Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Sixth Night.

Throughout the day I'd been unsuccessful at every attempt to light the stove, and once inside the relative shelter of the tent my luck was no better. It caught and flared precisely once before abruptly flaming out, and no amount of pumping, priming, cursing or praying made a dent in its resolve to remain unlit. 15 minutes of futzing and fiddling brought me no closer to a solution, that time merely served to underscore the importance of this now useless item. I set it aside, turned off my headlamp, and zipped up the bag.

Dropping off to fractured sleep wasn't difficult but the incessant gusting wind ensured that deep, restful z's never came. I tossed and turned and held my breath as the gusts came stronger and stronger, exhaling in the lulls as long as the tent remained erect.

The wind buffeted, the tent held, I'd fade into blissful non-sleep, then the next gust would hit and I'd stare tensely, wide-eyed into the dark, at the nothingness above my head. I relaxed myself with the knowledge that at least the tent was upright and I was warm inside the bag. In reality, nothing was *wrong* per se--things just weren't completely *right*.

Lying inert will never be confused with sleeping, but at least I wasn't schlepping the bike over and through drifts, and my body was thankful for the downtime. Lying still, thinking, trying to sleep--all of it was fruitless against the gnawing hunger in my gut. The moment my stove had sputtered out the night before was the moment that I became acutely aware of how little food I'd been consuming daily.

My self-imposed (read through the two "Calories and Compromise" posts to understand why) limit of 3300 calories per day had seemed, thus far, to be more than adequate. After dinner each night I'd been stuffed so full that breathing was labored, and throughout each day I'd had energy and chutzpah to spare.

Now, however, with ~two days passed and many more miles covered, but WITHOUT any calories getting put back in, my body let me know that it wasn't happy. Shivering even though I was warm in the bag, aching legs and knees (both muscle and joint pain) begging for fuel to repair the daily damage, and above all else that gaping emptiness in my belly screaming out to be filled. Between gusts I'd run the numbers in my head: Two days travel equals ~16,000 calories burned, two chocolate bars consumed equals ~1000 calories replaced. Even in my semi-sleep stupor I was able to calculate the difference and there's no way to spin a two-day/15,000 calorie deficit to make it appealing. Not here and not now anyway... More gusts, more staring, hold breath, wait for lull...

The terrific noise of tent fabric flapping obscured the sound of footsteps approaching. I didn't know Alessandro was standing over the tent until his voice startled me alert. "'ello!? Mike?!!?" Though the wind carried much of it away, what was left was unmistakably laden with anxiety. "Yes, Alessandro! Y'alright?" His response couldn't even be classified as 'verbal', for no known word was uttered. But the hesitance, uncertainty, anxiety, and fear all shown through as he exhaled a simple, "Ehhhhhehehummm??" His limited english and my non-italian made for an awkward few moments where I attempted to explain that this semi-sheltered spot was the best he could expect for the next several hours. Somehow he 'got it' and started unpacking bivy gear in the relative 'shelter' downwind of my tent.

Perhaps it was my full-awake status but the gusts seemed to come harder and stay longer, rendering further communication impossible. I zipped the tent door closed to help stabilize the structure, then just lay there and listened.

Moments (or hours? who can tell?) later I snapped to attention at the sound of a female voice. Most of it was torn away by the wind so that all I caught was an emphatic and frightened "...out!"

I yelled out "Hello?!" then waited. Nothing. Then Anne's voice came through... "...getting... ...scary... ...out...".

Although she stood directly over the tent she sounded tiny and distant against the force of the wind.

Hard gust, tent shaking, blowing harder still. Sensing no approaching lull I yelled out, "Anne! This is the last sheltered spot for many more hours! Bivy here until morning, or know that you're committed to getting to Nikolai in one push, starting NOW!"

A long pause, then she started out shouting and trailed off at the end, "...REALLY... ...SCARY... ...out..."

Looking back it's easy to see it, but at that time I didn't 'get it'. Both Alessandro and Anne had staggered and fought for hours through that blustery night, nothing really wrong except an increasing anxiety brought about by the cold, the wind, the dark, the crushing awareness of how remote this spot really is and how insignificant we are against its brutal indifference. Once inside my tent I'd become one level removed from their reality--at least somewhat relaxed if not comfortable or asleep. As both of them stumbled through the dark and onto my tent I can only imagine that they'd probably thought the same thing: Inside that tent is shelter, and if I can just get in there things'll be alright.

But like I said--I didn't get it. I didn't think of myself as any better off inside the tent. In my mind the tent was gonna come crashing down any second and then I'd have to deal with packing it away before I could even reset my bivy outside. At least outside I would have been able to forget about the soon-to-implode tent and it's ceaseless racket. Not that there was room for either of them anyway, but it never occurred to me to invite them in. Alessandro had done the sensible thing and bivied. Only Anne can say why, but she chose to keep walking. Hearing no further response from outside, I fell back into my exhausted stupor.

The next thing I knew the tent was pressing against my face and my heart was racing, as though I'd somehow laid there and gasped for breath for a few moments before regaining consciousness. The sound of the wind ripping through the scrub of the swamp, and the flapping of the tent fabric left no doubt that fixing the tent now was out of the question. No choice but to get up, pack up, and move.

No time to do it but now.


  1. I'm so glad you resumed the recap of your Iditarod Trail ride. For some reason, this post cut deep. I'm not sure how well I'll sleep tonight now. I can't help but place myself on the map of this story ... I was struggling to sleep in a warm house in Nikolai, a mere 25-odd miles away, listing to that same wind hammer a nearby window and wondering how I'd ever coax myself back out in it.

  2. Please tell me this will be in book form one day.

  3. thanks a lot mike. as if i needed anything else to add more anxiety about going out there again this year :)

  4. Geoff and Jill: Don't add anxiety! The lesson was to add a better hood or goggles, but that's getting ahead of itself...

    Nick: Yes. Sorta.