Sunday, January 07, 2018

Then our skin gets thicker ...

With nine days in Alaska, we managed to spend eight in the backcountry. Yet we still returned from Tolovana in time for Corrine and Eric's Christmas Day feast with their family and friends, and I crammed in 15 hours of work between Monday night and Tuesday. Yes, it was a good week. And I've come a long way since we started planning these holiday "training trips" to Alaska in 2011. Back then, I would still shiver at the thought of spending more than one winter night many miles away from a working heater or humans with snowmobiles. Now I realize that five days alone in the Alaska wilderness is not enough. Not nearly enough. (But no, Beat, I'm still not ready to walk to Nome this year.) 

Fairbanks was about to wrap up its warmest December on record. One week before our planned four-night cabin trip in the White Mountains, the forecast was so bland that Corrine questioned whether we'd even see temps below zero. Of course the forecast changed, so abruptly that I'm not sure Beat and I were fully prepared, mentally, when we arrived in the pitch darkness of 9 a.m. at the Wickersham Dome. The temperature was 0F. "Brrr!" I exclaimed as I rigged up my sled. It was the warmest temperature we'd see for four days.

Languid daylight slowly revealed a low cloud ceiling and hazy fog. We futzed with adding and removing layers as we made our way along Wickersham Dome. The anemic spruce forest was colorless and soft around the edges. Our sleds were bloated with five overly generous days of food and fuel (each of us ended up carrying about a third of our supply out at the end of the trip) and all of the gear we thought we'd need to walk long hours in subzero weather, cross open creeks, or camp outside at 40 below, should that become necessary. Even with everything we theoretically needed to survive, the first miles were intimidating — walking into a silent fog at 0 degrees, feeling the cold air needling at the sweat on my shoulders as I grunted up a hill, and wondering if I really had what it takes. Though I'd been through this before, and had confidence in my experience, the margin for error is undeniably thin. Uncertainty persists.

Beat's home-made digital thermometer was borked. As we climbed and descended the undulating spine of the Dome, it read 66 degrees. By the time we dropped into the valley under clearing skies, the reading spiked to 80 degrees, and then 82. "I can say with some confidence that it is not 80 degrees," I said. Only a couple of days later did Beat realize what was happening — when he programmed the code, a mis-entered digit skewed the reading. To determine the correct temperature, we needed to subtract 64 from the reading, and then subtract that number from zero. So 80 degrees meant it was -16F. If we saw 90, it was -26F. The dreaded 100 degrees, oh, we'd see that too. Extreme heat became a cruel joke from Beat's thermometer.

So it was 18 below and dropping. I'd subtracted too many layers, so I stopped and added my fleece jacket, a balaclava, and my custom (sewed by Beat) double-walled knee warmers (I may be the only person in the world who can have toasty hands and feet, and cold knees.) Each year, my gear just becomes more eclectic. Half of it is homemade. The rest is stuff you don't typically see in any mainstream outdoor gear catalogue: A cheap off-brand (but windproof!) balaclava, primaloft shorts, a wind-shield furry fleece jacket that Mountain Hardwear took off the market years ago (sob), primaloft mittens with an opening in the palm so I never have to wear liner gloves (I so dislike having to eat with gloved fingers.) Time passes and we become more set in our ways — our heavily-individualized-and-not-recommended-for-anyone-else ways.

Cozied up in extra layers with the thermometer slowly ticking upward, we marched up and down the rolling drainages beside Wickersham Creek. Beat maintained a brisk pace, which I could not match at my own walking speed. I felt strong and energetic, but more limited by my own biomechanics and muscle strength. With a 50-plus-pound sled dragging behind me, my shuffle-jogging pace is no faster than my walking pace, so I have to mimic an all-out run to gain ground. Of course, an all-out run is maybe four miles per hour. Whenever I attempt to run with my sled, I imagine an old Looney Tunes cartoon: The character thinks he's running away, but Bugs Bunny is holding onto his suspenders, so he's not actually going anywhere. I'm running as fast as I can, but my sled just holds me in place.

Walking with a sled is not really like walking at all. It's not even like walking with a heavy backpack, at least on solid ground. The combination of heavy resistance behind you, resistance underfoot, and subzero temperatures cooling your muscles, all conspire to demand the limits of strength. Sled-dragging is strenuous. But not in the same way running is strenuous. The impact is lower. Heart rate is lower. It's sustainable, but just barely. Your body is fully engaged in the task, without relief. Every muscle fiber seems to be firing, with heart beating strong and steady, warm blood pumping, and all four limbs straining for every step of forward progress.

I love sled-dragging. I really do. It's almost impossible to explain succinctly, because the outside observer will correctly assess: "it's cold, it's slow, and now you're telling me you have to work hard all of the time? No coasting at all? No thanks." Even those on the inside of this esoteric sport know that I own a fat bike, a very good one, and used it well enough to ride a thousand miles across Alaska a couple of years ago. So why. Why? But there's this thing about bikes. You're always thinking about them. You can't even help it. You're forever searching for the best lines in the snow to maximize efficiency, so intently that even I all too often fail to look up at the scenery. Use of a bicycle manufactures a dependence that demands constant attention — "is my tire pressure too high? Too low? The brakes need adjusting again. What's that clanking? Is my crank arm going to fall off? If my crank arm falls off, I'll be stranded out here! I'll die!" ... etc.

Sure, there are things that can break on my sled, or my survival gear, or my shoes. But for the most part, it's just me. Me and my body, straining against its anchor to this hard world, and a singular focus that frees my mind to wander to the edges of the universe.

We'd covered about 22 miles by the time twilight faded for good, and headlamps were needed to avoid the knee-deep moose holes that threatened to fracture a fibula. I'd scarcely noticed the time passing. My body felt strong with no complaints, so my head was free to drift into tranquil revery. But trail conditions were deteriorating. Where we climbed a long bench above Fossil Creek, winds had swept several inches of spindrift over the older snowmobile track. No one had been through in days. Walking felt like wading through ankle-deep sand, occasionally sinking to our shins. The grainy nature of the snow meant snowshoes wouldn't help much. My hamstrings groaned, tightening by the minute. All through our Tolovana trip, I'd labored under the delusion that when my breathing is good, all physical efforts are virtually free. But clearly that's not the case. Clearly I have limits beyond my lungs.

My pace slowed to 2mph. Unacceptable. I looked for motivation from iPod, where I can often find a maudlin yet catchy pop song to play on repeat and sing out loud to rev up my cadence. In this case, it was "Choke" by OneRepublic:

"I'll keep a picture ... of you on the wall, of you on the wall,
and choke on the memories.
I'LL KEEP A MESSAGE OF YOU IF YOU CALL ..." (I imagined myself shouting. I really wasn't.)

I was having fun. Enough so that I slipped into happy memories and forgot to take the song off repeat, so every once in a while my recollections of Rainy Pass in the sunshine would be broken by a background church chorus singing "Choke! ... Choke!"

Through occasional knee-deep drifts, we plunged awkwardly into Fossil Creek Valley. After an icy overflow crossing, we encountered the first fresh tracks we'd seen in miles. My first thought was, "That's a weird dog team. Where did they enter this trail? They're all over the place. And there's no sled track." Beat was the first to point out what were obviously fresh tracks from a pack of wolves.

Enormous wolves. The realization sent a chill down my spine, even though I knew that the pack was probably long gone — their tracks headed one way in the opposite direction down the valley. And logically I understood that documented wolf attacks on humans are so rare as to be statistically zero. I knew all of this, but that primal fear lingers, just the same. Through this valley, wolves travel the same narrow corridor as humans. Would they come back?

Admittedly this fear factored into my vote when decision time came. Originally we booked Windy Gap cabin, 38 miles from the trailhead, as our day one stop. Trail reports indicated the route was impassable to snowmobiles due to open water, and we didn't expect the trail to be broken after recent snowstorms. So we booked our "backup" as Caribou Bluff, 30 miles from the trailhead. We stood at the trail junction at 8 p.m., looking at a trail broken only by wolves, knowing it would take at least five more hours to travel ten miles. Temperatures were closing in on -30, but over the swift-flowing creek, there were no guarantees that open water crossings weren't still a problem. I backed down and voted for Caribou Bluff. I'm not totally proud of that, but hey, we were on vacation! Sure, it was a training trip for the rigors of the Iditarod Trail, but as a wise Alaskan friend once observed, "You don't need to practice suffering."

Caribou Bluff was still a 30-mile day, ending at a cute little cabin perched on what must be the most scenic setting in the Whites — a narrow bluff overlooking two mountain drainages, surrounded by craggy peaks. And we even arrived early enough to complete cabin chores before the clock rolled over to a new day — chopping wood, melting snow, drying frost-crusted clothing, thawing too-cold toes, cooking dinner, and knocking back a couple of Fireball-enhanced hot chocolates. Cabin life is the good life.

We also had Caribou Bluff booked for the second night of the trip, with ambitious hopes to explore a side canyon we'd never visited. But Fossil Gap trail wasn't broken at all, and traveling through deep snow over the unknown ice conditions on Fossil Creek seemed unwise. Instead we opted for a loaded day trip toward Windy Gap. Although we both thought it a little silly, I did not object when Beat offered to carry the cabin ax as protection against wolves, just in case.

Temperatures plunged to the mid-minus-20s as we descended into Fossil Creek. Towering limestone cliffs lined the narrow valley, ensuring we wouldn't see a speck of direct sunlight. Beat seemed not all that enthused about this day hike, but I thought it was the loveliest segment of the trip, and took many photos with half-frozen fingers before stuffing my hands back in the pole pogies. (As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to not use liner gloves, although I do carry them just in case. I learned that as long as my core is warm, I can go bare-handed down to -30, but the amount of time I can use my hands outside of my pogies becomes increasingly short. Below -30, it seems, my preferred mittens become necessary at all times.)

All day long, the sky was painted in the soft pastel light of sunset or sunrise. I never kept track of which was which. Really, this time of year, they're one in the same.

We started out wearing snowshoes for the punchy trail, but eventually took them off because both of us had cold feet. Later, we added overboots, which was the best idea yet. For winter biking, I subscribe to the theory that "feet cannot be too warm" and load up my feet with multiple layers at all times while wearing vapor barrier socks to contain the inevitable moisture. This practice is more dangerous on foot, where constantly wet or overheated feet result in blisters, painful maceration, swelling, and even heat blisters from literally steaming skin in its own juices .... as I learned during the 2012 Susitna 100. But when temperatures are well below zero, it seems fairly safe to use vapor barriers and overboots, and the alternative of always-cold feet is definitely worse. This is why we embark on these training trips. The Alaska-specific lessons are valuable.

The softest hints of sunlight swept over the limestone crags. I was warm and content, but Beat had cold feet and seemingly low motivation. We bickered a little on when to turn around.

Trail conditions weren't great. BLM employees broke the trail three weeks earlier, then posted a dire trail report that probably deterred most traffic since. So although there was a base that looks not bad in these photographs, it was punchy and deeply drifted in spots. I like to watch my pace on my Garmin eTrex, and along Fossil Creek I was often dropping below 1.5mph even when I felt like I was moving well. If we'd continued to Windy Gap the previous evening, we probably wouldn't have arrived until 1 or 2 a.m. if we made it at all. Ouch.

Still, I was perfectly content, cocooned in a warm feeling of bliss. This Fossil Creek corridor feels out there by any stretch of imagination — more than 30 miles from the nearest road, which itself is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of uninterrupted wilderness.

The morning's breeze calmed and silence was absolute. When I stopped walking, I could hear ice crystals chiming like tiny bells. Something was crunching through the snow. The sound had a loud yet distant tone, a result of subzero atmospheric conditions bending sound waves toward the ground. It could have been a moose behind a nearby tree, or a mile away.

The trail hit a bumpy crossing of Fossil Creek, and after that, evidence of any former trail faded away. I didn't take photos in that section, which was closed in by the narrowing canyon walls and a dark spruce forest, but we spent about two miles following only the wolves. They put in a good path, but the going became more difficult, and the woods increasingly more spooky. The cold clamped down and sunlight was fading. Beat convinced me it was a good time to turn around.

It was just as well. This gave us a chance to catch a few more sunset views in the open areas of Fossil Creek before the 20-hour night returned.

There goes the sunlight, clear up there. It never came close to reaching the valley floor.

And here comes the moon, nearly bright enough to throw some light of its own.

Since I felt warm early in the day, I never pulled on my balaclava, and paid for it with vision-obstructing ice-lashes. It's difficult to thaw ice-lashes, because by the time you've held your fingers against your eyelids long enough to melt the ice, your hands become painfully cold. Instead, I just blinked and squinted against a increasingly blurry and white-spotted landscape.

My head gear also is based on personal comfort. I dislike having my vision and breathing obstructed in any way, so I dislike wearing goggles and face masks. The vision issue is the main reason I haven't been interested in using a fur ruff like Beat's. I carry goggles at all times, because they're non-negotiable in cold wind without a ruff. But I find I don't need goggles otherwise, even in extreme cold, as long as I have warm air circulating around my face. This warm air circulation is easy enough to contain with the cupped mouthpiece of a balaclava, and creates a cozy little biosphere for easy breathing. The main drawback is that all of this respiration freezes to the material, and eventually I'm wearing an ice helmet. But I've found this doesn't bother me — even frozen solid, balaclavas still retain their warmth. So I'm a buff and balaclava person. I probably won't change.

We ended this day with 11 miles in five hours of walking. It was a tough five hours. "In the ITI we just need to go four or five times that far each day, hopefully in fewer than 25 hours." I pondered the harsh realities of the adventure I am training for. The bare minimum mileage I need to achieve each day during the race is 35, and the goal is around 50. Future failure math was needling its way through my bliss, and I tried to shove it away.

For this day, even in a remote canyon with persistent subzero chill, the demands were not nearly so harsh. We just had to hike up the bluff to our cozy home for the night, where a "real" (not freeze-dried) dinner of couscous and chicken sausage awaited. The thermometer outside the cabin had plunged below -20 — up on this bluff above the cold air sink — and we wondered if we'd see minus 40 the following day. Beat volunteered to wake up every two hours and restock the stove with wood. Though I felt bad, I didn't object (I'm the type who tends to get up in the night and stay up for hours, so I don't like to voluntarily interrupt sleep.)

The wood stove was cranking, but I felt compelled to cozy up in my Arctic sleeping bag all the same. Even with all of this comfort surrounding me, there was something primal about that depth of cold ... like a pack of wolves closing around us, just waiting for the fire to go out.


  1. This is amazing. My husband keeps asking me to go winter camping more (have only gone a handful of times, but nothing like this). I want to, but I don’t want to. Even though you paint a hardcore picture that should make me run the other direction, it still somehow sounds appealing! Keep telling these stories! I am encouraged that you weren’t always into it and built up this stamina/expertise.

  2. Thirty miles in those conditions with sleds is incredible. Don't ever doubt your fitness.

  3. Dragging sled in deep cold for only 30 miles. Yes, Jill, you and Beat are such WIMPS! We'll have to reconsider whether we let you stay with us again!

  4. As always a totally mindboggling, awesome read. So thrilled for you, that the 'old Jill' appears to be back.

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  6. Something I have long believed, that gritty endeavors to the "brink" of endurance and comfort is where we find our personal mettle...Truth, if you will. That you choose to return to the "flame," over and over, again and again, most cannot understand and wonder "Why." That it is your "Everest," and "Because it's there" doesn't really satisfy the question. And there in lies the intrigue.
    There will come a time, eventually, when motivation shifts from "Because it's there" to "Because I still can," and that, my friend, is something people can better understand.
    Cheering you on,
    Box Canyon Mark

  7. This was an extra great read, thank you for sharing.


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