Thursday, August 6, 2009

Seven Lessons I learned on This Year’s Classic


The Wilderness Classic is a notorious teacher/taskmaster. It’s possible to learn more about wilderness travel and needed gear during three days of wilderness racing than three weeks of normal wilderness travel. Indeed, if I could, I'd have all my adventure partners do at least one race and take a swiftwater rescue training to get them into the same frame of reference.

This year’s race, my 14th participation in a summertime event, was no exception. Besides determining that I still like packrafts; that straps are more functional than p-cord; that an altimeter watch is good and that 1:250,000 scale maps are best for AMWC races; that a dry-bag-carrying, harness-style pack is best for me; as are big bars of Cadbury chocolate and fun-sized bags of Doritos and potato chips; and that wool hoodies and the lightest weight shell gear I can suffer are the way to go, I learned a few new things:

(1) It was great to have three pairs of socks: one wool pair kept virginal for sleeping only; a second wool pair I wore the first day; and a pair of lined neoprene socks (not Seal Skinz). I also experimented with insoles in and out as I’ve been hiking without insoles for the last 15 years, only recently using them again. Because I was unable to put the scale of distance on my tootsies the month before the race like Skurka could, I was unsure what would blow out. Having the selection of socks and insoles to experiment was helpful to keeping my blister load to two toe ones on my right foot, hot spots that tape can’t help in a wet-footed, fast-paced race.

(2) A single trekking pole with a basket works well for me; basket-free poles do not. Basket-free poles get stab-stuck in tundra and rocks, expending more energy in extraction than in their added swing weight, IMHO.

(3) For me -- long past my vision-quest years and salaried, commercial adventure racing days -- substantial sleep is necessary for flushing dreams from my head and pain from my body. We enjoyed 28 hours of camp time (18 hours of it actual sleep time) spread over 4 nights. Did it cost us the race? No, it gave us a finish. Our 11 hour camp next to the Hayes Glacier toe took a race-quitting turned ankle to a manageable limp. Without rest and long sleeps we’d have limped even slower, longer, and more painfully that we did. Sleep heals and we were hurt. Indeed, if you reading this should ever find yourself in a race wanting to quit: don’t quit until after you’ve given yourself a mandatory twelve-hour lay-over. Then revaluate and decide. You’ll be amazed by what twelve hours will do.

(4) While sleep is necessary (for me), quilts/sleeping bags/tents/tarps/bivy-sacks/space-blankets/foam-pads seem not to be. To sleep well requires warmth and dry feet, which for us meant a fire during our camp and dry socks. At camp we quickly collected a pile of dry wood broken into 1-2 foot long pieces. We started the fire and I’d dry my day clothes over it, slipping into a dry pair of thin long underwear bottoms, and dry socks, then putting back on the day clothes and slipping into my insulated jacket. I then positioned myself between the wood pile and the fire and slept, waking when chilled by the dieing fire which I then fed a stick or two for another hour or two of sleep. Fortunately, it did not rain. If it had…..hmmmm, the sleeps would’ve been colder and wetter under the raft and without a fire, I suppose.

(5) A small titanium pot for warm freeze-dried before sleep and hot coffee afterward made sleep comfortable and got us jumpstarted in the morning. The fire heated water quickly and seemed to cost us little time in the long run. I guess we tried to be hour-wise, not minute-foolish.

(6) For this route, a single two-person boat was a time saver. We may have lost an hour on the Wood River using it, but we saved more than that by nearly halving our raft loads. We used the boat in a variety of ways and each time we got in it, it boosted morale and rested our feet.

(7) The cast of characters in this event offers up a distillation of everything I like about Alaska. I guess this is not a new lesson, but actually my favorite one, learned time and time again.

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