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. 


  1. our ability to adapt and thrive remains, so far, limitless....
    Don’t forget, humans came out of Africa. Cold adaptation took thousands of years of evolution. The adapted genes are mostly known today. I bet you have them all. I remember as a kid in Central Europe,-20C was not uncommon. -37 is a different thing altogether.

  2. I was raised in southern Arizona... and my genes have yet to adapt to 30 below zero.
    Box Canyon Mark

    1. I was referring to intellectual/technological adaptations. I still think humans got the short end of the physiological stick. My genes certainly don't enable me to survive 30 below without technology. Also, I would like to be a four-legged creature.

    2. You will probably need another 40,000 years :)

  3. My genes get cold and grumpy at about 50F...they are obviously tropical in nature...I think I'm related to manatees...I need temperatures between like 74 and 78F to thrive (not sure if that's what they need, but I know their temperature range is VERY small).

    Beautiful post Jill...reminds me of the years past and your epic adventures! I can't IMAGINE going out ON PURPOSE and having "fun" in 30 below weather. It just boggles my mind! But the world is made up of all kinds of people...some like to sit and watch TV, some like to drag a sled across dark forbidding landscapes in death-defying temperatures, some people like to ride a bike (or hike) 20+ hours a day for weeks at a time doing hundreds/thousands of miles and think that's fun. I'm no couch potato but I pale in comparison to the serious endurance people. An 8 hour mtb ride is "EPIC" to me. Anyway, I REALLY enjoyed this series of posts about your Holiday foray into the cold winter-wonderland...fantastic pictures and narrative! I don't even need to go there, just re-read your post and live vicariously! Well done!

  4. Glad you're feeling better, and just at the right time.

  5. I am spellbound by your account of this trip. I enjoyed every word. Such a wonderful writer, you are.

    You are fortunate to have an adventurous partner with which to motivate and support each other. I am in my 60's now, and although I won't be walking to Nome either, I sure would love to do some winter hiking/backpacking. But it's tough finding a 60+ year old partner who still wants to move at all, let alone brave the snow. Meanwhile, I enjoy living vicariously through yours and Beat's adventures.


    1. Hi Beth. I am grateful to have Beat's companionship and support; I have plenty of friends whose partners aren't so understanding of their adventurous endeavors. I also have a number of friends in the 60+ age group who are tearing it up in the ultrarunning / winter sports / cycling communities. If you are interested in finding a partner for snowshoeing or backpacking, the Meetup Web site is a great place to find like-minded people locally. I'd argue that you could have a lot of fun with people in all generations, but sometimes there are more age-specific hiking groups as well.

  6. I've enjoyed your posts about your adventures in Fairbanks immensely. I'm so glad that your general health is good! Every time you post about Alaska in the winter, you make me want to experience it myself (but I'd ride a fat bike - no sled for me!). The light looks sublime.

    1. The Fairbanks area has some incredible fat biking, better than anywhere else I've visited. It's worth the trip, and the extra layers. On our flight from Seattle, we met a couple from New Zealand who were visiting Fairbanks in the winter, "just because."

  7. Good words sister. I’ve never experienced the cold like you and need too! But I appreciate your words taking me with you. Have you read Last Light Breaking by Nick Jans? Bill Poindexter


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