A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Last winter, Jay competed in the inaugural White Mountains 100 -- back-country skiing a hundred miles through wild Alaskan forests and mountains, slogging up long ascents, struggling over a windy 4000-foot mountain pass, and barreling down what the official website describes as “bowel-clenching descents.” Temperatures dropped to twenty below zero. Ice, slush, bumps, tussocks, and ruts abounded. It took him over thirty sleepless hours.
While Jay skied, I stayed home playing mom.  The kids and I made congratulatory welcome-home signs, did some baking, and organized the post-race party, at which the racers all said overly kind things about the cheap Sam’s Club spaghetti, the veggies and dip, and the cake decorated by preschool artisans.  I felt tubby and torpid in a roomful of people with less body fat than Olympic gymnasts.  I saw the frostbite-blistered fingers, toes, and noses, and I heard the stories.  They were epic.
Certain members of my social circle like to use the word “epic” in its adjectival form to describe adventures that incorporate all the best components of, say, Homer’s Odysseus.  Are there seemingly impossible quests involved?  Pain and suffering?  Blood-thirsty many-headed sea creatures?  Epic.  On the other hand, outdoor adventures that include designated campgrounds, bedtime stories, or marshmallow roasts may be fun, but they aren’t epic.
Several of my friends had completed the race, and they were happy to share the details of their odysseys. Tom admitted that near the finish, snow-bent boreal spruce trees started to look like people.  He began peering over his shoulder in sleep-deprived paranoia.  His knees were swollen from repeatedly crashing on sheer sloping ice.  Amy, who received the perseverance award after 38 grueling hours, told me about high-velocity impacts between her face and the snow.  She said she spent hours longing to glimpse the next little white sign promising “one mile to checkpoint.”  She was terribly dehydrated, yet unable to eat or drink.  Meanwhile Jay, in characteristically self-effacing fashion, said that his biggest concern was the poor job he did cleaning up the trail after he sullied it with partially digested ramen and coffee. 
Jay then went on to protest that the race was “fun.”  Lots of fun, he insisted.  Boy, was he excited to do it again, he told me.  When the registration opening for the 2011 race rolled around, he stayed up until midnight to make sure he garnered a slot.
So did I.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a masochist.  At least, I don’t think I’m a masochist.  I signed up for the race because I love backcountry skiing and because I wanted to challenge myself -- not because I actively desired pain, misery, suppurating blisters, or delirium.  Still, there were issues of pride at stake.  In recent years, Jay has done a lot of trips that make for really excellent stories.  I – in part because of two fabulous little fans of campgrounds, bedtime stories, and marshmallows -- have fewer tales to tell.  As much as I wanted to finish the race, and as much wanted to avoid frostbite, hypothermia, and regurgitation, at some level I wanted my Odysseus story, in all its drama-queen glory. I wanted to be epic
Thanks to a truly magnificent set of friends who were willing to babysit twin preschoolers, Jay and I were both able to register for the 2011 event. But by the time late March rolled around, I was more than a little worried.  Who did I think I was, anyhow?  Not an ultra-racer, certainly.  Besides, I knew I hadn’t trained enough.  No, that was too generous.  I hadn’t really trained at all.  My total skiing for the winter added up to about 300 miles, which is mind-bogglingly little for someone who plans to cover 1/3 that distance pretty much nonstop.  The remainder of my physical exertion consisted of commuting four miles to my job at UAF, by bike or on foot, towing or pushing the kids in their nifty convertible Chariot trailer.  Granted, jogging 8 miles round trip with two four-year-olds can work up a sweat, but it doesn’t exactly qualify one to cover the length of four marathons in a row.
At the pre-race meeting, I was reminded of the fact that most of the people I’d met at last year’s party had visible sinews, complex competitive strategies, and dozens of ultra-races under their belts.  A BLM ranger sat mute at the back of the room for a full hour before offering, as a parting one-liner, the information that an early-waking bear had been sighted near Borealis.  “Early bears are hungry,” he noted, as if a roomful of Alaskans might think it was a good idea to smear themselves with peanut butter and honey.  I won a coveted door prize at the meeting, but worried that if I didn’t make it through the race, I’d feel guilty about keeping it.
When I dug in my ski poles at the start, I was sure that at some point in the next two days I was going to begin hating snow. . . and hating trees. . . and hating my skis, my backpack, all the free audio books I’d downloaded from the library, and every Ziploc of Cadbury’s Dark, Nutter Butters, Combos, and peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-pilot-bread.  In fact, I was pretty sure that somewhere along the hundred-mile course I was going to assume a personality that blended the least likeable attributes of Eeyore, Marvin the depressed robot, and a partially decayed zombie.  I wasn’t sure that I should be out there at all – but at the very least, I was expecting the race to be epic.
I hung back, watching the speedsters disappear up the first hill in a jostling rush.  The early part of the trail was back-yard-familiar to me, all rolling landscapes and easily-earned views across valleys of dark spruce and sun-reflecting snow.  The early morning sky warmed to a deepening blue.  I shared a few upbeat words with my fellow slowpokes, and at mile seven I smiled for my friend Ned’s camera, but by mile ten I was skiing alone, in a private sunlit world of shushing snow.  I was stripped down to a tank top.
Conditions in late March can range from icy slush that forces you to coat your skis in hideously gummy klister, to the -25 degrees and howling wind that froze Amy’s feet at the top of the pass last year. This year, the sun warmed the snow just enough to make it slick and quick, but not enough to wreck it.  I was slathered in sunscreen, mock-hip in cheap sunglasses, and basking Vitamin D.  After a long sub-arctic winter, spring feels like a revelation.  Constant entertainment streamed in via my headphones – novels carefully selected to include nothing in the emotional range of Steven King or Jack London.  I had forgotten just how starkly beautiful the blackened stems of an old burn can be, or how friendly the broad tree trunks look in the valley bottoms.  I had forgotten how much I like having someone read stories aloud to me. 
At mile seventeen, the first checkpoint was a flurry of goodwill and free cocoa refills.  At mile 26, affable strangers called hellos over the ecstatic barking of their dog team; apparently watching 65 people race past was canine nirvana.  I managed the precipitous drop to Beaver Creek without removing my skis or shattering anything, and made it to the second checkpoint at mile 39 feeling optimistic enough to grin for the race volunteer wielding a camera.  The long ascent to the Cache Mountain Mountain Divide lay ahead, but I had a foil-wrapped cheese-filled baked potato in one hand, and the sun was still shining.
The next eight hours were slow and dreamlike.  The trail wove through mile upon mile of grey-green forest, rolling over hillocks, but tending ever upward.  The sky darkened and snow began to fall.  At last, the trees thinned around me until I was surrounded by sheer white, windblown and austere.  I reached the top of the pass just as the very last glimmer of daylight disappeared.  The tracks of all those who had crossed ahead of me were already being subsumed by fresh snow and wind.  Visibility by headlamp narrows to a half-dozen feet in a swirl of snowflakes, a phenomenon that I partly blame for my snaillike progress – even when gravity again began to work in my favor.  Flying headlong down the slopes seemed ill-advised.  I picked my way across the sloping surface of the notorious ice lakes with my feet slush-protected by plastic bags that had once contained wood pellets, and anti-skidded with Yak Trax.  It was no doubt a stylish getup.  The medics’ wall tent glowed temptingly, but I replied to a cheery greeting by explaining that I was doing just fine, thanks.  I waddled on by.
Any dramatic claims I might have made about mind-altering fatigue or about pulling an all-nighter alone in the dark were negated by the three-hour nap I took at Windy Gap checkpoint, at mile 62. After consuming at least half a box of crackers, I lay down fully clothed on a wooden bench amidst a cacophony of comings and goings.  Three fellow races were exchanging stories around the rough wooden table.  Someone had been frozen into her own snowshoe bindings on a 300-mile trek.   It sounded epic.  I snored.
When I hit the trail again at 5 a.m., it was still dark -- but I felt rejuvenated, even ebullient.  Who wouldn’t, gliding through a winter wonderland of new-falling snow, listening to Bill Bryson’s sweetly mid-Atlantic voice reading aloud the comic escapades of his 1950s childhood, and munching four chocolate chip cookies?
It was soon after this Breakfast of Champions that I experienced a moment that might have qualified as drama, if this had been somebody else’s story. I practically ran over the obstacle before I saw it.  It was a person.  Lying in the snow beside the trail.  Face down.
I had about two seconds for all my first-aid training to run through my head in completely random order before I realized that the guy I was now stooping over was neither hypothermic nor the tragic victim of marauding yetis, but merely asleep.  I had two more seconds of confused indecision before he woke up, sprang to his feet, and showered me with thanks and apology.  He’d told himself he’d lie down for just one song, he explained, pointing sheepishly to his headphones. 
The fresh snow made for particularly slow progress.  The sun rose as I passed the dramatic limestone jags near Caribou Bluff.  They towered over me on both sides, somehow simultaneously protective and intimidating.  The mottled light filtering through dense cloud was as gorgeous as the nighttime snowfall and the clear hot skies of the previous day had been. 
Throughout that slow second morning, the weather was all magic and no skullduggery.  The temperature did not plummet.  The icy sections of trail were at a minimum, and I did not plunge any limbs into liquid slush. No starving bears appeared.  Yesterday’s views were veiled, but not obscured.  Mile upon mile, valley upon valley, in every direction, lay forests, marshlands, rivers, crags.  No roads.  No houses.  No overpasses, no strip malls, no car alarms, no Walmarts. I was soaking in the tranquility, while at the same time, with somewhat guilty pleasure, enjoying The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants -- a novel I’d selected on the grounds that if I’m going to write for teenagers, I should at least do a little research. 
At mile 82, the volunteer at the Borealis checkpoint snapped another photo.  In it, I am holding a bowl of ramen noodles and crushed Fritos, and wearing an expression that implies I am delightedly anticipating the next crunchy-soggy, tepid, salt-infused spoonful.  At mile 91, further photo evidence was recorded: I’m beaming like a kid at her own birthday party – albeit a sweaty and perhaps slightly deranged kid.
By the last ten miles of the race, all familiar territory, I was undeniably stiff and sore.  I’ve had bad Achilles tendons for years, and they were starting to remind me of their displeasure.  Crouching down for potty breaks seemed a lot more challenging than it had the previous day, and I began to regret my hot cocoa consumption.  When I reached the unrelenting mile of hill known as “Wickersham Wall” it seemed expedient not only to remove my skis, but also to walk backward all the way up it.  Three miles later, at the bottom of the last steep downhill, the effort of rigorous snowplowing made me think that my knees and ankles might enjoy a one-minute rest, which is why I was lying ignominiously in the trail when not one but three dog sleds came barreling down at me.  But climbing a small mountain while facing in the wrong direction and flailing stiff-legged in front of thirty confused canines are still not epic – especially not if one is also listening to Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, and giggling.
I completed the race – without grievous bodily harm, dalliances with bears, or even a single blister -- in exactly 35 hours, placing me 54th out of 65 entrants.  Since seven people didn’t finish, there were actually only four behind me.  Three of them were walking the course.  I was pathetically pokey -- but not quite slow enough for the perseverance award.  I never got dehydrated or cold. I never needed the medics’ extensive first aid kits, or even my own, which consisted of nothing but pain killers and duct tape. I was pleased to have an excuse to consume enough cheese sandwiches and Reisen chocolates to fuel an army.  In other words, my pace, my health, and my digestion were decidedly non-epic.
At the end of the race, a stalwart volunteer snapped one final photo.  I am holding one of my kids in each arm, and grinning at Jay.  Clearly, if I was still strong enough to lift 75 pounds of preschooler, I can’t have been working hard enough.  The four of us don’t look epic – we look Family Circle.
I hosted the post-race party again.  It felt different from last year – but not exactly in the way I’d expected.  My co-organizer added some fresh bread and heaps of strawberries, melon, and pineapple, to the menu, and everyone was even kinder in their thanks.  I still felt dumpy compared to most of the crowd, but I cared less.  Last year, I was looking forward to this year’s race because I was jealous of all the epic-ness around me.  This year, I realized to my own surprise, I was looking forward to next year’s race for a whole list of reasons.
Wilderness inspires me.  Exercise invigorates me.   I now have an official time to beat, and I do love a challenge.  But most importantly, it dawned on me that in my life as a busy working mom there are only rare respites in which I can experience the bliss of being on a mountaintop at sunset, or having hour upon hour all to myself, or absorbing an entire novel nonstop, or eating a gigantic Cadbury bar without even a twinge of remorse.  To do all these things at once? 

At the race finish.  Photo by Taryn Lopez


  1. Way to go Nancy! Amazing the lengths (literally) that a working mom will go to for a few hours alone on a mountaintop... :-)