What am I doing here in this endless winter? Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories
The Rohn checkpoint is a basic wall tent cabin, heated by a wood fire stove. A snowbank occupies one side of the shelter, covered in chopped cedar for insulation. The stove along with food supplies take up most of the other side. Eight people can fit lying side-by-side on the snowbank. As we enter, Steve (the fellow from Newcastle) is nestled on one end, while Italian couple, Ausilia and Sebastiano are on the other. They are riding all the way to Nome together. I am impressed by the scale of their undertaking, but also by the fact they are doing the race as a couple. I have travelled extensively with my wife in some pretty demanding situations all over the world. The times spent on the road together were both some of the most formative, beautiful moments of our lives so far, but on occasion some of the more challenging as well. I can only imagine what it would be like to share in something of this magnitude with someone you love.
I settle down in an open spot atop the cedar, after having hung my socks and shoes above the stove. Rob and OE are overseeing the checkpoint. They are both warm, attentive and on point. They have both completed the race themselves, so they have direct insight into what is going through our minds at this moment. I sit apathetically sipping on a cup of hot chocolate, spilling most of its content into the snowbank. John is a little more agitated and appears bothered by the heat. He fetches our drop bags and joins me for our one can of soup each. We are rationed two cans at this stop and we both decide we will have one now and one right before leaving. I opt for the chowder which is hearty, while John chooses the Italian sausage, a mix of spice and gnarly meat, which he will later regret. We agree to sleep for two hours before taking on the most remote part of the course, a 90 mile stretch through the Farewell Burn to Nikolai. John opts to sleep outside to stay away from the bustle and excessive heat, while I simply stretch back on the cedars and nod off. Just before closing my eyes, Rod informs us that if other racers come in during the night they will be given priority on the snowbank and we will have to rotate out. I am hoping this will not be the case, but figure I will deal with it if the situation arises. I exist very much in the present and cannot think far beyond the current task, which in this case is sleep.
A short while into my rest, I get chilled, mechanically reaching back to grab my sleeping bag without opening my eyes. I drape it over my body and in what seems like an instant later, John returns inside and is deciding on his next flavor of canned soup. He has had a rough couple of hours shivering in the snow, neglecting the small yet important preparation that makes or breaks a bivy. I notice the fatigue in his face, a mere reflection of my own. OE hands us some prosciutto wrapped in cheese. I wonder for a moment if he has nabbed it from the Italians, but then he points to the free box- food left behind from racers ahead of us. While John and I both have plenty to eat, we are excited to switch a few items out for variety’s sake. I score some dried salmon and Paydays and leave some Clif Bars behind.
We set out into the still, clear night around 4am. Saying our goodbyes to Rob and OE, we assure them this has been our favorite checkpoint so far. In a material sense, they have little to offer us in this remote place, yet it is clear that they care deeply about the racers. Caring and compassion goes a long way out here. Our pace is consistent, but slow. The stop was productive, yet the 90 miles ahead feel pretty daunting. We have chosen to try to make it all the way to the BLM shelter cabin in one push, which sits about halfway between Rohn and Nikolai. We have agreed to not stop at the cabin, since it is a mile detour off the main trail (and we know how that goes…) and instead make the turn off sign our arbitrary goal for the day. We navigate across frozen rivers and swamps on glare ice. The surface seems reasonably solid, but occasional the depths below let out a hollow moan, reminding us to stay attentive and move as efficiently as possible to more stable ground. By dawn, the firmer ground has certainly come, with long portions of trail becoming exposed dirt. While dragging a sled on dirt and rock is strenuous, we welcome the change in rhythm and some variety in the terrain. We reach a section of uphill trail completely covered in ice, which we believe is referred to as “the glacier”. While its proportions are tame, my attempt to march right up it fails 10 feet onto the ice as I slide back down in a heap of sled and poles. John wisely contours the ice without difficulty. I realize then, it is probably for the best that the terrain is not more demanding as my judgement would certainly be in question. The only thing my mind seems to be able to process properly is forward. That is it.
Our strategy is to stop every four hours for a 15 minute nap, less intentionally and more out of necessity. Rob’s parting words from Rohn was to not forget to look back at the view. Indeed, the Alaska Range towers behind us, occupying all of the horizon. I have my neck craned back most of the time anyway, bellowing into the wind in an effort to sustain a conversation with John. Our topics vary greatly from the aforementioned sock liners, to debating over whether or not we will actually take the turnoff to the BLM cabin (despite both being convinced that we will not), to family and life matters, to childhood stories and pretty much anything in between. Our back and forths seem to be broken up in two distinct patterns: stories and trail talk. The former is insightful and engaging and as the miles go on, we get to know each other better and better. The latter is more related to us thinking out loud, vocalizing the manic ruminations of our minds. It is pointless chatter mainly about obscure mileage, already agreed upon rest times and repeating what we have already done. It feels good to lay it out over and over though and I find myself thinking that if John were not here, I would probably still be blabbing to the burned trees and invisible bison. The bison are indeed invisible. We see traces of them, plenty of crusty, grapefruit sized turds as well as tracks, but no animals. We have a tentative goal to reach Bison Camp before dark, an intermediary goal some 30 miles from Rohn.
The Farewell Burn, through which we are now gradually making our way, was the site of Alaska’s largest forest fire where in 1978 a million and a half acres went up in flames. It is near impossible for me to wrap my head around the vastness of this place. However, the rolling hills, charred trees and mountainous surroundings remind me somewhat of my home in Colorado. It is comforting to think of home, to think of my family, dog and friends. I wonder how much they know about how I am doing, how much they have read in to the minute bites of information they receive from the occasional updates. I let these thoughts drift from my mind. I am too vulnerable to think of those I love, too afraid to go there, too prone to succombing to my emotions. I stay stoic, hard like the land, leaving no room for softness, for comfort, for love. I worry in this moment, that I am squeezing out my ability to feel, that I am becoming numb, indifferent. Of course it is temporary, but such are the games a frazzled mind plays.
By the time we pass Bison Camp, it is well beyond sunset. The beam of my headlamp follows the perfectly symmetrical tracks of a wolf. I imagine the animal moving gracefully, powerfully, moving like one who belongs here, unlike us, clumsy, struggling strangers in a land too great for our footsteps. A light appears up ahead, accompanied by the sound of a roaring engine. It is a snowmachine. It is Bill Merchant, the race organizer on his way to Rohn. He is clad in an oversized mountaineering parka, which looks like it is filled with a thousand geese. He tells us a climber returning from Denali had discarded it after it got wet. Bill restored it to life and is now comfortably bundled in his sea of feathers. This is the first time John and I have met Bill. He fits the image of a guy who would put on this type of race with his thick handlebar mustache, blazing on his snowmachine through the night in the middle of the Farewell Burn. John, as per usual with our encounters, is chatting up a storm mainly marveling at the monster of a snowmachine Bill is riding. I am amused by the technical chatter but am also eager to get going. Bill kindly offers us some warm beef rolls and hot chocolate from the belly of the beast, which we gladly accept. Our interaction is short, but meaningful and has us reinvigorated to push on to the turnoff sign.
Once we reach the sign, we celebrate by collapsing for a 15 minute nap. It is 9 pm when we start back up again with the intention of pushing for another 4 hours. However, as midnight comes along, I stop, announcing I cannot walk a single extra step and need to bivy. John acquiesces. We find ourselves in a small dip in the trail, sheltered from the wind. We position our sleds on either side to warn any potential (doubtful) incoming snowmachine traffic. Who other than Bill Merchant would be traveling between Rohn and Nikolai in the middle of the night? No one.
We both get 3 hours of the best sleep we have had all race. It is warm in our little hole and completely still. Upon waking, John voices his concern about having enough water left to get to Nikolai. I have not felt the need to drink much so my reserve is plentiful, but agree nonetheless to melt some snow. We fire up two pots on some esbit cubes, which to our satisfaction work quite well. We use one pot to fill John’s bladder and boil the other for coffee. Context plays an important part in how we appreciate food. Despite being instant coffee, it is the best cup I have ever had. John agrees. Again, we are reminded how a short rest, accompanied with the right touch of comfort, like a simple cup of coffee, can bring you back from the darkest of places. A mere 4 hours earlier, I thought the Burn might take me. Now, I am gainfully striding along to Nikolai.
Within a half hour of leaving our camp, we cross a bridge above open water. The snow melting was worth it just for the coffee and neither of us regrets the time it took to prepare.
Geoff had warned me that the bridge was deceiving. You will think you are close to Nikolai with this first sign of civilization, but in reality there is still 30 miles to go in a most monotonous tunnel of trees. Instead of beating us down though, knowing what lies ahead makes it all the more manageable. We manage quite well, at least all the way to the last few miles. As per usual when smelling the barn, we start to let down our guard, stop eating and drinking and fall into a desperate state. At this point in the race, we should never stop taking care of ourselves and lose focus on the small things holding us together. We do though and crawl into Nikolai somehow even more wrecked than ever before.