ALASKA RANGE — The ice bridge across the narrows of the Tatina River looked sketchy from the moment the Iditarod Trail was put in across it this year with the course as always plotted by the first person headed north on a snowmachine from the mouth of the Dalzell Gorge to the log-cabin outpost downstream at a place called Rohn.
A fact known well to all who have done their time on this so-called National Historic Trail is that there really is no Iditarod Trail. There is a route put in seasonally across vast, open, expanses covered by snow and over lake and river ice after that time Alaskans call freeze-up. The route shifts a little every year, but there are some consistences.
Where the trail (I will call it that from here on for lack of a better word) headed north emerges from the woods of a 200-yard portage just above the Tatina narrows, there is almost always some sort of danger. Many are the years the trail has clung to shore ice sloping so steeply down from the south bank that any sensible person — be they on a snowmachine, dogsled, fat bike, foot or skis — couldn’t avoid thinking how easy it would be to side slip into the open waters running fast and cold only a foot or two away.
In some ways, the trail looked better than usual this year where it crossed above the upper part of the narrows, climbed up an icy ramp onto the north shore, and found nearly flat, snow-covered ice to follow downstream to where the river braids and slows and good ice is easy to find.
It was on the south shore, looking across the river at that bank, that Peter Ripmaster, a resident of Fairview, North Carolina, found himself March 3 as the sun started to set behind the Terra Cotta Mountains to the south.
He did not know he was about step into a watery trap.
Bad trail behind
Already the 39-year-old Ripmaster had run into unexpectedly bad ice. A veteran of two previous hikes up the Iditarod for 350 miles from Knik to McGrath, he had not expected to be wading the Tatina River not far from where the trail spills down out of the Alaska Range mountains onto a tributary of the Interior-draining South Fork Kuskokwim River.
The ice covering this broad, braided stretch of the Tatina is usually good. But this year an ice bridge had collapsed there and many of the competitors in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, of which Ripmaster was one, were forced to wade water almost calf deep.
Of this, Ripmaster had been warned. After struggling to make it over 3,150-foot Rainy Pass earlier in the day, he’d met a gang of buffalo hunters on snowmachines headed back to civilization from the Fairwell Hills a couple hundreds miles north of Anchorage. As is the norm along the wilderness trail, everyone stopped for a chat.
“They asked me where I was going,” Ripmaster said. He told them Rohn. They told him “just be careful. We just came over the Tatitna and we barely made it through with our machines,” Ripmaster remembered. The buffalo hunters mentioned bad ice.
“I could tell by the way this guy told me that he was serious.He had general concern for me,” Ripmaster said. “I definitely made a mental note.
“I was thinking, ‘If gets too daunting, just back off. Wait for others to get close to you to help.’ I had that in the back of my head.”
Ripmaster found the open water the hunters described and waded through careful so as not to go over the tops of his calf-high, waterproof NEOS overboots, he said Monday by phone from McGrath where he was taking a break from what began as a planned 1,000 mile hike from Knik to Nome.
The ford did, however, alert him to the fact the Tatina wasn’t quite like he’d seen in past years.
“All of these things were kind of happening, and I was taking things kind of slow and thinking about these things,” he said. “Then I get to this next one. Right when I got there, I was thinking, ‘I should just take a picture of this spot to let people realize what you come on in this race.’
“It just had the sketchiest look to it.”
A checkpoint so close
Beside the river, Ripmaster paused to consider. The ice looked bad, but he knew he was only a couple miles from Rohn where a warm wall tent and rest waited after a 30 mile day on a tough trail up and over the highest point on the Iditarod.
“I sat there and looked at this as just the most dangerous spot,” he said. “All the radars in my head were going beep, beep, beep….and then I see all of the tracks on the other side. So I know other people are getting by.”
With that evidence visible, Ripmaster made a mental leap so easy to make in the wilderness and sometimes so dangerous — if someone else went there and made it through, it must be safe.
Still, he looked for what seemed the firmest ice and swung a little left of the path others had used. Then he began inching forward, using a trekking pole to test the ice.
“I was really banging that ice,” he said. “If it was going to come off, I wanted to make it come off before I stepped on it.”
Going forward this way, banging with the pole, he said, “it looked like I was going to make it.”
“Then I took one more step, and the whole thing around me just dropped out. I didn’t have a second to react before I was totally underwater.”
In killer waters
Cold water shock can kill the weak of heart. It can cause cause healthy people to gasp, inhale water and literally drown in seconds. It has been known to kill rafters who fall out of boats into glacial Alaska rivers in the middle of summer.
“Short of being hit by a bus or struck by lightning, cold shock is one of the biggest jolts that your body can experience,” says the National Center for Cold Water Safety.
Ripmaster had just disappeared beneath the coldest of cold water, water with a temperature near the freezing point. He was lucky to come up again.
“I finally get back to the surface, and I’m just gasping,” he said. “I was kind of like dog paddling. I felt water getting into my clothes, and my clothes getting heavier, and the sled was behind me.”
Fastened to the sled at the waist, he was worried the current might pull it down under ice downstream and then he would be doomed. So he kept fighting toward the far bank in a current that races at several miles per hour.
“I’m just lurching forward, trying to get to the other side,” he said. “I’d try to jump and get my arms up and get on the ice, and that would knock out another big piece, and it would fall back into the water.
“But finally I was kind of able to wiggle myself up onto the ice… like a seal. I probably looked very similar. I made it to the other side and just kind of laid there because it took so much to get to the other side.”
Out of the water into the freeze
Ripmaster was now out of the water, but far from out of danger with the temperature in the teens.
“Everything on me and on my (sled) bag was totally frozen,” he said. “A sheet of ice had formed around my body instantly when I got out of that water. I knew you either get naked and get in your sleeping bag (in this situation) or keep moving to try to stay warm.”
The icy casing locked around his sled bag, which held his mittens along with his sleeping bag, made the choice between the two options easier. He’d have to keep moving.
“I was trying to keep my heart rate low and not get overly emotional about it,” Ripmaster said. “It had me shaking. It was scary. It was one of those times that time just goes by so slow. You don’t know if it was 30 seconds or 3 minutes. It all happened before I could even think.
“Luckily I’ve been here a few times. I knew where I was. I knew I had to get to Rohn. I was still crossing crappy ice and trying to stay firm and strong. My body felt like I was going to be OK, but it was serious.”
Fortunately, it didn’t take Ripmaster long to get onto good, firm ice, and then he knew what he had to do.
Run for life
A runner who does marathons to raise money for cancer research when not hiking the Iditarod, Ripmaster started running for Rohn as fast as he could.
“I was thinking ahead, too,” he said. “Get there. Strip down. Get warm. It’s OK. You’re going to be OK.
“I knew I just had keep my body warm by the physical act of moving. I ran my fastest miles. At one point, I looked down at my watch and said, “Holy crap, you’re flying.’ I really had my scooters on.”
He arrived in Rohn; ran to the Invitational wall tent; and found it empty.
“No one was in there,” Ripmaster said. “I was like, ‘Oh shit.'”
But he was thinking. He immediately pivoted and headed for the cabin at the opposite side of what is about a 50-foot wide clearing in the spruce at the checkpoint. Invitational checkers were in the cabin chatting with newly arrived checkers for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race when Ripmaster barged through the door.
“They were like, ‘Hey Pete,'” he said, and then took immediate grasp of the situation as he started mumbling out the tale of what had happened.
“They sprung into action super fast,” Ripmaster said. “They were all over me. Then the relief…Once I got there, the gravity of the situation hit me. I was just reacting with no emotion until I was in the hands of some people who were helping me.”
The volunteers not only helped Ripmaster warm up. They helped him calm down. Most of the people who volunteer in Rohn have pretty interesting histories.
“The more people you talk to who do this sort of stuff, a lot of them, when you talk to them have had similar problems to mine,” he said.”We ended up having an awesome night. A little bit of whiskey was brought out.
“I realized that if this had to happen a lot of circumstances were good for me. It wasn’t two in the morning. It wasn’t 30-degrees below zero. The sun was setting but it was still out. I got through it.”
Ripmaster thought momentarily about quitting the Invitational in Rohn, but pushed on the next day — wading through some overflow water where he had to — to get to McGrath, where it is possible to catch a commercial flight.
“The way I looked at it, it’s Alaska,” he said. “Things happen. If it was 100 percent secure, it wouldn’t be the race it is. I really knew I had to get right back out there. You have to make that decision to get back on the horse.”
When reached in McGrath, however, he admitted he was seriously thinking about flying home to his wife and kids. He seemed to be wrestling with abandoning the Invitational hike, which he began as a fund raiser for cancer research, and pushing on with some butterflies still fluttering around in his stomach.
“It was a big, hard trip to get here,” he said. “It was about all of the adventure I needed.It’s been awesome. I’m kind of reflecting. I just don’t know if I have 650 miles left in me. I sort of want to get home to my family and chock this up as one of the greatest adventures in my life.
“I’ve heard so many people talk about their disdain of the Tatina. That river will be in my thoughts for my life. I thought how easily I could have died. I’m really at peace now whatever I do. I always said, ‘It’s never about the race. It’s about the experience of the race.'”
And that experience is now continuing.
As the sun set in the Alaska Interior Monday evening, Ripmaster was back on the trail and closing in on the community of Takota, the next checkpoint north from McGrath on the way to Nome. His fundraising website is 2Nome4Hope.