet, and then thick, flaky snain. The tailwind boosted Beat's walking speed but didn't really help my pedaling pace, as I was now plowing through veritable Juneau powder (slush). We were both soaked and exhausted by the time temperatures finally fell below 32 degrees, and headlamps illuminated a blinding wall of snow. At times the blizzard was so intense that I had to close my eyes for several seconds at a time amid the crosswinds, because I had neglected to bring goggles (lesson learned. Never forget goggles, even when it's "warm.") My riding pace dropped to the same speed as Beat's tired walking pace, and his headlamp was nearly always in view. It was nice to travel this way together until five miles from the cabin, when enough new snow had accumulated that I wasn't able to ride at all. Unfortunately I'm even slower on foot.

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.

It was two more miles. The final mile of trail had filled in to a point where it was difficult to locate on top of the frozen creek, and I was stressed that we'd miss the turn-off to the cabin and keep slogging up the divide. But at 9:20 p.m. it finally appeared, twelve hours after we left the Wickersham Dome. There was no kindling or wood inside the cabin, so Beat commenced chopping logs that some generous cabin uses left on the porch while I gathered snow and melted liter after liter of water, drinking the spruce-flavored liquid almost as fast as it melted (I was so thirsty. I didn't even realize the depth of my thirst.)

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 overnight, the weather cleared. The storm had dropped about five inches of wet, heavy snow, and I was grateful it hadn't turned to a foot or more. I slept on the upper bunk of the cabin, where heat from the wood stove woke me up in a feverish frenzy sometime around 3 a.m. Even sleeping on top of my bag, I was drenched in sweat and alarmed, ripping off my shirt and rushing outside to the newly frosty air. The temperature had dropped to 10 degrees. I stood outside in my underwear and booties, watching faint auroras ripple across the star-filled sky. The half moon illuminated limestone cliffs in shades of indigo and silver. It was stunningly beautiful, and I stood mesmerized for a full 15 minutes as my nearly naked body slowly cooled down to the point of discomfort.

On New Year's Day we got a reasonably early start, anticipating that we'd both need to hike most of the 18 miles to Borealis cabin. While packing up, we discovered the bikes were encased in ice — we were both so shattered the previous evening that we neglected to wipe them off after dragging them through open water in Fossil Creek and several inches of wet snow, which froze into a blocks of solid ice. Luckily we had a way to thaw the bikes, or they may have needed carrying (the brakes and rims were so ice-caked that the wheels wouldn't roll.) Another important lesson, re-learned.

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.

It was still hard work, but the riding was a lot more fun on this day. I wasn't overheated and I wasn't wet — I decided that perhaps 0 degrees is the perfect temperature for winter cycling. Beat still did about 90 percent of the pushing. I dare say he enjoyed it. He spoke often about walking to Nome instead of biking, and I can't say I'm surprised nor do I blame him. I still don't know what he'll decide, but I will say that as much as I enjoyed riding on Friday, I also fantasized about a long journey where I wasn't stressed out all the time about subtle changes in trail conditions or mechanicals or finding the perfect line. I still don't think I can walk the thousand miles. Certainly not at Beat's pace. But it makes for a peaceful daydream.

Still, bikes are pretty wonderful. When they work.

Three friends were planning to meet us that evening at Borealis. Through our cryptic texts, they were able to discern our need for a bottom bracket, and Eric (who owns this bike) acquired the part and tools and carried them all the way to the cabin on his kick sled. (A kick sled is similar to a small wooden dog-mushing sled that a person stands behind and rides like a scooter, kicking for momentum. It weighs a fair amount more than a pulk and needs to be pulled uphill, but it can coast downhill. I see it as a somewhat humorous mix of hiking, skiing, and mushing. Eric is planning to ride it in the White Mountains 100.) Anyway, Eric saved the day. Beat was able to fix the bike, although I think he was disappointed that he couldn't claim the feat of pushing the whole way. Friends Joel and Kevin also joined for a great night of laughs and race strategy discussions.

The following morning, I was jazzed for consecutive riding on firm trails at 0 degrees, but the temperature shot back up to 32. Boo. As we climbed out of Beaver Creek, Beat got so overheated he had to strip down to shirtless for a little while.

It was a great morning for riding, even if I was faintly exhausted from the start. Man, this trip took a lot out of me. I think neglecting calories and hydration on the first day did us both in. My feverish heat-panic on Thursday night was one indicator of how depleted I became during that 12-hour push. Such efforts are more than doable with good self-care, but once a hole has formed, it's difficult to climb out.

Eric took this photo of me riding out. I wanted to ride in a base layer, but there was still a stiff breeze, so Beat's ultra-thin Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite jacket served a nice purpose. Even when there's no precip, it's hard to dress for cycling in temperatures near freezing. You can't go with much in the way of exposed skin, but it's easy to overheat your legs and torso. Personally I think I prefer 10 degrees for pedaling. Or a nice California 55.

Mid-day light on the Whites. I sure do love this time of year at Latitude 65.

We'd fly south early the following morning, but I was thrilled to squeeze in as many adventures as we did during our holiday in Fairbanks. Despite a decent week-plus of training, I feel even less confidence for the Iditarod than I did before. The gear testing went very well, but I sure do feel like a weakling after ten days of struggles in the snow, not to mention the fact that I was fully worked by an 80-mile, three-day trip. My confidence in my physical readiness is nearing new lows, and I don't even want to think about what might go down at the Fat Pursuit this coming weekend. Still, I need to remind myself Alaska does this to me every year. It's an incredible place, but it's a hard place. It's all too easy to become complacent, and forget. 


  1. Cool trip! Pace yourself and you'll be fine.
    I'm curious about those front packs. How much weight was in there and does it take some effort to keep the bike balanced in the soft trail conditions?

    1. Unfortunately all I know how to do is pace myself. It doesn't really help when speediness is required. :)

      The front bundle contains a down sleeping bag rated to -50, a closed-cell foam pad, and a water-proof bivy sack. I've never weighed it but would guess the whole thing is in the 7-pound range. Although it's bulky, it's reasonably light and doesn't really affect the handling at all. For the Nome trip I plan to mount it to a front rack, since I hate the hassle of strapping it to handlebars and ensuring enough clearance for the tire and brake levers.

  2. Whoa! I wasn't mentally prepared for the topless pic! Should we readers assume this is going to become a regular thing?!?

    1. Ha! I once posted another topless pic, back in '09. So perhaps in another 6 years.

  3. Wow Jill...what you and Beat do for fun! However, being out 'there' in the middle of nowhere for New Years is pretty cool.

  4. I had to laugh at these two lines!

    Beat still did about 90 percent of the pushing. I dare say he enjoyed it.

    I think what he enjoyed is not letting the bike get the better of him. I wasn't there at the end. Did he throw my bike into the snow, point a finger at it, and yell "In your face!"? That would have been fitting (if rather unBeat-like).

  5. Once again, thank you for sharing your adventure!!! I look forward to hearing about the Fat Pursuit. Is the Fat Pursuit and ITI qualifying race?

  6. are you able to charge your GPS ? or is that it once the battery dies ? I'm curious how one manages out there for longer than the battery life

    1. My GPS is a Garmin eTrex 30. It uses 2 AA batteries with a 36-hour run time, and I carry replacements.


Feedback is always appreciated!