The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, as the name implies, is an annual wilderness event occurring in the mountain ranges within Alaska. The event was started by a group of friends in the early 1980s and has continued ever since. It is a point to point trip, meaning you’re given a starting and ending location and you have to figure out where to go in between achieve that. There aren’t many rules, only that you must be self supported and only using human powered transportation. The most popular methods are usually hiking and packrafting, but that hasn’t stopped others from trying their hands at other means like using paragliders and fatbikes. The Classic is without any frills. There are no event fees, no sponsors, and no awards or prizes of any kind.
I have wanted to compete in the Classic since learning about the event in the fall of 2013. With minimal experience at the time, it seemed more fantasy than reality for a long time to come. Though as the years passed, I gained more and more experience, exponentionally so after moving to Coldfoot, AK last summer. Every three years, a new course is chosen. With last year being a memorial course dedicated to Rob Kehrer, the course was set to change. There were rumors during the Winter Classic that this year’s course would be in the Brooks Range. The rumors turned out to be true and with the course set in my backyard, I was faced with an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
The route I selected was the most direct path that one could do, while staying within the course boundaries. I had gathered a plethora of information and beta from Jack Reakoff, a longtime resident of the area who knows the country well. My plan was that with low water, I’d be able to outrace everyone with a lighter pack and lesser miles. I was not going to be bringing a packraft.
At the event check in the night before, the major topic of conversation was water levels. After sharing my thoughts on not bringing a raft, some were reconsidering their idea of bringing one along, especially with me being the only local in the race. At typical levels, my route likely would not offer more than 25% floating. Leading up to the event, I debated back and forth whether floating 25% of the route was a substantial enough number to bring along an extra 9 lbs. Ultimately, with hot weather and clear days, I decided no and left the raft at home. I would be the only one not to bring a raft.
21 of us set off from Galbraith Lake Airport around noon on Sunday the 19th. Most of us followed the road over towards the campground before heading off into the mountains. The beginning of the route was a very social hike. For about the first 10 miles there was a group of 8 of us that were hiking fairly close together. After continuing into the Itikmalak River Valley, the group started to spread out, with Luc and Todd setting the pace out front and me following closely in their footsteps.
The crux of my route was the high passes. Those were the sections I was most nervous about both before and during the race. I had scouted out the region near the Continental Divide a week before and found that there was minimal to no melt off of the winter snowpack. Low clouds and limited visibility also proved to be another challenge. I made it up the first 6,000 ft pass with no issues, able to avoid all the snow. The continental divide looked to be a bit trickier. I was keeping pace with Luc and Todd and we kept switching off back and forth. We were both going for the same pass at the Divide and we made our way up, alternating breaking trail through the snow. I sure am glad I was near them at that time otherwise I would’ve been expending a lot more energy. In some spots, the snow was so deep that we’d break through to our waists. Todd was fed up at breaking trail at one point and instead of walking on he decided to start rolling over in the snow to the nearest section of dry rocks.
On top of the Divide, Luc and Todd moved quickly by, ending my social section of the race. I would travel almost completely alone for the remaining ~80 miles. As we were making our way up the Divide, it had started to rain. That combined with breaking trail through the water dense snow made for a wet experience. I had brought along no rain pants and a light rain pullover. My shoes, wind pants and jacket were soaked and would remain so for the majority of the rest of the race.
Descending into the next valley, I had to cross one more 6,000 ft pass before passing the crux of the route. Not only would that in itself prove to be challenging having already traveled 25 miles and crossing two 6,000 foot passes, but I descended into a valley that was completely socked in by clouds. One could not see more than 100 ft off the valley floor. Those aren’t ideal conditions when you are trying to select a specific pass. I thought maybe I could see where Luc and Todd went, but they bolted off into the clouds, leaving me staring at my maps and guessing where to go. I made my way across the raging creek and started up. I quickly encountered snow, continuing to trudge up the mountainside, postholing one step at a time. Eventually, I was able to see farther ahead and realized I was in one pass further east than I should have been. There was snow all the way up to the pass and it would take too long at my current pace, so I decided to descend and try another route. I was thinking about going further down the valley and crossing a lower pass that I had went up on a previous trip. On my way down, I found myself halfway up the pass that was one over and was able to find a snow free route to the top. Standing at the top of the pass, I wasn’t entirely sure if I was continuing into the right area, yet at the time I let out a whoop in exultation, as that was one of the most joyous moments of the trip.
I kept continuing on, feeling great and moving at a decent pace. Up to that point, the walking had been tremendous. There had been fairly firm ground for the vast majority of the route, no tussocks, great scenery and absolutely zero bugs. I saw Luc and Todd’s footsteps along the gravel bar in the next valley and figured they were much further ahead. The navigational error at the previous pass had cost me around 3 hours. Nevertheless, I was making great time. By this point, I was about 15 hours into the race and had traveled just over 45 miles. Feeling a little tired, I found a spot underneath some willows laid my sleeping quilt and pad out and got three hours of sleep. I was wet and without dry clothes and found myself shivering myself to sleep. I woke up to a thoroughly soaked bag. I had brought along no tent or bivy sack. I was using a large trash compactor bag as an emergency bivy, which went up ¾ of the way up my bag. That didn’t turn out to be as effective as I thought and I had a wet bag as a result.
The walking wasn’t as great during the beginning of the second day as I traveled through narrower valleys with high water and more brush. I picked one pass too early once again and this time was penalized by having to go over two more small passes to get to the Hammond River. The climbing was starting to wear on my legs and it was about this time that I started to develop shin splints. After finally ascending what turned out to be my final pass, I made my way down into the main Hammond Valley. It was at this point that I experienced the lowest emotional moment of the trip. After travelling down Kapoon Creek, I found myself in the main Hammond valley staring at a roaring river. That rain had not only made my trip a bit more wet and cold than otherwise desired, but also allowed the waters to swell to near flood stage. Everyone would be able to float the entire Hammond River, from the headwaters to Wiseman, while I would be stuck walking the remaining 40 or so miles.
I moved down the valley, cursing myself out quite a bit. About an hour later, I heard someone call my name as they floated up in a packraft. It was another racer, Alex, who after sharing some details about our trip up to that point, offered me a ride. I was absolutely ecstatic. The rafts that most people had generally aren’t made for two people. With his legs wide and over the side, I was able to crouch up front, holding my pack on the bow. It wasn’t the most comfortable position, but I was happy to take what I could get for free miles. Eventually, we switched positions, as I was getting to cold in the front being continually splashed by water and without a drysuit. However, the other arrangement wasn’t really ideal. With two people, the raft is tippier and a lot less responsive. Those factors combined with high water and my mediocre at best paddling ability made for a limited float. After about 5 or 6 miles of travelling, Alex kicked me out, leaving me to walk the rest of the way. I was happy to get some rest while floating, but now all my gear was completely soaked and I still had to walk the rest of the valley.
The Hammond provided very easy walking with its wide gravel bars and fairly firm grounds and game trails in the forested areas. Animal sign was abound as I passed countless bear, wolf and moose tracks. My shins were starting to hurt more and more as I continued on. I began to take longer and more frequent breaks, stopping every 2-3 hours for 30 minutes or so at a time. Late in the morning, I decided to sleep again. I lay out underneath a spruce tree beneath cloudy skies. An hour later, I woke up in the rain, with my sleeping bag soaked and in a state of delirium. I thought there was supposed to be a cabin around, but that someone was playing a joke on me and moved it. I walked back and forth looking around the area for the cabin, talking to myself and searching through my pack during that time before realizing that I’m out in the middle of the wilderness and there was no cabin.
The cold and rain proved to be a constant challenge. My clothes were soaked for the majority of the race. If it wasn’t from the rain or the brush, it was from one of the many river crossings, difficult in their own right due to the high water. Moving forward was essential just to stay barely above freezing and a hypothermic state.
After what seemed like endless walking, I arrived at the head of the Hammond Canyon. I followed a game trail up and over the canyon down to the other side. Wolf and moose trails continued to lead me through willow thickets in the forest to the end of my route off trail at the Hammond Road. Upon reaching the game trail before the canyon and up to the road was one of the happiest times during the race. I was living out my dream and not only just getting by but thriving.
The happy moments were short lived however as the road turned out to be a death march. I had about 10 miles along the Hammond and Wiseman Road before finding myself in Wiseman. The hard packed surface caused my feet to swell up quite a bit, making for some significant hobbling for the remaining portion of the trip. A few hours later, I crossed the bridge at Wiseman Creek where I was greeted by Luc and a few other participants who had finished before me. I had finished the Classic. I completed the course in 53 hrs and 45 minutes, walking roughly 105 out of the 110 miles. Not bringing a raft cost me about 14 hours, but I still managed to place fairly well without it.
One of the best things about the Classic is not only the amazing country you travel through during the course, but the community that it fosters. Completing such a challenging and tough event, creates quick bonds between participants. Everyone is so giving of their energy and time. Thank you to Luc and Todd for organizing the event. Thank you to the Hickers for hosting us in Wiseman. Thank you to Jack for helping me with my trip preparation and thank you to anyone else who offered support along the way. This is one of the top highlights/accomplishments in my life to this date. I can’t wait until next year. And you can be sure that I’ll definitely be bringing a raft.
Here is Luc’s write up