Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The years go fast and the days go so slow

"Another decade is gone,” I thought as Beat and I rumbled down the frost-heaved highway with the car heater on full blast — our last modern source of heat for the next five days. The scenery was foreboding and familiar — spindly spruce hunched beneath pillows of snow, rendered in the black shades of midnight at 9 a.m. The radio faded to static and I stared out the window, imagining eternal quiet — you know, the quiet of the universe, long after the sun has burned out. The outside temperature was 22 below, and we didn’t expect to see anything warmer for the rest of the year.

“Another decade and I’m still out here. Out in the cold.”

We pulled into the Wickersham Dome, a large and almost entirely empty trailhead. There were two other vehicles, both caked in frost and looking like they'd been there for a while. Wordlessly we removed our sleds and harnesses from our vehicle, along with additional layers that we couldn’t don until our last artificial source of heat was gone. I’d spent much of the drive reminding myself of the process of gearing up and the order of each step, so everything would come together without a hitch. My sled bag was especially laden for this trip — we saw 50 below in the forecast and went to Fairbanks on Christmas Eve to buy all of the things. A pair of primaloft zip pants for me. A sleeping bag liner for Beat. Foam insulation from Home Depot to line cabin bunks, or the bottom of our sleds, if necessary. We packed plenty of fears along with enough fuel and food for six days of racing — we still forget how to pare down the calories for “normal” trips, and brought far too much. The weight of the sled was comforting, and unbearable.

Despite the deep subzero temperatures, a Christmas Day storm coated the trails in four inches of fresh powder. When snow falls at temperatures this low, the flakes are as dry and sharp as shards of glass. My sled is five feet long and about 20 inches wide. It wasn’t a stretch to guess I had upwards of 60 pounds of stuff loading it down. And when it’s 20 below, the microscopic surface melt that reduces friction and lets things glide just isn’t there. You might as well be dragging an anchor across a sandy beach. I heaved to take my first labored steps across the parking lot and briefly stopped, looking back to make sure my sled wasn’t hooked on something. Of course it wasn’t. I felt like I was dragging a dead body, and it was just going to be that way.

So we commenced the march. The first hints of purple dawn appeared on the southern horizon. I could see the sky was overcast, and I was grateful — if it stayed cloudy, we might escape the fearsome possibility of 50 and even 60 below. The cloud-blanketed temperature hovered in the minus 20s. Globes of ice accumulated on my eyelashes and eyebrows, obstructing gray but pleasant views of rolling hills speckled with pipe-cleaner trees. The taskmaster of a sled kept my internal furnace cranked on high; I left zippers open and hands exposed to vent heat as I labored forward. 

Within three miles we encountered two parties returning to the trailhead — a solo skier with a dog and two people on a snowmachine. I wanted to ask questions about their respective cabins and wood supplies and trail conditions, but I knew it was too cold to stop, and so settled on a polite wave and nod.

“There go the other two vehicles at the Dome,” I thought. “We’re alone out here now.” But I knew we weren’t all alone, because I could see the fresh bike tracks of an acquaintance from Colorado who also traveled up here to embark on cold-weather training ahead of the Iditarod. He had a closer cabin reserved, and our plan was to seek refuge with him if necessary. We had two cabins reserved for this night — the likely one, which was 19 miles away, and a moonshot favorite spot that was 28 miles from the trailhead. I consulted my GPS for a dose of reality … 1.8 mph, 1.6 mph … “Hmm, I don’t think Carbiou Bluff is going to happen.”

We reached the edge of the Wickersham Wall, a steep descent from the ridge into the Wickersham Creek valley. “Finally, some relief,” I thought. But as I started down the slope, my dead-weight sled didn’t give an inch. There was so much resistance in this snow that I had to pull hard, even down a steep hill. I cued up an audio book on my mP3 player — “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah — and let my mind escape into a different place. I value and mostly enjoy the expansive mental space of a good slog, which is why I haven’t formed a podcast-audiobook habit before this year. But sometimes you just need to find the best ways to cope.

 The day dragged on. Pink streaks of light appeared on the clouds overhead, and then I noticed patches of blue. By 3 p.m. dusk, the sky overhead had cleared. My body was still cranking heat but my nose felt significantly colder. I had started using my bare fingers to thaw the ice surrounding my eyes, because it was giving me an ice-cream headache. “It’s probably at least 30 below now,” I thought, but Beat had the thermometer, and he was too far ahead to ask.

Darkness returned. The night deepened. Some eons had passed, not to mention a good chunk of my audio book, and we’d still only traveled 16 miles. Only halfway up an interminable hill out of the Wickersham Valley. My shoulders ached. Most of my leg muscles were burning … but at least my core was warm. I saw Beat walking toward me without his sled. He’d done this several times already, a strategy to stay warm as he waited for me to catch up. This is why traveling with another person in cold weather can be problematic, because each individual operates best at their own pace. It’s not fair to ask the stronger person to either freeze or burn extra energy walking back and forth to match the slower person’s pace, nor is it realistic to ask the slower person to keep up. This is why Beat and I can’t walk the Iditarod together. It’s hard enough to manage a cabin trip.

 “Want me to take your sled for a bit?” he asked.

 “Sure,” I wheezed. I haven’t had to cope with consistently labored breathing in some time, and the raspy sound of my voice frightened me. This is how I sounded most of the time, back when I was sick. But I’m not sick now … I’m just at my limit. I unhooked from my harness and handed the pack to Beat. As soon as I took my first unweighted step, I stumbled and nearly fell forward. My legs felt so strange, as though my bones were rubber bands. I walked beside Beat, wobbling like a baby giraffe taking her first steps and marveling at the sensation of weightlessness.

We resumed dragging our own sleds and reached the top of the hill. Scoured by wildfire, the open knoll invited a stiff breeze, and within seconds I shifted from comfortable to shivering. I zipped up all of my coats and tried to run, but the anchor would allow none of it. Limited to 2 mph on a steep descent, I still managed to warm up again and decided against stopping for an extra layer. Still, that windchill was breathtaking. It surpassed that barrier where cold becomes so cold that it feels like burning. Beat met me at the bottom of the knoll leading to Borealis cabin. He’d already been up there and dropped his sled.

“There’s a little wood in the cabin, not much,” he said. “What do you think? Want to go on?”

 I looked at my GPS. “This already took us nine hours,” I said. “It’s going to be eleven by the time we get there. At best.”

Beat nodded.

“What’s the temperature?” I asked.

 “37 below.”

 “And there’s that breeze,” I added, my voice still raspy. “Honestly, I feel fairly shattered. I mean, if this was the Iditarod, and it was 37 below and breezy and I needed to walk another five hours to reach a shelter, I’d keep going, of course. But right now we’re just on vacation. How much suffering do we need to practice?”

I heaved my anchor up the knoll. The interior of the cabin was as cold as outside, but inside cold always seems to feel significantly colder —possibly because of mental expectations about stepping into a shelter. I unpacked a few things as Beat used a small tangle of wood to start a fire in the wood stove. Then we bundled up in our big down coats and dragged an empty sled back down to the creek, where we’d spotted a snag of dead wood on our way in. Beat took out the trusty hand saw that he’d purchased just days before we left for Fairbanks, reasoning that cabin saws are often too dull to be worth much (this turned out to be the best purchase ever.) He went to work on a larger tree. I waded into the hip-deep snow and wrapped my mitts around a promising skeleton of a black spruce tree  —known in Alaska as “standing dead” — and rocked back and forth until I was able to rip the entire tree by its decayed roots out of the frozen ground. Then I dragged the 10-foot trunk through the deep snow, heaving it onto the trail to start what would become a substantial pile. This made me feel like superwoman, or better yet, a Canadian lumberjack. This kind of effort could work up a serious thirst at 37 below.

 We loaded the empty sled with our harvest and slumped back to Borealis. Beat went to work sawing the logs into manageable pieces while I collected a bag full of snow and fired up my stove to boil water. Borealis cabin is a familiar one; I know it’s well built with a decent stove, but I was still relieved when the remnant moisture in the wood finally burned off and the cabin began to heat toward zero degrees, then freezing. Within a couple of hours, the air was even close to room temperature if one stood right next to the stove. Beat selflessly took on the task of setting an alarm every two hours to stock the stove. If we let it go out, it wouldn’t take long for 37 below to seep back into the cabin.

We had Borealis reserved for the following day and no backup cabins. So we knew we’d be spending another night here, and that we’d need to gather a lot more wood. That was task number one for the second day, but we also wanted to put in a four- or five-hour sled drag for good measure.

The morning dawned brilliantly clear at 44 below. I started out in goggles, but they soon fogged up and I reluctantly removed them. The air was still, and didn’t needle into my layers the way windchill often does. I was surrounded by a bubble of warmth that allowed me to move freely, hold my fingers to my lips to bite a lemon Oreo, or pull my hydration hose from its spot against my chest and take a sip of lukewarm water. I loved all of this freedom. It felt stolen, unnatural, like I was an astronaut wearing a space suit and wandering an alien planet. "An alien planet with four times the gravity of Earth," I thought, looking back at my anchor.

How do you describe the distant world of 45 below? It’s quiet here, but if you stop and listen, you can hear a faint, high-pitched harmony. This is the chime of tiny ice crystals colliding all around you. When you walk, each footstep also chimes — the crunching sound of warm snow becomes a squeak around zero degrees, but at 40 below deepens to something more metallic, almost melodious. These tiny sounds seem to echo for miles through the heavy, motionless air. A moose could brush against a frost-covered tree a half mile away, and you’ll here a jingling chorus as loud and clear as though the moose was standing right next to you.

The temperature continued to fall. Beat announced it was 48 below. His digital thermometer’s sensor is exceedingly accurate, unlike many alcohol thermometers used in Alaska because mercury freezes at 38 below. So there was no question — this was the lowest temperature I had ever experienced. I pulled my hands out of my trekking pole pogies and clamped two fingers over the ice coating my eyelashes, noting how quick the tips began to numb.

Alaskans have a saying they like to repeat about minus 50, often attributed to famous turn-of-the-century missionary Hudson Stuck: “Everything’s all right as long as it’s all right.” It’s not hard to keep oneself comfortable and safe at 50 below, but the tiniest error can spiral into something dire in the span of a few heartbeats. Within seconds my bare fingers were tingling. I shoved them into a mitten and then back into a pogie, visualizing the potential pale patches of frostnip that might already be taking hold.

I was listening to the last chapters of “Born a Crime,” which I was captivated by and eager to hear the end. But I’d placed my mP3 player in a tight pants pocket and the buttons frequently skipped chapters. I’d pull out my bare hand to fish the player out of my pocket and hold the rewind button until I returned to where I wanted to be in the book, shoving numb fingers back into a mitten after I was done. And because I’d spent my dexterity on this, I had to wait longer to eat and drink. “This is dumb. I should not be spending all of this heat capital on entertainment,” I thought. “Note to self, for the future.”

In this valley, the sun was out for all of eleven minutes. It peeked over a low hill and then slumped into a higher mountain. I felt revived by this shot of sunlight. Energy levels were high and I believed I was moving so much better today, but when I looked down at my ever-truthful GPS, I saw 2.1 mph, 2.4 mph, 1.9 mph. We walked just over eight miles and it took us four hours. Beat hadn’t stayed as far ahead today, but it was likely he had just slowed due to lack of motivation to be anywhere. Meanwhile, I was excited by 50 below and felt like I was breathing fire, when in reality I was still just as hunched and slow as the previous day. The audiobook ended, and my wandering mind found its way to Modest Mouse songs that I loved when I was a college student in Utah, and which now evoke daydreams about the Alaska moonscape I never experienced until I was older. One song kept repeating. “Heart Cooks Brain.”

Slow walk
from land mines
It's a coal mine
It's a bad thought ...

About a mile from the cabin, Beat stopped where the trail bordered a burn and crashed into the waist-deep snow toward a group of standing dead. I did not like the idea of wading into snow at 50 below, imagining the powder would find its way into my clothing somewhere, and we were still more than a mile from the cabin. But we didn't have much of a choice. Firewood wasn't going to just topple onto the trail for us. Beat sawed as I pulled smaller trees down, heaving and wheezing as I dragged them through the deep snow and hoisted them onto the sleds. This was hard work. I could feel heat building on the back of my neck and under my arms, and pulled down hoods and zippers to try to circumvent sweat.

Eventually we had a large pile on each sled. This is only half of what we thought we needed, but we could carry no more. We hoped to find our next load closer to the cabin. The haul back to Borealis was unbelievably slow. When I checked my pace on GPS, it showed only blank lines — the device thought I was stopped. "This will take as long as it takes," I told myself in an effort to circumvent the frustration. With this mantra in mind, I perked up again. It was still nice to be outside on this dusky early afternoon, engaged in something that kept my body warm and comfortable for as long as I could maintain the effort. Movement was the space suit that made it possible to experience this alien planet. My heart was happy. That's what mattered. In the past decade-plus of cold endeavors, my heart has formed all of these tricks to convince my brain that safety and comfort is not the goal in life — no, a happy heart is the goal.

On my way to ... God I don't know
My brain's the burger and my heart's the coal.

We dropped off our first two loads and went back out to gather more. I actually removed a layer and left it at the cabin because my "walking attire" was uncomfortably warm for real survival work. I thought about old-time trappers in the Far North, snowshoeing their trapping lines and gathering wood every single day, in addition to the building and repairing and whatever else it takes to survive in this remarkably inhospitable world. Not to mention the Native Alaskans who hunted these lands for centuries before the trappers arrived. However, I admit as a white person with Scandinavian roots, I tend to reflect toward what might reside in my own DNA. Did my ancestors work this tiny margin to survive and thrive? Does their blood pulse through my heart?

We dragged, hauled, and sawed logs for more than three hours, finally acquiring a supply we felt confident would not require us to burn through our bodies' fat stores to shiver ourselves to sleep at 50 below. Indeed, we had more than enough wood to burn. We let the cabin grow hot as we sipped Fireball hot chocolate and ate ice cream bars that we had to bring inside to partially thaw, as even ice cream becomes tasteless and rock-hard at 50 below. We did that thing where we boiled a pot of water and tossed it off the porch, watching the fountain change instantly to an arc of snow. Later, after stepping outside to brush my teeth with a cup of warm water, I realized the same phenomenon happened when I spit onto my toothbrush. Warm water went into my mouth and a blast of white mist spewed out, barely skimming the toothbrush.

The next morning we had ten miles to travel to the next cabin. We had given up any pretense that ten miles was anything less than a day's haul. The temperature had risen to minus 20 overnight, but strong winds had moved in, carrying low clouds and snow flurries. It was the bleakest of days. I stepped into the mire, groaning against the unbelievable weight behind me. Overhead, black trees swayed and groaned, raining down the last bits of frost that still clung to the branches.

I struggled mightily. My labored breathing proved I was working as hard as I could, but my body was so cold. The wind wouldn't allow a whisper of heat to stick around. We dropped into the swampy Wickersham Valley, where the trees were too sparse to offer any protection. Wind blasted my face. I moved my balaclava around, regretting that I hadn't put on goggles, but finding reasons why I didn't need to fish them out of my pack just yet. I do hate goggles, but also acknowledge their crucial role in all of the scenarios in which I avoid them.

For this day I started out with an audio book about climate change called "The End of Cold." But when my pocket shut it off somewhere within the second chapter, I just left it off. The wind was a constant companion. I wanted to shut it out but felt like I needed to be present — to know when big gusts came and I needed to lower my head, and hear lulls so I could look up again. I did not feel free on this day. I felt trapped. If I stopped moving for more than a minute, an insidious cold seeped through the tiniest weaknesses in my system, leaving me with weird discomforts like a cold lower back and a burning sensation behind my knees. Later we'd learn that gusts in this region were measured at 35-40 mph, and it was 25 below. That's a windchill of -62 — and if anyone ever dares claim to my face that "windchill isn't real," I'm probably going to kick them.

I'm on my way to — God, don't know or don't care
My brain's the weak heart and my heart's the long stairs.

We made the long climb up to Eleazar's cabin, a lovely spot on a wind-blasted ridge. Here our Colorado friend Jim had left a small amount of wood behind for us, along with a cabin log entry about his two days here — slow ride out on the sandpaper snow, an excursion down to the low-lying valley to test out gear when it was 50 below, and an enjoyable retreat from the real world. One does feel insulated out here — clothing insulating warm limbs from a deadly cold, cozy cabins holding out a fearsome wind, fatigue cushioning fragile emotions from the machinations of the mind, and a vast amount of unoccupied space to feel separated from the whole world. One feels safe here, even as scary as this place can be.

We tore one down and erected another there
The match of the century, absence versus thin air.

The morning of day four brought -6F with the same blasting winds that rocked the cabin all night. We tugged our sleds down the sandpaper trail, and soon it was -20. Still windy. I started this day better prepared with extra layers and toe warmers, following my intuitive understanding that windchill feels even colder than an equivalent ambient temperature, because windchill is actively assaulting you.

Indeed, the wind had done a number on the trails, which had almost been erased by drifted snow. For this day's trek we would need to wade through styrofoam powder for more than eight of the 11 miles. My legs were throbbing, which fed a creeping dread — not about this trip, but about the Iditarod, where I will need to travel an average of 32 miles every day. Here I was killing myself to travel 10 or 11 in six hours. Could my legs, let alone my mind, even absorb 18 hours a day of this level of effort and almost no rest? I doubted it. Failure math brought on too much angst ... scarier than windchill, even. I cued up "The End of Cold" and imagined myself buying a small bungalow on the beach in Florida, a place I could spend my remaining years watching the waves roll in until they consumed me.

Ah, angst. We stopped to strap on our snowshoes, but I felt fearful of snowshoeing when the windchill was still negative a lot — it's difficult enough to keep my feet warm when I don't have straps compressed around them. Snowshoes also restrict foot flex, and the metal plates become their own cold sink. But the exercise was still exceedingly hard and I noticed little change in my body temperature. The wind howled and the legs shambled forward, until my audio book faded to mumbles and white noise, and I only occasionally remembered to shove a handful of trail mix in my mouth.

I'm trying to get my head clear.
I push things out through my mouth, I get refilled through my ears.

"Why, why, why do we always take the Moose Creek connector?" Beat despises this trail because it's seldom traveled and often blown in, but it does chop six miles off the trip to Moose Creek cabin. We were both growing weary of the slog. I am forever in pursuit of ways to wholeheartedly embrace the slog, but this trip was testing my resolve in every way. We thought battling sandpaper snow at 20 below was difficult, but then came 50 below. That wasn't difficult enough, so the gray days with basement windchills moved in. Now we were breaking trail through a mire of Styrofoam and continuing subzero cold. What could the next day possibly bring?

I was also growing weary of viewing the world through an ice helmet. I gave up the task of melting my ice-lashes, until the scenery appeared through an abstraction of white blobs and blinking shadows. When gusts blasted through I put my head down, and often forgot to raise it until my neck began to hurt. Beat and I had been out in the Whites for four days and hadn't seen a soul, besides the two groups on day one. It hadn't been long, but it already felt lonely. Even as my body adjusted to the physical discomfort, my heart grew restless. "Is this all?"

In this place that I call home
My brain's the cliff and my heart's the bitter buffalo.

We finally arrived at Moose Creek cabin to the strangest pocket of warm air — suddenly it was 9 above zero, but still windy enough to discourage any lingering outside. I was even annoyed at the warmth, because I could no longer claim subzero for the entirety of the trip. The wood at this cabin was abundant — we didn't even need to gather it — and it was almost too warm to fully enjoy the stove. We ended up letting it go out overnight. We awaited the arrival of our friend Kevin, who had told us he'd ride his bike out to meet us on Sunday night. He never showed — ultimately a late start and drifted, "slow snow" turned him around.

The next day, we decided to hike out. We had one more night at a cabin reserved, but we were weary. We found the main trail drifted in as well, but the warm temperatures at least added some glide to our sleds. When we started out in the morning it was 22 above — unbelievably tropical. But within a half mile we dropped into zero degrees, and temperatures stayed near there for the rest of the hike out.

I looked and felt rough but I also felt more content — moving toward acceptance as the end neared. "Maybe the best I can do is two miles per hour. Maybe ten miles will drain away the most of my strength, and everything beyond will be survival shambling. That's okay. I'll go as far as I can. Every mile through this far-away planet is a gift."

It was Dec. 30, not quite the last day of the decade. But close. Like many times in the past, my brain cycled through disbelief at how these cold pursuits became such a huge part of my life, and guesses as to what the next decade might hold. Possibly something very different. My heart wanted none of this rumination and speculation. It only wanted to gaze toward a thin clearing on the southern horizon, and hope against hope that sunlight would peak through.

In this life that we call home
The years go fast and the days go so slow
The days go so slow
The days go slow


  1. Beautiful writing, Jill, as usual. Love your descriptions of being outside at -40 or colder temperatures.

  2. The pictures almost trick the reader into thinking that would have been fun. So beautiful.

  3. Anatoly, NovosibirskJanuary 16, 2020 at 5:25 PM

    Really nice story. I live in Siberia, I feel the same when going outside here. Keep writing, please.

  4. I was complaining about camping in 30 degree temperatures. Ha. Ha.

  5. Thankfully, this is as close as I will ever come to -40 degrees, and living on the edge of death. It's not for me, yet I am so intrigued by your frigid endeavors I can't stop reading.
    Cheers to you guys. I am humbled by the extreme life you two lead.
    Box Canyon Mark from Lovely Ouray, heading south to Arizona.


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