2010 Iditarod Trail Invitational
Pass Lake to Bison Camp
As we paused to eat across Pass Lake from the Perrin’s cabin, we visually followed Craig’s tracks turning left when they reached the lake, shooting across to the cabin, then turning around and retracing themselves back down toward Puntilla. He had come by us headed in that direction back when we were still a group of four. We had been thankful since to have Jay’s foot prints and tire tracks to push our bikes in. We could see that at the point where Craig had passed him on the return trip, Jay really wasn’t that far ahead of us. Maybe 2-3 hours. When we saw that he had turned back less than a mile from the pass proper, we felt for Jay, who would then find himself breaking trail entirely on his own for the last steep pitch to the top. It was definitely easier on us than it was on him, and I think we were all pretty impressed with his fortitude getting over the top alone in the same conditions we struggled through.
From the top, it certainly became less difficult, being downhill with enough visible evidence of the trail to follow it easily, but that relative ease was offset by how ragged I was beginning to become from the effort expended to get to the top. I was running low on water, and my feet were really starting to feel the effects of my sneakers being wet for the entire race combined with the slogging of the last day+. This was compounded by the fact that all the open water on the way up caused us to be wearing our overboots. Mine were insulated.
We were descending though, and making it over the top had brought a sense of closure to my difficulties last year, and with that sense of closure relief. I felt like could coast down the other side on auto pilot. “One foot in front of the other”, and Janice said. Besides, the 30 miles of trail from the pass to just after Rohn are, as far as I know, the most scenically beautiful section of the trail to McGrath.
The three of us dropped down and around and into the small, rocky gorge where all those who had gone before me last year had struggled so much through the web of alders and deep snow. There was a trail for us though. We become more talkative the more tired we became. Telling and listening to our stories helped me focus on keeping my feet moving.
I was running low on water, and stopped briefly to fill up from a section of open water on the creek. It was incredibly refreshing water. About an hour after I filled up and took those first few sips I remembered that someone, maybe Bill, had told me that of all the creeks out there, that was one of the worst ones to fill up from. It was pretty much guaranteed to give you Alaska’s official state illness: Beaver Fever. Great. Oh well.
I was eating. I was only mildly dehydrated. Whatever was in the water, if anything, would take days at least to have an effect. So the hallucinations and time lapses could really only be blamed on exhaustion. It started with occasional flashes of white light in the corners of my eyes(it was daytime out). I would say something to Lou or Eric, who I had not met before, and a minute later would either get an intense feeling of dejavu or the similarly intense notion that I had not actually said it out loud. I was stumbling.
We stopped to watch some small avalanches on the peak we were facing. There was an impressively loud “BOOM” and then we would scan the slopes to see the shifting, dirty snow. I wondered how loud of a BOOM a really big avalanche would make.
We slogged on, tripping through small alder branches that poked up through the trail.
Before long, I realized that I apparently wasn’t the only one so close to the end of my rope, as I was walking alone, and they were behind me. Noone would have minded if I pressed on at my own pace, but there was this tree on the side of the trail, with a sloping burl growing up out of the ground and ascending it’s trunk, and another fallen tree across it, and it looked really comfortable, and I wanted skittles, and waiting for my companions was a pretty convenient excuse to sit down. It was comfortable, and the skittles were gooooood, and I nearly spilled them like five times as I started dozing off. I woke again when they came by.
I would find myself alone ahead of them again, but not out of sight, when Craig finally came through on his way to Rohn. He wasn’t too keen on the trail conditions. We regrouped again briefly and then, once again, separated on our way to the hill we knew was coming, and I both dreaded and desired. I desired it because it was the last real hill on the entire route to McGrath, and on the other side of it was the Dalzell Gorge, which had a good chance of being rideable, and was really close to Rohn. I reached the base of the hill with no one in sight. I put my bike off to the side of the trail to pop a mouthful of skittles. Skittles are my slog food. They’re my reward for pressing on, for dealing with situations that aren’t really completely ‘fun’. I popped a handful of the frozen morsels in my mouth, and as they thawed, and the tangy, sugary, acidic flavors saturated my taste buds, I plopped down in the snow next to my bike. The whole world was skittles at that point. The snow that had just gotten into my gaiters and was melting down my ankle: skittles. The warm temps and soft trail: skittles. The steep hill in front of me: skittles. Craig Medred’s paddle track: skittles. Beaver Fever: skittles. I wanted to just unroll my sleeping bag(skittles), pop another mouthful of skittles and call it a night(it was still daylight).
Lou and Eric came by, and Lou, who was clearly struggling at least as much as I was at that point, didn’t sit down, didn’t park her bike or look at the spruce trees longingly, but exhaled a few times, put her head down and charged up the hill with all her might. Crap. Now I HAVE to go up the hill.
Slowly but surely, I slogged away up it. The top eventually came, as I knew it would. The trail was occasionally pedallable for short stretches across the top, but barely. The downhill was rideable for Lou and Eric, but Eric’s a normal sized dude, and punched through as much as I would have in his position, which made it easier for me to just walk down it. The Dalzell Gorge was in my sights though, as the daylight faded. There was a good amount of walking for all three of us in the upper section. It eventually firmed up though, and Lou and Eric were riding quite a bit. I tried a few times, but was in such a mental, and I guess physical state, that I couldn’t control the front end of the bike when I tried. I decided, with all the delicate ice bridges, that It would just be safer to walk the rest of the way down to the broad Tatina River. The hallucinations continued. At one point I would have sworn to you that Lou and Eric, not 30 feet from me, were mooses, and my heart sank at the thought of two mooses tromping down the gorge and breaking the remaining ice bridges before I had a chance to cross them.
After the last ice bridge, the trail was firm, and significantly flatter and straighter, and I managed to ride, catching the other two as they aired up their tires. Down onto the Tatina, and we put on our windshells, took a last drink of water and rolled along. It was rideable, and very flat. There was even good traction for the most part. There were a few glare ice sections that encouraged me to go as fast as I could in between them in order to maintain enough momentum to cross them without having to pedal. Within a short while I could no longer see their headlamps behind me. I thought about turning around to make sure one of them hadn’t fallen, but we were less than 5 miles from the checkpoint, if they didn’t show soon after I arrived, someone would go out looking for them. I paused for a few silent moments. I was sure if one of them were hurt or in a sticky situation I would have heard calls for help. The river was just sooo fast. I wasn’t sure where I got the leg speed from for that last 5 miles, but it felt great, and really boosted my spirits, lifting me from the bonk I was in. Up off the river and the trail in to the airstrip was, by far, the best section of trail I had ridden the entire race up to that point. It was scary fast. Gently winding around a bit before bursting you out onto the airstrip. Oops. We’re supposed to take the trail next to the airstrip. It actually took a while before I realized that it was the airstrip, being dark out.
I rolled off the airstrip, turned right at the ‘roadhouse’ and straight over to the checkpoint tent, somehow in 4th place. Within seconds after getting off the bike, my mind started drifting back off into delirium. I began to remember how bad my feet felt, but I was still riding high on the awesome trail coming in. Bill was there, as was Rob, and they both made me as welcome as could be. Rob was pretty psyched to see me in Rohn this early after my late arrival last year. I sat down in the tent, on the big, 20(?) foot long bed of spruce boughs Bill and Rob had built, took off my overboots and my shoes and my socks. We were able to diagnose the condition of my feet as mild immersion on my left foot, blistered immersion on my right foot. I wasn’t concerned about it till I tried to stand up bare footed and nearly fell over. I ate some soup, drank some tang, and laid out my sleeping bag. I was deep asleep within 15 minutes of Lou and Eric’s arrival.
Something to the effect of, “WAKE UP! I NEED ROOM FOR INCOMING RACERS! YOU GUYS NEED TO MOVE OUTSIDE!!” had the intended effect of waking me up. Well, part of me anyway. I had no idea what was going on. I was less than half awake as I crawled out of my bag and tried with a great amount of futility to stand up. I think someone ended up holding me upright for a minute. I remember checking my sneakers to find them, of course, still wet. I tried walking outside barefoot, only to be reminded by cold feet that it was in fact winter, in Alaska, even if it was in the upper 20’s, at least. I grabbed my overboots and clomped around in them. I must have been obviously struggling with figuring out what was going on because Bill ended up helping me spread some straw from a large pile on a tarp to lay down on. I don’t think I was in the bag long before passing out again.
When I woke, there were bikes everywhere, and people rummaging about, packing up. I drifted back into slumber. When I finally managed to get up, I my frozen overboots to my side, and my bivy sac covered in some of the snow that had fallen that night. I was awake though, and cognizant. I could think straight, and I could walk. I strolled inside to see a full house. The walkers had caught us up. Lou and Eric were still there as well. Phil, Dave, Chris, Tracey, Tim, Kyle, Brij and Simon were there. I found out that three Italians had pressed on after they got there. The crowd was too much for me. I couldn’t think straight anymore with so many people moving around. I ended up waiting till a group of riders had left to really dig into my drop bag and start packing everything up. When I saw Phil walking around, I barely recognized him. He had retained a bunch of water, and was planning on taking it easy and resting for a few more hours. He was trying to ride home to Nome, so he wasn’t about to push himself to injury. The walkers left, and I was, I thought finished packing up everything, so I left too.
I passed them on the river. The riding was good. The trail was firm and I felt great both on and off the bike. The immersion foot was surprisingly easy to deal with when wearing properly fitting shoes. I had it last year with ill-fitting pack liners in neos, and it was a mess. I had planned at the start of this years race, to run up the “post river glacier” when I got to it, since I would be wearing my clipless crampons. But those were obviously now non-functional as crampons, having become makeshift flat pedals. When I got to the ‘glacier’, I discovered that one of them was no longer there. I also discovered that I had forgotten my gaiters in Rohn. I didn’t think long about going back for either. I hope someone in Rohn was able to put the gaiters to good use. This year, like last, there was an easily walk-able line of snow, grass, small shrubs and rocks up the left side of the glaciated overflow. After the first pitch, for some reason, it looked like everyone had crossed the sloping ice to the other side, where it butted right up against some protruding, exposed sections of ridge rock. I didn’t fall for that though, and continued walking easily up the left side on grass, though I appeared to be the only one to have done so.
I finally caught sight of, caught and passed Dave, which made me feel good, because he’s a really strong rider. I stopped to either tighten my load, or ditch a jacket, or both, I forget, and Dave passing me back.
The riding continued, I was pushing the pace to put a good gap on Dave, and thinking I would soon catch sight of the rest of the group, until I managed to lose one of my overboots. I stopped to look at my rack because it felt like it was swaying too much, to discover only one overboot perched loosely on top of my drybag. I figured it wasn’t to be far down the trail, so I propped my bike up against as tree on the side of the trail. I pulled out a bag of trail mix, and at it as I walked along. And I kept eating it as I kept walking, and walking, and walking. The boot must’ve been a mile back. I don’t know how the other one stayed on all that time.
I had expected Dave to pass me but he didn’t. Another mile up the trail, I’m riding along happily when I begin to wonder why my belly and crotch are getting cold. Oddly cold. I look down and there’s water splashing out of my hydration pack hose(I was going to say “bladder hose” there, but that could be interpreted as something else…), and ice all down my front side. I said some choice words, and pulled over to the side of the trail. Unclipped my drybag with my spare clothes in it, stripped, dried off with the little towel I had brought with me, and redressed in dry clothes. I even changed my socks. I was dressed and packing my wet, heavy clothes into the drybag when Dave finally passed me back.
I caught him again at some slushy overflow, where we both put on our overboots, and saw him a couple more times while crossing the lakes, and then not again till Nikolai. I rode on as the trail did it’s thing, constantly expecting the dreaded tussocks we had heard about around every corner. The trail through this section is a bunch of short, rolling hills with swamps in between. My “bladder hose”, no not that one, the other one, with water in it, now had ice in it. I guess I had overfilled it in Rohn, and when it leaked, the leaking water had managed to soak the Thinsulate insulation around the hose, which combined to lead to a bunch of ice in the hose. I stopped every now and then and faffed with it for a minute or two, rearranging my layers to try to get it to thaw out on it’s own. It had leaked because I had removed the soft part of the bite valve before the race, and had forgotten to close the shut-off valve on it after taking a drink. I eventually caught up to Tracey, Bill, Chris and Kyle, and we rolled along pretty much together till the sign for Bison camp. Through the one section of tussocks we experienced together, I could tell that my North Jersey rock garden skills, the Moxey suspension seatpost given to me before the race(thanks Bill!!) and my gearing would make our paces incompatible through the long section of tussocks I knew was coming after Bison Camp.
After the sign, I just pressed on without stopping till the top of the hill just after Bison Camp, which surprisingly still had all the tents up. I stopped for a bite to eat, another brief attempt to rearrange my bladder hose in hopes of thawing it out, and to grab a photo of the trail stretching out toward Nikolai.