An Iditarod hiker is lucky to be alive after an ice bridge across the Tatitna River collapsed Friday dumping him into frigid, fast-moving waters over his head, according to reports emerging from the tiny, isolated outpost of Rohn in the heart of the Alaska Range.
A participant in the Iditarod Trail Invitational — the toughest Iditarod — 39-year-old Peter Ripmaster from Fairview, North Carolina stumbled into Rohn’s lone log-cabin icy, wet and trembling after struggling to pull himself out of a rapids onto solid ice and then running through evening temperatures dropping into the teens to reach the safety of the only warm place for 30 miles in any direction.
“His eyes were wide,” said Kevin Robbins, an Invitational checkpoint volunteer on hand when Ripmaster burst through the door of the 12-by-16 foot cabin. “We got to him and started stripping him down. He was pretty shaken up there for a while.
“He ran all the way to Rohn. He said those were his fastest miles on the trail.”
Robbins was reached by telephone Saturday night back at his home in Eagle River, a suburb of Anchorage. The Rohn checkpoint has no telephone, and even the satellite phone service there is spotty because the checkpoint at the confluence of the Tatina and South Fork Kuskokwim River is nestled deep in the towering peaks of the surrounding Terra Cotta and Teocalli Mountains.
A sat-phone conversation with Bill Merchant, the Invitational director who was still in Rohn, lasted about a minute before the signal was lost. In that time, however, Merchant did report that Ripmaster said “he felt God. He was seeing his daughter’s faces.
“Goddamn that’s scary.”
A big, braided, glacial river, the Tatina flows west out of the Alaska Range to join the Kuskokwim. About two miles to the east of Rohn, it funnels through a narrows where there is almost always open, fast-moving water even at temperatures down to 50 degrees below zero.
Most years, the Iditarod Trail skirts the south edge of the rapids, clawing its way along a shoreline thick with alders. This year with the current running tight against south shore, the first trail breakers through on the route from the Dalzell Gorge to Rohn took the trail across an ice bridge at the top of the rapids and followed the north bank of the river until it was safe to cross where thick ice forms as the Tatitna widens and slows.
Robbins said Ripmaster came to the ice bridge, thought it looked suspicious and started poking it with his hiking poles as he moved forward. He was still checking to see if it was safe when “everything collapsed under him, and he swam,” Robbins said.
“He struggled a little bit and got himself out. It was a deep spot. He said he couldn’t touch bottom. He scared himself pretty good.”
Ripmaster, who is hiking the Iditarod Trail for 1,000 miles from Knik to Nome, has undertaken the adventure in part to raise money for breast cancer research. His mother died of the disease in 2000.
“I promised mom I would do everything in my power to help find a cure for breast cancer,”he says on his website. “Although it took me a few years to find my stride, in 2008 I started fundraising by running marathons. By the fall of 2013, I had run 50 marathons in 50 states and raised over $60,000 for cancer research.”
A two-time veteran of the Invitational short — a demanding 350-mile race up and over the Alaska Range through some of the wildest country on the continent — Ripmaster is making his first attempt at the Invitational long to Nome this year. He could not be reached because he was on the trail Saturday and stopped only briefly in the Athabascan Native village of Nikolai where a 5 a.m. phone call missed him by only minutes. He was back on the trail headed toward McGrath, another tiny Interior Alaska community, on Sunday.
After the Tatina accident, Ripmaster spent the night at Rohn recovering, drying out and talking to race volunteers before deciding to continue along the trail. Robbins said Ripmaster was lucky in that it appeared the 30- to 40-pound sled-load of survival gear he was towing behind when he went through the ice floated on the waters of the Tatitna instead of sinking and trying to pull him under ice downstream.
Most of the gear in the sled almost miraculously stayed dry, Robbins reported.
Merchant said Saturday night that trailbreakers for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had already been out to reroute the trail and build bridges to make things safe for mushers and their dog teams. The dog race should reach Rohn sometime Monday.
Up to this point, runners and the fat-tired bikers, who now dominate the Invitational, have been struggling to deal with the open water on the Tatina. Cyclist Tony Newton shot this video of Dan Quine sloshing through the Tatina and provided it to the Invitational: https://www.facebook.com/craig.medred
The Invitational competitors are not provided as nice a trail as the entrants in the dog race.