Friday, January 03, 2014

The Fairbanks Journals, days 4-6

 December 25 to 27. Sunrise 10:58 a.m. Sunset 2:46 p.m. Temperature -25. Wind Force 6. 

Tolovana Hot Springs. Comfortable rustic cabins and outdoor, natural mineral hot spring bathing in Alaska’s remote interior. It sounds relaxing, doesn't it? But of our adventurous Fairbanks friends with frostbite stories, the majority happened at Tolovana Hot Springs — or, specifically, the trailhead, an exposed ridge where the wind virtually always blows at 20 knots and vehicles that have sat too long in subzero temperatures fail to start. We reserved a cabin for Christmas Day and were really hoping an experienced local or two would join us, but everyone was busy. Turns out the Californians would have to navigate this adventure on our own.

The trailhead is located here because it's the closest direct point from the Elliot Highway to the springs. The trail plummets down this ridge, crosses the low-lying valley and then climbs directly up that small mountain, called Tolovana Hot Springs Dome, before plummeting steeply into the Tolovana River drainage. Eleven miles with 1,500 feet of climbing inbound and 2,600 feet of climbing outbound. This is not as easy as it sounds.

We parked the car with fear in our hearts but set out comfortably at 12:30 p.m. in temperatures around minus 15 and a moderate breeze, gusting to about 20 miles per hour. Not that bad, all in all.

The climb up Tolovana Hot Springs Dome was a real grunt, effectively straight up the mountain on a wind-blown trail sometimes buried in knee-deep drifts. The sled tugged from behind like a boat anchor and I became so overheated with the workload that I took off my hat and stripped down to my base layer — just a base layer, at 15 below! This relative nakedness only lasted until we crested the ridge and met the full brunt of the wind, again.

Wind is a cruel taskmaster. The experience of cold is all relative, but when it comes to windchill, there's truly nowhere to hide. It penetrates every crack and exposes every flaw in your gear and your body itself. You wrap buffs around your nose, stuff rolled socks into your hat and pants, cover your eyes and mouth until you can hardly see or breathe, can't eat or drink, just march, march, march in a interminable effort to escape the wind.

Tolovana Hot Springs Dome may be wind-blasted, but it is stunning. The views up there were endless. We could see the hills rippling toward the Yukon River to the north, the dark silhouette of Denali to the south, and all around us a whole lot of seemingly uninhabited wilderness.

When we arrived at the cabin we'd rented, we found it occupied by a British man and an American women who were sort of from (or at least moving to) Santa Cruz, California — effectively our neighbors back home. They were originally going to ski the 11 miles into the cabin, but after nearly running out of gas on the highway and stopping in the village of Minto, they decided to pay some locals to shuttle them in on snowmachines — which was, from our perspective, one of the few smart decisions they made. Their outdoor clothing looked like the kind of fashionable downhill ski gear you'd find in Aspen on people who go out for a few runs and spend most of the day in the lodge. The woman admitted her rented cross-country ski boots did not fit well and her feet were still numb from the ride in, so they didn't even bother to go out for daytime skis during their time at the springs. Instead, they constructed an elaborate Christmas tree from a spruce that they apparently chopped down, and then duct-taped extra branches to the trunk to make it look prettier. They made ornaments out of bunched plastic bags, cardboard, tin foil, pine cones, and radishes that had frozen on the ride in, complete with a tin foil and cardboard star at the top of the tree. It was eight feet high and filled most of the small front room.

While they waited for their ride, they also cooked a massive dinner of rice, vegetables, and fire-roasted peanuts that they intended to share with their drivers. The snowmachiners finally arrived well after 6 p.m. — a Native man from Minto and his teenage son. The man predictably rejected the mushy vegan food, sat down at the table and pulled out a can of beer and a plastic water bottle filled with whisky. "Smooths the bumps," he explained. The woman started to put on her ski boots, and the Native man pulled out a pair of Sorels that he'd brought for her. "It's 25 below," he said, "you better wear these." She balked but eventually put them on. The Native man consumed the beer and a slug of whisky, and they set out in the darkness, leaving behind a large amount of uneaten dinner, dirty dishes, unswept floors, and of course the massive Christmas Tree. "It's just a bit more to carry out," the woman said rather unapologetically. I inventoried what they left behind — a plastic bag with about six pounds of fresh vegetables that had frozen and thawed to wilted slime, about two pounds of mushy cooked brown rice, a pound of cooked mushrooms and carrots, a half pound of coffee, some tea and sugar packets, a trash bag, and of course, the tree. I'm not sure why these people thought it was okay to assume three walkers towing sleds could carry out all of their trash, but they did come across as rather clueless. I ate the cooked carrots and mushrooms, and we stowed the plastic and foil bits, but opted to burn most of the rest of it. Liehann and Beat especially seemed to take pleasure in dismantling and incinerating a Christmas tree on Christmas Day.

After we'd completed most of the clean-up, we headed out to the springs for a soak. The hot springs sit beside a small stream that comes down a steep hillside. Small plastic tubs are fed by two pipes, one that funnels ridiculously hot water from the natural spring upstream, and one that brings in ridiculously cold water from the river. These springs are difficult to regulate. The outside temperature was minus 25 and the wind was still howling when we headed out and stripped naked. The water temperature inside the tub was on the ouch-too-hot side when we got in, so Beat redirected the cold-water pipe. I ended up at the far end on the tub, dipping my body further into the water as the wind blasted snow in our faces and turned my hair to an ice helmet. I was so preoccupied with head discomfort that I didn't notice how cold the water was getting. After about twenty minutes, my core temperature had dropped sufficiently that I started shivering, which was the first sign that alerted me to the fact this "hot" spring was actually cooler than body temperature where I sat. I was in a bad spot, because the cabin was a three-minute walk away and I'd have to expose my naked body to brutal windchill for several long minutes before I was dressed enough to walk back. I sidled over to Beat and Liehann's warmer side to try to increase my core temperature, but it didn't seem to work. My scalp was beginning to burn, and I was now as worried about head frostbite as I was about hypothermia. I jumped out, bare feet on glazed snow, and managed the clothing transition as best as I could before violent shivers took over, then hoofed back to the wood stove as fast as my wooden feet could muster. For the rest of the night, my scalp ached with minor frost nip. Needless to say, I did not find the soak at all relaxing, and I was not compelled to go back the following night. Beat and Liehann did, better equipped with hats that time around.

The clear night did treat us with a Northern Lights display. They boys discussed getting back in the hot spring to watch, but I was more than happy to stand outside in my down coat and enjoy the light ballet.

We rented two nights at Tolovana, so we had a layover day. We'd hoped to check out the first part of a longer mushing trail that heads out the Tolovana River Valley, but couldn't find access to any other trails near the springs, so we set out for a day's exercise of dragging our sleds back up the dome. The trail was considerably more wind-drifted than the day before, often obscured altogether. Because the wind was so strong in the valley, there was no inversion. It was 19 below at the cabin and 25 below on the exposed ridge. With wind sustained at 25 miles per hour and likely gusting to 35, the windchills were breathtaking, in the literal sense of the term. Windchill charts would place them at 55 to 60 below. I took this photo right before I relented to putting on goggles and a Gortex shell, and even then became uncomfortably cold all too quickly.

The sun set over what I guessed was Denali, as we marched into the wind. Our plan was to travel to an abandoned water tank with a small rabbit hole cut into the leeward side, intended as a wind shelter and sometimes referred to as the "Tolovana Hot Springs Hilton." It was only three and a half miles from our cabin, but felt like a very long march.

The ghost trees must live a hard life on these hills. My feet became disconcertingly cold on the way to the shelter, and I wanted to put on my shell pants, but opted to high-tail quickly back to the more wind-protected forest instead. I had to run much of the descent on painfully thawing "screaming barfies" feet, especially my right foot, which is still overly sensitive to cold because of frostbite damage five years ago. I vowed to figure out a better foot system for windy conditions. I didn't even bring my vapor barrier socks on this trip because I'm so frustrated by the trench-foot effects they can cause. But now I'm back to being more concerned about frostbite than I am about "Susitna foot," so a pair of VB socks will come with me on the Iditarod, along with shell pants that I will put on before windchills really get bad.

As we hiked out the following day, I decided to leave nothing to chance. I put on my Gortex shell, face mask, and wind pants before we crested the exposed ridge. I did get a bit more damp than I'd like, but I was considerably more comfortable, including my feet. That's really the thing about feet. If your core temperature drops, feet are the first to go, and more insulation will do little to keep them warm. But with a warm core, you can wear a pair of waterproof trail-running shoes and two pairs of fleece socks and remain comfy and fine in 55-below windchills.

When it's this windy, though, you do have to stay on the move. I still haven't figured out the goggle dilemma, and the ones I own fog up quickly, so I opted to rely on my hood and face mask for protection. As a result, I ended up with some frostburn (a brown, flaking scab, similar to sunburn) on my cheekbone. Liehann acquired a nice patch on the right side of his nose. As I said, wind is a cruel taskmaster.

Sunrise, which is effectively the same thing as sunset this time of year. Near Solstice, this latitude has four hours of dawn/dusk, which makes for the most amazing light. I believe that four hours of amazing light and three more hours of useable twilight is preferable to the nine and a half hours of normal light we get this time of year in California. My opinion might change if I ever actually lived this far north, but I'm a night person anyway and have a feeling that the long darkness might not get to me that much, just as long as the cold sun came out often enough to cast the land in magic light from time to time.

The trail was almost entirely drifted in, to the point where I frequently wandered off of it. Navigation became a challenge. As we descended, my mask iced up to the point where I couldn't pull it down easily. My Camelback was buried in two layers that needed to remain zipped up, so while my water was not frozen, it was effectively inaccessible. The return trip took nearly five hours to complete, during which time I did not eat and drank very little. This is also something I need to formulate a better strategy for, but wind is mean, mean stuff.

It was still 25 below at the trailhead, and our biggest fear remained — would the car start, or would we be stuck on this wind-exposed dome without protection or cell phone reception for the hour-plus it would take us to deal with the situation? In anticipation of that possibility, we'd borrowed a weed-burner from our friend Ed. It's a large torch attached to a propane tank, along with a short metal chimney pipe that is used funnel heat from the torch flame toward the engine block, warming it up enough to start. It's a trick to do this without melting plastic parts or setting the car on fire, which people have done. Arriving at a trailhead after five hours of hard marching without food or water, tired and sweaty, exposed to 55 below windchill, makes this a Herculean task. I suggested that if the car wouldn't start, we should crawl into our sleeping bags and get rested and warm before attempting the task. Luckily, happily, the car did fire up after a nervous few seconds of sputtering. The ice scraper that the rental company included was so bad that I had to use my Global Rescue card to clear the windows, and then it was a good 45 minutes on the road before the interior was even warmed up enough to start melting the ice on my hat. Good times! Really. We felt enormously satisfied. 
Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Fairbanks Journals, days 2-3

December 23 and 24. Sunrise 10:59 a.m. Sunset 2:41 p.m. Temperature -16F and -34F. Clear.

The second morning dawned clear and cold, and very late, as we were still conditioned to linger over our breakfast and coffee until the sun made its first appearance on the horizon. It's interesting how much people depend on the sun to regulate circadian rhythms, which just doesn't make any sense when there's only four hours of daylight — unless you plan on sleeping sixteen hours a day, which some people effectively do up here in the winter. Joel told us that local movement tends to stop altogether below minus forty. I'm a night-oriented person and can thrive in darkness, even excessive darkness. But I still can't manage early mornings, even when they skew toward 11 a.m.

 Since the second day started so late, we decided to make a short run, 5.5 miles in two hours. My legs were achy from the first day's march, and it was beginning to become apparent how much stronger the boys were compared to me. I often broke into a halting "run" to catch up, and had to hold that strenuous stride just to match their walking pace. Temperatures dropped into the minus teens and I was stripping layers as they added clothing. It seemed like I was working harder for the same pace and argued that this was probably the case, as I'm smaller than them and possess a lower ratio of muscle mass to weight. As a pack animal, I'm just not as fit as boys. If I were one of Captain Scott's ponies, I would be among the high-spirited but small and weak horses. Yes, I would be like Jehu, the pony who pulled with heart but in the end was the first to be shot.

 Beat does make up for the discrepancy by pulling an unconscionably heavy sled. He actually purchased forty pounds of cat litter to add to the load, as he was toying with (and hopefully smartly rejected) the idea of going unsupported to Nome this year. From my perspective, even 40 pounds of extra weight doesn't seem to slow him down much. He is a proficient pack animal.

On Monday night, Beat gave a talk about his 2013 Nome trek at Goldstream Sports, an outdoor store in Fairbanks. Our friend Corrine threw this event together at the very last minute, so I was surprised that the event had a respectable turnout, probably in the range of two dozen people who came to see Beat's photos and listen to some of his stories about manhauling a thousand miles across Alaska. Earlier that day, with the cat litter in tow, he confessed that he couldn't fathom how he ever did it in the first place, let alone how he was going to manage it again. His talk was entertaining, and included a popular slide depicting the relative attitudes of each participant in this obscure multi-sport endeavor:

Bikes, of course, have an indisputable advantage on good trails, and because of this bikers can become spoiled and throw tantrums when backcountry trail conditions are bad (and, oh yes, I've had some epic snow biker tantrums.) Skiers have a slight speed and workload disadvantage compared to bikers, but a skilled skier can eat up miles on good trails and still not suffer too much on bad trails — a not-so-secret reality that makes most skiers incredulous as to why anyone would ever bother with any other method of winter travel. For the manhaulers, however, life is always hard. And when trails are bad, it's even harder. Is it pretty much idiotic to want to walk 350 or 1,000 miles across frozen Alaska wilderness? Yes. Yes it is. I grapple with snow biker guilt and questions of motivation almost every time I think about this goal. But deep inside is a desire to power myself there the hard way, the old-fashioned way — on foot. It may be an inexplicable desire, but it's there. Shouldn't that be enough?

On Christmas Eve, the cold deepened, and temperatures dropped into the minus thirties in low-lying valleys around Fairbanks. We wanted to do a hill climb but couldn't find a place to park near the trail crossing. We ended up getting our rental vehicle stuck in a pullout and had to dig and push it out of a ditch at -30. Afterward, already soaked with sweat and deeply chilled from periods of sedentary waiting, we started our march at the Goldstream River, pretty much the lowest and therefore coldest point in the area.

But manhauling sure is work, and with well-rested bodies and bellies full of food, we warmed up fast. At least Beat and I did. Liehann seemed a little more cold shocked but he was surprisingly cheerful given his very first winter experience quickly dunked him into the sixty degrees of frost range, towing a sled, which is something he'd never done before this week. Luckily endurance mountain bikers are an altogether hardy bunch and Liehann weathered the challenges well.

 Although I am frightened of temperatures this low, in the relative safety of a short day trek near town, I very much enjoy the experience of deep subzero cold. I become acutely aware of my inner furnace and lovingly stoke it with effort and fuel. And in turn, my body rewards me with free movement through an ethereal landscape, immensely quiet, tingling with ice crystals and a time-halting stillness. The low-angle winter light is fleeting and magical, and the simple output of heat becomes a precious gift. Much more than fast, much more than strong, I relish the feeling of being warm amid deep-space cold.

I think Beat very much enjoys it as well.

 We trekked across the Goldstream Valley and up a barely-broken and soft Eldorado Creek Trail until we ran out of time again, and ended up with nine miles in three hours and 11 minutes. Beat has designed these great digital thermometers with sensors accurate to 40 below that log the temperature every minute and record the range on an SD card. He calls these devices "Cold-o-Meters" and they're attached to the sled poles, so we can check the temperature at any time. It was fun to watch the temperature swing from as low as 35 below near the river to as high as 18 below up Eldorado Creek, a soaring 400 feet higher.

 I got some great testing on two pieces of gear I very much like — a Mountain Hardware Monkey Man Airshield fleece jacket and Skinfit primaloft shorts. This windproof fleece jacket, combined with a thin polypro base layer, worked wonderfully in a wide range of temperatures and conditions, including this 35-below march. It actually does block wind while insulating and venting well. The outside "fur" of the jacket will become damp and frosty with expelled moisture, but the inside stayed surprisingly dry. I'm very happy with this piece of gear. It may be the secret to giving up Gortex, although I'm not confident enough to leave my shell at home just yet. The Monkey Fleece won't keep out rain, anyway. The primaloft shorts provide a bit more protection against "cold butt syndrome" compared to a down skirt. Full puffy pants are too warm for walking, but shorts insulate hard-to-heat areas (usually where we hold onto the most body fat, and for women this is often butt and thighs) while still venting excess moisture from the legs. The shorts are ugly, for sure, but effective.

Corrine served us a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner complete with presents of chocolates, peanut butter cups, Diet Pepsi and fire starters (thanks Corrine and Eric!) Later that night, since the temperatures were so low, I opted to test out my new sleeping bag by snoozing outside. It was actually Beat's Nome bag from last year, a PHD Designs sleeping bag that I inherited when Beat acquired an even better one, the Feathered Friends Snowy Owl. With the thermometer still hovering near minus 35, I donned a cotton T-shirt and fleece pajama bottoms and cozied up in the down cocoon, leaving a big enough breathing hole in my bivy sack that I could peer out occasionally and watch a weak but consistent display of Northern Lights dancing overhead. It was magical in a watching-for-Santa kind of way. I slept fitfully, dreaming about wolves and other cold-weather anxieties. At one point I dreamt that Beat came bursting outside to warn me that it was 50 below, and I felt an urgency that woke me up. I had to pee anyway, so I crawled outside in my short-sleeved T-shirt and checked Joel's porch thermometer just before my bare fingers went completely numb. It read exactly 50 below. I knew that this thermometer tends to register 5 to 10 degrees too low, but I'm certain it was at least 40 below overnight. I was toasty in that bag. Definitely a confidence booster. That confidence in my survival system would prove comforting when we set out on our first backcountry trip the following day, just as the weather started to become challenging. 

The Fairbanks Journals, day 1

Sunday, December 22. Sunrise 10:59 a.m. Sunset 2:40 p.m. Temperature: 11F. Light snow. 

We arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska, late on Solstice, the shortest day of the year. The purpose of our trip is twofold, to test various gear systems, as well physical preparations, ahead of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which begins in a mere two months. Or perhaps this goal is a mere excuse, a reason to enjoy the holidays in a wintry landscape, a space where peace and solace happen as swiftly and deeply as apprehension and discomfort. Seeking the darkness for the light, as they say.

On the flight from Seattle, I picked up re-reading the journal of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, written during the fatal South Pole expedition of 1912. Scott's record of events include two old-fashioned terms that I appreciate and plan to adopt into my vocabulary. The first is "manhauling" to describe the act of using human power (in Scott's case, they were all men) to haul supplies over the ice. There's something pure and raw about "manhauling" long distances on foot — the ultimate act of self-sufficiency. The second term is "trying" as an adjective to describe a particularly difficult situation. Temperatures of 73 below, white-out blizzards, major gear failures — events I would describe as catastrophic — Scott characterized as "trying," as though they were just another methodical challenge, a test with a difficult but ultimately achievable solution. I need to adopt this attitude in my endeavors. Although, of course, there are limits and always will be, as Scott discovered too late.

 We established the week's base camp in a massive yard sale gear explosion at the home of our friend Joel, which looks like a cabin in the woods but resides in Fairbanks proper. The region had received about six inches of new snow in an overnight storm. By the time we cobbled a haul load together and set out in the early afternoon, snow was still lightly falling and it was 11 degrees above zero. We were grateful for relatively "warm" temperature to help acclimate our California bodies to cold weather again. Beat decided to try out a vapor barrier shirt as his sole upper layer, and a pair of integrated gators on Hoka trail-running shoes that he designed himself. We joked that he looked like a Japanese Anime character.

 Also along for the trip was our friend Liehann, who is from South Africa and currently resides in the Bay Area, and had almost no winter experience as a result. The mere presence of snow was a relatively new experience for him. He had nothing but enthusiasm for the Alaska adventure, but I'll be honest and admit that I was apprehensive about having Liehann along for the mini-expeditions. In more urgent winter weather conditions, it can be difficult enough to acknowledge and take care of one's own needs without having to observe and advise an even less experienced member of the party. But Liehann did do his homework and did buy or borrow a lot of good gear specifically for this trip. I figured if things became "trying," Beat would take care of Liehann since they already have a bit of a big-brother, little-brother friendship.

We were off into the fresh fluff with purposefully heavy-loaded sleds. Although I'd like to pare down my sled weight to about 30 pounds, with the stuff I'd like to carry and two to three days' worth of food, it still weighs closer to 40 and I have to give deeper thought to what I can both afford and feel comfortable about leaving behind. Thus the purpose of the training/testing Fairbanks trip. And also, of course, to see how my trail-running trained body coped with the (in my opinion) more strenuous physical task of manhauling at slow walking paces over soft snow.

 We got a late enough start that the sun set just over an hour into our trial run. Gray faded into darker gray, and Liehann I think was more freaked out by the sudden immersion into subarctic gloominess than he was by the single-digit temperatures. He was also recovering from a cold, and opted to turn back at mile two. Beat and I marched and huffed for five more miles to the edge of Creamer's Field. I was running way too hot, but it was difficult to balance outside moisture protection from the falling snow against the sweat moisture steaming out of open vents in my jacket. I thought about sled dogs, which tend to run best when the temperature is 20 or 30 below, and overheat more easily above zero. Humans are pretty pathetic when it comes to natural insulation, and have this annoying tendency to sweat, a physical adaptation that is only detrimental to us at subfreezing temperatures. But with the right mix of artificial insulation and sweat management, maybe we're more like sled dogs than we know.

Distant light reflected through the clouds, illuminating the landscape with rose-colored light well after sunset. We walked until nearly 5 p.m. without headlamps, even though the sun had been gone since 2:40. It took us 3 hours and 34 minutes of moving time to cover 10 miles. As much as I try to explain it, I too am mostly mystified as to why I love slow slogging so much. But something about the act, especially in these stark, unforgiving landscapes, resonates with a meditative sense of beauty and peace. My hamstrings were sore and my whole body was quivering at the time equation of 350 similarly strenuous miles at less than 2.5 miles per hour. But I had an inkling that this week was only going to get better.