I knew, back in December, that this was going to happen.
I bought a ticket to Alaska. I have a fat bike. I have some semblance of confidence, riding and camping off it. And I’m going to Alaska with it.
Alaska, in February. The place most opposite to my usual February state of Arizona. One of the last wild places.
In so many ways, it didn’t make any sense, sitting at my computer in Arizona, riding in short sleeves and pondering how little gear I owned and how little experience I had. I’ve long had an interest in riding the Iditarod Trail, and have been following the race since 2005 or so. Mike and many others are so enthralled by the trail and keep coming back, year after year, that there must be something there. Something that can’t be described in blog posts, in photos or videos, no matter how well done. I needed to explore that for myself. But I’ve spent every winter of the last decade in Arizona, avoiding snow and real winter. Besides being addicted to riding dry dirt, the desert sun and I have a longstanding romance that is well documented in this blog, and continues to flourish. Life is so good in Arizona in the winter, how could I possibly spend a big chunk of time away from it? I didn’t think I’d ever have a good enough reason to be anywhere else, and thus I put my chances of ever having an opportunity to grow a winter skin, gather the necessary gear and ‘train’ for cold at slim to none. I dreamed of Alaska, but could see no reasonable path through that dream.
In so many ways, it made so much sense, sitting at my computer in Arizona, bubbling with excitement over new possibilities in life. The world’s my oyster, and I had been looking for an adventure. Something big. Something that scared me a little, that pushed me out of my comfort zone. Something no one would expect from me. Including maybe even me.
Everyone was rightly skeptical. Mike kindly offered to allow me to join his Iditarod tour, planned to start a couple days before race start. But I don’t think he thought I’d actually make it happen. I suggested to Eszter I should buy a fat bike, spend the winter in Colorado with her, and go to Alaska. She said, unequivocally, “YES. DO IT.” I need more people in my life encouraging terrible ideas such as these. But I don’t think she thought it would actually happen.
I had my doubts as well, but as I loaded up the van with a brand new clown bike, all the winter junk I owned (one entire bag full!) and my desktop computer (!), I knew what was going to happen. All was going to work out beautifully, riding and camping on the snow was going to be glorious, I’d end up with a ticket to Alaska, and I’d pay for a month of rent in Arizona without ever being there. Colorado was where I belong, finding adventure and love in the mountains and in the snow.
It’s been an amazing month. I can’t believe it’s only been a month. Riding my XC mountain bike feels strange — like it’s a little kids bike. I’m at home on the clown bike, in the cold and in the snow. It feels natural, and almost like I know what I’m doing. It’s been a month full of such life, and learning, but still only a month. I know CO is different than AK, and that it’s going to be an eye-opening experience. I’m going to try to go into it with an open mind and wide eyes.
I’ll carry a SPOT (tracker link to come) since I’m not a part of the race (where they are not allowed). For now, here’s a glimpse into the last half of the month here in Colorado.
Winter Park has been the base of operations, and it keeps getting snow.
Snow and bluebird days, too.
It’s funny to be dependent not only on snow conditions but also groomer and sled traffic. This trail was beautiful, until the groomer decided to stop at a scenic view and… turn around. So we did too.
Fraser, CO (just below Winter Park) is supposedly the coldest incorporated town in the lower 48. It wasn’t cold enough to bust out the puffy jackets, but it was enough to freeze hair!
I had my nose down in Yukon Quest and other doggie tracking. Inbetween grading papers, Eszter cooked up a nice little adventurita that started beautifully, as most adventuritas do.
We followed lots of snowbiking tech trail, surprisingly rideable and super fun. Then the trail ended, and we were too stubborn/stupid to turn around. Loops and forward progress call loudly, even when that progress means lots and lots of walking in untracked powder.
Nearly a disk wheel. Might have been handy on the paved closing to the loop, once we finally figured our way out to a packed road, and our bikes zoooomed again. This one was another case where most reasonable people would have turned around or at least fretted. Instead, we ate a toffee bar, continued on, and pretty soon were back riding again.
Back in Boulder, we were busted riding the road, with power and heart rate gadgets. If ya want to go zoooom… you gotta do the work. Look out Alaska, Eszter is definitely ready to go zoom.
I may not be going to AK to zoom, but after…
ITI ‘training’ includes some of this. Dry dirt and a special trail, a special hill to climb.
Little did we know how the weekend would pan out. This hike might have been superfluous.
Eszter was on a mission to reach the pass above Butler Gulch, on our way to Winter Park. I could only smile from behind as we pushed up, steeper and steeper and more and more windswept.
I know exactly this pull that she was feeling, and I was happy to just to be along for the ride (errr, walk). I figured we’d walk up just to walk down… but since I was willing to crash, repeatedly, and comically, I rode nearly all of it. The bobsled run at the bottom was a fast and rideable bonus.
We took a very slow and foggy drive to Rabbit Ears Pass, with clown bikes fully loaded. We started with fresh snow, and it continued to fall on us.
Turns out we aren’t so good at navigating snowmobile trails. Summer maps are meant for summer. Winter’s a different game. But at least we learned that turning around is sometimes OK. We did eventually get to recently groomed trail, which was about the only rideable thing around.
We made just enough progress on day 1 to get to the far point of the loop. That far point included some untracked powder-on-groomed = unicorn dust flying.
And it snowed all night. From our perspective in the tree hidey-hole, it didn’t snow that much. We had spent another cozy night side-by-side in our down cocoons, cooking multiple freeze dried meals (yet still being hungry!), full of life and with very warm hearts. We got out on the trail at first light, in single digit temperatures, excited to see what the day would bring.
It’s true, we did start out riding, through the deep inches of powder. When I started making boot prints in the snow as I pedaled, riding got difficult and I knew things were getting deeper.
Snowtel at ‘the towers’ above Summit Lake recorded 11 inches of new snow that night. That’s pretty much doom, no matter how wide your tires are. So we got to walking.
We eventually encountered sleds, but their deep troughs were even harder to walk in than the untracked stuff. We had little hope for riding, and were still a good 15 miles from the car.
The summit mesa’s trail had a perverse routing, at least to the eyes of a GPS man stuck wallowing in the deep snow. It went out of its way to go over the small high points on the ridge and stayed in open meadows (meaning sleds were not constrained to stay on the same path). This, with the somewhat spooky ambiance and our general state of mind, led us to nickname it “Sargents Rabbit Mesa”, in tribute to one of the legendary stretches of CTR.
Eventually some hint of steepness gave hope of riding, even if only for short stretches. After six hours of nearly all walking, it was grin inducing.
Not that Eszter needed it. Her positive attitude is unwavering, and oh so infectious. She never had a negative thing to say.
As we neared the highway’s pass there had been enough sled traffic (that had set up) that the balance of ride/walk tipped in our favor. It was still a fair bit of work, but seemed easy.
The thick snow everywhere, the flirting sunlight, the quiet of the forest… all led us to see the magic of the place, the magic of being out there together, in pushing through and coming out the other side smiling.
And we made it out before sunset! Barely. 20 miles in a day, in a day well spent.
The overnighters are done sadly, the clown bikes will soon get boxed up, ready to head north. Until then, it’s Boulder riding.
Boulder riding, with awesome destinations, like this wood stove and this carrot cake!
Mmmmm. Life, so delicious.