If you think you had a rough night, forget it and turn your attention to the leaders of Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Invitational, the world’s toughest winter race.
They spent most of their Monday night pushing and pushing and pushing through the Happy River valley to Ptarmigan Pass high in the Alaska Range in deep snow and below-zero cold.
By morning, they had just made it to the pass and down through Hell’s Gate to the South Fork Kuskokwim River on the way to the remote Iditarod checkpoint of Rohn.
As daylight worked its way down into the cleft between the towering mountains there, they found themselves still 10 or 15 miles from the primitive rest stop ahead at what passes for a comfort station in the wilds of Alaska – a warm, one-room log cabin and a frigid outhouse.
Some places in the 49th state nothing has changed since Jack London wrote about the Klondike more than 100 years ago. The land is wild and untouched, in some cases wilder even than in London’s day, and the comforts come from small luxuries.
A warm fire, hot food, a place to sit, water to be found without melting ice or snow, a place to take off your boots and soothe your trail-battered feet. To truly understand the value of these things, you must earn your way to Rohn.
“His problem is that he won’t accept defeat,” the Malamute Kid, a London character observed in a 1898 short story titled “To the Man on the Trail.”
All these years later the breed that won’t accept defeat lives on. The men at the point of the Iditarod spear were not to be deterred by bad trail that left them wallowing through tens of miles of what Invitational trail boss Bill Merchant describe as “sugar snow.”
Largely alone in their own heads, they labored to push heavy, 50-pound, fat-tired bikes – light bikes actually but laden with tens of pounds of winter survival gear – in footing that leaves a man with the feeling he is losing a step for every step forward.
Technology being what it is today, you could sit in a warm home almost anywhere in the world and monitor their progress on a map that tracked the global positioning satellite transmitters.
Sometime the pushathon could be seen struggling forward at one, ridiculous mph. Other times the pushers might get up to 1.5 mph or be stopped, probably to hang their heads over the handlebars and catch their breath. But there was no sign of anyone giving up.
When someone parked a bike to dive into a sleeping bag for a needed rest, it wasn’t for long. No one was waiting for help to come ease the task, though surely they thought of it. With the overnight temperatures in the Range dropping below zero, there were signs that some of that worthless snow was beginning to consolidate.
At daybreak Tuesday, six-time Invitational champion Peter Basinger and Anchorage’s Clinton Hodges III were moving at 4.5 to 5 mph as they neared Ptarmigan. They do not walk that fast. They were rolling.
The condition of the trail was unknown. Maybe there had been another snowmachine or two through. In the right conditions, a machine, especially one pulling a weighted sled, can leave behind a trail that will set up into something almost like a wilderness bike path.
Not a trail firm enough for hiking on anything but snowshoes. Not a trail suited to a standard mountain bike. But a trail on which a man on a bike with tires 4- or 5-inches wide with the air pressure lowered until they are almost flat can ride.
And clearly there was some riding going on again.
Ahead of Basinger and Hodges, defending Invitational champ Tim Berntson from Anchorage had closed the gap on Idaho’s Jay Petervary and Colorado’s Neil Beltchenko. They were down in the South Fork Kuskokwim River Valley, winding downstream between the gravel bars on a trail that is good if there is no open water.
A monster on the bike, Berntson was at one point making almost 8 mph. Ahead, Petervary was only slightly slower, but there were times, too, that the leaders dropped back down to a single mph once again, a sure sign they’d hit snow that could not be ridden or slowed to negotiate their way around an opening in the icy surface of the braided, glacial river.
But there would be no stopping.
In the cold, clear air of the Range, you can smell the woodsmoke of the cabin at Rohn from miles away. It calls like a siren from where it nestles between the Terra Cotta and Teocalli mountains along the Rohn River gone to history in one of the prettiest valleys in Alaska of wild Alaska.
CORRECTION: This story was revised shortly after publication to reflect that some of the racers did stop to grab a few hours sleep along the trail Monday night.