My bed was covered in gear. Sleeping bag and pads, big puffy jacket, light jacket, puffy pants, stove, kick wax, gloves, mitts and all other sorts of related pieces were sprawled out. I was going on a ski trip. The idea was to head over to the Glacier River, travel up and over to the Hammond and descend that to return to Wiseman. The route was about 90 miles or so and I planned on being out 4-5 days. I thought about the work ahead as I tried to shove the last pieces of gear into my pack. It was overflowing and unable to be properly shut. There’s a saying in the outdoor community that you pack your fears. In that case, I was afraid of becoming cold, running out of food and fuel. Nonetheless, the items remained. The nearly overflowing pack and I set off. My objective for the first day was to make it over to the Glacier River. In order to achieve that, I’d have to travel a mostly trail less road (meaning one not plowed or compacted) before following the winter trail over a low pass to the river valley. At the time, outside of the first few miles, the route had not been traveled upon that winter. This meant that I’d be breaking trail almost the whole way.
The first few miles were a dream. Compacted snow-go trails allowed for great gliding. However, the pleasure was short lived and soon enough I had reached its end. Snow in this region is very powdery due to low moisture content. With temperatures usually falling below 0 F for most of the winter, layers are rarely formed within the snow. With each step forward, my skis sunk straight to the bottom. The snowfall for the year had been below average up to that point. There was only about a foot and a half of snow on the ground, but this still proved challenging.
I advanced as quickly as I could, which was almost anything but quick. Moose tracks covered the road and following their trails offered an ever so slight improvement from the virgin powder. With the heavy pack and tough travel it was impossible not to overheat. The previous week had seen 5 days with the temperature around or below -40 degrees but the temperature had spiked since then, settling at 5 degrees above zero. Sweat poured on my shirt and off my face. This wasn’t ideal with temperatures still below freezing. It would be something that would have to be monitored to ensure that I wouldn’t get too cold.
The slog continued. I had made it to the winter trail and was travelling on the narrow path, devoid of significant brush above the snow, through the spruce trees. Unlike the road, on the trail I wasn’t only contending with breaking trail but also with avoiding entanglement from the vegetation beneath the snow. Travel slowed further as individual skis were snagged by dwarf birches and blueberry plants.
My mind offered no respite from the task at hand. It was filled with self doubt, questioning why I was out, telling me I should turn around and that I couldn’t do this among other things. However, at other moments I’d swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and dream up trips in the future, skiing all the great routes I had planned. There was no middle ground. Dr Jekyll meet Mr. Hyde.
The trail didn’t provide any better travel as I advanced. I encountered a short section with willows and alders draped across the trail. Travel became frustratingly slow, almost to a standstill. I’d knock the snow off the branches ahead, hoping they’d shoot up but often pushing the branches up and away as I shuffled past underneath. A slough offered open travel through the brush to my right, but no having been to this part of the trail before I didn’t think it’d be best to leave.
After a few hundred yards, the brush ended and the slow plod resumed. I would convince myself to move forward, picking out a tree in the distance to reach or counting my steps before stopping for a moment. Further compounding my problems was the pain coming feet. Before leaving, I had taped the insteps of my feet and other specific areas where I had been prone to receiving blisters in the past. That didn’t seem to have helped so much, as I felt what I thought to be a blister rubbing against my liners with each step.
By 5:45 PM there was barely any light remaining, enough to prompt me to end the day’s travel and set up camp. Getting situated, melting snow for water and making dinner took a little over an hour, leaving me with the long Arctic night ahead. My body was tired, but my mind was alert and I was unable to fall asleep. I flicked through Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while lying in my sleeping bag. I discovered that the new sleeping pad I had brought had a tiny hole somewhere, forcing me to re-inflate it every hour to hour and a half after it had deflated. Rest didn’t come easy, and when it did, it sure wasn’t sustained. Except for the occasional breeze brushing against the fabric of the tent, not a sound filled the air. At one point I awoke to green snow, a strong display of aurora had lit up the overcast skies giving a green tinge to ground and sky.
At first light, I began gathering my things, preparing to continue on. I took my stiff legs and jammed my feet into my even stiffer, frozen boots. My tent and sleeping bag were sopping wet, soaked with moisture from my body and breath. With everything packed, I resumed the slog once more. The rest hadn’t helped much. I moved at a snail’s pace, enduring pain with each step as the severity of my blister increased. It wasn’t long before I made the decision to turn around. With the pain and slow travel, it just wasn’t worth the effort. It wasn’t fun. Disappointed, I made my way back on the broken trail. Constantly going back and forth in my mind, questioning whether I made the right decision or was acting weak. There was plenty of time to ponder as my feet further deteriorated, leaving me able only to shuffle along, barely travelling any faster than the day before. Within a few miles of the village, I came across one of my neighbors out travelling on his snow-go. I accepted his offer for a ride home on the back of his sled. It was there that my short ordeal ended. My pack was tied to the sled and I sat atop as we sped off towards home, where I’d attempt to mend both body and mind.