In the blinding-white obscurity of the Alaskan wilderness, a scattering of solitary adventurers head into the unknown to face one of the most challenging experiences on the planet. Stretching out over one-thousand miles, the Iditarod Trail Invitational is the world’s longest, most brutal winter ultra-marathon. Pitting themselves against lawless subzero conditions, endurance runners, skiers and fat-tire cyclists face their demons in a gruelling thirty-day journey that leaves few survivors and only six percent of racers will cross the finish line.
Abandoned, without a lifeline, they traverse the landscape for weeks on end, relying solely on the supplies on their back and inventive survival skills. Navigating through Hell’s Gate, a dramatic canyon that slices through the spine of the Alaskan Range, and pressing through abandoned ghost towns like Cripple and Poorman, competitors are plagued by hallucinations, frostbite and the fear of trails gone cold.
As this year’s participants take their first steps in the untrodden snow, bikepacker, photographer and weathered Iditarod racer RJ Sauer takes us back to the infinite and obliterating landscapes of ice and snow. Through his archives, he revisits the desolate environment, where the participants suffer tests of body and spirit, in a quest that is both physical race and journey towards self-inquiry. In an interview, the adventurer recalls the soul-searching silences, the ecstasy and the terror on nature’s front line. “People don’t return to suffer more,” Sauer explains, they return to experience more”.
You’re literally in this dark abyss, begging for the sun to come up.
On the edges of the world, time stands still. And, in the eerie silence of the Alaskan tundra, even the strongest of minds are sent reeling. As the wolves snap and bite in the inky darkness and the northern lights dance in the sky, the delirium of the witching hour begins to take root. Begging for the sun to heave over the horizon Saur recalls choking on the cold air pulling through his polyester face-mask and biting back the urge to scream into the blackness. “Emotionally it’s hard, you’re literally in this dark abyss, it’s 4 am and you haven’t slept for 24 hours’, he explains.
Living in Vancouver, a place where the people meet their maker in the mountains, Sauer is no stranger to the threat of complacency. Out in the wild, the stakes are high and mistakes can prove fatal. The trail demands its competitors to summon a mindset that embraces both stubbornness and flexibility. And, depending on how the snow falls, each year the wilderness throws up new challenges, new stories.
A man who knows the this all too well is the nine-time trial veteran, Tim Hewitt, aka ‘Iron Dog’, a legend known for being the first person to cross the finish line, on foot. On Alaska’s final frontier, the 61-year old employment lawyer has narrowly missed falling meteors, lashed himself to his sled in hurricane-force winds, broken limbs and charging moose.
Reflective trail markers appear like glowing, watchful eyes, city lights or deceiving flickers of hope.
Slipping into lucid dreams, the disoriented racers fight the urge to admit defeat. Pushing against the slow creep of time and the rumours of frostbite and injury, their broken bodies soldier on through the snow. Chasing the bobbing pool of light cast by their headlights, riders pick their way through the night in pursuit of the snow-drifted trail and in relief of refuge. Although the checkpoints are a welcome sight to the weary, the sight of casualties of the trial is a stark reminder of the danger of the wild. Riding into a temporary camp five days into the challenge, Sauer was met by an arctic M.A.S.H. unit, a triage tent full of “frostbite, injury, and fear”. One in, one out, men with bloody frostbitten fingers and faces stumbled into the unit, tearing off frozen clothing, hungry for human warmth and company.
Stopping to take photographs and jotting down his thoughts in the early hours, story-making helps to keep him grounded. As the hours drag heavy and slow, he explains “these notes help to anchor me, keep me present in the story that I’m living.”
Riding the same path, it is almost impossible to escape the private struggles of fellow competitors. Although Sauer found great solace in the moments he shared with people along the way, when you’re fighting for survival, getting caught up in someone else’s timeline can be detrimental. In this way, he ponders, the trail exists as an extended metaphor for life. Each rider’s private battles in the unknown are dramatised by the surrounding landscape, amplifying their struggles and setting the stage for moments of utter transcendence. In this quasi-mystical journey, they physically move forwards whilst mining the depths of their inner worlds. “It’s mesmerising, it has an impact on you because it a metaphor for getting somewhere. It’s a chapter and you’ve got to work through it.”
The giant golden orb rose up from the horizon like a blazing, orange sun, a giant eye watching me soar through this Alaskan aether. I might as well have been riding across an astral plane.
Journeying through the scentless wilderness Sauer came to appreciate that nature has a way of rewarding persistence. Away from the fast-gratification of the day, in the wild, the long, steady sacrifices are rewarded with what Sauer calls “miracle moments”‘. As the sun rises on the darkest of nights, the life-affirming glow that colours the peaks melts away the agony of the twilight zone. And, in that moment, the sieges of screaming winds and frostbitten fingers are worth the pain. He explains, “You cannot compare a day of slogging and frustration to that millisecond of when you come around a corner and see a little village show up that you’ve been trying to get to forever. Somehow that one second of elation actually equates to the 10 hours of slow slogging and it’s a terrible equation but somehow it pays off.”
His time on the trail taught him to respect the natural imbalance between sacrifice and reward. With only his own thundering thoughts for company as the snow crunched underfoot, he held onto the glory of those miracle moments and learned to still his mind. Reminding himself that the sun always rises, and “the bad times will very quickly be replaced the good”. Whilst there is no room for pessimism in the depths of the Alaskan wilderness, there are 1000 miles of land for reflection.
In the paralysing cold, daily rituals become sacred and each interaction becomes entrenched with symbolism. Weaving through the shadows of the 180 ft pines, the thud of his heart echoing in his ears Sauer clearly remembers a such an encounter with a curious raven. In the isolation of the wild, the presence of the jet-black bird who shared a name with his late grandfather held a greater meaning. Flitting between the canopy, it’s squawking willed his journey and brought his focus back to the path.
Outside of the noise of the cities, where man sits at the kingdom of chaos, there is space for these private communions with nature. Willingly or not, the adventurers are thrown into the abyss and forced to retreat into the self. Leafing through the snapshots of his journey, Sauer adds, “as I look back at the photos, it lures me back because, like in life, you forget what hurts.”
RJ Sauer is a writer, director, producer for commercial and film. His passion is creative exploration through storytelling whether on camera or outdoor adventure in his backyard and abroad. He has worked and traveled extensively in rugged and remote locations around the world with an affinity for the mystical qualities of the north including multiple film trips to the Arctic in both summer and winter.
This passion for new and isolated places extends to his personal exploration. In 2014 he completed the “ITI”, a 1000 mile adventure race along the historic Iditarod Trail, in 16 days on a fat bike in the dead of winter. RJ plans to return this winter to challenge the course again.