The winds were starting in the high country when fat-tired cyclist Neil Beltchenko left the cluster of log buildings that is The Perrins Rainy Pass Lodge on the shore of Puntilla Lake on Monday afternoon.
About 18 miles north was the day’s main goal, a 3,160-foot high portal through the central Alaska Range. The founder of Bikepacker.com, the 30-year-old cyclist from Crested Butte, Colo. had come north for the second time looking for a big, Alaska adventure, and now he was about to get it.
The leader in the Iditarod Trail Invitational’s 350-mile race from the old port of Knik on Cook Inlet to the old gold-mining supply center of McGrath, Beltchenko was pedaling back into time.
Before the day was over, out in the heart of the Range in the dark and wind, clawing his way to the pass, he would get to dance with the specter of nothingness, of being all alone, of knowing there was no help if anything went wrong, of understanding that if he screwed up, or simply got unlucky, his race might be over.
“Going up to the pass was pretty scary,” he confessed.
But that is getting ahead of the story.
The ITI, like a similar race the Iditasport, is a journey back into a time free from most of the world as we know it on an everyday basis now. Racers start north from Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley where some people still like to think they’re living in the Bush even if they’re not.
In reality, the MatSu is part of the Anchorage Metropolitan Area now home to more than half of Alaska’s population. Some of the people who live here might find themselves a fair distance from Home Deport or the nearest McDonald’s, but for most of them it isn’t a long drive.
Going north, though, the world goes roadless and begins to change, though not as much as it once did. Technology has had its way with Alaska wilderness, too. The snowmachine of today is the motorcycle of the 1970s, and a snowmachine highway runs north these days for 90 miles from urbana to the census-designated place of Skwenta, a historic Iditarod Trail rest stop that grew into a community surrounding a Cold War radar station now long abandoned before shrinking once again.
On the snow-covered ice of the well-traveled Yentna River about 40 miles from the ITI start in Knik, Beltchenko – a guy competing in only his second ITI – caught defending and three-time race champ Jay Petervary and suggested to the Idaho rider he might be going out too fast. Petervary did not slow down.
Beltchenko chased him upriver to the Yentna Station Roadhouse, the first checkpoint on the trail, and kept chasing. The duo rolled into Skwentna together.
Petervary decided to take a break of a couple of hours in the warmth of the Skwentna Roadhouse. Beltchenko said he thought about resting, too. First, though, he ate and dried his wet gear, and then Anchorage’s Clinton Hodges III rolled in not far off Beltchenko’s pace.
Once Hodges arrived, Beltchenko said, “I just wanted to get out of there.”
By 2 a.m. Sunday – only 12 hours into the race – he was heading out into the big, snow-covered swamp north of Skwentna and then west into the Shell Hills on the climb to Shell Lake with Hodges chasing fast behind.
By Finger Lake – mile 130 on the Iditarod – Beltchenko was at the front of the race, and everyone else was chasing. Beltchenko rested and ate at the Winterlake Lodge, famous for its food, before dropping over the big hill that leads down to Red Lake and starting the steady climb through the frozen, snow-buried beaver pounds and swamps all the way to the Happy River.
He would spend just about the rest of the race all alone, seeing few other people.
“That hike-a-bike section,” as Beltchenko called it because the trail here almost always presents challenges, some good, some bad.
There is a fun, twisting descent down the steep drop to the Happy, a long push back up the other side much of the way to Shirley Lake, and then a steady climb through the spruce and some big, open muskegs all the way to Puntilla Lake.
By the time, Beltchenko got to Rainy Pass he was firmly in the ITI lead, but Petervary had clawed his way back into second, just barely, and both he and Hodges were only about 20 minutes back.
Beltchenko wanted to rest, but “oh man the wind was starting to pick up,” he said, “and there’s nothing to protect the trail” from blowing and drifting snow all the way to the top of Rainy Pass.
With the day still promising many hours of light, Beltchenko decided to press on while Petervary and Hodges opted for stay. Though no one knew it then, the race had just been decided. Petervary and Hodges would never catch Beltchenko again.
Bad trail from the lodge all the way to the pass would be fingered by Hodges, who said he and Petervary were forced to push nearly the whole distance of near 20 miles. The difference between pushing part of the way and pushing most of the way cost them about an hour and a half in time and a lot more in spirit.
Not that Beltchenko had some picnic out in the notoriously cold and windy of valley of the not-so-happy, Happy River.
When he left Puntilla Lake, he rode north through yet more frozen beavers ponds to the big hill up which every cyclist pushes to get onto the high benches that run all the way to the last crossing of the Happy River where the historic Iditarod Trail forks with one route turning west to Ptarmigan Pass and the other north to Rainy.
He found himself there in an every worsening storm.
Despite the wind and blowing snow, though, Beltchenko was able to ride a goodly part of the trail to the Happy, where the travel invariably gets bad if there is wind. North of the Happy, the trail was drifted over and hard to follow.
Beltchenko got of his bike and started pushing. His satellite tracker would later show him making but 2 1/2 to 3 mph for eight or 10 miles to the top of the pass. Beltchenko ground it out, struggling as the trail steepened and his worries about avalanches grew.
“Going up the pass was pretty scary,” he said. “There were a hand full of old snowmachine tracks (to follow). I’d fall off the track, and I’d be shoulder deep in snow.
“It must have been blowing 75 mph at the top. I couldn’t see a thing. I’d never been that scared, and I was tired and fatigued.”
Looking back, he would describe this as “an eventful and trying experience,” but in the moment it was also fundamentally simple.
He had no choice but to push on now. Nobody camps at the top of Rainy Pass. The weather discourages it. Beltchenko fought his way over the top, dropped down into the sheltered gullies of Pass Fork Creek, and bivouaced out for a couple of hours, thankful that he was alive.
He woke to enjoy what might have been the best part of his journey.
“After I could ride again,” he said, “it was really kind of fun. It was great fat biking. I’d say that was one of the highlights for sure.”
The roll down Pass Fork to Dalzell Creek and into the Dalzell Gorge, a stretch of trail that can be hell for dog drivers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, is a fat bike/mountain bike playground when the trail surface is bare of snow or firm, and in this case it was firm.
Beltchenko pedaled into the lonely outpost of Rohn, a small log cabin at the confluence of the Tatina and South Fork Kuskokwim rivers, a happy man. He’d been hitting speeds over 10 mph coming down the Dalzell and made a steady 6 or 7 mph along the icy surface of the Tatina into the checkpoint.
By then, he had a lead of about two hours in the race and thought the worst of the trail was behind him.
Only it wasn’t. The riding from Rohn north through the Post River country and on to the edge of the Farewell Lakes was good for about 20 miles, Beltchenko said, and then he met a pilot manning a checkpoint for the Iditasport – the other bike, run, ski race north on the Iditarod – who had bad news.
“He said, ‘I hate to break it to you, but there’s no trail ahead,” said Beltchenko, who rode only about five miles before finding that summary all too true. New snow and the wind shifting both new and old snow had made a mess of things.
The footing would be OK for pushing, he said, “and then you’d hit a drift, a foot, two-feet deep, sometimes waist deep.”
Where conditions were best, he could still push the bike. Where they were worst, he sometimes found himself dragging it, or lifting it and throwing it ahead and pulling himself up to it and then repeating the process.
“I was discouraged, of course,” he said, “but in Alaska you can’t just push the exit button.”
Yet again, Beltchenko was forced to grind it out. The 75 miles from Rohn to Nikolai, a lot of it across the flatlands of the Interior, took him about 20 hours, only four hours less than the 150-mile ride from Knik to Puntilla Lake with a steady 30 miles of climbing near the end.
Still, by Nikolai, at least, Beltchenko knew he was in control of the race. Space-age technology available at the remote checkpoint allowed him to pinpoint the competition.
“I saw the (satellite) trackers,” he said, “and I went to sleep.
“You never know in these races,” but Beltchenko now knew enough to recognize the race was his to lose.
By the time, Petervary and Hodges finally rolled in they were hours down and Hodges was battling bike issues. All Beltchenko had to do was stay awake long enough to cover the last 50 miles of what is usually pretty good trail between the tiny village of Nikolai and the small community of McGrath.
It was an interesting ride.
In the dark, having made do with only about six hours sleep over the course of three days, he started seeing all sorts of strange things in the beam of the headlight on his bike. Strange creatures moved across the edge of the beam. Objects appeared that were not there.
“I’ve dealt with this plenty of times in these ultra races before,” Beltchenko said. “It’s just like your mind is trying to trip you up. I just kept waiting for the sun to come up, and it was cold, too. Twenty below or colder.”
He thought about trying to break three days for a time in the 350-mile race to McGrath, but the trail was rough from the footsteps of a bunch of Iditasport hikers/runners, and with victory easily within reach it is always harder to put the hammer down for that extra push.
And by the time that sun finally came up on Wednesday, he knew he had the race one. Beneath bright skies, he pedaled into McGrath that afternoon to claim victory in a time of 3 days, 1 hour and 1 minute.
“I had a lot of fun,” he said, “and there was a lot of pain and suffering.”
Will he back to defend the title next year? He isn’t sure, but the only real prize for winning this race is a free entry for the next one.
“It’s something that’s definitely in the back of my mind,” Beltchenko said.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story had the Skwentna to Rainy Pass timeline wrong.