Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 2016

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.


Last minute preparations at Galbraith Lake

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.


Plenty of snow near the Divide

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.


Thoroughly soaked

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.


Hammond River 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 lower Hammond Canyon. Descending Canyon Creek

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

Confronation with the Locals Part 2

I had undergone a transformation over the past year and a half.  On the Colorado Trail in the summer of 2014, I found myself so scared of bears after hearing one huffing and stomping around in close proximity to my tent one night that I thought they were waiting around every bend.  I would get quizzical looks from people on the trail while passing them, for they had heard me singing quite loudly to myself before they had came into view.  The bears (both real and imaginary) would be one of the reasons I left the trail a few days later.  Fast forward a few months, I am camping out in a state forest in northern Michigan while taking a Wilderness First Responder Course.  On three of the five nights, I hear black bears tramping around the forest, sneezing and scratching their backs against big trees.  Yet this time, I had no fear.  To validate my feelings, I remained fearless and calm while being charged by a black bear mother with her cub half a year later in northern Alaska.

Though I now mostly lacked fear of bears, there has remained a niggling thought always present in the back of my mind.  Statistically, my odds of ever being mauled by a bear are extremely low.  Cases like Timothy Treadwell (who lived in close proximity to brown bears before being mauled in Katmai N.P.) demonstrated how tolerant bears are.  Yet, the cultural fear that was ingrained in me did remain.  I had read the accounts of people being attacked in their tents while they slept, or of those that had been stalked by grizzlies in areas not far from where I am now living.  Sure, these are extremely rare instances, but they are not reassuring for the emotional side of my brain.  And besides, all my close bear encounters up to this point were black bears, not grizzlies.  While black bears certainly can be dangerous, they lack the aura that surrounds grizzlies. Especially those of the far north.

Fall came and went with the changing colors of the leaves and tundra.  Snow began to fall on the mountains, ultimately creeping down until snow covered the entire valley.  Cold began to grip the land, as the lakes and ponds quickly froze up, while ice began to enshroud the creeks and rivers.  I continued my treks into the country and had not seen any sign of bears for quite some time by mid October.  It was highly likely that the vast majority (if not all) had denned up for the next 7 months.  However, that pestering thought remained in the back of my mind. Although even more unlikely than previous scenarios, there was the infinitesimal chance of coming across a winter bear, the worst kind.  A winter bear was hungry, relentless, and afraid of absolutely nothing.  These bears didn’t stay out late because they wished to socialize; rather they’re usually old, hungry and eager to lock their teeth on anything that moves. In traditional times, natives would carry spears with them on winter journeys in case they ran into the ice bear.  Dog mushers today still carry heavy weaponry on them in case of this possible scenario.  A number of years ago, there was such a meeting between a dog team and a winter bear on the pipeline access trail between Wiseman and Coldfoot.  A tragic event, that nobody would wish to repeat.  It was with these thoughts in mind that I traveled through the landscape.

Late in November, I had a group of Chinese guests that signed up for an aurora tour.  An aurora tour consists of driving guests from Coldfoot to Wiseman and hanging out at a historic gold miner’s cabin, where we watch the aurora if it presents itself.  Clouds covered the night sky and snow began to fall as we loaded into the van for our departure.  I had a sour mood, as I do not enjoy staying out late staring at clouds.  Thirty minutes later we were in Wiseman.  They shuffled into the cabin and I assumed my post next to the double barrel wood stove outside.  After building a fire, I began to scan the sky for any sign of aurora, while falling snow sizzled as it came into contact with the wood stove.  The guests weren’t interested in much in this area, besides getting some selfies with the aurora to post on Facebook, so it would be a relatively easy night.

As one could likely imagine, staring at the clouds gets pretty boring after a certain point.  I fiddled with the fire as much as I could, while I tried to find something interesting to look at in the near area.  Adjacent to the wood stove and cabin, there is a rough vehicle path that leads back to a summer resident’s storage area.  Looking down the path, I detected movement no more than 30 yards away.  That grabbed my attention.  I squinted, attempting to gain a better view through the falling snow.  Were my eyes deceiving me? It definitely seemed as if something was moving back and forth.  Something large.  I put the woodstove, between myself and whatever it was that lay out there.  Turning on my headlamp, I tried to gain a glimpse of what it was, if anything, that lay out there.  The beam from my headlamp struggled through the falling snow and dark night, but I picked up a gleam that looked like a pair of eyes.  “Oh shit. This isn’t a joke.” I thought to myself.  The dark shape had resembled a bear before and now I was almost certain.  I was a mere thirty yards away from one of my greatest fears, a winter bear.

It was the end of November. There was over two feet of snow on the ground and it had been cold. The temperature frequently dropping down below twenty below zero.  There wasn’t much life out and about at this time of year, certainly not enough for a bear to sustain himself.  I was legitimately scared.  What was I to do?  Do I go into the cabin and alert the group?  Should I retreat ten yards to the van that lay behind me? My mind was racing and my heart was thumping.  I grabbed the iron poker that lay at my feet and began to beat on the woodstove.  “Get out of here!”  “Go!”  It didn’t seem to work.  From my view, it was just moving back and forth, contemplating its next move.  I was literally shaking in my boots at this point in terror.  If bears can sense fear, this one’s sensors must have been going off the charts.

I finally decided that I would retreat to the van.  Bringing the poker with me, I retreated slowly then quickly moved the final few yards, slamming the door behind me.  My heart was still thumping and I thought I should get a better view of what I’m contending with.  I started the van, put it in reverse and angled the lights down the path to the left of the woodstove.  Angled correctly, I turned the brights on to find that my foe was a clump of alder trees, twenty five yards distant.  I had sworn it was a bear. “What an idiot,” I thought to myself.  I put the van back where it was and got out.  Looking down the path again it still seemed like it was a bear.  I cautiously walked down the path, for there still was a part of me that thought there was a bear there, and shined my headlamp on the location where my fabled bear was. Sure enough, it was just the trees.  I wandered back down the post and assumed my post once again with my tail between my knees, hoping the guests inside hadn’t noticed or heard anything odd going on outside.

I walked into the cabin to check in, “How are you guys doing in here? Nothing going on out there.”  We went back to Coldfoot a couple of hours later, with no sign of the aurora or problems with any of the guests, yet sure enough, my mind had conjured up a way to provide enough excitement for the otherwise dull evening.

Confrontation with the Locals

All summer I had stared at her. She lay glittering right across the river or just off the road depending on where you were, changing colors with the seasons.  If you think I am talking about a woman, I’m going to guess that you haven’t been to Arctic Alaska.  For there are no women here, at least none that make themselves available to a strapping young lad like myself.  Though I am talking about a mountain, Michelle Mountain*, just across the valley from Wiseman, AK.  As part of my job, I spend a fair amount of time in the town of Wiseman.  As part of my life, I try to spend a good bit of time in the mountains.   After spending quite a bit of time staring at Michelle Mt. from Wiseman, I decided that I needed to become intimate with her.


Sad to discover I only have one picture of Michelle Mt.  This is one week from one week after the hike described in this post. Picture taken in Wiseman on the banks of the  M. Fork of the Koyukuk.

It wasn’t until mid-August that I finally decided to make an attempt up the mountain.  Late in the day, after tours and dinner, I made my way the 10 miles down the Dalton to the base of Michelle. I quickly made my way out of the rock quarry in which I had parked, beginning to ascend through the forest.  It was not long before I found myself above treeline, for I was climbing the west face of Michelle, which does not receive much sunlight.  The going was steep, yet not overly strenuous. I enjoyed the beginning of the fall colors, as the ground and surrounding vegetation varied from green to yellow and red.  I soon found myself rounding a large rock outcropping and at the top of the first ridge.  I had a wide view of the valley, but I could not see much higher up the ridge, likely only about 40 yards or so.  Looking around, I thought that this would be a perfect spot for a quick break.

The next thing I know, there is a black bear running downhill, directly at me.  There are a few standard guidelines for travelling safely in bear country. So far on this hike, I had followed none of them.  Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Travel with others: I was alone, as I often am on many hikes, bears aren’t deterred by single humans.
  2. Carry bear spray: If you live or travel in Alaska you will hear from many people who live in Anchorage or Fairbanks that you shouldn’t travel in bear country or if you do, you should bring shotguns or various heavy artillery so that you can kill these indestructible creatures. The favorite past time of many people in Alaska is to tell bear stories.  As one of my friends says, “You’ll hear stories of bullets bouncing off skulls or impossible to kill.  Don’t listen to them; they’re drunk or poor shots.  Many of these people haven’t even seen a bear.”  At the least, many recommend that you carry bear spray.  I had neither.

However, I did do a few things correctly.  I instinctively raised both my arms into the air, protruding out in a wide formation, trekking pole still grasped in one hand. As I did this, I began to yell at the bear in quite a loud manner. “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!”  The bear was either really anxious to say hi or did not like me very much, for she did not stop.  As I continued yelling, as if I was a broken record, she continued to rapidly make her way toward me.  During this time, I had no fear. My thinking was extremely clear. I debated whether or not I should throw my trekking pole at her.  I also thought that the bear would not stop.  This whole process felt like minutes, but only occurred in a matter of seconds.


One of the few women in the Arctic

Finally, she stopped at a mere 10-15 foot distance away.  She did not rise up or change in action, but noiselessly stood there, staring intently at me.  At this point, the record was still broken for I continued to yell, “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!” on repeat.  She quickly became bored with the conversation after about 5 seconds(“These stupid humans only knows 2 words.”) turning around and walking back up the slope.  This seemed to appease my internal mechanisms and I stopped yelling.  She continued walking, stopping to glance back every 20 feet or so. As she stopped, I’d yell once again. “Go on, get out of here!”    She responded, “What rude manners, these humans are oh so insensible.”  As she made her way to the edge of the slope, I caught a glimpse of a cub trampling through the willows.  She joined her cub and they ambled over the edge into the unknown.


Check out dat butt. Dang girl, you fine! You can see the cub’s ears/head directly to the right of mama.

At this point, I could either continue up the mountain, proceeding up the slope and over the edge to where the bears likely now lay, or I could retreat down the mountain and call that enough for one day.  I elected to choose the latter option.  As much as I would have liked to continue up the mountain side, I don’t think I left a positive enough impression on Mama Bear to chance a second encounter.  Michelle remains for another time, meanwhile continue to dazzle me with her everlasting beauty.


*While there may not be many women in these parts, there sure are a high number of natural features that bear names of women from the past, who lived in this valley!  There’s Clara Creek, Emma Creek, Emma Dome, Minnie Creek, Minnie Dome, Kahlabuk, Rosie Creek….the list goes on.  However, I still prefer the living, breathing kind over the names.



Rock formation on Snowden Mt.

All I had been hearing all summer was how it couldn’t be done.  “Oh you can’t do that, X couldn’t ever do it and he was a really good hiker.”  I had never met X but I could tell you one thing.  I did not really give a shit whether he had done something or not.  Someone else’s failures would not stop me from doing any trip.  As you may be able to tell from my writings, meager successes and failures, I am fairly ambitious and have some lofty goals.  But I’d much rather try and fail, then sit around musing about other people’s journeys.  The mission was the summit of Snowden Mountain.  Snowden sits in the Dietrich River valley 40 miles to the north of Coldfoot.  At ~6,400 feet, it towers over everything in the near vicinity.  A friend and I were planning on making an attempt at one point, but were turned away due to wildfire smoke.

Snowden represented much more than a mountain to me.  It was a mental hurdle.  By this point in the summer, mid-July, I was largely dissatisfied with what I had achieved in the hiking and packrafting domain.  Sure, I had done more and been out more, than everyone else in the area.  Enough that people were coming up with stories about what I’d done that weren’t even true.  It was like a scene from the Wild West, where a basic event eventually turns into an incredible and unbelievable yarn.  All this was very flattering, but I tried to downplay it as much as possible. Because for me, and for who I was trying to be, what I was doing was nothing.  Thinking about people I looked up to for inspiration in the outdoor world, like Luc Mehl and Roman Dial, put my situation in perspective. It was peanuts.  That is certainly fine, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more.

It is with all that in mind that I prepared to make an attempt on Snowden.  My friend was way too busy with work. This would be something that I had to do alone, as it should be. By the middle of July, I could procrastinate no longer.  One clear evening, I hopped in the van and made my way along the Haul Road to that familiar spot.  As mentioned in the previous post. I had received beta from a local and had studied the route on topographic maps quite extensively.  I would start on the north side of the mountain, just off the road, edging my way along the northern face until I hit the summit ridge that would lead me directly to the top.  It wouldn’t be as straightforward as it sounds, I’d be gaining over 5,000 feet in the process and travelling over 12 miles total while attempting to navigate around the various rock formations on this massive mountain.

Soon I had begun my journey, navigating through the dwarf birch and tussocks of the spruce forest.  One step in front of the other, I slowly made my way uphill. After fighting my way through a dense patch of willows, I finally found myself above tree-line and onto the firmer tundra.  Low growing vegetation interspersed with various rocks lay beneath my feet.  I quickly ascended to the base of one of the “molars” of the rock formation that’s locally known as the wolf’s jaw.  Leaving the grass and mosses behind, I stumbled over rock and lichen, paralleling the rock formation up to the canine, or the highest protruding rock.  The process was slow, as I moved across steep talus fields, picking my way so as I would not tumble down, unlike some of the rocks I was setting loose.  Moving along, I reached an opening in the rock formation, gaining my first glimpse of the summit while on the mountain.  I had a long way to go, as I gazed up at the jagged limestone formations on the main western face.  Not long after this grand view, I stumbled across a sheep trail.  Those high mountain dwellers had established a narrow, well maintained single track trail that followed right underneath the wolf’s jaw.  I quickly left the jumbled talus fields behind, electing to follow the path well traveled.  My pace drastically increased, as I was able to move quickly along the established path, stopping every so often to pick up the trail again wherever it went faint.


The Wolf’s Jaw

Eventually, the trail ended at a scree field consisting of thing shale rocks.   These rocks lay between me and where I wanted to be, so there was no other path but to follow them up to the top of the wolf’s jaw.  It was a lengthy process.  Not only was I travelling up a steeper slope, but for every two steps forward, the talus seemed to cause me to sink one foot back.  Slowly and surely, I found my way to the top of this section, atop the wolf’s jaw. And what a view lay ahead!  I was taller than most mountains in the vicinity that allowed me to have quite the view of the region.  I looked south down the Dietrich Valley towards Dillon Mt. and Sukapak.  North, east and west lay innumerable lofty mountain peaks protruding into the clear, never ending summer “night” sky of the Arctic.  While the view may have been glorious, the route ahead did not.  I had ascended most of the elevation necessary to achieve the summit, yet distance wise I likely only remained just beyond halfway.  The immediate route ahead wasn’t promising.  It looked as if I would have to traverse a very narrow ridge (potentially non-existent) ridge to a steep colouir.  Whether or not I could get across the colouir to the summit ridge was unknown.  Scanning the area, I noticed that if instead, I had taken the creek north of where I started, it would have led me to a more gradual ridge that eventually connected with the ridge leading to the top.  I pondered what my options were.  I could consider as planned, although that route wasn’t likely to go.  The other route that I spotted, looked like it would, but that would involve descending, then ascending yet again.


The Abyss.  Snowden summit in center background.

I stared into the metaphorical abyss.  This felt like it could be a point of the transformation. Into the person that I wanted to be and knew I was.  I knew the route.  I was almost 100% confident that it would work.  But what would I choose?  The easy retreat? Back down the scree and into the easy comforts of civilization? Or would I transform, moving forward, doing what I know what I could accomplish, yet undergoing some sort of pain on the way. Definitely mental, possibly physical as well.  For whatever reason, I once again stepped away from the edge, convincing myself to retreat down the mountain.  Quickly, descending via the scree back to where I started. What had taken five hours to reach and ascend, only required an hour and a half to follow back down.  A lump in my stomach remained.  I knew how close I was to the other side, but for whatever reason I didn’t continue.  This may not have been the time, but I am there. I feel as if I am on the edge of a breakthrough of some kind, whether it is just physical or of my character remains to be seen.  My Snowden journey awaits.  I don’t know when, but I will stand on the summit, crossing to the other side.

Smokey Days

 This past summer, there were over 3 million acres in Alaska that burned as a result of over 600 different wildfires.  A lack of snow last winter, coupled with a normal, dry summer in the interior, provided a perfect catalyst for wildfire conditions.  Although there weren’t many fires nearby Coldfoot, we were not immune to the effects.  There were numerous days on end, in both the months of June and July, where we found ourselves surrounded by a thick layer of smoke.  It could be anywhere from a light haze to thick, choking smoke that obscured any visibility beyond ¼ mile.  Needless to say, not many people enjoyed it.


Smoke filled sky

One day in early July, I found myself sitting shotgun in my friend’s Ford Ranger, traveling north along the Dalton Highway in the midst of this dense soup.  Our plan for the day was to make an attempt on Snowden Mountain, the tallest mountain in the near vicinity at about 6,400 feet.  This mountain was unlike many, in the sense that it wasn’t a standard steep walk up.  Snowden on the other hand, was rather limited in route options for ascent, with numerous steep and sheer vertical slopes.  It wasn’t something that was frequently attempted.  I had only heard of two people who had successfully summitted the mountain in the past 30 years or so.  They had supposedly ascended the near vertical south face, with minimal relief.  As someone who enjoys seriously challenging myself, all this information was music to my ears.  I had gained some beta on a possible route from one of my local friends, who had previously flown around the mountain.

We hoped that we would be able to escape the smoke once we moved a little further up the valley, past Wiseman.  Cloud formations tend to bunch up at the lower end and we were hoping the smoke would do the same.  Thirteen miles into our journey we found ourselves across the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River Bridge 1 and beyond Wiseman Road, yet still in the heart of the smoke.  Another fifteen miles later, we were travelling past the Skagit limestone spectacle that is Sukapak Mountain, though if we were ignorant we wouldn’t know, because we were still enshrouded in smoke.  Another fifteen miles passes.  We were at the base of Snowden, only to find the upper half encased in hazy smoke, without even a glimpse of the summit.  Snowden wasn’t happening today.  I’m not a smoker.  And I definitely didn’t feel like inhaling a few packs to ramble around with no visibility.  So we pushed on.

The beauty of living in The Brooks Range is the endless options that lay in waiting.  Sure Snowden would be great, but anything within the 100 mile corridor, from Coldfoot to the end of the mountains, was great.  To think that this is only a small segment of the Brooks Range too.  Great or not, the smoke didn’t care. For it followed us past the northernmost tree and up on top of Chandalar Shelf.  Surely the smoke couldn’t  be on the other side of the continental divide as well? Surely we were wrong.  We crossed Atigun Pass, at ~4,700 feet, the highest point on the road system in Alaska and also the Continental divide, only to find the Atigun River valley to the north encased in smoke as well.  Soon we were out of the mountains, 100 miles and a few hours north of Coldfoot, yet still in a smoky haze.  Well, we made it this far we figured, might as well try a little farther.  Our persistence paid off. While we didn’t find the end of the smoke, we did find a section that we deemed tolerable enough to walk about in at Slope Mountain.

Slope Mountain isn’t so much a mountain, rather more of a massive hill.  Though for our purposes, it would more than suffice.   Stretching our stiff legs, we made our way down the pipeline access road in which we had parked, onto the uneven, soft tundra.


Smokey haze from Slope Mountain

Hopping from tussock to tussock, we glanced up at one of the steeper slopes, counting the white dots that indicated Dall Sheep.  It wasn’t long before we were scrambling up the loose shale, finding ourselves with expansive views.  The foothills continued off beyond our field of vision to the west, gently rolling hills of tussock sedge grasses.  To our east lay a section of The Brooks Range that curved north as it continued east into the Yukon Territory.  It wasn’t a hard hike by any means, yet it was highly enjoyable as is the case with almost all of them.  Before long, we found ourselves at the rounded summit.  We looked out in all directions, as a peregrine falcon shrieked overhead, flying back in forth in front of us.  We must have been near its nest on the wall for it was relentless. It was fascinating to watch, the fastest creature in the world with the ability to fly at over 250 mph, though I hoped it wouldn’t try to defend its young and go on the offensive against us anytime soon.

We watched for a while before deciding to give the falcon a break.  From above, we had spotted a band of Dall sheep and we decided to try and sneak up on them on the way down.  Descending down the talus fields, the sheep eventually came into view.  Imagining ourselves in another era, as hunters from the Pleistocene age, we snuck down.  Crouching low to the ground, we crawled on our bellies on to an overlook not more than 100 yards from the sheep that lay grazing below.  We thought we were sly, as we whispered about their beauty but I imagine they had seen us long before.  Dall sheep have high density rods and cones in their eyes, having the ability to detect slight movements more than a mile distant. It wasn’t long before one of the ewes was staring right at our position.  The band continued grazing along the slope, moving north over a ridge and eventually out of our sight.


Dall Sheep

Continuing down the slope, we soon arrived back in the wet tundra greeted by even more wildlife. The mosquito! We didn’t have to sneak up to find them, they were nice enough to come to us. After stopping to watch some unidentified waterfowl on a small lake, we soon found ourselves back at my friend’s trusty old Ford Ranger.  It wasn’t the adventure we had planned, but it would suffice.  Any day wandering around the north country is good enough for me, especially when that day contains a variety of observable wildlife.


Can you see why it’s called Slope Mountain?

Arctic Myths

As part of my job, I interact with people from all across the world and spend at least a few hours with them.  I hear a lot about people’s preconceived notions of the Arctic and how it differs from what they imagined, especially in the summer time.  I hope to dispel some of those myths here.


No matter the time of year, many people expect it to be cold during every month of the year. For 8 months of the year they would be right! However, in the summer time (when most people decide to come), I have encountered many people who step off the plane with heavy winter coats, hats and mittens, while I’m usually sweating in short sleeves.  Many are dismayed to realize that it is actually quite warm in the Arctic in the summer.  This past summer we had a day that reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit and it was not uncommon to have days in the low to upper 80s from late May until the end of July.  The warmest temperature in Alaska was recorded in the Arctic.  Fort Yukon recorded a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Due to its high latitude and rotation of the earth, the sun is directly over the North Pole for 6 months of the year, basking the Arctic in endless daylight.  For example, in Coldfoot the sun is up for 33 days straight in the middle of summer.  From June 4 to July 7 the sun does not set below the horizon.  With the sun up for such a long period of time, it is pretty difficult not to have warm temperatures.  People complain about the warm temperatures, but when it gets cold they complain as well.  Hmmm…  The bottom line is if you come to Alaska in the summer, certainly bring warmer layers, but leave the heavy winter gear at home!


The sun still above the mountains at 1 am on June 15th. Solar midnight in Alaska is 2 am.

Don’t be mistaken though, it is typically quite cold here for much of the year.  In an average year, the rivers, creeks and lakes will be frozen by the beginning of the third week of October and remain so until the middle of May.  From the beginning of November to the end of March the average daily temperature ranges from 40 degrees below zero to 0.  The coldest I have seen so far this winter is -35 F, last Thursday.  About 60 miles east of Coldfoot is likely the coldest area in Alaska.  There is an old mining settlement there called Caro.  It sits at the base of three major river valleys with mountains trapping the cold air that pools at their bases.  In the winter of 1989 there was a man living there who recorded the temperature at -100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit on three separate thermometers!! This is much colder than the coldest temperature ever officially recorded in Alaska at Prospect Creek, which was -79.8 F in January of 1971.  It goes without saying that,that is some serious cold.

Snow and Ice

The Arctic is covered in snow for and ice for much of the year, but during the summer it is almost impossible to find any snow.  Remember that sun from the paragraphs above? Well, circling around above the horizon for so long melts all the snow from the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean.  You won’t find any snow in the middle of the summer, besides on the handful of glaciers and permanent ice fields. However, it is possible for it to snow in every month of the year (in fact, I have seen this occur).

Something that is surprising to most people is the fact that the Arctic is a desert.  In Coldfoot, we receive about 9 inches of precipitation, with most of that coming as rain.  The average snow depth is right around three feet.  With permafrost (ground that is permanently frozen for >2 years) covering almost the entire landscape, water is not able to permeate through the soil and drain out from the surface.  That is why there is lots of green vegetation in the Arctic, compared with minimal vegetation in the desert.

Another interesting anecdote is that the roads are actually much safer for the most part in winter.  There are nine different types of ice, ranging from water vapor to solid as a result of both temperature and pressure.  Most people in temperate latitudes are used to ice near the freezing point and associate it as very slippery.  In the Arctic, since it is so cold in the winter time, compacted snow/ice becomes a solid.  At -40 degrees below zero, you can stop a vehicle in the same distance on ice/compacted snow as a vehicle on dry pavement.  Even around -20 degrees Fahrenheit, you are only losing about 15% stopping distance.  To maintain the gravel sections of road, they actually dump water on it in the beginning of winter (60,000 gallons per mile!!!!).  It does not become an ice rink, but a solid that makes for excellent travel.  As long as the road is free of uncompacted snow, it is quite pleasant to drive in the winter!


A raven flys over the Dalton Highway just outside Coldfoot.


Despite what the television shows would like you to believe, Alaska (and especially the Arctic), is not a Serengeti.  There is a low diversity of animals that are present here, and of those animals they are present in small quantities.  The climate is too harsh for the majority of the year to provide for adequate food sources. For example, we have moose from the tree line near the top of the mountains down to the valley floor. Yet their density is less than 0.2 moose per square mile.  It takes 5 square miles to have one adequate habitat for moose.  Dall sheep, which live on top of the mountains (and have hair, not wool) are here in even smaller densities. There are 0.1 Dall Sheep per square mile. It takes 10 square miles for one Dall Sheep.  Bears range over vast distances.  Coldfoot is approximately 50 miles south of the northernmost tree. So we also happen to be nearing the northern limit of Black bear habitat (who need trees to climb away from larger bears). Grizzlies range over large territories anywhere from 15 square miles to 100 square miles depending on where you are.  The most numerous large animal species of the north is the caribou.  In the northern third of Alaska there are over 500,000 caribou divided into 4 different herds.  Their population density is less than 1 caribou per square mile.  While you may see hundreds, if not thousands of caribou in one area, there are millions of acres where there are no caribou at all.  Finally, most animals are nocturnal because they can’t stand the warm temperatures, making it even more unlikely to see them during the day, especially near the noisy road!  If you see an animal in Alaska, consider yourself quite lucky! It is a treat!


Not a rare sight! A snowshoe hare munching on food in Wiseman. Notice the white ears and feet, it is transitioning from its brown summer coat to a white winter coat.


Not a myth but persistent question. WHY do you live here?*  Well, for one nobody is forced to live here.  It is a conscious choice. In fact, many people quite enjoy it!  One of the residents in Wiseman likes to respond to this question by saying, “Everyone has a home. Dorothy and Todo live in Kansas. I live here.” That one always gives me a chuckle. While most people these days are content to live among large numbers of people, I am not one of them.  I enjoy living in close proximity to nature, in large wild landscapes.  For those who have traveled here, or at least seen pictures, the beauty speaks for itself.  So far I believe I have found a perfect match, living in one of the last great wildernesses left in the world.   Although, there was one gentleman who was trying to tell me how Vermont was wilder and more remote…


Now that you are enlightened, go forth and preach the good news of the Arctic!


*This is constantly followed up by what are options for medical services/where is the nearest hospital? As if everyone is breaking their legs every other month. For those who are curious, there are no medical services.  The nearest medical services are in Fairbanks, a 6-7 hour drive one way, or an expensive plane ride on the scheduled air service.  People tend not to become ill very often around here.



Mosquitoes and Glaciers

Roche Mountonee Creek

Roche Mountonee Creek

It’s said to be the best hike off the Dalton Highway in the Brooks Range.  I had heard it from numerous residents of the area and I intended to find out for myself if that was true.  My companion was my tent mate, Mark, and we decided on a day in late June to make our way north to hike Roche Mountonee Creek.  Rouche Mountonee Creek lies about 85 miles north of Coldfoot, on the north side of the continental divide.  It would be my first major hike in the northern end of the Brooks Range.  An area known for its low growing vegetation, no trees, immense precipitous mountains and in the summer time, billions of mosquitoes.   We loaded our gear into the van and set off, travelling along the rugged Dalton the two hours north to our destination.

Upon arriving at our destination, we are eagerly greeted by the local residents.  Yet with no permanent human habitants for at least 60 miles in any direction, who could I be speaking about? Why the mosquitoes of course! The North Slope of Alaska is notorious for its mosquitoes and this day is no different.  The mosquitoes quickly surround the van after I have put it into park, drawn by the heat of the engine.  As we exit the van, we are quickly surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds of mosquitoes, buzzing around our bodies, occasionally alighting and looking to steal a quick meal.  Mark quickly pulls out and dons his headnet as I look for mine, unsure whether or not I remembered to stick it in my pack.  He needles me a bit due to my negligence in bringing my headnet on our last hike, where I ended up being swarmed by mosquitoes.  Thankfully, I find it scrunched up in the bottom of my pack.  I pull out my pullover rain jacket, toss it on and we are on our way.

Lower Roche Mountonee Valley

Lower Roche Mountonee Valley

Leaving the road, we ascend up a hill on the left hand side of the creek.  The ground is uneven, but for the most part absent of tussocks, for which we are thankful for.  As we continue further into the valley, we are escorted by hundreds of mosquitoes (or as the Aussies call them “mozzies”) that lead the way, mirroring every footstep.  Mark dons his head net for the entirety of the hike.  I alternate back and forth as I try to decide which is worse, the confining nature and warmth of the head net or the dozens of mosquitoes that are after my blood.  More often than not, I decide to take the chance of being bit and leave the head net off.  After hiking for a couple miles east into the valley, it begins to take a sharp turn to the south.  From there we are able to see the entirety of the valley,  mountains continuing on either side with glaciers marking the terminus in the distance.

In the last ice age 10,000 years ago, this valley was completely covered by glacial ice.  Like most of the valleys today in the Brooks Range, it has been shaped due to the retreat of the glaciers. Roche Mountonee describes the process in which the passing of a glacier over bedrock results in striations and various formations. An example of the resulting formation is displayed in the photo below.

Roche Mountanee on opposite mountain side. Formations in rock are created due to glacial erosion.

Roche Mountanee on opposite mountain side. Formations in rock are created due to glacial erosion.

We continue up the valley, at points alternating between firm rocky ground and the soft, uneven tundra.  There is a small respite from the mosquitoes as we travel close to the creek, occasionally walking onto aufeis that still remains in the midst of the Arctic summer.  We gaze upon the surrounding mountains, pointing out unique formations and shapes in the rock, marveling at how ice has shaped the valley.  As we near the headwaters of the valley, the mountains draw closer.  The glaciers lay above us on our left hand side as we ascend a rocky hillside next to the creek.  The creek is cascading down a rocky passage, in almost waterfall like fashion, as it descends quickly down to the main valley floor.

As we reached a plateau, we found ourselves in a somewhat difficult situation.  We did not exactly know where we should go from that point to get to the road.  We did not bring a map. Sitting down on a hillside we pondered our options.  From looking at maps, I knew that there was a pass somewhere in this area that would lead us to the road.  But the question was, where?  We could continue further south, where it looked as if the valley eventually veered south, but was surrounded by steep, unclimable walls.  Or we could try shooting east, up the mountains towards what looked like a pass, yet we were unsure whether or not it was doable from our current location or where it led to. The last thing I wanted to do was retreat the ten miles back down the valley from which we came.  The valley ahead didn’t look very forgiving, so we decided to try for the apparent pass.  If that failed, we’d have to tuck our tails beneath our legs and retreat the long distance back down the valley.

The valley ahead

The valley ahead

The vegetation quickly yielded to rock as we climbed out of the valley.  Mosquitoes followed us higher and higher,  I puzzled at how they could survive in these areas but continued on.  Snow still covered some of the northern faces in this location and as we rounded another bend, we caught sight of a large alpine ice sheet, just south of the pass we were attempting.  Sheep sign was abound as we made our way over endless glacial till and boulders.  They thrived in this kind of landscape, using the steep rocky faces of the mountains to evade predators.  We hoped our route would be somewhat more forgiving, as I don’t trust my ability to leap from one crumbling rock ledge to the next.  We neared the pass and began to ascend, we would be able to make it to the top, but it still remained to be seen what was on the other side.  Mark opted for the larger rocks, while I made my way up the loose scree.  I was the first to ascend and slowly made my way to the top of the pass.  I reached the top, gazing out into the area beyond.  A gradual slope! We would be able to descend!  I moved back to where I could see Mark and let out a wild cry of exultation.  Somewhat confused, he joined me on top but was elated as well once he learned of what was ahead.

A look back towards the descent route

A look back towards the descent route

We rested for a while before skiing down the loose scree.  After a short while, we once again found ourselves in another valley bottom, glancing up again at another alpine ice sheet that towered above at the head of the valley.  We made quick time moving down the valley, navigating across the river and along its edges bouncing from rock to rock, attempting to stay dry.  Soon enough, we found ourselves back in the brush and we broke our way through willows.  The pipeline stood out in the distance, signifying the end of yet another journey.  After crossing the creek for a final time, we made our way out onto the asphalt of the road.  We were unsuccessful in our attempts to acquire a ride for the six mile or so walk back to the van.  The monotony and unrelenting nature of the pavement wore on my psyche and body.  I was graced with one of the countless majestic Arctic sunsets and waterfowl moving about just off the road.  Upon reaching the van, I happily piled in, enjoying a rest from the asphalt as well as great mountainous scenery as we made our way back home through one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Upper Trevor Creek Valley

Upper Trevor Creek Valley