Saturday, March 03, 2012

Beat heads into the Burn

After twelve hours of driving across 700 miles of scenic nothingness, we settled in to a barrage of homemade pizza and frenetic conversation with friends. Just before midnight we heard a rumor about Northern Lights, so we loaded up again and headed into the hills above Whitehorse. We danced and struck silly poses beneath shimmering waves of light. Since the colorful flares spread out from a point far beyond the sky, I knew there was a chance Beat could see the same show I was seeing. I found comfort in that realization, even though we're now separated by hundreds of empty miles and the greater divide between my comfortable fun and Beat's difficult journey.

Beat called from Rohn at 6:30 p.m. Friday. He made great time on the trek over the Alaska Range on Rainy Pass, crossing 45 miles of steep climbs and the dramatic Dalzell Gorge in fourteen hours. This same section of trail took me 27 hours to traverse in 2008. The current race leader, Geoff, took twelve. Geoff was the first to leave Rohn, about two hours before lead bikers Pete and Phil. Beat took a nap and was the ninth competitor to leave remote checkpoint, about twelve hours after Geoff. He said the trip down from the pass was unbelievably gorgeous and the weather improved. Since the sky had cleared, he was hoping for a glimpse of the aurora as he hiked into vast expanse of the Farewell Burn.

The latest update came Saturday morning at 7:30. Beat bivied overnight near Egypt Mountain as temperatures plummeted and the wind increased. Cold feet woke him up several times and he estimated it was about 20 below, but he was able to catch some needed sleep. He sounded upbeat in the morning, and said his feet were fine after he warmed them up again. His plan for Saturday was to continue through the remnant foothills of the Alaska Range, into the Burn, and stop for the night at the Bear Creek cabin, which is about 30 miles away from the village of Nikolai, 300 miles into the course. He said it was still cold but the wind had calmed. There have been reports of deep snow drifts on the trail ahead, so progress may be more difficult for him on this section than it was over the mountains.

I'm hoping to hear from Beat tonight from a warmer, comfier spot. He's healthy and moving well, now nearly six days into this journey.

Taking this show on the road

I am falling victim to waiting syndrome. I'm not really doing the work I hoped to do. I toss and turn enough at night that I'm not really resting and recovering from the Susitna 100. That race already seems like it was a year ago, and I forget that my legs are still a little tired and that the bottoms of my feet are still tingling and sore. But this morning I wasn't as productive as I'd hoped to be with an article I started, and I was become tired of refreshing the ITI Web site repeatedly when I already knew the latest information about Beat's whereabouts. The weather was poor and I didn't feel like driving, so I decided, "I'll go blitz Lazy this afternoon."

The Lazy Mountain route is typical of the Chugach Range in that it starts at somewhere near sea level and ascends to 3,720 feet in less than two and a half miles. I imagine it's pleasantly steep in the summer, but in the winter, touring skiers and hikers pack the route into an icy slide with a deceptive skiff of powder. I wore crampons for maximum traction and my plan was to hike it as hard as I could. I endured 2,000 feet of calf-searing, lung-pounding, sweat-drenched marching before I broke near treeline. The temperature was about 16 degrees with a stiff wind, light snow was falling, and I debated heading back down. But after my red-line blitz, I didn't feel like immediately launching into the steep downhill, where I had no choice but to dig in and brake hard with each step or risk riding the ice slide all the way down the mountain (I believe this would be a lot less fun than it sounds.) I always appreciate my time in the mountains, so I piled on all of my dry clothing over my soaked base layer and abandoned the blitz for a pleasant stroll. (You know, among the zero-degree windchill and stinging snow.)

I was glad I climbed to the top, but downhill in the crampons was indeed hard work. I actually had to remove most of my layers again even before I reached the wind protection of the birch forest. I was cooked at the bottom, in good way — a kind of peaceful tired washed over me, and I felt satisfied in a way I haven't since the Susitna 100. I drove to Vagabond Blues for warm-up soup and tea, and received another call from Beat. He sounded so much more energized than his previous calls, and told me he had reached Puntilla Lake — four hours earlier than I had expected. He had an enjoyable hike through the foothills of the Alaska Range with Dave and Andrea. The trail was getting better, he was feeling better, and planned to continue toward Rainy Pass with Anne around midnight.

The fact he's decided to take on the pass is a decisive action. It means he's fully committed to the finish, barring an unworkable injury or bad weather. This was great news — the best of the journey so far. I feel like this means I shouldn't wait around and worry any longer. Beat is going to do his thing and cover his miles, and I'll hear from him when he feels like calling. Sitting around hitting refresh on a computer screen won't do either of us any good.

I've decided to head out to Whitehorse this weekend to join an overnight snowbike trip with friends. I'd been on the fence about going, but the schedule will put me back in Southcentral Alaska before Beat's likely to finish the race. And I do believe, now, that he'll probably finish. If not, there's going to be a delay in our reconnection, but I think he'll understand. I did tell him about this trip before the race started. It's going to be so full of awesome that I'll probably completely forget about the refresh button. It does mean my own Web updates will be more delayed, but I will continue to post about Beat's progress.

Meanwhile, current standing are posted here:

Thursday, March 01, 2012

My fault

Photo by Daniel Bailey,
I hoped Dan would understand if my line was a bit erratic on the powdery descents — it was my first snow bike ride in eleven months. We launched onto the delicious trails at Far North Bicentennial Park — soft groomed with about two inches of fresh — and ramped into the climbs through the foothills of the Chugach Mountains. Soon we connected with the hiker-packed singletrack of the Speedway Trail and wended through piles of fluff and snow-covered spruce trees an a thin thread of trail. The light was soft — afternoon gold, filtered by wisps of clouds — and I slipped into a peaceful, Zen-like state. It was exactly what I needed on Wednesday afternoon, as anxiety had been building at a surprising rate.

This race. Oh, this race. What a cluster it's been, so to speak. This kind of effort makes sense with a team of people in the Arctic who were expecting to break trail through daunting obstacles for days on end, and probably planned with enough supplies for a dozen or so miles per day. But when you have fifty people, many of them with wheeled anchors, who are trying to race, expecting to cover fifty to a hundred miles per day — then you have a problem. No one expected a massive storm to obliterate the trail and change everything — but of course, that is the nature of the Iditarod Trail. You can and will see anything, so you have to prepare for it. But here we are, four days into the race, and only three people — a skier and runners Tim and Geoff —have made it to the halfway point. Most of the cyclists, from rookies to the long-time veterans, have scratched. Beat is one of the people still trudging away at it. I have simultaneous mixed but strong feelings about this — pride in his perseverance, and also sadness for his suffering. This was inevitable, I suppose. Because I can imagine the hardships, I can also imagine the spirit-crushing despair.

He sounds so tired on the phone. He makes one call a day now, and keeps it very short. Half of his words are slurred; I can only pick out pieces of information amid the run-on sentences. Beat is now traveling with David Johnston and Andrea Hambach, a fact that makes me happy because those two are experienced Alaskans with a fantastic sense of humor. Humor means all the difference when despair threatens to encompass everything. When trudging across Alaska for 150+ miles at less than two miles an hour, the only advantage anyone can have is the ability to laugh at themselves. It's ridiculous. It's completely ridiculous. At yet, it's so life-changing and enlightening that the rewards are worth the struggle. Usually, I believe — but not always.

During Beat's long preparations for this race, he would joke that his signing up was my fault. "You talked me into it," he'd say with a grin. "You're going to dump me if I don't finish."

"That's I lie!" I proclaimed. "I did nothing of the sort." But I was grinning, too, because I was thrilled he was going to attempt this incredible journey that had such a perspective-shifting effect on my own life. "You're going to have such an amazing experience," I told him.

Now I'm not so sure. Honestly, I'm not. It's inspiring what these men and women are doing out there, but at the same time, I wonder what psychological, physical and spiritual sacrifices they're making to achieve it. I can't help but wonder if these sacrifices will cancel out any rewards ahead on the trail. I only wonder. I'm still so proud of Beat, and also Geoff, Tim, David, Andrea, Anne, Shawn, and all the people I do not know who are still sticking out the ceaseless trudge. A handful of cyclists are holding on in hopes that the trail will firm up over the pass. These cyclists are the craziest of all, and I admire them. I'm cheering Tim, who as a 57-year-old Nome hiker from Pennsylvania, no one dreamed he would lead the race for so long. But I just hope Beat doesn't feel compelled to stay out there for anyone but himself. "Just do what makes you happy," I told him on the phone. "Please."

As for Beat's status, he left Winter Lake Lodge, mile 135, at 3:25 a.m. Thursday. The 30-mile section of steep hills and river gorges between there and Puntilla Lake took leaders Geoff, Tim and Andrea about 18 hours to cover on snowshoes and skis. There have been reports of deep drifts on the trail, as well as a little bit of new snow in the forecast today. I expect — or at least I am hoping — to hear from Beat at Puntilla sometime between 9 p.m. and midnight tonight. From there, who knows? That will be more than a hundred hours into this race, with only half the distance covered on little rest. I can't fathom how he'll still have enough gas to power on to McGrath, but Beat continues to surprise me in many good ways.

And even as I was writing this, I received another text from Beat: "Cross Shirley Lake. More fun. Miss you. Pete just passed us." Definitely positive signs of improving trail conditions. 

I can only hope that when he comes home, and tells me this was my fault, he has a smile on his face.