Monday, April 06, 2020

Last days of innocence — day six

March 7, 2020. Rohn, Alaska. 12 degrees and overcast. 

I don't enjoy winter camping. There. I've said it. What I enjoy is moving through wintry landscapes, feeling powerful against the cold, absorbing beauty and wonder while generating my own bubble of comfort and warmth. Sleep is one of the biological necessities of being out for days on end. And of course, after long hours of sled-hauling, it feels incredible to remove the weight from my sore limbs and temporarily fade from consciousness. But once I crawl into a sleeping bag, movement ceases and my personal bubble of protection bursts. Suddenly I'm dependent on these inert materials that I don't quite trust. I smother myself in nylon and down until it's difficult to breathe. Then I open the bag ever so slightly to allow a tight funnel of air. The feel of this frigid air is sinister, but I crave oxygen so I must ignore an innate sense of danger. In order to shut out the anxiety and get some sleep, I need to be fully exhausted. 

In Rohn, exhaustion and mild dehydration let me remain unconscious in my bag for nearly five hours. When the 2 a.m. alarm sounded, I felt disoriented and desperately thirsty. I sat up, let the cold slap of air jostle me into awareness, then jumped up quickly to generate heat. I jogged in place to thrash away the grogginess and then fumbled through packing up my gear. My fingers tingled as I worked. The thermometer informed me that it was 12 degrees, which is pretty warm. I smirked and shook my head at my own ineptitude. 

"If I liked winter camping, I would probably be better at this," I thought. 

After packing I jogged a few hundred yards to the Rohn cook tent to collect the things I'd hung to dry overnight — shoes, socks and waders — and quickly gulp down coffee and instant oatmeal before refilling my thermos with hot Tang. Amber had chosen to wake up at the same time. We shared the groggy minutes with Kyle, who seemed to have taken on the job of 2 a.m. checkpoint watch, but mostly sat on the straw and stared blankly into space. The rest of the tent was crowded with sleepers, as I'd expected, which is one of the reasons I opted for the peace and quiet of an outside camp. 

As I packed up to leave, a few flurries wafted through the air, but there wasn't any new snow on the ground. The InReach weather forecast offered an hourly assessment that predicted the snow wouldn't begin until 2 p.m. I believed this, and hoped to make good mileage before the blizzard began in force. I struggled to start moving. Grogginess remained and I hadn't rehydrated as well as I should have in Rohn. Still, as soon as I hit the glare ice of the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River, I dug in my studded shoes and marched with purpose. The South Fork is another volatile mountain river that I fear, but it did feel incredible to move across a hard surface, hauling a suddenly weightless sled as it glided effortlessly across the ice.

After two miles of river ice, the trail veered onto the shoreline, where it would roll in and out of steep drainages for the next 15 miles before wrapping around Egypt Mountain and descending toward the Farewell Lakes. The trail through the forest was soft and punched with moose tracks. Moose-a-noia kept me in silence for a couple of hours, but my consciousness began to flag, and the sleep monster demanded that I find a distraction. I chose music — specifically Grimes' latest album, "Miss Anthropocene" — and fixated on an upbeat song that spoke to the surreal time of day and place through which I moved, "4ÆM."

"I'm out late at 4 a.m.
He says, 'How's the weather, baby? How've you been?'
You're gonna get sick — you don't know when
I never doubt it at 4 a.m. ..."

As the chorus repeated itself again and again — because I'd put the song on repeat — I became more reflective. It seems prescient now, only because I'd been so distracted by my own adventure, but I had been thinking about this issue earlier. On the day we flew from Denver to Anchorage, which was Feb. 27, I'd come across a long essay published in Smithsonian Magazine in 2017 that I spent much of our layover at the Seattle airport reading. It described in captivating detail the 1918 flu pandemic. From that article I followed links to another long essay which drew parallels to the novel coronavirus. This author speculated that eventually 40 to 70 percent of the global population would contract this virus, and the implications were unknown but almost certainly devastating. I remember shutting my laptop as we boarded our plane and thinking, "Wow. It's coming."

Of course, on Feb. 27, the notion of a global pandemic was still abstract. There had already been an outbreak in Washington state, so we knew the virus had arrived in the United States, but it still seemed plausible that it could be contained. I thought about the article on and off as I went about my pre-race preparations. Still, it was easy to put it out of my mind. I had my own immediate concerns to address. By the time the race started on March 1, I wasn't thinking about the issue at all.

Now, as I traversed a landscape devastated by recent wildfires and surrounded by stark mountains and ominous skies, Grimes' heart-pumping beats and nihilistic lyrics stirred up week-old reflections about a vague, unknowable future that was probably closer than it seemed. I still thought about the issue in abstract ways. My trains of thought were frequently fractured and my intelligence was undermined by fatigue. I remember thinking about my experience with pneumonia in 2015, which I contracted in part because I was headstrong and reckless during the Tour Divide. One takeaway during these abstract reflections was, "We need to be strong. Right now I'm not strong."

Indeed, any illusions of strength and energy were elusive. I was struggling to hoist myself up every hill. As I write this post exactly one month later, memory has already scrubbed some of the specific pains I was experiencing. But I can still recall one particular hill, climbing away from the Post River. At the time I was following closely behind the Italian cyclists. From the top of the previous hill, I watched as they shimmied up a vertical-looking slope, precariously perched almost underneath their bicycles as they pushed. Witnessing this, I resolved to get a running start, and bounded recklessly down the slope as my knees locked with each impact and my sled weaved erratically. Near the bottom, I was distracted by a massive gut pile left behind by bison hunters, and lost momentum before hitting the wall. My quad muscles seemed to give out as my back strained against gravity. The sled yanked me backward and I lost my balance, briefly flailing as though I might tip over backward, before lunging forward and slamming my bruised  knee into a wind-scoured patch of frozen dirt. This pain I remember, along with the cause of it — I was too weak to boost myself up a hill, so I had to use my injured knee as an anchor. When I recount this moment it sounds trivial, but at the time it felt like I was slowly losing control, and it was unnerving.

Endurance racing is a paradox. We pursue these challenges to prove to ourselves that we have strength and resilience, that we can rise above weaknesses and overcome difficulties. But the act of pushing limits requires exactly that — venturing close to physical and mental edges. Tumbling over the precipice is always a risk. My experiences in 2015 and beyond have proven this to me, beyond doubt. And I admit, even as I continue to enthusiastically pursue endurance racing, I have pondered consequences and costs I might no longer be able to afford. I do so while acknowledging that a life scrubbed of risk and uncertainty, a life of bland inertia and unimaginative stability, a life as void of joy as it is of pain, is the last thing I want, for anyone. Life — forever a paradox.

I'm prone to existential crises in the best of times. One reason among many that I pursue endurance efforts is because intense activity forces me into a more focused plane of existence, where I must direct my usual overabundance of mental energy toward immediate concerns. Once my motivating Grimes kick lost its effectiveness, my immediate concern was flagging energy. I switched off the music and returned to an audio book of "The Sun is a Compass," but I wasn't listening. Instead I watched gray skies deepen as snow flurries picked up in intensity and began to accumulate on the trail. For the rest of the day I no longer thought about the abstract future or even walking to Nome; I only thought about my next steps into a snowy wilderness that might as well be eternal.

Along a five-mile-long flat stretch crossing the Farewell Lakes, some 25 miles into the day, I was finally caught by Greg the skier. He was badly hungover from too much whiskey in Rohn, and provided some comic relief with a lighthearted attitude about his sorry physical state. He'd already reached his goal — Rob's Roadhouse in Rohn — and now was just slogging through the mandatory victory march to McGrath. Motivation was low but spirits were high. He said he was going to stop soon for a meal or an eight-hour nap; he hadn't quite decided. My plan was to not stop at all until I reached Bear Creek Cabin. Not even one of my thirty-second sled slumps, because with my own level of fatigue and flagging motivation, I couldn't trust myself to not let one of those short rests turn into minutes or hours. Snow was coming down hard and it was warm, 28 degrees. These are some of the most difficult camping conditions, because it's almost impossible to prevent gear and shoes and stoves and pretty much everything from becoming soaked. I was determined to reach that cabin.

Near the end of the last Farewell lake, I told Greg I expected eight more miles of rolling hills to the former site of Bison Camp, where the trail finally drops from the foothills onto an expansive river plain. It turned out to be closer to ten miles, which became a frustrating miscalculation when each small hill renewed a demoralizing struggle. A persistent wind whipped the accumulating snowflakes into a frenzy, prompting me to don my hated goggles for a few hours. I was grumpy, and that was before I connected with Beat on his satellite phone. He told me no one had broken the mile-long offshoot trail to Bear Creek cabin, and the snowpack was so deep that there was no way to access the shelter. Now I understood that I'd be camping in the wet snow, whether I liked it or not.

Sullenly, I descended into the Farewell Burn, a place that long ago was barren and dry, but now hosts an impossibly thick spruce forest and many feet of snow. For the first ten miles beyond Bison Camp it's difficult to even find an open spot to camp among the practically interlocking tree branches. More swamps begin to open up around the Bear Creek intersection, so that's where I planned to camp. I restarted "The Sun is a Compass" because I hadn't been listening, but I still wasn't listening. Instead my staccato thoughts jumped through past memories of the Farewell Burn, both distant — the barren, frigid wasteland — and recent — the snow-choked leg-trap.

At least five inches of snow had accumulated by the time I heard the whine of a snowmobile for the first time all day. I assumed it was race director Kyle and Craig, but in fact it was the Iditarod Sled Dog Race trailbreakers, a team of six high-powered snowmobiles dragging massive trailers. Where they caught me, the trail was so narrow that I had to stop, unhook from my harness, lift my sled onto a chest-high berm, and them climb up there myself so they could pass.

I was overjoyed to see them. I'd had some suspicion they'd pass, since Iditarod trailbreakers had caught me near the same spot in 2018. That year, I had been banking on a quiet night at the cabin and was annoyed when I realized I'd have to share with six loud-partying men. This year, however, I acknowledged that the trailbreakers were my ticket to shelter. They presumably were heading out tho Bear Creek, so they'd break in the trail and I'd be able to follow. I knew they wouldn't be thrilled to share the small space with freeloaders like me, Greg and likely others, but such is the way of public shelter cabins in Interior Alaska.

After they passed, I also enjoyed the still-soft but much smoother trail that they'd broken. A mile later, Asbjorn skied up from behind as though I was standing still. He glided to a stop beside me and offered a piece of chocolate, which I declined, then proceeded to relax and munch on his chocolate for several minutes before zipping past again. After another mile Greg passed, and then I caught up to a walker, Robert. It was going to be tight in that cabin, but I didn't mind. It was dry in there. The trailbreakers were hauling a sled full of firewood, so presumably it would also be warm. Just unbelievable luxury.

Around 9:30 p.m. I arrived at the intersection, where it was clear the path had been recently plowed — the trench was nearly neck-deep in spots, and the trail surface was choppy. It took me nearly a half hour to make my way down to the cabin. By 10 p.m., snow was coming down so heavily that I could barely see a few meters away. Much of my upper body was caked in this wet snow. The buckle on my sled harness had collected so much ice that I couldn't release it. Eventually I just wriggled out of the shoulder straps and stepped over the harness, forgetting that I was still wearing my snowshoes, which caught on the straps and sent me tumbling headlong into a five-foot-deep drift just off the cabin's porch. I thrashed out of the drift, spitting and swearing. Powder had found its way into my ears and up both nostrils. My clothing was now fully saturated in wet snow. Yikes.

"Thank god I'm not setting up camp right now," I thought.

The interior of the cabin was stiflingly hot. The trailbreakers had gathered around the small table with playing cards, beers, and a giant bag of fun-sized candy bars from Costco — dinner, they told us. The four ITI folks set to a flurry of activity, melting snow for water and spreading out our wet clothing across the cabin. The trailbreakers watched us, bemused.

"You guys sure have to work hard at night," one observed.

Another pointed out that all of their water — 16-ounce plastic bottles also from Costco — had frozen solid. But hey, they had plenty of beer.

Cognizant of the many hazards in the crowded cabin, I slipped outside to fire up my stove so I could heat water for freeze-dried chicken and noodles. My initial instinct had been to just plop down in my sleeping bag and pass out. But my blood sugar had dipped so low that my hands were shaking, and given my struggles with strength, I knew I couldn't afford to skip a meal. It was quiet outside, the kind of saturated silence that accompanies falling snow. My toes tingled. While stumbling around the newly broken trail to collect snow for melting, I managed to break through into some kind of overflow, and now both of my down booties were soaked. I figured I could dry them overnight, and just let my feet remain sopping wet as I dangled my legs over the edge of the porch, softly singing a random Roxette song that had plopped itself in my head.

Lay a whisper on my pillow 
Leave the winter on the ground 
I wake up lonely, this air of silence 
In the bedroom and all around.

 And then, more loudly, knowing the commotion inside shielded me from judgement:

"It must have been love
It must have been good
But I lost it somehow ..."

My voice was ragged and hoarse, my singing terrible, and I don't think I remembered these lyrics quite correctly. But the comic relief was worth it. I felt better already, and I hadn't even eaten yet. Since I'd arrived less a half hour earlier, more than an inch of powder had already accumulated on my sled. Based on the forecast I'd checked a few hours earlier, there was a good chance it wouldn't let up until morning.

"There could be a foot of new snow by then," I thought.

Back in the cabin, I joined Asbjorn, Robert, and two of the trailbreakers as we squeezed together into the small loft, which was designated for gear only and probably not designed to support five full-sized humans. Robert asked when I planned to wake up.

"Whenever they get up," I replied, nodding toward the trailbreakers. "The trail is probably going to be buried by morning; seems pointless to leave early and have to break trail, when we know they'll pass by eventually."

The temperature in the loft must have been 90 degrees. I cracked a small window and sprawled on top of my bag. My earworm — more comforting than annoying — lulled me to a sweaty sleep.

"And it's a hard
winter's day. 
I dream away ..."
Saturday, April 04, 2020

Last days of innocence — day five

March 6, 2020. Puntilla Lake, Alaska. 21 below and overcast. 

Again 4 a.m. arrived. I emerged from my down cocoon to a bunkhouse overflowing with people. There were sleeping bags spread on the floor, sprawled over the couch, and presumably filling all twelve bunk beds. Inches from my own head was the head of a man slumped in a chair, neck bent awkwardly over the back rest. I'd slept the sleep of the dead for close to eight hours again, and felt guilty about my part in crowding out the others. But wow, did I appreciate the rest. 

Rising from such sleep to my waking existence in a battered body was still its own subtle form of torture, but this was gradually becoming my normal. As I sat up from my sleeping bag, I examined my feet and legs. The edema did seem to be subsiding, and I could almost see my ankles. On this morning, however, I found a fist-sized, goose-egg bruise and large scratch across my left knee. Dried blood was smeared down my shin. When did that happen? I scoured my memory but had no recollection of bashing my knee. Had I been sleepwalking? The cause of this injury would remain a mystery. 

4 a.m. was go time for at least half of the reclined bodies, and soon the cabin was bustling with activity. I gathered up my many pieces of clothing that I'd strewn about, panicking when I briefly lost track of my pants. Damn, I thought — I've got to come up with a better system when I hang my stuff to dry in checkpoints. Losing my only pair of pants would be bad. Before dressing, I stepped outside to check the thermometer on my sled and grab packets of instant coffee. It was still 20 below. The cold air felt nice on my mysteriously bruised knee. My fingers stiffened and shoulders quaked as I rifled through my duffle, and I grinned as my heart began to pound.

I'll admit this is one of my favorite sensations — the thrill of a deep subzero chill on bare skin when it poses no danger, because I'm close to safety. It's quite another thing when I'm alone with only meager supplies and my own body heat, many miles from the nearest shelter. For this reason I chose to relish the cold while I could, darting from my sled to the outhouse, squatting over the hole as a frigid breeze stung my backside, and returning to the cabin once solid shivering set in. I'd stayed outside a few minutes too long, and it took several minutes of pacing and convulsing through my dressing routine before I emerged from this mildly hypothermic state. I poured hot water into coffee and instant oatmeal, then sat in the last available folding chair to savor my meager breakfast while the flurry of activity continued around me. 

Once I was outside for good and hooked to my sled, the playfulness faded and reality clamped down. My legs may have been less swollen, but they still felt disconcertingly heavy. And that knee bruise, however it happened, was real. The joint had become painfully stiff. My wrist hurt. My head was foggy, my shoulders pinched with pain. Of course these are the physical realities one must accept during such endeavors — hike 30 to 40 miles each day through soft snow with a fifty-pound sled, and most bodies will begin to break down. You'd think I'd be okay with this by now, but it's always hard to accept.

Pain is one aspect of endurance racing that memory always manages to scrub, at least well enough to convince ourselves to return, again and again. But in the midst of it all, if we let it, the pain can become a cacophony, overwhelming any beauty or wonder that we might otherwise experience. So we choose to mute it, at least as best as we can, with whatever coping mechanisms we've found, because the beauty and wonder is what we're here for. Over weeks and months the pain subsides, yet the beauty and wonder remain. Ultimately what we've learned is that we can overcome pain. It's a beautiful realization in itself, a kind of innate understanding that when pain or difficulty finds us in our real lives back home, we'll recognize our own power over it.

The next 18 miles would bring a long climb into the Ptarmigan Valley, dipping into a few drainages, crossing the headwaters of the Happy River, before veering into a narrow canyon that would carry us over a minor crest in the Alaska Range at Rainy Pass. On this morning the trail was in fantastic shape — hard-packed enough that I didn't need snowshoes, although still punchy at random intervals, and of course like sandpaper against my sled at 20 below. Throughout the day, most of the bikers who spent the night at the Puntilla Lake bunkhouse passed me. This photo is George and Graham, the Kiwi duo. They both looked a little punched when they stopped to ask me if I was all right.

"Just taking photos," I said, holding my camera out to show them that my frequent stops had nothing to do with distress. "It's such a beautiful morning."

With that, George and Graham faded into the distance. Their enviable speeds ignited some mild resentment that smoldered throughout the day. I promised myself that never, ever, would I return for a another attempt of this trail on foot. Never again. Even if I didn't make it to Nome this year. I wanted the bike and the freedom. Even if I had to spend a lot more time honing my mechanical skills so I could adequately take care of it in subzero conditions. And even if I had to push the bike a bunch, I'd still be able to ride it sometimes. This 2 mph continuous slog without end ... this kind of stuff is for the birds. Well, actually that's a terrible analogy because birds can fly. What was I thinking?

Still, it was a beautiful morning. Moments like this also remind me why I do in fact love the 2 mph slog. I felt completely immersed in this place — vigilant, vulnerable, and 100-percent present. I plodded across terrain that I could feel with every muscle in my body and breathed air that was both metallic and sweet in my throat. I watched sunlight emerge through a film of cloud cover, casting the most interesting light over an otherworldly landscape.

Most of the light this morning was blue and gray, but these patches of pink were mesmerizing.

Sunrise over a far peak. I actually stopped and waited a short time for the light to spread, but it just kissed the mountain and then faded.

Once the sun was up, only overcast skies remained. More bikers passed. I was feeling far too much wheel envy on this day, so I tried to remind myself what I had going for me. Lots of time to look around! No dealing with flat tires at 20 below! I can wear snowshoes when the powder is deep! My sled is heavy but not quite as heavy as a loaded bike! But my legs. My shoulders. This depth of fatigue when I'm not even over Rainy Pass yet. I don't remember being this tired before, even in 2018 when I was still hyperthyroid and coping with much worse asthma than I have right now. Of course, the painful memories are always the first to fade.

I did feel indescribably lucky to be back in the Ptarmigan Valley, this incredibly beautiful and remote piece of the world. And it was fun that so many others were climbing up the pass at the same time. All of us lowly humans from all over the world, operating under our own power, more than a hundred miles from the nearest road, ascending the Alaska Range of all things. The Alaska Range!

Five miles before the pass, the trail veered right into the narrow canyon surrounding Pass Creek. Here the trail becomes steeper and walled in by rocky slopes and avalanche gullies. The mountain pass is a volatile place, a watershed divide where warm and moist air from the coast meets the dry, cold climate of the Interior. More often than not, Rainy Pass is inundated with strong winds and brutally cold storms. For the past two days, that's all I'd been hearing about — temperatures of 40 below, winds gusting to 40 mph, racers setting out and then retreating back to Puntilla Lake. I carried my own plan to retreat if the similar windchills remained — I know how long exposure lasts up here at 2 mph, and I wasn't willing to take the risk. But then, somehow, on this fifth morning of the race, the weather shifted in my favor. The breeze was gentle and temperatures were warming rapidly beneath overcast skies, and yet there was still enough sunshine to cast beautiful light on the stark landscape.

It occurred to me that this was now my fifth ascent of Rainy Pass, and I have yet to see a bad day in these mountains. How such a savage place could so gently let me pass not just once, but five times, seemed serendipitous to the point of divine intervention. I know I'm not special, just lucky ... but if I was going to have one good day on the Iditarod Trail this year, I was happy it was here. This post already has a lot of photos, but it was fun to look back on past journeys through these mountains:

2008 — heading to McGrath with a bike. I was such a baby then, so innocent and naive. A harrowing night awaited me on the other side of the pass, but in this moment I was still holding a solid pace, feeling strong, and riding one of the most incredible highs of my life. I was crossing the Alaska Range! Alone! Me! As you can see it was a nice morning, about zero degrees and sunny with no wind. I was working up a good sweat.

2014 — McGrath on foot with Beat. We also shared the crossing with friends Steve Ansell, Tim and Loreen Hewitt, and Rick Freeman. This was my most relaxed trip over the pass, a regular group hike on a sunny summer day. The temperature hit 48 degrees in Rohn that afternoon.

2016 — Nome with a bike. My bike was really heavy. I was lucky to have a warm day with reasonably firm trail to cross Rainy Pass. (The trail was punchy, windblown, and mostly a hike-a-bike uphill, but these were still the best trail conditions I've seen on Rainy.) Temperatures climbed into the 30s during the day, warm enough that I stopped for twenty minutes to take off my boots and socks so I could air out my toes as I picnicked in the sunshine.

2018 — McGrath on foot. I was celebrating with Bernadette and feeling pretty chuffed about hauling our wheezy selves this far. Temperatures were a bit below zero, but skies were clear with no wind.

2020 — Nome attempt on foot. Same spot, same day of the week, probably close to the same time of day as 2018. Temperatures were warming rapidly as a storm moved in from the south, and I believe it was already above zero at this point. Still no wind. I was now five for five on lovely weather over Rainy Pass. I considered this a good omen.

By the time I started down the pass, I was feeling punched. It's true — no matter how great the weather or trail conditions, it's still a long, steep haul to climb Rainy Pass. I stumbled a bit, started to feel cold, stopped to put on my fleece jacket, ate an entire chocolate bar (yes, one of the big ones) and still my mood deteriorated. Race director Kyle and another volunteer, Craig, rode past on their snowmobiles. I commented on the nice day and fantastic trail but added that I was already bracing for the next storm. Not only could I feel it coming with the warming temperatures and moisture in the air, but I'd checked my Garmin InReach and knew about the dire prediction for Saturday: "Heavy snow. 8 to 12 inches. High 29, low 12."

"It's only going to be about an inch of snow," Kyle responded. I just shook my head and said nothing. I believed my InReach. Weather forecasts are usually wrong, unless they're bad. Then they're probably right.

As I continued to wend toward the Dalzell Gorge, I finally connected with Beat on his satellite phone. He told me he was beyond the Post River, so almost solidly a day ahead of me at this point. I expected as much. We chatted for several minutes, mostly about our plans, and I admitted I was struggling with physical depletion.

"It's a hard year; it will get better," Beat assured me. In this, I only heard another version of Kyle's "It's only going to be about an inch of snow." Nice wishful thinking ... almost certainly untrue.

After I got of the phone with Beat, I cried for at least five minutes. Mostly for no specific reason, but my emotions had congealed and it was comforting to indulge in a dam release. I spent the rest of the descent through the Dalzell Gorge laughing out loud while listening to old episodes of the "Ten Junk Miles" podcast. I want those people to be my friends.

By early evening I dropped onto the wind-scoured ice of the Tatina River. A stiff headwind moved through the river corridor, and I started to shiver. I always dread these four miles on the Tatina, a mountain river with volatile ice conditions. Weather and trail conditions notwithstanding, these river traverses near Rohn are probably some of the more dangerous miles of the entire trail. Beat had warned me there was "a little bit of overflow" on the Tatina. Sure enough, about a mile down the river, I came upon patches of blue slush and broken shelf ice.

For about 15 minutes I had watched the silhouette of a person pacing back and forth. By the time I reached their position, I found Amber about a hundred yards off trail, sitting on a gravel bar and pulling on her waders. She told me she'd scouted for a way around the open water, but didn't find anything that looked safe — there was just more open water on either side. Amber paused and looked to me. I think she expected that I'd know what to do. Mostly what I wanted to do was pee my pants and cry, because I really, really, dislike the idea of crossing overflow on the Tatina. Any open water on this river could be masking a deep channel or an eddy, a place where one could plausibly crash through thin ice, plunge into the fast-flowing current and be carried beneath the ice to a watery demise. Of course, I realize this is just one of my fears that I must overcome, because I'm here and I don't have a choice. I appreciate when life gives me no choice but to face a fear. It's empowering, if just a little bit traumatizing.

Since Amber had already donned her waders, she went first. I held back, because if she crashed through the ice I would need to help her ... although, I admit, I was quietly relieved at her willingness to be the guinea pig. In the late afternoon light, the slush had the appearance of a blue raspberry slurpee. She waded through shin-deep sludge and suddenly crashed into a hole. I yelped, but thankfully she only plunged to mid-thigh depth ... although it was nearly to the top of her waders, and no doubt must have scared her at least as much as it scared me. After Amber reached the other side, I yelled that she should continue walking because it was cold and windy. Instead, she waited as I pulled on my waders and made my way across, following her line until the hole, where I veered around and managed to remain in shallower water.

We kept our waders on for another half mile, until we were sure we were past the overflow, and walked together the rest of the way to Rohn. We arrived just as the light finally dimmed enough to require headlamps — close to 8 p.m. Amber pointed out the friendly Christmas lights strung along the public use cabin.

"That's not for us," I said. "That's for us," and pointed to the crooked canvas tent on the other side of the clearing. Four ITI volunteers, including Kyle and Craig, were gathered around a grill out front, drinking beer from plastic cups as though this were a summer barbecue. Greg the skier was standing in the circle with them, knocking back shots of Fireball.

"You did it, you made it to Rohn!" I exclaimed. A big grin spread across his face and he nodded.

Adrien, one of the volunteers, pushed the bottle of Fireball toward me.

"No, no, I don't want any of that right now," I said.

"Beat had two shots," he chided me. I could see by Greg's drunken demeanor that the peer pressure was being laid on thick here. Of course, no doubt all of us looked and felt a little drunk by this point.

"OK, fine, I'll have some in hot chocolate. Just a little."

Amber and I plopped down on the bed of straw laid across the small tent. Two Italian cyclists had already claimed spots for the night, and there wasn't much space left. I'd already decided that I preferred to sleep outside, but it would be nice to stay close to Rohn so I could dry my shoes and collect hot water in the morning. Adrien served two brats on a napkin, along with the hot Tang I requested and the hot chocolate he promised. He'd poured a ton of Fireball into that hot chocolate. It burned like flames in my throat, but after gulping it down, I felt nothing. There wasn't even a hint of a buzz. My body had become its own inferno, metabolizing calories with such rapidity that I didn't even have time to feel the effects of the alcohol.

Amber and I claimed spots about a hundred yards from the tent, and I settled in for a nice night under the stars. Except there were no stars, as the sky had become entirely overcast. Flurries were already wafting through the air. My thermometer said it was 10 degrees. I checked my InReach for good measure, but the forecast was unchanged. I nestled into my sleeping bag, figuring I'd do a short night for real this time — it was a little after 9 p.m., and I set an alarm for 2 a.m. — because tomorrow was going to be a long, long day. 
Thursday, April 02, 2020

Last days of innocence — day four

Photo by Amber Bethe
March 5, 2020. Finger Lake, Alaska. 18 below and breezy. 

A seemingly silent awareness of 4 a.m. arrived, and the many inhabitants of the ice-bound Finger Lake tent began to emerge from their down cocoons. I had set an alarm for 2 a.m. but ignored it. In a way, this felt a little like I was already giving up — "Jill, you can’t sleep eight hours a night if you’re going to Nome." Evening Jill, who is alert and ambitious and has spent entirely too much time crunching numbers and making plans — she’s the one who sets the alarm. Morning Jill, who must battle her way bleary consciousness beneath a crush of full-body muscle soreness and unassuaged fatigue — she’s the one who lacks willpower. Even at 4 a.m., I could barely sit up through the sheer gravity of my grogginess. This morning inertia always leaves me wondering why I even bother with the sleep thing. Perhaps if I just stayed awake and kept walking …

The air inside the tent was frosty, but I wasn’t prepared for the icy punch to the face when I opened the canvas flaps and stepped outside. I briefly convinced myself it was 40 or 50 below zero, but my thermometer would reveal an ambient temperature of 18 below. That wind, though. The wall tent had a wood-platform porch where someone had placed a couch. A person was curled up in a sleeping bag there, which I found delightfully odd. Lovely place for a nap, this random couch on a frozen lake that’s fully exposed to the brunt of wind and subzero cold.

I returned to the volunteers’ cabin to heat up a bag of dehydrated scrambled eggs that I’d found in the bin of discarded drop bag food. Many of the same folks with whom I’d shared dinner the previous night were also doing breakfast at the same time. There were at least six more people in the tent who I managed to never even see, but the Kiwis, Beth, Amber and I enjoyed one more respite together before the next leg of our journey.

The section between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake is often regarded as one of the toughest on the route to McGrath. “The Push,” a veteran cyclist had called it during my first ITI in 2008. The name stuck with me. For thirty miles the trail climbs into the Alaska Range over a series of steep rolling hills. There’s the infamous Happy River Steps that feature 40-percent grades both down and up. And there are equally steep grades higher on the route, as the trail dips in and out of precipitous drainages along a side slope above the Happy River gorge. The final five miles into Rainy Pass Lodge are a relentless and plodding climb with one short descent in the middle, just enough to undo all of the hard-won altitude.

I started out at 5:11 a.m., after spending more than fifteen minutes hunched over in the 18-below darkness: repairing the hole in my backpack with tape, and attempting to secure my wrist brace with leuko tape. I’d started out the race with an overuse injury that inflamed a disc in my left wrist. The injury had unsurprisingly deteriorated, and my left hand had become swollen and often prone to electric shocks of pain — although, truthfully, I'd feared worse.

Still, this day would involve lots of aggressive poling to boost body and sled up 40-percent grades, so I needed to support the wrist as much as possible. My “wrist widget” brace worked best, but it was impossible to keep in place beneath several jacket and coat sleeves. My hard brace was a good for sleeping, but I couldn’t use it when temperatures were below zero. Poling irritated my wrist, but it hurt the most when I had to do anything else — eating, grabbing things out of my backpack, zipping and unzipping, unpacking and packing.

Hand pain is so frustrating, because it seeps into every action and impacts the quieter moments where I can usually find respite. If my tired legs were the lion that roared throughout the day, my wrist was the kitten that whined all night.

The long rest and two protein-rich meals in Finger Lake had done me some good, though, and I descended from the breakfast cabin feeling better than I had the previous two mornings. This was also the first morning that began in the dark. I took the opportunity to stare at the sky as I crossed scoured ice on Red Lake. Biting wind stung the small strip of exposed skin across my eyebrows, but I was determined to catch of a glimpse of Northern Lights. Alas, there was only the black sky, the splatter of stars, and vague blue light on the horizon that was either dawn or the setting moon.

Within minutes I was already across the lake and slumped over on the first climb, gaining 300 feet of altitude in a half mile and wallowing in a mire of loose snow punched with knee-deep postholes. Commence “The Push.” I must not have been the only one disheveled by morning, because I found a particularly large concentration of what Amber called “trail treasures” along this climb. A ski skin. A single glove. A hat. An unopened package of Gu. These were not useful to me and thus unexciting, just more things to carry for thirty miles and then dump on a table at the next checkpoint, likely never to be claimed. Later, eventual 350-ski winner Mathieu would express gratitude for the return of his skin, so that was worth hauling.
The sun slowly rose to a cold but stunningly bluebird day. These are the best days, and I was stoked to find myself surrounded by far-reaching views of the snowy mountains. Stoke, along with a fresh supply of trail mix and other snacks from my drop bag, fueled better energy. I felt like I was finally moving relatively well. Daylight eased my moose-a-noia, and I listened to the audio book of “A Stranger in the Woods,” about a man who lived alone and undetected in a makeshift camp close to a community of vacation homes in northern Maine for 27 years.

My takeaway from this book was that his master thievery was much more interesting than his social distancing … which, as someone who flees to Alaska each year in search of solitude, was more relatable than strange. Of course, the author’s research into the psychology of such an extreme hermit existence would return as prescient lessons for the weeks that followed. For now, still ignorant of the future, I became most emotional during the chapter that described how "the North Woods hermit" struggled to survive winters at 20 below, holed up in his camp and unwilling to start a fire for fear the smoke would reveal his location. As his sleeping bags slowly succumbed to ice buildup, he would remain awake, pacing his camp during the long nights. I could feel the pain of this: the creep of cold and the primal understanding that one must not stop walking. This was a prescient lesson for the future in itself … as the cold creeps in, one must not stop walking.

Even in the present moment, taken literally, this lesson was a hard pill to swallow. Although I was feeling better this morning, my crisis of confidence was deepening. Why did I still feel so weak? It’s been four years since I was first beset with health issues that I’d largely overcome. My thyroid levels and asthma are in check. Past struggles with breathing hadn’t once become an issue this year, even when I was pulling as hard as I could and my heart rate was pegged for long hours. Winter training had gone well, possibly about as well as it could without sacrificing too many other facets of my life to be worth it. My race management was also about as conservative as it could be; I was eating well and prioritizing rest. But I still did not feel up to the task. Possibly, this meant I’d never feel up to the task. I tried to push these unhelpful thoughts out of my head, but the image of the North Woods hermit — badly weakened by the hardships of survival, pacing his camp just to stay alive — haunted me.

As I neared the Happy River Steps, the forest closed in, the trail was stomped with deep hoof prints, and moose-a-noia returned. It was enough to turn off my audio book, and I emerged from my shadowy imagination world to the immediacy of the present — sharp beams of sunlight drawing patterns on the snow, pillowy mounds that looked like fantastic spots for a nap. Trail conditions were better in these protected sections, and eventually Beth passed while pedaling. We chatted for a few minutes, mostly about moose, and I was glad I wasn’t the only one feeling so spooked. I also was silently glad that she was now in front of me, scaring off potential attackers.

 The pillowy snow provided a nice cushion for the Happy River Steps, and descending proved to be a non-issue. I didn’t even need to remove my harness — I just walked down 40-percent grades with the sled behind me, barely nudged by gravity … such was the resistance on the trail this year. The crossing where the Happy River pours into the Skwentna River is a stunning spot, and this year was no exception. The two rivers slice through deep gorges rimmed with spruce forest, but the confluence is a wide-open area with expansive views. Overhead is a skyline of jagged peaks, drenched in snow and stretching out in all directions. It’s one of my favorite spots on the route, and all of my other visits here have happened amid overcast skies, snowstorms, or in the middle of the night. It was particularly startling to experience this place in brilliant sunlit clarity.

Photo by Amber Bethe
The climb out of the Happy River gorge is a mere 0.2 miles, but painful. The deep snow this year actually assisted in making it easier to ascend. I was able to kick steps and anchor in for the hard pull up a near-vertical embankment. Amber had been close behind the entire morning, but I didn’t notice her presence until I stopped near the top of the climb to eat a snack. I’ll admit that I was beginning to feel a bit of competitive spark with Amber, because we did so much leapfrogging. She was clearly stronger than me on the move, but I guessed she stopped more often than I did, which allowed me to hold a similar pace.
The thousand-mile and the 350 are distinctly two different races these days, and it’s pointless to try to compete with anyone in the others. Faye, the leading woman on foot, was already nearly a day ahead of us, and if even if I got to McGrath before Amber, she’d still be second in the short race. But it is funny, this racing thing. I don’t think of myself as a competitive person, but obviously I am. As we chatted, I felt this strange urge to hold my position. So as she settled in with a bag of homemade cookies — cue jealousy — I hurried to finish my handfuls of trail mix and keep walking.

Of course Amber passed again, less than a mile later. For the rest of the day I was alone, admonishing my heavy legs, running hot and cold beneath a blazing sun and shocking chill, occasionally trying to hold a conversation with my stuffed Siberian husky, Bernadette (I'll admit the imaginary friend magic that carried me through 2018 didn't quite happen this year), and pondering the baffling, or perhaps not-so-baffling, existence of the North Woods hermit. Frequently my strength flagged to the point where I'd stop to sit down on my sled, but I never let myself languish for long. I reminded my temperamental brain how incredibly lucky we were to be experiencing this place on this day, of all places and days.

 “This is the Alaska Range. The Alaska Range! It’s right over there!”

Day faded into a shadowy late afternoon. My cognitive function faded to a simple wave of climbs and descents, punctuated with flashes of determination, winces of sharp pain, sparks of awe, and occasional hopelessness. About three miles before Rainy Pass Lodge, I heard a swishing sound and turned around to see a skier. I was near the top of a punchy rise, and he was gliding toward me as though gravity somehow worked in reverse for him. It was Asbjorn, the practically professional Danish skier who was aiming to become the first person to ski the thousand miles to Nome within the 30-day limit imposed by this particular race. As far as anybody knew, this would be the first official ski of the full Northern or Southern Route of the Iditarod Trail since 2000, when a duo of skiers made the trip in 33 days.

Most other human-powered Iditarod benchmarks have been achieved, but the ski to Nome remains elusive. Why? As best as I can tell — and speaking as a particularly poor skier — skiing is the most demanding discipline. The rough, icy, often snowless terrain takes skill to navigate, and one must achieve a high level of skill before skis become more helpful than hindering. This year of abundantly deep snow was no doubt *the* year to attempt this route on skis. And Asbjorn was clearly the person to do it — even brief observation of his technique was humbling. He was skiing, parallel skiing, without a hint of struggle, up some of the steepest grades. He seemed to have no problem holding 4 or 5 mph indefinitely, moving with what looked like a lot less effort than I was expending at 2 mph. For a few days it was unclear to me why he was positioned back here with the likes of myself, but he was a smart racer who was pacing himself for success on the long haul to Nome — moving fast during the day, and resting long at night.

Asbjorn moved to pass me like I was standing still, but he did pause to mention that he was intentionally hurrying to make it to Rainy Pass Lodge by dinner time.

"I missed it last year. I'm not going to miss it this year!" he proclaimed.

I'd forgotten about dinner, and Asbjorn's mention of it caused me to bristle. Rainy Pass Lodge is one of the more luxurious destinations along the route, catering to fly-in tourists. Each night they serve a home-cooked dinner, and even the smelly racers are invited to partake if they like. The meal is $50 but incredible: Grilled steak, baked potatoes, vegetables, bread, lemonade, and dessert — all you can eat, of course, with bottomless glasses of wine. If you miss or don't want to pay for dinner, you get what the race provides in the separate mushers' cabin: Unopened cans of soup, floating in a vat of water on the wood stove. If you're lucky, there's still some pilot bread left over on the table, and maybe hot water if someone remembered to refill the electric kettle. It was getting late and I had already accepted that I was having a lukewarm can of soup for dinner. Then, here comes Asbjorn, moving as though propelled by a motor, brimming with optimism.

Just when I feel physically shattered and believe I've lost all control of my mental game, there's often a spark of inspiration that surprises me. After Asbjorn passed, I shored up my aching quads, shoved a handful of gummy candy in my mouth, and checked my GPS. "Three miles an hour. Three miles an hour and I can do it." Then I marched, mostly staring at the screen, occasionally looking up to appreciate the intense beauty that still surrounded me. The sun was setting now, and glimmers of pink and lavender light bathed the distant slopes. I could have plopped down on my sled and languished happily as darkness descended and the possibility of Northern Lights returned. But I'll admit, I was more motivated by food. Fixating on my GPS screen to ensure three miles an hour was the only way food would happen.

As sunlight faded the temperature plummeted precipitously — 8 below, then 14 below, then 19 below, in a matter of minutes. I was lightly dressed and shivering, but I couldn't stop to add layers. It would take too much time. Maybe the cold will motivate me to march faster, I thought, but no ... my shoulders were quaking and my core temperature was definitely dropping. But I was close, so close. Steak will make it all better! I lifted my knees and launched into a motion that until that moment I firmly believed I no longer had in me — running.

It was 6:38 when I dropped onto the lake, past a cozy-looking Arctic Oven tent pitched on the ice next to a small plane, and continued shuffling toward the lodge. I briefly entered the mushers' cabin to unpack a few things, then jogged to the main lodge, entering just a few minutes before 7. Dinner was just starting to be served. It took some time to peel off my deeply ice-crusted clothing and stop shivering enough to feel presentable, but eventually I joined the table with the people that had become my group: George and Graham (the Kiwi cyclists), Mathieu and Asbjorn (the European skiers), Beth and Amber.

The steak was abundant and the wine flowed freely. Pain was forgotten and happiness brimmed as we enjoyed the spoils of our small victory: We'd made it to Rainy Pass Lodge, the halfway point on the route to McGrath! Of course, for me, it was less than one sixth of the distance to Nome. But for all of us, Rainy Pass Lodge was the last respite before a critical point of no return. One we crossed over the Alaska Range, retreat would become almost unworkably difficult. And the veterans among us knew ... all of the hardest days were yet to come.