Thursday, February 25, 2016

The ITI Story, 2015 edition

The 2016 edition of the Iditarod Trail Invitational begins in less than a week and for the first time in three years, I won't be joining my friends up north. In fact, it's the first time since the 2011 Susitna 100 that I won't be participating in any northern winter events. Neither the sweetness nor bitterness of my feelings right now can be adequately put into words.

In many ways it's still just too difficult for me to walk through and share my memories of last year, but I do want to share something. If I cannot tell my story, I will tell someone else's--as best I can. And, it's a story worth telling.

Other than the very few of us who were out there, most people don't know how the race unfolded past the 350 mile point of McGrath after a storm had pushed through and wiped out the trail. Perhaps very few care. The event is about as far from mainstream as possible. However, some has been written about it, mostly focusing on Tim Hewitt. This is certainly understandable. Tim's name is nearly synonymous with walking to Nome and he made a right adventure of last year's race.

However, the above article does get a number of small details wrong and leaves out most of the actions of the racer whom—to me at least—is the real hero of the story. Beat is the only one of us who had the presence of mind to take extra food and fuel from the resupply, he also did the bulk of the trail breaking and he was with me in the end when my world fell apart. But, I'm getting a bit ahead in the tale.

I was attempting the full 1000 mile distance. I thought that Beat would push ahead since, with Tim opting for the bike, he was a shoe-in to win the full distance. But, Beat always says the first 350 is a warm-up so he stuck with me for the early miles for the most part. We bivied together above "The Wall of Death", had a nice breakfast at Yentna Station and even had a really good bit of sleep at Skwentna Lodge. After that I started to fall behind. Coming into Shell Lodge just as Beat left. Then, on the long trek to Winterlake the air warmed up close to freezing and filled with moisture. So did my lungs.

I was having difficulty breathing and was unable to lie down without kicking into a coughing fit. By the time Beat woke up, I hadn't slept and felt certain my race was over. He encouraged me to start on my antibiotics and see how it goes as I had plenty of time and could spend a day (or even more) at the lovely Winterlake Lodge. However, in truth, neither of us expected to see each other again during the race.  After Beat left, I managed to get some amount of sleep and miraculously felt better as Loreen Hewitt and Moses Lovstad came into the checkpoint.

Over the next 5 days my lungs continued to improve. I would get 8, 10, 12, 14 hours of feeling good. Unfortunately, I was walking around 16 hours a day. Beat remained pretty much around 1/2 day ahead of me. At each checkpoint I would find that he had left a few hours prior as I was ready to set down for some rest. I assumed that gap would grow once past McGrath, but the trail had some surprises for all of us after that.

I was hit pretty hard by a snowstorm crossing the Farewell Burn, but it was just a hint of what dropped further up trail. Beat was already in Takotna as Loreen and I were preparing to leave McGrath, but I don't think any of us expected to make it through. The trail we would be taking didn't see much traffic to begin with as the Iditarod dogsled race had opted to start from Fairbanks. Tim and another biker had gotten caught in the storm and the other guy had called for a snowmachine pickup from the on-trail food drop. Tim, being Tim, took advantage of the machine track and then went on to push his bike, breaking trail, past that. Beat followed on snowshoes.

Loreen and I headed out on trail expecting to make it only to the food drop and return. However, thanks to the technology of satellite phones and GPS trackers we were able to get relayed messages of what was happening up trail at least from Beat. Apparently, he kept waiting for us to catch up and share some of the trail breaking duties. Unfortunately, with temperatures now plummeting into the -40 range, Loreen and I were taking longer sleep breaks refusing to get up until the sun was overhead. These pretty much coincided with the times that Beat was waiting, hoping we'd make progress on him. In the end, it just meant that we all moved excruciatingly slow and Beat had to shoulder all the hard work himself.

Beat's a smart guy. He's also pretty meticulous in his planning so it's no surprise that he was the only one of us who thought to grab extra food and fuel from the re-supply drop. There was plenty there given the number of racers who had planned and then dropped from going to Nome. We all should have loaded up, but the going hadn't been too bad up until the food drop. The section between McGrath and Ruby takes about 5 days on foot during a good year. This was not a good year.  The trail got bad. Then it got worse.

Loreen and I stuck together, at least at rest and bivy points. We came upon both Beat's and Tim's tracks and tried to discern the story as the bike track were doubled. As we'd learn later, Tim had been pushing his bike through deep snowdrifts, got off course, ran out of food and headed back towards the cabin. He met salvation on the trail by way of Beat who had extra food and fuel. They headed on together, but even with Beat breaking trail with snowshoes and sled, pushing the bike was just too slow and Tim fell back. Beat left some extra food behind for Tim after dropping him, but alas it was just ahead of where Tim decided to collapse for the night, digging a hole and building a fire right there on the trail.

I believe this is the situation in which Loreen and I found him a few miles outside the ghost town of Poorman. Loreen sat down to join her husband while I decided to push on ahead, invigorated by the idea of catching my friend. I tried to use his snowshoe tracks as best I could even with his strides about 1/2 again as long as mine, but the wind kicked up on the Poorman "road" and his tracks were filling in fast. My pace was a crawl as I entered my 6th night on the trail since leaving Takotna. As 9pm rolled around, I told myself I had to find whatever shelter I could and just bivy on trail again within the next hour. As that hour came and went and nothing presented itself, I saw up ahead what looked like some sort of structure, a dilapidated cabin of some sort. Then I noticed the tracks veering off towards the cabin and, what was that in front? A sled!

I crawled into the cabin and found an empty spot on the floor amongst the mass of junked mining equipment. After a few hours Beat awoke, but I told him I was in no condition to head out so he agreed to wait until first light. In the morning we continued together taking turns plowing through the snow at a crawl. We were more than 30 miles from Ruby and at the pace we were going that would take at least another night. Furthermore, I was low on food and running low on strength. I don't think I really held up my end of the trail-breaking bargain. Things were seeming pretty desperate and I could only imagine what Tim and Loreen were going through behind us. Loreen's hands were in bad shape and while temps had warmed now, the damage was done.

During one of our short breaks to switch leads, Beat went in front and put his headphones in. I was spending my trail time deep in thought so kept the music off which allowed me to hear it. I yelled "Beat! Beat" He took his headphones off and looked at me trying to figure out what I was on about. "Listen. Do you hear it?" There was a faint, distant buzz that seemed to be growing louder. I think neither of us wanted to name it for fear the disappointment if we turned out to be wrong. Eventually, I said it. "Snowmobiles" Then we saw them coming around a bend further up trail. I could have cried. There was no point continuing to waste our energy because once they got to us there would be a trail. An actual trail.

When the finally arrived, it was two guys and they were not just plowing a nice track, they had equipment behind them which laid it down even further. They were heading out to one of the cabins to do some mining. We told them to look out for Tim and Loreen, but mostly we were just excited to get moving again. It was amazing. The feeling of going from 1 mph to 3 mph felt like the difference between jogging and an all-out sprint. On top of that our spirits were lifted. I didn't have to keep rationing my food. We were going to make it to Ruby. A few hours later another snowmobile came by. This one had been sent by Bill, the RD to check on all of us. We told them we were fine and they should get to Tim and Loreen who might be in bad shape.

We continued towards Ruby and after a longer time than I would have expected, the snowmachine came back with Tim and Loreen in tow. A sight I never expected to see, Tim Hewitt being pulled off of the Iditarod trail. We wished them luck then continued on into the dark. We had different BnB's in Ruby, but Beat and I agreed to meet up in the morning and make our decision about continuing then. Food, more food and a good night's sleep can do wonders. We were both moving slow in the morning, but we agreed to keep on. Despite our exhaustion, time was tight. I knew I'd be moving slower so I told Beat that if I couldn't keep up, he should just keep going. I would be happy finishing up wherever I finished. If I made it to the coast I would be ecstatic. Beat would have none of it and started working on a plan to get us both to Nome.

"OK, tour's over, this is now a race." With those words Beat began explaining that we were just going to have to go as long as we could and sleep as little as our bodies would allow. There were 50 miles of Yukon River between Ruby and Galena. We were going to have to take it in a single push. The trail was better since we were now on track with the dogsled race for a bit. We just had to follow the trail of "poop" and discarded dog booties down the river.

With Beat's long strides moving him at a solid clip it meant even less rest for me as he would generally already have been stopped for some minutes before I caught up. We only took one significant stop on the river. It was perhaps 3am and laying on our sleds drinking coffee we were treated to the most incredible light show in the sky directly above us thanks to the northern lights. The rest of the night was much more of a struggle and I had an emotional break-down just before dawn. In the end, the anger propelled me to push hard until light, but I was exhausted when we finally made it to town.

We had some good food and rest in Galena along with collecting our re-supply boxes. I would have been happy to just stay in that comfy apartment for the next week. As it was, we spent too much time dallying around and had to kick ourselves out of there before the sun went down. It was going to be another night with little to no sleep. Once again, the going was rough as the route we would take veered back off the dogsled trail and so we returned to breaking trail and postholing along. It was a little better when we finally left the river and we found a good spot to sleep and agreed to set alarms for 2 hours. I woke, but Beat snoozed on. It was cold and so I stayed in my bag for a while longer, but eventually I managed to crawl out. Beat was sleeping so hard I had to kick him awake.

We made coffee and then geared back up to push through the wee hours and into the dawn. I could feel a general fatigue moving over me and my legs were tired beyond belief. We'd been in snowshoes for the better part of 250 miles. Our trail eventually merged back with the dogsled trail near the confluence of the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers and just outside the small village by the same name. It wasn't a normal stop on the route and we were trying to figure out how quickly to get in and out in order to make it to the next two villages at the right times of day. Timing would be key if we wanted to get our food boxes from the post offices. My quads had a sort of ache in them I had never felt and I was slowing down even as we took the well graded road into town. I was already having my doubts, but willing to push along following Beat as long as my body would let me.

Unfortunately, fate had already made other plans for me. I won't recount the tragic events that followed again. However, since I started this tale focusing on Beat I will say a few things about him. I don't know if we would have made it all the way to Nome, if we had enough time or enough strength. But, I do know that Beat would have stopped it nothing. Nothing that is, except staying with a friend in a time of need. I tried to tell him to go on and that I'd get home OK, but he knew better. He stuck with me that night and made sure I got back to Anchorage and onto my flight home.

Events like the ITI are not really about the finish line and, while there was no winner in the foot race to Nome last year, in my mind there was a champion.


Beat will be back at it again this year.

I won't be joining in body, but in spirit I'll be following my friend down that frozen trail...

...perhaps a few steps behind.


Olga King said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I can not comprehend all that long cold adventures you guys seem to love so much, but I understand the love you have for it in my depth of feelings. Nor can I imagine meeting the news you did like that...and Beat, indeed, displayed what a true person - a true friend, but mostly a true human being - is about. How are you going to go about your daily life once he moves to CO in April? By the way, Larry and I are visiting the area he is in on April 8-10 for our own future home scouting, wonder if Beat and Jill will be there already. And lastly (for now), keep on writing, my friend. I think what makes our heart pound a little faster is what makes us write with passion so well, and your winter wonderland wanderings are certainly ones of your best memories.

Steve Ansell said...

Thanks for the comment Olga. It is difficult to explain the attraction to such events and not just for the usual reasons that we cannot explain any of these endurance events to people who don't do them. There is something about spending days on end out on the trail in a place filled with such stillness and quiet that becomes so personal. Spending so much time inside oneself in such a place that is so foreign to most experiences is almost impossible to communicate.

As for Beat moving, I am very happy for him. In truth, with all his travels, I actually don't see him as much around here is one would think. I will be visiting him in July before Hardrock to be sure! My friend Harry is my regular running partner, but lucky for me his girlfriend won't let them move out of the Bay Area just yet :-).