Iditarod 2009 Part 4

The checkpoint at Rohn is tiny. Just a wall-tent to hold as many racers as arrive at once. We were lucky enough to coincide with a few guys leaving, so Billy and I could get our sleeping bags down without having to head back outside – others were not always as fortunate.

Getting to the food was a case of stepping over and around many prone bodies. Feeling drunk with exhaustion, it was a hard job to not just fall right on someone. I ate a couple of tins of lentil soup and sat down to get ready for sleep. As I took off my socks, my feet looked horrific. They had been wet all day from snow falling into my boots, so even without the frostbite they would have looked gross. They were unrecognisably white and puffy, like I’d been clopping through the Somne for the past 24 hours. The more worrying part was the stinking and oozing from the frostbite blisters on my toes. There wasn’t much I could do about them, so I just hid them away at the bottom of my bag and went to sleep. I’d get my socks dry on the stove and have another look at the toes when I wasn’t so deliriously tired.

As I “slept”, I heard others come in and out. A bunch of walkers arrived, some of whom couldn’t find anywhere to sleep and had to bivvy outside. That must have been frustrating, but there was nothing to be done about it. After a while one of the walkers who had been able stay in the tent shook me awake, “Your buddy is snoring”. Frankly, I had no idea what to say to this. You’re taking part in a wilderness race, deal with it. What am I supposed to do about it anyway? He went away and I went back to sleep. Billy was snoring pretty loud, but if you couldn’t sleep through that, you weren’t trying hard enough on the trail.

We only took about 3 hours rest and then it was time to asses the toes. They were blistered, but there was no black skin. I wasn’t going to give up because of them, so I just dressed and started to pack up. As soon as they were in my boots, I could ignore my feet and get on with the task in hand. The first job was finding the outhouse. Billy had used the outhouse last time he’d done the race and near-frozen his ass off on the ceramic seat. His complaints had got him kicked out of the cabin, but now, years later, he had been vindicated. A polystyrene seat awaited me… Aaah!

With all the camp stuff done, we headed out to the trail. It was nice and early so the trail was cold and hard. Perfect to get some miles done on the bikes. We dropped air pressure and rolled well, watching the story of previous passage unfold in front of us. The distinctive tracks were there: endomorph tyres on one side and foot-prints on the other. We were riding where others had had to push. Awesome.

The trail climbed as steeply as I was prepared to ride, but I was glad to make steady progress. We crossed more exposed frozen lakes and just seconds after commenting about how much I enjoyed riding this stuff, I was suddenly on my arse and elbow. There is no magic to riding ice out there – you just can’t turn or brake more than the tiniest amount. Having hit the ice, I watched my bike spiral away gently. Prising myself up like Bambi in Neos, I tried to fetch it. My boots had come with studs for grip on ice but I’d taken them out so that I wouldn’t have to worry about damaging people’s wooden floors at checkpoints. Right now, that seemed like a bad idea. Slowly, though, I managed to retrieve my bike and get over to a small patch of snow. From there, I could re-start and try not to make any sudden movements.

The day turned out to be glorious. As the sun came up, it blazed across pristine ice, snow and pine. It lay out the mountains we had just crossed as a beautiful backdrop to our lake crossing. The very particular weather eventually gave us a very particular trail. The snow had melted a little at the surface, refrozen, and cracked again. It was just like riding on North Wales slate. Up to 12 inch plates of ice skidded and clattered underneath our wheels as we hared down singletrack. Suddenly, I was in a white Betws Y Coed cruising along the trail for fun and I even had Billy’s company to enjoy it with. For hours, it could have been any given Sunday.

As we got closer to Bison camp, I knew we were approaching the coldest part of the trail. On this side of the mountains, we got weather from Alaska’s interior. Fortunately, it was quite a warm year and there were only odd occasions when the cold really bit. One such occasion was crossing a huge lake. Even in daylight, I couldn’t see the other side. After 20 metres or so, the wind was so savage that I knew I had to take action. My face was being battered by the wind, my ears deafened by the roar, and I could feel my whole body cooling. Despite being so exposed, I stopped to get out my down jacket. It felt crazy having to go fiddling with my bike to detatch the jacket, but as soon as I had it on I knew I had made the right decision. From deep inside its hood, warmth and quiet descended over me. It was like I’d gone from being in Alaska to watching a video about it from under the duvet. Insulated from the sound and the cold, my bike seemed unreal as I got back on and set off to catch up with Billy.

We to-ed and fro-ed a bit with Eric and Lou again as the miles went by, eventually reaching the Farewell Burn. A major fire had destroyed many of the trees in this area years ago, but Billy didn’t recognise it as so much had grown back since last time he was here. The day was getting long again and our tiredness started to be compounded by tyre problems. Big drops in temperature were causing big drops in tyre pressure and it turned out that my pump leaked air almost as fast as I could pump. Between us, we managed to get enough air in to limp along but the fear of a pinch flat or torn tyre followed us all along the trail. If a tube failed, it would be impossible to re-inflate a new one. If a tyre failed, I’d be walking to McGrath. Tense times, but it was all the sweeter to see Bison Camp up ahead.

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