Monday, January 05, 2015

The magical land of Tolovana

Oh, these high latitudes and their irresistible magnetic pull. Hold up any compass and the needle will point where I want to be, at any given time. Sure, I appreciate that I am not a compass and can set my path in any direction I please, and value my freedom to reside in one comfortable place and visit many others. But there's something alluring about North. I have yet to define what continues to draw me up here, or capture the specific sensations so I can carry them home. But that something clings to these places like hoarfrost, with an enchanting sparkle that never fails to incite happiness. I feel it when I walk across the Styrofoam snow of a friend's driveway at 20 below, or pass by the heat-blasting fans in the entryway of Fred Meyer, or pedal through a boreal forest in the 4 p.m. twilight. I may not live here; I might not have ever lived here. But I'm home. 

I have a wonderful, accepting family in Utah, and I think they understand why we go "home" for Christmas every year. We flew into Fairbanks late on Dec. 23, and arose not-early before the crack of dawn to organize our gear and head out to the Goldstream Valley to spend Christmas Eve with our friends Corrine and Eric and their young-adult children. Before dinner, Beat and I borrowed their fat bikes and set out for a five-hour excursion up Eldorado Creek and along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Temperatures were around -10 when we set out, and Beat had all sorts of new gear he wanted to try, so he loaded up his pack.

We didn't really choose to ride the pipeline; it's just where we ended up, having not done a whole lot of trail research before the trip. Although not exactly beautiful, the pipeline has its own interesting aesthetic, given you're riding along this 800-mile-long apparatus that carries crude from the North Slope to Valdez. You start to think "Wow, I could follow this all the way to the Arctic Ocean!" And people have done that, but it is not the most travel-friendly route. No, TAPS takes the most direct way possible, cutting straight down and then up every tear-inducing steep hill.

Oh, the gentle silence of Christmas Day. This quiet resonates through my childhood memories of the holiday. There was always that manic presents-and-food frenzy on Christmas morning, followed by the annual trip out to the grandparents' houses along quiet streets and shuttered businesses. Christmas is a wonderful time to be out and about, and Beat, Tom and I encountered close to zero traffic — save for a couple of North Slope-bound trucks — on the two-hour drive out to Manley Hot Springs Road. We'd hoped to gather a group of friends for an overnight trip to Tolovana Hot Springs, but only Tom was available to "ride out Christmas" far away from the grid. He skied in, and Beat and I packed sleds for the 11-mile hike.

As we descended into the Brooks Creek valley, a dense cold swept over my face and legs. Temperatures were actually quite nice for this time of year — 7 above with no wind  — but I'd dressed for "this is really warm" and it really sort of wasn't. One thing I am learning about myself is that I struggle to regulate my body temperature evenly when I am walking and running in sub-freezing conditions. Although it defies logic, I've actually had more success maintaining a comfortable equilibrium on a bike. On foot, different body parts are either too hot or too cold, often simultaneously. On this trip I battled cold knees and a completely numb butt (I had a pair of primaloft shorts in my sled, but I was being lazy about stopping and putting them on when there was a big climb coming up. As it turned out, my butt didn't come back to life until we crawled into the hot springs a few hours later.)

The climb up Tolovana Hot Springs Dome is often an ascent to the pinnacles of Hell. Last year, we experienced 25-mph sustained winds with a temperature of 25 below, for a windchill south of -50. These are typical conditions for Tolovana. For this reason, there's a special mystique to this place. Frost clings to alders, and rime builds in sparkling crystals on skeletal spruce trees. This delicate beauty contrasts the violence and austerity of the landscape — wind blows incessantly, streams of snow tear off the ridges, and burn zones reveal an unbroken expanse of equally inhospitable valleys and windswept mountains. Because my travels through the North are still limited, Tolovana Hot Springs Dome is one of the worst places I have ever been. The kind of place where if I stopped walking for even a moment, icy fingers would wrap around my neck and squeeze exhaustive gulps of warmth from every breath.

It was gratifying, although perhaps less exciting, to visit Tolovana on a day where I didn't think it was going to kill me at any moment. It was overcast, calm, and pleasant. Even with a cold butt, being able to stop and look around without turning my face into a powder blast of wind was nice. The trail was in great shape, with minimal snow drifts. Beat and I ran as fast as our sleds could coast down the steep descent, feeling weightless. We dropped off the inhospitable dome and into the valley where a magical spring draws warmth from the depths of the Earth. It was my fastest-yet trip into Tolovana, and I was surprised when we arrived at the cluster of three cabins — ours would be the only one occupied — well before dark. We exploded the generous contents of our sleds all over the tiny Frame cabin, and joined Tom for a pre-dinner soak. Sausage and couscous was our Christmas feast, followed by a post-dinner soak and hot chocolate before bed. Who could want anything more?

A thick fog settled in for the hike out, almost to the point of sensory deprivation, although I could feel a sharp burning in my hamstrings from pulling the sled up ~3,000 feet of climbing on this more difficult direction. The drive home fully broke the spell, with heavy snow and white-knuckle driving at 30 mph on the Elliot Highway. By the time we returned to Fairbanks, we'd have to unpack our gear, shop for resupplies, and re-pack what we needed for the White Mountains the following morning. It can be exhausting trying to cram all of my Northern love into a week here and there, and the trekking parts are often the easiest parts. But it's always worth it, always. 
Saturday, January 03, 2015

Slow snow and 35 below

In Fox the thermometer read minus 14, which I think boosted the spirits of every Californian in the car. We'd been told by Fairbanks locals to expect "great weather" during our holiday visit. "It might not even drop below zero the entire time you're here," said Ed the weather guy. We'd flirted with minus ten on Christmas Eve, but now a Chinook weather pattern was on the way and the forecast was so warm that I didn't even bother to pack my down pants, Gore-Tex shell, or big mittens for our three-day trip into White Mountains. Six inches of fresh snow on Friday was a surprise, as were the double-digit minuses on Saturday morning. I was excited. The air was sharply clear and the low sunlight was magic. This is what winter tourists crave; we get more than enough "great weather" at home.

At the trailhead, I worked quickly with bare hands to strap a bivy bundle and seatpost bag to the fatbike I borrowed from my friend Corrine. After driving home from Tolovana Hot Springs in sideways snow the previous night, I'd come a breath away from packing a sled instead of the bike. The early-season base would already be soft, and six inches of new snow would be packed down by a handful of snowmachines at best (even in "great weather," travel through this BLM recreation area north of Fairbanks is light during this dark time of the year.) But Corrine has a beautiful bike: A carbon 9:Zero:7 Whiteout with neon green highlights and matching pogies. It made for a pretty accessory even if I had to push it most of the way. I reasoned this would be good training, and not that much harder than dragging a sled.
After a hundred feet of pedaling through the parking lot, I stopped to let most of the air out of both tires. Steve and Beat pressed ahead with their sleds, and I followed not far behind. The first mile was a gradual climb, and I could not catch them. The trail had the consistency of a bottomless channel of sand — the fresh snow was so cold that it wouldn't consolidate, and snowmachine paddle tracks had whipped it up into a deep and abrasive fluff. At low tire pressure the surface was rideable, but that's a relative term. It's embarrassing to be a cyclist with your butt in a saddle, turning cranks, and unable to keep up with people who are walking.

I doubled my efforts and managed to increase the pace from a pitiful sub-3 mph to something closer to 4 mph. Thanks to gasping high-intensity, I was able to pass Steve and Beat. But then, of course, I had to keep it up to not get passed again. Heat poured off my back. All I was wearing on top was a light synthetic base layer, a hybrid softshell with one primaloft front panel made by Skinfit, a hat and a balaclava, and open pogies with no gloves. "Temps must be warming up," I thought. To breathe and vent heat I pulled down my balaclava, but the tip of my nose kept freezing. I used my bare fingers to warm it up, but this strategy worsened my already squirrelly steering.

Just before the top of the Wickersham Wall, mile six, I encountered local legends Jeff Oatley and Heather Best. They were returning from a night at the Caribou Bluff cabin, which is about nine miles beyond the Borealis LeFevre cabin where Steve, Beat, and I planned to stay, and about 22 miles from where we were standing. They warned me it was cold at the bottom of the wall, "At least 25 below," and the trail was consistently rideable but really slow. "We've been riding for six hours," Heather said with a tone that indicated she couldn't believe it herself. If one were to put Jeff and Heather and me on a comparison chart of snow biking strength, Jeff would be titanium, Heather would be steel, and I'd be aluminum foil. If it took them six hours to ride 22 miles, well ...

The Wickersham Wall loses a thousand feet in just over a mile. The downward slope was a welcome break, but even at that grade, coasting was such a slow crawl that I had to pedal to make the Wall feel like a descent. This seemed a special kind of indignation. At the bottom, I stopped on the frozen shore of Wickersham Creek to eat a snack and listen to the silence. The was a crystal tingling in the air, the melody of tiny bells as microscopic ice crystals crashed into each other. It's a beautiful sound. I love subzero air ... when I'm warm.

The hard work persisted. I churned and churned, winced with throbbing quads and calves, and breathed fire that was hot fire because my fleece balaclava recirculates air quite well. I'd put on a fleece jacket and liner gloves before the Wickersham Wall, but debated removing them again because I didn't want to overheat and sweat. My heart pounded. At home, I tend to gauge cycling intensity based on the level of effort needed to scale certain steep road climbs. Silently, I put this effort somewhere below "Bohlman On-Orbit" but above "Redwood Gulch." The virtual equivalent of a 12-percent grade, with a 170 heart rate, on average. Hard work! I didn't dare look at my watch, until I did, and the screen was foggy, but it was definitely registering in the high teens minutes-per-mile. So, 3 mph. I wasn't just running as hard as I could for walking speed — I was biking as hard as I could for walking speed. Grumble, grumble, grumble. I took pushing breaks for the same reason runners take walking breaks, just to catch my breath. My average pace did not drop that much. I started pushing more. It was easier, and not much slower. But ... I was there to ride a bike. It was good training. This was "only" a 19-mile trip, so I could afford to burn some matches. I cranked up the high burners until I was dizzy and almost entirely out of steam. Then I just walked, and my heart slowed enough that I could hear the ice bells jingling again. It was a beautiful night.

There's something about a good, hard effort that shuts out all the excess noise. It's an ethereal sort of tunnel surrounded by a vacuum that sucks up time and space without detection. As I trudged up the steep incline to Borealis, I couldn't believe six and a half hours had passed since I left the trailhead. If I wasn't so exhausted, I'd almost guess my watch was wrong. I shined my headlight at the thermometer above the porch. The mercury registered south of 30 below. "Maybe it's broken," I thought. It was definitely cold, but 30 below?

I unpacked my bike, started and nursed a small flame in the wood stove, gathered several armloads of split wood from outside to bring inside, and only then began to feel enough of a chill to pull on my down coat. As I tried to change the propane canister in the lantern, I noticed the indoor thermometer also read 30 below. "Huh."

Steve and Beat showed up two minutes later. In all, it only took them twenty more minutes to hike to Borealis than it took me to "ride" there. They were cold. Beat's thermometer registered temperatures as low as 35 below on the lower reaches of Beaver Creek. This was gratifying information. It may have taken me 6.5 hours to ride 19 miles, but my reward was a blistering furnace of body heat.

On Sunday, the temperature warmed up to a balmy -16. We reserved two nights at Borealis, so we set out for a day trip toward Windy Gap. Only three or four snowmachines had traveled out that way since the storm, but a night of -35 set up a nice crust that supported considerably faster riding than the previous day. Beat and Steve were bogged down and postholing on this punchy trail, but my bike could float on top of the thin crust at a cool 5 mph. It was like flying! 

While "flying" down the trail toward Fossil Creek, I hit a deep moose track and did some actual flying over the handlebars, into a snowbank. Cold snow packed into my balaclava and sleeves, and it took me several minutes to dig it all out. Now this is snow biking. Twenty miles only sucked up 3.5 hours on this day. 

I returned to Borealis to discover our friends Joel and Tom had biked and skied out, despite my satellite messenger warning about the 6.5-hour ride into an icebox. They also enjoyed a frozen crust, and the trip took both of them considerably less time than it took me. Joel only rode in with minimal gear and the clothes on his back. With the crowds he was confined to the sweltering loft, and thus was forced to reveal his silky smooth triathlete legs.

Ah, cabin life. For dinner I made grilled cheese sandwiches, buttering and flipping each one with a spoon in small pot on the propane stove. Someday, for a few months during a winter, it would be an interesting experience to live in a place like this — a simple cabin out in the Alaska woods but near a traveled trail. I'd bring only stuff I could carry on a bike or in a sled, chop wood, make trails with snowshoes, eat a lot of rice, lentils and butter, write in a notebook, and pedal out once a week or so to gather more supplies. Someday.

Beat and Steve hauling out of Beaver Creek on Monday morning. The Chinook had finally blown in, and when we left the outdoor thermometer was all the way up to 11 above.

Trail conditions had improved, but I still managed to burn all my energy matches by tacking on ten extra miles. From the top of the Wickersham Wall, I descended a steep trail that had been only been used by a single dog team since the storm, which made for a slow churning eight-mile climb before the finish. When I passed Beat and Steve, I expressed the truth that I was "so tired" and "I always forget how hard snow biking is" and "My confidence has been shattered and now I'm really scared of the Idaho race. There's no way I can work this hard for 200 kilometers." I don't think they believed me. To a person hauling a heavy sled, a cyclist pedaling by looks like they're coasting on a hovercraft. That's exactly how they look, and that's exactly what I've thought when I've stood on the other side with an anchor strapped to my hips. But put a snow bike in volatile ("real") winter conditions, and those things are harsh taskmasters.

Beat and Steve had to work plenty hard themselves, and also admitted that these supposedly easy-going training trips have a way of shattering confidence. (They're both preparing for the thousand-mile haul to Nome.) But there's something about working especially hard for something that boosts appreciation, and this may have been my favorite December trip into the White Mountains yet. But I still wonder how I'm going to survive the Fat Pursuit, let alone the Bering Sea coast trip I planned for March. Best not to think about it too much.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014 in photos

 I've fallen behind in blogging but didn't want to miss out on the "Year in Photos" review that I've been posting since 2006. It's always fun to pick one favorite photo for every month of the year. However, as I scrolled through my blog archives here at Sea-Tac airport, there was a sense of disappointment about this past year's selection. "I need to diversify my repertoire," I thought. "Too many variations on the small people in big places theme." But this is what 2014 was for me — a year of ambitious adventures coupled with feelings of insignificance in bewildering expanses.

The above photo is my favorite from this past year, as those who have seen my blog banner might have guessed. I took it in late February during the Iditarod Trail Invitational, in a region near the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River known as Egypt Mountain, while Beat and I dragged (and I mean dragged) sleds across a barely-frozen swamp. Beyond this day being one of my most physically strenuous days of a physically strenuous year, this place was spectacularly surreal. It was February, in the Far North, and we had been hauling for three days through subzero cold and snow. We crossed over the Alaska Range, into what is often the icebox of Alaska, only to watch winter disintegrate with breathtaking rapidity. We were far from the outer reaches of modern civilization, where the air was warm and still, and yet devoid of any signs of life. It looked and felt like a dystopian wilderness — the world after the end of the world, and for that reason had a special kind of uniqueness to an already unique place to visit. Now that it's over I can say it was worth dragging my sled over fifty miles of glare ice, alders, swamps, roots, and mud, just to stand in that place at that point in time. But it was one of my most difficult days of the year (it's a toss-up between that day, bushwhacking through the Stettynskloof on the last day of the Freedom Challenge, and the day I tore my LCL in the Tor des Geants. The TDG probably wins.)

 January: Tree house, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California. January was a heavy training month of long bike rides and 50K runs, and I didn't take time to compose the most interesting images. But I love a good oddity, and this tree house on Gazos Creek is a fun place to roll past while descending from a high chaparral ridge into a dark, dense forest.

 February: Loreen Hewitt on Rainy Pass, Alaska. This is another image from the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Rainy Pass is a special place that commands awe and often terror. We were fortunate to visit in beautiful weather, even if the warmth and sunshine would become more of a nightmare on the eastern side of the range.

 March: Placer River, Southcentral Alaska. While Beat continued to make his way toward Nome on the Iditarod Trail, I enjoyed a full month of rambling around Alaska. There were many fun mini-adventures that month that culminated in the White Mountains 100 in Fairbanks, so it was hard to choose one photo. I like the lighting in this image of a fat bike ride near Turnagain Arm during a failed attempt to see Spencer Glacier (three of us were stopped by unwillingness to cross a waist-deep river. My friend Jill chose a different route earlier on and managed to reach the glacier.) Despite no glacier, it was a fun and beautiful outing all the same.

 April: Santa Cruz, California. April and May were heavy on all-day bike rides to prepare for the Race Across South Africa. One upside was exploring an array of places close to home but new to me.

 May: Henry Coe State Park, California. I like this photo because it's a quintessential image of mountains in the Bay Area. In all honesty, after living most of my life around mountains in Utah, Alaska and Montana, it took me some time to develop an appreciation for the subtle beauties of grassy peaks and oak-dotted hillsides. In four years I've grown to love California's landscapes, and miss these curvy ridges and deceptively steep slopes when I'm away.

June: Lehana's Pass, Eastern Cape, South Africa. There were many images I liked from the month-plus I spent in South Africa, but I had to go with the hike up and over the Drakensberg Mountains during the Race Across South Africa. The elements of this photo illustrate the experience well — the ways in which the route was difficult and stunning, often simultaneously.

 July: Jonkersberg Nature Preserve, Stellenbosch, South Africa. Following our completion of the Race Across South Africa, we spent a few more days in Cape Town and I had a chance to embark on several trail runs in the area. The day before we left, which was the fourth of July, there was a cold and wet storm that dumped fresh snow on the rocky peaks above this preserve. Despite a pounding soreness in my legs, I ran through the downpour and relished the chance to reflect on the past month and soak it all in. This was a rewarding way to wrap up my adventure in South Africa.

 August: Mount Baker, Washington. Beat joined Bellingham runners Daniel and Aaron on a hundred-mile run from tidewater to the top of this volcano in Northern Washington, then back. I served as part of the support crew and joined the run for two choice segments, including an 18-hour summit bid that started with a treacherous river crossing and continued along a difficult bushwhacking route. The lower reaches of the route — which was the closest access point from the sea — proved to be far more challenging than the glacier climb. I took this photo on a lower snowfield in the morning, before we roped up.

 September: Alta Via, Aosta Valley, Italy. This photo is from the Tor des Geants, and thus my favorite thing about it is the stance of the runner in the foreground. The Alps make you feel very small in different ways than Alaska, and at this point I felt very, very small and very, very slow. (But not as small or slow as I'd feel two days later when I faced an extremely difficult descent with significant pain and without the ability to bend my knee.) I still believe it's rewarding to gain these perspectives, even if the Tor des Geants proved to be an admittedly large disappointment in an otherwise fantastic year.

October: Highway 6, Juab County, Utah. I was injured an unable to run or hike, but headed out to Utah anyway for my favorite tradition with my Dad, the fall Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon (instead of hiking I joined the shuttle drive-around with my Mom, which was enjoyable.) On the trip out to Utah I enjoyed a fun driving adventure by traveling small two-lane highways through the desert. Although I clearly value my health and ability to be physically active, it was rewarding to reinforce the aspect of adventure that matters most to me — the experience of moving through the world.

 November: Prewitt Ridge, Big Sur, California. Before Thanksgiving my friend Leah and I were able to steal away for an overnight bikepacking trip on Cone Peak and the surrounding ridge. In this photo you can see Cone Peak in the center, framed by this beautiful old tree.

December: Tolovana Hot Springs, Alaska. Beat and I hiked into this backcountry hot spring, joined by our friend Tom on skis, on Christmas Day. Temperatures were mild (around 10F), and it was for the most part an overcast day. But the low winter sun peeked out as we descended the upper ridge where thick hoarfrost clings to the trees, illuminating a appropriately Christmasy scene. This is the third solstice-Christmas-New Years that we spent in Fairbanks, and we had a fantastic trip. More on that in the next blog post.