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ITI, part 2

Apologies for the delay … those pesky races get in the way of writing. And work. Tsk.

Playtime

Sunrise on the way to Puntilla

We all (Dave, Andrea and I) were quite done when we got to Fingerlake at 7:15pm. I got into the large kitchen and plonked down. Fingerlake is a luxury lodge, but racers are relegated to the kitchen, an annex building with some wood bunks and a stove and the annex outhouse … but still, it was luxurious. The food was simple, a chicken burrito, but fresh, not greasy and oh so tasty! Dave ordered us each another burrito for $5 a piece (quite the steal out here), and we had some beers and decided to sleep a few hours until 2am and make our way to the Rainy Pass Lodge at Puntilla lake. We spent quite some time to organize our stuff and replace supplies from our first drop bag. Although before the race my right achilles had hurt me, I noticed a squeak in my left achilles when I moved my ankle – something that usually indicates inflammation and so far has always spelled impending doom.

Dave, member of a distant brother tribe of the sand people.

I was alarmed – although the tendon didn’t hurt (until I massaged it too much) I was afraid I would soon be done for. There are few things that make me quit a race, but the achilles is not to be messed with, as tears or even full ruptures can come suddenly and are devastating. I called Jill and told her our plans and my worries – it was good to hear her voice. The annex building was cramped but I went to sleep quickly, only to be woken up by Phil Hofstetter’s extraordinarily loud snoring – he happened to hit a resonant frequency in the small space and I could feel the vibration of the air. I still felt bad for shaking him, fortunately he didn’t care as I can tell from his race report. In the morning we all took our time, had a lot of coffee and I taped my achilles with Kinesio and Leuko tape – I didn’t think it would really help all that much, but why not try. I also made a heel lift, though in the snow your foot generally goes through much larger ranges of motion, which poses problems for many people not accustomed to it (like me). We left Fingerlake at 3:25am, after 8 hours of rest though it didn’t feel that much by a long shot, partially because we probably only slept 4 hours. Still, we were anxious to be on our way. The trail to Rainy pass was supposedly good, and we strapped our snowshoes to our sleds for the first time. I pondered the fact that we were barely over a third into the race – without my 200 mile Tor Des Geants experience I would have seriously doubted at this point I would be able to make it at all. Even so, the task seemed daunting. But I broke it down, as you always do – pick small goals, sometimes even minor landmarks (like the Happy River steps on this section). The less you think the better, really. I was impressed by Dave’s ability to go at Andrea’s pace, something that is not easy to do (by himself he’d surely given Geoff a run for his money – Dave is as strong as an ox, and these conditions would have favored that strength), and Andrea for doing this in the first place – her only 100 miler before this was Susitna last year.
Of course, Jill had been similarly unexperienced, and been mostly alone during the race. That was pretty kick-ass. And a little naive. The first miles of this section were delightful – we were moving quickly, and the trail was fairly decent (I am sure normally it would have felt punchy, but one could walk, and in comparison to what we experienced before it was heaven). Not wearing snowshoes made us whoop with delight. After a few miles we hit the snowdrifts, and indeed they were fairly enormous.
We started to wander all over the place, following others who apparently did the same, I could see we veered a bit away from the markers but not too far – but it got almost a little exciting. We emerged on a lake or swamp but I could see a marker where the trail went back into the woods and aimed for it. We had been postholing for short sections, then on the trail again, and now we were finally postholing long enough that I strapped the snowshoes back on. Andrea could somehow manage to just walk over this, but I didn’t want to waste too much energy. Fortunately the section was probably less than a mile long before we hit more reasonable trail again. All in all we felt we moved quite quickly, and shortly after sunrise we got to the fabled Happy River steps which led down to the Happy River. I was initially worried I might get lost onto a mining road which was the supposed Iditarod route this year (though that didn’t happen in the end), but we never noticed it. The steps are a sequence of fairly steep but short descents, and to be honest they were steeper than I thought.

Happy river steeeeeeeeps!

Here my sled design proved an advantage – it stayed behind me straight as an arrow, whereas Dave and Andrea’s sleds overtook them and tried to escape down the mountainside. Of course letting the sled go first would also have done the trick here. It was fun to max out and speed down the steep sections, barely in control, and for the first time in this race we had pure and simple fun, Dave and I were laughing at (no, with, with!!!) Andrea sliding down some of the steps on her butt. Soon we got to the river, and predictably the trail disappeared within a few yards. Fortunately someone had set the route and after another few hundred yards of postholing we got to the “wall”, the steep climb back out of the river. It was steep indeed – I could barely pull my behemoth sled up the hills. I thought of Jill hauling her 70 lbs bike up these same trails and exclaimed “Man … I can’t imagine this with a heavy bike. Jill is a stud!”. Dave laughed, and said some bikers would make multiple trips up these hills, which was infathomable to us. There were more very steep uphills than I expected, but we all were in great spirits anyways – the change in terrain really made us forget most of the misery of the past few days, and I felt I knew why I worked hard – I achieved little by little the pass, and it felt rewarding. We soon passed Shirley Lake, where I sent Jill a text message and we decided to have a snack. I think it was just around that time that Pete and one or two more riders overtook us (as it turned out for the last time), and I told him I wouldn’t want to see him again. Shortly after I was passed Dave caught up from behind, exclaiming “I got caught with my pants down!”.
Apparently he had a bit of an upset system, which caused a sudden urge. He explained it this way: “Matador my friend no more!”, basically blaming his beloved beef jerky for his issues. He then offered me some – Dave sure is a funny guy. The remainder of the section contained a lot more climbing than I initially expected, but the trail was rather fun. We could see into a valley to the right, and we were decidedly in mountainous territory now. The trail had various sections of overflow ice and some unstable areas over alders where caves in the snow underneath can let you punch through hip-deep – we saw many holes in the trail but fortunately we were spared. The terrain became rolling with lots of short but steepish ups and down, and I started to get very fatigued again – the initial exuberance had worn off, and the little muscle in my back started tormenting me once more about halfway. Still I was excited that we went towards the pass which held particular attraction to me – I really wanted to cross it. My achilles seemed to hold up, fortunately, but the decision to go over the pass is not to be taken lightly and although I knew I would go on for sure, I wondered how wise it was to do so.

Uh, mountains!!!

The final six miles were rather difficult again, the thought of spending another two hours on the trail was challenging. I took numerous rest breaks but couldn’t really recover, so I resorted to grilling Dave and Andrea about their lives and tell them my own stories just to keep myself a little distracted and entertained. As usual Puntilla Lake did not emerge until we passed numerous spots that surely seemed they could be the lake, but eventually we made it at 5pm. I knew from my GPS the direction of Rainy Pass but it was overcast and grey, and the entrance to the pass loomed ominously across the lake. Just before we got in we saw Rick Freeman leave and we had a nice chat, he was in great spirits and it really lightened my mood at that point. At this checkpoint we had a cabin where the race provided some canned soup, pilot bread and hot chocolate mix (and, of course, Tang, which appears to be an important staple in Alaska. Hot Tang. It’s actually quite good when it’s really damn cold outside.).

Promising! Very promising. And a little scary.

We found Anne there and the remaining skier, who would quit here (as I heard later due to busted up feet) as well as Pavel, a very nice biker (with an awesome titanium fatback) who would end up tied for 2nd. Geoff and Tim Hewitt seemed to be locked in a race now and had left earlier but were not terribly far ahead. Anne asked me if we wanted to leave together around 11pm and I agreed, even though Dave and Andrea wanted to sleep longer, I figured I wouldn’t need quite as much sleep and it would get me to the pass around sunrise. So after at most 3 hours of sleep and eating a bunch of energy bars and trail mix left behind by other racers for breakfast, Anne and I left towards the pass. The first section across the lake was fairly bad, but I hoped for better trail later and didn’t want to bother with the snowshoes just yet. Just after the lake I noticed that my pole attachment to my sled had failed on on side, and I stopped to inspect it. Anne was in the zone and continued on, which was fine by me, because I sort of wanted to do the pass by myself. It turns out a screw had basically

Puntilla lake ... straight ahead is the beginning of the ominous Rainy "Foggy" Pass.

been ripped out of an aluminium pole but I was able to fix it with a Voile ski strap (don’t leave home without one!) and soon was on my way. The way up to the pass was strange and eerie – basically in a what seemed wide valley mostly without trees but at a steady incline broken up by short flat sections. The trail was so-so, still walkable for the first few miles. I made numerous stops to adjust my food, gear, put on wind protection and more layers since the night turned out to be windy and frigid. It was snowing, too, and I couldn’t see very far, the whole ascent had a strange vibe, I kept thinking about mountaineers making their way up a dangerous mountain in a desperate situation (though of course there was no such danger). It definitely had a tiny bit of Shackelton/Hillary vibe, which was scary and delightful at the same time. The going was very strenuous though, all that said, and my back predictably started hurting after a few hours again. The Pass Creek crossing was pretty much a non-event here, particularly a good crossing had been set by Craig, the Alaska Dispatch reporter, on a

Rainy Pass Lodge - "Your adventure vacation spot".

snowmachine (apparently Tim and Geoff took a more sketchy crossing. It was as easy as walking on a trail really, and the bridge looked very solid, though one never knows – anyone could at any point punch through, and this creek was fairly major. Again I could not believe that Jill actually had to wade through the water here lifting her bike across the creek, it seemed incredibly frightening and scary (though particularly more so at night). The second half of the ascent became markedly steeper and the trail required snowshoes again. I kept following Pavel’s wheel tracks and Anne’s snowshoe prints (since we have the same brand that no one else here used, it was very recognizable to me). At some point I noticed that I seemed to be significantly higher than the ravine which we should be following, and that there were no more markers to be seen. Anne had not turned back so I figured it would be fine though mental references to lemmings all following each other to their demise flashed in my brain. The terrain became steeper and rockier and I was about to look for a way down when I saw Anne had herself turned a different direction, down the hillside back towards where I thought the trail ought to be. The descent was quite steep but on very solid crust, and soon I saw trail markers. On a large open area, possibly a lake in the summer, her footsteps veered to the left along with a few others, and I followed them until I found the Rainy Pass cabin. Since it is private I simply passed it by and veered back to the right direction. After another similar excursion to the first I finally found the real trail (I had missed the Rainy Pass sign though) and caught up with Frank Jenssen who should have been quite a bit ahead of me. As it turns out his snowshoe had broken and he had hurt his knee a little. He said he didn’t need any help but I walked with him for a while down into the Dazell Creek gorge. The sun was now just rising and the views on the pass were incredibly spectacular – a truly wild and remote place. I was ecstatic and called Jill, as I told her I would. In a way having the ability to keep in touch may have removed the sense of adventure a little, but it did nothing to diminish the extraordinary beauty of the course, and being able to talk to Jill who had been here before on her own life-changing adventure added a different kind of emotional value to my own. Also, holding this ruggedized 80s (ok late 80s to be honest) Nokia style phone made me feel rather cool and bad-ass, just like the characters in an mountain-adventure-drama or action movie.

 

Dawn on the pass ...!

Beat Jegerton
More Rainy pass …

Frank soon overtook me again as the trail became good, and I took off my snowshoes and enjoyed the downhill fun of the gorge. I now entered the interior, a place of great desolation, remoteness and adventure, ranking fairly high in the overall echelon of wild places. The trail crossed the creek many times – the bridges were all in great shape and I could only imagine how this would be if they were in worse shape. The creek became increasingly bigger and overflow glare ice increasingly more prevalent with more and more somewhat sketchy passages. I wondered if I should have worn my waders preemptively but I had a lot of equipment in case I got my feet wet, and it wasn’t terribly cold. Finally, after a long time, and after my energy had again left me and going had become increasingly tough, I emerged on the Tatina River. As it turns out, that river is basically a wind tunnel, and as such I was greeted by a stiff wind, which was very frigid, and basically a mile of bare ice. I didn’t feel like putting on my snowshoes and the ice wasn’t wet, so I simply walked very carefully without sudden moves. There were a lot of pressure cracks and bulges in the surface, and every once in a while the sound of my footsteps changed alarmingly. I tried to stay clear of any obvious dangers and mostly followed faint snowmobile tracks (that’s gotta be a fun ride …). Still it’s hard to shake visions of breaking through the ice … and that is entirely possible too, and happens to racers occasionally. Trails change and fast snowmachines can go over weak spots without breaking them … After a while it got cold enough I decided to put my down jacket on so I could cozily cruise into the Rohn checkpoint, which I reached at 1:45pm. So far the interior lived up to its promise, and it didn’t let up when I got to the camp. The aid station guys, Bill and Rob (Rob having completed the ITI on foot himself before) had put up a dead wolf at the entrance of the Rohn aid station (he had been killed by other wolves apparently). They were quite proud of it, unfortunately I was too excited to get to the station to

Sunrise! I wanted to stay there.

View back to the pass from the Dazell gorge.

Lower in the gorge ...

We crossed the Dazell creek many times ... bit unnerving.

Creaky ice.

I'm unnerved.

take a picture. The station was a wall tent with a stove and a surprisingly effective pine-branch covered snow bunk area. Fortunately not too many racers were there – Anne, Rick, Frank and later Dario – so I could claim a spot in the heated tent. Rob was excited to meet me since he had decided that my name was the best in the whole field this year! We had a great time chatting, and just a bit later┬áMike, Anne’s husband, showed up, helping out as well. He is one of the institutions in this race, with a plane doing emergency evacuations, keeping track of racers, breaking trail between Skwentna and Fingerlake, helping in Shell Lake, Rohn and Nikolai, flying unused drop bag supplies to Nikolai for the villagers to use an so on.

On the Tatina river, looking into the range.

Super awesome mountains.

Glare ice as far as the eye can see ... no sudden moves!

Since I got to Rohn so early I didn’t want to sleep since even with sleep I would get tired around 4am anyways, so I stocked up on supplies instead (there was also a huge box with the contents of the many unclaimed drop bags of all the DNFs) and planned to go until about 3-4am, then bivy. I hoped to get to the Farewell lakes in that time. Anne, who left quite a bit before me, planned to push right for the Bear Creek safety cabin at mile ~55, a very significant undertaking. Even without much rest I spent 5 hours in Rohn before I finally left into the waning light.

1 comment to ITI, part 2

  • Ah-ha it was you who whacked me in the head! Maybe not the head, but you aren’t the first to hit me for snoring. Sorry about that, I always feel bad for those who endure my horrible snoring during the ITI. I swear it’s not strategic but likely enlarged adenoids and no pillow, or something that happens only during the ITI.

    -phil