Wilderness Classic racers court death in July blizzard

Posted: Wednesday, August 21, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- At the start, the cold rain came down October-ugly. Only one of the 27 hardy souls gathered for the start of the Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Classic race through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park read the meaning of the snow line creeping down the mountains above and showed the sense to go home.

Twenty-six others set off across the Nabesna River toward 6,000-foot Cooper Pass, some 20 miles to the southeast. They never imagined the late-July weather could get any worse.

And then it did.

By the time people started bailing out of the state's most notorious wilderness race, huddling in the safety of a cabin in the remote outpost of Chisana instead of risking more snow in the Wrangell Mountain passes, the 150-mile classic had gone from adventure race to survival challenge.

When the rain turned to wet, heavy snow, it was bad. When the wet, heavy snow started falling so hard that racer Mel Strauch and partner Greg Tibbetts of Anchorage got turned around in whiteout conditions, it was worse. When the snow piled up a foot and a half deep, then started avalanching off the mountains, it was simply dangerous.

A veteran of winter races along the Iditarod Trail, Strauch, a salesman at the local REI, remembers looking repeatedly at his watch, reading the July 28 date, and wondering, ''How can this be?''

He and Tibbetts, another veteran ski racer, would end up spending a night huddled beneath a pair of inflated one-man rafts, shivering over a tiny stove, and worrying about what the next day might bring.

And even as those two Anchorage men were thinking about making that uncomfortable forced bivouac high in the Wrangells on July 28, two others -- orthopedic surgeon John Lapkass from Anchorage and medical professor Michael Martin from Seattle -- wandered around in near-whiteout conditions, hoping they wouldn't lose the route through the pass and have to spend a night in the open.

Howling wind piled snow in drifts three to four feet deep. Martin's feet were cold, soaked and losing feeling. More than a week later, he would still be limping on them.

Lapkass was in better shape, but he was rattled, too. A veteran of wilderness races all over Alaska, including previous Wilderness Classics through the Brooks Range of the far north, Lapkass had never seen anything like this.

''It was good, solid knee-deep,'' he said. ''There was one place I went into a drift up to my waist. It was a midwinter blizzard-type thing. It got a little desperate.''

Lapkass does not use the word ''desperate'' lightly. Like others who enter this wilderness race, he is a man who has seen plenty of snow and lived with wet and discomfort. He has felt the uneasiness of being lost. He has faced down grizzly bears and swum bone-numbing glacial rivers.

But this time Lapkass worried he was near his limit.

''No one could have anticipated a true blizzard at the end of July,'' Martin said. ''In the 21 years of the race, no one could remember anything like this happening before.

''We all go extremely light. I, for example, was wearing running tights, very light boots, two light polypro tops and light rain gear. I had light polypro gloves, which were soaked or frozen 100 percent of the time. I had a tiny tent and light (sleeping) bag, but the idea of bivvying in two feet of still-accumulating snow with my level of hypothermia seemed like certain death.

''Our only chance was to keep moving, hoping to get below the snow line and . . . make a fire.''

To keep up their spirits, Lapkass and Martin struggled to find some humor.

''When we first started hitting the snow,'' Lapkass said, ''I made a comment to Michael, 'Wouldn't it be funny if there was a foot of snow on the top.'

''As we went on, Michael said, 'Well, you got your foot.' ''

From then on, it only got worse.

Martin, a race veteran, admitted he was scared, particularly after Lapkass pulled away in the storm. At first, Martin followed the tracks of his faster companion, but then Lapkass' tracks started disappearing under blowing snow.

When Lapkass started downhill out of the pass, he noticed Martin missing. He waited 20 minutes, shivering in the wind before deciding he should go back to look for Martin. Luckily, Lapkass said, Martin appeared out of the blowing snow just then.

''By about midnight,'' Martin said, ''we had managed to wade out of the snow and down onto Notch Creek. It was another three or so miles to any spruce. By about 1:30 we had a fire going and felt that we might live after all.''

Ahead of them, meanwhile, the race leaders faced a grim situation.

Defending Wilderness Classic champs Rocky and Steve Reifenstuhl -- along with archrival Roman Dial -- had struggled through snow all day toward the Chisana River with Steve in bad shape.

The Sitka-based racer had started despite a cold. Weakened by illness, he struggled to withstand the beating the weather dished out.

Dial wasn't in great shape, either, in part because he'd cut his gear to the bone to save weight and travel faster. He carried neither cap nor gloves, wore a wind shell of fabric the weight of parachute cloth and had soaked himself in the raft crossing of the Nabesna River that starts the adventure.

''When I got out of the boat,'' Dial said, ''I was so hypothermic I couldn't talk.''

He knew he had to get moving to warm up. He knew he lacked adequate insulation. To supplement his meager clothing, he stuffed a small piece of foam pad down his shirt as a makeshift vest.

Thoughts of racing started giving way to thoughts of surviving -- even as Dial caught the Reifenstuhls wallowing in snow about a mile high in the Wrangells.

An Eco-Challenge veteran and a professor at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Dial had entered the race feeling dissed by comments the Reifenstuhls made about his second-place showing in the 2001 Classic. There was no love lost here, but Dial thought the Reifenstuhls would be happy to see anyone in the storm.

''I was so glad to see those guys,'' Dial said. ''And then they wouldn't even talk to me . . . . I felt like a stray dog.''

He didn't realize the Reifenstuhls were in big trouble -- but didn't want to admit it. Steve's problem, however, would crystalize in the hours ahead as another group of racers caught the lead pack.

Nora Tobin of Anchorage was in that group with Kristian Sieling and Jason Geck of Anchorage. When they found the tracks of the leaders near the top of the pass, Tobin was elated.

''I was thinking, 'Yeah baby,' '' she said. ''I told those guys, 'If we catch them, that'll make my race.' ''

And catch them they did. Only to discover a strange scene. The Reifenstuhl brothers were hiking arm in arm. Tobin thought at first that maybe they were even closer than she had imagined. Then she noticed Steve was stumbling a lot.

When Rocky -- a Fairbanks cyclist known for his many victories in the Iditasport races along the frozen Iditarod Trail -- asked if anyone had a spare hat to loan his brother, Tobin started to put things together. Under any normal circumstances, the Reifenstuhls are not the type to seek help.

They didn't have any choice here. Steve was seriously hypothermic, though with huge ego in play Dial was reluctant to accept this at first.

''You know, it was funny,'' Tobin said. ''Roman and Rocky have never liked each other, and at first Roman wouldn't believe (Steve was in trouble).

'' 'They're just faking,' he said.''

Tobin shuttled between Dial and the Reifenstuhls, trying to open a line of communication. But when a still-stumbling Steve picked up his pace, Tobin said, ''Roman bolted.

''Can you say 'major testosterone?' ''

With everyone wallowing in deep snow, however, there wasn't much chance of anyone pulling away. The group was soon back together, and Dial said he began to get concerned when he noticed Steve was babbling incoherently.

''And Rocky was asking the other people for clothes to take care of his brother,'' Dial said.

That was so far out of character that Dial accepted the situation as dangerous. In such circumstances, the code of the trail dictates that even the most dysfunctional groups are duty-bound to pull together.

Helping Steve make it over the remaining 20 miles of trail to Chisana became a team goal. At Chisana, everyone knew, a cabin with a wood stove waited.

The strongest members of the group took turns breaking trail through the snow. At times, Tobin said, they waded down creeks because the going was easier in the shallow snow there.

Below 4,000 feet, Dial said, the snow finally turned to rain. Night began settling in, and it was cold. But there was no stopping now.

When the group finally made it down to the banks of the Chisana -- a wide braided, glacial river -- there was a debate about what to do. Some suggested stopping to make a fire.

''(Steve) was shaking,'' Tobin said. ''He was just ashen white.''

Dial was among those lobbying for a fire. Steve Reifenstuhl looked so bad, Dial feared the cold water of the Chisana would push his hypothermia to a potentially deadly state. Steve, however, was coherent enough to demand that everyone keep going.

He couldn't imagine getting warm by a fire and then having to force himself to cross the Chisana the next day to get to the air strip by the cabin. Better, he said, to keep on going and put all the worst behind.

With others helping, Steve Reifenstuhl struggled through river channel after river channel -- some chest-deep.

But they made it across and within minutes were at the cabin. Everyone pitched in to take care of Steve there. A couple people got the fire going. One went for water.

For hours, Tobin said, everyone at Chisana sat around the fire talking. Steve was still shaking, but he was coming out of it now. The others, though exhausted, were so charged with excitement they couldn't sleep, despite being on their feet for a hard 14 or 15 hours.

Back up the trail, many other racers had little more than the clothes on their backs, and the lightweight inflatable boats necessary for crossing and floating rivers. Those boats would become improvised shelters.

People survived by steadily moving to keep their bodies pumping out heat and gobbling food to keep the internal furnaces burning as hot as possible.

Only 11 racers kept going -- chief among them Dial. He finished first, with the winning time for the 150 miles was 2 days, 4 hours and 24 minutes. The second-place finishers, Kevin Armstrong from Healy and Doug Woody from Colorado, were more than a day behind.

''In some ways, it was (all) pretty unbelievable,'' Tobin said, ''but the one thing about the Wilderness Classic is that it makes you do things you'd never do.''


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