Frostbitten 2006 By Carl Hutchings

Endless Google searches would deliver no end of gear listing and success stories on the Iditarod Trail but try as I did stories of failures were eluding me. My logic was to learn from other’s mistakes but I quickly learned that other than an account by Mike Curiak one of the trails most accomplished athletes my searches were fruitless.

2006 was my third visit to Ultra Sport. Its probably fair to say I’ve had a colourful time on the trail. In 2004 descending through the Dalzell Gorge I crashed crossing a frozen river and nutted the ice above my right eye. 7 miles later I’m sitting in Rohn with Bill Merchant who’s telling me he can see the bone and I’m not advised to continue. The Iditarod volunteers joked had I been there a week later and gone down on all fours then an Iditarod vet would have stitched me up. 8 weeks before the race I had an arthroscopy to remove some meniscus from my knee. They also removed a beyond repair A.C.L. I had worked my butt of trying to rehabilitate my knee and make race day. I had bought a fat bike, expensive backcountry gear, not to mention the airfare from the UK. The words of Andy Heading rang in my brain, “This just wasn’t a good enough reason to quit”. Bill allowed me to fly to McGrath to get stitched up, 9 stitches later I’m back on the trail. Although I was grateful for the chance to finish the race and be recognised as a finisher it didn’t seem right.

Returning in 05 I planned to make the holy grail of the trail, front street Nome and not to be such an attention seeking drama queen. With a 2 inch scar above my eye as a reminder I made it through the Dalzell gorge and I won the race to Nome establishing a new southern route record despite being without a trail for 4 days.

It was with this experience that I find myself on the start line in 06 entered for Nome via the northern route. I had found an inner confidence. Well aware how unique the race is and how the Alaskan winter has the last say I was going to Nome. I would have bet on myself making it. Packing my bike identical to last year, using the same winter gear I had confidence in it felt in a bizarre way like I was setting of from Nome for lap 2. I didn’t feel like I was in an alien environment but rather a place I felt very comfortable in. I was looking forward to some solitude and the vagary of the trail.

Rolling into the first check point at Luce`s I was aware we were in for a cold night. I put an extra pair of socks on as a precaution before leaving. I was later told it was –35 F on the Yentna River that night which surprised me. I made Skwentna by 6 am which I imagined and after sleeping for an hour noticed my toes on my right foot were cold. With warm dry socks and boots and probably some pushing on the trail to come I was sure my feet would warm up. Later that evening at Finger Lake I became aware I had frostbite.

Continuing to Puntilla in denial I arrived to learn there was no easy recognizable trail going over Rainy Pass. I delayed my departure having learned that some bison hunters were snowmobiling up the pass the following morning which would give me a trail to follow. Later that evening a wave of cyclists arrived which included Bill and Kathi Merchant. Bill took one look at my foot and told me Nome was out the question and at the risk of losing toes I could make McGrath. It was what I knew but hearing this from Bill was a crushing blow. I barely slept that night .I thought of friends and family reading I scratched on the race updates. The humiliation, I don’t quit I kept telling myself. Failure was talking to me and I didn’t want to listen. I was surrounded by racers, some I could say were friends from previous years but I hated the company. I was the lame Iditarod dog who was being left behind whilst the rest of the team continued to Nome.

There’s a dignity and accomplishment in reaching the 350 mile finish line in McGrath. Despite this McGrath was a check point for me and my goal was Nome. Realising the impossibility of nursing frostbite on the trail for 3 weeks and a foot that would fit in my boot only with discomfort I waited for a plane whilst I watched the racers head for the pass. What happened over Rainy Pass, the Farewell Burn and the Kuskokwim River will be talked about for years. I wish I had experienced it. Flying high over the frozen tundra I reflected on reaching Nome last year and suddenly it meant so much more to me. I thought of our friends Jasper, John, Peter and Tracy I wouldn’t be seeing this year. I also realised my mistake I had made the first night at Luce`s, putting on 2 pairs of thick expedition capilene socks. I had squeezed my foot in my boots and restricted the circulation. I hadn’t realised my feet were getting cold. Usually I would double up with a thin base layer sock then an expedition weight. Why I had deviated from a tried and proven set up is anyone’s guess but it’s a lesson learned. You never stop learning on the Iditarod Trail its just some mistakes are costly. It’s a trail which gives so many experiences. If you play on it often enough I think it’s given that failure will be one of them.

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