Outdoors

Alone in the wild

tim hewitt bundled

Tim Hewitt refills his water bottle along the Iditarod Trail/Craig Medred photo

The man seemingly unable to resist the call of that great “White Silence” of which the author Jack London long ago wrote was alone on the trail into the tiny community of Manley Hot Springs Tuesday evening on his way to Kotzebue and eventually Nome. 

Three days earlier, 65-year-old Tim Hewitt walked out of Fairbanks in 40-degree-below-zero temperatures pulling a sled-load of food and survival gear with friend Kevin Breitenbach observing that “I tried to get a good pic of him this evening but my camera died from the cold. Turns out Tim is not terribly sentimental about starting such an ambitious journey.”

Ambitious journeys have sort of come to define the lawyer from Latrobe, Penn. At age 61 in 2016, he covered 1,000 miles along the frozen Iditarod Trail at an average pace of about 50 miles per day to set a record of fewer than 20 days for the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) foot-race. 

By the time Hewitt reached Nome, his nose was scarred from frostbite. His feet were the shape and color of baking-size, red potatoes.  His toenails were all gone, and his toes were pocked by blisters just starting to heal.

As for his body, it was pretty well worn out. During a brief stop in Alaska’s largest city on his way home, he hunched and hobbled his way across an Anchorage restaurant to get to the men’s room.

Most senior athletes might by then have been thinking of gentler pursuits.

Hewitt had already gone the length of the Iditarod eight times on foot in winter and attempted it once on a fat bike only to be pulled off the trail after days of floundering to find a trail buried in deep snow while being brutalized by 50-degree-below zero temperatures and winds that might well have killed a lesser man.

Mind games

That was a journey deep into that northland of which London so long ago wrote:

“Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity…(and) the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more.

“Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterance.”

Being a man fundamentally geared to finish a job once begun, Hewitt answered his mystery of all things in 2017 by getting back on a fat bike and finishing what he’d started in 2015. He hinted after that he might then be done with this obsession for the cold and the desolation of the winter wilds in Alaska.

The only runner ever to leave the fat-bike cyclists behind and lead the entire Invitational field of muscle-powered athletes over the Alaska Range, the ITI record holder for the foot race, a man who once traveled fully unsupported from Knik to Nome pulling a sled full of food and fuel that almost matched his 150-pound weight just to prove to himself that he could do it, Hewitt really didn’t have to do anything more to cement his place in history as an Iditarod tough man.

Reached back in the comfort of his office in civilized America after the 2017 race and asked “how’s life,” Hewitt’s answer was simple:

“It’s better than life out in the wilderness.”

“How bad was it?” he was asked.

“It was horrible.” Pause.

“It wasn’t that bad. But it was colder, I think, colder than any race I’ve been on. On average it was 30 below or colder every night. It just gets trying.

“I’m probably not coming back. There’s nothing left to prove up there.”

Then again

And now he’s back. Why?

Because it’s there. Because he can’t stay away. And because this time he’s found a new challenge, the unique, 1,300-mile route of the 2020 IronDog snowmachine race north from Fairbanks to the village of Koyuk on the Bering Sea Coast and then north to the Northwest regional hub of Kotzebue before looping back for a halfway stop in Nome. 

“A toll it takes for sure, but it keeps drawing us back,” his wife Loreen, herself a veteran of multiple ITIs, messaged from back in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.

Tim admitted before he left that he wasn’t looking forward to again immersing himself in extreme cold, but he marched out into it anyway.

Forty- to 50-degree-below-zero temperatures are pure hell for someone on the trail.  It gets mentally old just dealing with how many layers of clothes to wear to keep the cold at bay without sweating because there is nothing more dangerous than sweat, the cooling fluid of the human engine.

Sweat seeps into clothes and compromises their insulating value. Sweat accelerates the loss of body heat anywhere moist skin is exposed to the dry, cold air. Sweat pushes the body toward dehydration which increases the risk of frostbite.

And being adequately dressed for hiking miles downhill is invariably overdressed for hiking miles uphill.

After the near-death of a Yukon Arctic Ultra competitor in extreme cold in 2018 and the post-race amputations of the cold-injured body parts of two competitors, the race in the Canadian territory just across the border from Alaska actually wrote a “sweat rule”  to deal with those who don’t recognize the danger.

“Athletes who arrive at Checkpoint 1 sweating more than they should and/or totally exhausted will have to stay/rest at the checkpoint for four hours,” the rule says. “The decision is taken by the Race Director or crew. All other checkpoints also have the right to stop athletes who arrive and show signs of poor management of their clothing layers.”

Hewitt is well familiar with the moisture-control problem, but it still was no doubt coming as good news to him that the weather was moderating as he approached Manley. The National Weather Service reported a temperature of 5 degrees there on Tuesday evening with light snow falling.

The forecast calls for light snows and temperatures from 3-below-zero to 16 through the week. 

Though Tim is averaging about 40 miles per day, Loreen said, “It’s a slow trail so far and a very cold start.  I heard from him when he was lost, but other than tell him to turn around or find the river, I wasn’t much help.”

Both are hoping for better trail after the Iron Dog racers come roaring north on the Tanana River and then on down the Yukon River to Ruby to the west where the Iditarod Trail joins the state’s largest waterway. The Iron Dog starts Feb. 16 in Fairbanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 replies »

  1. I once did over 30 miles but less than 35 miles hiking with well over 10,000 feet of up and down, up and down, vertical and descent in one day. I was younger and in much better shape in those days. It wasn’t in negative temperatures and it wasn’t in an area of the world where it was dark for the vast majority of the day. Tim obviously knows what he is doing and might even know the reason why he does this or maybe it’s more of a why not? Good for Tim, stay safe and enjoy the adventure.

  2. Your writing shines when you combine your personal knowledge of AK winter trails with modern day adventurer’s adventures on those trails and spice it up with references to classic literature about those trails.

    Great read and inspirational

  3. What a beast! I think it is fantastic to see someone living life on their terms, especially at 65 years young. Best of luck to you on your journey Mr. Hewitt!!!

    • Hi Shane,while I agree with your premise,Id say perhaps its more of something he never got rid of ,or left behind when he was younger.
      But make no mistake, ONE TOUGH MF!

  4. I don’t get some people. (The longing to suffer)
    Why punish yourself when you know that is what the entire trip will entail?
    Wait for the Spring light (and relative warmth) to return…the rivers are usually frozen solid until the first week of April.
    I am always fascinated when I am out on the rivers say in the second week of March and no one is around?
    The spring crust is perfect for travel and the afternoon Sun is amazing for the soul!
    As for winter travel into the bush, I prefer my ski doo to help me navigate through the wilderness.

  5. I like the Sweat Rule, because it makes the event more like a Rally. Participants should also be checked for blistered feet. Actually, it’s a rookie boo-boo, not to recognize ‘hot-spots’ on the feet before the skin loosens, and then to air, cool, dry, rest & protect them promptly, so blisters don’t form. Blisters are a injury

    For most of its history, I’ve wished the Iditarod was more like a rally. The prominent sleep-deprivation ‘feature’ is not an attraction. Again, it’s really a rookie-mistake, to be trying to do more in a day than can fit into it … and still leave enough time to keep yourself fit & health.

    50 miles a day sounds like too many hours walking down the trail, and not enough hours left over for taking decent care of yourself. “I can’t stop to prevent these blisters coming on, because then I won’t make my 50 miles today”! Yeah-well…

    This is actually why those people are sweating when they pull into the checkpoint. Because the priority is on the wrong things. They’re not adjusting their cloths for alternating down-hill and up-hill conditions, because the clock!

    … Yes, it’s true In severe cold you may well need to put up your shelter, tent, and maybe even get some heat going in it, before you can take your boot off and tend to incipient blisters. But that’s just part of Life In The North. It’s part of being a human in the wilderness.

    Making these events Masochism-contests does not raise their profile with me … and indeed is a big part of what keeps them Fringe. Multiple AMPUTATIONS as the expected & accepted cost & consequence of participation? No, this the setup for social, societal and cultural rejection & failure.

    Today, we have Technology … and oddly enough, quite a bit of tech that’s been around for a long time, and is not being applied. It’s long been possible to provide (warm, dry) ventilation into bunny-boots, etc, so the feet stay dry. Blisters form when – the rankest rookie knows this – the feet are not staying dry.

    Likewise, frostbite on the nose? That’s part of the deal? We’re gonna get like Michael Jackson? If we’re going to be out in THAT kind of cold, then we need to take THOSE kinds of measures, to protect ourselves.

    These Events are wonderful & stupendous challenges, on multiple levels and from many angles. Unfortunately, too much of what is really involved is being short-changed, in order to make it too much about a simplistic metric like Time or Miles.

    #1, accept that taking good care of ourselves is indeed Job #1, out in the sub-arctic cold and on those profoundly wilderness trails. Rally-philosophy would go long ways to achieve this.

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