Saturday, April 04, 2020

Last days of innocence — day five

March 6, 2020. Puntilla Lake, Alaska. 21 below and overcast. 

Again 4 a.m. arrived. I emerged from my down cocoon to a bunkhouse overflowing with people. There were sleeping bags spread on the floor, sprawled over the couch, and presumably filling all twelve bunk beds. Inches from my own head was the head of a man slumped in a chair, neck bent awkwardly over the back rest. I'd slept the sleep of the dead for close to eight hours again, and felt guilty about my part in crowding out the others. But wow, did I appreciate the rest. 

Rising from such sleep to my waking existence in a battered body was still its own subtle form of torture, but this was gradually becoming my normal. As I sat up from my sleeping bag, I examined my feet and legs. The edema did seem to be subsiding, and I could almost see my ankles. On this morning, however, I found a fist-sized, goose-egg bruise and large scratch across my left knee. Dried blood was smeared down my shin. When did that happen? I scoured my memory but had no recollection of bashing my knee. Had I been sleepwalking? The cause of this injury would remain a mystery. 

4 a.m. was go time for at least half of the reclined bodies, and soon the cabin was bustling with activity. I gathered up my many pieces of clothing that I'd strewn about, panicking when I briefly lost track of my pants. Damn, I thought — I've got to come up with a better system when I hang my stuff to dry in checkpoints. Losing my only pair of pants would be bad. Before dressing, I stepped outside to check the thermometer on my sled and grab packets of instant coffee. It was still 20 below. The cold air felt nice on my mysteriously bruised knee. My fingers stiffened and shoulders quaked as I rifled through my duffle, and I grinned as my heart began to pound.

I'll admit this is one of my favorite sensations — the thrill of a deep subzero chill on bare skin when it poses no danger, because I'm close to safety. It's quite another thing when I'm alone with only meager supplies and my own body heat, many miles from the nearest shelter. For this reason I chose to relish the cold while I could, darting from my sled to the outhouse, squatting over the hole as a frigid breeze stung my backside, and returning to the cabin once solid shivering set in. I'd stayed outside a few minutes too long, and it took several minutes of pacing and convulsing through my dressing routine before I emerged from this mildly hypothermic state. I poured hot water into coffee and instant oatmeal, then sat in the last available folding chair to savor my meager breakfast while the flurry of activity continued around me. 

Once I was outside for good and hooked to my sled, the playfulness faded and reality clamped down. My legs may have been less swollen, but they still felt disconcertingly heavy. And that knee bruise, however it happened, was real. The joint had become painfully stiff. My wrist hurt. My head was foggy, my shoulders pinched with pain. Of course these are the physical realities one must accept during such endeavors — hike 30 to 40 miles each day through soft snow with a fifty-pound sled, and most bodies will begin to break down. You'd think I'd be okay with this by now, but it's always hard to accept.

Pain is one aspect of endurance racing that memory always manages to scrub, at least well enough to convince ourselves to return, again and again. But in the midst of it all, if we let it, the pain can become a cacophony, overwhelming any beauty or wonder that we might otherwise experience. So we choose to mute it, at least as best as we can, with whatever coping mechanisms we've found, because the beauty and wonder is what we're here for. Over weeks and months the pain subsides, yet the beauty and wonder remain. Ultimately what we've learned is that we can overcome pain. It's a beautiful realization in itself, a kind of innate understanding that when pain or difficulty finds us in our real lives back home, we'll recognize our own power over it.

The next 18 miles would bring a long climb into the Ptarmigan Valley, dipping into a few drainages, crossing the headwaters of the Happy River, before veering into a narrow canyon that would carry us over a minor crest in the Alaska Range at Rainy Pass. On this morning the trail was in fantastic shape — hard-packed enough that I didn't need snowshoes, although still punchy at random intervals, and of course like sandpaper against my sled at 20 below. Throughout the day, most of the bikers who spent the night at the Puntilla Lake bunkhouse passed me. This photo is George and Graham, the Kiwi duo. They both looked a little punched when they stopped to ask me if I was all right.

"Just taking photos," I said, holding my camera out to show them that my frequent stops had nothing to do with distress. "It's such a beautiful morning."

With that, George and Graham faded into the distance. Their enviable speeds ignited some mild resentment that smoldered throughout the day. I promised myself that never, ever, would I return for a another attempt of this trail on foot. Never again. Even if I didn't make it to Nome this year. I wanted the bike and the freedom. Even if I had to spend a lot more time honing my mechanical skills so I could adequately take care of it in subzero conditions. And even if I had to push the bike a bunch, I'd still be able to ride it sometimes. This 2 mph continuous slog without end ... this kind of stuff is for the birds. Well, actually that's a terrible analogy because birds can fly. What was I thinking?

Still, it was a beautiful morning. Moments like this also remind me why I do in fact love the 2 mph slog. I felt completely immersed in this place — vigilant, vulnerable, and 100-percent present. I plodded across terrain that I could feel with every muscle in my body and breathed air that was both metallic and sweet in my throat. I watched sunlight emerge through a film of cloud cover, casting the most interesting light over an otherworldly landscape.

Most of the light this morning was blue and gray, but these patches of pink were mesmerizing.

Sunrise over a far peak. I actually stopped and waited a short time for the light to spread, but it just kissed the mountain and then faded.

Once the sun was up, only overcast skies remained. More bikers passed. I was feeling far too much wheel envy on this day, so I tried to remind myself what I had going for me. Lots of time to look around! No dealing with flat tires at 20 below! I can wear snowshoes when the powder is deep! My sled is heavy but not quite as heavy as a loaded bike! But my legs. My shoulders. This depth of fatigue when I'm not even over Rainy Pass yet. I don't remember being this tired before, even in 2018 when I was still hyperthyroid and coping with much worse asthma than I have right now. Of course, the painful memories are always the first to fade.

I did feel indescribably lucky to be back in the Ptarmigan Valley, this incredibly beautiful and remote piece of the world. And it was fun that so many others were climbing up the pass at the same time. All of us lowly humans from all over the world, operating under our own power, more than a hundred miles from the nearest road, ascending the Alaska Range of all things. The Alaska Range!

Five miles before the pass, the trail veered right into the narrow canyon surrounding Pass Creek. Here the trail becomes steeper and walled in by rocky slopes and avalanche gullies. The mountain pass is a volatile place, a watershed divide where warm and moist air from the coast meets the dry, cold climate of the Interior. More often than not, Rainy Pass is inundated with strong winds and brutally cold storms. For the past two days, that's all I'd been hearing about — temperatures of 40 below, winds gusting to 40 mph, racers setting out and then retreating back to Puntilla Lake. I carried my own plan to retreat if the similar windchills remained — I know how long exposure lasts up here at 2 mph, and I wasn't willing to take the risk. But then, somehow, on this fifth morning of the race, the weather shifted in my favor. The breeze was gentle and temperatures were warming rapidly beneath overcast skies, and yet there was still enough sunshine to cast beautiful light on the stark landscape.

It occurred to me that this was now my fifth ascent of Rainy Pass, and I have yet to see a bad day in these mountains. How such a savage place could so gently let me pass not just once, but five times, seemed serendipitous to the point of divine intervention. I know I'm not special, just lucky ... but if I was going to have one good day on the Iditarod Trail this year, I was happy it was here. This post already has a lot of photos, but it was fun to look back on past journeys through these mountains:

2008 — heading to McGrath with a bike. I was such a baby then, so innocent and naive. A harrowing night awaited me on the other side of the pass, but in this moment I was still holding a solid pace, feeling strong, and riding one of the most incredible highs of my life. I was crossing the Alaska Range! Alone! Me! As you can see it was a nice morning, about zero degrees and sunny with no wind. I was working up a good sweat.

2014 — McGrath on foot with Beat. We also shared the crossing with friends Steve Ansell, Tim and Loreen Hewitt, and Rick Freeman. This was my most relaxed trip over the pass, a regular group hike on a sunny summer day. The temperature hit 48 degrees in Rohn that afternoon.

2016 — Nome with a bike. My bike was really heavy. I was lucky to have a warm day with reasonably firm trail to cross Rainy Pass. (The trail was punchy, windblown, and mostly a hike-a-bike uphill, but these were still the best trail conditions I've seen on Rainy.) Temperatures climbed into the 30s during the day, warm enough that I stopped for twenty minutes to take off my boots and socks so I could air out my toes as I picnicked in the sunshine.

2018 — McGrath on foot. I was celebrating with Bernadette and feeling pretty chuffed about hauling our wheezy selves this far. Temperatures were a bit below zero, but skies were clear with no wind.

2020 — Nome attempt on foot. Same spot, same day of the week, probably close to the same time of day as 2018. Temperatures were warming rapidly as a storm moved in from the south, and I believe it was already above zero at this point. Still no wind. I was now five for five on lovely weather over Rainy Pass. I considered this a good omen.

By the time I started down the pass, I was feeling punched. It's true — no matter how great the weather or trail conditions, it's still a long, steep haul to climb Rainy Pass. I stumbled a bit, started to feel cold, stopped to put on my fleece jacket, ate an entire chocolate bar (yes, one of the big ones) and still my mood deteriorated. Race director Kyle and another volunteer, Craig, rode past on their snowmobiles. I commented on the nice day and fantastic trail but added that I was already bracing for the next storm. Not only could I feel it coming with the warming temperatures and moisture in the air, but I'd checked my Garmin InReach and knew about the dire prediction for Saturday: "Heavy snow. 8 to 12 inches. High 29, low 12."

"It's only going to be about an inch of snow," Kyle responded. I just shook my head and said nothing. I believed my InReach. Weather forecasts are usually wrong, unless they're bad. Then they're probably right.

As I continued to wend toward the Dalzell Gorge, I finally connected with Beat on his satellite phone. He told me he was beyond the Post River, so almost solidly a day ahead of me at this point. I expected as much. We chatted for several minutes, mostly about our plans, and I admitted I was struggling with physical depletion.

"It's a hard year; it will get better," Beat assured me. In this, I only heard another version of Kyle's "It's only going to be about an inch of snow." Nice wishful thinking ... almost certainly untrue.

After I got of the phone with Beat, I cried for at least five minutes. Mostly for no specific reason, but my emotions had congealed and it was comforting to indulge in a dam release. I spent the rest of the descent through the Dalzell Gorge laughing out loud while listening to old episodes of the "Ten Junk Miles" podcast. I want those people to be my friends.

By early evening I dropped onto the wind-scoured ice of the Tatina River. A stiff headwind moved through the river corridor, and I started to shiver. I always dread these four miles on the Tatina, a mountain river with volatile ice conditions. Weather and trail conditions notwithstanding, these river traverses near Rohn are probably some of the more dangerous miles of the entire trail. Beat had warned me there was "a little bit of overflow" on the Tatina. Sure enough, about a mile down the river, I came upon patches of blue slush and broken shelf ice.

For about 15 minutes I had watched the silhouette of a person pacing back and forth. By the time I reached their position, I found Amber about a hundred yards off trail, sitting on a gravel bar and pulling on her waders. She told me she'd scouted for a way around the open water, but didn't find anything that looked safe — there was just more open water on either side. Amber paused and looked to me. I think she expected that I'd know what to do. Mostly what I wanted to do was pee my pants and cry, because I really, really, dislike the idea of crossing overflow on the Tatina. Any open water on this river could be masking a deep channel or an eddy, a place where one could plausibly crash through thin ice, plunge into the fast-flowing current and be carried beneath the ice to a watery demise. Of course, I realize this is just one of my fears that I must overcome, because I'm here and I don't have a choice. I appreciate when life gives me no choice but to face a fear. It's empowering, if just a little bit traumatizing.

Since Amber had already donned her waders, she went first. I held back, because if she crashed through the ice I would need to help her ... although, I admit, I was quietly relieved at her willingness to be the guinea pig. In the late afternoon light, the slush had the appearance of a blue raspberry slurpee. She waded through shin-deep sludge and suddenly crashed into a hole. I yelped, but thankfully she only plunged to mid-thigh depth ... although it was nearly to the top of her waders, and no doubt must have scared her at least as much as it scared me. After Amber reached the other side, I yelled that she should continue walking because it was cold and windy. Instead, she waited as I pulled on my waders and made my way across, following her line until the hole, where I veered around and managed to remain in shallower water.

We kept our waders on for another half mile, until we were sure we were past the overflow, and walked together the rest of the way to Rohn. We arrived just as the light finally dimmed enough to require headlamps — close to 8 p.m. Amber pointed out the friendly Christmas lights strung along the public use cabin.

"That's not for us," I said. "That's for us," and pointed to the crooked canvas tent on the other side of the clearing. Four ITI volunteers, including Kyle and Craig, were gathered around a grill out front, drinking beer from plastic cups as though this were a summer barbecue. Greg the skier was standing in the circle with them, knocking back shots of Fireball.

"You did it, you made it to Rohn!" I exclaimed. A big grin spread across his face and he nodded.

Adrien, one of the volunteers, pushed the bottle of Fireball toward me.

"No, no, I don't want any of that right now," I said.

"Beat had two shots," he chided me. I could see by Greg's drunken demeanor that the peer pressure was being laid on thick here. Of course, no doubt all of us looked and felt a little drunk by this point.

"OK, fine, I'll have some in hot chocolate. Just a little."

Amber and I plopped down on the bed of straw laid across the small tent. Two Italian cyclists had already claimed spots for the night, and there wasn't much space left. I'd already decided that I preferred to sleep outside, but it would be nice to stay close to Rohn so I could dry my shoes and collect hot water in the morning. Adrien served two brats on a napkin, along with the hot Tang I requested and the hot chocolate he promised. He'd poured a ton of Fireball into that hot chocolate. It burned like flames in my throat, but after gulping it down, I felt nothing. There wasn't even a hint of a buzz. My body had become its own inferno, metabolizing calories with such rapidity that I didn't even have time to feel the effects of the alcohol.

Amber and I claimed spots about a hundred yards from the tent, and I settled in for a nice night under the stars. Except there were no stars, as the sky had become entirely overcast. Flurries were already wafting through the air. My thermometer said it was 10 degrees. I checked my InReach for good measure, but the forecast was unchanged. I nestled into my sleeping bag, figuring I'd do a short night for real this time — it was a little after 9 p.m., and I set an alarm for 2 a.m. — because tomorrow was going to be a long, long day. 


  1. This entry describes the calm before the snow storm! Can't wait to read about how you coped with the blizzard. Your strength of both body and mind is admirable. Do you take painkillers with you to treat your injuries?


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