Dé Máirt 22 Nollaig 2009

09 Alaska Ultrasport Rainy Pass Attack #2

previous chapter: http://seansalach.blogspot.com/2009/12/alaska-ultrasport-day-off.html

Faffing isn’t as dirty of a word as it sounds, though I suppose it could be used to describe something dirty….

I awoke to an Australian accent(George) telling me that it was 2am, time to get ready and go. I had packed my bike up the previous night, so there really wasn’t much for me to do. I double checked everything, ate a solid breakfast, filled my water bottles and waited. That was when I first heard the word. Roger commented, “Well, we can get going as soon as he’s done faffing about out there!” with a big grin on his face. The meaning was obvious, though it was my first introduction to a word that I would hear repeatedly for the next 24+ hours.

And so we did get going, as soon as George was done faffing about. :D

I didn’t bother putting on my padded riding shorts, as I knew it would be a push nearly all the way. We were barely a quarter mile off the lake when the pushlock holding one of the poles on Roger’s pulk gave up the ghost. We stopped, looked at it for a minute, then set about fixing it with George’s knife and my bailing wire, all the while being serenaded by George's operatic rendition of Country Roads.


We marched on. I couldn’t believe the trail conditions. Some of it was actually rideable. And the rest was a consistent surface. We weren’t breaking through more than two inches or so. I was in heaven, and inadvertently started walking at warp speed. I just couldn’t help myself. It resulted in me sweating quite a bit, which was bad. I eventually learned to slow down a little and enjoy the steady pace. There were wolf tracks on the trail. They were bigger than your typical dog tracks.


George wanted to stop at the halfway cabin, and we looked for it, but passed it by in the predawn hours. As the sun came up though, we spotted it behind us. I figured we would just keep pressing on, but George was determined, and thought it a good place to try to warm up Rogers frozen fingers. The first hour after first light up here tends to be the coldest hour of the day, and it was in this that we marched toward the cabin. I’ve got to admit that I did want to see what was inside.

By the time we were halfway back to the cabin, I myself was having trouble keeping warm. My fingers were starting to freeze. We got inside and George got his stove going, reheating up our water. We had some snacks, but Roger and I were both frozen to the point of shivering. We tried heat packs in our hands, on our wrists. George finally had us sticking bottles of hot water down our pants, which to my amazement, actually seemed to work!


Roger having an intimate moment with his water bottle. You've seriously gotta try this trick next time you're cold...


After way too much time faffing in the cabin, we finally got our act together and back on the trail. We warmed up quickly as we started moving. You can sit around with heat packs and hot water bottles all day, but if you’re not moving, you’re not generating any heat. Eventually, we arrived at the collapsed snow bridge. I scouted out a better route. The next path the snowmachines had taken was starting to collapse as well, and I ended up gingerly bringing us across on a track from two nights prior that the boys had made.




The trail conditions actually got better for the next mile or two. It was comfortable walking on TOP of the snow. No postholing, no breaking through.

At the mouth of the pass, we decided to break for lunch. I stomped out a hole for our feet on the side of the trail and proceeded to mis-spell Rany Pass Café. George took one look and said, “ummm, Sean?”,

“Yeah?” I obliviously responded.

“I think there’s an ’I’ in there…”

Oh yeah. I wiped it out and started over. In my delirious state though, I couldn’t remember whether or not there was and ‘e’ before the ‘y’. Neither could the other two. We decided that both were acceptable spelling and went with the ‘e’. Misspelled twice…..


George was getting himself into progressively worse shape as the trail continued. I notced before we sat down to lunch that he seemed to be staggering up the trail. I kind of chuckled to myself that it looked as though he were drunk.

We shared a meal of biscuites, cakes, cookies, nuts, fat(cut from prosciutto) and trail mix. It was delicious.


And so we pressed on. As we got further into the pass, the trail all but disappeared. I would occasionally have to walk a few feet to either side of my path of travel to reassure myself that I was in fact on the trail. It was never really that bad though. I never punched through more than knee deep, and it was consistent. Consistent ‘postholing’ is much better than inconsistent trail any day of the week in my books. Knowing what the ground beneath your feet is going to do with each step is much more bearable than not knowing if it will support your weight or sink beneath you.


We climbed and climbed through corniced waves of snow. It was unbelievably gorgeous. We were making reasonably good time, and I was hopeful that we would make it over the pass proper before darkness fell. In fact, I was sure of it.






There was a cabin up there somewhere, and while part of me wanted to see it, the rest of me hoped that we would miss it and keep going. I really didn’t want to sit and freeze again while we reheated water for the sake of reheating it. We had agreed that if one of us needed to we would spend the night in the cabin, but that option was becoming increasingly unappealing to me. I was sweating and knew I would spend the night cold. Roger was getting easily chilled, especially with his previously frostbitten fingers. Finally I saw it. I tried to walk past it like it weren’t there, a few hundred yards off the trail, but I was breaking trail at a much quicker pace than George was able to follow at. Not wanting to get too far ahead, I had to stop and wait. He saw the cabin, and needed the rest, and he did. So we pushed over to it. Roger and I both froze our tails off again as George melted snow at an Olympic rate. I joined in with my little stove just to give myself something to pass the time.

As we were sat in the roofless cabin, faffing about, we noticed Curiak steadily marching his overloaded Snoots up the pass. George called out to him, inviting him in.

Mike looked up to the pass, then looked back. He was thinking about it. “How long are you going to stop(stay?)?”

Before George had a chance to say something silly, I yelled out “Half hour. Tops. I’m sick of breaking trail.”

Even from that distance I could see the demented grin creep across Mike’s face as he replied, simply, “My turn.” and marched onward.

I would like to say that I don’t know what kind of sick bastard relishes in the opportunity to push what must’ve been a close to 100# bike through unbroken snow up a mountain pass, but now I do.

I would not see Curiak again for 4 days.


Roger had finally had enough. He spoke up. He was freezing and simply couldn’t see any point in melting any more snow. George had hot water sitting in a pot and all of our bottles were full. I was freezing too, and voiced my desire to make it over the top and down to some trees on the other side of the pass before bivying if necessary. Roger wanted to march straight to Rohn. I certainly did as well. We started talking up the possibility of creating a camp fire if we found trees, and the idea of doing so obviously sparked Georges imagination, because he was instantly transported out of faff-mode and into push mode. The sky was darkening as we pushed back to Mike’s tracks, and I took off ahead at a rapid pace to get my blood flowing again and warm up.

There was a minimal amount of postholing, but it was, again, mostly consistent trail, and it was AWEFULLY nice not being the one breaking it in. We weren’t far from the height of the land, the pass proper, so I kept my pace up, charging ahead on a mission to make it to the top. It was a while before I could hear Roger and George talking down the hill. I heard Roger mention that he though I might have gone on ahead(and kept going). I felt kind of bad at hearing that and jogged back down without my bike to walk with them up the last little bit. George got a burst of energy when I told him that the steep pitch in front of him was the last 100’ of the pass, and that it would be all downhill from there.

Traveling downhill was a huge relief, and wonderfully easy compared to the climb up. The mountains were still incredibly defined against the clear, dark, night sky as we marched our way down the Western slope of the Alaska Range. Suddenly the light from my headlamp reflected back to me in two glowing green dots in the distance. It was some kind of critter, fearlessly walking straight toward us. We stood there for a while, wondering what it could be. The last tracks we had seen had been that of a wolf, which was a little frightening. It just kept coming like it had no intention of deviating from it’s path, despite the strange, bright lights ahead of it. When it got within 100 or so feet of us, I still couldn’t tell what it was, and was beginning think that I didn’t want to find out. So I proceeded to growl and roar in its general direction, and instantly it froze still in it’s tracks. I growled once more and it broke left and took a wide berth around us. It’s diminutive tracks in the snow were confirmed later to be those of just a harmless little fox.

And so we continued on as George got worse and worse, stumbling constantly. He was well beyond exhaustion, and we were beginning to worry about him, but Roger and I were both also worried about ourselves bivying above the trees. George was the most well versed in bivying among us, but in his near delirious state, could we really trust his judgement? Through it all, George remained calm and amicable. Through all the insistence of Roger and I to press on, he never tried to insist on his desire to stop. He agreed to get down to some trees with us, to try and protect ourselves from the wind. He finally had to leave his bike in some low alders and we helped him carry his bivy gear further down to a more protected spot. He needed nothing but sleep. We stomped out a huge spot, and I stomped a little alcove off of it for my boots. George saw and exclaimed that it was a great idea. “A kitchen!”. When I informed him that it was for our boots and that we intended to get right into our bivies, he was a bit disappointed, and went off a few feet over to stomp out his own bivy with full amenities. As Roger and I zipped up our bags and said our goodnights, I looked over to see George sat there staring at his campstove like a zombie as he faffed about melting snow.

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