Second report from the Andy and Al- 4/3/2002
When the glass drops to -40 the bike trail starts
to take on a different appearance!
IT'S been a long week. 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,
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 rand 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.
Beautiful but unwelcome!
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 Italians 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...