This weekend I had my Arrowhead Ultra "bootcamp" with mentor Mitch Rossman. Despite weather forecasts earlier in the week calling for cold and windy conditions, it actually was a beautiful, unusually calm and crisp day at 10 F. We met in the parking lot at Afton State Park at 10:00, geared up, and hit the trails towards the campsites. Our choice was one on the NE side of hill with a excellent view of the eastern half of the park as well as the St. Croix river.
View from basecamp (Sorry, my phone camera doesn't do it justice.)
Setting up the tents, we came upon lesson #1: "Bring something to pound in your tent stakes." Ummm....duh! It's funny how one can forget the simplest things. Now, doing something like this at Arrowhead could be costly as you'd have to either waste time to find something like a rock, or else you'd have to forgoe your tent. In our case, we found out a frozen log from the woodpile did the trick. Then came lesson #2: "Standard tent stakes do not work in ice-covered and frozen ground. Yup, go figure. A few of the beefier stakes went in after chipping away the ice. Fortunately, Mitch had some other stakes he'd never tried about before. As it turned out, they were the ticket and went in nicely. Unfortunately, pulling them out of the ground when we broke camp this morning was another story. Needless to say, there's a few nice tent stakes buried in the snow waiting for us to go and retrieve when things warm up.
After the tents were up, it was time to put in some miles with the pulka sleds. Each sled was filled with 30-40 pounds of gear and attached to a waistpack via two poles with cables running inside of them. Both of us used trekking poles to reduce strain on the hamstrings and help balance on the slopes. I was surprised at how well 40 pounds glides on hardpack trails in a sled. For the next 6 and a half hours we circuited the trails and took in some amazing winter sights. It actually felt pretty toasty out there with virtually no wind and the thermometer rising to a peak of 20 F. We took periodic breaks to hydrate and feed. Along with my standard electrolyte (Nuun), I brought summer sausage, Clif bars, and peanut/raisin mix. As suspected, the Clif bars started to freeze, but put inside one's jacket for a few hours, they thaw out nicely. The summer sausage did famously, not freezing at all during the day. In fact, this morning it was still not frozen. I shared some with Mitch and he thought it was the cat's pajamas. "That's going to Arrowhead." he said.
With the sun already set and a huge full moon already high in the sky, we reached basecamp around 5:30 to get a campfire going and get some hot food and fluid inside of us. All day my fingers and toes had been very comfortable. However, once we stopped moving so much, they began to freeze up quickly. Thank goodness I bought my new Himalaya mittens by The North Face. A few minutes in those puppies and my digits were toasty warm. My toes stayed on the verge of freezing for quite some time. Part of the problem was that they were just my usual trail shoes and not insulated. The other was that despite putting anti-perspirant on my feet as Mitch suggested, my feet were damp. I had worn neoprene sock covers that did a great job of insulting my feet, but slowed down the ability of the moisture in my shoes to evaporate through the Gore-Tex. Fortunately, I was wearing nice wool socks (Thanks, Kathleen!) which did a good job of insulating, despite being damp. So, lesson #3 was: "Wear insulated boots without neoprene liners and possibly a faster wicking/drying wool sock. " To be honest, I expected my footwear to not work perfectly, but that's what this whole bootcamp was about - testing gear and troubleshooting sleds and camps.
Other things I noted with my gear that will need improvement are:
-Thinner water-resistant gloves for doing things around the campsite. It's next to impossible to do a lot of things with mitts on and my regular gloves were damp from snow. So, I ended up having to do some things without any gloves on at all and my fingers got frozen quickly.
-I need a better layer setup for warmer temps (greater than 10 F). While I was moving, my setup worked great, although I noticed I got warm rather easily. However, I noticed when we stopped for the day that I was a bit damp at my base layer, meaning my subsequent layers were not allowing for proper evaporation. Actually, I think I could have done without my 2nd layer (REI One jacket) and just gone with my North Face Windstopper Hybrid and maybe a vest. I'll test out the same setup this week when the temps drop a lot colder.
Anyway, back to basecamp.....We got a nice roaring fire going and got some dinner started. Mitch feasted on hotdogs, fries, and Campbell's Chunky Soup. I went all-out and had some steak and instant mashed potatoes. I then learned how to melt snow (you have to have water in your pot first before you can melt snow - I didn't know that!) and we warmed ourselves with some hot tea. Ahh.........that really hit the spot. By the end of dinner, the fire was blazing hot and we were just roasting. In fact it was so warm that I was able to sit there without any gloves on for a few hours while we talked about adventure/ultra racing and tossed around sled improvement ideas. About 10:00 it was time to turn in and crawl into our toasty sleeping bags. I texted my wife to let her know I survived and tried to get some shuteye. However, my head cold and the unforgiving icy and lumpy ground prevented me from a good night's rest, but I survived and was ready to go at 6:00 am.
Once again, we got a nice fire going and ate some hot food and fluids. Both tents had frosted up on the inside overnight, so we had to turn them inside out after taking them down and knock the frost off. We packed our gear onto our sleds and made our way back to the parking lot, where we ran into Tom and Nancy just getting ready for some snowshoeing. What an awesome weekend it was! Mitch said now he's mentally ready for Arrowhead this year. He's got his gear tested and his tweaks planned. Myself, I can't wait for next year when I'll take on the 135-mile challenge starting at International Falls. Overall, it was a great learning experience and confidence-builder. I can't wait to take the pulka sled out some more this winter for further Arrowhead training!!