When cyclist Jim Ishman pushed through Ptarmigan Pass in the Alaska Range this week, he got a taste of the polar opposite of his home back in Fruita, Colo. There on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains, the temperature was a little above 40 degrees.
And in the mountains that form the heart of the cold, dark north, the temperature was a little below 40 degrees – minus 40 degrees that is.
“Wind was brutal over Hellsgate,” he texted from the Interior village of McGrath on Saturday . “I saw minus-43 on my Garmin” GPS.
A veteran of the 2016 Iditarod Trail Invitational, Ishman seemed to be relishing the brutal reality of this far north winter.
“Nipped my fingers changing a flat at minus-30 something,” he said. “This year is what I signed up for. Last year was not representative of what the race should be.”
The 2016 Invitational came in the middle of a shocking, 14-month run of above normal temperatures in the 49th state. Cyclists last year found themselves pedaling across the usually frigid Interior in shirt sleeves.
More than 75 percent of the people who entered the human-powered ultramarathon open to cyclists, runners and skiers (although almost no one skis anymore) finished. Aided by good trail and warm weather, Winner Tim Berntson made it the 350 miles to McGrath, the race within the race, in a time of less than two days.
Women’s winner Heather Best wasn’t far behind in a time of just under 2 days, 10 hours. In all, 13 fat-tired cyclists made it to McGrath in under 3 days.
Real winter returns
This year’s winner, Jay Petervary from Idaho, took 3 days, 3 hours and 29 minutes. Only five cyclists made it to McGrath in under four days. The Invitational, long the toughest of Iditarods, was living up to that label.
Thirty-three of 80 race starters had scratched by Saturday. Six and a half days into the race, only 19 people had made McGrath. Last year, the race was almost over by day six and a half. Only five people were still on the trail.
As this is written, there are still 21 people on the trail, more than have finished.
“It’s been a hell of a race,” said Invitational trail boss Bill Merchant, a man whose spent more time in the old, cold Alaska than what looked for a time to be the new warm, blob-influenced Alaska.
Only last fall, Alaskans were still talking about the possibility of the Seattle-like weather in the state’s largest city being the “new norm,” and now, well, the new norm appears to be the old norm.
The climate experts say the planet is continuing to warm, but Alaska winter 2016-17 has been going the opposite direction. Sine the long warming trend broke in November, the one word for the weather has generally been “cold.”
December was three degrees colder than normal in the state’s largest city. January was three and a half degrees colder. February improved – or deteriorated, depending on your point of view – to one and a half degrees colder. March, so far, is 2.6 degrees below normal.
Some, like Ishman and Merchant, are relishing the Alaska cooling. They have Jack Londonesque visions of the north floating around in their heads.
“This is meant to be intimidating,” Merchant said of the Invitational. “This is real. This is not for the faint of heart. It’s not for people who see some pictures on Facebook.
“If it was easy, why would you want to do it?”
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts Monday in Fairbanks, has trademarked itself as “The Last Great Race.” It likes to point out how more people have successfully climbed Mount Everest than have made it to Nome behind a dog team.
The Iditarod is hard. It usually runs about 1,000 miles from Willow, a wide-spot in the road north of former Gov. Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, to the City of the Golden Sands on the edge of the Bering Sea. The real start (there is a ceremonial start in Anchorage) was, however, moved to Fairbanks this year because the historic trail is too rough.
The Invitational follows the historic trail for 350 miles from Knik, an old port at the very head of Cook Inlet, to McGrath before pushing on for the full 1,000 miles to Nome.
The real “race” in the Invitational race ends on the banks of the Kuskokwim River at McGrath. Few humans are actually up to keeping the hammer down to race the full distance to Nome. But some do go on from McGrath.
Since the year 2000, 58 ITI competitors – 39 cyclists, 15 runners/hikers and four skiers – have successfully completed the 1,000-mile journey.
More than 60 Iditarod mushers are expected to reach Nome this year. Almost 600 people made the summit of Everest last year. Everest stands alone only because of the risk of dying. Five people died there last year.
No one has, to date, died in any of the Iditarod Trail races, though there have been close calls in the dog race; the Iron Dog, the world’s longest, toughest snowmobile race; the Invitational and it’s predecessor, the Iditasport.
There are now some people trying to revive the Iditasport. It’s founder, Dan Bull, once hoped that someone would die in that race. He thought a death might finally bring the event the kind of exposure it deserved.
(Full disclosure: This reporter and the late Richard Larson, a good friend of Bull’s at one time, got into more than a little trouble with the race organizer for rescuing two cyclists who had ventured out into Rainy Pass in a ground blizzard in the 1980s and were at legitimate risk of dying there.)
Extreme cold, especially when compounded by wind, is not something with which to trifle, a reality Alaskans seem to be learning all over again the hard way this winter after what might be considered the state’s mini-warming period.
So far, at least two rural Alaskans have been reported dead of hypothermia. One case, sadly, involved someone who had apparently been drinking. Too many premature deaths in Alaska involve people who have been drinking.
But the other involved a young man on an epic, solo snowmachine trip who it appears worked too hard trying to free his stuck snowmachine, over heated in his insulated Arctic gear, and then fell victim to hypothermia at 50 degrees below zero.
Along with the deaths, there have been rescues. A Talkeetna woman and her dog team had to be airlifted out of Denali National Park and Preserve earlier this week after they ended up trapped by snow, cold and wind.
Iris Vandenham headed up the Stampede Trail from near Healy on the north side of the park, trekked to the end of that old road, ignored the advice of guides for sleddog tours who told her it would be a bad idea to continue on to the Toklat River, and kept going into the park.
“It dumped that night and everyone went into slow motion,” Healy resident and veteran musher Will Forsberg texted. “The guided trip was able to continue back to their base on Stampede Road because they had good leaders. But Iris was pinned down.
“Several of us went out the Stampede on snowmachines when it quit blowing to see if she might have come back to the bus,” the Magic Bus made famous when the body of Chris McCandless was found inside.
“And right now two guides are trudging back in along the Park Road route, not on the road but a parallel route,” Forsberg added on Friday. “Their back trail is totally gone, and they just did the first leg of 17 miles in days of mushing and snow shoeing. Other dog teams are starting from Park HQ today on their regularly planned spring trip to Wonder Lake and another guided trip has gotten to Toklat river and will also help reestablish the ‘Park’ trails.
“Bottom line? We’ve all gotten spoiled by the hard fast trails we’ve had for the past 10 years. Some of the ‘guides’ here have never experienced a ‘normal’ Denali winter with average snow fall. So they didn’t mark the trails like we used to and Iris apparently didn’t even have snow shoes….”
There was a time when snowshoes were both vital and standard gear in Alaska.
“That same day we met a couple of Kobuk youths on their way to the Koyukuk, and they gave us the greatest gift it was in the power of man to give us a trail!” the late and legendary Hudson Stuck wrote in “Ten Thousands Miles with a Dog Sled.” Stuck lived in old, cold Alaska.
“There is no finer illustration of the mutual service of man to man than the meeting of parties going opposite ways across the unbroken snows,” he observed. “Each is at once conferring and receiving the greatest of favors, without loss to himself is heaping benefit on the other; is, it may be has often been saving the other, and being himself saved. No more hunting and peering for blazes, no more casting about hither and thither when open stretches are crossed; no more three times back and forth to beat the snow down twenty miles a day instead of ten or twelve the boys’ trail meant all of that to us. And our trail meant almost as much to them.
“So we were rejoiced to see them, sturdy youths of sixteen or seventeen, making the journey all by themselves. My heart goes out to these adventurous Kobuks, amiable, light-hearted, industrious; keen hunters, following the mountain-sheep far up where the Indian will not go; adepts in all the wilderness arts; heirs of the uncharted arctic wastes, and occupying their heritage. If I were not a white man I would far rather be one of these nomadic inland Esquimaux than any other native I know of.”
Stuck knew those Kobuks as the toughest people on the continent, and he was an heir to their legacy just as those who challenge the wilderness in the Invitational today are heirs to that legacy.
The old, cold Alaska was a tough place to survive. The new, warmer Alaska has gotten easier. Climate change might be bad for the planet, but there are advantages, too, in the globes high northern and southern latitudes. There is simply no doubt, as Iditarod Invitational competitors were reminded this year, that life is a lot easier at 30 degrees than at 30 degrees below zero.