IT’S been a long week. I’m writing this from McGrath, in a tiny wooden hut which serves as the town’s on-line university. We’re bunked at Peter the German’s house, which involves eating large amounts of food and snoring in several languages. After seven days on the trail, it’s bliss…
The race began well enough – hard-packed trail up the first 90 miles of frozen river. The leading group, including Al and myself, were conscious of the warnings of storm and heavy snow, and turned in two ‘all-nighters’ to reach the foothills of the Alaska Range within 48 hours. Replenishing our supplies from drop-bags at Finger Lake, we started the climb at 11pm in the hope of hard-frozen trail on the 30-mile ascent to Rainy Pass. After a 3-hr bivvy at 2am, we finally made the checkpoint by 8pm – but storm clouds were already gathering over the range. Jim Jager, a ski entrant, had already spent 12 hours further up the mountain trying to find the trail, but had returned to the checkpoint after getting disorientated in the blowing snow. Later, he descibed reaching the pass and being picked up by the wind and ‘body-slammed’ to the ground.
At 4.45am, four of us started the final 20-mile climb, repeatedly post-holing through the snow and finally reaching the approach to the col by around 3pm in blizzard conditions. As the wind whipped our bikes sideways, we crept over by ‘touch’ – feeling the hard-packed and blown-in trail with our feet. Several times visibility dropped to a couple of feet, but conditions improved to allow us to ride the Dalzell Gorge and its ice bridges, and then onto the sheet ice of the Post River. Fierce sidewinds made riding conditions treacherous, with numerous falls onto the ice.
At Rohn, one of the most remote checkpoints on the route, preparations were well underway for the arrival of the 70-odd teams in the Iditarod dog-sled race, which begins today (Sun). A wall tent with straw bedding served as our sleeping quarters.
Next morning, with leader and eventual race winner Pat Irwin already on his way to victory in McGrath (he timed the weather perfectly and escaped the worst of the storm), a group of five of us left Rohn to tackle the 90-mile route across the Farewell Burn to Nikolai. Disaster struck within a mile of the checkpoint, when a violent gust of wind snatched the bike out of my hands and dumped it onto the glare ice. Without even looking, I knew the damage would be bad. On the chainset side, the bottom bracket had sheared in two – a combination of bad angle of impact and -20C? As we frantically sought tools, rocks and anything that could be botched to effect a repair, I realised pretty soon that it probably spelt the end of the race. With the sheared section of bracket still wedged into the crank, there was no way of even trying to re-thread it. We even broke out the stove to try and ‘warm’ it out…
After 20 minutes of head-scrathing and rock-bashing, we were getting cold… Al headed off up the trail and I trudged back to Rohn with sketchy plans to fly ahead and meet him in McGrath. Things didn’t quite work out that way, however…
With no radio or telephone contact with the outside world, Rohn’s dog-sled marshals simply wait for the sound of a ski-plane flying in over the mountain and drag sleds out to the snow-covered airstrip to fetch back dog-food drop bags, veterinary equipment and the mountain of other gear which accompanies the race on its trek across Alaska.
I hoped to get one of the pilots to send a message out that I needed a lift – as they were unable to take passengers themselves under Iditarod insurance regs. Meanwhile, I watched other bike, foot and ski racers appear from the Dalzell Gorge with tales of waist-deep snow and whiteout blizzards. Helping ferry supplies between the air-strip and checkpoint, I was promised that word had gone out that a lift was needed – although the figure of $550 for the 120 miles seemed a bit steep.
By the middle of Friday, (having reached Rohn late night Wednesday) rescue was looking unlikely. Poor weather had restricted flights (planes regularly crash into trees alongside the narrow strip, so it’s not a popular place to fly into) and the only option seemed to be trekking out. Claudia, one of the race volunteers, offered her rucksack to decant my bike bags into, and promised to ship out my bike on the next available flight. As I started to repack, another biker turned up – a guy called Ray Molena – on a double snow-cat (ie. double-double rims)-shod bike he built in his garage. ‘Take it’, he said… so before he changed his mind, I did. Thirty minutes after buoying my feet for a 90-mile route march across the most desolate part of the entire route, I was back in a bike race. Leaving at 6pm, the delay had put me 36 hours behind the lead pack, but I figured that with nearly 900 miles and 2-3 weeks racing still to go, it didn’t matter too much.
During an all-night and next morning blast across the Burn – a massive area destroyed by forest fire – I saw no-one, reaching Nikolai by midday Saturday. Thankfully, I didn’t see the frozen wolf either, which nearly frightened the wits out of several competitors, including Al. Someone, probably buffalo hunters, had found a 120-lb wolf which had been killed by a kick to the head from a buffalo. Frozen stiff in the -20C temps, the wolf had been wedged behind a burnt tree at the side of the trail… ready to ‘pounce’ on unsuspecting passers-by. Wolf-tales also include Roberto, the Italian runner, turning round to see a wolf sniffing his sled as he trekked up the river into Nikolai, and numerous sightings of ‘dinner-plate’-sized paw prints in the snow.
Arriving in Nikolai, I find that Al has claimed 4th place in the race to McGrath, following on from his 3rd in last year’s race. He’s on a roll, and I’m nervous that he’s now wondering why I haven’t flown in. I manage to call him at the checkpoint and tell him I’m on my way…
At 10pm, hoping the trail has ‘set-up’ in the falling temps, four of us head out to tackle the 50-mile section to McGrath. Everything’s ok for the first 10 miles, but then the conditions get soft and we’re down to 3mph. We get separated on the numerous side-trails, and by 2am I’m on my own. Three punctures slow progress even further, but after a reviving 1-hour bivvy at 3am, I finally make it into McGrath just before noon today (Sun), beating the other three by several hours, and am delighted to find that only two of the Nome racers have left – Roberto the runner and biker Mike Madden. Everyone else is nursing their wounds and re-supplying for the northerly trek up to the Yukon River. Several racers have already scratched, but the Italian pair we duelled with last year are still there, as is Mike Curiak, winner in 2000.
So, that’s it – just going to eat some more and catch up on some much-needed sleep. Also hoping my bike’s been flown in (spares have arrived from Anchorage), or I’ll be tyring to get to Nome on a borrowed bike…
Iditarod Trail Invitational kit list:
*Orbit Romany, made in Sheffield – lubricated with Mag-1 ultra-low
all by Patagonia:
By Black Diamond: