Rob's Blog Archive

January 11, 2015

The Old and the New










Last year, by the time I started skijoring the Iditarod Trail, I realized that my dogs would be doing almost all of the work.  This year, however, there’s never been a doubt in my mind that, heading into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I’ll be doing the bulk of the work.  Of the 25 miles in and then out I plan to do, it’s likely I’ll be breaking trail the whole way.  With that, I figured I wanted to at least get into a practiced rhythm.  I had to do some runs here breaking trail on true virgin snow. 

My first good opportunity came on the first Monday in January.  My driveway had a foot and a half of new heavy snow on it and the snow in the forest along Fawn Creek would be even deeper.  I threw my skinny skins onto my skis, put on my ski clothes and ski boots, picked up the skis, poles, and pack, and headed out. 

I only did a little over a mile that evening and I used my own tracks on the way back.  On the way out, I moved at about 1 mph---actually an adequate speed for trail breaking if I can maintain it.  I was pretty tired with the half hour of work.  I did think, though, that practice would improve everything and particularly help my ability to maintain a pace. 

After that first run, I started planning the next.  I got on my computer and started looking at possibilities.  My basic plan was to use the groomed snowmobile trails to access interesting routes---at least routes that looked interesting on the maps. 

Another of many things I learned while trying to skijor the trail last year was just how much of a game-changer the new GPS’s are.  I had two with me, one as a backup.  Both had detailed topographic maps of the entire state of Alaska as well as the plot of the Iditarod Trail itself.  I had to program this myself, and it took a lot of time, but it was worth it.  While in Skwentna, the postmaster told me that the Iditarod Trail Invitational turned north off of the river there, but that the Iditarod Sleddog Race proceeded up the river a couple of miles northwest, then turned west and exited the river.  Sure enough, as I turned to follow what looked to be the right track, my GPS showed me spot on where I had plotted the trail doing the same thing. 

With technology this powerful, I am free to choose routes regardless of landmarks or high ground that, without GPS’s, would have been included to let me navigate.  I can go anywhere.  And so, I chose to follow a series of shallow valleys crossing some very minor passes, and eventually hitting the Fawn Peak-Jocko Lake trail for a quick couple of miles back to my truck. 

One good thing I discovered on my first trailbreaking effort was how well the skinny skins worked---climbing skins have a nap that slides in one direction and glides in the other.  Actually, to the best of my knowledge, there are no longer skinny climbing skins on the market.   I bought a pair of normal skins at the end of last season, and trimmed them.  At this time, they’re 1.5” wide.  They’re lighter than standard skins and have significantly more glide, just like I remember.  Yet, except under very unusual circumstances, they held on anything I was moving through, also my recollection of how they worked when I had them.  Nothing breaks a skiers rhythm like a ski slipping, and these just held. 

On Sunday, I took off on what I called Backcountry I.  It was nominally 2.62 miles and 300’ gross vertical between when I got onto the trail and when I hit the snowmobile trail.  I quickly left the sound of snowmobiles behind.  About a half mile in, I ran into a snowshoe trail, and I was wondering if it would end up following the route I had planned.  I only saw the tracks and signs once, however, and the rest of my route was over terrain that nobody has been near since hunting season.  Tracks of animals abounded, including some I figured were from the moose that’s been milling about in the area. 

The skis, like the skinny skins, are also basically old technology, a 1990 design.  However, just like skins which have trended heavier and wider, the old model skis are nice and light.  They had fine flotation and handling in the thin breakable crust I dealt with the entire time I broke trail.  And, just like that first try, the skins gave me a near flawless grip.  There were a couple of times I had to side step over a fallen tree and, on one slope, I made a couple of switchbacks rather than just heading straight up, but they didn’t slip. 

Along with the GPS, the other new technology that did help were my boots.  Based on designs from skating boots, the backcountry boots I used have tremendous torsional control for their weight.  This combination, too, made trailbreaking much more of a pleasant challenge than a tedious one.

I had done nearly three quarters of my route when I started in on the last steep climb—certainly not overwhelming compared to some of the couloirs I’ve skied up, but those were always on spring snow, not really breaking any trail at all.  I could have climbed them without skis on.  Here, without the skis, I would have been sinking into the snow up to my crotch.  Still, the boots and skis maneuvered easily, the skins never slipped, and the GPS told me I was no more than twenty yards off from the route I had planned---I could choose the best line, climb that, then correct when I was done.  After climbing just a bit, I turned and saw my old favorites, the Swan Range, across the valley.  It was overcast, so even though it was late, there was no alpenglow.  Still, having the view to myself and knowing that nobody had seen that view this winter was pretty special.

I continued up, and then over a small hill, and came down to the forest road I expected.  Loggers had probably used this within the last year or two.  There was no deadfall on it.  With this and its steady grade, I could scoot along at a blistering mile and a half per hour. 

Just where the GPS said it should be, I hit the snowmobile trail.  I rested, pulled the climbing skins off of my skis, donned a headlamp, and headed back to the truck.   A couple of snowmobiles passed me---probably the ones I would see in the parking lot as I skied the final bit to the truck.  Truck to truck had been four hours.  I hadn’t quite maintained 1 mph while trail breaking, but I came close.  And, it had a fair amount of climbing and deadfall that I had to deal with.

At this time, I don’t know if I’ll be able to break trail fast enough to actually see the Chinese Wall.  A lot will depend on what the snow is like, how much deadfall I have to cross, and so forth.  Still, with my covering the terrain I did on a second try, I am very encouraged.  We’ll see, however.  And that is what makes an adventure an adventure. 

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