Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Alaska Adventure Race 2002 Article from Anchorage Daily News

Here's a newspaper article from the Anchorage Daily News about the 2002, Nabesna to McCarthy race. The 2002 race was one of the more notorious years when the weather could only be described as "biblical" in proportion.

Veteran racers are still amazed at the severity and swiftness of the July snowstorm. At the top of Cooper Pass, about 25 miles into the race, the snow was hip deep and previously running streams were completely frozen. In the small canyon just below Coooper Pass, there was so much snow that my race partner and I witnessed avalanches.

After making it through Cooper Pass, we tried for 30 minutes to start a fire but it was too cold and wet for even military style chemical fire starter. We dug a shallow hole under a spruce tree and went to sleep. I was so cold, I was wondering if I shouldn't fall asleep for fear that I wouldn't wake up. I did and we finished the race in respectable time a couple days later.

Anyway, you don't have to take my word for it, I posted the article here so you can read it. I got the text from archives and I included a picture that I had scanned and saved from the original newspaper.

Reprinted in full with the express permission from the Anchorage Daily News.

Wilderness Classic racers court death in July blizzard

'BRUTAL': Roman Dial sets new race record 20 years after his first win.

Anchorage Daily News (AK) - Sunday, August 18, 2002
Author: Craig Medred Anchorage Daily News ; Staff

At the start, the cold rain came down October-ugly. Only one of the 27 hardy souls gathered for the start of the Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Classic race through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park read the meaning of the snow line creeping down the mountains above and showed the sense to go home.

Twenty-six others set off across the Nabesna River toward 6,000-foot Cooper Pass, some 20 miles to the southeast. They never imagined the late-July weather could get any worse.

And then it did.

By the time people started bailing out of the state's most notorious wilderness race, huddling in the safety of a cabin in the remote outpost of Chisana instead of risking more snow in the Wrangell Mountain passes, the 150-mile classic had gone from adventure race to survival challenge.

''Brutal'' is the word racer Mel Strauch uses to describe it.

When the rain turned to wet, heavy snow, it was bad. When the wet, heavy snow started falling so hard that Strauch and partner Greg Tibbetts of Anchorage got turned around in whiteout conditions, it was worse. When the snow piled up a foot and a half deep, then started avalanching off the mountains, it was simply dangerous.

A veteran of winter races along the Iditarod Trail, Strauch, a salesman at the local REI, remembers looking repeatedly at his watch, reading the July 28 date, and wondering, ''How can this be?''

He and Tibbetts, another veteran ski racer , would end up spending a night huddled beneath a pair of inflated one-man rafts, shivering over a tiny stove, and worrying about what the next day might bring.

And even as those two Anchorage men were thinking about making that uncomfortable forced bivouac high in the Wrangells on July 28, two others -- orthopedic surgeon John Lapkass from Anchorage and medical professor Michael Martin from Seattle -- wandered around in near-whiteout conditions, hoping they wouldn't lose the route through the pass and have to spend a night in the open.

Howling wind piled snow in drifts three to four feet deep. Martin's feet were cold, soaked and losing feeling. More than a week later, he would still be limping on them.

Lapkass was in better shape, but he was rattled, too. A veteran of wilderness races all over Alaska, including previous Wilderness Classics through the Brooks Range of the far north, Lapkass had never seen anything like this.

''It was good, solid knee-deep,'' he said. ''There was one place I went into a drift up to my waist. It was a mid-winter blizzard-type thing. It got a little desperate.''

Lapkass does not use the word ''desperate'' lightly. Like others who enter this wilderness race, he is a man who has seen plenty of snow and lived with wet and discomfort. He has felt the uneasiness of being lost. He has faced down grizzly bears and swum bone-numbing glacial rivers.

But this time Lapkass worried he was near his limit.

''No one could have anticipated a true blizzard at the end of July,'' Martin said. ''In the 21 years of the race, no one could remember anything like this happening before.

''We all go extremely light. I, for example, was wearing running tights, very light boots, two light polypro tops and light rain gear. I had light polypro gloves, which were soaked or frozen 100 percent of the time. I had a tiny tent and light (sleeping) bag, but the idea of bivvying in two feet of still-accumulating snow with my level of hypothermia seemed like certain death.

''Our only chance was to keep moving, hoping to get below the snow line and . . . make a fire.''

To keep up their spirits, Lapkass and Martin struggled to find some humor.

''When we first started hitting the snow,'' Lapkass said, ''I made a comment to Michael, 'Wouldn't it be funny if there was a foot of snow on the top.'

''As we went on, Michael said, 'Well, you got your foot.' ''

From then on, it only got worse.

''It was pretty much put your head down and put one foot in front of the other,'' Lapkass said.

Martin, a race veteran, admitted he was scared, particularly after Lapkass pulled away in the storm. At first, Martin followed the tracks of his faster companion, but then Lapkass' tracks started disappearing under blowing snow.

When Lapkass started downhill out of the pass, he noticed Martin missing. He waited 20 minutes, shivering in the wind before deciding he should go back to look for Martin. Luckily, Lapkass said, Martin appeared out of the blowing snow just then.

''By about midnight,'' Martin said, ''we had managed to wade out of the snow and down onto Notch Creek. It was another three or so miles to any spruce. By about 1:30 we had a fire going and felt that we might live after all.''

Neither could relax until they had sparked that warming smudge into a full-fledged bonfire.

''I wasn't happy until the flames went as high as my head,'' Lapkass said.

Ahead of them, meanwhile, the race leaders faced a grim situation.

Defending Wilderness Classic champs Rocky and Steve Reifenstuhl -- along with arch-rival Roman Dial -- had struggled through snow all day toward the Chisana River with Steve in bad shape.

The Sitka-based racer had started despite a cold. Weakened by illness, he struggled to withstand the beating the weather dished out.

Dial wasn't in great shape, either, in part because he'd cut his gear to the bone to save weight and travel faster. He carried neither cap nor gloves, wore a wind shell of fabric the weight of parachute cloth and had soaked himself in the raft crossing of the Nabesna River that starts the adventure.

''When I got out of the boat,'' Dial said, ''I was so hypothermic I couldn't talk.''

He knew he had to get moving to warm up. He knew he lacked adequate insulation. To supplement his meager clothing, he stuffed a small piece of foam pad down his shirt as a makeshift vest.

''That helped,'' he said. ''I managed to fight over this hypothermia,'' only to march into the snow.

''It was ankle-deep at 4,000 feet,'' Dial said. ''Shin-deep at 4,500 feet. Knee-deep at 5,000 feet.

''It was a total whiteout at the (6,000-foot) pass.''

Thoughts of racing started giving way to thoughts of surviving -- even as Dial caught the Reifenstuhls wallowing in snow about a mile high in the Wrangells.

An Eco-Challenge veteran and a professor at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Dial had entered the race feeling dissed by comments the Reifenstuhls made about his second-place showing in the 2001 Classic. There was no love lost here, but Dial thought the Reifenstuhls would be happy to see anyone in the storm.

''I was so glad to see those guys,'' Dial said. ''And then they wouldn't even talk to me . . . . I felt like a stray dog.''

He didn't realize the Reifenstuhls were in big trouble -- but didn't want to admit it. Steve's problem, however, would crystalize in the hours ahead as another group of racers caught the lead pack.

Nora Tobin of Anchorage was in that group with Kristian Sieling and Jason Geck of Anchorage. When they found the tracks of the leaders near the top of the pass, Tobin was elated.

''I was thinking, 'Yeah baby,' '' she said. ''I told those guys, 'If we catch them, that'll make my race.' ''

And catch them they did.

Only to discover a strange scene. The Reifenstuhl brothers were hiking arm in arm. Tobin thought at first that maybe they were even closer than she had imagined. Then she noticed Steve was stumbling a lot.

''That was weird,'' she said. ''Initially, we thought he was drunk.''

When Rocky -- a Fairbanks cyclist known for his many victories in the Iditasport races along the frozen Iditarod Trail -- asked if anyone had a spare hat to loan his brother, Tobin started to put things together. Under any normal circumstances, the Reifenstuhls are not the type to seek help.

They didn't have any choice here. Steve was seriously hypothermic, though with huge ego in play Dial was reluctant to accept this at first.

''You know, it was funny,'' Tobin said. ''Roman and Rocky have never liked each other, and at first Roman wouldn't believe (Steve was in trouble).

'' 'They're just faking,' he said.''

Tobin shuttled between Dial and the Reifenstuhls, trying to open a line of communication. But when a still-stumbling Steve picked up his pace, Tobin said, ''Roman bolted.

''Can you say 'major testosterone?' ''

With everyone wallowing in deep snow, however, there wasn't much chance of anyone pulling away. The group was soon back together, and Dial said he began to get concerned when he noticed Steve was babbling incoherently.

''And Rocky was asking the other people for clothes to take care of his brother,'' Dial said.

That was so far out of character that Dial accepted the situation as dangerous. In such circumstances, the code of the trail dictates that even the most dysfunctional groups are duty-bound to pull together.

Helping Steve make it over the remaining 20 miles of trail to Chisana became a team goal. At Chisana, everyone knew, a cabin with a wood stove waited.

''That's what motivated everyone,'' Tobin said. ''Steve was incredible.''

''The Reifenstuhls are the grittiest guys out there,'' Dial said. ''They're tough, tough, tough. They're not really wilderness people, but they're great endurance athletes.''

''It was grim for me,'' Steve said. ''I literally shivered for seven hours.

''I had to wrap a couple space blankets around myself inside my jacket. I could not warm up. I was so depleted. It was just a matter of grind it out to where you could get to a place to make a fire.''

The strongest members of the group took turns breaking trail through the snow. At times, Tobin said, they waded down creeks because the going was easier in the shallow snow there.

Below 4,000 feet, Dial said, the snow finally turned to rain. Night began settling in, and it was cold. But there was no stopping now.

''This was probably as desperate as I can ever remember,'' Steve said. ''Probably the warmest temperature was 40. It was 32 and slush at the snow line. Probably 22-23 degrees in the pass with horizontal snow.''

When the group finally made it down to the banks of the Chisana -- a wide braided, glacial river -- there was a debate about what to do.

Some suggested stopping to make a fire.

''(Steve) was shaking,'' Tobin said. ''He was just ashen white.''

Dial was among those lobbying for a fire. Steve Reifenstuhl looked so bad, Dial feared the cold water of the Chisana would push his hypothermia to a potentially deadly state. Steve, however, was coherent enough to demand that everyone keep going.

''To me,'' he said, ''there was no choice.''

He couldn't imagine getting warm by a fire and then having to force himself to cross the Chisana the next day to get to the air strip by the cabin. Better, he said, to keep on going and put all the worst behind.

With others helping, Steve Reifenstuhl struggled through river channel after river channel -- some chest-deep.

But they made it across and within minutes were at the cabin. Everyone pitched in to take care of Steve there. A couple people got the fire going. One went for water.

''I got to hug Steve,'' Tobin said.

''A lot of people say stuff about Roman,'' Martin said later. ''A lot of people say stuff about the Reifenstuhls. But I think they're all heroes.''

For hours, Tobin said, everyone at Chisana sat around the fire talking. Steve was still shaking, but he was coming out of it now. The others, though exhausted, were so charged with excitement they couldn't sleep, despite being on their feet for a hard 14 or 15 hours.

''More than anything,'' Tobin said, ''we were concerned about the people behind us, because this was the year everyone went really ultralight.''

Many had little more than the clothes on their backs, and the light-weight inflatable boats necessary for crossing and floating rivers. Those boats would become improvised shelters.

''It was snowing the whole time,'' said 40-year-old Anchorage teacher Jeffrey Bannish. ''The only time it wasn't snowing was when it was raining. . . Many people dropped out (after that first day) -- not because they couldn't dry out but because their energy was spent, or they didn't have enough food because they'd burned up too much time.''

People survived by steadily moving to keep their bodies pumping out heat and gobbling food to keep the internal furnaces burning as hot as possible.

''I'm glad no one perished up there,'' Steve Reifenstuhl said. ''We sure worried a lot. We worried who was going to get stuck in the snow.''

Fortunately, bowing to the judgment of wilderness veterans like former Nordic ski racer Jim Renkert and legendary 76-year-old backcountry rambler Dick Griffith, both from Anchorage, many racers elected to bivouac on the north side of the pass and wait for the light of a new day before crossing. That saved them from the worst of the blizzard.

By the time those people hit the pass, the storm was abating, though they still had to slog through a snow-slickened route.

The Alaska-born Renkert, 42, had never seen anything like this.

''Now that everything's done, people are tending to downplay it,'' Renkert said. ''(But) the one word that comes to my mind is 'horrific.'

''There were even avalanches. That would have been embarrassing, to have been killed by an avalanche in July.''

Renkert, Griffith and a bunch of others waited until July 29 -- the day after the start -- to make their way through Cooper Pass. At Chisana on the other side, they joined 11 others catching chartered flights out of the race.

Martin, his foot aching from a bone broken earlier in the year, was among the dropouts. Griffith left with an injured foot. Steve Reifenstuhl with his hypothermia, Rocky Reifenstuhl with a swollen knee, Strauch with a sprained ankle all quit. Tobin, her enthusiasm for the race gone, went home to breast-feed an 11-month-old baby.

Only 11 racers kept going -- chief among them Dial. He left Chisana with Sieling and Geck. He remembers Geck mentioning how the Reifenstuhls would probably hold onto the course-record time because of what happened.

''That sort of lit a fire under me,'' Dial said. ''I started running. They couldn't keep up. So I took off and just kept accelerating.''

By nightfall, he was at Chitistone Pass. Armed only with a thumb-

size LED light, he kept going, working his way down the notorious ''Goat Trail'' toward the Chitistone River. He scared himself when he stumbled and stopped for a half-hour nap in the middle of the trail. He woke up and kept going until he stumbled again.

Then he grabbed a full hour of sleep. By morning, he was at the Chitistone River.

''I had a secret weapon,'' he added. ''My wife's dry suit.''

He pulled it on, put together the kayak paddle he'd been carrying, blew up a one-man raft, and launched into the river. No Wilderness Classic racer had ever before tried to float this stretch of fast, shallow and rocky white-water in a 6-foot raft.

In ''Fast & Cold -- Alaska Whitewater,'' author Andy Embick rates it Class II-plus. Others would peg it Class III. Martin thinks it could be Class IV.

Dial admits paddling was a gamble, but he contends special rafts now being made by Sherri Tingey of Eagle River make such gambles feasible, particularly for a paddler in a dry suit.

''I had light coming over my back instead of in my face,'' Dial added. ''So I could see well, too. I rafted the whole Chitistone.''

That cut two to four hours off the travel time from the end of the Goat Trail to Glacier Creek, where racers usually put in for the float to McCarthy Road. By then, Dial knew he was in position to set a new record for the Wrangell version of a Wilderness Classic course that bounces between different Alaska venues every few years.

He started paddling down the Chitistone to the Nizina River and took a short nap in the boat. By the time he hit the the ruins of the Nizina River bridge, he packed up his gear and started the run for McCarthy.

From there in his only stop was to strip off his polypropylene tights and stuff them in his pack when the chafing on his legs became too painful.

''I broke the Reifenstuhls' time by an hour and 45 minutes,'' he said. ''So, I've got the new record. It feels pretty good to do it 20 years after the first time I won it. If I can follow the Reifenstuhls' lead, I can do this up into my 50s.''

Martin, the unofficial race organizer, was in McCarthy by the time Dial arrived, having flown over the mountains from Chisana.

''Roman Dial finished first, running naked -- other than a tiny loincloth -- from the waist down up the main street of McCarthy to the finish line on the porch of Wrangell Mountain Air.''

The official winning time for the 150 miles was 2 days, 4 hours and 24 minutes. The second-place finishers, Kevin Armstrong from Healy and Doug Woody from Colorado, were more than a day behind.

''In some ways, it was (all) pretty unbelievable,'' Tobin said, ''but the one thing about the Wilderness Classic is that it makes you do things you'd never do.''

Here are the 11 finishers, in order:

1.) Dial; 2.) Armstrong and Woody; 3.) Jeffrey Bannish of Anchorage; 4.) Kristian Sieling, Hans Neidig and Ben Summit, all of Anchorage; 5.) Kyle Joly and Martin Robards of Anchorage; 6.) Butch Allan and Jason Geck of Anchorage.

Daily News sports editor Beth Bragg contributed to this story.
Caption: Photo Courtesy Of John Lapkass Photo By Jim Renkert Anchorage physician John Lapkass is shown in the snow on his way up Cooper Pass. Conditions would get far worse as entrants in the Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Classic climbed toward the 6,000-foot pass on the north side of the Wrangell Mountains in late July. Dave Peters, Donna Klecka and Dick Griffith make their way through 13 inches of snow that fell the first day and night of the Wilderness Classic in late July.

1 comment:

  1. Actually all the quotes attributed to Jason Geck were JT Lindholm. He was with Kristian Sieling and Nora Tobin when they caught the leaders at Cooper Pass.