It's not every day that competitors in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic go too fast, which is why Luc Mehl, Brad Marden and Eben Sargent wanted to take advantage of the situation for as long as they could, even if it meant bodily harm.
Sliding down the frozen reaches of upper Ernie Creek, which pours out of an area known as the Valley of the Precipices in the heart of the Brooks Range, the trio of Anchorage skiers found themselves wrestling with a very un-Classic-like dilemma -- they were going too fast.
With a 25 mph tailwind pushing them down what was essentially a luge run, they had a hard time maintaining control, even with sharp metal edges on their skis.
"We'd aim for bushes or little patches of snow that we could check our speed on," Mehl said. "With that tailwind it felt like if you felt the wind would push you until you hit a rock or a hole.
"I counted a couple of times and with one double-pole stroke you could go 100 to 200 feet. The wind was blowing that hard and the ice was that smooth."
Mehl and Marden estimated they hit speeds of 20 mph on some of the steepest, smoothest stretches.
Considering racers are usually lucky to average 2 mph on a good day in the Classic -- a 150- to 200-mile backcountry ski race with no checkpoints, no trail and no resupply points -- speed is not necessarily a bad thing.
Until it gets too dark to see what's in front of you.
When that happened, the three skiers did the only thing they could. With no tent -- they opted not to bring one so they could travel light -- they found refuge behind three big boulders below a cliff and burrowed in for a few fitful hours of sleep.
While the boulders helped block the wind, they didn't prevent spindrift -- swirling snow as a result of the wind -- from finding its way into the openings of their sleeping bags.
Such is life in the Wilderness Classic, Alaska's longest -- and only -- unsupported, human- powered winter race. Marden called it a camping trip without the amenities
A QUALIFIED SUCCESS
This year's Classic started April 3 at Galbraith Lake, 350 miles north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway.
From there, racers headed west toward Anaktuvuk Pass. From Anaktuvuk Pass, there are basically two options:
• Backtrack 25 miles to Ernie Pass and go down Ernie Creek to the North Fork of the Koyukuk River and follow it 50 miles before turning off to Wiseman;
• Go down the Tineyguk River to the point it connects with the North Fork.
Of the 14 competitors, Mehl, Marden and Sargent were the only ones to complete the entire course from Galbraith Lake to Anaktuvuk Pass to Wiseman.
Only one other racer -- Andrew Cyr of Fairbanks -- managed to make it to Anaktuvuk Pass, a remote village where racers were required to sign in. Cyr stopped there and called in a plane to fly him out.
The remaining 10 competitors, for various reasons, bypassed Anaktuvuk Pass and skied down the North Fork of the Koyukuk River to Wiseman, a decision that cut approximately 50 miles off the route but also disqualified them from the race.
Even so, race organizer Dave Cramer -- one of the racers who bypassed Anaktuvuk -- deemed this year's Classic a success.
"Everybody skied a hell of a long ways through some rough country," he said.
It was the second straight Classic victory for Mehl, who last year won the race going down the Tinayguk River with partner John Pekar. Mehl, Marden and Sargent finished in 4 days, 13 hours and 30 minutes, beating last year's time by about four hours even though this year's route was 20 miles longer. This time, Mehl and his parnters didn't have to break trail for the final 50 miles after turning off the North Fork -- a group of five women from Denali Park who had skied from Anaktuvuk Pass to Wiseman had done it for them.
"If we would have had to break trail over that it would have added at least 12 hours to our time," Mehl said.
Ned Rozell and Michael Gibson, a pair of Classic veterans from Fairbanks, ran into trouble going up Peregrine Pass that altered their plans to go to Anaktuvuk. As they began climbing, they realized a screw on one of Gibson's three-pin ski bindings was loose.
They also started hearing "whumping" noises, a sign of potential avalanche danger.
The two skiers decided to retreat in order to repair Gibson's binding and try again the next day.
"We went to bed that night and woke up in the morning at 7 o'clock and couldn't see anything," Rozell said.
They waited a few hours for the weather to clear and by that time a train of five other racers -- Dave Cramer, Rob Kehrer, Yoshi Nishiyama, Andy Sterns and Chris Zwolinski -- had caught up to them. They all agreed turning down the North Fork would be the wise choice.
"We knew if we went to Anaktuvuk there was a good chance we'd pull the plug and fly out," Rozell said.
Even though he and Gibson didn't complete the course, Rozell said the ski from Galbraith Lake to Wiseman was a great trip. It took them 6 1/2 days.
Along the way they saw several hundred caribou on the north side of the range and a pack of five wolves just before they hit the North Fork. They also saw tracks made by grizzly bears, lynx, wolverines and wolves.
The rookie team of Thomas Bailly, Doug Jewel and Miles Rainey hit the ice on Ernie Creek before Mehl, Marden and Sargent because they bypassed Anaktuvuk Pass. At first, they welcomed the ice because it meant they didn't have to break trail.
After a few miles, they weren't so sure
"You'd start picking up speed and have no control," Bailly said. "You'd kind of let go and cruise and hit a patch of snow and hope you slowed down."
They weren't surprised the next day when Mehl, Marden and Sargent overtook them as they skied down the North Fork.
"What Luc and those guys did was awesome," Bailly said. "They went longer days and had shorter nights."
Bailly, an experienced backcountry and mountain skier, described his first Classic as a humbling experience. Prior to the race, he didn't think it would be difficult to travel 40 miles a day.
"It's one thing to bust out mileage and sleep at home or bust out mileage on a nicely groomed trail," he said. "It's another thing to bust out mileage when you're skiing over glare ice, overflow, fresh snow and up and down mountains."
Contact Fairbanks Daily News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 907-459-7587.