Saturday, 25 March 2006

March 25, 2006 Wishes: Be Careful!

I've spent a good part of February this year insisting that I was not totally pleased to have missed "The Storm" that hit the Quest this year. So, when on Iditarod, I found myself blown off the side of a mountain and into a snowbank and willows at the bottom of it, with no knowledge of how I was getting out, or even where 'out' was - I have to admit that my first reaction was to LAUGH HARD at the irony of it all.
 I'll save all the drawn-out details for my Iditarod diary entries, but in the meantime - here is the 'Reader's Digest' version. 

When I was sitting in Elim word came back from mushers who had just arrived in White Mountain that there was a storm brewing on the backside of Little McKinley and across Golovin Bay. Confirmation came from snowmachiners who stopped into the checkpoint on the way back from Nome. All reported the trail as 'do-able, but difficult' - and all recommended traveling in pairs. Lachlan Clark was in Elim with me and we discussed traveling together, but ultimately I wished to leave the checkpoint an hour or so before him. We agreed that if things looked 'really bad' I would camp on the trail until he caught up with me. I've been through many storms in the past on races - and I must admit not one of them lived up to the hype it got before I ventured through it. 

So, right around 2:30p.m. I pulled the hook and headed for White Mountain. "You'll be in Nome in 24 hours", were the checker's last words to me. 

On the climb out of Elim I met up with a few more snowmachiners. The first young man seemed concerned about me getting through the storm, particularly about the entrance into Golovin Bay. The last man I spoke with was an Elder, who pronounced the trail as passable "in the daylight". As it was getting towards dusk I decided it was time to just get this over with. 

Sure enough, as we climbed Little McKinley, the winds picked up considerably. Snickers and Dasher continued to do an excellent job picking out the drifted-in trail and moving us from marker to marker. However, once we got around the backside of the mountain, things picked up to a level I had not before experienced. I was now unable to see anything more than the next marker ahead of us - and sometimes in strong gusts, I was unable to even see my leaders or the front half of my team.

Eventually there came a point where neither I nor Snickers could sort out the trail. I hesitated too long and Snickers made what she thought was the wisest move - a turn to put the wind at her back.

Unfortunately, that sent us plummeting down the steep and rocky side of the mountain. For about a 1/2 mile or so we plunged down. It was a wild and rather scary ride, but all of us made it to the bottom in one piece. We flayed around in deep drifted snow before making another plunge downhill. 

 I slogged around in the snow drifts and willows for awhile, but being that it was still storming at a fierce level, it was almost dark, and I had no idea where the trail was, it quickly became obvious to me that my best plan was to hunker down for the night. The dogs obviously agreed, as they had all nestled into the snow with their backs to the wind. I floundered over to them, undid their tuglines and took off their booties, so they could get as comfortable as possible. After surveying the lay of the land a little, I dug out my axe and hacked a trail out of the willows that we could use come morning. I was beginning to get uncomfortably cold, so I tipped my sled over on its side, dug out a sleeping bag-sized area that was mostly protected from the storm, pulled out my sleeping bag and crawled in.

Honestly, the night passed rather comfortably. I woke up once to find the storm quiet and the northern lights out dancing - an hour later the winds had picked up and visibility was down near zero again. Just goes to show how much a trail can change moment to moment - if I had been trying to get through to White Mt during that calm window, I would have wondered what all the fuss was about!

It got light around 7 am, but the winds were still howling. I thought if they died down some, I might be able to hear snowmachine traffic on the trail and know which way to head out. I decided to hold off till 9 am before starting to try to figure my way out. At around 8:45, I thought I might hear someone yelling and stuck my head out of my sleeping bag to find Bobby, the checker from Golovin, jumping up and down, waving his arms. As he worked his way over to me, I woke up the dogs and hurriedly stuffed stuff into my sled bag. Bobby asked if everything was okay and offered to show me the way back to the trail. I readily agreed. He also informed me that Lachlan had spent the night on the mountain just a 1/4 - 1/2 mile or so from where I was. I had no idea!  The trip back up the mountain was as difficult as anything I've ever done with a dog team. It was steep, racked by winds, and had massive drifts - we were so grateful when finally we hit the trail. Bobby had taken the time to upright the markers blown over in the storm - and although still windy, it was nothing like last night, so it was now much easier to stay on the trail. He waved goodbye and headed back to Golovin. 
I stopped the team - snacked the dogs, put on some booties, scratched a few ears and then pulled the hook for White Mountain. They are a tough dog team and looked none the worse for their night on the mountain. 

I've read lots of posts admonishing Iditarod for not sending someone out looking for me sooner and I must say, I thought Iditarod handled the whole situation perfectly. Their response (sending a local out on a snowmachine) was appropriate and well timed. I know and, by my participation, accept the risks associated with an event like Iditarod. I knew leaving Elim that I was headed into a storm. If I had not the skill to look after my team and myself in that storm overnight, I had no business being on the trail to begin with.  I would have been upset and embarrassed had someone else felt the need to tackle that storm looking for me that night. 

...and that's the story!


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