Battered, brutalized and in the end beaten by the cold and wind of Alaska’s Bering Sea coast, one of the toughest men ever to trod the Iditarod Trail was on a plane back to his Pennsylvania home Wednesday night lucky to be alive.
Sixty-six-year-old Tim Hewitt rolled the dice on making his way through another coastal blow and this time almost didn’t make it.
His eyes swollen nearly shut from the damage done by sideways blowing snow, he was Tuesday evacuated from a safety cabin at the base of notorious Topkok Hills by search and rescue volunteers from the city of Nome who set out into the storm on snowmachines after Hewitt pushed the SOS button on a Garmin InReach personal locator beacon.
Only a twist of fate enabled Hewitt to find the shelter in the gathering darkness of Tuesday evening he tried to follow an unmarked trail through a well-known blowhole between the Iditarod checkpoint of Safety and the village of White Mountain to the east.
A duffle bag with all of his gear has already blown away and been lost after the wind ripped it off the sled he was towing. His body was battered after being repeatedly picked up and slammed onto the frozen ground by the sheer force of moving air. And with his cold-injured eyes starting to swell shut, Hewitt well understood the cabin was his best and possibly last hope of survival.
“I knew I was in trouble,” he said in a phone conversation Wednesday night. “My gear was gone. My goggles were just full of snow, and I couldn’t keep them clear.”
Unequipped to even try to bivouac out in the open once the duffle disappeared into the storm, he had no choice but to pull the goggles off to be able to see as well as he could and keep going.
He remembered thinking that “all I have to do is find where the willows come down to the beach and the cabin will be around there somewhere.”
A risky fascination
This was far from Hewitt’s first dance with those places that define the country the late Robert Service, the bard of the north, labeled “The Land God Forgot.”
A ten-time finisher of first the Iditasport Impossible, a 1,000-mile fat-bike and foot race from the old Alaska port of Knik to Nome, and then the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), the successor to the Iditasport, Hewitt holds the records for the fastest travel by foot on both the Iditarod’s northern and southern routes.
In 2016, at the age of 61, he set a trail record likely to stand for a long time when he became the first to go from Nome to Knik in less than 20 days. Traveling at a pace near equivalent to completing two marathons per day, he made it to the finish line in 19 days, 9 hours and 38 minutes.
For comparison’s sake, this was more than 15 hours faster than winning time for the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Trail. Still, in fairness to the late Dick Wilmarth, the winner, of that dog race, Hewitt did have a better trail to travel.
Not that it has always been better.
Back in 2015, Hewitt decided to join the fat-bike craze and pedal the 1,000 miles to Nome. The trip turned into a disaster. The trail drifted in with snow between the Central Alaska checkpoints of Ophir, an abandoned mining camp, and the Yukon River village of Ruby.
In the best of times, the trail that stretches for more than 100 miles that here stretches across the long-abandoned “Inland Empire” is a challenging slog across some of the wildest and most desolate country left in North America.
Hewitt hit in the worst of times. Temperatures dropped to 50 degrees below zero. He followed a lone snowmachine track out into a foreboding wilderness.
It ended not long after he met Belgian cyclist Frank Janssens, a man who’d twice pedaled around the globe, being hauled back to the safety of the tiny mining community of Takotna on a snowmachine.
Janssens told Hewitt to turn around and go back. Hewitt has never forgotten their conversation:
“Frank said, ‘You can’t make it. I was pushing in drifts up to my chest.’
“I should have listened,” Hewitt said.
But if there is one definitive statement that can be made about Hewitt, it is this: He is no quitter.
He pushed on and pushed and pushed and pushed some more, the deep snow in the trail making it impossible to ride. Iditarod Trail runners – including his wife, Loreen – caught up and then passed him as he pushed and cussed and wished he could just dump the bike slowing him down.
The wind, meanwhile, blew more snow into the trail. The cold refused to relent.
Eventually, both Hewitts and Steve Ansell, a San Francisco ultra-runner who paired up with Loreen, bogged down, and their races concluded when former ITI director Bill Merchant, who was monitoring the global positioning satellite (GPS) trackers the racers carried, decided it was time to put an end to the madness.
Having spent a couple of days of watching Tim’s tracker wander on and off the route as Tim repeatedly lost the trial beneath all the snow and floundered around again trying to find it, and then seeing the three racers stalled out, Merchant dispatched a snowmachine from Ruby to go get them.
Ruby’s Allen Titus found the Hewitts and Ansell in tough shape. Loreen had a seriously frostbitten thumb. Tim was cold, demoralized, frostbit and asleep in a sleeping bag buried beneath the snow. Titus thought at first the man might be dead. Tim wasn’t, but he was at last ready to call it quits and give up.
“Around there somewhere” is not exactly a pinpoint location for a cabin you need to find to survive in a nasty, near-Arctic coastal storm, but Tim got lucky – very, very lucky.
He looked up in the storm to see the headlights of a pair of snowmachines coming down out of the Topkok Hills, and he knew the trail they were on ran right past the cabin.
All he had to do now he figured was head for where the lights had been to find safety. As easy as that sounds, it is not at all easy in wind and sideways blowing snow.
Tim missed the cabin only to get lucky yet again. He stumbled into the outhouse as he was going by and leaving the cabin behind. There he also spotted snowmachine tracks frozen in the icy ground. They led him at last to shelter from the wind, albeit an icy shelter.
Once inside and no longer moving, which generates body heat, Hewitt said, “I started shaking.”
Now the trick was to start a fire. Again he was lucky in that the shelter is kept well-stocked with wood and fire-making materials by Nome residents who know how dangerous the coast can be.
All Tim had to do was get his shivering body under control well enough to get the fire going. He burned through three books of paper matches trying to do that. He then found a Bic lighter, but all it was good for was sparks.
It had either run out of butane, or the butane was too cold to vaporize and burn.
“I finally used the spark from that to light some paper,” Tim said, “and I got a fire going.”
Now safe, he had to decide what to do next and figured there wasn’t much choice but to push the rescue button on the InReach. It bounced a signal off a satellite to the Garmin-supported International Emergency Response Coordination Center, and workers there contacted search and rescue volunteers with the Nome Fire Department. They concluded from the location of the InReach that Hewitt was fine in the safety cabin.
Back home in Pennsylvania, however, Loreen, herself a veteran of multiple treks along the frozen Iditarod Trail, had a different view. She’d been following Tim’s progress east in real-time thanks to a GPS tracking device in that duffle bag that had been on the sled Tim was pulling.
With the GPS tracker stuffed in with Tim’s gear now pinging a position back along the trail and Tim in the cabin signaling for help, Loreen realized something was decidedly not fine. She then contacted Nome search and rescue and told them someone best go out and check on her hubby.
Tim confessed he was happy she did and was effusive in his thanks for the efforts of Nome rescuers who delivered him to the local hospital where a doctor told Tim his frozen eyes will likely heal. He could see out of one by Wednesday night, but the other was still blurry and mainly only able to tell the difference between light and dark.
He admitted the injuries were giving him pause to at least contemplate abandoning his Iditarod obsession, but he likewise recognized he’d been in this position before. After an aborted, snowstorm plagued, 2020 attempt to hike the 2,600 mile trail of the Iron Dog snowmachine race from Fairbanks to Nome to Kotzebue and then back to the community of Big Lake north of Anchorage, he vowed he might retire from adventuring in the frozen lands.
And then he was back in 2022, deciding he’d do the Iditarod from north to south for a change.
What he really wanted to do was what he’d wanted to do before, follow that Iron Dog trail north to the village of Kotzebue above the Arctic Circle and then looping back to rejoin the Iditarod heading south.
“(But) it’s just too risky to do it by myself,” Hewitt said, and it’s hard to find others who want to subject themselves to this particular form of madness. He still sounded a little like he wanted another shot at the Iron Dog Trail, but how that might fly at home is another matter.
Going into this year’s north-to-south adventure, Tim admitted that “(Loreen) didn’t think it was a good idea to start with.”
Call it women’s intuition or whatever you want, but it now appears she was right.