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Iditarod dangers

 

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Scott Hoberg after winning the Tuscobia Winter Ultra, an ITI qualifier/RM-Gear photo

Back home in Minnesota now with the memory of a near-death experience along the Iditarod Trail unlikely to fade for a long, long time, Scott Hoberg finds himself a man deeply humbled by Alaska’s vast, winter wilderness

And thankful to be alive. Very thankful.

“I’m fortunate things worked out the way they did,” he said over the telephone Thursday. “It all worked out OK. It could have been way worse. I could have lost fingers or toes….

“A lot of people thought maybe even the worst-case scenario.”

Travis Loughridge was the worst-case scenario. He was 27 years old, and despite his young age a veteran of the Alaska wilderness. His frozen body was found near his snowmachine along an old and now little-used trail between the villages of Shugnak and Huslia north of the Yukon River in January of last year.

His snowmachine had become stuck in deep snow. He’d tired himself and worked up a sweat trying to dig it out in temperatures near 60 degrees below zero. Fatigue and moisture made him susceptible to hypothermia, and that deadly lowering of his body core temperature claimed his life.

The 39-year-old Hoberg, a husband and father from Duluth, was lucky in more ways than one. The temperatures along the Iditarod Trail east of McGrath in early March never dipped below 10 degrees. He was fit enough and healthy enough that because he kept moving, even in a confused state, he never suffered serious hypothermia. A GPS tracking device he was carrying as well as cyclist in the Iditarod Trail Invitational Trail Race  alerted race officials he was in trouble.

And Billy Koitzsch of Anchorage – one of the organizers of the Iditasport – happened to be on the trail on a snowmachine hundreds of  miles north of his home and pitched in to help rescue Hoberg even though the Iditasport and the ITI are in a strange sort of unfriendly competition in the small world of Alaska winter endurance sports.

None of that altered the code of the trail, however. People take care of each other out there no matter what because every healthy person knows the one who is ailing could be them.

And the Alaska wilderness in winter shows no sympathy for the weak. None at all. It is as happy to kill you as to let you live.

One mistake

But now the author is getting ahead of a story that could be traced all the way back to Knik Lake just north of Alaska’s largest city but really starts in the tiny village of Nikolai along the Kuskokwim River north of the Alaska Range.

Up until that point, Hoberg, a veteran of Minnesota’s icy Arrowhead 135 and a number of other races, had been having the adventure of his life marching north along the Iditarod route.

“I was walking the whole way with a smile on my face,” he said. “The scenery is spectacular.”

All of which pretty well sums everything early on.

By Nikolai, Hoberg also happened to be leading the foot division of a race that has come to be dominated by fat-tire cyclists who on a few occasions have pedaled the 350-miles from Knik to McGrath in under two days, a time significantly faster than the dog teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (The first dog team this year took 2 days, 5 hours.)

Behind the fat-tired bikers, the folks on foot labor along at a slower pace and largely in anonymity, though there is a bit of recognition, if not fame, for the few who have won the ground-pounder division of the ITI.

Six-time foot winner Dave Johnston from Willow was featured in his old hometown newspaper, the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, in 2015 and got a shout out in a 2017 CNN story about “8 challenge vacations that’ll turn you into a superhuman.”

The ITI will not, unfortunately, turn anyone into a superhuman. It will not even attract enough attention to get you a beer sponsor no matter how fast you make it to McGrath.

What winning it will do is gain you a significant amount of respect among a hardcore group of athletes who run races of 50 or 100 miles or more, and even more respect among a tiny cadre of Alaska winter racers – bikers, hikers and Nordic skiers – who understand the potentially dangerous game everyone is playing on the Iditarod Trail in winter.

“When you hit that fine line,” Johnston once observed, “you’ve got to be very, very careful.”

All of which brings this tale back to Hoberg in Nikolai.

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The fine line

By the time Hoberg reached that struggling village of now fewer than 100 people, he’d gone about five days on maybe 10 hours of sleep, an average of about two hours per day.

There was an hour and a half at Skwenta, 90 miles in, he said, about three hours at Finger Lake, mile 130; maybe five hours at Puntilla Lake, mile 165, and “after that it was just kind of shiver bivies on the trail.”

The shiver-bivy (short for bivouac) works like this: A hiker lays down atop his or her sled load of survival gear, sleeps until awakened by the cold, and then starts hiking again to warm up.

Hoberg meant to take a break at Rohn in the heart of the Alaska Range at mile 200, he said, but it didn’t happen.

“You come into a checkpoint just a wreck,” he said, but by the time checkpoint chores are done – eating, drying gear, sorting through the drop bag to resupply the sled with snacks, fluids and headlamp batteries for the next leg of the journey – “it’s hard to settle down again.”

So instead of wasting time trying to sleep in the heated wall tent that serves as the ITI Rohn checkpoint, Hoberg headed out on a 100 mile stretch of trail through the desolation of the 56,000-arce Turquoise Lake burn and on into the regrowth forest of the old Farewell Burn and then out into the frozen swamps west of Sullivan Creek on the way to Nikolai.

The march took him 28 hours with only a few brief stops to shiver-bivy along way.

“I was just broken in Nikolai,” he said, but he went about the chores of hanging gear to dry and then sat down to eat. Someone handed him a juicy hamburger along with a Coke and started up a conversation, and Hoberg enjoyed that perfectly normal little boost that comes with reaching a checkpoint.

“And then,” Hoberg said, “someone popped open the computer.”

Technology is our friend right up until the time it’s not. Everyone knows it’s dangerous to look at text messages on the telephone when driving,  and yet untold people are no doubt doing that right now because they are unable to resist electronic temptation.

Hoberg was unable to resist electronic temptation. He looked at the computer to see where other ITI competitors might be.

What the computer told him was that Trackleaders.com, which follows the  GPS satellite trackers that all ITI racers are now required to carry, had Johnston and 2018 sidekick Gavin Woody from Bellevue, Wash., only a couple of hours back on the Iditarod Trail and closing fast on Nikolai.

The time was near midnight. Hoberg knew the two men would want to rest when they got to Nikolai, and they’d probably rest longer if they thought the race leader already gone on a march to a probable victory in McGrath.

Hoberg looked around the checkpoint. His gear was packed and ready to go. His shoes were dry.  He was tired, yes, but he’d been tired for days.

Otherwise, he said, “everything was fine.”

So he decided to hit the trail. He’d push on into the dark, and if he got too tired grab a shiver-bivy on the sled. He figured he’d only have to survive a tough eight hours or so at most.

“Once the sun comes up,” he said, “everything is always OK. Never in my mind did I think the train was going to get so far off the rails. I guess I just didn’t have the awareness.”

A bad decision

By Nikolai, the Iditarod veteran Johnston said, he was starting to have some worries about Hoberg, and they weren’t focused solely on the fact the Minnesotan might win the race.

“He just pushed so hard,” Johnston said. “Nobody said he got any sleep in any of the checkpoints. I guess he’s just a super competitive guy, but you just can’t do that.”

Johnston and Woody spent about six hours resting in the Nikolai community center. By the time they left, the sun was up, and they figured Hoberg was closing in on the McGrath finish line.

They never expected to run into him only about 20 miles down the trail.

“Oh my word,” Johnston said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. When we saw him about 100 yards ahead, we almost shit ourselves. I knew when we saw him, I just knew we had won the ITI.”

Still, Johnston’s first concern was with whether Hoberg was OK. Midway between Nikolai and McGrath is not a good place for an athlete to, as they say, “bonk.”

“We went up and talked to him,” Johnston said. “He wasn’t shivering. His skin color looked good. His sled was packed and ready to travel. He was just staring into the distance.”

When Woody tried to engage Hoberg in a conversation, Johnston said,  “he snapped at Gavin: ‘I’m fine. I’m just thinking.'”

And with that, Johnston and Woody decided it was better to just move along.

Other ITI competitors coming along behind later would find Hoberg’s gear scattered all over the trail, but all Johnston and Woody saw was a tired hiker in a bad mood.

“If I’d seen that (scatter), it would have been different,” Johnston said, but what he saw was a guy who didn’t want to be bothered, a guy maybe a little pissed off to have lost the race so close to the finish, a guy with whom it might be easy to get into an argument.

And an argument in the Alaska wilds, where people are regularly armed, is never a good idea. Johnston and Gavin decided to just beat it on down the trail figuring Hoberg would stumble on into McGrath behind them eventually.

Only he didn’t.

NeverNeverLand

Hoberg admits to strange thoughts during this time.

“I’d kind of started hallucinating prior to that meeting,” he said. “It was some really reflective stuff. It was thinking about life and my family and all of that.

“I remember some bikers came by and I talked to them: ‘You doing all right?’ ‘Yeah, doing great.’ And it all kind of fit in with the hallucination I was having. In hindsight, I probably should have latched onto one of them.

“I knew McGrath was a long way away, but I wasn’t sure I was supposed to get to McGrath. It was rather surreal.”

And then it started getting worse.

The trail from Nikolai to McGrath varies from year to year. Sometimes it follows the winding river. Sometimes it cuts across the swamps between the oxbows. ITI racers were on the swamp trail. Hoberg had a personal GPS with waypoints for the river trail.

Those waypoints told him he was lost.

“I started worrying,” he said. “That wasn’t helping any. My battery was low on my GPS (too). And I swear north and south were the wrong way.”

The latter is always a bad sign of a foggy brain starting to panic.

Hoberg was, as he put it “underfed, tired, dehydrated” and confused. He decided it would be unwise to keep going on a trail he didn’t know, so he turned around.

He soon hit a bend in the river. There he found the track of a fat bike. He followed it north along the winding river.

“There was deep snow in there,” he said, and eventually the bike track stopped. It became clear the biker had pushed out onto a river trail long unused and turned around. Hoberg did the same.

All the time he was just getting more confused.

“It wasn’t clear what route I should be on,” he said. At one point, he thought he got behind a biker or hallucinated getting behind a biker.

“I thought I remembered him from being lost before,” Hoberg said. The biker went up a riverbank into the some woods. Hoberg decided not to follow.

“It was kind of open in that area,”  he said. “I didn’t have the confidence to keep going on that trail.”

He remembers kind of “tracking back and forth along the riverbank wondering, ‘Is this a dream or is this real?'”

At one point, he said, “I thought I’d finished somehow, and I was thinking I was in the woods behind the hotel, and I was trying to figure out how to get home from there.”

“But then I thought, ‘I do not remember finishing. Why am I thinking that?’ Stuff was really starting to not add up.”

Thankfully for Hoberg, the math wasn’t working out in McGrath either. On arriving there, Johnston had gone to look at the computer to see how Hoberg was doing back on the trail.

That Hoberg was in trouble became obvious.

“When I saw his tracker, he was wandering around like a caged elephant,” Johnson said. “I said somebody needs to go check on him.”

About the same time, a cyclist who’d passed Hoberg’s gear abandoned on the trail arrived in McGrath with that scary news.

“What we heard made our stomachs sink,” Woody later wrote on his Facebook page. “He found Scott’s camelbak torn apart and his sled sitting in the middle of the trail, but no Scott. We could only assume the worst, given what had happened at the Yukon Artic Ultra in January: a racer became delirious from hypothermia, detached his sled (along with his Spot tracker), took off his shoes and gloves, and ran down the trail. He is now likely to lose both his feet and hands (https://www.outsideonline.com/…/yukon-arctic-ultra-claims-e…).”

Paradoxical undressing is a phenomenon often associated with hypothermia. Hoberg, luckily as it would turn out, never went hypothermic and never started undressing. He just got delusional and began abandoning gear.

Back in Minnesota, Hoberg’s parents had been watching the tracker and starting to worry as well.

“My parents, I think, just sort of lost their mind,” Hoberg said.

Saved

Hoberg believes that by the end he was starting to get his mind back, or at least some of it.

“I remember pretty much everything,” he said. “Things were starting to get more clear when I got picked up by the snowmobilers.”

By then, he said, he’d found a regularly used snowmachine trail, and he had the sense to realize that if you just keep going on a regularly used snowmachine trail in Alaska it will lead you somewhere or someone on a snowmachine will come along eventually.

“I was essentially just hitchhiking on the snowmachine trail” hoping for help to come along, said Hoberg, when Koitzsch arrived. Hoberg was never so happy to see someone even if the snowmachine ride to McGrath proved challenging.

“I was having a hard time staying awake once I got on the snowmachine,” Hoberg said, “and Billy kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to stay awake and hang on.'”

Koitzsch took Hoberg straight to the health clinic in McGrath. The Minnesotan didn’t stay there long. The health aide quickly determined there was nothing seriously wrong with the hiker other than fatigue – no hypothermia; no frostbite.

Hoberg had gone to the edge and come back intact. One of the obvious questions now is whether he’ll return  to Alaska to complete what he started.

He laughs when asked that question.

“People keep asking me that,” he said. “I don’t know. The course was amazing. Finger Lake to Rohn it was just amazing.

“I know it won’t be next year.”

The costs in time of training for a race like the ITI, not to mention the financial costs of equipping for the race and traveling to and staying in Alaska, are not insignificant, he noted.

He would like to have completed his first try at the race, he said, “but it’s hard to be disappointed to come home with all fingers and toes after this.”

Meanwhile, the incident has left more than a few rethinking the issues people face on the Iditarod Trail.

“In hindsight, we wouldn’t have done anything differently,” Woody, a West Point grad wrote. “He wasn’t hypothermic; he recognized us; and he was talkative. And maybe that is what makes this whole thing so scary—he did NOT have the warning signs of someone who was in a serious world of hurt…

“Obviously the sleep deprivation had put him so deep in ‘the hole’ that he couldn’t get out…and it made me reflect on the times I’ve put myself in the hole… I’ve never hit the tipping point that Scott did. But could it happen to me? I’m struggling with this. It reinforces how these long distance adventures, especially in extreme conditions, have very little margin for error.”

Correction: An early version of this story misspelled Scott Hoberg’s last name, and contained a photo of an RM-Gear teammate of Scott Hoberg, not Hoberg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 replies »

  1. Thanks for a great report. Usually, people who have ended up in that sort of state cannot recall their reasoning at all, much like trying to access memories about dreams. So this was very useful to read.

    Like

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