Monday, April 06, 2020

Last days of innocence — day six

March 7, 2020. Rohn, Alaska. 12 degrees and overcast. 

I don't enjoy winter camping. There. I've said it. What I enjoy is moving through wintry landscapes, feeling powerful against the cold, absorbing beauty and wonder while generating my own bubble of comfort and warmth. Sleep is one of the biological necessities of being out for days on end. And of course, after long hours of sled-hauling, it feels incredible to remove the weight from my sore limbs and temporarily fade from consciousness. But once I crawl into a sleeping bag, movement ceases and my personal bubble of protection bursts. Suddenly I'm dependent on these inert materials that I don't quite trust. I smother myself in nylon and down until it's difficult to breathe. Then I open the bag ever so slightly to allow a tight funnel of air. The feel of this frigid air is sinister, but I crave oxygen so I must ignore an innate sense of danger. In order to shut out the anxiety and get some sleep, I need to be fully exhausted. 

In Rohn, exhaustion and mild dehydration let me remain unconscious in my bag for nearly five hours. When the 2 a.m. alarm sounded, I felt disoriented and desperately thirsty. I sat up, let the cold slap of air jostle me into awareness, then jumped up quickly to generate heat. I jogged in place to thrash away the grogginess and then fumbled through packing up my gear. My fingers tingled as I worked. The thermometer informed me that it was 12 degrees, which is pretty warm. I smirked and shook my head at my own ineptitude. 

"If I liked winter camping, I would probably be better at this," I thought. 

After packing I jogged a few hundred yards to the Rohn cook tent to collect the things I'd hung to dry overnight — shoes, socks and waders — and quickly gulp down coffee and instant oatmeal before refilling my thermos with hot Tang. Amber had chosen to wake up at the same time. We shared the groggy minutes with Kyle, who seemed to have taken on the job of 2 a.m. checkpoint watch, but mostly sat on the straw and stared blankly into space. The rest of the tent was crowded with sleepers, as I'd expected, which is one of the reasons I opted for the peace and quiet of an outside camp. 

As I packed up to leave, a few flurries wafted through the air, but there wasn't any new snow on the ground. The InReach weather forecast offered an hourly assessment that predicted the snow wouldn't begin until 2 p.m. I believed this, and hoped to make good mileage before the blizzard began in force. I struggled to start moving. Grogginess remained and I hadn't rehydrated as well as I should have in Rohn. Still, as soon as I hit the glare ice of the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River, I dug in my studded shoes and marched with purpose. The South Fork is another volatile mountain river that I fear, but it did feel incredible to move across a hard surface, hauling a suddenly weightless sled as it glided effortlessly across the ice.

After two miles of river ice, the trail veered onto the shoreline, where it would roll in and out of steep drainages for the next 15 miles before wrapping around Egypt Mountain and descending toward the Farewell Lakes. The trail through the forest was soft and punched with moose tracks. Moose-a-noia kept me in silence for a couple of hours, but my consciousness began to flag, and the sleep monster demanded that I find a distraction. I chose music — specifically Grimes' latest album, "Miss Anthropocene" — and fixated on an upbeat song that spoke to the surreal time of day and place through which I moved, "4ÆM."

"I'm out late at 4 a.m.
He says, 'How's the weather, baby? How've you been?'
You're gonna get sick — you don't know when
I never doubt it at 4 a.m. ..."

As the chorus repeated itself again and again — because I'd put the song on repeat — I became more reflective. It seems prescient now, only because I'd been so distracted by my own adventure, but I had been thinking about this issue earlier. On the day we flew from Denver to Anchorage, which was Feb. 27, I'd come across a long essay published in Smithsonian Magazine in 2017 that I spent much of our layover at the Seattle airport reading. It described in captivating detail the 1918 flu pandemic. From that article I followed links to another long essay which drew parallels to the novel coronavirus. This author speculated that eventually 40 to 70 percent of the global population would contract this virus, and the implications were unknown but almost certainly devastating. I remember shutting my laptop as we boarded our plane and thinking, "Wow. It's coming."

Of course, on Feb. 27, the notion of a global pandemic was still abstract. There had already been an outbreak in Washington state, so we knew the virus had arrived in the United States, but it still seemed plausible that it could be contained. I thought about the article on and off as I went about my pre-race preparations. Still, it was easy to put it out of my mind. I had my own immediate concerns to address. By the time the race started on March 1, I wasn't thinking about the issue at all.

Now, as I traversed a landscape devastated by recent wildfires and surrounded by stark mountains and ominous skies, Grimes' heart-pumping beats and nihilistic lyrics stirred up week-old reflections about a vague, unknowable future that was probably closer than it seemed. I still thought about the issue in abstract ways. My trains of thought were frequently fractured and my intelligence was undermined by fatigue. I remember thinking about my experience with pneumonia in 2015, which I contracted in part because I was headstrong and reckless during the Tour Divide. One takeaway during these abstract reflections was, "We need to be strong. Right now I'm not strong."

Indeed, any illusions of strength and energy were elusive. I was struggling to hoist myself up every hill. As I write this post exactly one month later, memory has already scrubbed some of the specific pains I was experiencing. But I can still recall one particular hill, climbing away from the Post River. At the time I was following closely behind the Italian cyclists. From the top of the previous hill, I watched as they shimmied up a vertical-looking slope, precariously perched almost underneath their bicycles as they pushed. Witnessing this, I resolved to get a running start, and bounded recklessly down the slope as my knees locked with each impact and my sled weaved erratically. Near the bottom, I was distracted by a massive gut pile left behind by bison hunters, and lost momentum before hitting the wall. My quad muscles seemed to give out as my back strained against gravity. The sled yanked me backward and I lost my balance, briefly flailing as though I might tip over backward, before lunging forward and slamming my bruised  knee into a wind-scoured patch of frozen dirt. This pain I remember, along with the cause of it — I was too weak to boost myself up a hill, so I had to use my injured knee as an anchor. When I recount this moment it sounds trivial, but at the time it felt like I was slowly losing control, and it was unnerving.

Endurance racing is a paradox. We pursue these challenges to prove to ourselves that we have strength and resilience, that we can rise above weaknesses and overcome difficulties. But the act of pushing limits requires exactly that — venturing close to physical and mental edges. Tumbling over the precipice is always a risk. My experiences in 2015 and beyond have proven this to me, beyond doubt. And I admit, even as I continue to enthusiastically pursue endurance racing, I have pondered consequences and costs I might no longer be able to afford. I do so while acknowledging that a life scrubbed of risk and uncertainty, a life of bland inertia and unimaginative stability, a life as void of joy as it is of pain, is the last thing I want, for anyone. Life — forever a paradox.

I'm prone to existential crises in the best of times. One reason among many that I pursue endurance efforts is because intense activity forces me into a more focused plane of existence, where I must direct my usual overabundance of mental energy toward immediate concerns. Once my motivating Grimes kick lost its effectiveness, my immediate concern was flagging energy. I switched off the music and returned to an audio book of "The Sun is a Compass," but I wasn't listening. Instead I watched gray skies deepen as snow flurries picked up in intensity and began to accumulate on the trail. For the rest of the day I no longer thought about the abstract future or even walking to Nome; I only thought about my next steps into a snowy wilderness that might as well be eternal.

Along a five-mile-long flat stretch crossing the Farewell Lakes, some 25 miles into the day, I was finally caught by Greg the skier. He was badly hungover from too much whiskey in Rohn, and provided some comic relief with a lighthearted attitude about his sorry physical state. He'd already reached his goal — Rob's Roadhouse in Rohn — and now was just slogging through the mandatory victory march to McGrath. Motivation was low but spirits were high. He said he was going to stop soon for a meal or an eight-hour nap; he hadn't quite decided. My plan was to not stop at all until I reached Bear Creek Cabin. Not even one of my thirty-second sled slumps, because with my own level of fatigue and flagging motivation, I couldn't trust myself to not let one of those short rests turn into minutes or hours. Snow was coming down hard and it was warm, 28 degrees. These are some of the most difficult camping conditions, because it's almost impossible to prevent gear and shoes and stoves and pretty much everything from becoming soaked. I was determined to reach that cabin.

Near the end of the last Farewell lake, I told Greg I expected eight more miles of rolling hills to the former site of Bison Camp, where the trail finally drops from the foothills onto an expansive river plain. It turned out to be closer to ten miles, which became a frustrating miscalculation when each small hill renewed a demoralizing struggle. A persistent wind whipped the accumulating snowflakes into a frenzy, prompting me to don my hated goggles for a few hours. I was grumpy, and that was before I connected with Beat on his satellite phone. He told me no one had broken the mile-long offshoot trail to Bear Creek cabin, and the snowpack was so deep that there was no way to access the shelter. Now I understood that I'd be camping in the wet snow, whether I liked it or not.

Sullenly, I descended into the Farewell Burn, a place that long ago was barren and dry, but now hosts an impossibly thick spruce forest and many feet of snow. For the first ten miles beyond Bison Camp it's difficult to even find an open spot to camp among the practically interlocking tree branches. More swamps begin to open up around the Bear Creek intersection, so that's where I planned to camp. I restarted "The Sun is a Compass" because I hadn't been listening, but I still wasn't listening. Instead my staccato thoughts jumped through past memories of the Farewell Burn, both distant — the barren, frigid wasteland — and recent — the snow-choked leg-trap.

At least five inches of snow had accumulated by the time I heard the whine of a snowmobile for the first time all day. I assumed it was race director Kyle and Craig, but in fact it was the Iditarod Sled Dog Race trailbreakers, a team of six high-powered snowmobiles dragging massive trailers. Where they caught me, the trail was so narrow that I had to stop, unhook from my harness, lift my sled onto a chest-high berm, and them climb up there myself so they could pass.

I was overjoyed to see them. I'd had some suspicion they'd pass, since Iditarod trailbreakers had caught me near the same spot in 2018. That year, I had been banking on a quiet night at the cabin and was annoyed when I realized I'd have to share with six loud-partying men. This year, however, I acknowledged that the trailbreakers were my ticket to shelter. They presumably were heading out tho Bear Creek, so they'd break in the trail and I'd be able to follow. I knew they wouldn't be thrilled to share the small space with freeloaders like me, Greg and likely others, but such is the way of public shelter cabins in Interior Alaska.

After they passed, I also enjoyed the still-soft but much smoother trail that they'd broken. A mile later, Asbjorn skied up from behind as though I was standing still. He glided to a stop beside me and offered a piece of chocolate, which I declined, then proceeded to relax and munch on his chocolate for several minutes before zipping past again. After another mile Greg passed, and then I caught up to a walker, Robert. It was going to be tight in that cabin, but I didn't mind. It was dry in there. The trailbreakers were hauling a sled full of firewood, so presumably it would also be warm. Just unbelievable luxury.

Around 9:30 p.m. I arrived at the intersection, where it was clear the path had been recently plowed — the trench was nearly neck-deep in spots, and the trail surface was choppy. It took me nearly a half hour to make my way down to the cabin. By 10 p.m., snow was coming down so heavily that I could barely see a few meters away. Much of my upper body was caked in this wet snow. The buckle on my sled harness had collected so much ice that I couldn't release it. Eventually I just wriggled out of the shoulder straps and stepped over the harness, forgetting that I was still wearing my snowshoes, which caught on the straps and sent me tumbling headlong into a five-foot-deep drift just off the cabin's porch. I thrashed out of the drift, spitting and swearing. Powder had found its way into my ears and up both nostrils. My clothing was now fully saturated in wet snow. Yikes.

"Thank god I'm not setting up camp right now," I thought.

The interior of the cabin was stiflingly hot. The trailbreakers had gathered around the small table with playing cards, beers, and a giant bag of fun-sized candy bars from Costco — dinner, they told us. The four ITI folks set to a flurry of activity, melting snow for water and spreading out our wet clothing across the cabin. The trailbreakers watched us, bemused.

"You guys sure have to work hard at night," one observed.

Another pointed out that all of their water — 16-ounce plastic bottles also from Costco — had frozen solid. But hey, they had plenty of beer.

Cognizant of the many hazards in the crowded cabin, I slipped outside to fire up my stove so I could heat water for freeze-dried chicken and noodles. My initial instinct had been to just plop down in my sleeping bag and pass out. But my blood sugar had dipped so low that my hands were shaking, and given my struggles with strength, I knew I couldn't afford to skip a meal. It was quiet outside, the kind of saturated silence that accompanies falling snow. My toes tingled. While stumbling around the newly broken trail to collect snow for melting, I managed to break through into some kind of overflow, and now both of my down booties were soaked. I figured I could dry them overnight, and just let my feet remain sopping wet as I dangled my legs over the edge of the porch, softly singing a random Roxette song that had plopped itself in my head.

Lay a whisper on my pillow 
Leave the winter on the ground 
I wake up lonely, this air of silence 
In the bedroom and all around.

 And then, more loudly, knowing the commotion inside shielded me from judgement:

"It must have been love
It must have been good
But I lost it somehow ..."

My voice was ragged and hoarse, my singing terrible, and I don't think I remembered these lyrics quite correctly. But the comic relief was worth it. I felt better already, and I hadn't even eaten yet. Since I'd arrived less a half hour earlier, more than an inch of powder had already accumulated on my sled. Based on the forecast I'd checked a few hours earlier, there was a good chance it wouldn't let up until morning.

"There could be a foot of new snow by then," I thought.

Back in the cabin, I joined Asbjorn, Robert, and two of the trailbreakers as we squeezed together into the small loft, which was designated for gear only and probably not designed to support five full-sized humans. Robert asked when I planned to wake up.

"Whenever they get up," I replied, nodding toward the trailbreakers. "The trail is probably going to be buried by morning; seems pointless to leave early and have to break trail, when we know they'll pass by eventually."

The temperature in the loft must have been 90 degrees. I cracked a small window and sprawled on top of my bag. My earworm — more comforting than annoying — lulled me to a sweaty sleep.

"And it's a hard
winter's day. 
I dream away ..."


  1. great read so far looking forward to the next installment, headlong into the snowdrift made me chuckle,Herculean effort considering all the scratches this year. what is that picture four, bottom left hand corner?

    1. Bison carcass. Bunch of bison hunting groups out there this year.


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