Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Life below zero

It's a typical story of two air travelers stuck on the tarmac at Sea-Tac, twenty minutes after their connecting flight was scheduled to take off. It's the Friday before Christmas, the busiest travel day of the year, and weather is causing massive delays throughout the airport. All hope is lost, but after an hour of refreshing a flight status Web page, the connecting flight comes up an hour delayed. The crew finally lets them leave and they sprint through several terminals at top speed, ignoring the grumbles from a lumbering mass of fellow travelers. All of their heavy winter layers are drenched in sweat and endorphins are surging as they reach their gate, where the crew nods and ushers them inside, slamming the door behind them. 

There's a gap in baggage handlers today and no way their luggage will make it on the same plane. But somehow it does, and by 2 a.m. on the winter solstice, their rental car is cutting through thick ice fog in Fairbanks, Alaska. The temperature is 35 below zero, and their luggage contains everything they need to survive for days outside in this ... they hope. 

Eleven hours later, it's 1 p.m. on the shortest day of the year — just after sunrise or dangerously close to sunset, depending on one's outlook. From a solar perspective, it's high noon. They've rearranged and repacked all of their stuff, and they're pulling into the trailhead at a seemingly abandoned state park, bracing for a three-day trip through these frosty hills. It's still 35 below zero.  Just 24 hours earlier, the Colorado air was a chilly 35 degrees and it was 70 degrees warmer — no less jarring than traveling from winter to 100 degrees. The shift in sensation is stark, like running and then slamming into a wall.

At an otherwise empty trailhead in Chena River Recreation Area, Beat and I pulled our sleds out of the car and tried to latch everything together as quickly as possible. At 35 below, fingers only have a few seconds before the cold clamps down and renders them rigid. I pulled my mittens on and off, trading dexterity for warmth in equal parts. My packing technique was rusty and I inevitably fumbled some of the steps. We were both shivering by the time we finally got moving, about twelve minutes after arrival.

Our planned route followed a low-lying winter trail through the valley for the first five miles. The temperature remained frigid down here, and we moved at a strenuous clip, trying to adjust to the heaviness of air and ground. The strain brought to mind an image of a deep-sea diver on the ocean floor, breathing recirculated air and taking short and labored steps through the frigid water.

We weren't aware of a solstice sled dog race happening on the same day, but suddenly we were inundated with 15 teams passing in both directions in short succession. I became more and more stressed about pulling off the narrow trail and wading into knee-deep snow to let them by. If I had to wait for more than two teams, I was shivering by the time I got moving again. In between these unwanted breaks, I pulled hard in an effort to reach our trail junction as quickly as possible, working up unwanted sweat. Meanwhile the dogs loped past, chins and shoulders coated in frost, mouths open and tongues lolling out, with not a care in the world.

Finally we reached Stiles Creek trail and left the race behind, climbing a corrugated snowmachine track that hadn't seen traffic in many days. The trail pitched upward at a fall-line grade, gaining a thousand feet in just over a mile. Dragging a loaded sled over frost-crusted old trail at such grades is true thirsty work. Although we didn't gain much in the way of degrees of temperature, I had to start stripping down — all coats unzipped, pant side zippers opened, hands and face fully exposed to vent heat. Once my coat was open, my interior hydration valve soon froze, causing an even deeper level of thirsty. A seemingly large number of moose or caribou — we couldn't quite tell by the tracks — had stomped deep, ankle-threatening holes into the trail for miles.

After the steep climb, the trail rolled for along a ridge for five more miles of punchy climbs and descents. I began to cool down, managed thaw my hose, and finally started to relax from the stress of the frantic start. The long twilight finally faded, plunging us into much longer darkness. Beat fished his foldable saw out of the bottom of his sled bag. We shined our headlamps into the woods, searching for deadfall and stumps that we could cut for firewood.

When we reached the Stiles Creek Cabin, the temperature had climbed to 22 below. This actually felt warmer. Beat went about chopping our hard-won wood as I fired up cook stoves and started melting snow. We only had enough wood to burn for five or six hours, and wanted to save some for morning. So once cabin chores were complete, dinner consumed and frosted layers mostly dried, we shut the stove for the night and crawled into our winter bags, braced for a cold night.

I slept reasonably well, cocooned in my bag as the indoor temperature settled into something resembling the outdoor temperature. Beat fired up the stove again early and we lingered as long as we could, awaiting a dawn that wouldn't arrive until 10 a.m. For the second day we had about twelve miles to cover. This would take a strenuous five hours, and we wanted to enjoy all of the daylight.

The route continued along the ridge with ongoing steep ups and downs, and temperatures climbed as high as 12 below. I felt toasty and basked in the sunshine, loving all of this heat. But feeling too warm when it's not warm comes at a price. While I know this all too well by now, it's still hard to resist the urge to work up a good sweat. We descended steeply into the valley where it was again 30 below, and I could feel this deeply.

Beat was moving quickly and I wanted to try to keep up with him, but I struggled as my core temperature fell. I knew I should stop to deal with it — add a layer, at the very least — but I figured we were only a couple of miles from the cabin and we'd be there soon (this is always a terrible assumption.) This low trail was swampy and drenched in overflow — luckily mostly frozen, but also coated in frost so thick that we didn't even slip on the ice as we walked. This sticky frost also clung to the trail, creating terrible resistance. In a way it felt like that time I dragged a 70-pound bag of concrete over gravel, back at home in Colorado. It was so warm that day — warm enough to melt the snow on the road, I thought with a wistful sigh. 

The chill settled in — not dangerously so, but enough to slowly drain the energy from my body. These types of chills can be the most insidious, because by the time you think better of your situation and do something about it, you're in a much tougher spot to recover.

It didn't help that it was such a beautiful, wholly distracting afternoon. For several miles I easily ignored my stiffening shoulders and knees as I looked around in awe. Everything was coated in delicate strands of frost that looked exactly like tiny feathers when viewed at close range. From afar, the entire forest was incandescent, radiating the soft pastel light of the lazy sun.

By the time we arrived at Colorado Creek Cabin, it was 27 below and I felt cold. I stood in the musty and frigid cabin feeling dazed as Beat used a small amount of leftover wood to start a fire. He asked why I was so quiet. In my big down coat I felt okay, but certainly not comfortable. It was 2 p.m. and starting to seem like I would never feel comfortable again. Like I'd always straddle the hard edge of this insidious chill.

We headed out to gather wood before the darkness clamped down again. Beat used his saw, but in this cold I found I could walk up to dead trees with trunks thicker than my arm, pull them down and snap them into pieces like they were toothpicks. Although we were able to collect several big bundles, the wood did almost nothing to warm the cabin — the small room was too airy, with too many big windows, and this wood was probably too soft and rotten to put out much heat. It was still well below zero inside as we cooked dinner and gulped down hot chocolates, climbing into bed by 6 p.m. I did a bunch of reading. Beat, who is still recovering from a man cold, was able to sleep for the better part of twelve hours.

Even feeling warm in a good sleeping bag, it's still rough to spend a whole night in such cold. Having arrived at the cabin cold and scarcely finding an outside source of heat, we burned through a lot of energy during the long night. By 7 a.m. Beat was bored enough to rouse me, and we prepared to leave. We planned these short mileage days to get reaccustomed to the hard work of fully loaded sled-dragging, but it had gotten to the point where sitting was more difficult than moving.

Our final day was just six miles back to the trailhead. While we again planned to head out in the daylight, we just couldn't wait that long. At least, we reasoned, an early return would give us an opportunity to rearrange our systems, acquire new supplies, and bolster our defenses. 35 below is pretty chilly, but it may have just been a little taste of what was coming.

"Alaska plunges into deep freeze as the rest of the nation thaws," one headline read.

"You could easily see minus fifties in the Whites. Maybe 60 below in a cold hole," our weatherman friend Ed warned us.

"Interior Alaska hasn't seen a cold snap like this in years."

We have a second trip into the White Mountains planned, starting Thursday morning. The forecast is uncertain and predictions have been all over the place, but we're braced for and feel we're prepared for the worst. I admit for a day or so, I wanted to back out. I've never experienced 60 below, and I have no desire to experience it. But I have dealt with long periods of 40 below, and I've at least refreshed my personal battle plan thanks to this little jaunt in the minus 30s. Honestly, I'm still nervous, but this will be good for me and my goal of truly preparing myself for the Iditarod. Also, I've become so comfortable with the Whites, a place for which I feel an almost reverent affection. It will be good, I think, to become reacquainted with the same sinister side that greeted me on my first visit in 2010. Love isn't love without both light and darkness. Really, this is what keeps me coming back, year after year, whenever the sun reaches its lowest point over the northern horizons. 


  1. I can't imagine facing that kind of meat locker cold. Your forays into cryogenic death-zones frighten the beJesus out a Colorado near-septuagenarian that grew up in southern Arizona. Just the thought of facing eternal dark-side-of-the-moon nights is haunting/daunting enough...let alone the minus 30 temps. I'm both surprised and relieved your rental car started... :)
    Box Canyon Mark

  2. Typical Jill: goes on a hike and a sled dog race breaks out!

  3. I am totally surprised (same as Box Cyn Blog above) that your rental started after 3 days sitting at the trailhead. I grew up in Wyoming and Montana, and as a high school kid my car was parked outside (Mom and Dads cars had the garage). When we'd hit -20 for a week or so ever year, even w/ a block heater plugged in all night every morning was a prayer that it would start to get me to swim practice and school. I truly can't imagine going outisde for FUN in that kind of cold, especially foraging away from the safety of a heated home. THAT is some serious confidence in your survival skills in a very uncertain environment. And as you've mentioned, this is nothing compared to the ITI. Your pictures are fabulous (I'd call them hauntingly beautiful) as always. I can't believe you continually stop to take them...(assuming you need to take at least 1 mitten off to do so). Glad you are both safe...and I continue to keep you both in my thoughts as you go out again for New Years. I will be drinking spiked egg nogg in the evenings in our cozy house w/ the gas fireplace burning...and likely go out for a cold (to me...40's and 50's) New Years-day bike ride. Say safe and enjoy the final week of the Holidays.

  4. Exceptionally well written post. 👍

  5. Wow. Apparently I am a weakling! We arrived at our cabin on Saturday & it was 32 below. Between our oil heater & propane heater, it warmed to 40 in 3 hours. I thought eating dinner in 40-degree temps was hardcore. Kudos for surviving this adventure, and I'm assuming you are still in the Whites adventure, so I hope it is going well! The temps did seem to rise Mon-Wed, but are supposed to drop again going into this weekend.

  6. Also, any tips for taking pictures while adventuring?? I'm sure there's no secret, but I just hate the idea of pulling off my gloves to do the task.

    1. We returned from our Whites trip on Monday. It was an adventure! We saw minus 50 and just narrowly missed -65 just a few miles west. Heating a cabin purely with wood and having to gather all of it at those temperatures is work. So much respect to old-time trappers. But it was fun and I learned a lot. My strategy with the camera is to keep it in a mid-layer pocket so it's warm enough to work but still easily accessible. I use pogies on my trekking poles so I am often going bare handed. In these deeper cold temps, or when a have a cold core, I wear primaloft mittens that have an opening in the palm to push my fingers out. This seems enough for me even at -50, although I of course carry vapor barrier expedition mitts for use when needed.


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