I have cold feet.  Not just kinda cold feet.  Really cold feet.  I can’t skate ski unless I’m wearing overboots stuffed full of hand warmers and the ambient temperature is above 20 degrees.  Classic skiing, I can push my personal temperature range a bit further.  Maybe into the single digits on a sunny day with no wind.  When I was first diagnosed with Raynaud’s, I lived in this terribly sterile apartment complex with people who refused to make eye contact, much less say “hello” on the stairs.  Its only redeeming quality was a community hot tub that no one else ever seemed to use.  That winter, my feet were happy -- and only happy -- when I would take my study materials and soak them in the blazingly hot water while I prepared for the Idaho bar exam.  This left me constantly depressed about winter.  I grew up in snow.  I love snow.  But painfully cold feet would make most outings miserable, even if the rest of me was totally psyched.  Then I moved to Alaska, and the climbing gym became my winter prison.

starting on a sunny day in mccarthy

This past fall as shorter days and colder, wetter nights started pushing everyone indoors, I impulsively went to a slideshow put on as part of a  Mountaineering Club of Alaska meeting.  The slideshow included stories about this race, the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic (aka, the “Winter Classic”).  The concept was brilliant: a point-to-point event with a variety of route options that changed venue every few years to keep things interesting.  As my thoughts immediately turned to how I would convince my best friend to abandon her graduate school work in Montana for over a week  to join me for the upcoming year’s event, my feet whimpered.  I’m pretty sure they were cold, sitting in the BP Energy Center in Sorel boots.  But there was a glimmer of hope.  That slideshow also included a passing reference to a boot system I hadn’t heard of or tried before.  A boot system that was “warm.”  Trimmed-down, oversized Dynafit boots with just the toe-piece of the binding.  Conveniently, the previous winter an ex had given me his old pair of boots as encouragement to start backcountry skiing.  Friends had discouraged my use of these boots because, well, they’re way too big.  And, admittedly, AT skiing in them was awful; the one time I tried, my shins were sore for a week.  But, for backcountry cross country skiing, they worked perfectly, especially after I made them “low-top” and cut off the shin-bashing upper portion.  My feet?  Hot.  It was incredible.  

nizina river

A bit later that fall, some friends introduced me to John Wros, a young climber new to town also working in the nonprofit environmental field.  I liked him immediately.  Thoughtful, kind, and perpetually happy, John was a fun addition to the climbing scene and a patient and encouraging observer on my first day back ice climbing in over eight years and then on my first day at a downhill ski resort in perhaps twenty.  As I continued to contemplate the Winter Classic, John rose to the top of my list of potential partners (at this point, Hilary had rebuffed all my attempts to convince her that skiing in Alaska was more important than defending her thesis).  And as I got to know John better, I also realized the chances of him committing were beyond good.  He was in Spain when I popped the question.  He said yes, and only then asked for details.  When he returned, a friend of mine asked him about it and it became clear that he misunderstood what race I meant.  No, he did not have four months to prepare.  He had four weeks.  Maybe it was five.

our first day of glacier travel

The rest is fairly predictable and can be surmised from the news articles and other trip reports already compiled.  We skied.  A lot.  It was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and -- with strong teams ahead of us -- we had fairly easy going with broken trail the whole way.  A couple moments stick out.  The first was on our third night.  Frustrated with my tippy stove, I skipped dinner in favor of my sleeping bag and a couple peanut butter cups.  John diligently prepared himself a hot water bottle for his sleeping bag and his Mountain House dinner.  As I started to doze, I heard this sound off to my side.  The sound someone makes when they’re letting you know how awesomely delicious something is.  But quieter.  And for a much longer time than necessary for the communicative effect.  I rolled over, and saw John, lying on his side, eating his dinner.  He made that noise the whole way through.  Sheer joy through Mountain House dehydrated food.  I’m not quite sure, but I understand those meal packets aren’t really that tasty.  Not tasty enough to, under normal circumstances, solicit a “NumNumNum” through an entire package.  And, an unconscious one at that.  (My teasing the next day resulted in blank stares.  John apparently was so blissed out on his food that he had no idea.)  

The second was earlier that same day.  We entered into this tight meltwater channel, with ice and the occasional rock or pebble that would stop your skis while your face continued onward.  I got a bit ahead of John.  I was having loads of fun playing with the tight corners and technical terrain.  Then a rock caught my ski and I was splayed out on the ice.  I picked myself up, put my pole forward, and realized about six inches of it were missing.  After having a few words with said pole, I took off my pack and sat down to collect myself.   John walked around the corner, took one look at me, and said something to the effect of “me too.”  We had broken our poles simultaneously.  That’s when I decided it was possible to be too much in sync with your partner.  

dawn beneath president's chair

And, because people ask: no, I have no idea how much my pack weighed.  John guesses we were in the mid-30s, but I’m not sure.  The other question I get concerns food: I ate a combination of super high-tech food that’s not that tasty but works really well for my finicky stomach (hammer nutrition’s perpetuem solids), a couple types of snack foods that didn’t work so well for me, and a mix of freeze-dried tvp, tomatoes, green peppers, and couscous that I had for my dinners.  I took 2 pounds of food per day.  It was too much.  John followed the same guideline, and it turned out to be too little.  So, we balanced each other out in the end, which, overall, I’d say was the overriding theme of our trip.    

view from our bivy below the president's chair

My favorite part?  The people.  Despite not seeing the majority of them after day 1, the shared experience with a set of truly fabulous and interesting people made the trip unique and extra-fun.  The level of enthusiasm -- communicated through high fives in passing, silly notes written in the snow, snacks left at the top of big climbs -- was something I'd never quite seen the likes of before.    

skirting the nabesna glacier.  photo by j. wros.

Yeah, I plan on doing it again.  In the meantime, I had hoped to try the summer version, but my vacation time doesn’t quite pencil out.  That's alright.  I have some shorter trips in mind to keep the adventure-deficit-disorder at bay.  

alongside the nabesna glacier.  photo by j. wros.

Many thanks to Summit Consulting, Dave Cramer, the McCarthy B&B, the Log Cabin Wilderness Lodge, and all the other participants for making my first Winter Classic such a rewarding experience.  Oh, and a special shout out to Scott, who totally helped take care of John and me at the finish, despite having completed the same event, solo, via a much longer route just twelve hours before.  I probably would have still been sleeping.     

john, me, and scott.  all cleaned up and after a nap or three.