You can’t begin to do what Tim Hewitt just did in walking 1,000 miles across the godforsaken, frozen wilderness of Alaska in less than 20 days to set a record in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and he doubts you’d want to.
Who’d choose to beat themselves up this way?
Hewitt’s left elbow is still badly swollen from a fall on Yukon River glare ice that repeatedly put him on his backside and sometimes left him flopping around like a salmon on a beach as he tried to shuffle and slide north along what is called the Iditarod National Historic Trail, though there is often no trail at all.
His nosed is scarred from frostbite. His feet are the shape and color of baking-size red potatoes, but don’t look nearly as tasty. His toenails are all gone; his toes pocked by blisters just starting to heal.
When Hewitt gets up from the table to use the men’s room in a restaurant in Anchorage, where he stopped on his way home from Nome to Pennsylvania on Sunday, he hunches and hobbles his way across the dining room.
He returns to detail his nightmarish experience in the Topkok Hills along the Bering Sea Coast this year. It is what a lot of other people might consider a near-death experience, but to Hewitt — who has now hiked the Iditarod nine-times and had to be pulled off the trail in truly life-threatening conditions last year — it’s just another day in paradise.
It probably bares mention here that Hewitt is no youthful hotshot, either. The man is 61-years-old, though he doesn’t really look it. His face has plenty of lines and wrinkles, but he has the skin tone of someone half his age and eyes that burn with a boyish enthusiasm that spills out in an avalanche of words when he talks about the Iditarod, which is sort of his personal playground.
Not a modern playground, though. Think of the kind of playground with old-fashioned steel monkey bars erected atop a concrete pad before parents got all safety conscious and worried about kids falling off, knocking themselves senseless and coming home all bloody.
The Iditarod is a fun place to play when it is fun. It is not always fun. When traveling the Iditarod Trail on foot, weather conditions will sometimes be good, but they will most assuredly turn bad at some point.
If you are lucky, this will happen where you can find trees or brush for shelter, or enough snow that you can at least dig a little trench to get out of the wind. Hewitt was not lucky when he hit the barren Topkok Hills in a ground blizzard this year.
He thought he could make it from a small village named White Mountain, home to about 200 people who live along the Fish River, in one crazy-long, non-stop, 80-mile push to Nome. He’d had a couple hours sleep at the home of old friend Joanna Wassillie, and he could, in his words, “smell the barn then.
“I was going to push all the way through. I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to stop. I’m going to Nome.'”
Mother Nature had other plans. She just took a while to reveal them. Things started well for Hewitt as he came off the snow-covered ice of the Fish and started up the first of 10, often wind-swept hills that present steeper climbs than their 300- or 400-foot elevations might indicate.
“I was powering up those hills,” Hewitt said, and then the winds started. The Topkok winds are notorious.
“This can be one of the most dangerous stretches on the race when the wind blows or a storm hits,” the late Don Bowers wrote in the first words of his mushing guide to this section of the Iditarod. “It can make or break champions, not to mention back- of-the-packers. Mushers have nearly died within what would normally be a few hours’ easy running to Nome. In reasonable weather, this is a pleasant five- to eight-hour run; in the worst conditions, it can be impassable.
Hewitt had just waddled into the impassable.
“I was getting ragdolled around,” he said. “I was getting my teeth kicked in. It’s bad. Then I realize, it’s not only bad. I’m sleep drunk. I’m starting to stumble.”
Not far ahead on the trail, he knew there was an A-frame shelter cabin near Topkok Head, but he realized he wasn’t going to make it. The storm had reached the point where just standing up was a challenge. And then he stumbled, or was blown, into one of the tripods of smallish tree-trunks lashed together to mark the trail through these barren hills where there are no trees, and he had an idea.
He stopped, wove some garbage bags into the tripod, and strapped his plastic sled to it to form a windbreak. This was not an easy task, because while he was working he had to make sure he was either hanging onto things — the sled, his duffel bag, his sleeping bag and pad — or keeping them under the weight of his body so they didn’t blow away.
This he managed to do, “and then I have a little spot to shelter my head,” he said. Tucked behind this shelter, Hewitt managed to crawl into his sleeping bag without it blowing away in the howling winds. There he tried to get some rest.
“I’m rolling around in the wind,” he said. “The sled is going bam, bam, bam against the poles.” But Hewitt managed to slip in and out of sleep for a couple hours. By then he noticed the eastern sky starting to lighten.
“I love the nights on the trail,” Hewitt has observed, but after all the years of Iditarod, he has learned that when things start to go bad the world always looks better in the light of day. This reality actually defined a good part of his strategy for making it to Nome in under 20 days.
“My objective was to always sleep enough that when I hiked at night I could break through to daylight,” he said.
As he broke camp — if you can call it that — in the Topkoks, the sky was getting brighter by the minute and the wind was easing. He hiked only a half mile to reach the A-frame. He didn’t stop.
“From there,” he said, “it was getting much better,” and Nome was beckoning.
AHEAD OF THE STORY
It’s hardly fair to Hewitt, however, or to the reader, to take this story to its end at Nome without going to back to the beginning of an adventure that nearly wasn’t and a vomit-fouled start that had Hewitt thinking about quitting with the lights of the state’s largest city still bright on the southern horizon at night.
To start with, this was supposed to be the year Hewitt — who already held the Invitational record for the fastest foot time to Nome — was going to get on a fat bike and make up for last year when he tried to fat bike to Nome only to be slapped silly by the Iditarod and forced to quit the trail before reaching the Yukon River.
“I had my bike all tuned up,” he said. “I was ready to go on the bike.”
Then he saw how mild the winter of 2015-16 was shaping up in Alaska, read the long-range forecasts about how it was supposed to stay that way, and got the reports that the Iditarod Trail was something of a snow-packed race track for much of the way north from Knik.
“I’m 61,” he said, “and I’m thinking that the northern route isn’t going to come around again for two years, and my window’s closing to get that 20 days.”
Hewitt had been thinking about a 20-day trip to Nome for years. He figured that if he could do it the record might stand for a long time. Traveling as fast as Hewitt does on the Iditarod takes a very special set of skills. Endurance is only a third of the equation.
Confidence is another third. Alaska adventurer Roman Dial once defined the huge backpacks people carry into the northern wilderness by observing that “you pack your insecurities.” Hewitt’s insecurities fit into a medium size duffel along with cumbersome necessities like snowshoes, a sled, s sleeping bag and pad, a down parka and stove, and they can’t weigh more than 25 pounds combined.
Needless to say, when Hewitt sets off for Nome he isn’t towing much weight, and he is amazingly efficient on the trail. This is another learned skill that accounts for a third of what a record takes.
Hewitt can make and break camp in only a matter of minutes even in extreme cold. He is equally as fast at getting a stove going to melt snow or ice for needed water. He has given up on dressing and undressing to camp.
“I don’t take anything off,” he said. He jumps fully clothed into a vapor-barrier liner inside his down sleeping bag. Sometimes, if he’s been sweating a lot, moisture driven out of his clothes by body heat condenses against the liner during his four-hour sleeps.
That’s OK because Hewitt has an easy solution for dealing with the moisture. He lets the vapor-barrier, which is nothing but a thin-sack of coated nylon, freeze and then shakes the ice crystals off it.
Hewitt dealt with more dampness than usual at the start of this year’s Invitational because he left the starting line like he was running a marathon. He led the field of runners halfway to the Susitna River, and averaged about 4.5 mph to Yentna Station Roadhouse, the first checkpoint 60 miles down the trail. He there trailed only Willow’s David Johnston, an ultra-running phenom who owns the course-record for the Invitational short up and over the Alaska Range to McGrath.
Johnston was again this year pacing himself for a 350-mile run. Hewitt was trying to pace himself to go nearly three-times as far. And he admitted he might have gone out too fast.
“From the gun, I went our pretty hard,” said Hewitt, who remembers a fit, young Australian runner who didn’t know the trail well giving chase. The younger man, Hewitt knew, was only planning to go 130 miles up the Iditarod to the Winterlake Lodge at Finger Lake.
“I eventually turned to him said, ‘I have to slow down,'” Hewitt said. Hewitt meant it as an apology for not being able to lead anymore, but the reaction drew a response that surprised the older man.
“He said, ‘Thank God mate.”
The words should have served as a warning, but Hewitt continued to push the pace.
“I was running that first night,” he said. He ran through Yentna at mile 60. He ran through Skwentna at mile 95. He started running across the swamps between Skwentna and the Shells Hills, and there the running began to catch up with him.
About 100 miles into the journey, he said, “my legs were quitting on me.”
With the legs quitting and Hewitt wobbling down the trail “sleep drunk,” as he calls it, the time had come for a break. “At some point it gets so slow it makes no sense to keep going,” he confessed. So he dove into his sleeping bag at the base of the Hills, napped for a few hours and was up and going again.
Things were about to get worse. Though Hewitt pulled into Winterlake at mile 130 actually having gained time on Johnston, the 61-year-old was starting to get sick. He ate at Winterlake, left and almost immediately found himself struggling to hold down his lunch.
He stopped, got in his sleeping bag again, got sick in the bag, got out of the bag, and started down the trail once more. The climb up to Puntilla Lake and The Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge turned into a struggle.
“If I pushed too hard, I’d start to get the dry heaves,” Hewitt said. “I might have just been pushing a little too hard before that. I had to back off and just let it run its course.”
By the time Hewitt got to Puntilla Lake, Johnston was long gone. The 35-mile uphill slog that took Johnston about 9 hours took Hewitt more than 15, and Hewitt wasn’t getting any better. He rested for a time in a warm log cabin at Perrins, but that didn’t seem to help.
“I was sick again when I left,” Hewitt said. He went only three or four miles along the trail toward Rainy Pass before he decided he better bivouac (bivy). He felt better when he got up, but more trouble was waiting ahead.
While fording open water on the Happy River, he lost the grip on one of his trekking poles and watched it take off downstream with the current. He started to chase but almost instantly, he said, “I knew that would not be a good idea. The loss unnerved me a bit.”
He was used to using two poles to help power himself up the climb to the Pass at 3,150 feet, the highest point on the Iditarod. Now he had to power along with one real pole and one imaginary pole. He worked the empty hand as if that pole was real.
“I convinced myself, ‘It’s all good,'” Hewitt said.
And he had bigger problems to deal with, anyway, like the screws falling out of his shoes.
ICY, ICY, ICY
Hewitt had drilled the screws into the shoes to provide traction on ice. He could have used the traction on the icy Tatina River going into the Rohn checkpoint in the heart of the Alaska Range and on the trail across the Turquoise Lake Burn south of Rohn where the ground was either bare dirt or ice and even more on the Farewell Lakes, which were giant skating rinks.
But at least he got lucky on the lakes. He had a good north breeze behind him that helped push him across the slick surfaces. By the time he reached Alaska’s ultimate “nowhere bridge” across the warm, open water of Sullivan Creek southwest of Nikolai, things were starting to look up. He was feeling better, and he’d gained back some time.
“My plan was working pretty well,” Hewitt said.
With the weather mild and the trail firm, he pushed through the Athabascan village of Nikolai and on toward the small, airstrip community of McGrath dragging a sled that for a time felt like it was full of magnets being towed across a planet made of steel.
“It was bizarre going to McGrath,” Hewitt said. “I had never encountered anything like that before. The sled was fighting me. I had to lean into it. The thing was just grabbing the snow.”
Asked if this could have been a hallucination after days on the trail with little sleep, Hewitt dismissed the possibility.
“I had plenty of hallucinations,” he said. “That wasn’t one of them.”
At McGrath, he stopped long enough to enjoy an omelette and pushed on through the fading mining town of Takotna, through the ghost town of Ophir, and on toward the site of previous year’s disaster in bitter cold with the trail all blown in with new snow.
“I knew every minute mattered,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘the trail’s not always going to be good. The weather’s not always going to be good.”
Near the ghost town of Poorman, “it was bad just remembering everything” from a year earlier, and just before that there had been some big, snowless patches of frozen tussocks Hewitt had never before seen that made the hiking difficult, but he was setting an amazing pace.
“The places I would think about as so far away (from 2015’s slog); it was, ‘Bang. I’m there,'” he said. “It was surreal.”
In past years, the first mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race usually caught Hewitt somewhere between Ophir and Ruby. Now, not only were the dogs not there, the gang of trail-breaking snowmachines that goes in front of the race hadn’t shown up either.
Hewitt realized he was going to reach Ruby on the Yukon before them. He pushed on. At Ruby, he wanted to stop at the River’s Edge Bed and Breakfast for dinner. The Iditarod had flown in a gourmet chef to cook a prize for the dog race, and the chef was warming up in the kitchen this evening. But when told dinner wouldn’t be for an hour, an hour-and-a-half, maybe longer, Hewitt forced himself back out the door and onto the trail.
“About 8 miles downriver, the smells started hitting me and I regretted it,” he said.
Worse than the smell, though, was the river ice. Miles and miles of it. All blown bare. All slick as a hockey rink freshly Zambonied.
“And I had three screws in one shoe,” Hewitt said. “I could only shuffle because I didn’t have very good traction. Then I started falling,” and falling and falling.
He busted his lip. He smashed his elbow. He knocked himself silly. He twisted an already weak ankle.
“It was horrible,” he said.
He finally decided to bivy. The wind came up. Snow started blowing around. Some of it stuck to the ice. He got out of his sleeping bag and was in luck again.
“The trail had improved,” he said. “I was on the Yukon River, and I had a tail wind. Life was good.”
It was good all the way downriver to Galena, Iditarod mile 550. There it started snowing heavily. Hewitt bivied again, rested until he was covered by several inches of snow, got up, put on his snowshoes for the first time during the trip, and started marching, wondering now what had happened to the Iditarod trail breakers he’d expected long ago.
“Still nobody has come through,” he said. He bivied again, and again got up and started marching. Finally some villagers traveling the river on snowmachines started passing him, “so the trail is getting better,” he said. “But I had a headwind and still crappy trail.”
It wouldn’t improve until near the village of Koyukuk where he was finally passed by the trail breakers and the first team in the Iditarod dog race. It was a good omen.
“There was perfect trail from there to Kaltag,” Hewitt said. He was rolling again, on pace and pushing through the village at Iditarod mile 630 hoping to make a U.S. Bureau of Land Management cabin at a place called Tripod Flats. Sleep drunkenness arrived first, however, and he had to bivy for what has become the standard four hours.
He stuffed his watch with its three alarms in his balaclava next to his ear so he wouldn’t sleep through the wake up. When the alarms started going off, he got up and tromped past Tripod, then past another snug shelter cabin at Old Woman, hoping to make it all the way to the Bering Sea Coast at Unalakleet.
Again he felt short.
“I ended up bivying about 12 miles out,” Hewitt said. Refreshed after the stop, he blew through Unalakleet, struggled on the ice getting to the Shaktoolik Hills, climbed through the hills and took a gamble.
“I rode my sled down,” Hewitt said. “It was probably a mistake. The snow started flying up over my face. I got scared.”
He eventually decided the remote Bering Sea coast was not a good place to risk breaking a leg, and got off the sled to walk down to Nelson Lagoon and into a maelstrom.
“Going into Shak was a nightmare,” he said, “a headwind, blowing snow. I couldn’t hardly breathe. But the northern lights were great.”
A welcoming village, Shaktoolik leaves the school open to shelter visitors during the Iditarod season. Hewitt ducked in to rest. By now, he knew he was ahead of pace to break 20 days. Physically he was beat up. Emotionally he’d been feeding off the smell of success since Unalakleet.
He’d done the math. All he had to do was hold pace, and he’d have a record that might stand for a long time. Ahead was a tough, nearly day-long push across the 60 miles of frozen tundra and wind swept Norton Bay sea ice to Koyuk, but Hewitt arrived still on schedule.
A local teacher welcomed him in the middle of the night and put him up for a few hours before Hewitt was on the trail again. He stopped at Elim to get a box of supplies he’d shipped to the post office and ran into an Iditarod race celebration.
“They were giving 5-Hour Energies to everybody,” he said. “It actually doesn’t taste bad.”
ONE FOR THE ROAD
Hewitt drank several and took a couple more for the trail. He needed the energy boost. He pushed on to yet another shelter cabin at a place called Walla Walla where the trail climbs off the sea ice southwest of Elim and up over a cape long ago named “Little McKinley” in recognition of a great, Alaska mountain that once was but is no more.
The cabin was occupied by an Iditarod fan when Hewitt got there. The cabin got busy when the fan’s girlfriend, a musher in the Iditarod dog race, stopped outside to rest her team. Hewitt slept poorly on top of his sleeping bag inside, and when he got up to leave he forgot his vapor barrier liner.
He was on the trail chugging from sea level toward the 1,000-foot summit of Little McKinley when he thought about it, and then he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“That’s all I thought about,” he said. “I thought about going back to get it, and then I thought how that was stupid, and then you debate that for an hour.”
On the drop down off Little McKinley to Golovin Bay, he tried to start running again, but discovered his running days on the trail were over.
“My feet were bad early on,” he said. “I was dealing with blisters. About once per day I’d have to get my little Swiss Army knife out and drain them,” but by Little McKinley, almost 900 miles into the 1,000 mile odyssey, he had more than just foot problems.
“Every time I would start to run again, it would be too painful on my feet or quad or a calf,” he said. Hewitt would worry about how a pulled muscle might wreck the whole record attempt and slow down to a walk.
At the bottom of Little McKinley, he finally stopped to look for his sleeping bag liner, and only reconfirmed what he already knew. There was another piece of gear gone, but he could live without it. He pushed on.
The snowmachiner from WallaWalla caught him on the ice of Golovin Bay and returned the liner in a show of kindness common along the Iditarod Trail. Hewitt stopped not long after at the Golovin School to enjoy a quick cup of coffee and some banana bread. He knew it was only 15 miles or so to White Mountain.
He thought about pushing through there, too, but decided “I might want to do that, but it’s not going to work. From Kaltag on, I’d been pretty much running on fumes.”
Wassillie, a friend and member of a growing Hewitt fan club, was waiting with caribou stew and a place to sleep. Hewitt had to stop.
Hour later, he started the pushed through the Topkoks before eventually dropping down to the coast and onto the frozen barrier beaches about 25 miles from Safety. It was still windy, but not as bad, and nothing was going to stop Hewitt now.
“I was tired by the time I got to Safety,” he said. “I go into Safety (Roadhouse), and they said, ‘We were waiting for you.’ I’ve only been there once before when the place was open.”
The Iditarod dog race crew that staffs the roadhouse briefly for that race each year helped Hewitt celebrate his arrival and quick departure with more 5-Hour Energy.
And then leaving Safety, Hewitt said, “I probably made one of the poorest decisions of my life. I don’t know what I was thinking. I went over Cape Nome,” instead of taking a good, hard trail on the sea ice around the cape this year.
“I start working up the Cape,” Hewitt said. “It’s 800 feet. I’m climbing the Cape. The thing goes on forever. Some musher passes me, and he’s screaming at the dogs. I’m thinking, ‘Hey, be nice. It’s not that easy.’
“And then for the first time on the trail I notice my feet are cold. I’m sweating like crazy and everything is unzipped, and my feet are cold. It was a little scary. The wind was blowing hard. I’m trying to drink a 5-Hour Energy. Do you know those little bottles really whistle in the wind. And my feet are cold.”
Strange as it might seem, Hewitt decided that though his body core was hot from the exertion of climbing the Cape, he was not producing enough excess heat to save his feet. He zipped up, flipped up his hood, pulled on his expedition mitts, he said, and “it worked.”
Almost magically warmth returned to his toes, and he started down the Cape with the lights of Nome burning bright ahead and the aurora borealis rippling the sky.
“The northern lights were as magnificent as I’ve ever seen them,” he said. And there was actually a small crowd of people who came out of Nome’s Front Street bars to greet him. Hewitt suddenly felt like he’d done something, and he had.
His finishing time of 19 days, 9 hours and 38 minutes took almost a day off his old record.
In Nome, Hewitt stayed with Nome cyclist Phil Hofstetter, who paced the Invitational cyclists to the finish this year. It was at Hoftstetter’s house, he announced, “I’m never doing this again.”
Hofstetter’s wife, Sarah, simply laughed. Yes, Hewitt admitted, he’s said this before. But this time it’s different.
“There’s nothing more for me to prove,” he said. “I don’t think I’m capable of doing any better. It was the best trail ever. I’ve got the north (trail) record, the south record, the overall, the unsupported.
“I’ve got all the records nobody wants.”
But Hewitt still hasn’t ridden that fat bike to Nome, and then there is that mystical land out there, have you seen it? as the most famous of Alaska poets, Robert W. Service, asked a century ago: