Sunday, January 12, 2020

Fairbanks Skiers Take on Idaho Race During a Huge Snow Dump

This story ran in the February edition of the Alaska Nordic Skier.

Happy to be finished!
The day before the race!
Where is our nice corduroy?
At the aid station together.
Corrine on part of the long uphill climb.

There is such a thing as too much snow! Well, that and all the paddletracks.

Island Park, Idaho, gets a lot of snow, over 200 inches a year. Three Fairbanks skiers headed there in January to compete in the Fat Pursuit, a fatbike race that just opened this year to skiers and runners.

We knew Island Park had a reputation for tons of light, fluffy snow, but Oh My. The weekend of the race saw a series of storms that had locals and weather forecasters using words like “epic” and “unprecedented.” During the weekend of the race the area had about 3 feet of snow, probably more in higher elevations.

Thank goodness for the groomers! These trails are groomed mainly for snowmachines, as snowmachine fees--in-state registration and out-of-state permits--pay for the grooming. The trails are groomed wide, as they are on forest service roads. In fact, they use PistenBullies to groom, like the ski club’s big rig up at Birch Hill.

The race has several distances with the courses overlapping in places. My wife, Corrine Leistikow, and I had signed up for the 60-kilometer version (which was closer to 40 miles). Shalane Frost signed up for the 200-kilometer version.

The 200-milers, all bikers, started on Friday, and we wished we could have started with them. It was a bluebird day and the trail was groomed with glorious, nearly untouched corduroy. No classic tracks, but otherwise delicious skiing. Corrine and I enjoyed a 6-mile ski that day and cheered on some friends who were doing a 100-mile version on foot.

Then night came. With a lot of snow! At least 6-8 inches. The race directors groomed the course again, but with a smaller v-plow groomer pulled behind a snowmachine. Still, at race start the next morning, conditions were pretty good.

Corrine and I were 2 of seven skiers. We classic skied, but the rest skated. After a couple of miles, racers got themselves sorted out and we were toward the back of the pack, where we figured we would be. As we skied along, conditions started getting more challenging.

Snowmachiners, almost always paddletrack mountain machines, would come by and churn up the snow on the trail, which made it softer. We usually could find a solid base, but it became a bit more difficult. And more snow started coming down. Not a heavy snowfall, but consistent and almost never-ending.

Our course was a lollipop loop, with a single aid station where the loop connected about 9 miles from the start. Just after leaving the aid station for the first time we started seeing bikers who had turned back. They were really struggling in the conditions. It was still snowing.

Between miles 10 and 15 we had a long climb. A couple 200k bikers passed us (they started earlier and had to do our loop and continue on), but several more 60k bikers passed us after bailing. We even passed one of the skate skiers, struggling up the hill, who looked longingly at our classic gear. She turned around, too, exhausted from skating in the deep snow, which continued to fall.

Once we got on top, things got a little easier, but more snowmachine traffic meant more chewed-up snow. But it would have been silly to get mad about that. The trails wouldn’t be groomed at all without the snowmachiners. And all of them were very polite. Still, it made things more challenging. And the snow kept coming down

We followed forest service roads as they contoured along slopes with slight ups and downs. We rarely got any relax-and-glide downhills. Maybe a half-mile worth. Most of the time we had to double-pole to keep gliding downhill in the soft conditions.

We kept skiing back and forth across the trail, searching for a sold base. And the snow kept coming. We were getting tired and were happy to see the aid station again. As seems usual for these wilderness races, it was staffed by a great group of very helpful volunteers. We fueled up, made gear adjustments and took off for the last 9 miles. We turned on our headlights and taillights, particularly important for trails heavily used by snowmachines.

The last section had been heavily used by the paddletrack machines during the day. We had a bit of good base for a while, but it quickly was lost to a wide swath of mashed potato snow. We passed a couple of bikers and runners on that section.

Corrine and I hadn’t planned to ski the race together, but we kept leapfrogging each other, so it eventually become obvious that we would finish together. And we did, crossing the finish line side-by-side after 10 hours, 41 minutes of skiing. Corrine finished as the second woman and I finished as the fourth man. (Oh, we were also both last place.)

Shalane, not surprisingly, had a much more epic time than we did. She skied through the night, sleeping hardly at all. She chose to skate ski the course, but with all the snow she was often wishing for her classic gear. There were times Shalane was skating but couldn’t see her skis because the snow was too deep! She figured it snowed about 85 percent of the 35 hours, 11 minutes she was out on the course.

Fortunately, groomers would periodically open up the trail for her. For a while. Because it kept snowing! And since the race groomers had much narrower machines than the PistenBullies, Shalane had to do a lot of marathon skating. The heavy snowmachine traffic also kept softening up the trail almost as soon as the groomers would pass.

“I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been surprised, that almost everybody here rides paddle tracks,” she said.

Shalane skiing the course. 

Despite the epic conditions, Shalane finished with a smile on her face. The only skier of the 200-kilometer race. She finished sixth in the field, beating five bikers. Another 16 bikers dropped out. At the West Yellowstone checkpoint she also got to experience something not seen in Alaska wilderness racers. Racers who were dropping out were trying to arrange Uber rides that could transport riders and bikes.

And along much of the course racers had cellphone reception.

“You can check out your competition while you pee,” Shalane said.

Shalane is considering going back, hoping for better conditions.

“I was bummed that I didn’t get to see the views,” she said. “So, I guess I’ll have to come back next year.”

Corrine is also considering going back.

I am good with one and done. I love snow, but there can be too much of a good thing!