Saturday, January 04, 2020

2019 in photos

Another year, another set of photos depicting my favorite theme, "This Big Big World (and sometimes the small people in it.)" I couldn't spend a lot of time with this Year in Photos if I intend to finish a White Mountains trip report at some point, but I did comb through what I could and picked a favorite from each month.

The top photo is my favorite of the year, because at first a viewer might not even notice the tiny Beat standing on the spine of a knife-edged glacier moraine. Above him is Glacier de Moming and the pinnacle of the Zinal Rothorn, during a hike near Zinal in September. Switzerland's mountains deserve every glowing superlative that's ever been uttered about them. I don't have any more to add, but my dream is to accompany my Dad to Valais, so he too can experience this mountain wonderland.

January: Homestake

Toward the end of the month, Beat and I headed out for an overnight trip near Vail, dragging sleds ten miles up an untracked road to Homestake Reservoir. We expected warm temperatures, as the forecast low for Leadville was 24, and were too casual about our approach. We both worked up a solid sweat while breaking trail through the deep snow, and were shocked when we finally stopped at the edge of the frozen reservoir and realized temperatures had plummeted to 11 below. We hurried to set up our tent, but starting a long night like when one is already damp, then using somewhat light gear to try to warm up, is rough ... to say the least. Even Beat suffered, and he has many more hours of winter camping in the bank than I do. I think we were both a little shell-shocked by morning. We set out super early to beat I-70 traffic (which of course we didn't), and mostly sleep-walked back to the highway. Through it all, it was still a gorgeous morning.

February: Rodeo Beach

Beat had a work trip in the Bay Area, and I tagged along for a weekend to run the Golden Gate 50K in the Marin Headlands. These regular weekend trail races are something I miss most about living in that region, and was excited to return to one of my favorite places. Unfortunately I placed high expectations on the race and fell short, which caused some angst. We did have to battle challenging weather with heavy rain, temperatures in the 30s, high winds and slick mud. Before all of that, though, we were able to enjoy a lovely morning on the California coast, listening to the effervescent sound of gentle waves on sand.

 March: Breakup on the Bering Sea

Nome, Alaska, was experiencing its warmest March on record, by a large margin. On March 10, hundreds of people gathered along a snow bank for the Nome-Golovin snowmachine race, which launched from the shelf ice a few hundred yards off shore. Fewer than five hours later, there was a mad dash of activity as people raced to move all manner of structures and supplies from the ice. By early evening, the ice was gone. All of it. The solid-seeming staging area for the race became blue open water. This extremely early breakup happened so quickly that many things couldn't be saved; individuals lost tens of thousands of dollars worth of crab pots, fishing supplies and mining equipment. Three men had to be rescued after becoming trapped on an ice floe that started drifting out to sea. Watching all of this ice disappear in real time is one of the stranger events I've witnessed. As the sun set that evening, I stepped outside to take this photo and noticed at least a dozen people walking out of homes along Front Street and lining the snow berm to watch. The reflection of warm colors on rippling water was a beautiful yet disquieting sight.

 April: Audubon gale

Beat and I returned from Alaska and expected instantaneous spring, which didn't quite pan out. April and May 2019 seemed colder and snowier than my past three springs in Colorado. So instead of basking in sunshine we enjoyed "late winter" adventures. This photo is one of the more harrowing days on Mount Audubon (although aren't all days harrowing on Audubon? I froze up there in mid-August.) But we had to contend with subfreezing temperatures, strong gales and blowing snow. After a while it was clear that we were just done with this nonsense — especially Beat, who had absorbed his share of hurricane-force wind in the Salomon Blowhole on his way to Nome. And yet ... those dramatic skies and sharp cornices did make for pretty scenery.

 May: Bryce 100

The Bryce 100 was a cold, muddy, and extremely tough-for-me race, but damn ... it was lovely. The first morning, with its clear skies, snow-capped redrock and skiff of new snow on ground and trees almost made the pain and weeks of injury worth it ... almost.

June: Summer on Niwot Ridge

More than a month after the Bryce 100, I was still grappling with a torn MCL that destabilized my knee and made it difficult to walk. A hike was ill-advised, but the forecast called for heavy snow on the Summer Solstice, at least above 10,000 feet. As a winter enthusiast I am all about experiencing a good dose of summer snow, but I'd have to propel myself somewhere high enough to see it. So I tightened my knee brace and soft-stepped my way to 12,000 feet on Niwot Ridge. The Front Range didn't receive a lot of snow in that storm (it mostly fell on Steamboat Springs, as seen in the movie about Lael Wilcox's 2019 Tour Divide, "I Just Want to Ride.") Still, walking among the hardy tundra flowers amid a dusting of snow was a worthwhile outing. I was so stoked just to be hiking again.

 July: Hayden Pass

My favorite photo from July 2018 was taken in nearly the same spot, but what can I say? I love Hayden Pass. Beat was again racing the Ouray 100 and I was again crewing for him and stealing hikes on the side. I was still limping on my injured knee, but I was slightly stronger than I had been a month earlier. The views from Hayden Pass encompass the best of the San Juans — the verdant hillsides and iron-infused red mountains rising above carved gray rock and deep, narrow valleys.

 August: Crow overlooking Vallorcine

Beat was again racing PTL from Chamonix and I was again embarking on all the steep Alpine hikes I could stomach. I've turned this annual tradition into my own race, trying to outdo my past self and log as much vert as possible. It's gotten to the point where I need to climb more than 50,000 feet in a week to beat my own record, and that is not an easy thing to do when one isn't racing 20-plus hours a day. Still, this silly game does take me to some incredible places. On this day I was climbing one of the trickier passes on the PTL course, spanning the border of France and Switzerland. I was nervous about the steep climb on loose scree, and seeing this crow perched next to a cross overlooking dramatic mountains seemed foreboding. But I needed my vert, so I still went for it.

 September: Dad and the Grand Canyon

How many years has the Grand Canyon made it into my list? You can't take a bad photo here! High winds overnight lifted a layer of dust into the air, creating gorgeous filtering for the rising sun. Also, Dad was gracious enough to wear a florescent orange T-shirt, so he really pops in the foreground. Despite the winds and an earlier-than-normal September departure, we had perfect whether for our 13th rim-to-rim hike together.

 October: Autumn on Timpanogos

On my way home from the Grand Canyon outing, I stole a long-awaited hike on what I consider my first mountain love, Timpanogos in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. I fought fairly terrible weather here, with high winds and temperatures in the low teens near the summit. But for a while, before I raced past everything to keep from becoming lost in the fog and freezing, I was able to enjoy nice fall colors beside Timp's iconic cliffs.

November: Snow squall over the White Rim

One day before my friend Erika and I set out on a planned four-day bike tour through Lockhart Basin and the White Rim, I hiked into the White Rim from Canyonlands' Island in the Sky to place a 3.5-gallon water cache. Heavy and overambitious, that load ... hoisting it down the sheer dropoff from Murphy Point proved tenuous. By the time I climbed out, a cold storm moved in over the Green River. I looked down at the isolated road crossing the plateau, which was being pummeled by rain and snow. Whelp. I thought this spelled disaster-by-death-mud for our bike trip, but we caught a perfect weather window. That could be another theme for my photo collage: "It was the best of weather, it was the worst of weather."

December: 50 below

Speaking of the worst of weather ... our five-day hike into Alaska's White Mountains between Christmas and New Years was quite the challenge with unbelievably slow trail conditions, deep subzero temperatures, and wind. Of course, one experience that I absolutely loved was the coldest day, day two. We awoke in a cabin on a frosty knoll above Beaver Creek to temperatures in the minus 40s. We knew we needed to gather a ton of firewood for the following night, but we still headed out for a loaded eight-mile hike toward the mountains surrounding Fossil Creek. The world, even a somewhat familiar world, is so different at 40 and 50 below (the lowest temperature we'd see was -49.8F.) It's so quiet you can hear microscopic particles of ice tingling in the air, and the snow no longer crunches or even squeaks as you walk ... even that sound resembles the chime of tiny bells. The air was completely still and my body stayed warm in not many more clothing layers than I wear at -10 or even 0F. Still, one instinctively senses the paper-thin margin, and the danger lurking just beyond.

Anyway, no doubt I'll have far more to say about 50 below and truly cold (windchill!) conditions when I finally get around to writing a trip report. Until then, thanks for reading, and Happy New Year.

Photo posts from years past: 
2010 part one, part two

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

2019 in numbers

Early in the afternoon on Dec. 31, during that short but golden window between sunrise and sunset, I wrapped up another year of moving through the world with a 12-mile run in the Goldstream Valley of Fairbanks, Alaska. Temperatures had plummeted to -5F, and my Alaskan friends teased me for insisting this was "cold" after experiencing 50 below during a five-day sled-pull in the White Mountains. Even as I insisted —"People in Boulder freak out when it's five below" — I wasn't sure a mere 2.5-hour run warranted more than a light softshell and a single pair of socks. As it turns out, at 5 below, it does. My elbows ached from the cold. I tried to increase speed to prompt better blood flow, but my leg muscles were sluggish from the fatigue of the camping trip, and my shoulders were too sore to pump my arms effectively. Still, after that hard sled pull through some of the most difficult weather and trail conditions Alaska can churn up, this run was nothing. It felt good to move and breathe in a glistening wonderland frost and snow.  

This final run of the year was an effort to boost my annual mileage to a contrived but fun 2,019 miles. I’d not yet run 2,000 miles in a year, but in mid-December I realized my total was somewhat close — close being about 150 miles away. That was a lot to cram into the shortest, coldest days at the end of the year, but we had planned trips with reasonable mileage for our Christmas training trip in Alaska, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to pad the weeks with a few more. As soon as I announced I was going for 2,000 miles, Beat urged me to take on an even more contrived yet popular running goal — mileage to match the year. What's 19 extra miles? And in case you're wondering, I do count all of my cart-dragging and Alps hiking and various other slow foot endeavors as "running." As I see it, my slow miles are often the most strenuous, so if these miles aren't "running," then nothing I do qualifies as running.  

And, indeed, the Alaska sled trips cut me down far more than I even anticipated. We only managed 30 miles on our first trip and about 65 on our second, but if I were allowed to rank myself on a difficulty curve, I'd give myself at least 400 miles for those trips alone. Fortunately I'm not willing to exaggerate real numbers, so I still came up short on my yearly goal and thus had excuses to head out for subzero runs in Fairbanks on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Years Eve. It was a fantastic way to end the year.

And with that goal secured — plus two miles to grow on — here's my annual "Year in Numbers:" 


138 miles run, 28,993 feet of climbing
214 miles ride, 30,153 feet of climbing

I started out the year with just two races on my horizon — the White Mountains 100 in March and the Bryce 100 in May. I had a lot riding on achieving a measure success in these races — I thought I was finally in position to run a strong White Mountains 100, and I simply needed to finish the Bryce 100 after six (!) years without a successful long summer ultra. So my training focus turned to more serious running, and I mainly rode my bike for fun and relaxation. I actually managed to start becoming somewhat fast (for me.) My mileage wasn't that high because it was still winter, and training runs frequently blindsided me with harrowing difficulties like waist-deep snow drifts and 50mph wind gusts. Beat and I also embarked on a sled-dragging overnight to Homestake Reservoir near Vail, where we expected temperatures in the 20s and instead had to contend with 11 below. My enduring lesson from January is to expect anything and everything, at all times.


133.6 miles run, 21,546 feet of climbing
205.2 miles ride, 22,219 feet of climbing

Early in the month I raced the Winter Bear, a 50-mile fat bike race near Steamboat Springs. I hadn't done enough bike training to warrant serious competition and rode it purely for fun. Still, I had such a great race that it renewed my desire to race bikes again — something in which I’ve mostly lost interest after my awful experience and longterm illness following the 2015 Tour Divide. (I did, of course, race the 2016 ITI on a bike, but my success there still didn't manage to relight the inner fire.) First, though, I had these 100-mile demons to face, so running continued to be the focus. The second week of February brought a not-great race at the rainy and muddy Golden Gate 50K in California. My confidence diminished further with more poor runs as we headed to Anchorage for Beat's eighth start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational.


183.8 miles run, 12,841 feet of climbing
219.3 miles ride, 8,880 feet of climbing

While Beat raced the ITI, I spent most of the month living in Nome — a unique and enriching life experience. Life in Nome is difficult. This selfie is one I took during my regular two-mile walk to the grocery store. Nome is the kind of place where you need goggles just to buy groceries. Each day brought blasting winds, wet precipitation, whiteout skies and renewed snow drifts. March 2019 actually was far from a normal month in Nome — the temperature was 15 degrees higher than average, and they also received more than five times the typical precipitation. There was still the same amount of wind, so nearly every training run became a harrowing adventure — often stumbling blind through knee-deep drifts as freezing rain coated my body in a thick layer of ice. None of this training was all that optimal for running well in a runnable race, and in the end I felt like I showed up to the White Mountains 100 somewhat undertrained. Temperatures on the first day of the race neared 50 degrees — in Fairbanks in March — yet trails remained hardpacked. Still, I became frustrated early on because my legs felt sluggish, and I wasn't quite making the splits I hoped to achieve. Things really started to fall apart at mile 60, when a warm snowstorm intensified, and more than six inches of wet powder coated the trail by morning. Temperatures were still close to freezing, so I was soaked, slow-slogging and grumpy. I finished in a not-terrible time for this race — 31 hours — but I was still pretty disappointed with my performance. Someday I will achieve that perfect White Mountains 100. Someday.


214.5 miles run, 46,190 feet of climbing
145.7 miles ride, 15,705 feet of climbing

We returned from Alaska and I launched right back to training for the Bryce 100, and things were going well again. Running the rocky and steep trails around Boulder isn't easy, but it's still a breeze compared to the wind-blasted mire of Nome.


192.9 miles run, 34,029 feet of climbing
126.9 miles ride, 9,869 feet of climbing

What I remember about May is that it snowed, a lot, even though it was May. This made me a happy but slow runner. The Bryce 100 started May 17 with temperatures in the low 20s and two inches of fresh snow on the desert dirt. As the sun melted the snow, a slimy mud formed over the trails. Around mile 9 I slipped and twisted my knee sharply as I flailed. This hurt a lot, but I always overreact to my little mishaps, so I kept running. The long day dragged on and became a very cold night, down to 18 degrees. I thought it amusing that my "summer" ultra was considerably colder than my "winter" ultra in Alaska. My knee was stiff and sore, and during the night it got to the point where I could no longer run without considerable pain. But I had so much riding on not DNFing the Bryce 100 that I limped it in, again grumpy and disappointed with my 34-hour finish. I was in such pain that I was frowning and quietly growling at the folks who cheered me into the finish line, and I'm not proud of my attitude at all. I told Beat I needed to do some serious soul-searching about why foot racing makes me so angry, and why I keep pursing it anyway. My knee injury was diagnosed as a torn MCL, requiring physical therapy and what turned out to be about 10 weeks before I felt mostly recovered.


19 miles run, 3,540 feet of climbing
481.3 miles ride, 62,586 feet of climbing

As I remember it, I didn't attempt to run again until August. Apparently I still did do some minimal hiking in June, including this climb to Niwot Ridge in a snowstorm on the summer solstice. Mostly I rode bikes and learned to love cycling all over again. My grandmother died on June 9, and I found solace in the meditative spin to the top Mount Evans. My bike accompanied me to Utah, where I embarked on more cathartic rides and cowered in the midst of particularly violent thunderstorms. But when I was injured and grieving, my bike was there for me, and I was grateful.


97.5 miles run, 18,872 feet of climbing
418.8 miles ride, 48,503 feet of climbing

In July I'd decided I wanted to race the Summer Bear, a 200-mile, self-supported mountain bike race near Steamboat Springs in early August. So I was officially in bike training, although still struggling with a restrictive and chaffing knee brace. My friends and I embarked on a fun overnight bikepack near Eagle, and I managed a few good eight-hour rides in the mountains west of Boulder. By the end of the month my knee had improved and I felt ready to tackle a couple of tougher hikes in the San Juan Mountains as Beat raced the Ouray 100.


179.9 miles run, 67,099 feet of climbing
246 miles ride, 30,256 feet of climbing

The first annual Summer Bear launched on August 2, exactly six months after the Winter Bear. Eighteen riders started the event, which inexplicably launched at 6 p.m., for a long night of grinding gravel and rocks and crumbling jeep tracks along the Colorado-Wyoming border.  The route was a weird mix of fairly easy dirt road riding, overgrown double- and singletrack, and steep unrideable nonsense along four-wheeler “trails.” That and the evening start threw most everyone for a loop, and by the second night there were only four people left in the race. I was proud to be one of the few finishers, but dragging my bike through a long, cold, second night out just to travel twenty miles in eight hours was not my favorite thing. After Summer Bear it seemed clear my knee was better, so I took advantage of the remaining couple of weeks in the short Colorado summer to visit a few mountains. I climbed four fourteeners to celebrate my 40th birthday. Then we headed to France for more fun hiking in the Alps.


219.2 miles run, 68,989 feet of climbing
0 miles ride

By September I fully committed to walking the thousand-mile Iditarod Trail to Nome in 2020, and returned my focus to long days on foot. The best part of this month were the three days Beat and I spent in Valais in Switzerland, climbing immense and beautiful mountains. My dad and I hiked across the Grand Canyon again, and I visited a few more favorite mountains in Colorado and Utah as winter snows began to close in.


179.1 miles run, 42,727 feet of climbing
127.9 miles ride, 17,369 feet of climbing

Since October I’ve been entrenched in my weekly winter training plan, which generally involves two days of cart- or sled-dragging, two days of strength training, one tempo run, one to two long runs, and if I can carve out any extra time, a fun bike ride. Sadly, cycling has been neglected. It often feels like I stepped off the bike after the Summer Bear and didn’t get back on it, except for rare occasions when a fun trip presented itself. Early in the month I joined my friends on an overnight bikepack in Leadville that brought more discomfort than expected, demonstrating that I didn’t maintain the necessary fitness for long days in the saddle. I needed to accept that I won’t be able to switch my mode of travel to bike in case I change my mind about the Iditarod. I’m all in on foot now, and if I decide to back out, I’ll have to back all the way out.


172.1 miles run, 38,262 feet of climbing
432.9 miles ride, 34,173 feet of climbing

November was more of the same, although more of our “long runs” became snowshoe adventures in the mountains. At home the weather was a fairly warm and dry, and I even managed to enjoy one long bike ride when it was nearly 80 degrees outside. Before Thanksgiving I traveled out to Utah for a 300-mile bikepacking adventure near Moab, and closed out the month with a few impressively tough snowshoe hikes with my dad as several feet of snow fell on the Wasatch Mountains.


291.3 miles run, 42,727 feet of climbing
0 miles ride

December showed the ways my training has been going well, with increased strength and speed during my cart-drags, better handling of the weighted sled on tricky trails in the mountains, and increased limits in weight training. I’m also feeling quite comfortable on my feet. Nearly 300 miles is a lot to “run” in a month when not a small number of those “runs” are pushing my limit at 2mph, but I experienced minimal discomfort beyond the DOMS that often grips my shoulders and hamstrings.

I’ll write more about our end-of-year trip in a separate report, but it was humbling, to say the least. I flew to Alaska feeling all the confidence a neurotic person like myself can possibly gain, and returned having lost most of it. I learned a ton from this trip, but I also began to seriously question whether I really have what it takes to walk to Nome — mainly, whether I have the engine it takes to walk to Nome. I’m a realist and can’t help but be practical about this. Unless I get abnormally lucky with a month’s worth of trail conditions in Alaska amid this volatile climate era, the math doesn’t quite get me there. However, this isn’t to say I’m just going to give up. I’m going to keep training and keep re-crunching the numbers. Although I may be a realist, that’s never kept me away from the ridiculous.

Totals for 2019:
Rode 2,644.9 miles with 281,991 feet of climbing
Ran 2,021.0 miles with 425,991 feet of climbing
Cumulative 4,665.9 miles with 707,982 feet of climbing

The training alone is immensely rewarding and generally fun, and I’m excited to step up to the starting line on Knik Lake on March 1, and simply see where the next mile takes me. First I need to get through the Fat Pursuit on January 11 … I’ve decided to take on a 100-mile course rather than the 200K. In what will likely be fresh snow with a sled and snowshoes, 100 miles will be more than enough for me. It’s exciting and daunting, but I think 2020 is going to be a good year.
Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Life below zero

It's a typical story of two air travelers stuck on the tarmac at Sea-Tac, twenty minutes after their connecting flight was scheduled to take off. It's the Friday before Christmas, the busiest travel day of the year, and weather is causing massive delays throughout the airport. All hope is lost, but after an hour of refreshing a flight status Web page, the connecting flight comes up an hour delayed. The crew finally lets them leave and they sprint through several terminals at top speed, ignoring the grumbles from a lumbering mass of fellow travelers. All of their heavy winter layers are drenched in sweat and endorphins are surging as they reach their gate, where the crew nods and ushers them inside, slamming the door behind them. 

There's a gap in baggage handlers today and no way their luggage will make it on the same plane. But somehow it does, and by 2 a.m. on the winter solstice, their rental car is cutting through thick ice fog in Fairbanks, Alaska. The temperature is 35 below zero, and their luggage contains everything they need to survive for days outside in this ... they hope. 

Eleven hours later, it's 1 p.m. on the shortest day of the year — just after sunrise or dangerously close to sunset, depending on one's outlook. From a solar perspective, it's high noon. They've rearranged and repacked all of their stuff, and they're pulling into the trailhead at a seemingly abandoned state park, bracing for a three-day trip through these frosty hills. It's still 35 below zero.  Just 24 hours earlier, the Colorado air was a chilly 35 degrees and it was 70 degrees warmer — no less jarring than traveling from winter to 100 degrees. The shift in sensation is stark, like running and then slamming into a wall.

At an otherwise empty trailhead in Chena River Recreation Area, Beat and I pulled our sleds out of the car and tried to latch everything together as quickly as possible. At 35 below, fingers only have a few seconds before the cold clamps down and renders them rigid. I pulled my mittens on and off, trading dexterity for warmth in equal parts. My packing technique was rusty and I inevitably fumbled some of the steps. We were both shivering by the time we finally got moving, about twelve minutes after arrival.

Our planned route followed a low-lying winter trail through the valley for the first five miles. The temperature remained frigid down here, and we moved at a strenuous clip, trying to adjust to the heaviness of air and ground. The strain brought to mind an image of a deep-sea diver on the ocean floor, breathing recirculated air and taking short and labored steps through the frigid water.

We weren't aware of a solstice sled dog race happening on the same day, but suddenly we were inundated with 15 teams passing in both directions in short succession. I became more and more stressed about pulling off the narrow trail and wading into knee-deep snow to let them by. If I had to wait for more than two teams, I was shivering by the time I got moving again. In between these unwanted breaks, I pulled hard in an effort to reach our trail junction as quickly as possible, working up unwanted sweat. Meanwhile the dogs loped past, chins and shoulders coated in frost, mouths open and tongues lolling out, with not a care in the world.

Finally we reached Stiles Creek trail and left the race behind, climbing a corrugated snowmachine track that hadn't seen traffic in many days. The trail pitched upward at a fall-line grade, gaining a thousand feet in just over a mile. Dragging a loaded sled over frost-crusted old trail at such grades is true thirsty work. Although we didn't gain much in the way of degrees of temperature, I had to start stripping down — all coats unzipped, pant side zippers opened, hands and face fully exposed to vent heat. Once my coat was open, my interior hydration valve soon froze, causing an even deeper level of thirsty. A seemingly large number of moose or caribou — we couldn't quite tell by the tracks — had stomped deep, ankle-threatening holes into the trail for miles.

After the steep climb, the trail rolled for along a ridge for five more miles of punchy climbs and descents. I began to cool down, managed thaw my hose, and finally started to relax from the stress of the frantic start. The long twilight finally faded, plunging us into much longer darkness. Beat fished his foldable saw out of the bottom of his sled bag. We shined our headlamps into the woods, searching for deadfall and stumps that we could cut for firewood.

When we reached the Stiles Creek Cabin, the temperature had climbed to 22 below. This actually felt warmer. Beat went about chopping our hard-won wood as I fired up cook stoves and started melting snow. We only had enough wood to burn for five or six hours, and wanted to save some for morning. So once cabin chores were complete, dinner consumed and frosted layers mostly dried, we shut the stove for the night and crawled into our winter bags, braced for a cold night.

I slept reasonably well, cocooned in my bag as the indoor temperature settled into something resembling the outdoor temperature. Beat fired up the stove again early and we lingered as long as we could, awaiting a dawn that wouldn't arrive until 10 a.m. For the second day we had about twelve miles to cover. This would take a strenuous five hours, and we wanted to enjoy all of the daylight.

The route continued along the ridge with ongoing steep ups and downs, and temperatures climbed as high as 12 below. I felt toasty and basked in the sunshine, loving all of this heat. But feeling too warm when it's not warm comes at a price. While I know this all too well by now, it's still hard to resist the urge to work up a good sweat. We descended steeply into the valley where it was again 30 below, and I could feel this deeply.

Beat was moving quickly and I wanted to try to keep up with him, but I struggled as my core temperature fell. I knew I should stop to deal with it — add a layer, at the very least — but I figured we were only a couple of miles from the cabin and we'd be there soon (this is always a terrible assumption.) This low trail was swampy and drenched in overflow — luckily mostly frozen, but also coated in frost so thick that we didn't even slip on the ice as we walked. This sticky frost also clung to the trail, creating terrible resistance. In a way it felt like that time I dragged a 70-pound bag of concrete over gravel, back at home in Colorado. It was so warm that day — warm enough to melt the snow on the road, I thought with a wistful sigh. 

The chill settled in — not dangerously so, but enough to slowly drain the energy from my body. These types of chills can be the most insidious, because by the time you think better of your situation and do something about it, you're in a much tougher spot to recover.

It didn't help that it was such a beautiful, wholly distracting afternoon. For several miles I easily ignored my stiffening shoulders and knees as I looked around in awe. Everything was coated in delicate strands of frost that looked exactly like tiny feathers when viewed at close range. From afar, the entire forest was incandescent, radiating the soft pastel light of the lazy sun.

By the time we arrived at Colorado Creek Cabin, it was 27 below and I felt cold. I stood in the musty and frigid cabin feeling dazed as Beat used a small amount of leftover wood to start a fire. He asked why I was so quiet. In my big down coat I felt okay, but certainly not comfortable. It was 2 p.m. and starting to seem like I would never feel comfortable again. Like I'd always straddle the hard edge of this insidious chill.

We headed out to gather wood before the darkness clamped down again. Beat used his saw, but in this cold I found I could walk up to dead trees with trunks thicker than my arm, pull them down and snap them into pieces like they were toothpicks. Although we were able to collect several big bundles, the wood did almost nothing to warm the cabin — the small room was too airy, with too many big windows, and this wood was probably too soft and rotten to put out much heat. It was still well below zero inside as we cooked dinner and gulped down hot chocolates, climbing into bed by 6 p.m. I did a bunch of reading. Beat, who is still recovering from a man cold, was able to sleep for the better part of twelve hours.

Even feeling warm in a good sleeping bag, it's still rough to spend a whole night in such cold. Having arrived at the cabin cold and scarcely finding an outside source of heat, we burned through a lot of energy during the long night. By 7 a.m. Beat was bored enough to rouse me, and we prepared to leave. We planned these short mileage days to get reaccustomed to the hard work of fully loaded sled-dragging, but it had gotten to the point where sitting was more difficult than moving.

Our final day was just six miles back to the trailhead. While we again planned to head out in the daylight, we just couldn't wait that long. At least, we reasoned, an early return would give us an opportunity to rearrange our systems, acquire new supplies, and bolster our defenses. 35 below is pretty chilly, but it may have just been a little taste of what was coming.

"Alaska plunges into deep freeze as the rest of the nation thaws," one headline read.

"You could easily see minus fifties in the Whites. Maybe 60 below in a cold hole," our weatherman friend Ed warned us.

"Interior Alaska hasn't seen a cold snap like this in years."

We have a second trip into the White Mountains planned, starting Thursday morning. The forecast is uncertain and predictions have been all over the place, but we're braced for and feel we're prepared for the worst. I admit for a day or so, I wanted to back out. I've never experienced 60 below, and I have no desire to experience it. But I have dealt with long periods of 40 below, and I've at least refreshed my personal battle plan thanks to this little jaunt in the minus 30s. Honestly, I'm still nervous, but this will be good for me and my goal of truly preparing myself for the Iditarod. Also, I've become so comfortable with the Whites, a place for which I feel an almost reverent affection. It will be good, I think, to become reacquainted with the same sinister side that greeted me on my first visit in 2010. Love isn't love without both light and darkness. Really, this is what keeps me coming back, year after year, whenever the sun reaches its lowest point over the northern horizons.