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Too cold? Too snowy? Too much?

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 29, 2015

Brutalized and beaten but somehow unbowed by the 46-degree-below-zero cold, deep snow and the overwhelming desolation of the Iditarod Trail through the heart of unoccupied Interior Alaska, Tim and Loreen Hewitt flew home to Pennsylvania more than a week ago to nurse their cold-weather injuries.

Loreen's badly frostbitten thumb was swathed in bandages after a visit to the Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. Some of her other fingers were swollen and blistered from frostbite. Tim's feet looked like red, overstuffed potatoes and his hands mimicked those of Loreen, sans the black thumb hidden beneath gauze.

They ate breakfast somewhat hamfistedly in Anchorage last week, their injured fingers clumsy with the eating utensils as they talked about an Iditarod Trail Invitational race that turned into an ordeal. They also stayed overnight with this reporter before heading back east.

"I was up against something bigger than me this year," Tim said.

Eight times before, Tim had walked north from Knik to Nome for 1,000 miles in the Invitational with no major issues. He holds the Invitational record time for foot travel to Nome, 20 days, 7 hours and 17 minutes, a mark he set in 2011, a time only about seven hours slower than the winner of the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race recorded.

Tim is now famous among a small circle of ultra-endurance athletes. His Alaska adventures have been chronicled in "8,000 Miles Across Alaska -- A Runner's Journey on the Iditarod Trail" (co-written with Jill Homer).

"This book is not just a fascinating story of one man," Alaska reviewer David A. James wrote in in February. "It's about an Alaska most Alaskans never see, and a Pennsylvanian who puts us all to shame."

Hewitt could be considered the hardest of hard men on the Iditarod Trail, and Loreen, a veteran of four journeys to McGrath on the same trail, is no pansy. And yet the Iditarod this year proved too tough for both of them.

Going in, Tim planned something different, but it most certainly wasn't getting rescued. Rescue was the idea of Invitational organizer Bill Merchant, who spent about a week worrying about the Hewitts and California business consultant Steve Ansell floundering through deep snow on the 160-mile trail from Ophir to Ruby before finally hiring a Ruby trapper with a snowmachine to go check on the trio.

Good thing he did. By then, Tim was out of food and almost exhausted from breaking trail for close to 100 miles through snow up to crotch deep in temperatures in the range of 30 to 45 degrees below zero.

Trail breaking in such conditions is a nightmare. You have to dress lightly while laboring through the snow so you don't sweat, get wet and freeze. But you can't stop to rest or you will freeze.

At 40 degrees below zero, exposed skin will turn to ice in about 10 minutes, leading to frostbite. If there is a 10 mph wind blowing at that temperature, the time to freeze will be cut in about half.

And forget about help. The Hewitts and other Invitational racers were in country that rarely sees another human in winter.

Emptiest land in an empty state

Born as a mining camp in 1906, Ophir is now a ghost town 25 miles north of Takotna, which itself isn't much: a huddle of 50 people along the north bank of the Takotna River. Ophir is at the southern end of a little-traveled section of the Iditarod Trail that stretches across some of the most desolate and uninhabited country in North America to reach the Yukon River at Ruby, which also isn't much.

At Ruby, there are about 160 people hanging on in what was once a busy Yukon River port. At the height of the Alaska gold rushes of the 1900s, the city numbered almost 3,000. Men started leaving around 1918 to fight in the World War I and never came back. The regional economy fell into decline and without jobs to support people, almost everyone disappeared.

Every year now, the Iron Dog -- the world's longest, toughest snowmachine race -- punches open the Iditarod Trial between Ophir and Ruby, and every other year the Iditarod dog sled race follows the Iron Dog on the former's "northern route." This year, however, the Iditarod started in Fairbanks because the trail between Rainy Pass and McGrath had no snow.

North of McGrath, however, there was more snow, and the die-hards in the Invitational decided they would stick to the traditional route. Little did they know that by the time the last of the bikers and the hikers reached the most remote part of the trail, there would be lots of snow.

Way too much, in fact.

Wrong from the start

An experienced runner and hiker, Tim took to the trail this year in a way he'd never done before. He got on a fat-tire bike to ride to Nome. Bikes have in recent years come to dominate the Invitational, which traces its roots back to the original Iditasport, which sprung from the Iditaski, a cross-country ski race, and the Iditafoot, a snowshoe race.

All were linked to the dog race, whose prime founder -- the late Joe Redington Sr. -- dedicated his life to trying to get people out onto the historic trail from Knik to Nome in every possible way. Today's trail is used most by snowmachine riders, but there are still dog teams on it and every year more fat bikes.

Fat bikes have become popular enough that the Invitational now limits its field to 55 bikers, runners and skiers, and competition for those slots is intense. The field is usually full by summer. About 75 percent of the competitors are cyclists. Skiers have become rare. Tim was among the cyclists this year, though this was something new for the nearly 60-year-old who once nearly won the first stage of the race on foot.

In 2012, when snows fell heavy on the Iditarod Trail and the cyclists had to push a lot, Tim led the race for a long time. Chugging along on foot, he paced the bikers all the way to the crest of the Alaska Range almost 200 miles north of of the start line of the race's first, 350-mile stage to McGrath.

The cyclists eventually caught him, but he was still fifth overall into McGrath. His time was a little over seven days. Equipped with wheels, he figured to be a lot faster this year, and he was. He nearly cut the time to McGrath in half.

By then, however, race winner John Lackey was long gone from town. Riding on an often snowless Iditarod Trail, the Anchorage cyclist made it to McGrath in 1 day, 18 hours and 32 minutes to put to shame the fastest dogs in Iditarod dog race history.

The cyclists couldn't have asked for a much better trail, and for those who immediately rolled north toward Ruby, the going remained pretty good. Unfortunately, Tim was not among that group.

He had an asthma attack upon reaching McGrath, had to visit the clinic in the Kuskokwim River community to get drugs, and spent more than a day there recovering. By the time he rolled out, it had started snowing.

Too much snow; too much cold

"I rode most of the way to Takotna," Tim said, but by then the snow was falling ever more heavily on the 20 miles of well-traveled trail between the two communities.

In Takotna, Tim caught Belgian cyclist Frank Janssens, who now calls Vancouver, British Columbia, home. Janssens warned of snow in the forecast and then boogied north up the trail.

"He said, 'We're getting 18 to 30 inches of snow tonight,' " Tim remembered. "So out of Takotna, I never rode after that."

It was snowing hard when Janssens left, but when Tim took to the trail hours later he could still follow the other cyclist's foot trail for 30 miles up and over an 800-foot-tall mountain en route to Ophir. It was a 22-hour, fat-bike push-a-thon, but Tim finally rolled into the deserted checkpoint.

"It was snowing like hell by then," he said, "but it wasn't cold. There was no sign of Frank. His tracks were gone."

Tim found a bunkhouse used by the Iditarod dog race that had been left open, went inside, and holed up for the night. The next day, he heard the glorious sound of a snowmachine coming in from Takotna.

"I went out and hugged the guy,'' Tim said. "He said, 'Don't get too excited. I'm only going to Carlson Crossing' " to get Janssens. Janssens had made it to an Invitational food drop about halfway between Ophir and Ruby before deciding he'd had enough.

He retreated to a public shelter cabin the U.S. Bureau of Land Management built a few years back along the Iditarod Trail at Carlson Creek, holed up and used a satellite phone to call for a ride.

Tim figured he'd be the big beneficiary of that decision. He fell in on the track behind the departing snowmachine and started pushing his bike. In a few places he could ride. It was the morning of March 8. His bike ride to Nome was looking up.

He met Janssen aboard the snowmachine going back to Takotna. Tim still remembers clearly his words.

"Frank said, 'You can't make it. I was pushing in drifts up to my chest.'

"I should have listened," Tim said. "The guy has twice ridden a bike around the world."

But Tim didn't listen. His motto is pretty simple: "Just don't yield." He marched on.

He would keep marching on for another week as the temperature plunged to a low of 46 degrees below zero, and his slow pace forced him to camp repeatedly in the bitterly cold snow. He often longed for his Snowy Owl EX -60, the old, trusted friend he'd left at home.

The Snowy Owl is a sleeping bag made by "Feathered Friends," a Seattle company. It is rated to 60 degrees below zero.

"They're like a mobile home," Tim said.

As a hiker, he could tow the somewhat bulky, 5-pound sleeping bag behind him in a sled. As a cyclist, he decided he needed a lighter sleeping bag with less bulk. So he packed an old REI bag rated to 20 degrees below zero.

It kept him alive, but just barely.

"It was too cold to sleep,'' he said, "and I was too tired to get out."

When he got so tired that he had to bivvy, he'd crawl into the bag damp from sweat and shiver. The dampness, meanwhile, would collect in the bag and turn to frost in the extreme cold. Thus the bag became heavier and bulkier and harder to lash to his bike by the day.

"My sleeping bag was soaked,'' Tim said. "Sometimes it's not easy out there."

It didn't start out this way.

Never turn back

When Tim left Ophir, he had the snowmachine trail to Carlson. Beyond Carlson he could follow Janssens' tracks to the food drop.

"That makes it a lot easier," he said. And at the food drop there were "big tracks" heading off down the trail. The tracks looked to be on the wrong trail, but Tim followed them anyway all the way to their end.

They were tracks made big by Janssen stomping out the wrong trail and then turning around to retrace his steps.

"I almost cried," Tim said.

Instead of crying, he reversed course and marched back to the food drop. He found the right route and started breaking trail toward the North Fork Innoko River, where the BLM has built another shelter cabin.

"There were a bunch of wolf tracks going right down the trail," he said. "I used their trail for a while."

Eventually he pushed into Innoko. He'd hoped to find the trail broken open beyond there. All he found was a lot more unbroken snow.

"I almost cried again," he said.

Instead, he rested and then pushed on. He made it to Poorman, another old abandoned mining camp, where for some reason there were a bunch of snowmachine tracks. He followed them. They led to the little used Poorman airstrip, circled around and went beyond.

Tim followed them up a hill.

"The snow just kept getting deeper and deeper," he said, and then the tracks disappeared. Exhausted, frustrated, down to his last meal, Tim dug yet another hole in the snow and crawled into his sleeping bag to shiver and rest.

He knew now that he was in trouble, but he wasn't worried.

He decided he'd go back to the Innoko cabin, where he'd stashed some food. Then he could resupply and work his way back to Takotna.

"I turned around, and now I have a pretty good track," he said. "I know there are two freeze-dried meals there (at Innoko). I was OK. And then I ran into Beat."

That would be Beat as in "Be-At" Jegerlehner, a Google software engineer from California and another Invitational veteran. Jegerlehner encouraged Tim to push on with him to Ruby. Jegerlehner is a big man, and he was then on snowshoes pulling a sled that smoothed the trail behind him.

Tim figured it wouldn't be that hard to follow Jegerlehner. So he turned around and started north again.

"Beat left me behind pretty quick," he said. "I grunted and cursed and spit."

Things were getting a little tough for Tim. Temperatures weren't getting any warmer. His sleeping bag was full of frost and now the smell of gasoline because his stove had leaked into it at some point during one of his bivvies. The stove was in his sleeping bag because the pump was frozen and wasn't working.

Putting the pump in the sleeping bag seemed the best way to thaw it out, but it ended up creating yet another problem. Now Tim spent his rest time in a not-so-good sleeping bag shivering and huffing gas fumes.

The good news was that he had been traveling so slow that he knew Loreen and Steve Ansell, a San Francisco ultra-runner who'd been traveling with her, couldn't be far behind. Beat reported seeing them back in Ophir.

Loreen said she and Ansell had started off from Takotna thinking they'd go as far as Carlson, and then if conditions got too bad, turn around and retreat. But they changed their minds.

"It was a beautiful day to Ophir," she said. Encouraged by the weather, the duo marched on down the trail from the old ghost town.

"That's when it really started to get cold," she said. But nestled down in her Snowy Owl, she didn't really mind.

"I was never afraid," she said. "I've had some bad days on the trail before, but there were none this year."

So she and Ansell kept going. They made Carlson and decided to push on for Innoko. She noticed at Carlson that her hands were red and had some blisters forming, but she figured she'd get them checked in Ruby and everything would be fine.

The pair made the Innoko cabin and thought they'd find a little relief from the cold, but they didn't.

The stove in the cabin "will burn the wood," Loreen said. "It just won't get the cabin warm. It was so cold in that cabin this year. Our water took forever to boil. There was frost everywhere."

Loreen and Ansell could have turned back, but by now they were almost halfway to Ruby, and they figured it only made sense to just keep moving forward. They headed down the trail to Poorman, but it was slow going.

They were forced to bivvy out. It was cold. Loreen noticed it was getting more difficult to use her fingers to work the plastic snaps and zipper on the bag that held her gear in her sled.

"When this thumb split (open)," she said, "I knew I was in trouble."

Dozens of miles from nowhere, though, there's not much you can do when you're in trouble but keep going. Loreen had a satellite phone, but she -- like Tim -- isn't one to call for help. She mainly used the phone to call a worried daughter back in California (the Hewitts have four daughters) to assure her everything was fine, even when it wasn't so fine.

Her first worry didn't come until she and Ansell caught Tim. He should have been far ahead of them, but was obviously struggling. Still, he seemed physically OK, and he was ready to push on. Loreen figured that with the three of them to break trail, it would be fine.

And it was until it wasn't.

With Loreen and Ansell breaking trail, Tim had an easier time pushing, though it still wasn't easy, and then nature slapped him down again.

"The trees started rustling," Tim said, "and then it just started howling. Steve and Loreen took off. It was just impossible for me to follow her. I was post-holing and pushing the bike from one snowshoe track to another.

"It was exhausting, and pretty soon the trail was gone. Then I got blown over a couple times. It was comical if you were out there."

When he finally hit a quiet spot where trees provided shelter from the wind, Tim stopped and dug in. Only about a mile and a half ahead, Loreen and Ansell were doing the same thing. She put out a brightly colored poncho and a flashing light to mark the bivvy, thinking Tim would show up.

A GPS tracker told her they were only 28 miles out of Ruby, having now covered the vast majority of the 160-mile trail. But Loreen was ready to quit. If a snowmachine showed up, she said, "I was going to take a ride into Ruby."

She remembers that night well. It was Sunday, March 15.

"The sky that night was a really brilliant blue," she said. "Then red, then sort of purplish. It was so pretty."

She crawled into her warm, but now damp, Snowy Owl and went to sleep.

Dead man sleeping

Back home in the Mat-Su community of Sutton, Bill Merchant was by this point getting seriously worried. He knew Tim was a tough and experienced wilderness traveler, but he'd watched the lawyer's satellite tracker going backward and forward on the trail for days, making little progress.

Merchant particularly worried about the signal wandering in circles around the Poorman airstrip. Was Tim trying to signal that he was in trouble?

Merchant knew Tim had to be breaking trail. Merchant knew Tim was out of food. A longtime Alaskan with decades of experience on the trail, Merchant knew the dangers of life at 40 or 50 degrees below zero.

On Sunday night, Merchant called people he knew in Ruby and told them to round up a snowmachine rider who could go out and look for the Hewitts and Ansell. Loreen got up on Monday to the sound of a snowmachine laboring along the trail. It soon reached her.

She told driver Allen Titus she was fine, but "I'm worried about my husband."

She planned to walk to Ruby, Titus said in a phone interview from Ruby, but asked him to go back to look for Tim because she "hadn't seen him since one o'clock yesterday." Titus struggled to make his way through the deep snow on what is still called the Poorman Highway, though the road is largely abandoned. Several times he got stuck, struggled to dig out his snowmachine and thought about just going home.

But he kept thinking Tim might be just around the next bend in the trail so he went on. Eventually he found signs of humans.

"All I saw was a bicycle and a black sleeping bag lying in the middle of the Poorman Highway,'' Titus said. He yelled. The sleeping bag didn't move. Titus yelled again. Nothing.

He parked his machine and turned it off, then started walking toward the bag, fearing the worst. When he got close to it, he decided to shout one more time.

"I yelled loud," he said. "'You're sleeping right in the middle of the Poorman Highway!'"

All of a sudden, Tim sat up and poked his face out of the sleeping bag.

"He was screaming like crazy," Tim said. "He thought I was dead."

"I scolded him good," Titus said. "I told him to get up and get moving and have some coffee. Snow was blowing about 50 mph. It was a terrible day."

Tim was only too happy to get up and get moving. Titus loaded him in the sled behind his snowmachine. He picked up ?Loreen farther down the trail. They passed Ansell, who kept walking toward Ruby. He eventually scratched down the Yukon River at Galena to bring the Invitational to an end. He was the last man moving on the trail.

It didn't take Titus long to haul Tim and Loreen to Ruby, where they warmed up and called their daughters to assure them all was fine. "They were panicked," Loreen said. "They were worried about Tim. I was at least moving" on the satellite tracking system.

?A dangerous addiction

Most people, left damaged after an adventure like this, might declare they'd had enough. But with the Hewitts you have to wonder.

"Why I love the whole thing is because it's so basic," Loreen said. "You just have to take care of yourself. There's nothing else to think about.

"If I think my fingers are OK next year," she said, then paused, "I don't think I'll be trying for Nome again, but I'd probably think about going to McGrath."

As for Tim, who once did the Iditarod wholly unsupported with a huge and necessary load of gear in tow (he wouldn't even sleep in cabins or checkpoints that year), the Iditarod appears like one of the sirens of Greek mythology, the beautiful creatures who lured sailors into danger.

When Tim dropped his bike off at Speedway Cycles in Anchorage to be shipped back to Pennsylvania, he hinted strongly that he would be back in Alaska again next year with unfinished business to complete.

"I hate to let the bike beat me," he said. "I think Alaska beat me this time, but I hate to let the bike beat me."

Those were the words of a man who won't yield.

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