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Legend of Alaska adventure sports, Rocky Reifenstuhl dead at 61

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 2, 2014

A legend of Alaska adventure sport is dead at the comparatively young age of 61.

Friends of Rocky Reifenstuhl of Fairbanks say he died Friday of an infection in a Salt Lake City hospital while awaiting a heart transplant. Reifenstuhl's heart had been deteriorating for years, but that didn't diminish his zest for Alaska's backcountry or for competition.

"One day, this race resume is going to stop growing," he once wrote on his own website. "The next day, I get placed in a pine box."

A notorious puker -- you could follow Reifenstuhl's progress trail along the Iditarod Trail by tracking colored vomit, old friend Bill Merchant joked -- Reifenstuhl made his name in the snowy wilderness of the 49th state.

Long before the birth of the fat-tire bikes that revolutionized winter wilderness cycling, Reifenstuhl was on the trail. He road the Iditabike, the precursor to the Iditasport, itself the precursor to today's Iditarod Trail Invitational, back in 1988 for the first time.

Four years later, he won the then-200-mile race. At the time, 200 miles was considered a long distance to race on a bike in winter. Nine years later, Reifenstuhl would get off the bike to hike, jog and run his way to victory in the foot-division of the Iditasport Extreme, a 350-mile foot race from the tiny southcentral town of Knik up and over the forbidding Alaska Range to the outpost community of McGrath in Interior Alaska.

A year later, he came back to win the same race on a bike.

Competitors and friends Reifenstuhl made along the trail probably remembered him as much for his go-light philosophy as his competitive accomplishments. Reifenstuhl usually carried little gear. During one Iditasport race, he had to burn his water bottle and what other little plastic he had with him to get a fire going in the Dalzell Gorge in the Alaska Range, where temperatures hovered near minus-40 F.

Reifenstuhl admitted at the time he'd come dangerous close to freezing to death. It did not faze him. He was an old-school Alaskan who knew such dangers were the norm and who knew how to build a fire under tough circumstances. In the wild, fire could spell the difference between life and death.

Professionally, Reifenstuhl was a geologist for the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys before his retirement. The job fit well with what he liked to do, and he had a love of rocks.

Merchant remembers the time Reifenstuhl nearly froze to death. The adventurer finally stumbled into the remote Rohn River cabin along the Iditarod Trail and begin waving a rock at Jasper Bond, a checker for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. The rock was, Reifenstuhl proclaimed, one of the oldest rocks in North America.

Reifenstuhl may have been hypothermic. Low body temperature is known to make people behave strangely. But Reifenstuhl was a little different to begin with, as is the case with many who are more comfortable in the wilderness than the city.

He once described himself this way: "Dad, husband, brother, freezer-geezer, cyclist, geologist, Alaskan, friend and general pain-in-the-ass.''

He should have added "hard man."

In the year 2000, he and brother Steve, a fisheries biologist in Sitka, won the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, one of the toughest races in the world, in brutal conditions. Competitors ended up bogged down in an unusual summer snowstorm that led racer Roman Dial, another prominent Alaska adventure sport racer, to coin the phrase "pussy bedwetters'' as he chastised competitors to try to get them moving along the trail.

The brothers Reifenstuhl were no pussy bedwetters.

As Rocky later told reporter Charles Bingham of the Juneau Empire, "there are a million ways to die in this race, and there's a five-page waiver they make you sign that tells you about all of them.

"But compared to a lot of the other races out there, I really enjoy the purity of this one. It's not contrived. Like the other day I was watching the Eco-Challenge and it looked like some of the stuff they were having to do was more for the photo op than for the race."

Photo ops were decidedly not Reifenstuhl's kind of thing.

He is survived by his brother Steve; his wife, Gail Koepf, a noted adventure athlete herself; and two daughters. Reifenstuhl's unexpected death left many friends describing their reaction as simply "shock.''

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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