NOLS Semester Part 8: The Battle of Monte Cristo Creek

This is part 8 in a 17 part series that discusses my experiences during my NOLS Semester during my first summer in Alaska in 2013. We spent 75 days in the backcountry, 25 days sea kayaking in Prince William Sound (discussed in parts 1-5) and 50 continuous days hiking and glacier mountaineering in Wrangell Saint-Elias National Park (Parts 6-17). Part 1 of the series can be found here

We had finally set up camp down in the canyon and were now prepared to enjoy this rest day under the beaming sun, another day of clear Alaskan blue sky.  Down in the canyon was just as beautiful as above, as we were surrounded by 100 plus feet of rock walls shooting straight up on either side with a raging creek running right down the middle.  The funny thing about Alaska is that what they call creeks would be considered a raging river anywhere else.  And the Monte Cristo certainly began raging around mid-day as we started to hear the large rocks on the rock bed beneath the surface churn along with the rapids, clunking over other rocks as they moved further along with the water.

As for myself, I didn’t have a worry in the world for the rest of the afternoon after I had my lunch.  Each of us students chose a mentor, from the 3 instructors, and we had decided that this would be a good day to have our mentor check-ins which left the afternoon free (besides the time you had your meeting).  I definitely took advantage of this free time and was productive for about ten minutes doing a good ol’ fashioned cleaning of my clothes in the silty creek.  After that, I proceeded to put on my fashionable sun hat (pictured below) and nap on my pack for a majority of the afternoon. It was glorious!

Looking down canyon from camp
Looking down canyon from camp

The sun had been beating down all day, moving many of us from our positions in the middle of the canyon to the outer edge under any shade that was available.  Many of us also sat next to this new flowing stream, which had formed at the base of the canyon wall, but at the time paid no attention to it, not realizing what lay ahead of us this very night.  Dinner was going smoothly until one of the instructors began to notice that the channel (which moved along the outer edge, down past our tents and further down the canyon) had been rising along with the main section of the creek.   Many of these Alaskan creeks and rivers are runoff from glaciers and are largely affected by sun exposure and heat.  We were a couple hours from the high water level of the day. Needless to say, we did not wish for anymore increase in river flow.

Unfortunately (or fortunately as we had a blast!), our wishes were not granted and the side channel began to cut across our camp, between the tents and kitchen, connecting with the main creek 30 yds. away.   At this point we had 2 options, either just sit and watch as the river continued to rise, which would result in the side channels likely reaching our tents, or work like hell and try to divert the river. Obviously, we chose the latter!  We moved our kitchen to higher ground by our tents and began strategically throwing rocks to alter the course of the channel away from our tent.  These channels became bigger and bigger with time and one eventually went across where we had our kitchen, just 20 minutes earlier.  Believe it or not, we were able to alter and direct the flow of the side channels   Somehow we thought we could stop the “main” side channel, now rapidly flowing, along the edge of the canyon by throwing huge rocks and making a wall.  This did not succeed but we had proved successful, passing the river’s high point with our tent and equipment dry.  There were no complaints from anyone regarding the hour-hour and a half or so of “work.”  Smiles all around as a fun time was had by all conquering another challenge from Mother Nature.

The next day our journey continued up the canyon.  It was my last day in the LOTD rotation and we had selected an X about 5.5 miles from our current campsite, thinking this would be a somewhat easy day hiking along the gravel bar the whole way.  I don’t think we had learned much yet because NOTHING is easy in Alaska.  My group was first off again and we began the day, crossing the creek near the main side channel (now dry 12 hrs later, with gigantic mounds of large rocks).  We moved fairly easily until we were faced with our first challenge. We would have to cross the creek multiple times as the gravel bar didn’t continue on at that exact point.  Asa (another student/friend) and myself went to scout the river as the rest of my hiking group waited behind.  We crossed the first part fairly easily and were now faced with a moving back across to the small gravel bar, which continued past the cliffs we had stopped.  This section of the creek had multiple bends which often causes the water to move fairly quickly in certain areas and it didn’t help that it was mid-thigh deep.  Asa and I picked out the best spot to cross that we could find and began to travel across.  The water was moving very fast and I slipped a couple times behind Asa as we moved 8 ft or so towards the center of the creek.  The scary part began when Asa slipped and at that point we had to retreat.  Asa is 6’ 4” 220 lbs. or so and it definitely takes a good bit to make him move!  At this point, the other groups had caught up to us and we went back and decided that we were going to split up and scout a way ahead.  Adventure time!

Caribou antlers and my fashionable yellow hat
Caribou antlers and my fashionable yellow hat

(Note:As stated in an earlier post, if a river or creek is strong, one option we used was the eddy-line method.  Basically 2-5 people form in a line and side step across. Grabbing and pushing down on the person in front of you to provide more stability.)

My group went back about a quarter mile to explore a drainage we had passed earlier, while another group tried to cross different parts of the river and the other tried a drainage right at our meeting spot.  We were to meet back in an hour and a half.  Our group headed back and began the trek up the half vegetated, half rock drainage out of the canyon.  To make the most out of our scouting mission, we basically sprinted up the last few hundred feet or so, bushwhacking our way to the top.  It was definitely worth the loss of breath though as the view was magnificent.  Open tundra with views of mountains in every direction and the canyon below.  And the best part was there were no hummocks!  We all commented on how beautiful this area was and how lucky we were able to see it as we moved along the tundra, past our trouble point below.  Ideally, we were looking for a route down another drainage further ahead that bypassed the trouble and any potential further issues we could see ahead. We happened to find a drainage and myself and the instructor from our group, Andrew, scurried down about three-quarters of the way to make sure that we could get down. It was passable, but we were hoping the group scouting the river had found a way across.

Our scout team made it back to meet the other groups and they had found a way to move further down the creek.  We would cross our initial point but instead of crossing again, would travel for a hundred yards or so in the creek along the cliff wall before making two more eddy line type crosses and reaching a large gravel bar.  It was definitely a challenge moving along that cliff with much of the rock being too crumbly and weak to offer support.  Anyways, we made it across and continued our journey down the canyon.  Travel was not easy as there were multiple points where the gravel bar ended and we were forced into the bushes for more bushwhacking, or the flat land stopped and we had to climb steep dirt walls and move along to the other side.   After travelling along another cliff through the creek and bushwhacking another 30 yds. we settled upon a large portion of the gravel bar where we would be able to make camp after this long day.  It was about a mile short of our X but we decided it would be best to make camp as it was already 6 p.m.  and the route ahead didn’t seem promising with the current water level.

Monte Cristo Creek with Mt. Gordon towering in the background
Monte Cristo Creek with Mt. Gordon towering in the background

In the morning, while cooking breakfast, a large boulder came rolling down and off the steep canyon wall towards the tents.  Thankfully, it diverted and ended up stopping before it reached the tent, but it could have definitely injured someone as most people were still within their tents.  Our day began with a short walk in the creek along the wall to the gravel bar on the other side.  Besides our first day of hiking on the ATV trail, this turned out to be a fairly easy travel day.  We continued to follow the creek until it reached a bend where we walked up 500 ft or so in elevation out of the canyon.  Again, we were faced with beautiful open tundra. This was the Alaska I had envisioned. There were rolling green hills, a large lake and mountains in the distance.  Further up the canyon we caught our first glimpse of the glaciated Mount Gordon. It couldn’t have been better at that point.  After taking a long break at the top, my hiking group continued to our X, reaching it fairly early around 1:30 or so in the afternoon. This campsite would be perfect. The grass was very flat and soft and we had a nice small stream flowing off the nearby drainage.  However, it was not to be. Ideally we wanted to be 1.5 miles further, on top of the plateau that sat above us so we could be prepared for our re-ration early the next morning. The LOTD scouted up the nearby drainage (while I napped) and determined that we would move ahead.  We moved up the drainage, spotting our first caribou on one of the cliffs, and trekked across the rocky plateau finally setting upon a place to camp.

Alpine tundra
Alpine tundra

Across the way was Mt. Gordon.  Our goal was to climb that within this next week and I was fairly intimidated by the icy and steep slopes from a distance.  Little did we know of the challenges we would soon face as we attempted to summit the mountain.

Out of the canyon. Mt. Gordon sits snow-capped in the distance
Out of the canyon. Mt. Gordon sits snow-capped in the distance

NOLS Semester Part 9: Mount Gordon


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