Monday, April 13, 2020

Last days of innocence — day nine

March 10, 2020. 15 miles outside McGrath, Alaska. 40 below and dark.

Sleep slipped away in a cold stream of air, wafting into the dark tube of my sleeping bag. While unconscious I’d burrowed so deep that my legs were curled tight against the foot of the bag, becoming stiff and unmovable. I struggled into a stretch that pushed my face toward a tiny opening and took a few deep breaths. The air was so cold that it tasted metallic. My tongue tingled. But the rest of my body was warm enough. My fingers were still flexible, although I still took my time working open the many elastic pulls and zippers that shielded me from the outside world. I was frightened of full exposure.

Indeed, wriggling out of my bag and rolling onto the snow had the same effect as plunging into frigid water. The cold air was a punch in the chest, knocking the breath right out of me. I paused to inhale carefully so I didn’t start hyperventilating. But I was wearing only a base layer and booties, so I had to work quickly. The down coat and pants at the head of my bivy went on first, then mittens before my fingers went rigid. I reached into the foot of my sleeping bag and fished out the bag of shoes, gaiters, and overboots. Even though I’d kept these items close to my body, they were still caked in ice and snow. My hands stiffened as I struggled with the laces, velcro and zippers of three finicky layers. I felt frustrated and a bit frantic, but I didn’t want to skip any steps when it came to my feet. My hands I could recover if they went numb, but my toes were likely to be much less responsive.

 “Holy shit it got cold,” I yelled to the darkness, following this exclamation with a string of swear words. These vocalizations had the effect of forcing blood toward my throat, which felt like it was burning with this cold air. I wondered about the temperature, but was frightened of the truth and decided not to look at my thermometer until I finished packing up.

 “Probably still 15 below, you’re just overreacting.” Words, whether angry or pacifying, did seem to soothe my sore throat. I rolled up my bivy bundle and packed it into its compression sack, removing my mittens to tighten the six straps, and windmilling my arms between each one. Once my shoes were on and the bivy packed up, I felt relief. I pulled the sled from my sleeping hollow, packed up the duffle, and turned the harness in the right direction. Wait … was this the right direction? I was pretty sure, but … damn, I’d have to fire up my GPS to know for sure. The device was slow to load, and I could barely read the screen once it was on. The digital images were so faint they were almost blank. While waiting I finally checked my thermometer. It was 39.5 degrees below zero.

I threw my harness over my shoulders and started marching as the barely legible GPS screen finally confirmed the correct direction.

“Success,” I thought. It was 40 below, and all things considered, that was a relatively low-drama bivy. I’d slept comfortably and managed to pack up and get moving before my hands and feet went numb. But damn … was I tired. After just a few steps, my quad muscles quivered and my glutes tightened uncomfortably. The sled balked like a reluctant dog, scraping across sharp grains of snow at 40 below. I strained just to walk down the hill, and entered an open swamp where the trail was still badly drifted with wind-blown snow.

I hadn’t put on my snowshoes, but it wasn’t worth it at this temperature — better to punch into knee-deep drifts but keep moving. At least the wind had stopped. The air was eerily still. Hovering over a silhouette of distant hills, the perfect orb of the moon turned the clear sky an otherworldly shade of purple. The snow-covered expanse was bathed in its silver light. I turned around to check the temperature in this low-lying spot — 43.6 below zero.

I’d avoided checking the time, convinced that I’d see it was 2 or 3 in the morning, and thus would remain dark and likely become colder for many hours before the lazy sun made its way over the horizon. Better to not know. But curiosity finally got the better of me, and I pressed the display button on my GPS.

“Oh wow, 6:30!” This exclamation hurt a little; my throat was becoming raw. I was also in disbelief that I’d apparently spent six hours unconscious in my bivy when it was so cold. But I was well-prepared, with two foam sleeping pads instead of one. It was nine extra ounces, but even for the benefit of that night alone, well worth the weight. I was relieved that the sun would be rising in two hours.

Beneath my relief was guilt that I’d overslept another night. I planned to take a long rest in McGrath and thus only wanted a short nap on the trail, just enough to ward off the sleep monster. However, when I was being honest with myself, I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t battling the sleep monster. I hadn’t felt truly sleepy since the first night. Since then, I’d enjoyed reasonably full nights of sleep that aligned with my circadian rhythm. What I was battling was more of a full-body fatigue — muscle weakness and mental fog that swirled into a perfect storm of difficulty until it felt impossible to push through. When I slumped through every step, even first thing in the morning, it seemed clear that sleep wasn’t really helping.

I wallowed to the edge of the swamp and took a brief stop to dig my food bag out of my sled. I hadn’t eaten for nearly 12 hours, after a bag of trail mix ran out sometime before sunset. The remnants in my food bag were unsurprisingly sparse — two granola bars, a crushed Honey Stinger waffle, and a baggie with about 25 gummy bears wetted out during the Farewell Burn snowstorm and now frozen into an impenetrable lump. Snacking is another way I try to remedy low energy, and apparently I went to town on my food supply while slogging half-unconscious through the previous day. I’d mindlessly eaten all of my food, and apparently had nothing to show for it. McGrath was only about 15 miles away, but at the rate I was moving, it would take six or seven strenuous hours. I was going to need to ration.

The gummy bears seemed like the quickest source of energy, so I pulled my ice-caked balaclava down and held the ball between my teeth until my fingers went numb. Then, with gooey mass still sticking out of my mouth and what was likely multi-colored drool dribbling down my chin, I slipped my hand back in a mitten until it tingled enough to resume gnawing the lump into workable pieces. This is what it takes to eat something at 40 below. It’s not even worth it, really, but I felt so weak. I needed something … anything.

 The cold wouldn’t let up. Forty below always feels like a stalking phantom, but here its heavy presence pressed right up against me, breathing down my spine as I walked. I was already wearing puffy pants and three jackets — a base soft-shell, a heavy wind-proof fleece, and a lightweight primaloft puffy. My only remaining layer was the down parka. I wasn’t quite cold enough to pull that on, but I always resist engaging my entire safety net, because that means there’s nothing left. Mercifully, the puffy pants returned the feeling to my toes, so I decided I could live with cold shoulders and elbows (elbows are a problem spot for me. I know it’s weird. We all have something irregular with our circulatory systems, and 40 below exposes every weakness.)

 It would probably help if I could walk faster, get my heart pumping a little harder and push more blood toward my extremities. But I couldn’t. In the 40-below darkness, brisk motion felt crucial, and still I couldn’t muster the energy. Shortly before intersecting with the summer road, the trail shot up a short but extremely steep hill. I strained against my sled until I fell to my knees. When I tried to stand, I could not. When I lunged forward, my feet slipped and I fell to my stomach. I realized that to simply get up this hill, I was going to have to crawl. Hands still wrapped around my trekking poles — because the pogies were what I was using as outer gloves — I punched my knuckles into the snow and pulled my unbelievably heavy body up the hill, inch by inch. I remember seeing an animal carcass half-buried in snow near the top of this hill. Probably a dead moose. My addled brain signaled that a similar fate awaited me, but I was still conscious enough to laugh it off.

 Finally at the top of the hill, the laughter began to fade. I didn’t remember this hill being so hard. Until this point, I’d held onto the fantasy that I was stronger than I’d been in 2018. But I wasn’t. Since I’d left Rohn, my experiences between the two years had been similar, at least in terms of pacing and trail conditions. But improved health and fitness wasn’t doing much for me. I was struggling even more than I had two years earlier, with no end in sight.

 It was time for brutal honesty, while I still had the mental capacity to access my frontal lobe. After consulting my calendar in Nikolai, I’d mostly concluded that it would take a small miracle or drastic change in conditions to arrive in Nome in time. Still, I wanted to keep going as long as possible. That was my goal from the start — to walk the Iditarod Trail, do my best, relish each moment, but try to avoid fixating on Nome. My odds of success were low enough that the goal would distract from the experience.

Well-meaning friends and family would assure me that my devotion, experience and preparation would get me there. While I appreciated their votes of confidence, I knew they didn’t really understand. The only person in my close circle who did understand was Beat — and he’s both loving and pragmatic enough to be honest with me. In our years of winter adventuring together, he’s proven to consistently be 15-20 percent faster in this endeavor. And even he has to work really hard to reach Nome. I frequently point this out when I’m enjoying an off year and dot-watching from the comfort of home. There will be times when twelve other dots on the map are all sleeping, and Beat is the only one moving. He’ll reach a comfortable and warm place to rest, and retain enough self-discipline to only spend a few hours there. He’ll march cool-headed through storms that would paralyze me.

Even if I agreed to Beat’s terms — and while I started the race dedicated to such discipline, so far in 2020 I’d proved myself to be the sleep-prioritizing, lazy biker that I’d always been — it would still take consistently good trail conditions to make up for my innately slower pace. If it was a 25-day-finish type of year for Beat, the finish was probably within 30-day reach for me. 2020 was far from that kind of year.

Putting this thought process into words sounds like justification and defeatism. And that’s fine — it is. But I have been involved in endurance racing for too long to still subscribe to “you can do anything, no limits ever” sort of platitudes. I’m seeking intense experiences, but I do retain a clear-eyed awareness of my limits. I have to draw hard lines in the snow if I want to avoid completely unravelling, burnt out beyond recovery, injured, or unable to extract myself from a truly dangerous situation.

This last issue is what concerned me the most. Going on from McGrath was feasible, but once you leave Takotna, 18 miles later, you really need to have your shit together. The next segment traverses nearly 200 miles of some of the most remote and inhospitable country in the United States. There are no villages and almost no travelers, besides the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. The lead mushers were now less than a day behind me. Once the last musher passed — probably only four or five days later — there would be no more traffic. Any snowstorm or big wind event could close in the trail for the season.

Realistically I was at least a week away from Ruby, the first village on the Yukon River. So even if I battled my way into the Interior, there was no guarantee I’d be able battle my way out — at least in my current, weakened physical state, which was so diminished that apparently I had to crawl up hills. I also had damning concerns about my mental state. Mornings were still okay. I was groggy but alert, although fear sparked by super low temperatures helped me remain aware. But soon, not too many hours for now, the meager supply of adrenaline that sleep replenished would again run out. Then I would enter mental state so clouded that I couldn’t even understand podcasts. This dullness was not confidence-inspiring, but “The Dumb” that coaxed me to plunge into a tree well the previous night was truly unnerving. Forty below remained in the forecast for the next few days, and then more snow was on the way. I’d been lucky so far, but taking care of myself in these conditions demanded mental clarity that I simply didn’t have.

Out there, we can count on none of the hand-holding and outside support that we often lean on to push past a breaking point in a typical ultramarathon. There are no pacers to slap some sense into us when we start hallucinating, no crews to feed us watermelon every five miles. There are no trail rangers to dole out directions if we get lost, no shops to replenish supplies, and no 911 if we really end up in a bind. Out there we’re on our own, in every single way.

Even if I could keep myself safe, and even if I could finish in Nome, I was far from convinced that this painful, foggy-headed march was worth it. I decided to walk the Iditarod Trail to feel a closeness with this landscape, an integrated wonder that rippled from the forgotten corners of my mind to the farthest horizons. I wanted to feel the pulse of the land and learn from its rhythms. But my experience wasn’t turning out the way I envisioned, I realized, because I was trapped in my own body. The difficulties of the effort and my limited strength demanded so much energy that there was nothing left to experience anything else — anything but fatigue, and pain, and occasionally — at high cost to my dwindling adrenaline supply — fear. Joy was no longer within reach; even in moments of unique beauty, my emotions had a dull edge to them, grayed by lethargy. Higher brain functions — reflection, contemplation, self-actualization — seemed long gone, intellectual luxuries for a former self I’d already lost to the demands of survival. I had once been human, but out here I was a little more than a feeble, naked animal. And my naked animal self only grew more enfeebled as my former human brain — my single survival advantage in this inhospitable land — slowly drained of vitality.

 Still, the thought of giving up was devastating. If I gave up for these reasons, it meant I had never been capable of walking to Nome. Likely I’d never be capable of walking to Nome — if I was willing to be brutally honest with myself. Perhaps in a few years, when all but the best memories of 2018 and 2020 faded, and the siren call of this place that I love grew louder, perhaps I’d try again. But a hard truth remained true, regardless.

 After about an hour of using these fumes of mental energy to mull an unwanted decision, I concluded that the very least I could do was walk to Takotna and see how it went. With this plan in place, my thoughts faded to a gray fog where no strong emotions reside. The sun rose behind me. When I glanced back toward the eastern horizon, I could still see the silhouette of Denali, the one landmark that looms over both the first and last miles of the 300-mile route to McGrath. The Great One. A hint of happiness murmured in my heart, and I cherished it.

 Vanderpool Road traces the top of a ridge, with unceasing and pointless climbs and descents. The trail base was still soft, swept with spindrift, and the cold snow felt like velcro underneath my feet. My balaclava had become an ice helmet, heavy on my head and obstructing my vision. Ice crusted to my eyelashes. I was too apathetic to do anything about it, until everything appeared as abstract blotches of blue and white. My mind was set on continuing toward Takotna, but my body still seemed locked in shutdown mode. My legs became increasingly heavy. My breathing was growing more shallow. It didn’t help that I effectively had nothing to eat. I’d plowed through both granola bars at mile four, proclaiming out loud that I was hungry and had no regrets. I did have regrets, and I still had hunger, and now just one package of Honey Stinger crumbs to fuel the final ten miles … possibly five hours … to McGrath.

 Some hours later, the sun rose high on the horizon. My thermometer still read 26 below, but I felt hot. I’d taken off the puffy pants and jacket at sunrise, but I stopped again to tear the ice helmet off my head, remove my fleece jacket and overboots, and stuff mittens in a coat pocket. After cramming all of this clothing into my duffle, I laid down on top of it. The sun felt so warm, like a beach in California. I closed my eyes.

 “Find the energy,” I murmured. Ice was still crusted to my eyelashes, and glimmers of light found their way through partially closed eyelids. I could see the blue water, hear the waves, feel the warm sand underneath my body. I began to doze … for how long, I don’t know. I startled awake to a deep chill and a loud rumbling sound. A large snow-removing vehicle was approaching, and I was sprawled on my sled in the middle of the road.

 At that point, I was just three miles from the McGrath checkpoint. I’d forgotten about my precious Honey Stinger waffle, and would end up throwing it away later. I stood up groggily and pulled my sled against a berm to let the plow go by. Then I opened the duffle and put back on all of the layers that I’d removed amid my California dreaming. I was suddenly, terribly cold. My legs felt frozen in place. Three miles seemed like an impossible distance.

 The miles somehow passed, with almost no input from my brain and thus nothing registered in memory. I arrived at about noon. It was lunchtime, and there was a large contingent of racers sitting around the table of the cozy home of Peter and Tracy, the McGrath residents who have hosted this checkpoint for more than 20 years. I was ravenous, and mowed through a “ManCake” — about 1,500 calories of pancake mass, cream cheese and jam — and an omelet as well, in one sitting. I don’t remember much else about that part of the day. I was offered a room upstairs and immediately went to bed.

 I slept until sunset … my favorite time of day. When I woke up, I was crying. Was I crying in my sleep, or did I forget what I was crying about? I slumped out of bed and limped to the window. Every part of my body ached, in a visceral and enduring way that made it seem like I’d never feel good again. Outside, the sky was drenched in pink and violet light. The streets and houses were smothered in ten feet of snow — I could finally measure it, based on how much piled on the tops of cars. The air still looked terribly cold.

 I went downstairs and had a little bit of food for dinner — that ManCake was still sitting like a lump in my stomach — then went back to bed. I slept all the way until morning.

When I woke up, I knew. I’d told Beat about my plan to walk to Takotna. I told him I’d wait and discuss plans with Mark, another Nome walker who was set to arrive in McGrath the previous evening. If Mark was going on, perhaps we could shadow each other for this intimidating segment through the Interior. Beat and I talked again first thing in the morning. He had a rough night — it was 45 below and windy, he said. Beat didn't mind — it was all just part of life on the trail. He was well on his way to Ophir. I felt the post-18-hours-of-sleep fatigue coarse through my body and wondered if I could even handle one more night of 40-something below and windy. Already my limbs were on the verge of buckling, just standing there.

At breakfast, Mark said he was quitting. The trip to McGrath had taken too much out of him. Klaus, the final Nome walker, arrived that morning. Ever stoic and determined, Klaus would go on, after only a short sleep, leaving in the middle of the night. He tried to talk me into joining him. But I knew. I just knew. I knew it as surely as I’d known anything, even if I didn’t like the ramifications of the truth. I turned on my phone and bought a plane ticket to Anchorage, scheduled to leave that evening. The evening of Wednesday, March 11.

For the rest of that day in McGrath, I hung out at the kitchen table and chatted with Mark. He was cheery, but it seemed like he and I shared an inward disappointment. It was more difficult to be around the others — those who were celebrating their McGrath finishes, who were jubilant and relieved. I couldn’t feel that way. I was a quitter. I’d accepted this as the best choice, necessary even, but it was still my truth. I cried as I packed up my sled to prepare for the flight. I lingered outside as long as I could bear, wearing only a base layer, because the fearsome chill of 30 below felt real. It was the most I could feel, now that I was broken and done.


Of the 53 participants who started the race to McGrath, 32 finished: 16 cyclists, 13 walkers and three skiers. Of the 24 who started the race to Nome, there were 11 official finishers. Three cyclists reached the finish line in Nome together after riding as a team for most of the second half of the race. Eight others — six bikers, a skier and a walker (Beat) — were in and around the village of Unalakleet when a damaging storm pushed a surge of tidal water over the sea ice, rendering the Norton Sound crossing impassable. In a typical year, racers might have been able to take more time to find an alternate way around, or wait for local traffic to cut a trail closer to shore. But the onset of COVID-19 created a situation where villages were in the process of shutting down travel, and outsiders were no longer allowed to pass through. For this unprecedented reason, the race organizers opted to give the “Unalakleet 8” the designation of having finished the 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational in Unalakleet, about 750 miles into the race.

 I, of course, am listed as a scratch. I was not a McGrath finisher, because that wasn’t my designated distance. This was my second non-finish in six attempts of the ITI, my first having been the frostbite catastrophe of 2009. I will say that it has been disappointing to give 8 days and 20 hours to this effort and have nothing — well, besides life experience — to show for it. The writing was on the wall, though. If I’d managed to keep going, I may have made it to the vicinity of Galena or Nulato — about 600 miles in — before the trail shut down.

 Since returning from Alaska, many have asked whether I’ll try again. I think most people who know me, including Beat, assume it’s inevitable. But Beat may be the closest to believing me when say that I will not attempt another walk to Nome. Perhaps, a few years on, if the race is still going and the trail is still viable — rapidly shifting climate conditions are a big question mark — perhaps I’ll return with a bike. But the walk to Nome is just too slow and demanding to make room for the joyful experiences I’d prefer. I doubt, especially as I get older, that I’d manage better fitness and health than this year. Trail conditions could and likely would be easier in any future year. It’s still, from my current view, not enough.

 But never say never. For now the future is uncertain for all of us, and I’m grateful for the small things — the many small and wonderful things in my life — perhaps now more than ever.


  1. So enjoyed reading the entire "Last Days of Innocence..." account! Looked forward to your captivating descriptions each day. Thanks for sharing all the aspects of your journey with us.

  2. Thanks for posting such an interesting writeup of your Iditarod adventures. I hope you and Beat are recovering from "the ordeal," and that you can maintain fitness levels when it's seems doubtful that most endurance events get canceled or postponed and "motivation" is diminished/lost. We are hiking more nowadays...trying to fill the time, fortunate to have choices right out our doorstep.
    Box Canyon

  3. "I will say that it has been disappointing to give 8 days and 20 hours to this effort and have nothing — well, besides life experience — to show for it."

    It's all about the life experience, baby! Seriously though, it is important. Ultimately, what is more important?

    On another note, I love the selfies. All at once you manage to look scary and sad-eyed and cuddly! I'm not sure if you're a dream girl or horror flick antagonist! (Good thing I know that you're more of the former than the latter!)

  4. Sitting in Arizona with uncertainty moving throughout the world, your personal description of your physical and mental determination is truly remarkable. Take care dear Jill as we move on this new path for the time being. Good health to you and Beat. Liz M in AZ.

  5. What an adventure! You did GREAT! Congratulations on making it to MCG. It was a very tough trail this year by far. Now that you have been home a month or so and I'm sure you have rehashed the trip over in your mine a few times...can I ask some burning :) questions?
    ---As far as your gear went...what didn't work for you and what did you like. What did you wish you had brought.
    ---How did you keep your feet warm? Would you wear something else on your feet?
    ---How much food did you carry in your sled/or on you? Again what worked for you and what didn't ? What will you bring next time?
    ---What planning would you do different if any?
    ---When sleeping outside, were you in a tent?
    If you didn't have Amber with you crossing the overflow...what was your plan there. I hate overflow too.
    Beside wishing Beat was walking with you, what else did you wish you had ?
    What happened to all your P.O. drop boxes along the way?
    Would you consider walking with a buddy?

    Thank you and keep writing.


Feedback is always appreciated!