It’s the little mistakes that kill you.
Shivering, with frozen fingertips, Dick could not thread the zipper of his sleeping bag back onto its track. Stunned, he wondered for a moment if this was it. If this would be the one small detail that tipped the balance.
He quickly wrapped himself the best he could in his sleeping bag and crawled into the two-foot-deep snow trench he had dug for himself. This would be his shelter for the night. At minus thirty degrees, with winds howling up to forty miles an hour, the wind chill factor was more than one hundred degrees below zero. He had staked his sled and backpack into the snow using his ski poles to keep them from blowing away.
Snow drifted in over the trench, covering him with an insulating layer of snow. He began to feel warmer. As his body warmed, so did the frostbitten parts of his anatomy. The wind that had pressed at his back all day — which had been strong enough to push his sled out in front of him — had frozen the flesh of his backside and legs.
He was terribly thirsty.
Less than two days earlier, on March 10, 1980, Dick had been lying in the loft of his friends Roosevelt and Beth Paneak’s home in Anaktuvuk Pass. It was the night before his trek and the plan was to ski from Anaktuvuk Pass to Bettles and then over the mountains to the village of Tanana and on to the Yukon River. It was to be a 300-mile trek through rugged country with snow deep enough to swallow snowmachines.
With snow conditions as they were, Dick decided to lighten his load. He left his tent behind, opting instead for a large, heavy-duty sleeping bag that would shelter him from the cold. A layer of spruce boughs would be his bed. If necessary, he could build snow caves for shelter. He also decided to leave his stove and fuel at home. He liked a wood fire best, and as he had on previous trips, he would gather wood as he traveled. He also left his Gortex bibs behind. His plan was to keep moving at a good clip and take as little as necessary to stay agile and quick.
The 1959 trip from Kaktovik to Anaktuvuk Pass had taught him a great deal about wilderness travel in the North. Later in 1977, Dick walked 150 miles and floated 450 miles from Anaktuvuk Pass to Kotzebue with his friend Bruce Stafford. Between mosquitoes, rain, and rivers swollen with floodwaters, he learned that travel was best done before “breakup” — the time of year when Alaska’s daylight grows longer but before the warmer weather of spring melts the ice on rivers. Two years later in 1979, he traveled solo on foot and by ski from Nuiqsut to Anaktuvuk Pass, a distance of two hundred miles.
People asked him why he took these trips, and sometimes he wondered himself. On his 1979 solo journey he reflected, “There are moments I don’t know why I’m here. It’s cold and the landscape is monotonous. Progress is slow and the distance ahead seems to be unreachable. You need the capacity to see beauty even when it’s not pretty every day.”
He learned he could travel much lighter. On the solo trip, he’d dropped a lot of gear — a thermos, food, a wet down jacket, even his sled. “This is a situation where possessions can forfeit freedom,” he wrote. On that trek he also noted, “Comfort is best when interspersed with moments of great discomfort.”
He would soon discover the slender thread between discomfort and disaster.
Kaylene Johnson is a writer and long-time Alaskan who lives in Eagle River, Alaska. She writes non-fiction, biography, and memoir including A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising Sons in Alaska. Her award winning essays and articles have appeared in the Louisville Review, Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and several Alaska anthologies. She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.
This excerpts comes from Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith, which recounts the remarkable journeys of Alaska legend Dick Griffith. Canyons and Ice offers a rare look at the man behind the soaring achievements and occasionally death-defying moments. A grand tale of adventure, Griffith’s story is also a reflection on what motivates a man to traverse some of the most remote places on earth. To read the rest of the excerpt, download the free Alaska Sampler 2014.
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