Friday, January 8, 2010

I Survived Tolovana and I Didn't Even Get a Lousy Tee Shirt!

[Editor's Note--This is what happened AFTER the mellow, spa-like part of our trip was over. Times are estimated]

10 AM ish: Monday morning, we’re just about ready to leave the Frame cabin and head up the hill for home (meaning we’ve had breakfast, pooped, and hopefully brushed our teeth). It’s partly cloudy and still, about -11 F. Christine starts up the hill on foot. The idea is to have one of the guys drive her Polaris up the steepest part of the trail where it’s prone to stalling out, and pick her up near the top of the dome. They load the sled behind the Polaris with the lightest gear.

11AM ish: I start walking up the hill. Joe, Gareth, and Simon stay behind to finish breaking camp. Joe and Gareth will drive the snow machines and Simon will bring up the rear on skis pulled by Smoky and Porky and trailed by the puppies. Blob is off his stakeout chain and starts to follow me. I turn around to bring him back so they won’t assume he’s missing. Blob had seemed happy to set off, but clearly confused at being alone, and once he figures it out he gladly bounds back to wait with the others.

11:30 ish: Joe comes by and I wave him through. He’s on the Polaris. Then Gareth comes and I jump on. He rockets his Arctic Cat up the hill (it’s truly terrifying!) but he’s a skillful driver and we clear the steepest part in no time. We stop on the switchback overlooking Minto flats to drop his dad’s parka along the trail. I stop to take a picture. The tops of the trees are swaying—it’s getting windy. In a few minutes we catch up to Joe who has caught up to Christine. She says she’s in a walking mood so she continues on. Interestingly, on this part of the trail the air is still. We wait a few more minutes for Simon to come into view, and when he does we take off (I’m now on the Polaris behind Joe).

12:00 ish: Joe and I ride over the dome to the other side. He takes it easy, looking back every so often to check Simon’s progress. Simon’s right behind us. By now it’s pretty windy, and the increasing chill is getting to us. I’m glad I have the ski goggles on. I can feel my right ear just beginning to freeze, then the sensation goes away and I forget about it. Christine meanwhile has hitched a ride with Gareth, and on our next stopping break to wait for Simon she says she’s too cold on the back of the Arctic Cat, so Joe switches with her and she drives her Polaris with me on the back. In spite of the wind we make great progress down the other side of the dome, and are back up the hill to the trailhead in no time. We cheer when we see the parking lot.

1:00 ish: A few days ago the lot had been packed with cars, and the trails had been packed with New Year’s weekend skiers. Now Simon’s rig and one other vehicle are the only cars left in the lot. There’s a steady gale blowing. I put on the borrowed oversize red down parka--I’m now wearing two down parkas atop all my other layers. I help unload the gear from the sleds into the back of the pickup to keep warm and have something to do. After that’s done we huddle on the lee side of the truck out of the wind.

1:15 ish: Simon arrives, quickly ties Smoky and Porky to the snow machines, and orders all hands to start piling tarps and sleeping bags on, under, and around the truck “bonnet”. He lights his primus stove under the truck to warm the engine block. When I can no longer work my fingers I return to the lee side of the truck and crouch down out of the wind with as many pups and dogs as I can find. The wind is 20-25 mph and steady. With a temperature of about -11 F the wind chill is close to forty below. But I didn’t want to think about that.

1:30 ish: The puppies are snuggled into their kennel boxes in the truck bed with tarps thrown over the boxes for extra wind protection. Smoky and Porky are let into the truck cab along with Lassie, the pampered pup, followed by Christine and me. Some time later Gareth sticks his head in through the frosty windows of the truck looking for Christine. “She’s in here with all the other bitches,” I tell him. Gareth instantly recoils as if by electric shock, and Christine and I burst out laughing. A short while later he decides to join us, and finally, Joe and Simon climb in. We wait. We sit in the freezing truck cab for almost an hour munching beef jerky and trail mix and cuddling with the dogs.

Warming a cold engine block in sub-zero temperatures is an exercise in patience. Factor in an old, near-impossible-to-start engine, as Simon’s pickup is famous for, multiply the whole thing by the estimated wind chill—you are now reaching the Outer Limits of patience.

2:30 ish: Simon decides to try his luck. The engine barely chugs. The men pile back out to fiddle some more with the Rube Goldberg machine that is undoubtedly at the heart of their truck-warming apparatus, to load the snow machines onto the trailer hitch, and to set up the arctic wall tent—a windproof pup tent with portable wood stove. They pitch it on the lee side of the truck so we can warm ourselves while we wait. Simon’s prepared to wait all night if he has to.

Gareth comes back to briefly stick his head in the cab. “Wow, it’s much warmer in here than out there,” he says. We can still see our breath in the cab, and I’m starting to shiver. Christine tells me shivering is a good sign. It means your body is still actively trying to warm itself. “Keep nibbling on food, and you’ll continue to shiver--it’s bad when you stop shivering.”

After he’s gone, Christine confides to me that she’s seriously considering hitchhiking back to town. She has to be at work tomorrow morning no matter what, and her dogs are home waiting for her (she told her pet sitter she’d be home late and not to wait for her). She decides at last to go with Gareth to the road to flag someone down. Several cars have passed in the hours since we got here.

3:00 ish: Simon sticks his head in the truck cab to find me alone with the dogs. He says the stove in the artic wall tent is stoked, and to come warm myself. I am grateful because my toes are numb. Christine had caught me dozing off earlier and said: “Dee, whatever you do—DON”T FALL ASLEEP!”

3:30 ish: The tent is nice and warm, and once in I am loathe to move, let alone leave it. Through the incessant flapping of the tent fabric I hear Christine whooping and laughing in the direction of the road with Gareth. They are in good spirits, and things seem to be OK for now. I take off my Lobbens and socks to warm my cold toes. Simon crawls in to take off his wet ski gear to hang over the stove. Simon skijored the entire journey, a 22-mile round trip, but that’s a mere jaunt for him. He’s climbed Denali, and has spent winters trapping and working for professional dog mushers. In the Frame cabin he’d showed us a warped toenail and the skin of his thumb peeling back like snakeskin, proof of his close encounters with frostbite. I think of these things and remain quiet. My energy is low but what keeps me going is a steady trickle of adrenaline fueled by a low-level dread. I am quietly freaking out at the irony of our situation: without Simon we could all freeze to death in a matter of hours, and yet it was his goddamn truck that put us in this position in the first place—ultimately it was Simon who had the power to keep the fine line between truck as lifesaving transportation or ice-crusted hearse from getting mixed up. He seems in good spirits and I chat with him to keep my own spirits up. He starts telling a story of three people who died in their car one winter because they got trapped in a snowy mountain pass—they couldn’t go forward and they couldn’t go back. So they kept their car’s engine idling thinking someone would come along to rescue them. But no one came. They exhausted their fuel supply, and they froze to death. Simon delivers this grisly tale of non-survival in his usual calm, friendly demeanor. He’s apparently far from worried we’re in similar straits, but it seems there’s a quietly delivered cautionary tale in there. The man has years of wilderness experience, and we’re probably luckier than we know to be in such a situation with someone as capable, clear-headed, and good spirited. It’s probably just his way of saying hey look on the bright side with a dash of now don’t run outside and do anything stupid, you hear? And perhaps also: don't take your equipment for granted. I guess you can have the nicest vehicle money can buy but if you squander all the fuel waiting for rescue what good is it?

Meanwhile Joe is sitting just outside the tent out of the wind, and says he thinks he hears the distant whine of snow machines on the trail. Simon asks do you see their lights yet? It’s getting dark. We think it might be our parking lot neighbors, and perhaps they can try jumpstarting us.

4:30 ish: The sound of a truck pulling into the lot. Voices. A man gets out and I hear him ask do you have jumper cables? Hooray! Christine and Gareth come in to warm up, flushed with cold and exultant in their news. The first driver they succeeded in flagging down was a Japanese man who seemed perplexed at their request for a jump, and drove off. The second person they asked, the one who just pulled in, happened to be a DOT worker. He has a diesel truck and a satellite phone. Christine is able to make a call to her pet sitter.

5:00 ish: Simon attempts to start the truck with the driver’s help. Over the course of the next 50 minutes he does so at least a dozen times. At one point, Gareth, Christine and I hold hands in a circle inside the tent chanting: Start-Start-START! Each time the truck sounds so close, but it just doesn’t turn over. “He’s offered to give up to four of us a ride into town or tow us to the nearest garage. I’m thinking of going--this tent is just too small for five people,” Christine says. “No way am I staying here overnight.” She asks me if I want to go with her. I’m sorely tempted, but I tell her not without talking to Joe first. Joe meanwhile has been outside the entire time helping Simon. He helped Simon load the snow machines up the ramp onto the trailer hitch and help set up the tent, among other things. I am sure he would not leave Simon after all that.

5:30 ish: Simon switches out one of the truck’s batteries with a fresh one. He has brought Gareth’s new car battery (the one he gave Gareth as a birthday present for his solar-powered tent at home), and that does the trick. The engine turns over faster than ever, and on the second try, it roars to life. By 6 PM we are pulling out of the parking lot.

[Editor's Note: by the time I leave the tent our DOT rescuer is pulling out of the lot. I never did get to thank that kind stranger, or see his masked face (masked by his windshield). Joe says he was handsome. And he offered him a tip, but the guy refused. So they hugged each other, and the guy said: if you see me out on the road, you do the same for me. Personally, I think he was a real live Angel. Our previous landlady, Estelle, taught us about the ways of Angels and how they appear on Earth to help us mere mortals :)]

8:00 ish: We pull into the parking lot of the Hilltop CafĂ© and order giant slabs of meatloaf and pillow-sized omelettes. Everyone is famished and fatigued, but in good spirits. Our hair stands up stiff from static and lack of a proper washing, our faces are slack. My contact lenses are practically crusted over from grime. I notice Simon has a cut on his neck, but it doesn’t look bad. Indeed we are lucky. The pups were all alert when we checked on them, even though the tarp over their kennel boxes arced in the wind and threatened to blow off during the return trip. Smoky and Porky curled up as best they could amid four adults and one six-foot plus teenager crammed into the cab. They know the drill, and are as calm and stoic indoors as they are crazed with energy outdoors, practically bursting out of harness to outrun anyone and anything on the trail before them.

10:15 PM. We pull into Simon’s driveway, and quickly unload the puppies and let them roam a bit to stretch their tired little legs while we unpack the gear. Joe and I hug Christine goodnight and say goodnight to the boys, and lug our gear up the road to our cabin.

10:30 PM: Simon knocks on our door—I got his dog bowls confused with my food bag (both packed in black trash bags). We laugh at our mix-up and say goodnight. After all that it’s good to be able to have a laugh at something like dog bowls and trash bags. He goes off to feed his hungry pack.

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