Too late Cody Johnson realized he was riding on thin ice over the cold water of the South Fork Kuskokwim River deep in the heart of the Alaska Range. Rolling fast on a primitive trail down the glacial river valley, he’d been led on by the track of another fat-tired cyclist in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Someone before had picked a bad route, ridden to thin ice, turned around and come back. The in-and-out manuever doubled the traffic at a junction on the little-traveled route from Ptarmigan Pass to the one-room, log-cabin outpost waiting ahead at a place called Rohn.
At the intersection, Johnson chose the road that appeared most traveled. It was a bad choice.
“With the wind blowing, you’re covering your face,” he said by phone from his home in Palmer on Friday, “so I really didn’t have much peripheral vision. I was following bike tracks.”
When the tracks shifted from snow-covered trail toward windswept ice, Johnson smiled to himself.
“Riding across the ice when it’s solid ice is the way to go,” he said. Whether fat or skinny, bike tires roll best on hard, flat surfaces. Ice is the difference between riding on pavement and riding in sand.
Anyone with studded tires on their fat bike would opt for ice over snow every time, and so Johnson rode happily toward disaster.
“I realized that wasn’t where I wanted to be when I heard the ice pop,” he said. “Someone had gone out and turned around. But I saw the trail ahead.
“I only had a few feet to go to meet where the trail started on the other side of the river.”
Johnson began pedaling furiously in the 20-degree-below-zero cold hoping he could get the four-inch-wide tires on his fat bike rolling fast enough to safely cross the gap. From experience, he knew it would be a bad idea to stop and put a foot down.
Fat tires don’t provide as much support as snowshoes on soft surfaces, but they offer a lot more flotation than a man’s foot. And so for a second or two, Johnson thought he might make it to the trail ahead.
“I got pretty close before my back tire went through,” he said.
He remembers thinking, “Oh shit,” and then quickly dismounting so as to avoid falling over on his side.
“I came off the bike, and I was standing about thigh deep in the water at that point with my 60-pound bike,” he said.
“Everything started racing so fast. I had a few feet to get to the edge. I had to break ice to get there. It was deep, but there was no danger of falling under the ice. At least I was standing and not being swept downstream” like Peter Ripmaster, who survived a near-death experience in the 2016 Invitational.
Johnson’s wife, Amy Breen – another Invitational competitor today on her way to becoming the first of the tough women to finish the 350-mile epic from the shores of Knik Arm north of Anchorage to the Interior hamlet of McGrath on the banks of the Kuskokwim River – came upon Johnson still in the water.
“By the time Amy got there,” he said, “I’d been in the water longer than I needed to be.”
But he needed help getting out over the shelf ice. Breen helped pull him out and then his bike heavily laden with winter survival gear.
“I took off my wet pants and socks,” Johnson said. “I put on what dry clothes I had.”
He emptied his water-filled boots, his only boots, and pulled them on over his one pair of dry socks. What had been dry socks immediately became ice socks. He and Breen chopped away at the ice that had formed instantly on his bike so he could ride it again.
Then he faced a difficult survival decision: Stop there, get a fire going, and start drying things out, or try to push on for Rohn before his wet and rapidly freezing boots froze the toes inside.
“It was a little before 3:30 p.m.,” Johnson said. “The GPS said we were 23 miles from Rohn. The temperature was falling. I guessed there would be about two and a half hours of daylight in the valley.”
The upper South Fork is hemmed in by the aptly named Terra Cotta and adjacent Teocalli mountains which climb straight from the river bottom to heights of more than a mile. They limit the winter sun from getting into the valley.
Johnson did some math. A good cyclist, he figured he could average 7 mph to Rohn if he put the hammer down. At that speed, the checkpoint didn’t seem far away.
“I was thinking, ‘I can get to Rohn in three hours, maybe shortly before dark when the temperatures really start to drop,'” he said.
Thus the decision was made. Johnson took off at top speed down the trail and quickly left Breen behind. Pedaling fast helped him stay warm, but he was about to discover the downside: a fast-burning candle only lasts so long.
“I pedaled as hard as I could until 6 or 7 miles out(of Rohn),” Johnson said. “Then I went downhill really quickly. I couldn’t ride my bike. I was weaving all over the trail. I started pushing.”
Breen pretty quickly caught the pusher and realized he was in serious trouble. His energy reserves burned up, Johnson just wanted to stop and crawl into his sleeping bag. There is no telling how that option would have worked out.
“The temperature dropped to 32 below that night,” he said. Johnson was carrying a bag rated to 25 below; he was wet;and his energy reserves were drained. At best, he would have suffered through a cold night. At worst….
“Amy’s amazing,” Johnson said. “She saved me life.
“She told me to get back on the bike. She told me to keep pedaling. She was a drill sergeant.”
When Johnson would wobble off the trail and want to quit, Breen would order him to get back on his bike and keep pedaling.
“I’d be going a little ways and then I’d start weaving here and there, and get off the trail” into soft snow, he said. He’d have to stop, but as soon as he did Amy was on him.
“She was like, ‘you’re going to ride this,'” Johnson said. “She got me into Rohn. She rallied people there. They get out me out of my wet boots and gear and into a sleeping bag. I ate a bratwurst, and I passed out. I don’t remember anything after that.
“Much of what I know is what other people told me later.”
Those boots that were taken off didn’t really just come off. They sort of had to be chopped off and his socks came with them. The socks were frozen solidly to the boots. Johnson’s feet were blocks of ice.
“They borrowed some down booties from another racer and put chemical heat packs in them,” Johnson said. Kevin Robbins, a longtime Invitational volunteer known as Oh-E to all his friends, spent the night rotating fresh heat packs inside the booties to thaw Johnson’s feet.
Johnson slept through it all. Amazingly, he escaped with only minor damage.
“My toes are still numb,” he said Friday. “They were definitely bleach white when I got into Rohn…(but) there doesn’t seem to be any serious damage at all.”
Johnson actually thought about continuing the race for the last 125 miles across the rolling hills and old burns of the Post River country on the way to Sullivan Creek and finally the village of Nikolai, then along the Kuksokwim River to McGrath.
But that turned out to be impractical. When Johnson finally woke up, Robbins informed him that although Johnson’s boots had been sitting next to a hot woodstove all night, they still weren’t dry. And ahead on the trail to Nikolai, the temperature was 35 degrees below zero with a headwind.
“Kevin said, ‘It’s your decision,” Johnson recalled. “I scratched at that point.”
Amy pedaled on.
“I’m an incredibly lucky man,” Johnson said. “If Amy hadn’t been with me to help get out of the water, and if she hadn’t been with me on that last five miles to Rohn, I don’t know what would have happened. I just wanted to lay down.
“Amy? She was heroic. It was cold, and it was windy, and she was tired. But once she realized the situation, all of her focus was getting me to Rohn, getting me safe.”
The ride he thought he could do in three hours turned out to take about twice that long.
“It was like 6 hours to get into Rohn,” he said. “You think, ’20 miles,’ and you think, ‘In great conditions and great weather how fast can I go 20 miles?”
On a road bike on good pavement in good weather on a trail trending downward along a river, a decent cyclist can pretty easily cover the distance in less than an hour. At 20 degrees below zero on marginal trail into a 15 mph headwind on a fat-tired bike?
“I couldn’t begin to go 7 mph,” Johnson said “I was wildly optimistic.”
A former Fairbanks resident whose known bitter cold, a cyclist who has covered hundreds of miles in the Alaska wilderness, a veteran of the 2016 Invitational, Johnson found himself a little humbled by this year’s experience.
“We live in Alaska,” he said “We bike out here. We feel like this is our home court.”
But there are dangers one can never ignore.
“If not for a decision that seemed pretty innocuous, I’d still be biking out there,” Johnson said, “but then the ice broke, and the game completely changed.”
Up until that very moment, Johnson thought he had everything pretty well worked out. The 3 a.m. departure from The Perrin’s Rainy Pass Lodge at Puntilla Lake out into the broad sweep of the Happy River valley on the way to Ptarmigan Pass had gone so well.
“We kind of nailed it,” he said. “Most of the time the winds weren’t too bad. It was cold but were able to ride most of the trail to Ptarmigan. We weren’t pedaling fast, but we were pedaling.”
The night was crystal clear. There was, in Johnson’s words, a “beautiful aurora” dancing in the sky overhead as he and Breen made the big jog south from the Happy Valley into Ptarmigan Valley on the way to Hellsgate.
They were doing way better than the three groups that had tried in daylight the day before only to be driven back to Puntilla by winds and blowing snow. The drop through Hellsgate – a narrow cleft in the mountains used by the Iron Dog snowmachine race but not normally by the Invitational (Rainy Pass is shorter) – was spectacular.
After that, it should have been an easy ride into Rohn, and it was until it wasn’t.
“And that’s a pretty lonely place to be,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to go forward. There’s no turning back. It doesn’t seem like a long ways away until it’s a long ways away.”
Johnson was left beaten but unbowed. He plans to return to Alaska’s toughest Iditarod race. He wants another crack at Hellsgate and the Southfork.
“I can’t leave it unfinished,” he said. “Hardly anybody has done that. We made it a long way on a really challenging trail in really challenging conditions.
“We haven’t seen a real winter in Alaska for a couple years now. This was legit. People are stacked up in Rohn right now. I think people are just scared out of their wits to move. The wall tent (where racers sleep) was filled with people who were scared to go out in that cold.”
Twenty-four of the 80 people who started the Invitational on Sunday had scratched by Friday. A few had come down with a virus that was going around, but others were finding the conditions a little more than they thought they could handle.
There were good reasons to be fearful. The cold can kill. It killed an experienced Alaska snowmachiner alone on a solo trip across the Interior wilderness earlier this winter. It can kill anyone who fails to pay attention when things start to go wrong. The Invitational is not a walk in Central Park.
Johnson knows intimately now how small the margins. He’s happy to be back in civilization for the moment.
“I’m feeling better now that I’m home and showered up,” he said. “It’s amazing how a simple thing like a hot shower can feel like manna from heaven.”