Sunday, January 28, 2018

Working the stabilizers

 This week was all about the type of running/hiking that I am inherently bad at ... and a lot of of it ... and not on purpose. Fourteen inches of snow is wonderful for a day or two, but after high winds blow it around and the sun comes out and snow thaws and freezes, thaws and freezes — you have a recipe for challenging surface conditions. I did get my 18 hours of motion this week, and none of those hours were cycling (Boo. But the road/trail conditions were quite awful this week.) In those 18 hours, I managed only 58 miles (16,000 feet of climbing.)

Still, I'm stoked about the outcome of this training week — if nothing else, that I somehow came out of it uninjured. My body is not to be trusted on technical terrain, and after seven-plus years of being knocked around on trails with little improvement, I'm nearing acceptance about this. (Although hope springs eternal.)

When I set out to run to town on Wednesday, I knew the snow conditions would be weird, and picked what I believed would be the easiest descent, Bear Canyon. However, it had been tracked by just one set of footprints since the storm (at least, people were just walking in that one set), and the postholes were surrounded by shin- to knee-deep wind-crusted Styrofoam. Even walking slowly, it remained a mystery whether a footfall would anchor my leg in place, or skid on a hidden layer of ice and send me sliding down the steep slope. I was so grateful when that flailing mess was over and I could climb Green Mountain for a while. But this necessitated another long descent.

Early in this second descent, I rolled my bad ankle (my left ankle) and toppled over. This launched a series of four ankle rolls that became progressively worse — shooting pain and loss of balance. Although the pain subsided each time, joint wobbliness persisted until I wondered whether I'd torn a ligament. But I still had to get down the mountain. I'd been moving so slowly that I wasn't going to make it to Google in time. I texted Beat. He said he'd meet me at Gregory Canyon. I'd already veered away from this trailhead, so I turned around.

Then, while hiking uphill, I placed my foot atop a shin-high boulder and somehow rolled my ankle as I lifted myself up. How? I couldn't begin to understand. I crumpled to the ground amid a shrill crescendo of pain. "I'm not getting up from this one," I thought. For a few seconds, I was convinced of this. A memory flashed into my mind, of an injured woman I once encountered in the Grand Canyon, with her foot turned 90 degrees in the wrong direction. Was my ankle broken? I couldn't bear to look.

Then, once again, the pain subsided. I leaned against the nemesis boulder to pull myself up, then hovered for several seconds, working up the courage to put weight on my left leg. When I finally did, there was no problem. So strange!

 There was never any swelling or reduced motion, but my ankle continued to vaguely hurt for the rest of the week. Normal people, especially people with races on the line, would probably just opt to play it safe for a few days. I did rest my lower body by engaging in my usual weight-lifting routine on Thursday, and then on Friday I headed out the road for a six-mile cart pull. I'd gotten into a rare writing grove during the morning and afternoon, and didn't look up from my laptop until 4 p.m. The temperature had already dropped to 24 degrees with a stiff wind, and my layers — a decent softshell but thin tights — weren't quite up to the task of keeping me warm. So I was mildly chilled and plodding up a dirt road at two miles per hour with a 60-pound anchor bobbing behind me. By all accounts this should have been misery, but I was in a great mood. Here was the absolute most mundane thing I could be doing — leaving all of my mental space open for unrelated ruminations. I continued to make good progress on the afternoon's writing as I shambled along.

 On Saturday, Beat had ambitions for a long run, and mapped out a difficult route that hit four local peaks with a lot of steep descending (and climbing. That too.) Trail conditions featured packed snow riddled with moguls (uneven bumps), sugar snow, bumpy ice, snow-dirt puree, mud, wind crust, and the usual boulder hopping. I fretted about my ankle and the rest of my awkward body, but everything held up well. It was always a relief to hit the bottom of a descent and move toward the next climb, where I could rest for a while.

 Beat on Green Mountain in the early evening — our final peak of the foursome. Technically, I didn't touch the top of three of the peaks, opting out of the final ten or so feet of scrambling on SoBo, Bear, and Green. But I did finally reach the elusive top of Flagstaff Mountain. Beat pulled out his phone GPS and insisted on punching through the snow until we found the rock outcropping that formed the highest point of a broad bluff.

The view from Green Mountain. We were out for seven and a half hours, and I was mentally fried by the challenge of maintaining my balance for that length of time. We hoped to spend Sunday dragging our sleds somewhere in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, but the cold wind that blasted us all day was not promising. I checked the weather station on Niwot Ridge — Saturday brought winds from 50 to 65 mph with single-digit temperatures. Based on the forecast, Sunday promised much of the same. Our friend Jorge made it to the ridge on Saturday, and reported harrowing conditions. There's a tipping point where an activity is "folly, but decent training" and "folly, and actually quite dangerous." For me, 60 mph winds are at this point. We opted out of the mountains

 Instead, we set out for more balance exercises on the south side of the Flatirons, descending Eldorado Canyon and climbing Shadow Canyon. We got a late start — 1:30 p.m. — to rest the tired legs a bit, and also because Beat insisted that evenings are best for lack of crowds and enhanced scenery.

 Eldo Canyon is beautiful in the late afternoon. It's easy to become complacent about the places that surround you. Especially the places that surround me — where I spend so much time fixated on the ground while trying not to fall on my face or break my ankle. The week's efforts and good luck had worn away some of my inhibitions, and I took more opportunities to look up. I thought of a recent essay I read by a woman who viewed the total eclipse last summer. The experience was incredible, she wrote, but what really struck her was the way she viewed her world in the weeks following the eclipse — the intensity of shapes and colors surrounding previously mundane places. She wrote: "What I learned from the total eclipse was this: What wasn't phenomenal?"

I loved this jaunt through Eldo, but I was grateful when the unpredictable powder and ice of the canyon finally opened into the valley, and it was time for the relaxing haul up Shadow. Shadow is actually a bruiser — nearly 2,000 feet of gain in just over a mile. But traction was surprisingly okay, and I motored in semi-auto-pilot behind Beat, staying close enough to register my fastest time up Shadow — not a usual occurrence in January, on a vaguely wobbly ankle, at the end of a long week on my feet. I take my victories where I find them.

 I think Beat is pointing at the moon in this photo. He was right — it was much better to leave late and hit the summit ridge at sunset. Ominous clouds shrouded the view of the Indian Peaks. "Yeah, I can't say I'm disappointed that we skipped that," I said.

Four more weeks until the Iditarod. I think ultimately it was a good thing to mix it up this week, with some solid work on the stabilizing muscles, and a not-so-gentle reminder to be excessively nice to my bad ankle, because the prospect of being crumpled on the ground somewhere in the Alaska wilderness is daunting indeed. 
Sunday, January 21, 2018

Between the snows

Just five more weeks until Beat and I cross (a hopefully frozen) Knik Lake and venture into Alaska wilderness again. Similar to past years, I vacillate between a sled-dog-like "yip yip yip so excited" to "why am I so hopelessly fixated on this endeavor?" to "there's no way I'm actually healthy enough for any of this" to "so, so scared." Besides excitement and dread, another thing these late-January and February weeks have in common is single-minded focus on race preparations. So I fall behind in daily tasks. I log onto my blog less frequently. There's a lot on my mind, but not much to talk about besides the week's training adventures. 

December and January have been dismal in regard to precipitation ... it's been bad enough that during the high winds last weekend, Rocky Mountain Fire District issued a no-open-burn advisory for the area — meaning a concerning level of fire danger, in January. On Monday, we finally received a dusting of snow. It was actually close to two inches, enough to support a sled-drag down to South Boulder Creek.

That night, an alert went out that there was a structure fire in our neighborhood. We hiked out to a spot just beyond our driveway and watched flames climb dozens of feet into the night sky. The blaze started when — according to a vague report from the Sheriff's Office — a wood stove caught fire and spread to the ceiling. The woman and her five dogs were able to escape safely, but the home was a total loss. The fire department reported that surrounding trees had caught fire as well, but thanks to snow cover and a calm night of single-digit temperatures, forest damage was minimal. It was eerie to watch this blaze, burning just a half mile due west of us, and wonder what might have been if this happened one day earlier, and the ground was still bare, and 40mph west winds were ripping through winter-dry grass.

All was calm on Tuesday morning. I did my usual hour-long run on the unplowed road and still became bummed out when I was quite a bit slower than I'd managed during my December "peak" of effortless fitness. The uneasiness deepened when I faltered during my weight-lifting routine on Wednesday. But then again, I've been slacking on my trips to the gym. And doing more sled-and cart-dragging. So I'm tired. And that's why I'm losing strength. This isn't the start of a slump; don't jinx it.

Wednesday dawned sunny and warm and I had a great run — 17 miles on fleet feet with my sleeves rolled up and gentle breathing as I made my way along the rocky trails into town. The miles went quickly enough that I had extra time to jaunt up Mount Sanitas before meeting Beat. See, you're fine. Calm down.

On Friday, temperatures were forecast to hit 70 degrees. Of course Monday's snow had long since melted, and dirt roads were dry again. "This might be my last chance for a nice-weather ride," I thought — which, of course, is an excuse I've been using since September. It was a gorgeous afternoon, but I chose a familiar route and fell into preoccupied autopilot mode. Because of this, I wasn't present in the way I prefer. I'm annoyed about the Internet hot takes and current events that I spent most of the ride ruminating on, so I won't expand on it further. But I did get 56 miles with 6,400 feet of climbing. Sometimes superficial satisfaction with numbers has to suffice.

After a four-hour run on Thursday and six-hour ride on Friday, my legs felt nicely worked for the weekend. Beat and I decided to return to Niwot Ridge — a reliable spot for a variety of sled-dragging conditions, offering a decent chance of wild weather for gear testing purposes, and low avalanche risk. The weather forecast is not all that useful for predicting what conditions will be like up on Niwot Ridge, but the research station does record detailed weather data that helps us quantify past trips. When we were here on January 13, winds were gusting as high as 65 mph, the average wind speed was a steady 50-55mph, and the temperature ranged from 11 and 14 degrees. This puts the windchill around -17F. Brrr! (For the record, I'm one who would much rather endure an ambient temperature of -17 than a windchill of -17.) So this week, I packed my sled with all of the books I used to weigh it down to 35 pounds last Saturday, as well as all the gear I'd actually need for such fierce weather.

On January 20, the temperature was between 31 and 34 degrees, and the wind speed was a basically calm 21-32mph. Okay, that wind was actually quite brisk — but relative to Niwot, it was nothing. I didn't even need a face mask or gloves.

The wind was also blowing from the south — a rarity near the Continental Divide, where west winds rule. In the short time we climbed above treeline on Niwot Ridge, storm clouds billowed over the mountains and the sky shifted from bright blue to dark gray.

We dragged for a mile across the rocky tundra — this photo was taken close to 12,000 feet elevation, which had even less snow coverage than our road at home after the 70-degree day. Of course up here, most of the snow just blows away. But snowless tundra is an eerie scene in January. It also makes for a *really* tough workout, when oxygen supply is already thin and the added resistance feels close to insurmountable.

"This better be another no-snow year in Alaska, because I'm $&@! ready," I growled to myself as motivation against an anchor full of dead-weight books. (I'm not ready, and please let there be snow, lots of snow, and let all of the rivers be frozen solid, please, oh please.)

 The incoming storm lived up to its promise and more — as of Sunday evening, the closest NWS station measured 14 inches of snow! Beat and I decided to snowshoe down to South Boulder Creek and not bring the sleds, because we wanted to walk on the rocks, and also because a foot-plus of new snow is workout enough.

I'm not banking on this snow sticking around too long. I may even have another chance at a 60-degree dirt ride before we head north next month. But this was an exceptional week for a wide variety of motion amid 18 hours of outdoor activity ... if lucky I'll be able to log similar time or more for the next two weeks before the taper begins. And when the taper begins, the real fretting starts. 
Sunday, January 14, 2018

Winter training — sometimes ridiculous, never boring

The past couple of weeks since we returned from Alaska have been ... well ... they've been interesting. Similar to last winter, I've felt dubious about intentions to return to the Iditarod Trail yet again, but our trip to Fairbanks renewed my zeal for the endeavor. I'm actually sort of strong! I want to train well while I still can, before my next slump settles in. (Believe me, I am trying to talk myself out of magical thinking about a cycle of good health and bad health, but fear of an unavoidable pattern persists.) 

Since Colorado's Front Range (and most of the Intermountain West) still lacks snow, I talked Beat into putting our California cart back together. Beat originally designed this cart as a training tool to mimic sled-dragging on snowless trails in the Bay Area. Better than dragging a tire, the cart has some real weight to it, along with two disc brakes that can be partly clamped to add snow-like resistance to the wheels (the brakes also have levers attached to the pole, which are useful when you're about to be mowed down on a steep descent.) Officially, I despise this thing. I was surprised to learn it survived our move to Colorado, and has been languishing in the wood shed all this time. With six gallons of water plus the weight of the cart, the load is between 55 and 60 pounds. Once I engaged the brakes just a smidgeon, I could barely coax the cart (whose name is "Allen") to inch forward up our driveway. Perfect. 

 Since we only have one cart, Beat set up one of his old-and-busted sleds with 40 pounds of dumbbells. We made it out for four miles a week ago Saturday. I was feeling the initial symptoms of what turned into a crushing head cold. It was my first viral illness in two years (maybe this is a sign that my autoimmune disease is weakening, because my immune system is no longer so over-engaged that it torches everything in its path, including organs? I'll take hopeful magical thinking where I can find it.)

 The cold really put me on the floor for a few days. I usual disregard these types of illnesses (beyond being careful not to infect others), but the sore throat and head-clamping sinus headache were not to be ignored. Sunday passed in a congested daze; in training terms, I was "resting." On Monday the weather was irresistible, sunny and 65 degrees at 3 p.m. Warmer outdoors than in. What I should have done was take my laptop outside and sit in the sun. Instead, I thought, "I'll go for a bike ride!" 

My mountain bike still has pogies attached to the handlebars. Out of habit, I loaded my pack with mittens, a fleece cap, a thin shell, and a puffy jacket. Then I set out in bike shorts and a short-sleeved jersey, bemused about wearing such an outfit in January. By the time I reached the top of the road a half hour later, my head was pounding and I was shivering profusely. I stopped to put on all of the layers and continued around my planned route. The shivering worsened, and I realized that I was probably running a fever — either that, or feeling cold while wearing a puffy jacket and fleece hat in 65-degree sunshine is totally normal. I cut the route short and battled a throbbing headache all the way home.

Tuesday I again spent the day mostly sprawled on the floor, but by Wednesday, I really did feel better. Or so I told myself. Beat and I planned to meet at his office for a car swap. Usually when we do this I bike into town, but I felt guilty about doing relatively little running since we returned from Alaska. I didn't have a route planned when I left the house on foot, and surprised myself when I turned left rather than the usual right. "I bet it's not too much farther if I descend Eldorado Canyon," I thought.

It was farther. Ten miles for the usual route, nearly 20 veering all the way around the Flatirons. Well. At about mile 14 I was making my way up and down the steep rollers of Mesa Trail, grumbling about the interminability of Mesa Trail, when the sky unleashed a fearsome deluge. Rain pelted my back with impressive violence. Even wearing my good rain coat, shivering soon followed. My head was pounding, my shoulders were quaking, and then the trail turned to bacon grease, with a fresh coat of mud over patches of old ice. I slipped and skidded, tumbling forward and catching myself, only to soak my mittens in mud.

"I have never been this miserable, ever," I thought. Which of course wasn't true. Then again, every time we utter this statement to ourselves, it might as well be true.

The rain let up and I kept on the rain coat, hat and muddy mittens as I made my way along the bike path through town. Looking back, I realized that running pavement while remaining stubbornly overdressed on a warm, humid evening was even more miserable than anything I'd endured earlier. College-aged runners were out in their tank tops and shorts, giving me a bit of side-eye as I plodded past.

With weight-lifting and another cart-tug, that was pretty much my week. By Saturday I really was feeling better, so we invited Wendy and Jorge for a snowshoe outing on Niwot Ridge. As we drove along the Peak to Peak Highway, I was so enthralled with actual snow on the ground that I failed to look up at the ridge we'd be climbing. Wendy took this photo during their drive — looks a bit blustery. Just a bit.

 The early miles of the hike were fun and games. I had a 35-pound sled, which is so much more cooperative than a 55-pound cart. Beat tried hitching a ride on Jorge's sled.

As we approached treeline, things got real, fast. Temperatures plummeted from the 20s to low teens with a driving, 40-50 mph wind. Beat's feet were frozen. Wendy didn't have enough layers for the wind, and turned around at mile four. I put on my wind-shield fleece and primaloft shorts, and felt comfortable until we broke out in the open, where conditions were comparable to standing inside an industrial-strength vacuum filled with snow. Stupidly I did not put on goggles when we stopped to add layers, and had removed my sunglasses after they iced up. I pulled my hat down and buff up until I was viewing the whiteout through a thin slit of fabric. Snow shards still pelted my face until I couldn't keep my eyes open for more than a second at a time. During those single seconds I'd blink rapidly against a blast of white, and process nothing. I couldn't see at all.

 I stumbled and crawled through Beat's tracks until I was close enough to yell in his ear, and told him I was turning around. He and Jorge planned to continue. As I turned to face my sled, I realized that weather like this is something I need to handle. There won't always be opportunities to run away. So I anchored my trekking poles, pressed my harness pack as deep into the snow as I could, and lunged for my sled before it could blow away. With thinly gloved hands I pulled open the zipper a small amount and reached inside, rifling for the stuff sacks I'd packed haphazardly, because who thought I'd actually need any of this stuff? The first stuff sack was filled with books — the ballast I'd added to get the weight to 35 pounds. The second had to be emptied in its entirety before I found my goggles at the bottom. All of this rifling had to be done blind with my arms extended inside the mostly closed duffel, to avoid losing anything in the wind. Not that I could see much anyway. But as soon as I put on those goggles and blinked a few times, the raging whiteout became so much brighter, and the world so much friendlier. I strapped on my harness and continued up the mountain.

I didn't make it much farther before I saw Beat and Jorge descending toward me. Beat told me it was worse, so much worse, just a few hundred feet higher. I admit to feeling a little disappointed. With goggles, the blasting wind became manageable. I was surprised how warm I felt in my trusty fleece jacket. But I was not about to argue with the likely accurate assessment of "so much worse." We rushed down the mountain, barely able to control our sleds as the wind pushed us violently. I took this photo after we were well below treeline, back "out of the wind." Beat decided he wanted to take a break and eat his sandwich. I have to laugh at the image of Beat coated in spindrift, facing the driving gusts with a "whatever" look on his face. He was happy to have that sandwich.

Sunday returned to typical January (2018) conditions — warm and sunny. Beat decided he wanted to do "Fern repeats." The mile-long route gains or loses 1,800 feet of altitude on a relentlessly rocky trail. Beat once did an "inFERNo Half Marathon" in Fern Canyon, for 13 miles with more than 10,000 feet of climbing. I struggle mightily with these descents ... I consider the climb more restful. Thanks to slower climbing and much slower descending, I can only do two repeats in the time it takes Beat to do three (with the West Ridge approach, two repeats amount to 4,600 feet of climbing in 7 miles.) I put on the same outfit I have worn for many a summer run, and set out. I felt good. My hamstrings are finally calming down after Friday's extra-horrible cart drag. I think I'm officially recovered from that cold. No hints of a slump yet, but I bide my time. I don't take anything for granted. 
Monday, January 08, 2018

... from living out in the snow

Day 3. It was Friday, I think. December 29, closing in on the end of 2017. Another year. Midnight-like darkness shrouded the window as Beat restocked the wood stove at 7 a.m. I sat up and blinked away a half-memory, half-dream about New Year's Eve 2008. I was training for my first Iditarod, so I loaded up newly acquired gear in a backpack and snowshoed up the Mount Jumbo trail in Juneau. The temperature at the time was -5F with a fierce, needling wind. Even though I planned to camp just two miles from the safety of my warm apartment, I was deeply frightened. But that emotion is not what I remember. What lingers, a decade later, still burned into sharp memories of snow-shrouded "ghost trees" and city lights twinkling through an icy fog, is slack-jawed astonishment. Astonishment at the beauty, at the savagery, and at the unlikely series of events that led me to that moment — not just surviving, but thriving on the world's hard edge. The sensation was intoxicating. 

"I haven't changed," I thought. "I haven't changed at all. How healthy is that?" 

At first light, Beat and I set out from Caribou Bluff. The temperature dipped to -30F. Until you've experienced colder temperatures, they're difficult to qualify, because cold is cold, right? But you feel the sharp difference between 30F and -30F, every bit as much as you would distinguish 30F from 90F. I've compared deep subzero cold to wolves lurking in the shadows, because as the early-20th-century Alaskan adventurer Hudson Stuck famously said, "everything is okay just as long as it's okay." But your body's natural defenses are meager at best. One mistake can spiral out of control with astonishing quickness. You know this instinctually, so you're always on alert. With experience, you learn the importance of managing everything within your control. Relinquishing vigilance to sleepiness, exhaustion or hunger is a dangerous game. 

It is amazing how you can slap a few layers of synthetic material on your hairless tropical animal body, then move comfortably through stratospheric cold. I enjoy shuffling through my cozy biosphere, feeling warm-blooded heat radiate into the atmosphere and relishing the freedom of — to dredge up a religious quote from my childhood — "being in this world, not of this world." The universe gifted humans with remarkable freedom. That we've used this freedom to lock ourselves into increasingly rigid standards of comfort, success and beliefs is an interesting dynamic of human nature. Despite this resistance, our ability to adapt and thrive remains, so far, limitless.

I'm reminded of the famous quote from your favorite existentialist and mine, Albert Camus:

"In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."

Our souls free us to explore the limits of time and space, but our bodies remain those of fragile tropical animals who long for the sun. Beat and I were three days into this trip before we saw our first (and only) rays of direct sunlight, creeping over the hillside above Beaver Creek.

Beat celebrated the occasion. The temperature rose as high as -27F, and for a time I felt so comfortable that I'd unzip my fleece jacket and push the pole pogies down to vent a bit of heat through my bare hands. But then a stiff gust of wind would rush up the valley, searing naked skin like a flash of flame. These sudden shifts were breathtaking reminders about the razor-thin margins we skimmed.

At least I finally got the positioning of my balaclava right — ice-lash free! When the wind picked up, all I needed to do was duck my head, pull up my jacket zipper and pogies, and relief returned. If it had been consistently windy, I would have pulled on goggles.

Ten miles passed relatively quickly, and we arrived at Borealis cabin, our home for night three. We planned to continue out the seldom-traveled Big Bend trail for an out-and-back exploration. First we stopped at the cabin to make hot lunch from instant macaroni and cheese cups, and semi-thaw our icy gear above the wood stove. Admittedly I didn't want to take this break, knowing the afternoon's short daylight was swiftly fading. I paced the cabin and prodded Beat annoyingly as he mulled over his feet and torso layers. I should have given my own layers more attention, because the minute I stepped out in the -30 air wearing slightly damp base layers, I caught a chill that took hours to recover.

Big Bend was a rare opportunity, almost never broken out this time of year. The trail wends down the Beaver Creek valley before crossing the creek and climbing onto an adjacent ridge. I didn't think we'd make it past the crossing, which was six miles from the junction, but Beat was somewhat interested in pushing for the ridge. Spoiler alert — we didn't make it. We probably wouldn't have made it regardless of ambitions. A later reading of the Borealis cabin log revealed that the trail likely wasn't broken beyond the creek crossing (the snowmobilers who claimed to break the trail a week earlier hit open water they couldn't cross, and returned to Borealis.)

Beaver Creek is already the lowest spot in the Whites, and we were following it downstream. The cold air continued sinking. It was -31, then -33, then -35. I wasn't comfortable. "I am okay with minus-20s," I thought. "But I'm afraid of minus-30s."

I had extra layers in my sled, of course — a light down coat that I specifically brought to wear while walking in extreme cold, plus my expedition down coat for breaks and emergencies. We also had all of our survival gear, so I had this sense that, while uncomfortable, I wasn't in danger. I wanted to see how well I could recover on my own. I wanted to try bring my core temperature back to baseline, utilizing only motion.

The frigid air against an already cool core had a deadening effect on my muscles — almost as though I'd been injected with mild anesthesia.  Beat was fading in the distance, but when I tried to employ a running stride to catch up, my legs felt like they were moving through molasses. The snow underfoot was soft and punchy, the cold air seemingly as thick as water. These steps were exhausting. So exhausting. Looking back on this segment of the trip, I wish I'd put on my down coat — if nothing else, to test how much my perception and performance improved with an extra layer. But at the time I thought I was doing okay, well enough at least. I didn't want to risk tipping the status quo.

Three miles out, Beat proposed going another 45 minutes. At four and a half miles, he turned around again and said, "another 45?" Actually, he said "it's been 45," but I misinterpreted his statement. My face must have betrayed how crestfallen I felt about the prospect of diving deeper into this frigid valley, because Beat asked if I was okay. I admitted that I was struggling. "I know you think minus 40 is where things really get difficult, but I'm still having a hard time with minus 30."

Beat looked at his thermometer and said it was -36. We turned around. The moon rose high over the craggy ridge of Big Bend, bright enough to cast shadows even before the mid-afternoon twilight disappeared. We agreed leave our headlamps stashed away as stars appeared in the indigo sky. Quietly the world faded to abstractions, dark geometric shapes and gradients. As my eyes adjusted to low light, the boreal forest took on soft definition, like a watercolor painting. Snow-covered tundra resembled the surface of an ocean, with gentle waves glittering in the moonlight.

By the time we returned to Borealis at 6 p.m., I'd forgotten about the cold. The moonlight walk was exhilarating, and I felt blissed out from long hours amid a sweeping beauty and silence. But I was tired, a kind of bone tired that left me feeling a little discouraged. "I shouldn't be so tired after just 19 miles," I thought. Of course I made mistakes that were easy to spot. I should have been more proactive about not letting my core temperature stay cool for so long. And I should have eaten more calories — I'd failed to make snacks easily accessible, and used up my limited "free-hands" moments to take photos or drink sips of water from a deeply buried hydration hose. After I added mittens, about halfway through the hike out Big Bend, I don't even think I drank any water. Poor maintenance leads to poor performance. Motion can been sustainable if you treat your body like the machine that it is.

Beat again took on the unsavory job of waking up every two hours to stoke the stove. I was more open to just letting the fire go out on this night, and curling into our sleeping bags to stave off the subzero cold that would quickly creep into the cabin. But waking up to a warm cabin is undeniably a welcome luxury. I hydrated well before bed and had to get up several times in the night to pee. The first time, I walked outside in my underwear and down booties and stood still for several minutes to scan for Northern Lights. By the time I returned to the cabin, the skin on my legs felt like it was on fire. Subsequent shivering in my sleeping bag reminded me that, oh yeah, when it's close to -40, you actually can't just walk around in your panties without consequence. Margins become so much thinner. The wolves are right at the doorstep.

Day 4. For this night we booked Moose Creek cabin, which was 17 miles away along the most direct route — also a seldom-traveled trail that often isn't broken out this early in the season. We saw tracks at the junction when we passed on day one, but there were no guarantees the trail was broken all the way through. With lots of conjecture from an entry in the Borealis cabin log, I concluded that whoever broke the Big Bend trail must have come in from Haystack/Moose Creek, thereby breaking the entire route we'd walk that day. But we didn't know for sure. How far was the point of no return? How far were we willing to break our own trail in snowshoes along a tripod-marked route that we didn't know well, versus backtracking and adding ten or more miles to the day? We assessed the deep powder conditions along the trail and concluded that any more than three miles of trail breaking wasn't worth it — 12 extra miles of walking on trail would be easier, and likely faster. And with that, we set out into the unknown.

Subzero temperatures persisted, rising as high as -9F early in the day along a high bench, and plummeting back to -26F along Moose Creek. I had all the things unzipped at -9, and felt comfortable and content at -26. I dare say this felt almost balmy compared to the previous day. We are adaptable creatures, we humans.

Strenuous trail conditions persisted, and I had grown weary of trying to boost my pace in order to keep up with Beat. Instead I languished behind him, drifting through the universe of thoughts that reveal themselves in these open landscapes. Over this section I ruminated on the book I'd been reading at night. I'd promised Corrine I'd find some "light reading" for the trip. (Originally I downloaded a book about the current political climate, until she reminded me that I'd explicitly stated my desire to escape the news for five days.) I tried a couple of adventure memoirs and grew bored, then drifted to a title I have no memory of downloading: "How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter" by Dr. Sherwin Nuland. This book is about as light as it sounds — it's brutally blunt — and I didn't realize how dated it was until I came to the chapter on AIDS (published in 1994.) But it did give me much to think about, dragging the long hours away in a place that can feel close to death, but in fact is bursting with life. 

It's always an interesting thought experiment, reflecting on death. Some would call it morbid, but I disagree. Life is a whole lot of striving and not a small amount of suffering, but the realization that it's finite is how we form our values, and our reasons to continue. Nuland's heart-wrenching chapter about Alzheimer's really drove home the harsh reality that we ourselves, our living experiences and identities, are much more ephemeral that we want to believe. I think I'm the same person I was ten years ago, but I'm not. If space-time somehow wrinkled and she and I bumped into each other on the street, I'd probably be surprised at the things I didn't recognize. Our experiences have diverged. Some of her idealism withered. Some of my wisdom remained.

Someday my life will definitively end, but really, we reach smaller ends and new beginnings all of the time. We move forward and large pieces of ourselves — the forgotten moments and experiences, the passions of youth and people we loved — remain behind. Who could even guess which moments might comprise the self we'd wish to occupy into eternity? Given eternal life, we'd still change beyond recognition, eventually. Perhaps the transition of death is just that.

Nuland offered: “We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died—in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life.”

Or Thoreau: "There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill ..."

Amid this revery I reached the junction of the main trail, with much relief. A hard wind swept along the valley, and Beat was long gone up the hill toward the cabin. I could see a light twinkling in the window, and wondered if Corrine and Eric were already there. Well, of course they were. They were on bikes. It probably only took them three hours reach this spot that felt a lifetime away from the "real world."

It occurred to me that Beat and I hadn't encountered a single person in four days out here — no travelers on snowmobiles, no BLM employees, no one at all. I couldn't ever remember the last time I went four days without seeing another human besides my partner. A rare occurrence indeed.

It was fun to see Corrine and Eric at this large, modern cabin built high on a dome. All of the contrasts were striking. From Moose Creek cabin you can see the trans-Alaska Pipeline and lights from the Elliot Highway, shattering the illusion of Nowhere Land. I'd hardly noticed how the wind was sweeping away the cold air, but up at 2,100 feet, the temperature had risen to 17 degrees. Above zero! I lingered outside for several minutes after arriving, procrastinating with my sled chores because it was so satisfying to stand still, comfortably, outside.

Eric had already chopped a bunch of wood and had the stove cranked to near-broiling temperatures. We laughed and finished off the Fireball and went to bed early. We let the fire go out, but around 4 a.m. Eric started it again. About 45 minutes later I awoke dizzy and drenched in sweat, and in a half-panic rushed outside in my underwear and down booties. For ten minutes I stood at the edge of an overlook, gazing at the hazy moon behind an overcast sky, and breathing the refreshing coolness of winter air. After just four days, I was one with the cold.

Day 5. December 31, the final day of the year. We started the hike out under overcast skies and temperatures around 20 degrees up high, and a few degrees below 0 down low. We had 16 miles of steep, rolling hills to reach the trailhead, but this segment was by far the easiest day of travel. The trail was well packed and temperatures were just so warm — my leg muscles felt like they'd been released from an invisible vice.

About an hour after we set out, Corrine and Eric coasted by on their bikes in a low-lying valley. I was ambling along taking photos of frosty branches and a deep orange glow over the Hayes Range in the distance (I left my camera in the wrong setting, and none of the photos turned out.) Later Corrine remarked about how strange it was that I wasn't wearing gloves, but who needs gloves when it's a balmy 0 degrees? I can see how Alaskans become so snobby about the cold.

We wrapped up the walk in a rather relaxing five and a half hours, and rushed back to Fairbanks to pack up our luggage. Our plane was set to leave at 1 a.m. January 1. Similar to past years, 2018 came for us in the Fairbanks Airport. I was devouring three oranges that I bought at the only open vendor — a bar — because I felt so desperate for fresh produce. The clock rolled over to midnight and an Alaska Airlines employee came on the intercom to wish customers a happy new year. Nobody cheered. I smiled because it was so appropriate, because it had been a fantastic holiday week, and because, hooray, I'd survived another year. But I really wished I was still in the White Mountains.

Next year, perhaps. I was grateful for those five short days, which not only created a wonderful memory, but also helped me forge some confidence for the Iditarod Trail in March. But no, Beat, I'm still not ready to walk to Nome.