Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Even death just may not be

The 2022 Iditarod Trail Invitational. Part two of four.

Rainy Pass, 2022

I was surprised it was already 6 a.m. when I finally woke up, blinking in confusion. What year was it? Where was I? The small cabin was quiet, but the wood stove was warm with recently stoked flames. I pulled on my clothes and stumbled over to the lodge. Becca and Bobbette soon joined me for breakfast. Bobbette had a small amount of reception on her phone so we took turns checking the weather and scrolling through Trackleaders. 

 “Oh shit, Beat’s only about three miles away,” I announced. "He’s going to lecture me about being lazy.” 

This is true — if Beat caught up with me when I had a bike and he was on foot, with trails as good as they’d been, he’d undoubtedly tease me about sleeping too much. I wanted to see him but also felt shame about snoozing for 11 hours, so I packed up quickly and left. 

Soft trails and a hint of pink morning light

The trail remained windblown and punchy, cutting across open swamps with brief diversions into patchy spruce forests. If I could maintain my momentum the front wheel would plow through the drifts, but it became more difficult to generate this kind of power. I certainly felt better after 11 hours of sleep, but not as great as I deserved to feel. Bobbette and Becca soon passed, and then I was riding near Robert for a bit. I stopped three or four times to let air out of my tires and pump them up again. I couldn’t decide where the sweet spot landed. Probably nowhere. 

Robert May with the Alaska Range in the distance.

The morning was stunning though — cloudy overhead with strips of ethereal light illuminating the sharp summits of the Alaska Range. This is the point where the mountains become close, and it always feels like a monumental threshold. It’s also a place where the wind always blows — a ceaseless and eternal wind, of this I am convinced. The trail was coated in several inches of spindrift, enough to make riding more arduous than my legs could handle. I could see bootprints in the snow and took some comfort in this evidence that I wasn’t the only person walking. The distant silhouette of Robert pushing his bike also brought a sense of camaraderie. 

The checkpoint at Finger Lake, a wall tent with a view

 The tent at Finger Lake was fairly empty in the mid-afternoon, at least relative to past experiences of squeezing into that drafty and basically unheated wall tent at midnight. Bobbette and Becca were still there. Robert and Ethan had rejoined forces. Lindsay, a 70-something Canadian adventure hero, was sitting on a bundle of hay and telling stories to apparently no one, as his partner Phil had gone outside.  Troy, a four-time Nome finisher from Australia, was sitting cross-legged on the floor. Troy apparently left Finger Lake several hours earlier and then returned to the checkpoint, but spoke as though he had no issues and was getting ready to head back out. I didn’t ask questions. 

I unzipped my pant legs to expose bare shins and feet, then propped my legs up on two of the three available chairs while taking mouse bites from an enormous burrito. My stomach was clenched and churning; I could only handle the tiniest of mouthfuls, but I promised myself I wouldn’t leave until I’d finished the thing. Maybe if I was lucky, I'd lose consciousness and end up on a helicopter back to Anchorage. I wasn’t having a bad time, really, but I was so tired. Did endurance biking always leave me this tired? I felt old, but Lindsay and his loud, enthusiastic demeanor openly defied the little voice that told me it was time to retire. And to be fair, Beth and I were the babies in the women's bike field at age 42, which blows my mind.

A perfect half-mile of trail skirts around Red Lake

I managed to both finish my burrito and maintain consciousness, but it was long after everyone but Troy left. He now had his socks off and seemed settled in, so I packed up to set out alone. As expected, the trail was in fantastic shape for the one mile where Winter Lake Lodge runs sled dog tours. Just beyond the Red Lake turnaround, the Iditarod Trail deteriorated into a foot-stomped morass. The next 30 miles cut across steep and rolling terrain to climb into the Alaska Range. The trail here is seldom used and usually windblown. I expect this section to take 10 to 12 hours whether I have a bike or not — basically, I already expected to walk the entire way, so I wasn’t too bothered by poor trail conditions. 

Just before the climb out of Red Lake

I pushed up the long hill and wove across narrow swamps. The punchy trail, broken solely by bikers and skiers since the most recent snow, looked potentially rideable at super low tire pressure. I decided to test my hypothesis. Sure enough, nearly flat tires glided over the morass like a rolling pin over mashed potatoes — that is, the wheels would roll if I pedaled hard enough. This was predictably a lot of work. 

Everything about riding this trail was a lot of work. I was beginning to understand that the energy demands of ceaselessly high-resistance surfaces were the reason I was so tired. My muscles weren't trained to pedal near their threshold all day without relief. It didn’t even matter how much I slept or how many enormous burritos I consumed because as soon as I started pedaling, my body instantly became overtaxed. I had to engage my highest internal gears just to keep the 70-something-pound bike rolling. It was like attempting to power a tractor with a Toyota Camry engine. Four-cylinder. 

This section is exhausting but it is beautiful

And yes, some would criticize me for bringing so much gear and loading my bike with arguably more weight than I could handle. It was "only" the race to McGrath. But those critics weren’t there with me in 2020 when my brain lost the plot at 45 below zero, after days of trail and weather conditions that challenged even the most experienced Nome racers. The "short" race offers no guarantees that you won't have to manage the worst Alaska can throw at you. The more experience I gain, the more I realize what it truly means to rely on only myself in the wilderness. And the more I understand what this means, the more lifelines I carry. 

The view west from Shirley Lake

I’ve never quite understood those who insist that more experience should result in fewer reasons to "pack my fears," as though accumulating years’ worth of scars should placate fears rather than create more. The former ITI race director, Bill Merchant, coined a phrase now popular in the community: “We go into the Alaska wilderness to find cracks in ourselves. We go back a year later to see if we’ve done something about them.” Like others who repeat this saying, I used to believe that “doing something” meant fixing my cracks. Now I believe the opposite. So why return to Alaska, if the experience is only going to deepen and widen my cracks? There’s also a saying about cracks being where the light gets in. 

The face of someone who is feeling pretty cracked.

As I battled my abundant weaknesses, late afternoon light saturated the towering peaks. Whenever I’m here, standing beneath the steep canyon walls surrounding the Skwentna River, I’m convinced this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been — probably because my fissured mind is so receptive to light. Winding my way to the Happy River had been a frustrating affair. Where the trail cut through the woods, Iron Dog snowmachines had chewed the surface into a minefield of moguls. The ripples were often so steep that it became nearly impossible to ride. The tiered descent down the Happy River Steps involved lowering my bike by hand down a vertical embankment, an action I might compare to trying to lower a 70-pound sack of cement from the roof of a single-story home to the ground without breaking it. My shoulders were screaming.

The view from the Skwentna River at its confluence with the Happy River. A perennially favorite place.

I was swearing up a storm on the Steps, but all was forgiven once I dropped onto the river ice. Big views returned. Sunlight filtered through a low ceiling of clouds, shimmering from every fleck of snow. My heart fluttered as I pedaled across the snow-covered ice. It's a short-lived respite of bliss before the long climb out of the Skwentna, where the trail leaves this river behind for good. In past years, the river embankment formed a nearly vertical wall that had been scraped to ice and dirt by snowmachines. I barely got my sled up it in 2020, so I was prepared to break down my heavy bike and carry my gear up the embankment in stages. This year, heavy machinery had bulldozed the trail to a manageable grade. It was still a steep push, but by becoming doable rather than impossible, this year's climb out of the Happy River Steps felt like cheating.

Still a seldom-traveled trail. 

In my exhausted state, an easy out should have been a relief, but the bulldozed trail soured my mood. This meant the ice road was expanding. “The ice road” refers to the West Susitna Access Road, a project that would provide road access to a mining district at the foot of the Alaska Range. While the route doesn’t follow the Iditarod Trail precisely, there are enough parallels that the 100-mile largely private mining road would all but destroy the wilderness experience of the trail. Most people in the Iditarod community strongly oppose this development, which will have heavy environmental as well as local economic impacts. But it seems to be going forward, and just like an enormous dam expansion project near my home in Boulder, I feel resigned to witness the bulldozing of places that I love. 

Another view from Shirley Lake

This sadness feels like a widening crack in myself. As I pushed my bike up the wide-tracked path, another figurative scar opened. To soothe the sadness and fatigue, I indulged in nostalgia. I gazed up at vistas and tried to remember what I was experiencing "in this place in 2008.” My memories of this first year on the Iditarod Trail remain the sharpest, as often happens with life's most intense experiences. That year, I left Finger Lake at dusk and traveled most of this section in the dark. I didn’t see any of these gorgeous mountains; what I did see were menacing woods and endless hills. I remember dropping onto Shirley Lake, still 15 very slow miles from the Puntilla Lake checkpoint, and thinking I was “almost there.” 

Finn Bear Lake

Now, arriving at the lake an hour before sunset, I knew the ceaseless hills between here and Puntilla meant I would be lucky to arrive before midnight. Indeed, the hill dividing Shirley and Finn Bear lakes might as well be a wall. The grade is nearly vertical. I didn’t break down my heavy bike to climb the hill, but I should have. Instead, I spent long minutes kicking platforms into the snow so I could anchor my boots before chest-pressing the bike with all of the strength I could muster. Then I'd grab the brakes, catch my breath, and repeat the steps. At the top of the hill, my shoulders and calves burned with such force that I needed to sit down for a 15-minute break, taking tiny sips of water while I waited for my muscles to stop cramping. 

“Achievement unlocked,” I mumbled as self-encouragement. I thought about how, in real life, pushing a bike up a small hill would be such a trivial thing as to hardly matter. But out here, where forward motion is my only means of survival, each step is everything. 

One more Finn Bear view

The trail continued along a bench high above the Happy River gorge. This section follows a ceaseless ripple of drainages, plunging into and steeply out of wooded gulleys. A lot of the trail is rideable if you’re feeling strong, but again, you have to feel pretty damn strong. My expectations were set low and my legs had started protesting loudly, so was happy to hike. I scanned the sky for Northern Lights and listened to “The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven” on Audible. I don’t typically read fiction, but this novel held me rapt with its descriptions of the beauty and isolation of the Arctic. My concentration shifted from the ache in my shoulders to the brilliant night sky. 

Puntilla Lake at dawn

I arrived at Puntilla Lake around 11 p.m., again the last in a large conglomeration of cyclists. In past years, the lodge offered a historic trapper’s cabin as a checkpoint. It was dilapidated, but I actually sort of miss that tiny log building that leaked snowmelt onto my head. The trapper's cabin finally collapsed three years ago, so the lodge built a spacious bunkhouse with two wood stoves. On this night, the bunkhouse interior was heated to at least 85 degrees. Nearly every bunk was full. As I shined my headlamp through the darkness in search of an open bed, I cast a spotlight on a man sleeping in the nude, legs fully splayed. I’m certainly not a prude but the unexpected full-frontal caught me by surprise and caused me to let out an unexpectedly loud "eep."

 “Ah, probably one of the Italians,” I thought with a smirk. I threw a few items on a top bunk in the corner and waited for a meal to rehydrate while I sat and savored hot chocolate. I was 100% content; there was nowhere I’d rather be. It is interesting how wide emotions can swing during these endeavors. I didn’t admit this earlier because it didn’t fit the narrative of happy hiking, but there was more than one hill after Finn Bear Lake that reduced me to exhausted tears. Now I was spooning noodles from a bag and averting my eyes from potential nudity — in other words, paradise.

Ptarmigan Valley as morning clouds settle in.

Nearly everyone was up and out of the bunkhouse earlier than me; I found it difficult to care about my progress and still believed sleep might save me. I was packing up around 6 a.m when another wave of cyclists and the first runner arrived. The runner wasn’t Beat. I admit to being both disappointed and relieved about this. I realized this new wave meant I had slipped from the mid-pack to the back-of-pack, but again, I wasn’t sure this was important to me … although I did still care about Beat's opinion, I admit. 

 The morning was breezy and cloudy, probably about 10 degrees. I quickly broke a sweat climbing away from the lake, right before my cramping hamstrings demanded a return to hiking. Beth passed and then I was alone for a long while. Hints of pink light briefly skimmed mountain tops before the clouds engulfed the landscape in a white pall.

Hints of sunlight

Before this year I’d say I was “five for five” in landing perfect days on Rainy Pass. I always seem to leave Puntilla Lake between the hours of 5 and 8 a.m. and then enjoy the crossing in daylight under bluebird skies and downright friendly temperatures. Rainy Pass can hold some of the most fearsome weather imaginable. I’ve heard stories of hurricane-force winds and 70-below windchills but I’ve yet to experience the teeth of the Alaska Range. 

Ethan searches for the trail near one of the hardy spruce trees of the Ptarmigan Valley

This year the weather was overcast with strong winds and occasional flurries. Still, the moody skies made crossing number six somehow even more perfect. The light was ethereal; the shifting contrasts of white on white were mesmerizing. As it climbed through the Ptarmigan Valley, the trail became increasingly windblown. The light was so flat that it was difficult to discern what was packed trail and what was bottomless powder. I took a few tumbles, usually because I threw a foot down while swerving and punched a chest-deep hole into unconsolidated snow. Ethan passed and I found some success following his line, but he too was having only marginal luck with route-finding. The wind quickly buried his tracks in spindrift, and after a mile or so there was no evidence he’d been through. 

 🎵"Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog" 🎵

By the time the route turned into the drainage below Rainy Pass Lake, there was no longer visible evidence of a trail. Even pushing my bike, the packed trail was difficult to find. I had to go by the feel of the surface under my boots. Strangely, I enjoyed all of this. The flat light obscured the white mountains and gray sky, causing a near-absence of visual stimuli. There was nothing to taste or smell, and only a soft, cloud-like feel of snow under my feet. The low, moaning wind was so monotonous as to become white noise. 

It was very much a place of sensory deprivation, and yet I felt rhythmically in tune with the present. A flock of white ptarmigan flushed out of an alder thicket and returned. Thick snowflakes swirled in the wind, creating a similar pattern of white flashes on a gray background. Glimmers of sunlight cut through the pall and faded. Jagged mountain ridges emerged and disappeared behind clouds. 

 “Heaven,” I thought. Isn’t this what we’re taught of heaven? Peaceful, celestial, eternal? My thoughts were a peaceful murmur. My burning calf muscles and tingling nose spoke a more abrupt truth. I was still a mortal soul in a merciless wilderness. 

This was my first year the weather was actually a bit "sporty" on Rainy Pass.

I took a selfie and a brief break at Rainy Pass — always too cold and windy to linger — and fired a quick satellite text to Beat. He hadn’t replied to any of my messages so far and I doubted he was receiving them, so I mainly used these texts to cry into the void. I complained about fatigue and back pain. Although I did, in hindsight, enjoy my time in Heaven, the difficult push had hobbled my back. I felt shooting pains in the problem area — the spot where I’d been slammed by the side-view mirror of a truck four months earlier. My lower lat muscles were spasming and tightening. 

Not many views; still beautiful.

Rainy Pass is the point of no return — if I retreated to Puntilla, it would be a relatively easy out. But descending into Rohn is pretty much committing to McGrath. It’s extremely expensive and difficult to get out from the uninhabited land beyond this point. I gave brief consideration to turning around and quitting. Can I really do this? Should I do this? The cold wind discouraged rumination. Without making any decision one way or the other, I was soon fishtailing down the invisible trail on a precarious plunge toward Pass Creek. 

The Dazell Gorge

Soft and punchy trail conditions persisted. The route wound through alder thickets and crossed over Pass Creek, which was open and flowing with ankle-deep current. My back spasmed painfully but it was better to ride than push my bike, so I took some chances I might not otherwise take (resulting in at least one hard crash on a hidden patch of ice while I was leaning into a sharp turn.) 

The Dazell Gorge was a moose-stomped minefield — like riding on inverted boulders, but slippery. Again I tried to pretend I am a decent technical rider (I’m not) and kept the pedals turning. Few cyclists wear helmets in this race — the old-school reasoning being that fat bikes are slow and snow is soft — but I have never wanted a helmet so badly as I did on this journey. It was extremely poor planning not to have one. With as much as I crashed (all of my hardest hits were yet to come), I’m lucky I didn’t incur a head injury. Head injuries are definitely being added to my growing list of fears.

Dropping onto the Tatina River. It looks fine. It's not.

The steep gorge emptied into the Tatina River. The six miles of river travel before and after Rohn are by far my most hated section of trail. I dread the Tatina. It’s a fast-flowing mountain river with ever-changing, often dangerous ice conditions. One person’s smooth-sailing ice can be another’s minefield of knee-deep flowing water. Obstacles can change in a matter of hours. And there are eddies deep enough that a truly unlucky person could fall through the ice, get sucked into the current, and drown. Sure, the Tatina is surrounded by incredible mountain scenery and enough quiet to impart a false sense of peace. This is all part of the diabolical nature of the Tatina. If Rainy Pass is Heaven, the Tatina is Hell. 

The Tatina River Narrows, photo by Ethan Harrison

But it’s only four miles to Rohn, so I try to put on a brave face and get it over with. A strong crosswind threw me off balance as I pedaled gingerly over scratched glare ice. Open water began to appear along the edges of the river. At the Narrows, an ice bridge had collapsed. There was no choice but to cross the open channel if I wanted to stick to the trail, which I did. Crossing open water on a known path is preferable to feeling out an untested route over potential instabilities. 

 I stopped and removed my Wiggy’s Waders from my bags — these are the lightweight nylon hip waders that nearly every Iditarod Trail racer carries these days. Sitting on the snow, it took some time to pull the material over my legs, especially because I wanted to take care not to rip the material with the carbide studs embedded in the soles of my boots. By the time I stood again I was shaking profusely, both from cold and fear. 

The ice underfoot was soft and seemed to shudder as though it too was on the verge of collapse. I had little traction from the soles of the waders and dragged my feet in a sluggish shuffle as the current pushed around my knees. Water climbed as high as my mid-thigh — nearly to the top of the waders. The bike bobbed almost weightlessly beside me, floating on its tires. I was certain this was the end of dry anything — I was going to crash through the soft ice, or if not, the channel was going to be chest-deep and I’d swim either way. But I managed to climb out the other side without dropping my bike or flooding my waders 

I didn’t bother removing the waders. I jumped back on my bike and pedaled frantically toward Rohn, fearful that if I stopped moving I’d crash through the ice for sure.

Part One: It's level at the peak


  1. Thanks for writing in your blog still. I really enjoy reading these and always makes me inspired to write. Trail writing and photographs are so hard to capture what we remember we saw and the internal working of the mind at that time. Cracks are good to see. For better or worse it shows the real "us" and I have always thought instead of fixing them I just accept the cracks and become comfortable with my flaws. I remember when I hung up the last ITI it was because I was kind of 'bored' and my motivation and drive completely changed. It'll be interesting to see how this coming year ITI will be... Thank you for writing!

  2. I love the gray light in your Rainy Pass photos. Also liked the reference to "real life" as being in contrast to out there! And finally, the Dalzell Gorge looks absolutely terrifying.

  3. So glad you have chronicled this. You continue to inspire me.

  4. I remember seeing your dot at Shell Lake and noticed you'd stopped for quite awhile. Then I watched Beat's dot getting closer and closer and wondered if you had a mechanical, injury, or were waiting for him. All of a sudden you were on your way again and I breathed a sigh of relief. Isn't it curious how immersed we get watching those little dots move across Alaska? Reading your story brings it all to life for me. Thank you for continuing your blog.

  5. Jill, you are a great writer, especially when living (surviving) these adventures. I hope you are again inspired after a period of rest. YOU CAN DO IT!


Feedback is always appreciated!