Two feet and a hand gone to frostbite, 61-year-old Italian Roberto Zanda can only wish he had been endurance racing in the safety of Alaska’s Iditarod warmth this year instead of the brutal cold of the Yukon Territory, Canada.
Zanda stands now as a testament to the risks of depending too much on technology and overlooking too easily the dangers of extreme cold in the far north in these times of climate change. It is fine to worry about global warming, but it is foolish to overlook the ancient chill.
It can maim, and it can kill.
Last winter, cold of 50- to 60-degrees below zero in the Alaska Interior north of Yukon River claimed the life of 27-year-old Travis Loughridge. He was a Bush savvy young man on a 700-mile snowmachine ride from Shugnak, a village of about 260 people on the Kobuk River in Northwest Alaska, to Fairbanks.
This winter, cold has nearly killed several adventure racers on the Iditarod Trail in Alaska and on the Yukon Quest trail just across the border in Canada. That they all lived has been but a matter of degrees and technology.
Technology did not serve Loughridge well. Though he grew up experienced in the ways of the Alaska wild, he motored into trouble on a now-little-used trail through the Purcell Mountains. The trail was buried deep in snow atop alders bent over by a December ice storm, creating a perfect snowmachine trap.
Loughridge got his state-of-the-art Skidoo Summit X stuck several times and dug it out. The belief is that in the process, he overheated – something easy to do in heavy arctic gear when working hard even at 50-degrees-below – and got wet from sweat – a dangerous state of affairs.
Eventually, those who found his body said, he piled up some willow branches and tried to start a fire. Why he failed is unclear. He was hauling extra gasoline he could have poured on the brush.
It’s possible he just wasn’t thinking clearly. The cold can do that to a man. As some point, Loughridge rolled out a blanket and laid down to rest. He never woke up.
Fifty degrees warmer
Just days ago, two back-of-the-pack mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ended up stuck along a trail only about 40 miles east of Nome. The first of them, 77-year-old Dr. Jim Lanier from Chugiak, was ill when he left White Mountain, the race’s penultimate checkpoint, in the company of friend Larry Daugherty from Eagle River, another Iditarod musher.
The plan, as the younger and fitter Daugherty later outlined on his Facebook page, was that Lanier “would leave first, then I would run sweep as we’d done from Elim to White Mountain. For me, the race had become focused on seeing Jim cross the finish line. He’s the guy who got me into mushing and taught me everything I’d need to know about being an Alaskan man.”
The plan, unfortunately, went awry. Lanier’s team was faster than Daugherty’s. The men became separated. By the time, they dropped down out of the Topkok Hills into the Iditarod-famous Solomon blowhole, they’d lost contact.
“Winds were strong, visibility close to zero. I literally could not see my lead dogs or the trail markers. I could only barely see three pairs of dogs ahead,” Daugherty wrote. “Had to have total trust in Tytee & Ambler, who handled it like total bosses and actually sped up. We had been going only 6-6.5 mph, then we hit the blowhole and while terrifying to me, they literally seemed to be enjoying the challenge and sped up….
“We had to stop a couple times and when we stopped, Tytee would just roll around playfully on her back and want me to pat her tummy. This in howling winds and horizontal blowing snow whiteout with wind so loud I couldn’t hear myself talking.”
Daugherty expected to get word at Safety Roadhouse, the last checkpoint before Nome, that Lanier had checked in and had gone on down the trial. That was not to be the case, however.
“I learned Jim had not checked in. I could not believe I passed him somehow,” Daugherty wrote. “I was physically sick thinking of the possibilities.”
What had happened was that Lanier’s dogs came down out of the Topkoks onto the barrier islands that separate Safety Sound from the Bering Sea and veered left. That put them on the wrong side of the narrow band of land.
A veteran of 19 Iditarods hoping to finish his 20th, Lanier recognized his team had lost the trail and tried to lead the dogs back. Sick and tired, he floundered in snow unusually deep for the area and battled driftwood along the beach.
His sled got hung up. He exhausted himself and never made it back to the trail. Sometime during this ordeal, Daugherty went past on the trail just north of Lanier.
Scott Janssen, a 56-year-old musher from Anchorage and an old friend of Lanier’s, found the older man about 4:30 a.m. Janssen stopped to help, but he couldn’t get Lanier and his team back on the trail again.
Why Janssen didn’t just tell Lanier to hop in his sled and haul the other musher about 20 miles down the trail to Safety is unclear, but he didn’t. The two men ended up parked and huddling together behind one of their sleds in a howling a wind.
A trio of fat-tire cyclists headed for Nome found them there at about 6:45 a.m. with Janssen then too cold to dial his satellite phone and a sick Lanier largely unresponsive. The cyclists helped Janssen call his wife on the phone, and pushed the button on an Iditarod signaling device to summon rescue.
Fifteen minutes later, according to a statement from Iditarod Trail Committee, a rescue operation was underway. Janssen and Lanier were eventually hauled to Safety by snowmachine and flown to Nome by helicopter.
Everyone was lucky, “it wasn’t very cold,” Jay Cable, one of the cyclists said later. He put the temperature at 4 degrees.
For staying with Lanier to see that he was safe, Janssen was later recognized by his fellow mushers with the Iditarod’s Sportsmanship Award. Both men escaped the incident without injury, but they were lucky the weather was by northern standards mild.
It was 50 to 55 degrees colder when Zanda wandered off the course of the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra in early February, and he was missing for about six times as long.
Joe O’Connor and Vanessa Hrvatin at Canada’s National Post have written an excellent story about what happened to Zanda and the debate now raging just across the Alaska-Canada border about how to handle the dangers of adventure racing in the north.
At the time it was written, Zanda was facing the possible loss of both feet and both hands to frostbite. As this is written, Italian media report his feet have been amputated along with one hand.
“We are evaluating the situation in the hands with some reconstructive surgery teams to preserve as much as possible,” of Zanda’s doctors told Sports Mediaset of Italy. “On the left hand we will probably be able to save the palm and the phalanx of the thumb, an unimaginable result at the beginning.”
Zanda, like Janssen and Lanier, was equipped with a satellite tracking device that enabled him to send a signal for help, but his fingers were so cold he couldn’t use it, and no one came along to help.
Still, the biggest difference between Zanda and the mushers was not technology or assistance, but the cold itself. The extreme cold clouded Zanda’s thinking before it maimed him.
“…. Zanda made a near fatal decision,” O’Connor and Hrvatin wrote, “abandoning his sled, SPOT tracker and belongings on the trail, and doing as the man in the dark glasses — a hypothermia-induced hallucination — had told him to do: heading into the forest in search of a cabin that wasn’t there. At some point, he became stuck in a snowdrift, freeing himself by removing his shoes and socks. He faded in and out of consciousness, spoke with the ‘shadows,’ resolved not to die — and appealed to God to save him.”
Although the reporters describe Zanda’s action as a “decision,” it likely wasn’t. He would appear to have gone beyond the point of thought. Hypothermia, loss of body heat, does that to people.
Irrational behavior starts when the body core temperature drops to between 95 and 93 degrees, according to Princeton University. And another phenomenon often follows, taking off your shoes, socks and pants. This has been described as “paradoxical undressing.”
“The reason for the paradoxical undressing is not yet clearly understood,” writes pathologist Markus Rothschild. “There are two main theories discussed. One theory proposes that the reflex vasoconstriction…(gives) rise to the sensation that the body temperature is higher than it really is, and, in a paradoxical reaction, the person undresses. The other theory says that it seems to be the effect of a cold-induced paralysis of the nerves in the vessel walls that leads to a vasodilatation giving an absurd feeling of heat.”
Zanda would have died if Yukon Ultra organizers hadn’t noted the satellite tracker he was required by rule to carry showed that he had stopped on the trail. They set off at daylight to investigate.
“When race volunteers finally found him late the next morning, he was half dead from the cold, his bare feet and hands blackened with fourth-degree frostbite,” the National Post reporters wrote.
The ITI is a fat-bike and foot race for 350 miles over the Alaska Range from Knik to McGrath. Scott Hoberg from Duluth, Minn. was in the lead when he was overwhelmed by a lack of sleep. He started hallucinating while on the last leg of the trail, decided he was lost between the village of Nikolai and McGrath, and several times turned around.
He spent almost half-a-day wandering lost along a stretch of trail only about four miles long. At one point, he turned north off the trail and went looking for an old trail on the Kuskokwim River.
His brain was so fogged, he said, that he thought at times the GPS tracking device he had with him was getting north and south backwards. It wasn’t. His brain, compromised by fatigue and cold, was getting things backward.
Eventually, Hoberg was rescued.
The difference between him and Zanda? About 60 degrees in air temperature and five to eight degrees in body temperature. Because Hoberg managed to keep moving in 10 degree temperatures the whole time he was lost, he never went hypothermic or suffered frostbite.
Had it been 50 degrees colder, he admitted later, things could have turned out a lot worse.
“The old-timers in Alaska have a saying that “travelling at 50° below is all right as long as it’s all right,” Hudson Stuck in the book 10,000 Miles with a Dog Sled in 1914. “If there be a good trail, if there be convenient stopping-places, if nothing go wrong, one may travel without special risk and with no extraordinary discomfort at 50 degrees below zero and a good deal lower. I have…made a short day’s run at 62 degrees below, and once travelled for two or three hours on a stretch at 65 degrees below.
“But there is always more or less chance in travelling at low temperatures, because a very small thing may necessitate a stop, and a stop may turn into a serious thing. At such temperatures one must keep going.
“No amount of clothing that it is possible to wear on the trail will keep one warm while standing still. For dogs and men alike, constant brisk motion is necessary; for dogs as well as men—even though dogs will sleep outdoors in such cold without harm—for they cannot take as good care of themselves in the harness as they can when loose.
“A trace that needs mending, a broken buckle, a snow-shoe string that must be replaced, may chill one so that it is impossible to recover one’s warmth again. The bare hand cannot be exposed for many seconds without beginning to freeze; it is dangerous to breathe the air into the lungs for any length of time without a muffler over the mouth.”
Stuck, who later organized the first climb of the tallest mount in North America, lived much of his life on the trail in Alaska when the then-territory was a colder, harsher and wilder place than the state is today. Because Stuck lived that way, he understood the land better than many of the adventures who head out on the northern trails today.
The difference between Stuck’s life then and the way most people live now has set both some race directors and some racers to wondering about risks.
Lanier, who has spent a long time in Alaska, sounds a lot like Hoberg, who has spent little time in Alaska, when he says, “if I hadn’t been extracted, I would have died.”
Technology has made the northern trails safer, but it might also have contributed to making them more dangerous. The seeming safety net of technology changes the way people behave.
Loughridge got into trouble because he had a snowmachine that could go just about anywhere in winter. Zanda left a checkpoint in the Yukon because he thought the SOS button on his tracker offered him some protection. Hoberg rushed out of Nikolai when he really wanted to stay and get some sleep because satellite trackers on other ITI competitors told him they were catching up. And Janssen camped out along the Iditarod Trail with Lanier because he figured technology would allow him to call for help if things got too bad for the two men.
And it did. But it was close.
CORRECTION: An early version of this misspelled Roberto Zanda’s last name and said his satellite tracker showed that he had wandered off the trail. It didn’t. It showed he stopped on the trail.