UPDATE as of 11 a.m.Friday: Heavy winds appeared to be pounding Tim Hewitt as he dropped out of the Topkok Hills and down onto the beaches along Safety Sound only about 45 miles from Nome on his quest to become the first to hike the Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome in under 20 days.
Johnson’s Camp, a remote weather site near Safety Sound, was reporting winds of 25 to 30 mph, gusting to 50 mph. They wre blowing from slightly to the east of north. A Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite tracking device on Hewitt’s sled showed him moving at speeds ranging from just under 3 mph to almost 4 mph.
The Iditarod Trail on the beaches immediately below the Topkoks heads almost due west, but begins to veer somewhat southwest as it gets closer to Safety, the last Iditarod checkpoint before the end of the trail. With the winds at 25 degrees from the north, they would be on Hewitt’s right shoulder and could actually start giving him a bit of a push along the trail — if they don’t blow him off it — as he nears Safety.
His wife, Loreen, reported in an email early Friday morning that Tim is pretty well worn out after almost three weeks on the trail, but “sounded good the last few calls, and he seems to be ‘smelling the barn’. I would doubt that he would let anything short of a blowhole stand in his way now.
“He is probably not in physical shape to skip sleep but mentally he is.”
On the trail, Tim appears to be getting his butt kicked by the weather, but it is short of a full-on blowhole blast. The National Weather Service forecast for Nome suggested the winds would remain brisk through Saturday, but promised clear skies so at least Tim shouldn’t need to worry about whiteout conditions in blowing snow.
ON THE TRAIL THURSDAY NIGHT
The temperature was dropping fast toward an expected overnight low near 20 degrees below zero on Thursday night when the toughest man on the Iditarod Trail hooked himself to a sled and marched out of White Mountain.
Ahead waited the Topkok Hills and a possible Iditarod record talked about for years but never approached. Behind were four dog teams still chasing the finish line in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
With a little luck, 61-year-old Tim Hewitt — a Pennsylvania lawyer at the age when others start shopping for rocking chairs — had a chance of beating those last dog teams to the finish line pulling his own sled.
But then Hewitt had a head start. He left the old Susitna Valley port of Knik, once an integral part of the Iditarod Trail, bound for Nome on Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. If he reaches Nome by 2 p.m. Sunday, he will be the first person on foot known to have hiked, jogged and run the length of the Iditarod in under 20 days.
Already the record holder for the Iditarod Trail Invitational foot race, Hewitt covered the southern route of the Iditarod west across the Alaska Interior from Ophir to the ghost town of Iditarod, the tiny village of Shageluk and then up the Yukon River to Kaltag, in 20 days, 7 hours and 17 minutes in 2011.
The northern route for the race from Ophir north through some of the most desolate winter landscape in the world to the old gold-mining town of Ruby and then west on the Yukon to Kaltag, is generally considered the easier route. The best time there belongs to another man from Pennsylvania: Tom Jarding who covered the distance in 20 days, 14 hours and 45 minutes in 2010.
The first dog teams to run the sled dog race made it from Knik to Nome in 20 days, 49 minutes and 41 minutes. When Libby Riddles made the dog-race world famous by becoming he first woman to beat the men in 1985, it took her team almost 19 days.
Back then, the mushers and their teams faced some tough trail out of Knik. They now start from Willow, a wide-spot along the George Parks Highway north of Anchorage; enjoy a better trail; and make it to Nome in less than half the time.
Outside media continue to hype the Iditarod challenge as “all that’s left of the gritty endurance of the 19th century Arctic explorers,” as Popular Mechanics put it, but the reality is that unless the weather blows up a storm or pushes temperatures down into life-threatening lows, there’s now a pretty nice trail for most of the way to Nome.
Still, covering the distance in 20 days on foot was thought to be pretty much impossible. Such a feat would require someone average about 50 miles — or just a little less than two complete marathons — every day for almost three weeks.
Since Hewitt left Knik 17 days ago, a global-positioning-system (GPS) tracker on his sled shows him averaging 2 mph. At that rate, it would take him about 20 days and 19 hours to reach Nome. But the 2 mph average includes the time Hewitt has spent camped and resting along the trail.
According to people who have talked to him along the way, he has been traveling conservatively and saving himself for a hard push at the end of the journey. White Mountain is about 80 miles from Nome. Hewitt’s average traveling speed, again according to the GPS, is 2.9 mph.
If he could hike straight through to Nome at that pace — and who knows that he might not try (Hewitt is not only fit, he’s stubborn) — he could conceivably reach the end of the trail in 27 to 28 hours, putting him well under 20 days.
“He looks good,” Joanna Wassillie of White Mountain reported Thursday night. Wassillie has hosted Hewitt for years now and knows him pretty well.
“(He) is setting back out again after a hearty meal and a two-hour nap,” she said via a Facebook message. “If anyone can do it, it’s Tim.”
The trail through the Topkoks and then on to Nome is reported to be covered with hard-packed snow, which makes the walking easiest and eases the sliding for the sled load of survival gear Hewitt tows behind. The weather is generally cooperative.
Skies were clear with “north winds at about 5 mph,” Wassillie reported. “Temp is 6 F, which will drop like a rock soon. It’s been cold at night. It was -20 this morning.”
For Hewitt, after last year when Alaska tried to kill him, these conditions are almost a walk in the park. A year ago, Hewitt decided he’d try the human-powered-endurance fast way to Nome, a fat bike. He ended up pinned down in a blizzard between a ghost-town named Cripple and Ruby with temperatures plunging to 40 degrees below zero.
When his GPS tracker showed him stalling out on the trail, Invitational organizer Bill Merchant sent Allen Titus from Ruby out to look for Hewitt. Titus found a body in the trail and thought for a moment Hewitt was dead, but the adventurer had just crawled into his sleeping bag to try to rest.
Titus hauled Hewitt back to Ruby were Hewitt quit the race. He was planning to come back this year to finally conquer on the Iditarod on fat tires, but when he started studying Alaska’s unusually warm February weather and reports of 1,000 miles of generally hard, fast trail, his wife, Loreen, said he started thinking about the possibility of putting up a foot-record to Nome that might stand for a while.
He had that record almost within sight Thursday.
“He doesn’t plan on resting,” Wassillie reported as Hewitt was leaving White Mountain, “but he might bivvy by the treeline for a couple of hours” on the north side of the Topkoks.