Sunday, February 11, 2018

33 Below and On Your Own - The 2018 Arrowhead 135 (Part Two)

It is like being the last person at the party to realize that you have had too much to drink. This is the way of such occurrences in these events. Slowly, as if intentionally preventing you from noticing what is happening, physical effort and the elements reduce you to a state of mental simplicity. Unfortunately, if certain details, like drink, food or exertion have not been attended to properly, well than that’s when you find you have already crossed the line. Decision making, forward progress, and safety all suffer.

A few miles back, I’d made the decision: at the next trailside shelter, (shown here during warmer times)

that I’d be stopping to attend to my feet. These shelters are randomly located along the Arrowhead Trail - I’d guess every fifteen to twenty miles or so - and are not necessarily available where you might need them. A few years earlier, after having a pedal break off in this same event, in this same section between Checkpoints Two and Three, I’d happily ducked into one of them. Elated, as I knew nothing prior of their existence. Safe and warm, out of the falling snow, I’d done my best to try and reattach or jerry-rig a pedal. (Who the hell was this Jerry guy anyway? An earlier version of McGyver perhaps.)

At the crest of each hill and the coming out of every bend in the trail, my attention always shifted, remembering years past,  immediately left. Hoping, needing for a shelter soon, I’d given myself a fifteen-minute time limit. If one did not appear by then, I’d set up my camp off-trail as best I could. My feet were not critical ... yet. I was not going to allow them to get that way either. I was less than thrilled about “bivvying” trailside in soft snow and exposed. The three-sided, maybe 30-foot-square, wooden shelters usually had a snow-free dirt floor, and there was something about the idea of a roof overhead that was mentally soothing. Perhaps someday I'll get tougher.

My self-imposed timer was nearing its end. Cresting what I guessed was about Hill Twenty-something of the forty-one hills between Melgeorges and the Surly Checkpoint, trail left, EUREKA, there she was!  

Yes!!! A shelter! I thought. Damn it. It’s an outhouse. Screw it, any portal in a storm. If I gotta get warm in a crapper, so be it. Beats setting up in a snow bank. The wisdom of this decision-making is certainly up for debate. I’d later find out that nighttime temps dipped to -33F. Brain juice, like oil, flows a bit slow in that kind of cold. Perception of surroundings do also. Were it a warm summer night, out for a spin, it’s a good bet that seeing the outhouse, I’d have immediately surmised that no one would just build an outhouse by itself out here. Of course a shelter must be nearby. I mean, we were in the forest. There are no shortages of places to relieve oneself. Now let’s say, just for conversation, that someone was planning on building a small shelter, the kind in which one or two folks might hang out for an evening, make a fire, enjoy a nice cup of tea, and such. Well then, that would seem like a smart place to also put a nice small outhouse as well.

In what seemed like slow motion - recalling the events now - though I was fully resigned to wrapping myself up in my -20F sleeping bag, warming my body and, more importantly, feet in said outdoor lavatory, my gaze shifted slowly to the right. Not fifteen feet away stood a perfectly wonderful shelter. A good chuckle accompanied the realization that I was the last one to realize I was now the drunk guy at the party.

Moving to Alaska for the winter had prepared me for this eventuality. All the old timers will tell you, “It’s one thing to own gear; it’s another to know how to be comfortable using it.” I’m no expert—and will never be (we should always be learning) - but I’d taken the time after rides, when finishing back at the cabin I called home, good and tired and many times in similar temperatures, to practice exactly this scenario. If I goofed then, which I did often, I could always duck inside and warm up.

Now it was the real thing. Zip up all my clothes, pull out the puffy pants and jacket, get them on, and get to work. Sleep system comes out, then the cooking system follows. The only water I still had unfrozen was on my back. I’d need to get to that so I could turn snow to water. (Without some water to start with, heating snow in this temperature just burns it, doesn’t melt it.) So, before getting all my extra clothes on, I made quick work of getting my water bladder off and set it inside the sleeping bag (to keep it warm), while I re-dressed quickly. 

It was during all this that the practice of the past couple months paid off. Calm is a valuable commodity in these situations, one earned only through practice. I’d decided to leave the boots on for now and to just get into the sleeping bag. Once in, I figured everything would start to warm on my lower body as I got to work melting snow on the stove. The thought of a nice HOT drink had me salivating full on Pavlovian! Six ounces or so of water went into the pot for a quick preheat and then the remaining space filled with snow. As it melted down, I continued adding more, all the while feeling the lower half of my body warming as well. With all my focus, I made sure not to tip the now near boiling concoction. The entire process took more than a few minutes, and I did NOT want to tip the tea cart so close to success. It seemed prudent to not just settle for hot water but to take the opportunity and dump some calories into my system as well. Grabbing an insulated water bottle, long ago drank empty, I carefully, albeit clumsily with mittens on, poured in a generous amount of protein powder as I prepared to add the hot water. I’d be in this bag until my feet decided it was time to go. It made sense to use that time to not only re-hydrate but refuel. The stove got a bit finicky a time or two as these temps were at the limit of what the gas would fire at. Cupping my hands around the canister kept it warm enough to provide a consistent flame.

No better drink had I ever had. Made by my own hands, temps. at or headed towards -30F in a trailside shelter, unknown and unencumbered by anyone or anything. I was one with this place. Its snow had provided me relief and having just enough know-how, learning from those before me that had all shared so freely, I drank. The once frigid snow, gifted from the winter god's above, now a hot protein cocktail warming me from the inside out.

I had made my decision weeks before the race. Yes, I was here to finish to the best of my ability, but as I was doing it unsupported, making it to the finish was my only real goal. I didn’t give a damn if that finish came in fifteen hours or fifty-five. The yellow tag, pinned to my reflective vest, designated that I was racing on my own. To take it off and accept support at any point in the race would not have been the least bit palatable.  My warm belly and feet, now taken out of my boots with some Houdini like contortions, made for a comfy, content, and proud racer. I’d passed an important test in my maturation as a winter explorer. I’d been able to put aside an ego which was all too often chasing the “Joneses.” As Jeff Oatley had said, I’d “Solved the problem NOW.” Zipping up my sleeping bag, I left just a couple inch gap. With a rain jacket as a makeshift pillow, and the stars still visible, I was serene, perfectly at peace in this wild environment. Dozing off, my toes, body, and soul all warming nicely, the finish line lost all grasp on me. To be in this place, in this moment, safe and with a complete sense of belonging, time—with me alongside of it—drifted away. 
(End of Part 2)




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