Dé Luain 21 Nollaig 2009

Alaska Ultrasport 2009 Rainy Pass retreat.

continued from my day 2-3 report: http://seansalach.blogspot.com/2009/12/alaska-ultrasport-2009-days-2-3.html

My decision to wait out the night and go in the morning from Rainy pass was based on a few pieces of input and some ‘facts’ about snowmachine trails. There was about 2 fresh inches of warm snow on the ground when I arrived there, and it was continuing to fall steadily. Marco C was determined and resolute, and wanted to press on. He thought I might head out with him, but I was hesitant to head out into fresh snow like that. Alberto decided to press on with him. Marco B is an unstoppable force and would head out no matter what. He had been to Nome multiple times before, and knew what he was doing.

Frank and Bob showed up before long, both local cyclists who I had never really met before. Turns out Frank and I have a lot in common. Both former Philly Messengers and current Alaskan Survey techs. We got along well while he was there and swapped stories of Filthydelphia for a while before he and Bob pressed on. He was determined and optimistic. Bob was quiet, but seemed equally ready to go.

Catherine had arrived I think before Alberto, and was in no rush to leave, with her breathing problems beginning to increase. She was doing a good job of keeping her composure though. They were followed by a steady stream of walkers and a few cyclists.

Rob May was at the cabin when I had arrived. Rob’s a fast elite level xc racer from back in the mid Atlantic area, and we had quite a few mutual connections and acquaintances, so there were plenty of stories to swap there. He part times it between AK and PA, as owner/operator of Holitna River Lodge. He’d had some difficulties with his body heading up toward the pass and was semi hopeful that he would make it over once he recovered, but I think having to retreat and let the race get away from him might have crushed him a bit, a concept I would soon experience first hand myself. He was biding his time, waiting for a window of opportunity for planes to land on the frozen lake and get him outa there.

Eric was a fairly experienced racer, as were the other walkers, and they all thought it was best to attack the pass well rested and with full bellies. Fresh snow would guarantee a push the entire thirty or so miles. My feet were already starting to suffer from my new wardrobe malfunction, but not that badly. More on that later. I decided the best thing for me to do was get a long rest on a comfortable bed while I had the chance and head out with the walkers the next day, hopeful that the storm would pass and that someone would travel one way or the other and leave us a trail.

Snow was falling steadily as I finally laid my head down for a good nights sleep.


The next morning we awoke fairly early and set about getting out gear ready. I found myself increasingly jealous of the walkers and how easy it was for them to manage their gear in a sled. All they had to do at a checkpoint was arrive, unclip the duffel bag from their pulk, and walk inside with ALL their gear. It took me and most other cyclists 4 or 5 trips out to unclip indivual components and bring them in, and even then, half our stuff was still outside, on the bike. I suppose it’s only fair considering the ground we can cover when the trail is good.

We treated ourselves to a big breakfast at our own expense in the lodge itself, got our morals up and proceeded to head out into snow much deeper than I had expected to encounter. Rich Crain, long time volunteer of near legendary status with the human powered Iditarod races, decided to head out on his snow machine to check on Bill M, the race organizer and trail breaker, who had been stuck in the pass with his snowmachine for several days by that point. That meant we would at least have a trail to follow.


Heading out across the lake, Eric and I were pushing strongly, and I was able to keep up with him, though I knew that wouldn’t last. Once Rich came around us, the walkers simply walked away from Myself and Catherine. Eric and the other walkers had advised that it would be best to go over the pass with someone, and that since they would probably keep a similar pace, and cyclists would probably keep a similar pace, that I should stick with Catherine over the pass. It was selfish and stubborn of me, but I refused to let that happen. I’m not a very social person to begin with. I like my solitude. I walk fast, and I walked fast away from Catherine. I would later come to be taught a lesson in patience by the pass itself, reprimanded for my lack of respect for one person helping another.



As we pressed on, about two miles from the lake, the wind picked up, it was miserable out, and what little trail I was able to see I was post-holing inconsistently in.



It was either mashed potatoes, sugar, or a deceptive crust that would support three steps, fail to support two, support one, fail to support the next three, and on and on and on.


At one point I saw Alberto walking down the trail toward me, no bike in sight. I asked him where his bike was, and he explained that he and Marco B had spent the night huddled up under one of the trail marker tripods, shivering. The falling snow had been too much for them to press on and they had decided to bivy. When the storm had passed and dawn came, they spotted the halfway cabin about a mile away and headed over to it to try to warm up. I was beginning to think that I had made a very good decision to stay in the cabin the previous night.


Continuing further up the trail, I could no longer even see the walkers I had left with, despite marching forward at as quick of a pace as I could manage. Marco B passed me with ease. I crossed the Happy river on a precarious ice bridge, and pushed on through increasing worse trail. The steps that would break through would sink me to my waist, with the bike falling on top of me. Before long, I saw the familiar, orange jacket of Marco C, and he too, was heading back down the trail toward me. He had made it nearly into the pass only to encounter chest deep snow. He had a freezing bivy the night before and was all but out of water. I had now switched from relishing in my patience back and the checkpoint to fearing what was to come. I had never bivied above treeline, and it didn’t look like it was much fun at all. Marco had decided bastante! He’d had enough, and was headed back. I could kind of tell he really didn’t want to go though. I said I was going to continue on, and his eyes lit up. He asked if we could go together, and if I had enough water and a stove. I said sure, as frankly, I was beginning to get desperate for some companionship over the pass myself. His knee was becoming increasingly worse, and he was ragged from his difficult bivy the night before. I would pick an object up the trail, push to it and wait for him to catch up. I offered to let him carry one of my bottles so that he would have easy access to water, but he said no, and continued to eat snow when I wasn’t looking, occasionally accepting sips from my bottle, but only if I had it open and was drinking myself. My enthusiasm at having someone to accompany me up the pass was quickly turning to worry that I would be dragging ‘dead weight’, so to speak, and would have no choice but to bivy and try to melt snow. My stove was untested to be honest, by me anyway. I had melted snow with both of my other stoves, but this was a super light little one I borrowed from my friend Kim. I didn’t really want anything to do with melting snow, and carried more than enough water with me to get from checkpoint to checkpoint.



Finally, I see Rich, again coming back down the trail toward me, and like everyone else I had seen that day, making a hasty retreat. His first words: “If you were any closer to the checkpoint I would tell you to turn around and go back!”. He had gotten stuck numerous times without even making it to the pass. He confirmed Marco’s report of chest deep snow. I decided that Marco and I should wait for Catherine and Alberto to decide what we were going to do. We talked about it for a while, and I become resolute in my decision to walk back at least to the cabin and see if the trail would be better that night or the next day.




Catherine worried aloud that we were quitting, but I assured we were not, just falling back to try again tomorrow. So down we marched. Dallas and Steven, two of the family that owns Rainy Pass lodge, and our checkers, were headed up to the pass to check on things. They’re as local as it gets at rainy pass and with their light machines, had no problem speeding up the pass. The trail behind them turned to sugar, which frankly was better than postholing, but not by much.

All of a sudden, I see Frank charging up the trail! Apparently he and Bob had spent the night in the emergency cabin halfway to the pass from the lodge, and were as optimistic and determined as ever to continue on. He tried to egg me into accompanying them, but I had made up my mind to wait it out a day. As we descended, the distance between myself and the other three increased dramatically. I was alone on the trail again, with sore feet, dead legs and some tough decisions ahead of me. After crossing the river, I crested a hill and looked back up the pass. I could hear the boys’ snowmachines coming back, and looked long enough to spot them. The other three riders were on the machines with them. They had dropped out of the race. When they passed me, they offered me a lift back to the cabin, but I couldn’t do it. Getting on a snowmachine for any reason during the race is automatic DQ. I was somewhat determined that I would be able to head out the next day and make it over. They also told me that the precarious ice bridge I had mentioned earlier collapsed as I believe it was Steven was going across it, pulling a sled. He basically had to jump the snowmachine across a collapsing ice bridge and he came through with flying colors. Pretty exciting stuff, and I kinda wish I had been back there to see it.


The further I got, the worse my feet got. The soles burned, my right heel was rubbing, my legs ached and my joints were stiff. It seemed to be a longer walk back to the checkpoint than it had been to where I turned around. My morale was really low, and I knew there was a good chance I was going to quit. It had been years since I had actually finished a long race, and here I was, considering dropping out of the grandest of them all. I could have stopped at the halfway cabin, but for some reason didn’t. I just kept marching down the valley, admiring the views and beating my feet to a pulp.


When I arrived back at the cabin, at 11:00PM or so, Dallas greeted me outside. A bunch of walkers had shown up while we were gone, and a cyclist or two. I was near delirious tired, and hurt both physically and mentally. Then he asked the question and I broke the rule. The question: “Do you think you want to scratch?” The rule: “Don’t scratch before sleeping.” He was trying to organize flights out for the scratchers. I hmmm’d and hawed a little bit before finally saying, “yeah…”. My feet hurt to the point that I could barely stand. My calves were tightening into logs as I stood there. I put my bike down, walked inside, and found a place to sleep on the floor. I went out like a light.

In this photo, you can see the hole Marco and Alberto had been curled up in. Gritty stuff.


Oh but it aint over…… http://seansalach.blogspot.com/2009/12/alaska-ultrasport-day-off.html


Michael O'Hara said...

Heh, I used to messenge in Pittsburgh.

When you say "bivvy" what exactly do you mean? Do you pitch a tent or do you just dig a hole and stretch a tarp over top of yourself?


sean said...

A bivy, or bivouac, is basically a weatherproof bag that goes over a sleeping bag. It adds a little bit of insulation, but alot of protection from the elements. It's alot lighter, and generally quicker to set up than a tent, but there's no extra 'room' in it.

Pittsburgh must've been fun to work in with those hills....