Updated: Jan 29, 2019
Best guess, we'd been able to grab four, maybe five hours of sleep. Straining a bit to turn my head far enough to get a look out the window behind and back over my left shoulder, what Petr and I had hoped for...a break in the snow storm...had not been granted. The wind it seemed, had relented. Currently however, the at any other time beautiful big fat Montana, (or had we crossed back into Idaho?) snowflakes continued to blanket what just a day before had been a fast, well packed trail. One that would have delivered us to the "Man Cave" checkpoint in just a couple hours.
Headed outside to get a real time assessment, our now completely snow covered steeds told the story of the last few hours. A quick glance to the left showed a trail covered in 4-6 inches of new snow. Ride-able? Probably... Hopefully. Tire pressures would have to be reduced a fair bit.
Back inside, little time was wasted. Whatever the trail conditions, time would only serve to make them less and less passable. A slow pedal beats the shit out of a fast walk, both physically AND mentally. The time and effort of the night prior had left my water supply well below what I'd have liked for this next leg. Once to the Man Cave checkpoint we'd be able to top off our tanks with damn near every type of beverage desired. Coffee, tea, OJ, Milk, Pepsi, Water...probably even a frosty PBR if in the mood.
A couple liters of water would have been ideal. I had a good three or four swallows left on board. I'd made the decision I'd conserve to the best of my ability, ration a swallow or so every 30 minutes and get on the bike as quickly as possible versus taking the time to melt snow. If the risk proved not to payoff I could always melt snow down trail later. The snow had me spooked. Not just in getting to Man Cave, but the thought "What if it doesn't stop...at all?" also held some weight. 40 Miles to go. With solid trail, that's 4-6 hours. If it kept snowing and the trail became passable only on foot, well, that could be 24-36 hours.
The Idaho back country silence (or was it Montana?) was unmistakably broken with the sound of an approaching snow machine. We'd passed so many different signs thought the night. At least three "high point continental divide signs". Each became more maddening than the prior as we would incorrectly assume that it must mean all downhill from here. I was not sure as we made final preparations to leave the cabin if we had yet returned to Idaho.
Most times, no offense meant, we'd be happiest without any snow machine traffic. They have the ability to turn a wonderful fast trail into a tire grabbing, face planting rutted up mess given enough time. Slowing as it approached, then stopping, the warming hut door swung open. A stout looking fellow, full beard and welcoming smile strode in toting a plastic bag full of liquid gold. "Looks like y'all had one hell of a night up here." and with that he dropped the bag to the floor revealing a dozen or so bottles of water and an equal amount of snickers bars.
"Holy Hell!!!' I thought to myself...."It's the freaking snow mobile Santa." Water problem solved! A hell of a break and an incredible act of kindness by the man. He was not under any requirement to head up mountain in that storm to check on those of us still in the fight. He did so of his own good will.
"Make sure you leave at least 4 of those bottles for a couple of folks still on their way. They spent a pretty miserable night up near the top." Petr and I had discussed that possibility before calling it a night safely inside the comforts of the warming hut. We knew at least a couple people were behind us. What we did not know was if they were still in the race. We hoped they were, just not up top of that angry mountain. Turns out they were and they did. They did make it down to the warming hut. They did not get to the finish.
Once we had cleared the rigs of snow, we walked our two wheelers to the now almost imperceptible, other than the recent snow machine tracks, trail. The message sent from feet to brain gave hope. A firm base still existed underfoot. With the right tire pressure we'd have a punchers chance to ride. And ride we did! Instantly mental math was done. 10 hours to push the bikes 15 miles to Man Cave was out. We weren't setting any land speed records but when a damn long walk had been a real possibility, rolling, at any speed was fantastic.
Petr had his legs back and his pace down trail was slightly better than mine. No matter, my dogs are always slow to warm and I'd learned over the years not to put the whip to them. The longer the day, the better they got. I was pretty certain I'd see Petr at Man Cave, if not sooner.
The continually falling snow did little to erode existing trail conditions but there was no denying, if it continued, trail conditions WOULD become a real issue. A real "pushing the bike all the way to the finish" issue. For now, the gently rolling trail was proving to be no real hill for a climber. Relieved, I allowed the mind to step back from red alert status and enjoy the ride. Mistake. Thankfully a couple sentry's remained on point alerting me to the fact I was now cutting in fresh tracks, which unless Petr had hopped an "air sled" to Man Cave meant I had spaced off a turn. Bad news. Good news, I didn't care much, which caught me, pleasantly, by surprise. I took a moment after getting the old girl turned back from whence I had come and just stood. Closing my eyes, I gave thanks. The goof would cost me 15 minutes but in that moment, realizing that right here, right now, off course, there was nowhere else on the planet I'd rather be, what the hell did 15 minutes matter. When this test was over, and eventually, no matter what it would be, I knew there would be a part of me that longed to still be out here.
A few small out buildings, all in different stages of repair or disrepair I hoped signaled an end to the timbered trail which would mean just a few short miles across open, flat country to the winter oasis and final checkpoint famously known as the “Man Cave”. It did, and in an instant everything changed. It was as if the guardians of Two Top Mountain, still angered from our successful passing the night prior had lay in wait until this very moment. Witnessing our exit from the safety provided by the woods they released the winds from on high.
I'd been just off trail, taking a moment to relieve a bladder thankfully full and check out the metal sign that served as trail map. There was no real rush. I could see the highway just a mile or so in the distance. From there, one the highway was crossed, it was a sharp left and a few miles to what would be a most wonderful hour of gluttony. Taking a few minutes to study the sign and take in the surroundings, the wind, after being dispatched from on high just moments prior hit with an impressive stealth and suddenness. Instinctively I reached for the back seat post bag to grab another layer. This wind held ill will. It attacked on two fronts. It brought on an immediate chill, and as I watched a fellow racer who had recently emerged from the woods and push on, a drifting of the snow that had fallen steadily over the past 12 hours consumed his tracks and with them, any chance of riding to Man Cave disappeared. In an instant. What should have been a 3 or 4 mile, 30 minute victory lap of sorts to man cave became a 3 hour fist fight in at times nearly whiteout conditions.
This was not a bad spell summoned from above intent on stopping us from Man Cave. That was not a possibility, for there was no other option. There was nowhere to stop. We were completely exposed in this wide open expanse. No, this wind storm had other intentions. Its goal was to beat us into submission. To make these hours so unpalatable that once safely into Man Cave with warmth, food, drink and an F-150 ride to the finish line all available, that all of us still in the battle would reach the simple, common sense decision to simply quit.