In March of 1998 I completed the Iditasport Extreme, an on-snow race which followed the Iditarod trail for about 350 miles, beginning at the roadhouse on Knik Lake and finishing in the village of McGrath, in interior Alaska.
In the months prior to the race I drew on all of my wilderness and endurance racing background to get myself and my gear ready. When I arrived in Alaska I was confident that I was prepared to meet the demands of the course and climate.
What I didn’t factor was my lack of experience at dealing with the combined effects of extreme cold and sleep deprivation for days at a time. Also, I now know that I could never have completely prepared for the unbelievable beauty and violent inhospitably that I experienced during my five days on the course.
There were 26 competitors who started the race, including 4 cross country skiers, 4 ski jors (3 dogs pulling a human on skis, pulling a sled), a lone runner, and 17 mountain bikers. We were scheduled to leave Knik Lake at 5 PM and race about 20 miles to the Little Susitna river, where we’d have a mandatory overnight campout.
This was the most interesting race format I’d ever seen, by virtue of the fact that racers were not required to follow any set course or trail, we’d simply have to sign in and out of every checkpoint.
Through most of the race everyone followed the same trail, but there were a few opportunities to get creative. One of these was from the start. John Stamstad, last year’s winner and perennial Iditasport favorite, had spent a few days prior to the race scouting out a unique route to the campout.
As we sat on the start line and watched the skiers and ski jors leave, media and racers alike quizzed John on which way he was going to go; the trail or ‘the road’. John eventually admitted that he was taking the road, but remained noncommittal when pressed about which route was faster.
John would only offer that the road was, “A few miles longer, but less strenuous”. I decided to skip the road, since I had come to take the first big step in eventually riding the entire Iditarod trail.
About 15 seconds prior to our start, 8 or 10 people picked their bikes up and turned them around, so that when the gun went off, the group went in two completely different directions! As it turned out, the time difference between the two routes was negligible. In fact, both groups were upstaged by 58 year old Gil Hjellen.
Gil knew a shortcut off of Stamstad’s shortcut, and just sort of dropped off the back of that group to avoid being noticed. He was joined by Gary Sweden, and they finished a few minutes ahead of a very surprised looking Stamstad. I came in just behind Pat Norwil, with whom I had ridden over Nine Mile Hill.
An exciting start, but the race had hardly begun as we arrived at the Little Su to spend the night. The purpose of the mandatory campout was to insure that all competitors were adequately prepared to deal with an emergency situation anywhere along the trail.
This race has no mandatory gear requirements; each racer is expected to carry whatever they think they’ll need. Many, myself included, believe it makes more sense to travel light and fast, rather than carry pounds of extra gear to meet every contingency along the trail.
Over the next few days I would learn that the minimal amount of gear I carried was enough to keep me alive, but with very little margin for error.
As we arrived at the campout, the sun had set and most of us were sweaty. We busied ourselves with getting dry while cooking dinner, then turned our attention to getting a good amount of sleep so that we would be rested when they restarted us at 8 am.
Sleep deprivation plays a huge role in deciding the outcome of these races, and we were all well aware that this would be our last real sleep for several days. I warmed some lasagna, then promptly stomped a trench in the snow for my sleeping bag.
As I dozed off the sky was clear, and there was most of a moon illuminating everything. I ended sleeping poorly, mostly because of the cold; the temperature dropped past -25.
When I got up the next morning I was shivering uncontrollably, so I stumbled down to the river and helped Paul Black get a fire going. I packed up and left the checkpoint at 8:14 am. As expected, I warmed up quickly once moving.
The trail dumped out on the Big Susitna river, which we followed for just 2 miles before intersecting the Yentna river. A popular snowmachine corridor, the Yentna was packed down well for bicycle travel.
We rode north by northwest for about 40 miles on the Yentna, which is in places ½ mile wide. The river wound around considerably, and each time it turned north we were treated to spectacular views of Denali, Foraker, and other parts of the Alaska Range. This provided both a welcome sight and a cause for pause; it was difficult to believe that we would be traversing over and through those huge, beautiful mountains, and possibly as early as the next morning.
At the 60 mile mark we hit the second checkpoint, Yentna Station, where many racers had flown in drop bags full of clothing, food, headlamp batteries, etc. Here I stopped briefly to dry out a wet shell and gloves, and watched curiously as other competitors snarfed cheeseburgers, chasing them with Cokes and candy bars.
Leaving Yentna Station, I rode solo for about 20 miles before being caught by Dawes Wilson. He and I talked for awhile and both of us had concern over routefinding as the sun went down, so we agreed to stick together through the night, and tentatively for the rest of the race.
After several hours of winding around on hard packed trail, we arrived at the Skwentna roadhouse just before dark, and I was happy to stop for a few minutes to dry out wet clothing before pushing on. Dawes and I left the roadhouse at dusk with Gary Sweden and Paul Black.
Our next checkpoint was Finger Lake, about 45 miles away. We rode a short distance on snowmobile trail before getting to the Skwentna river, where the trail became very soft and punchy, and we had great difficulty riding.
We all let gobs of air out of our tires, enabling us to float better on the surface of the snow, but everyone was still having trouble. I seemed to be having the least amount of trouble of our group, and would often get far enough ahead to scout intersections before the others arrived at the fork in the trail.
After an interminable slog up the Skwentna, we went over the southern edge of Shell Hill and came out onto a lake. The temperature was nearing -20 and we were all having a hard time keeping warm. Somewhere through here Gary decided that he wanted to drop off the back of the group; he told Dawes he felt like he was holding us up.
We rode and pushed for another hour or so, then came upon a sign informing us that we still had 23 miles to go to Finger Lake. I was crushed by that information; it had taken 5 ½ hours to go 22 miles! Dawes and I decided to try to find the Shell Lake lodge and crash there ‘til daylight.
We got directions from a guy out checking his trap lines, and arrived there at 1:30 am, only to find Gary had already made it in! Shortly after leaving us, Gary had happened upon the same trapper, who pointed out a shortcut that saved Gary an hour and a half of slogging. Sleep came easily after a 100 mile day that took 17 hours.
When we awoke, Gary announced he was dropping out of the race. As he was arranging a flight back to Anchorage, Dawes and I headed out and spent the next 9 hours riding the 23 miles to Finger Lake! I dug into my drop bag, only to discover that someone had pilfered my Clif Bars and slide film. Doh! (Note to pilferer: KARMA GONNA GETCHA)
After our day long effort that yielded a total of 45 miles, Dawes and I decided to abandon the race mentality and go into tour mode, opting to forego a good placing in favor of searching for enjoyment during what was beginning to look like a long trip.
We were provided a cabin with a woodburner, and shared this with 4 others. I stoked the fire as hot as I could get it, then fell asleep around 8 PM. About midnight I awoke, shivering because the fire had died. Time to get moving.
We rode out into the moonlight and some of the most painfully beautiful scenery of the trip so far. Pines bent under the weight of recent snow were casting shadows and glowing in an almost ominous setting, as we rode numerous short, steep hills between lakes. The trail was firm, and the moon was so bright that headlamp use was unnecessary.
Up into the Happy River Gorge and across a few high alpine lakes we continued, and after some swoopy singletrack we crossed a last meadow and arrived at the Puntilla Lake checkpoint at 10:30 am. We lingered over an hour.
While I raided (with his prior permission) Gary Sweden’s drop bag for Pop Tarts, Snickers, and summer sausage, Dawes fixed his rear and only brake for the descent from Rainy Pass, which we hoped to encounter before losing the last light of the day.
The next checkpoint, Rohn, was 50 miles away, and most of this stretch we walked because of soft trail, many times postholing up to our knees or even thighs. The slow going was compounded by the heat, which we estimated to be around 40 degrees.
When Ralf Kuba, one of the ski jors, caught and passed us, I asked him how long he thought it would take us to get to Rohn. He replied, “You’ll be there in an hour and a half”. It was hard to believe, but it was also exactly what we wanted to hear, so we picked up our pace and walked faster for a few hours, until it became obvious that Ralf hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.
Dawes and I topped out on the pass in the last of the alpenglow, and believed that it was still 25 miles to Rohn. We shared a Snickers bar and toasted Gary for having the good sense to stock his drop bags well, then started walking down the pass.
For the next three hours we walked downhill in soft snow punctuated with moose tracks, occasionally crossing short ice bridges over open water. In these conditions, getting feet or any part of your body wet could be very dangerous, so we moved slowly and deliberately.
Once we hit solid ground again, I began falling asleep at the wheel, literally nodding off even as I walked. I told Dawes that I needed to bivy. He thought we should go forward until we found water to fill our packs with. I replied that I didn’t need water, and wasn’t physically tired, I was just so sleepy that I simply couldn’t continue, that I needed to stop and sleep a while, right here right now. He maintained that we should go forward until we found water. I was so out of it at this point that I couldn’t make him understand my situation.
Out of frustration I jumped on my bike (despite the fact that we’d been able to ride only 15 minutes of the last 8 hours). Somehow, I was able to ride, and Dawes immediately followed. We descended across meadows, in and out of pine stands, and finally into the infamous Dalzell Gorge. Fast and narrow, with open water next to and beneath us in many places, the section of trail through the Gorge is indelibly burned into my memory as one of the most fun pieces of trail I’ve ever ridden.
Despite the amazing descent, I still could not keep my eyes open, and at one point just fell asleep and rode off the trail. Dawes caught up to me as I was waking up and trying to extricate myself from the deep snow I had plowed into.
I followed his wheel from here, and we crossed several more ice bridges before leveling out onto what appeared to be a lake. My need for sleep reduced me to walking while leaning on the bike, and I remember hoping that Dawes would find the checkpoint and lead me in to it.
Probably 10 minutes later we did find it, and as I struggled into my sleeping bag, I heard Dawes call behind me, “Don’t you want to do a warm down spin?”. I don’t think I quite appreciated his wit at that moment. The ‘day’ ended after 23 ½ hours of moving to cover @ 80 miles.
When I stumbled out of my bag, I was informed by fellow competitor Chloe Lanthier that I looked like a “chinaman” because my eyes were nearly swollen shut. I was moving slowly and stiffly as I went to grab my drop bag. I bent over and picked it up, and when I stood up I realized just where I was.
Standing on the Rohn “airstrip” (a plowed lane on a snow covered lake), every direction yielded a different view of huge mountains and steep valleys, and the sense that I got was just sheer isolation.
The only people we were likely to see for the next 145 miles would be Athabascan natives, as well as the occasional bush pilot who would buzz us (often at eye level) to make sure we were okay. I opened the drop bag and dug through it, eating four Clif Bars pretty much instantly.
I couldn’t tell you what flavor they were, but they tasted like nectar at that point. I ate girl scout cookies, honey roasted cashews, bacon, beef jerky, and cookie dough, then I heated up some lasagna, and washed it all down with Tang, Tums, and Flintstones vitamins.
When I finished stuffing myself full of food, I put the rest on the bike, as I knew that it was 90 miles to the village of Nikolai, our next checkpoint. Riding out of Rohn, Dawes and I headed downstream on the Kuskokwim river with a huge tailwind propelling us. The wind was obviously a constant here, as the river was blown free of snow.
After leaving the river, we rode most of the day on snowmobile trails, often crossing wind-scoured tundra, and the occasional flash frozen waterfall. These were so beautiful that I would forget that I was riding on blue ice just long enough for it to body slam me. There were many places where we ascended steep ice, digging in the cleats on our shoes much like one would frontpoint with crampons. We both bruised ourselves sufficiently here, as we would fall and slide, only to get up and do it again.
Toward late afternoon we came to a creek crossing with a snow bridge that the Iditarod trailbreakers had made for the dogsleds to cross. As Dawes and I arrived, we watched as it sank and the creek overflowed it. Some quick scouting turned up no other way across, so we began to build a bridge with deadfall.
This proved difficult as all of the deadfall was so small as to be immediately swept away. I remembered that I had brought a pocket saw, so I went to work cutting standing dead near to the narrowest point of the creek. Dan Bull and Gil Hjellen showed up and pitched in, and we were on our way in minutes.
As night fell we knew that we were nowhere near the next checkpoint, so we stopped to add layers. Entering an area known as the Farewell Burn, (about 40 linear miles of pine and birch forest that had burned 20 some years ago) the temperature dropped sharply.
There were no trees to break the wind, just blackened stumps, tree skeletons, and some low brush as far as I could see, and as I crested a small rise I could see the terrain flatten out all the way to the horizon. Visible far to the northwest was a beacon, which I hoped was the village of McGrath, our finish, still 90 miles distant.
Schlepping along through the burn, we came upon the leading ski jor, Bill Merchant, who had built a fire and was resting his dogs for a few hours. While Dawes headed up the trail, I stopped and warmed myself for a short while and snacked on some jerky that Bill offered me.
Shortly after I resumed riding across the Burn, my seatpost snapped! I stared at it in disbelief, realizing that I still had 80 miles to go. Exercising my only option, I stuffed the remaining three inches of post down into the frame, making a slightly more comfortable platform than the top tube of the bike.
We continued down the trail, and came upon a tent just off to the side. It was Tom Possert, the only racer attempting the course on foot. Tom offered us GU and water for our packs, and was able to convince Dawes to accept a fruit pie. We asked a few route and mileage questions, and then continued up the trail. With the temperature dropping past -25, I decided to try to find a cabin that was rumored to be nearby. Dawes continued up the trail toward Bear Creek so that he could have water when he woke, and we agreed to meet in Nikolai in the morning.
After bivying on the burn, Dawes had a hard day into Nikolai. Sometime when we were building the deadfall bridge he had lost his sunglasses, and after riding 30 miles on snow, in midday sun, without shades, his eyes and face were burnt red. During my bivy, I had found the cabin, but it was full of Iditarod trailbreakers, so I threw my bag and bivy on the ground outside and slept fitfully for a few hours before resuming my trek to Nikolai.
I stopped midday and built a fire to warm myself and dry out my clothes, and ate a handful of Clif Bars while I waited. I resumed riding (standing up, because of the broken seatpost) and got to Nikolai mid-afternoon. Dawes and I agreed to sleep from 4 until 8 PM, then we’d head out for the final 53 miles to McGrath.
Dawes had been suffering a deterioration of hand strength throughout the race, and as we readied ourselves for the final leg, he could hardly tighten the cinch straps holding the gear to his bike. As I waited for him to repack all of his gear, I decided to give my bike a once over. I went to where I had leaned it, and it only took a minute to realize that something was wrong. The broken seatpost had made the seat much lower to the ground, and something had chewed my saddle up like an old shoe. Hmmm… I was a little disappointed because my butt had spent two years breaking that saddle in.
Just before we left, Tom Possert made it in to the checkpoint. He looked both upbeat and spent; undoubtedly both were due to the tremendous progress he was making. When Dawes and I finally got going, Gil Hjellen joined us. The moon was just about full, and we again rode without headlamps.
At one point I asked Gil, a longtime Alaska resident, if we hadn’t seen the northern lights because of the brightness of the moon. He replied, “Well, that could very well be, but basically you just need to sleep a lot less and then you’ll see any damn thing you want!” Before I had finished laughing, it was as though someone had thrown a switch, and the borealis spread across the sky in bright greens. Shimmering and pulsing, gliding back and forth, it provided a mesmerizing way for us to take our minds off of how cold we were. As we rode the Kuskokwim river toward McGrath, the temperature hovered between -15 and -20, and on the last leg into the finish it hit -30.
Tuesday Gil had finally stopped to bivy after succumbing to falling asleep at the wheel, much as I had two nights previous. Dawes had ridden ahead; my legs were no longer tolerant of riding standing up as I had for most of the last 80 miles.
When I rode up off the river into McGrath, I’m not sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect nothing. The trail markings just ended, and so I rode around the village for about 10 minutes before a guy in a school bus pulled over, hugged me and welcomed me to town, then gave me directions to his house, where the finish was. At the time, it hardly occurred to me that it was strange for there to be a school bus out there.
I found the house, where Dawes was waiting. We signed off the course at 8:55 AM, then rode across town to the airstrip and were on a plane out about 20 minutes later. Short hours later, we sat in a borrowed condo in Anchorage, too tired to move, but not too tired to eat. I was plastered to the couch for a few hours before I could summon the energy to take off the stinking clothes I’d lived in for the past six days. I know of no creative way to describe the exhaustion that I felt, nor can I explain the joy of sitting in a climate controlled room with carpet under my bare feet.
It was here, staring at the ceiling, that I first realized how spent I was. As Dawes frantically packed his things to catch a flight back to Colorado, we rehashed many details, mostly talking about the cold, the lack of sleep, and the bare minimum of organization by the race promoter. I started making mental notes on how to be better prepared, and that’s when it hit me, directly between the eyes, that despite the way I felt I planned to come back!