The race this time couldn't have been more different than last time. I was healthy at the start, for one, which made a huge difference on how I felt during the entire race.
We started at 2 pm on Knik lake. The 46 skiers, cyclists, walkers, and snowshoers scattered across the lake in different directions. It had snowed a ton in Anchorage the day before, so we were a little nervous the trail wasn't going to be ridable, but luckily the trail was fairly hard and we were able to ride. We were right behind a group of riders with snow bikes, and it was easy to follow in their wide tire tracks. Eric and I were the only 2 riders who were still riding snow-cats (the skinnier wheels). It's hard to justify buying a snow bike when you only ride in the snow once a year.
The weather was perfect and the temperature comfortable. I was riding without my jacket and we cruised the first part which was on rolling trails in the trees without wind. After the rolling hills we got onto a lake and river system where the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped considerably. At night time time it was around -20 and several people got frost-bit toes during this section. A couple of people stepped in overflow and had to drop out unfortunately. The first check-point was Yentna station, 57 miles from the start, which we reached at 1:50 am. Yentna station is a simple "lodge" on the river and it was really nice to be able to get inside and to get some real food. The owner made us grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup which tasted wonderful! We were able to share a room with 3 other riders. There was a king-sized bed, a small couch, and floor-space in the small room. Eric found an old foam mattress in a closet which put on the floor for us to sleep on . We "went to bed" around 3 and slept on and off until 7 in the morning. It seems to take a long time to get dressed in all your layers, fill up camel-baks and thermoses, put toe-warmers in your boots, and get out the door each time you stop, but we were finally of at 7:50 am.
From Yentna Station we continued riding the the Yentna river until we reached Skwentna roadhouse at mile 90 at 1:50 pm. Mileage is a whole different story in Alaska. If you are riding at 6 mph, you feel like you are making pretty good time. Worst case scenario, you are pushing your bike at 2 mph. Actually, there were some points when we were breaking trail at 1/2 mph... and that was going downhill...
At Skwentna we stopped only briefly to refill our water and have a bite to eat. I had a couple of frozen roast beef and cheese sandwiches which I put on top on the wood stove to defrost. They made a great lunch. We took off with another rider, Alec Petro , but he was soon pulling away from us with his speedy snow bike. Some time before dark we reached Shell lake lodge where we passed up Alec who had decided to stop for a bite to eat. This lodge is not a check point, so we decided to skip it, as inviting as it did look, in order to reach our next stop as soon as possible. It didn't take long for Alec to pass us back up again, he looked so effortless on his bike.
We reached Finger Lake and the Winter Lake Lodge by 11 pm. There is a walled tent set up for the riders to sleep and dry out clothes. With several racers sharing such a small space and every ones sweaty clothes hanging up to dry it was quite a smell going on in the tent. We went inside to the lodge and were served a great meal of rice, beans, chicken, cheese, and a tortilla. After eating junk food the whole day it tasted extra yummy. We found a spot on the floor in the tent, but it was difficult to sleep with other racers coming and going during the middle of the night. At some point a bed came open, and I was able to get a couple of hours sleep in a more comfortable spot. In the morning, we found our drop-bag, which had been flown out ahead of time by the race organizers and refilled our food and battery supplies, as well as restocked toe and hand warmers. I ate some of the granola I had sent and had some hot cocoa before we took off at 7:30.
From Winterlake Lodge we continued on to Puntilla Lake. The most memorable moment on this section was having to go up a hill so steep it was difficult to just climb up, even more so while trying to drag, push, lift the loaded bikes. We came down the "happy steps" onto a river, and then climbed up the riverbank on the other side. I would love to see the dog mushers getting the teams through this part. We rode this whole section in the daylight and reached Puntilla around 2 in the afternoon. That check point is run by a really nice family with 5 sons. They own a lodge where people come to hunt and fish, and they also have 10 smaller hunting cabins around the area (one of these cabins came in handy later in the race).
At first we planned on just a short rest at Puntilla, but as the trail was really soft and mushy we decided to get some sleep and leave at night when the trail would harden up in the cold. After eating a can of ravioli I slept on one of the beds in the back of the cabin using my down coat for a blanket. I had some instant oatmeal before we took off to go over the infamous Rainy Pass which is 3600 feet at the top. We were trying to get some trail and weather information before we left, but the only thing we knew for sure was that Bill Merchant was trying to make his way across the pass on a snow machine to make us a trail. The Iditarod checkers at Rohn (the next check point) were supposed to make it over the pass from the other direction, but one of the snow machines had gone down through the ice and the driver had to be rescued.
This was my first time over Rainy Pass. Last time there was no trail made, so in 2007 we opted for the 30 mile detour over Hell's gate, taking a longer but less steep way across the mountain range. We left a little after 10 pm and we were able to ride for a short time until we reached the steeper areas when we had to push our bikes. The night was perfectly still with the moon and stars out, it was really beautiful. Eric had told me horror stories about how cold and windy this section can be, how it could take 24 hrs to get across, and how he had to bivy above tree line because of how exhausted he had been. I was singing Swedish Christmas songs to myself as we hiked along in the dark of the night, thinking about how EASY it was and what great time we were making. I couldn't wait to make it to the top of the pass by dawn!! At one point we passed a broken down snow machine along the trail.
Around 6 am, after 8 hours of pushing, the trail just came to an end. The foot prints from other racers all of the sudden were going the opposite direction. Tracker Eric decided we should follow the foot prints back to were he had seen a split in the trail. It was only about a half a mile and in the morning light we could see a small shed looking building in the distance. As the snow was deep we left the bikes to check out the building. We found 7 bikes and a sled leaning up against it and when we opened the door we saw 8 mummy bags on the cots, and on the floor. Every single person in front of us, including Bill Merchant, had also had to stop and seek shelter in the small cabin. After laughing at the situation we realized the roof was blown off the building, and snow drifts were covering the wood stove and part of the loft. We found a broom and cleared a spot big enough for our sleeping bags upstairs.
The Blown-Off Roof of our shelter cabin
Our Sleeping Spot Upstairs
It was impossible to sleep and after a couple of hours we heard all the racers downstairs moving around, making water and packing up. It was a really funny situation, and we were cracking jokes yelling to the others below us. We weren't in the mood to leave the cozy cabin after only 2 hours of rest in the bad weather, so we moved our sleeping bags to the cots down stairs and were hanging out with Bill and listening to his stories. At this point it was 10 below 0 outside as well as inside. Bill had somehow managed to carry an espresso maker up the mountain with him and as we were stranded in a snow storm in the wilderness I had the best cup of espresso i have ever had. It was worth ever step!!
Drinking espresso on Rainy Pass with Bill