Iditarod 2009 Part 3

Another big gap between instalments. In the unlikely event that anyone is holding their breath – sorry. I’ve been looking for a new job, enjoying the dusty trails and still ploughing around on the Pugsley. My normal bike is just about ready to go again, but there was one more outing for the Pug this weekend. The Dyfi Enduro – short distance for an enduro, but it’s all either up or down and the downs are fearsome. Fortunately, I didn’t have to ride the bit that claimed some of my skin last year as another rider was spread across that bit of trail. I just helped him to his feet and was thankful to get through there unscathed. It’s still my favourite “race” in the UK. You get the most technical course out there, bands, cheerleaders, a gorilla suit, and people riding all sorts from lightweight XC bikes to full on freeride. I had pretty good ride with the silly bike choice removing any pressure I may have put on myself. I tried to flow where I could on the descents, but fully rigid on trail that allows you to get a ton of speed before throwing up a pile of pointy off-camber rocks did force me to take things steady. And then at the end of it Nick Craig wanted a go on my bike. He lived up to his reputation of being about the nicest professional sportsman you could meet, which is always good to see. Some pics of the event here.

Back to Alaska..

At Puntilla, we heard that the lead group had already gone into Rainy Pass but no-one had heard from Bill Merchant for a few days. Bill was supposed to be breaking trail for us, so that was worrying. Fortunately, there wasn’t much need to worry about Bill’s safety – if anyone can look after themself out there, it’s him. Given the lack of trail, the fact that I’d been tortoise/hare-ing with Billy for the whole way up to Puntilla, and that Billy’s a fun guy to hang out with I decided to ride with him through the pass (Billy Koitzsch, not Bill Merchant. Too many Bills).

Billy, Rob, and myself set off into the darkness expecting to push a lot and probably bivvy before Rhone. We rode steadily to begin with – Billy’s dynamo LED casting massive shadows despite our slow progress. Pretty soon, Rob dropped back. I wasn’t too worried about letting him go, expecting another sneaky gear-related move from him later in the day. With relatively ride-able trails, my single gear necessitated that I move ahead of Billy. This was my first view of the tripod trail markers: 8ft high tripods made of large logs with reflectors on them. They gave us a rough path up the valley but it was another case of looking with your feet. This part of the trail had been bedded in so the trick was to search for relatively solid ground and use that. Bunched up together again, Billy and I would occasionally fan out to find something we could ride rather than needlessly hurting ourselves by pushing through deep snow only a few feet from the real trail.

I knew it was going to be pretty much uphill all day and looking out into the mountains, I tried to pick out where Rainy Pass lay. Unfortunately, the twists and turns of the trail made it hard to figure exactly where we were really headed. We whacked through the brush and frequently laughed our way through adversity. As we got closer to the mountains, though, the trail got hard to even push on. We were on a very recent snow machine track and our feet would frequently punch straight through, sinking to the knee. Having set ourselves mentally for this kind of treatment, we didn’t mind. We just kept on plugging and resolved to have a hot lunch on the trail.

Whilst pushing our bikes kept us very warm, as soon as we stopped to get out the stoves, it was time for the serious clothing. In my puff trousers and down jacket, I was pretty toasty. It was a good feeling to be completely comfortable so far from civilisation and in such cold conditions. I had to be quick with fiddly tasks before getting my big gloves back on, but that was all. Our lunch stop was twice interrupted though – once by a former trail breaker (sorry – I forget your name) who was out to rescue Bill, and once by John Ross. John declined the invitation to join us for lunch… could he be racing again? 🙂

From the state of the trail and the information we’d learned from the trail breaker, it was clear we weren’t going to be riding for a while. Billy took his pedals off to stop them from bashing into his legs as he pushed along the narrow trail, but I stubbornly carried on with mine. It would be more than a day before he’d put them back on. The trudge went on and on. We passed Bill’s abandoned snow machine and carried on until we reached a frozen lake. I was looking with my feet again and the trail seemed to veer off to the right. I followed it, and I saw a snow machine approaching. It was Bill, with his rescuer. He told me that the snow was too deep and the light too flat to do much trail breaking. The snow machines just kept sinking and the flat light made it impossible to read the snow. From here there were untold miles before we’d see trail again. But, in the abandoned cabin by the lake Lou Kobin and Eric Warkentin had holed up to wait for the trail breakers.

The cabin had no roof, but Bill had christened it The Rainy Pass Hilton. It may not stop the snow, but the 4 walls did stop most of the wind. Billy and I headed up there to talk to Lou and Eric. We wanted to press on and bivvy in the pass, but after some wavering we decided to stay. We would head out as a group of 4 in the morning. Hanging out with them and Bill for the night seemed much more appealing than a storm-whipped bivvy in the unknown.

During the night Tim and Tom arrived. They are incredible walkers and were eating up the distance as we struggled with the deep snow. Bill must have recognised them – their arrival prompted some classic dry humour, “If you shine that light in my face, I’ll shoot you!” It’s a good job we all know him well enough to get the joke. As morning came, we all filled up with hot water and faffed. Even more snow had fallen and no-one was in a hurry to get out there.

Eventually we did, though and things soon became comically hard. I was at the front to begin with and thought I had taken a bad turn when the snow was knee deep. Leaving the bike for a moment, I tried some other directions: they were waist deep. We tried to guess which of the utterly exhausting directions would be the least gruelling, but it was impossible to tell. Each step would take tens of seconds as it would involve the same procedure: step forwards, sink (sometimes up to your waist), stumble, reach up to you bike (now above your head) and drag it forward a bit, climb out of the hole you’re in, sink again. Just trying to progress at all once you’d sunk was like being in a children’s ball pit. Everything you could reach would collapse under your weight.

We rotated like a peloton. Being at the back of the group was more like walking along a trench and much easier. And through it all, we had chat from biking stories to Napa Valley wine. Surreal, but it kept us going and it was particularly good for me to hear from the veterans that these conditions really were extraordinary. Every directional decision was tough. If we wanted to head for higher ground, it would take an age to get there and might not be any better than our current position. The only sure thing was that if we kept moving through the pass, eventually we’d come out.

As we got higher, the terrain got steeper but rockier. The wind was so strong into our backs that the hair exposed under the back of my hat froze solid. It felt pretty crazy, pretty epic, and pretty good to have this place and moment for ourselves. That was the high point, though. Sooner than we were ready, it was over the top and into more waist-deep slogging. Here, we were zig-zagging down the valley and in places we could see open water from the river. Getting wet, particularly on this section would have been seriously bad news so every crossing was tense. Thick willows forced us to keep doing it though, sometimes edging along a narrow ledge dragging/carrying our massive bikes. One memorable section had us 10 feet above the water on a scree slope with varying depths of snow. Each step could be shallow or deep, it could slip or hold and the way was too narrow for a bike to be anything but a clumsy anchor.

In my mind, I had hoped that we would be out of the pass by nightfall. The hours went by, though, and the sun dipped as we lifted and grunted our way through a maze of willows. And then, we could hear engines. The trail breakers had made it through to us. I was so relieved, I could hardly stand. Lou ran up and hugged the first snow machiner. The trail wouldn’t be packed enough to ride until the night had frozen it, but at least we had something to follow.

So, it was back to sinking in the snow but now only up to our knees and with a straight line to follow. Moving at our own speeds, our little group broke up. Eric and Lou moved off ahead while Billy and I progressed more slowly. Darkness fell and we were still pushing. Hunger and tiredness were beginning to take their toll so I was swearing at everything: the snow, the dark, the stupid bike, and eventually at Billy stopping to put his pedals back on. At that point, it was definitely food time. I was hating my trail mix (yeah, Pete Basinger was right) and Billy was sick of sweet energy food. A quick food-trade had us both in a better mood for what turned out to be a long way to Rohn.

We saw the ghostly traces of the lead group who were still having to make their own trail at this point. Deep furrows through soft snow. I knew the pain involved in that kind of progress and could only marvel at how they’d pushed so far. Then as we finally got close, there was the first exposed ice. The wind had blow parts of the frozen lake clear and it was like entering a different world. The ever-present crunch of snow was gone, along with the accompanying drag. My light was much less effective as the black ice soaked it up, only the cracks showing up bright. Those cracks were re-assuring though, as they highlighted just how much ice there was underneath us. Tiredness, silence, legs used to a day of pushing, a slippery surface, and a heavily weighted front tyre made it a strange, beautiful experience.

Longer and longer we went, my strength dipping and Billy pulling ahead. Until, at last, I heard a whoop from him. We were at Rohn and had cracked the hardest part of the ride.

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