Commentary

Idit-a-fable

fableCommentary

This story has been updated

The Washington Post used to a be a newspaper you could respect, or at least I could. My journalism career began in the Watergate era when the Post was run by the late editor Ben Bradlee, a stickler for facts.

The Post today?

Well today the Post sometimes seems like so many other news organizations out there happy to just make shit up if the story gets better in the process. Case in point?

Alaska’s own Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

In an effort to dramatize what happened on the trail last week, the Post’s Kyle Swenson, hopefully not even a remote relative of five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson, writes this of mushers Scott Janssen and Jim Lanier:

“…The two were trapped last week in a subzero blizzard in the Alaskan wilderness…. Both then were pinned by 50 mph wind gusts that would cripple cities in the Lower 48 states. Snow as fine as desert sand stung their eyes. Frostbite and hypothermia crept up their fingers and toes.”

To start with, the temperature wasn’t subzero, and they weren’t really trapped. They were stalled by dogs that didn’t want to go for whatever reasons. And nothing was creeping anywhere.

It was 4 degrees, according to fat-tired cyclist Jay Cable of Fairbanks who eventually sent the satellite signal that alerted authorities they needed to go get Janssen and Lanier. A remote weather station at a cabin a couple of miles away from the site of the rescue had the temp bouncing between 5 and 9 degrees, but let’s go with Cable’s report from the scene.

“It was a good thing it wasn’t very cold,” he said.

Where Swenson got the 50 mph wind from is anyone’s guess. Phil Hofstetter, a cyclist with Cable, estimated the winds were blowing 40 mph. Hofstetter lives in Nome and is familiar with the area. The remote weather station at Johnson’s Camp, which records both temperatures and wind speeds, at the time showed winds up to about 30.

So the wind was probably in the range of 30 to 40. This might not seem like much if you’ve been caught in 70 or 80 mph winds on Alaska’s Mount Denali, but in parts of the country 30 mph is enough to warrant a high-wind warning.

If you watch Cable’s video, and you’ve never dealt with these kinds of conditions, they look hellacious. Forty mph with sideways blowing snow and a temperature of 5 degrees might indeed cripple some cities in the Lower 48, but certainly not all.

Such conditions would likely scare anyone lacking Alaska experience who found themselves dropped on the Iditarod Trail miles from the nearest shelter. But for someone who lives in the Front Range Chugach Mountains, they look sort of normal.

Up here above Alaska’s largest city, the winds go over 40 mph, sometimes gusting up to 100, a little too much for some. They move away. Others adapt. Such conditions are not particularly threatening for those experienced and prepared for them.

As old Iditarod veteran Rod Perry noted, the conditions this year weren’t close to the 50/50 storm that hit the second Iditarod high in the Alaska Range. It was called the 50/50 storm for the 50-degree-below-zero temperature and the 50 mph winds. Those are truly life-threatening conditions off the edge of the National Weather Service’s windchill chart, which ends at minus-98. 

Suffice to say, the Bering Sea coast conditions for this Iditarod were nowhere near so bad. Cable, Hofstetter and Kevin Brientbach from Fairbanks couldn’t ride their fat bikes loaded with winter survival gear, but they had no problems pushing them through 20 miles or more of this kind of weather, and shooting some video when they paused along the trail.

No frostbite, no hypothermia

They suffered no frostbite or hypothermia. Neither Janssen nor Lanier needed treatment for frostbite or hypothermia after being hauled to Nome, either. At 4 degrees with 40 mph of wind, the National Weather Service puts the windchill – the comparative temperature of still air on bare skin – at 23.2 degrees below zero. 

Cold, but not deadly cold. And, of course, if one is hunkered down behind a dogsled spooning with someone else for warmth, the shelter from the wind and the shared body heat makes it warmer.

Lanier is lucky Janssen was there with him. It a commendable act to bivouac, huddle and spoon with a sick friend whose dog team is stalled along the trail and refuses to go on. The Iditarod gave Janssen its Sportsmanship Award for his effort.

Lanier was a 77-year-old man sick with bronchitis, exhausted from trying to free a stuck dogsled, and tired enough he did think he might he die there, or might as well die there. I know that feeling. I was once so sick in the Rohn cabin along the Iditarod Trail I just wanted to die there. I was also thankful others were keeping the cabin’s stove stoked because it was 40 degrees below zero outside.

It is good to have friends in Alaska, or at least people who would rather you not die on their watch.

Janssen, a mortician from Anchorage, was younger and fitter than his old friend, a pathologist from Chugiak, an Anchorage suburb. Janseen was also nervous about getting rescued, something that had happened in several of his prior Iditarods, and that complicated the situation.

Janssen suffered what the New York Times called a “harrowing ordeal” in 2014  when he hit his head and had to be rescued from the Farewell Lakes country on the north slope of the Alaska Range. The next year Janssen, in his words, “almost froze to death outside of Koyuk,” and had to be rescued.

Given that Janssen for some reason or another was forced to drop out of every Iditarod he’d entered since 2012, it was understandable that he wanted to avoid being labeled the Iditarod’s most-rescued musher. So as he said in a 13-minute videotape interview with KTVA-TV, the official television station of the Iditarod, he called his wife, Debbie,  in Nome and asked her to go tell Iditarod he was with Lanier, and that they had a problem  and could use some help.

“I’d called Debbie, and I’d called her up…and said, ’cause I’m not going to call Iditarod and ask for help. I’m not going to push my SOS button,” he told KTVA.com.

That call was placed sometime well before the cyclists arrived on the scene at about 6:45 a.m. Friday. By the time they got there, the situation had deteriorated.

“I asked (Janssen) if he wanted me to push the (rescue) button,” Cable said. “He didn’t want to get in trouble.”

But Janssen eventually decided the time had come, and told Cable to push it. Why?

Because the non-rescue rescue Scott had talked to Debbie about had yet to bring help. Why that didn’t happen is unclear. Iditarod left all of this out of its telling of the story, which starts with a 7 a.m alert that the two mushers “had requested emergency assistance due to weather conditions near an area between the checkpoints of White Mountain and Safety known as ‘the Blowhole’….A search
and rescue team was immediately notified and then a plan was put in place.”

And whatever happened prior to 6:45 really doesn’t matter much because the reality then was that Cable, Hofstetter and Brietenbach – none of whom are mentioned in the Post story – arrived on the scene to find a troubling situation.

Cable had to push the SOS button, and Hofstetter had to dial the phone for Scott to call Debbie again because Scott’s fingers were too cold to push buttons.

Loss of finger dexterity is a common and well-studied problem in the cold. Anyone who has spent much time in the Alaska wilderness has experienced it, especially if they’ve been sitting long and blood flow is limited. The solution is to get up, get moving and swing your arms to move some fresh, warm blood into the fingers.

But if there’s someone there with warm fingers, it’s a lot easier to have them do the button pushing rather than spend time trying to get your own fingers working. Scott certainly had cold fingers, but cold fingers are a long way from frostbite.

It’s clear in the KTVA video he doesn’t have frostbite, which leaves patches of dead, black skin. His fingers are unblemished as is his nose, which is one of the easiest parts of the body to frostbite, especially in strong cold winds. (Trust the voice of foolish experience here.)

But “cold fingers” don’t sound nearly as ominous as frostbite and hypothermia creeping up fingers and toes.

Should be versus is

Likewise “huddled together in a sleeping bag” sounds a lot better than sitting on a sleeping bag, which is what Janssen and Lanier were doing when the cyclists found them.

Why would two guys in trouble in the cold be sitting on a sleeping bag? Well, it might have had something to do with two mushers wearing Arctic gear and not wanting to get out if it because they were expecting snowmachines to arrive shortly to help them get rolling.

And imagine trying to get two big guys in Arctic gear and heavy boots into a mummy bag. Good luck with that.

The physical limitations would explain why they were on the bag and not in it. And Lanier’s condition, which Swenson somehow fails to mention, explains how they got into the predicament in which they were in. Well, that and Janssen’s reluctance to call for a rescue until a rescue truly was necessary.

As Lanier said of his condition when he left White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint, “I was sick to begin with. I knew if I got in trouble, I wouldn’t have been able to get out of it.”

He took a dangerous gamble. It went south. He almost didn’t get out of it. He owes thanks to Janssen, who huddled with him to help him stay warm, and to the cyclists who finally dialed up the full-on rescue.

Cable and Hofstetter, the fully functional people out in the storm, succinctly summarized the situation.

“The one guy wasn’t responding,” Cable said. That would be Lanier.

The other guy “kept saying, ‘I’m not leaving Jim,” Hofstetter said. “‘I’m not leaving Jim.’ He kept saying it over and over again.”

Thankfully Janssen didn’t leave. Who knows what might have happened if he had. His body heat and banter – which Swenson apparently got right (maybe because it was about politics and Trump, the favorite Post subject of the day?) – were likely life-saving aids to Lanier.

But Swenson’s story about what happened to the two men on the Iditarod trail?

Part truth. Part pure bullshit:

“The two mushers worked to untangle Lanier’s dog lines. But Janssen was not dressed for hefting around in the cold. Earlier in the race, he had shipped his heaviest parka home, anticipating a quick final run to the finish line. As he worked to free Lanier’s sled from a piece of driftwood….all the effort to get the sled ready to run had caked Janssen in sweat, which quickly froze on his body.”

How many things can you find wrong in just that one paragraph? First, Janssen is underdressed, because he sent his big parka home, and then he’s overdressed, because that’s the only way one can work up a “sweat.”

Which, of course, “froze on his body.” How cold do you think your skin has to be before sweat freezes on your body? Is it even possible?

Water could freeze over full-on frostbite which is, by definition, frozen flesh. But once the skin starts to freeze it can’t sweat. So how do you drive sweat through frozen skin to get it to freeze on your body?

Consider this your physiological dilemma for the day.

Usually, too, your sweat is soaked up by your first layer of clothing, which is then damp, which makes you cold. But in Post world, it apparently freezes on your skin.

The best-case scenario to explain all this nonsense and hyperbole is that Swenson was simply too lazy to Google the information already available before writing his story and knew just enough about the outdoors to make up the parts of the story he didn’t bother to ask about or research, like huddling in that sleeping bag.

Most of the information was, however, out there in the tubes. You could look up the weather conditions. The KTVA interview with Janssen was easy to find. If a reporter did a little Googling, it was even possible to locate the names of the cyclists.

Maybe even find out that they weren’t competitors in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as Swenson writes, but in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a separate event.

This the best-case scenario.

The worst-case scenario is that Swenson did what Jack London used to do: He took fragments from a news report and wove them into a chilling tale about survival in the north. That would certainly justify leaving the cyclist out. I mean, if there are some bicyclists puttering on down this trail in this weather, how bad can it be?

London was a master at finding information in newspaper reports of his time and fashioning really good stories. He also labeled his work – no matter how truth based – what it was: Fiction.

Sadly such honesty has gone out of fashion. There is today a wide range of truth, half-truth and made-up-bullshit blended together as “news.” Couple that to what is an error-plagued business to begin with and you get what journalism has become and why so few trust it.

It would be a significant improvement to go back to the days when the problem was simple reporting errors. They happen.  I made a big one the other day in saying a Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra satellite tracker showed a frozen hiker straying off the trail for that event when it fact the tracker showed him stopped on the trail for a long time.

Straying off would be an immediate sign of trouble at 50 degrees below zero. Stopped could mean he was just taking a nap, raising no real cause for concern. There’s a key difference. In the first case, help probably should be sent immediately. In the second, it might be reasonable to wait for morning.

The great thing about the internet is that it is now so easy to fix a mistake and write a correction explaining the present story is different from the original version. The Post, however, doesn’t do this. It would still have you believe a moose once gave birth in a Lowe’s hardware store parking lot in Anchorage even though that didn’t happen. 

When there is a pattern like this, a obvoius question needs to be asked:

Are people letting the desire to tell a great story interfere with the obligation to tell the truth?

I have little doubt that Ben Bradlee, were he alive today, would have no problem figuring out what happened in the Swenson case and doing something about it. Unless, of course, he’d joined the new wave and decided he should offer Janet Cooke her old job back.

She was disgraced when they took away that Pulitzer Prize because she made things up. Nobody gave her much credit for telling a good story. She’d probably be a star if she was in journalism today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 replies »

  1. “It is good to have friends in Alaska, or at least people who would rather you not die on their watch.”………ain’t that the truth……well said Craig…….

    Like

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