Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2015: The Great-Heartedness of Others

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“That I exist is a perpetual surprise which is life”  -Tagore

I am struggling to keep up.  An unknown lung infection has been plaguing me since I started to wheeze on the first night of the Classic.  I am on Platinum Creek, the evening of the fourth day, about 50 miles from the finish.   My partner Katie Strong, and a team of three, Andrew, Toby, and Danny, are ahead.   We had come up the Kennicott Glacier, past Packsaddle Island, and over a stunning 9,600ft pass near Mountain 12,454.  The team of three had joined our track on the Nabesna Glacier after going over the Rohn Glacier, and caught us on the lake that morning.  No sign of the other teams.  In the late afternoon we had been shut down by the wind on the Nabesna River ice, forced to stop double poling and walk the remaining distance to the creek, where we all collapsed and aired our damaged wet feet.  My breathing was short, harsh, and shallow.  We ate chocolate and laughed.  Bonds are formed in this beauty beyond fear between those who reap the rewards of wilderness travel.  At an open water stop to fill up as dusk settled on Platinum Creek, I caught a hint of woodsmoke, and an incomparable joy suffused my drained and damaged being.  Instead of a night of labored skiing in the dark to catch up, I knew there was a fire ahead.  Andrew immediately placed a cup of hot tea in my hand on arrival, and a fullness of gratitude failed to be expressed through strained, difficult breathing.  He had just broken his boot, and his Classic was over [hence the early camp], but instead of bemoaning his upcoming walk to Nabesna, he made me tea.  His told me how his partner in the Brooks Range had been evacuated with pneumonia, and that I sounded similar.  “Be careful, it is still a long haul”, he said.  At this point I knew I could finish, I would just be slow, and only able to move quickly when feeling well at the beginning of the day.  Katie knew I was struggling, having been kept awake by my hacking and wheezing, and graciously demanded the rope and my mountaineering harness in the morning to lighten my load.  ‘Team Ham-Strong’  was going to finish what it started.  Our Platinum Camp was growing; Derek, who had his partner bail at Nabesna with a broken binding and pole, and had traveled over President’s chair, showed up late that night.  In the morning, Ben and Sarah, a sibling team who had skied incredibly fast around Skolai Pass, joined the group with independent Nicholai along shortly behind.  Sarah was also suffering from this unknown illness, and we learned that Greg had been flown out with something similar.  When Andrew fell back in the morning, we had a group of 8 trading the lead and the trail-breaking responsibilities towards our final major obstacle, Platinum and Noyes Pass.

The simple goal of movement and survival leads to a forgetting of all goals, all separation.  I was beginning to feel the mental benefits of such a punishing ski.  The spontaneous, ephemeral nature of Being was manifest in the enormous hoar frost under my skis, the pressure ridges in the lake ice, the sparkling dance of sun on snow crystals.  Future, past, self, all drop away into Now, the Eternal Now.  Nothing can be gained or lost here.  Death is nothing, or the immediate aliveness of everything wipes out Time.  The communal delusion [of self, of concreteness], while necessary in society, muddles this state of Beautiful Being, which can still be attained in music, meditation, love, or art.  However, I find the delusion most fully annihilated by the cleansing vastness, suffering, and kindness of wilderness travel.

The deep snow of the passes could not stop the strong skiing of Toby, Ben, and the others, and soon the trail was in.  I arrived at the top of Noyes Pass and collapsed in a pile.  The toe of both my boots had ripped out during falls in the deep snow past Platinum Pass and were now held together with ski straps. Everyone was still there.  Katie had melted me some water.  Derek walked over and pressed some large white pills into my hand.  He had had pneumonia four weeks earlier and was miraculously carrying antibiotics in case of a re-lapse.  Sarah had already been taking them to help her.  I was in no state to rufuse help of any form, and immediately took one.   We descended the icy canyon of the Little Tok, standing movement such pleasure I could hardly stop smiling.  We had amazing organizer Dave Cramer’s remote cabin to look forward to that evening, and a relatively short day out to the finish.  Darkness fell, and I had to stop double poling often to try and catch my breath.  Katie lit my path from behind with her powerful headlamp, and we made it to the cabin around 11pm.

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In the morning we set out late, 8am, after coffee and another fire.  Katie was the expert on the route, having been there the past two years, and we soon found our way down through the brush and ice of the Little Tok.  While skating just before the snow-machine track joins about 11 miles out, I noticed my binding was very loose, I had sheared off a screw head.  As the others relished the last of their snacks, Toby, easily the strongest among us, broke out his own special metal zip ties and helped lash my binding down to my ski.  Once on the track, I realized I only had one functional gliding ski, and would be severely handicapped.  Katie was already ahead, so I told Ben as he passed that I would be too slow and to tell her to go ahead and finish, I could walk the last ten miles on the track if I had to.  Before he and Sarah skied on he asked if he could take any of my heavy gear.  The gesture alone made my pack feel ten pounds lighter.   Toby, who could have finished hours ago, stopped as I fiddled with my ski again, making sure I had enough zip ties, and offered some advice on favoring one ski. These are examples of Classic “race tactics”.

Once alone, I set down to perfecting a single ski shuffle technique.  With a skin on the bad ski to cover the catching repair straps, I was able to push off in a skate-boarding-like motion, fully weighting the glide ski for as long as I could.  After an hour I would switch legs and push with the other.  This became a fun game of slalom skiing, navigating dips and turns through the woods on one ski.  I was thankful for the time of solitary reflection, and even more thankful for the joyous finishing greeting I received at the Log Cabin Inn.  The seven first place finishers had arrived 45 minutes prior, and were there cheering on the porch.  Andrew as well, who had made it out from Nabesna and spent the morning clearing trees from the trail for us along the final four mile unplowed road to the finish.  A beer was thrust in my hand, and as soon as my boots were off, I was sitting at a big table, smiling sunburnt faces all around, enjoying the best steak I have ever eaten.

The Classic; you laugh, and struggle, and improvise, and rant, and release.  You forget who you are and find new friends in remote places.  Four hours later the remaining team of four arrived and another big meal was enjoyed. One solo racer, Chris, remains on the course as of this writing, and I hope his trip is full of rewards.

“The more real you get, the more unreal the world gets”-  John Lennon

Here is a link to all the pictures:

https://flic.kr/s/aHsk9HDfQ3

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~ by Scott Hamilton Peters on March 29, 2015.

One Response to “Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2015: The Great-Heartedness of Others”

  1. Love this story and an inspirational one at that. Stephanie is my daughter who lives in Fairbanks and introduced me to Andrew . It is amazing how our will can keep us going and our friends can hold us up.

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