Friday, January 06, 2012

Symphony of cold III

Movement III, minuet
I woke up in the night with an unexplainable sort of ice cream headache. It was mild but it was definitely there, scooping away at my skull. Anne had told the Northwoods owners we wanted our cabin to be "hot," and they definitely cranked up the heater. It had to be at least 75 degrees in the room. I was down to my underwear and still drenched in sweat. The heat woke me up several times and twice I stepped outside just to cool down. That didn't take long.

And yet, even in the overheated cabin, I had a cold headache. This fact so perplexed me that I eventually got up to find my little hairbrush/mirror combo that I use as a camp hair de-tangler, switched on my headlamp and examined my forehead. Small red spots speckled the skin around my eyebrows; in the flat light it looked like a few might even be forming blisters. I concluded I had probably mildly frostnipped my skin while I was sporting the ice unibrow the previous day. That didn't necessarily explain the headache, but it did fixate my attention on other cold-related maladies: My scratchy throat — raw from breathing -35 air all day even though I filtered it with my balaclava; and my fingertips — sore and a little swollen from gripping a cold camera and going numb while I repeatedly tried to thaw my ice-lashes. Cold has a way of being hard on bodies in ways you don't immediately realize. "My legs and hips are sore, too," I thought. I acknowledged that may have had more to do with 56 miles and 16 hard hours of sled-hauling than it did with the cold.

It was 15 below and still pitch dark when we set out in the morning, a little later than we hoped, just before 9 a.m. The temperature felt downright comfortable after the previous day — a credit to the adaptability of human bodies, even as delicate as they are. The first hints of dawn arrived just as we emerged from the wooded swamps along Lake Creek onto the wide-open plain of the Yentna River. In Alaska winter racing circles, the big rivers are often dreaded for being "flat" and "boring" and "going on forever and ever." I actually love trekking the big rivers, even more than I do wending through the woods. They fit my aesthetic of stark open spaces, places so big that I can watch as the world opens up around me. I looked north to see hints of salmon-colored light rippling on the jagged Alaska Range, south to round mountains as they reflected deeper shades of gold, west to rows of birch trees glittering with hoarfrost, and all around as the Yentna cliffs grew closer, pinching the flow of a great river that was presently as quiet as anything can be. I imagined a rush of water under our feet, roiling and crashing against a thin veneer of ice. When I realized this was exactly what was happening, I had to stop thinking about it, because it made my knees feel weak.

As we approached the tiny village of Skwentna, I felt a giddy sort of excitement. On what was starting to feel like my own nostalgia tour of the Iditarod Trail, I remembered the Skwentna Roadhouse as the place where I took my first long break during the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational. I had arrived just before 2 a.m., having ridden my loaded Pugsley ninety miles in twelve hours — for me, an unfathomably fast pace. I shared a small meal with Jay Petervary (dinner for me, breakfast for him) and moved upstairs to dry my clothing and take a short nap. I remember standing in front of the bathroom mirror, scanning my face for signs of frostbite, and seeing only an expression of mixed pride and astonishment. I couldn't believe what I had set out to do. I couldn't believe I was doing it. It was, for that moment, my greatest accomplishment.

"I like Skwentna," I told Beat. "I was happy there." That it had taken me two and a half days to reach a place I once pedaled to in twelve hours didn't matter. I was glad to be back, and on these terms — older, possibly wiser, definitely slower — it felt right. We shook off our frost and stomped inside. The owner, Cindy, was wearing a bath towel on her head and appeared to have just woken up, which made perfect sense to me, being that it was the more civil winter hour of 11:45 a.m. She and her husband only bought the lodge about a year ago, so she wasn't there in 2008. But she was excited to see the three of us all the same. "You're our first runners for the year!" she exclaimed. She offered us all-you-can-consume Christmas cookies and coffee, which we warned her was a dangerous gesture given our status as cold and hungry runners. Cindy just laughed and directed us to the plates.

We ordered grilled cheese and fries for lunch and chatted with a local man, a former contractor from Anchorage who was now living full-time in a cabin he built on the edge of the river a couple years earlier. "I don't have a boat, so I just spend the whole summer here," he said. "I don't leave except to run freight in the winter. I love it. I'm glad I did it."

We grinned and nodded although I think everyone was wondering exactly he did all summer long, how he avoided cabin fever, why he didn't become lonely or cold or scared. The usual things that we civilized folk tend to wonder when one of our own sloughs off the frenetic lifestyle that we all work so hard to achieve and sets out to find his or her own version of happiness. I admired the guy for doing what he wanted to do, even if most people viewed it as strange and even fruitless. That is, after all, exactly how most people would view what I was doing out here.

I was sad to leave Skwentna, mostly because it meant we only had seventeen or so miles left in our trek before we reached Shell Lake. Although I started out thinking our plan was ambitious for what was essentially just a training run, by the end I was startled by just how doable it was. I mean, we were walking thirty miles a day, in conditions that made every step nearly as difficult as a solid run. We were outside for eight hours or more each day in temperatures that never even flirted with rising above zero, working just as hard to keep our bodies warm as we did to keep them moving, and rarely did we stop moving. It had been hard, but in other ways, so simple. I enjoy the process of occasionally reducing my existence to moving, eating and breathing. It reminds me just how simple existence really is, in the end, and at the same time so rich and meaningful, even if it's impossible to define its meaning.

This observation carried some insight about why I love Alaska so much, because in Alaska I see reflections of my own sense of meaning everywhere I look. The snow portrays a fleeting beauty, the open swamps a lasting wisdom. The trees and animals are perseverance, enduring the worst of winter for the rich reward of summer. The mountains are the great unknown, that powerful force that will always drive me forward. I realize that all of the entities exist in lots of places in the world, but they do seem to resonate deeply for me in these northern latitudes. I'm perfectly content to live where I do right now, but Alaska remains a wonderful place to visit.

We climbed into the Shell Hills, brushed with the pink light of another sunset. Those seventeen miles seem to go by in what felt like a single breath, a dream. I was entirely surprised when we dropped onto the windswept ice of Shell Lake and pressed against the wind toward Anne's cabin. Before going inside, we stopped to light Beat's stove and melt some snow, so he could practice the process of making water in cold temperatures at the end of a long, sweaty day. The experiment went well, but I was still hesitant to walk in the door, almost searching for excuses to stay out longer. I reminded myself that we still had a full New Year's holiday to spend at Shell Lake, and our adventure certainly wasn't over yet. 
Thursday, January 05, 2012

A symphony of cold II

Movement II, adagio
I leaned against the railing of the cabin's balcony and looked up at the muted sky. The morning was so still that I could hear a hundred variations of silence. Low moans carried from the direction of the distant city. The quiet stirrings of nearer creatures also were startlingly amplified; I heard the squeaking footsteps of an animal as though it was walking right in front of me, although it may have been a half mile away. The cold air itself seemed to emit the ever-so-faint harmony of chiming. I imagined ice particles brushing against each other like tiny glittering bells.

The proprietors at Luce's Lodge were very sweet and got up at what is an ungodly early hour in Alaska's December — 7 a.m. — to make us a huge breakfast of eggs, meat, pancakes, coffee and orange juice. We wolfed it down as Anne urged us to load up on butter because, "in these temperatures your body needs fat." Although I'm of the opinion that fast-burning carbohydrates are still the best fuel source for both heat generation and energy, and don't even particularly like butter, I slathered it on anyway. I wanted all the help I could get.

The porch thermometer still read 20 below — a small grace offered by the cloud cover that moved in overnight, because it could have dropped a lot lower. I asked the proprietor what he thought that meant for the temperatures on the trail. "Definitely 30 below," he said. "Probably 35 below in spots. There are some cold holes on the river."

I have what I feel is an adaptable but effective outfit for a wide range of cold temperatures. Over the years I've ditched all of my wool for synthetic layering head-to-toe. Synthetics in my experience are more forgiving when damp and also dry faster. For a base layer I wear a polypro shirt and light fleece tights. The mid-layer is a furry fleece jacket and wind tights. On top of that goes the down skirt and a Gortex shell. I've used soft shells in the past but I prefer Gortex because it's such an effective wind blocker, and this one has lots of zippers for venting. If I begin to overheat, I just open up the full-length pit zips and chest zipper, and effectively pour the excess moisture out. I also naturally vent a lot through my head and hands. This results in crazily iced up balaclavas and hats, but these things are "cheap" weight-wise, and I can afford to carry a few extra to exchange after one becomes damp. I still rarely change these out because fleece hats are warm even after they've turned to ice helmets.

For my hands, I used a pair of pogies on my trekking poles that Beat sewed out of a synthetic sleeping bag. In non-windy conditions, the pogies were all I needed. They enabled me to go bare-handed for nearly the entire trip, 35 below and all, which is why I was able to take so many photos and stuff my icy face with so many tasty carbohydrates and sips of water from my deeply buried Camelback vest. Photo-taking and food are my best coping mechanisms — the key to feeling healthy and happy the entire time. On my feet go Drymax socks (pure, blister-preventing gold), fleece socks and vapor barrier socks, with Gortex trail running shoes and knee-length winter gaters. Even with my prior frostbite damage, I never had issues with cold feet. On the morning of 35 below, I did add a primaloft puffy sweater to my ensemble. This proved to be unnecessary and ultimately a mistake of overdressing, but I didn't realize it at the time. I mean, really, it was 35 below.

Sure enough, as soon as we dropped onto the river, the temperature fell from "dark side of the moon" to "outer space" levels. It definitely felt 15 degrees colder. Anne announced that she was going to have to "trot" to stay warm, which meant she would be running. I tried to follow her lead, but the heavy breakfast sloshed in my stomach like a load of bricks, and I quickly grew dizzy from the effort. I pulled out my GPS to see what speed I was "running" atop the loose sugar snow: 4.2 miles per hour. If I really amped up I could push it to 4.5, but that felt like full-intensity sprinting. Everything moves slower at 35 below, but the energy inefficiency of trying to "run" in these temperatures, on this terrain, was almost baffling. I'd have to expend twice the energy and muscle effort for a measly one extra mile per hour. I yelled out to Anne that I was never going to keep up. She agreed to meet us at an off-trail oasis called the Northwoods Lodge, which she thought was about 20 miles away. She didn't know what it looked like or exactly where it veered off the trail, only that "there's probably a sign."

Beat didn't seem to mind the walking pace, but he did appear uneasy with the temperatures, which trickled into our clothing like ice water every time we stopped. Steep river bluffs walled us in, trapping cold air like a prison. When we passed side canyons and sloughs, a stream of new cold air would hit us like a blast from an air conditioner. Even the creeping daylight did little to warm the morning. After six miles we passed a friendly sign advertising coffee and food. Anne's footprints indicated she clearly went on without stopping. Beat started walking toward the building to make sure Anne's footprints weren't up there. I held back, keeping my eyes fixed on the top part of the sign: "Yentna Station."

"We should probably keep moving," I said. "Anne kept going."

Beat agreed that we should probably shouldn't fall too far behind Anne, but asked me if I wanted to go in and get warm. I did, but still hesitated. How could I explain this? It was Yentna Station where in 2009 I struggled in front of a weak wood stove, trying to remove the boot that had frozen to my foot. It's where I endured the agony of thawing frostbitten toes and coped with the crushing disappointment of dropping out of my second ITI 350 and ending my great Alaska adventure before it even really began. The proprietors at Yentna Station were nothing but nice to me, but it's still difficult to return to the place where I spent one of the worst nights of my life.

Beat saw my face and understood. "You don't have happy memories here, do you?"

The miles rolled on. Beat and I didn't talk much, retreating into our introspective worlds that close in amid these expansive landscapes. The clouds began to thin and the weak December sun made its lazy arc over the southern horizon. I watched the golden orb creep beside me through the tips of frost-crusted birch trees, casting its heatless light amid a skeleton of shadows. The weak rays were already trending downward, the sun setting without even making a real effort to rise. It made me think of a visit from an old friend, someone I no longer knew well. We shared a brief, superficial chat and parted again too soon, filled with a sad sort of yearning for the days when we were close.

Silence held on throughout the day. We only saw a handful of snowmachines, freight drivers hauling loads of fuel and lumber at creeping speeds, although not as slow as us. They all gave us friendly waves but let their helmet-masked gaze linger for a few too many seconds, no doubt intrigued by these odd ice-crusted figures trudging up the river. I have been told that the "bush" Alaskans who occupy this region are often suspicious of human-powered travelers, uncertain of their motives and baffled as to why we'd choose such an obviously inferior method of travel. Dog teams have carried humans up these valleys for centuries. The "iron dog" snowmachine added even more power and efficiency for a fraction of the effort. Bush pilots buzz overhead in ski planes that can land and take off from any snow-covered pond. Humans have always been weak and slow, and no one is so poor or needs to travel so badly that they should venture out on foot at 35 below.

And yet I felt inexplicably, almost mindlessly, happy. I sometimes glanced back at my sled, still trailing behind me like the loyal pet I was beginning to picture it as, even though its runners still scraped across the snow like two pieces of sandpaper. My shoes and poles squeaked loudly in the cold snow. It made me think of a friend chatting amicably but nonsensically, which was all right with me, because I wasn't really in a frame of mind to listen to words. My thoughts were often as blank as the river snow, thinly cut with a trail of memories. I simply breathed and walked, breathed and walked, and when the happy started to slip away, I stuffed another piece of icy candy into my mouth.

Beat for his part seemed to be enjoying himself, and commented that it was "heating up" even though I'm pretty sure it was still 20 below. Twenty miles went by without a sign of a lodge, and the daylight again began to disappear. Anne was now far enough ahead that some snowmachines had gone through after her, and we had a difficult time picking out her footprints. The wind began to pick up and for the first time all day, I felt a chill. I reached to zip up my Gortex coat and realized that my primaloft sweater was fairly wet. The wicking fleece jacket below was still dry, but the sweat had all consolidated in the puffy sweater. This wasn't a disaster. I could always take it off and let it solidify to an ice ball, then put on one of my dry layers if I was still cold. But the essential loss of the puffy was a bit of a mental blow, given our plan to camp out that night. I was quickly reminded of the universal truth — that no matter how well things are going in Alaska, they can turn bad in the blink of an eye. Things certainly hadn't gone bad yet, but the razor-thin closeness of potential diaster gave me a jolt of fear.

We were 28 miles from Luce's Lodge when we saw a sign on the other side of the river. I waded over to see an advertisement for the Northwoods Lodge, and another that said Skwentna — our potential destination that night — was still 12 miles away. We had originally planned to bivy somewhere in between, but darkness was sinking in and carrying with it new ungodly cold temperatures. We walked a mile up Fish Creek to find the lodge and Anne, who arrived forty minutes before we did. I removed my layers in a shower of frost as Anne informed us that the lodge owners believed temperatures out on the river would reach 40 below or lower overnight — the outer limits of our sleeping bags and definitely in that "struggle to survive" zone.

"And, well," Anne said. "They knew we were coming up the river and they already started heating a cabin for us this morning. I don't know about you guys, but I don't have to practice being miserable."

It was settled before it was settled. This was, after all, our vacation, and setting back out to camp on the river when there was a perfectly good cabin at our disposal would only confirm our craziness. I couldn't wait to get my hands on some hot chocolate.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A symphony of cold

Movement I, allegro
Even the air seemed frozen in place, a thickly compressed stillness that shattered as I darted toward the outhouse wearing only my running shoes, a base layer shirt and underpants. I didn't suit up for the 4 a.m. chore because I so feared the deep cold that I wanted an extreme test run before the consequences expanded exponentially out on the river ice. Sure enough, the thermometer next to the heated entryway of Luce's Lodge already read 23 below zero, Fahrenheit. On clear nights, this thick, cold air sinks into the river basins like a rock. I expected it was ten degrees colder on the trail just fifty feet below the lodge. Were we going to see 40 below before dawn emerged — at least what passes for dawn in December in Alaska?

But my more immediate concern was a full-body revolt against the 90-degree temperature swing just outside the door. I could almost feel the blood in my extremities retreating toward the hidden refuge of my core. The fragile cells trapped on the surface of my skin sprung to full attention, struggling to fight the blood's escape through their rapidly diminishing armor. It was a full-blown riot that penetrated the fragile realities of my warm-blooded nature and unleashed a more primitive, abstract kind of energy that never fails to stir my soul. Every molecule in my body was vibrating — naked, exposed, and alive.

My brain joined the fight by urging my numb arms and legs to start flailing, an erratic dance that reflected the simultaneous elation and desperation I was experiencing. I knew a heated cabin was just meters away, but that didn't stop the panic of cells that understood on a fundamental level exactly what dying feels like. They raged and screamed at the curious part of my brain that continued to urge in a gentle voice, "Wait, just wait. There's no real harm yet. This is really quite interesting. I'm kinda sorta wondering just how dead we can get." But of course, primitive survival instincts easily won that intellectual battle. I finished my business and raced back to the cabin before my core temperature started dropping. I still had to shiver beneath the covers for several minutes before my fingers found the wherewithal to at least tingle.

The Luce's Lodge experiment left me feeling simultaneously exhilarated and terrified. It was madness, really, that I was going to take conditions that my nearly naked body could barely survive for five minutes, and with the minimal use of technology, fitness and intellectual prodding, push through the extreme cold for hours and even days. But I had just been out there — for 26 miles, actually — walking away from the safe haven of the ice-coated Parks Highway and into Southcentral Alaska's deep-frozen backcountry. Our ambitious plan had us trekking overland to Shell Lake, a distance of about 90 miles, in three days, followed by day trips and New Year's celebrations launched from a primitive cabin above the lake. We dragged behind us all of the necessities for such a trek, including food, fuel and survival gear. We hoped to camp out if conditions were conducive to "fun winter camping." But if temperatures tipped the scales toward "struggle for survival," we agreed we would invest the extra miles and money to seek refuge in commercial wilderness lodges. This was, after all, our vacation.

Our friend from Anchorage, Anne, along with Beat and I, launched from Deshka Landing on Wednesday, December 28, in light snow and a "balmy" temperature of 5 below zero. The air still held a sharp bite as we fumbled with last-minute sled assemblies and gear adjustments. It was after 10 a.m. and still only the faintest hints of first daylight managed to penetrate the ice fog. It would be dark again by 4 p.m. I wrapped a series of layers around my body and finished it off with my new down skirt, currently my favorite piece of gear as it provides the perfect combination of heat-venting and protection for the cold-weakest part of my body, my butt. Beat eyed the skirt jealously and expressed his desire for a piece of gear that would similarly protect the front side of his undercarriage. "I should just wear a skirt like that," he said. "Who cares? I'm already out here. It's not like I need to assert my masculinity."

I had a hunch that minus 5 might be the warmest temperature we would see all week. As we shuffled toward Mount Susitna — now fairly well-known territory for me — I was filled with anxiety about the unknowns. The unknowns of independence. Honestly, the main reason I like winter "racing" is because an organized event means someone is probably looking out for you, even if only on a base level. Out here in the "pre-season" of December's darkness, we weren't even likely to see much cursory snowmachine traffic. We were truly on our own. I was also anxious about the unknowns of the forecasted cold snap and what that meant for long-term exposure to low temperatures. Some of my friends who live in milder climates often fail to understand the depths cold can reach. They say to me, "Once it drops below 30 degrees, isn't it pretty much all cold?"

"Well, yeah," I reply. "But you know the difference between 30 degrees and 90 degrees? You can feel that, right? Well, that's the difference between 30 above and 30 below."

Even in the minus-single-digits, the snow was sharp and dry enough that the runners on our sleds dragged through it like sandpaper. I felt like I was pulling a reluctant dog — in that way animals make their bodies inexplicably heavy when they don't want to move, so too do sleds on frigid snow. But this was new snow, still soft and powdery enough that every huffing step resulted in a heel-deep posthole. I faltered for about a quarter mile before I stopped to strap on my snowshoes. Beat and Anne, who are both runners and therefore prefer to cling to the hope of running, continued on trail shoes alone. For all of us, moving at 3.5 miles per hour was intensely hard work, the kind that makes my ten-minute miles up steep trails in California feel like woefully inadequate training. But at the same time, hard work produced our own personal bubbles of heat, a safe haven of warmth in the stark and terror-rimmed landscape. As long as we could keep moving — and stuffing down the calories to to keep our furnaces cranking — we actually had much less to fear. This is a kind of self-reliance I cherish — that even the best in insulating technologies can still be matched by human perseverance. Of course I was still grateful for all the heavy gear I dragged in my sled in case things went horribly wrong — after all, I don't trust my perseverance to those extremes.

We arrived at Luce's Lodge just before 6 p.m. It had already been pitch dark for more than an hour. We struggled to hoist our sleds up a steep embankment toward the oasis of warmth. Bright lights illuminated the cabin and a friendly Christmas tree sparkled in the front window. I nearly teared up with nostalgia. The first time I saw Luce's Lodge was as the mile 52 checkpoint in the 2006 Susitna 100, my first endurance race. The race volunteers plucked me out of the darkness at a similar time in the evening, gave me drinking water, told me I was doing fantastic even though my eyes were bloodshot and my clothing soaked from a disheartening rainstorm. I think often about that race. To some extent, I feel like every big endurance challenge I've embarked on since has in some ways reflected a desire to duplicate my novice experience — the intensity, the hardships, the raw beauty, and the personal triumphs over fear and weakness. Of course I can never again return to the same wide-eyed naivety that made the 2006 Susitna 100 so soul-awakening. But I can return to these places that still fill my heart with happy memories, and remember exactly what it was like to feel so afraid and so alive, all at the same time.

But the minute we stopped, the bubble of warmth broke and reality punched back through. It was cold, really cold, and getting colder. At least for now, Luce's had hot chocolate and warm chili, and a pre-rented cabin already heated up for us, so we wouldn't have to think about trekking as many as forty miles the next day, deeper into the backcountry, in temperatures down to 40 below, toward a possible overnight bivy in the wilderness. These were all realities we didn't really need to think about. Not yet, at least.