Commentary

The tough guy

After the beat down the frozen Iditarod Trail put on Pennsylvanian Tim Hewitt last year, a lesser man would have taken his swollen, frostbit fingers and his red, puffed-up-like-potato feet home, plopped down in a lounge chair in front of the TV, and said, “Enough! No more.”

What could there be left to prove to himself or others? The 59-year-old barrister had already hiked the cold, lonely, 1,000-mile trail across the great white silence from Knik to Nome eight times. He held the Iditarod Trail Invitational record for making it on foot to the City of the Golden Sands in 20 days, 7 hours and 17 minutes.

The record he set in 2011 would have placed him second in front of the dog team of legendary Alaska musher Bobby Vent in the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Long before the 2015 Invitational, Hewitt had demonstrated he was a man who could  run with the dogs for 1,000 miles.

His macho-man credentials were only underlined in the well-received, 2014 book “8,000 Miles Across Alaska — A Runners Journey on the Iditarod Trail” co-written with fellow endurance athlete Jill Homer.

“A Runners Journey” came out two years after Hewitt appeared on the verge of doing the impossible and beating the fat-tire bikers who dominate the Invitational over the Alaska Range and into the race’s first finish at McGrath, some 350 miles north of Knik. Snows fell heavy that year and Hewitt, the Energizer bunny of the Iditarod, just kept going and going as behind him some of the toughest cyclists on the planet pushed and cursed.

Two-hundred miles in, Hewitt stood alone at the top of Rainy Pass at the very front of the race. The cyclists eventually found better riding on the snow-short north side of the range and beat Hewitt to McGrath, but by then he’d put on quite the show.

Three years later, however, came the nightmare when Hewitt decided to join those cycling the trail to Nome.  He ended up trapped in a blizzard and extreme cold between the Iditarod checkpoints of Takotna, an old mining community now home to only 50 people, and Ruby, a village of 160 on the banks of the Yukon River.

The trail that connects these two, tiny outposts of human civilization crosses the most desolate and uninhabited country in North America. If one is going to get in trouble on the already remote Iditarod, this 160-mile stretch of trail in the absolute middle of nowhere is the worst place to get in trouble, and Hewitt got in trouble.

BIGGER THAN ANY MAN

“I was up against something bigger than me,” Hewitt admitted last year after being hauled off the trail after a week-long struggle in temperatures that dipped to 46-degrees-below-zero. That’s dangerous cold.  At 40 degrees below zero, exposed skin will freeze in about 10 minutes. If there is a 10 mph wind blowing at this temperature, the time it takes skin to freeze, which causes frostbite,  is cut in half.

Needless to say, by the time help came looking for Hewitt after a week alone in this environment, he was frostbit, near exhaustion and ready to give up on the Iditarod Trail for the first time in his life.

So guess whose back for the Invitational 2016? You got it. Now 60-year-old Tim Hewitt, the man who doesn’t know how to say quit.

His 2015 plan to ride a fat bike to Nome a failure, he is — by God — going to ride a fat bike to Nome this year.

“I hate to let the bike beat me,” Hewitt said last year as he was preparing to get on a plane to leave the 49th state. “I think Alaska beat me this time, but I hate to let the bike beat me.”

Hewitt is this year hoping to avoid running into the two-headed monster the Invitational became last year.

FASTER THAN A SPEEDING DOG TEAM

With a hard-packed and snow-short trail, the 2015 race took off like the Tour de France. One day, 18 hours and 32 minutes after it began, Anchorage cyclist John Lackey pedaled into McGrath, having buried the best Knik-to-McGrath time set by the fastest dogs in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

When Lackey hit McGrath, the dogs were heading to Fairbanks for a relocated Iditarod start because mushers didn’t want to subject themselves to the snow-short, sled-busting trail up, through and over the Alaska Range, and a lot of cyclists were falling off the back of an Invitational field dominated by  thick-legged strong-men who could push a high tempo for hours.

Hewitt, who is built more like a runner than a cyclist, is not among such strong men. He rolled into McGrath well behind Lackey, suffered an asthma attack there, visited the clinic in the Kuskokwim River community to get drugs, and then spent more than a day recovering.

By the time he rolled back onto the Iditarod, snow was starting to cover what had been 20-miles of hard, fast trail ahead to the next checkpoint.

“I rode most of the way to Takotna,” Hewitt said, but already he was beginning to wonder how long the riding would last. At Takotna, cyclist Frank Janssens  from Vancouver, British Columbia, by way of Belgium warned Hewitt of snow in the forecast.

“He said, ‘We’re getting 18 to 30 inches of snow tonight,’ ” Hewitt said. The warning was prophetic. Hewitt’s riding ended in Takotna, but Hewitt pushed on, following Janssens trail for 30 miles up and over an 800-foot-tall mountain to an abandoned mining camp called Ophir. The push took 22 hours.

“It was snowing like hell by then,” Hewitt said, “but it wasn’t cold. There was no sign of Frank. His tracks were gone.”

Discouraged, unsure of whether to go back or go on, Hewitt holed up in an empty bunkhouse for the night. He woke to the encouraging sound of a snowmachine coming from Takota to break open the trail.

“I went out and hugged the guy,” Hewitt said. “He said, ‘Don’t get too excited. I’m only going to Carlson Crossing’ ” to get Janssens. Janssens had made it to a food drop there, about halfway between Ophir and Ruby, before deciding he was licked. He holed up in a nearby shelter cabin built by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and placed a call on his satellite phone to ask for evacuation.

Hewitt figured to be the big beneficiary of that decision. The track the snowmahine set heading north wasn’t great, but it was better than trudging through unbroken snow. Hewitt started pushing his bike north. He met the snowmachine with Janssens aboard as it was coming back. Janssens offered a warning.

“Frank said, ‘You can’t make it. I was pushing in drifts up to my chest.’ I should have listened,” Hewitt said “The guy has twice ridden a bike around the world.”

Always the tough guy, though, Hewitt didn’t listen. He pushed on. The snow was deep, but worse yet the temperature started falling. Hewitt cursed his lightweight REI sleeping bag rated to 20 degrees below zero, and at night dreamed about the Feathered Friends “Snowy Owl EX -60,” an old, trusted friend he’d left at home.

THE PAINFUL PRICE OF SHAVING WEIGHT

He had decided the 5-pound Snowy Owl rated to 60 degrees below zero — the bag he’d always dragged behind on a sled while hiking — was too big to pack on the bike. The decision was a bad one. The minus-20 bag was barely keeping him alive.

“It was too cold to sleep,” Hewitt said.

The would-be cyclist pushed his bike until he got so tired he had to stop, then crawled into the bag damp from sweat. He’d rest until he started shivering so badly he had to get up and get moving to generate body heat to survive. The dampness unfortunately, kept accumulating in the bag as frost.

Day-by-day, the bag became less efficient while also becoming heavier and harder to lash to the bike because of increased bulk.

“Sometimes it’s not easy out there,” Hewitt said. And sometimes there is no option but to keep moving, or die. Hewitt picked up extra supplies at the food drop and started breaking trail north in the direction of another BLM shelter cabin along the North Fork Innoko River.

“There were a bunch of wolf tracks going right down the trail,” he said. “I used their trail for a while.”

The wolves didn’t get him to Innoko, but their trail helped. Hewitt kept trudging on, hoping to find some sort of trail going out of Innoko. There wasn’t.

“I almost cried again,” he said.

Crying, though, doesn’t help. The tears only freeze. Hewitt knew tears were useless, and there were things he needed to do. He took a break at the Innoko cabin to dry his gear as best he could and then pushed on for Poorman, another old abandoned mining camp. He was elated to find snowmachine tracks there; and discouraged to find them useless.

They led to the deteriorating Poorman airstrip, went up a hill beyond and disappeared into deep snow.

“The snow just kept getting deeper and deeper,” said Hewitt, who was at last starting to get discouraged. Now down to his last meal, he was near exhaustion and frustrated as he dug out a hole in the snow in which to bivvy yet again.

Shivering in his sleeping bag, he concluded his best option now was to go back to the Innoko cabin, grab some food he’d left there, and start a retreat to the safety of Takotna.

“I turned around, and now I have a pretty good track,” he said. “I know there are two freeze-dried meals there (at Innoko). I was OK. And then I ran into Beat.”

Beat — pronounced “Be-At”  — Jegerlehner is in real life a Google software engineer from California. He is also another veteran of the Iditarod Trail. A big man on snowhoes pulling a sled behind, he was still trudging north.

Hewitt looked at the trail of broken snow Jegerlehner was leaving behind the sled. It looked inviting. So when Jegerlehner suggested the two men push on together to Ruby, a tired Hewitt fell in line.

“Beat left me behind pretty quick,” he added. “I grunted and cursed and spit.”

Pushing the bike was harder than pulling a sled. Hewitt had already burned up a lot of energy along the trail. And he hadn’t been getting much rest in that frosty sleeping bag that also stank of gasoline. Hewitt’s stove had leaked into the bag at some point after he started keeping his stove inside with him to thaw a frozen pump that wouldn’t work  otherwise.

Hewitt knew his compounding problems were catching up with him, but based on a report from Jegerlehner,  Hewitt calculated that he was now moving so slow that his wife, Loreen, and Steve Ansell, a San Francisco ultra-runner who’d been traveling with her, couldn’t be far back along the trail. Jegerlehner had reported seeing them in Ophir.

The two hikers had departed Takotna on snowshoes thinking they’d go as far as Carlson, and then if conditions got too bad, turn around and retreat, Loreen said. But the trip to Carlson went well enough they decided to try for Innoko despite extreme cold.

UNRELENTING COLD

The pair thought that if they made the Innoko cabin they’d find a little relief from the weather, but they didn’t. At 40 degrees below zero, Loreen said, the stove “will burn the wood. It just won’t get the cabin warm. It was so cold in that cabin….Our water took forever to boil. There was frost everywhere.”

Loreen and Ansell thought about heading back to Takotna, but they were almost halfway to Ruby now. So despite Loreen’s already damaged and cold-blistering hands, they marched on. It was slow, cold going. When they stopped to bivvy, Loreen had trouble working the plastic snaps and zipper on the bag that held her gear in her sled.

“When this thumb split (open),” she said, “I knew I was in trouble.”

But she didn’t worry too much. At least not then. She used here satellite phone only to call a concerned daughter back in California (the Hewitts have four daughters) to assure her everything was fine, even when it wasn’t so fine.

And then she and Ansell caught Tim. This was disconcerting. He should have been far ahead, but he wasn’t, and he was obviously struggling. Still, he seemed physically OK, and said he was ready to push on. There were now three people to break trail. The three of them together figured they could gut it out to Ruby.

What they didn’t count on was nature smacking them yet again.

“The trees started rustling,” Tim said, “and then it just started howling. Steve and Loreen took off. It was just impossible for me to follow her. I was post-holing and pushing the bike from one snowshoe track to another.

“It was exhausting, and pretty soon the trail was gone. Then I got blown over a couple times. It was comical if you were out there.”

When he finally hit a quiet spot where trees provided shelter from the wind, Tim stopped and dug in. About a mile and a half ahead, Loreen and Ansell did likewise. Before crawling into her warm Snowy Owl, the last thing Loreen did was put out a brightly colored poncho and a flashing light to mark the bivvy site for Tim.

Her GPS tracker informed her Ruby was only 28 miles ahead. It was the night of March 25, a time when the days in Alaska are getting noticeably longer but when the cold sometimes remains vicious.

“The sky that night was a really brilliant blue,” Loreen said. “Then red, then sort of purplish. It was so pretty.”

Five hundred miles to the south in the Mat-Su community of Sutton, Invitational organizer Bill Merchant was not admiring the beauty of the night sky. He was looking at the glare of a computer screen where a GPS tracking device on Tim’s bike was showing him going backward and forward, and forward and backward on the Iditarod Trail.

Tim was normally the last of the Invitational competitors about whom Merchant would worry, but Tim’s strange wanderings on the trail, including some sort of loop-de-loop around the overgrown Poorman airstrip had Merchant wondering. Could it be Tim was trying to signal for help?

Himself a veteran of a lot of time on the Iditarod, Merchant knew that Tim had to be breaking trail and that he was surely low on food, if not out. Merchant knew, too, the threat posed by extreme cold. By the night of Sunday, March 29, he decided he’d waited long enough for Tim to make Ruby.

TIME TO ACT

Merchant picked up the phone and placed a call to round up a snowmachine rider willing to head back down the trail toward Poorman. The next morning, Loreen woke to the sound of a snowmachine roaring as it fought to break trail.

Driver Allen Titus found her and Ansell fine, but she told him “I’m worried about my husband.”

She told Titus contact with Tim had been lost around midday a day earlier. Titus fired up his sled and headed farther back along the trail toward Poorman to look for Tim. Though the trail runs atop an abandoned road, the roadbed was buried under so much snow Titus several times got stuck and had to dig out his sled. At one point, he thought about just giving up and going home, but he knew Tim was out there somewhere.

Finally, he saw a sight that unnerved him a little.

“All I saw was a bicycle and a black sleeping bag lying in the middle of the Poorman Highway,” Titus said. Titus shouted a greeting. There was no sign of movement. Again Titus yelled. No response.

This was not good. He shut down his snowmachine and approached the sleeping bag with a certain feeling of dread. He really didn’t want to find a body. Up close, he decided to try one more shout-out.

“I yelled loud,” Titus said: “You’re sleeping right in the middle of the Poorman Highway!’”

All of a sudden, Tim sat up and poked his face out of the sleeping bag.

“He was screaming like crazy,” Tim said. “He thought I was dead.”

“I scolded him good,” Titus said. “I told him to get up and get moving and have some coffee. Snow was blowing about 50 mph. It was a terrible day.”

Tim was loaded quickly into the sled behind Titus’s snowmachine. The pair stopped to pick up Loreen on the way back to Ruby. Ansell said he wanted to keep trying to for Nome. He did, but was eventually forced to abandon the Invitational at Galena on the Yukon.

The Hewitts didn’t stay long in Ruby. They quickly caught a flight back to Anchorage to lick their wounds and contemplate what had happened.

“Why I love the whole (Iditarod) thing is because it’s so basic,” Loreen said. “You just have to take care of yourself. There’s nothing else to think about.”

The Iditarod in winter pushes people back to the the elemental level at which humans lived before technology started to own us. It is a life of which some people just can’t seem to get enough. Loreen, like Tim, is back this year. She isn’t going for Nome. She only plans to hike and snowshoe the 350 miles to McGrath.

Only.

As for Tim, well, he’s all in for another 1,000 miles. He’s not about to let the bike or Alaska beat him.

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