Every major multi day winter ski trip that I have attempted has resulted in failure due to significant foot blisters. I wanted to be like the cool kids and use the Dynafit plastic boots but could never seem to get them to work. Shells and liners that were too tight or hotspots that couldn’t be stopped were a few of my many problems. It was with this in mind that I prepared for the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic. Like the summer Classic, the event was in my backyard and something that I couldn’t envision passing up. With no job, I had plenty of time to train hard for a few months prior to the event, skiing every day along with resistance and high interval training. At the end of March, a week before the race all seemed well. I was in great shape and had mutilated my boots to give my feet more room where I had experienced any problems. The only thing left to do was ski.
This year, the Ski Classic offered two courses, one in the traditional area on the west side of the road in Gates of the Arctic National Park and the other on the opposing side in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Veterans of the Ski Classic and those more experienced would be given the opportunity to travel east on the new routes, while rookies and those without significant experience would travel west. At the pre-race dinner, I discovered that there would only be three of us heading off into the Park. I had been interested in potentially partnering up with others, but this strategy seemed limited if my pace didn’t match the other duo.
The following day everyone unloaded at Atigun Gorge and worked quickly to find and assemble their gear. It was a weird feeling, I was participating in the Ski Classic, but from the sidelines I was watching the vast majority prepare to set off without me. They were soon off and the remaining group filed back into the vehicles and proceeded over to Galbraith Lake on the other side of the valley,
With a somewhat ceremonial firing of a potato cannon, we were off. The weirdness subsided as soon as the focus and action turned towards skiing and forward progress. The snow offered good support as I made my way across the rolling foothills. By the end of the gravel road, I had made my way in front of Heath and Tyler and continued on, following windblown dog sled trails. At the Itikmalik, I took a hard left and skied down towards the river. After sinking only 4 inches or so in the snow, I was sorely tempted to stay above the mountains and traverse the North Slope to Anaktuvuk. Yet, trip reports and advice from others had warned me of potentially deep snow and that was enough to dissuade me and keep me on my way. I made a couple minor route errors, climbing high where I should’ve stayed low but eventually made my way into the Itkillik River Valley.
At Itkillik Lake, I took a break to refuel and check my feet. After following their tracks for about an hour, we switched roles once again. It would be the last time I’d see them until reaching Anaktuvuk Pass. As I advanced further up the valley, I debated travelling on the river versus following a more straight shot overland. The river was longer and didn’t seem to offer significantly better travel, so I chose the latter. Night at this time of year is slow to arrive but it gradually became darker and harder to navigate on a micro scale without the aid of additional light. With this cue, I found a relatively dense patch of willows, set up my quilt and nestled in for the night.
Before falling asleep the night prior, I had heard two or three wolves howling not far off to the north. In the morning, I skied across fresh wolf tracks not far from where I had lay out and heard a lone howl. I wasn’t able to spot any wolves, but didn’t doubt that I was being watched as I continued on. Ideally, the goal for the day was to get up and over Peregrine Pass, the crux of the route. It was enjoyable making my way up the valley. Not only was I treated to the presence of wolves but every couple miles there were bands of 20-60 caribou digging for food amongst the tussocks. My approach would send them running away in fear, sprinting forward or to the opposite side of the valley. Those wolves certainly must have made their presence known. Travel still remained good, there wasn’t much significant trail breaking, though it still took longer than I envisioned to make my way out of the Itkillik, across the pass and into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk.
With only a few miles before the pass, I began looking at the map very frequently. I had been treated to stories before the race of others in the past heading up a pass too early and ultimately finding themselves back where they started. Katie Strong had also mentioned that they had run into deep snow the previous year before and after the pass. As the windblown surface ceased and I began my own slog, I wished I had asked for more specifics. The going turned sloth like quickly. Without a base, each stride sent my ski through ~2.5 ft of snow to the bottom. Further slowing my progress was the flat light. Late in the day and with heavy cloud cover, the snow appeared as one flat surface and I was not able to discern the minute differences in elevation and terrain. This made following the low point of the creek difficult as I almost blindly ascended unnecessary small rises and banks. Turning around every so often, I hoped to spot Tyler and Heath so that I could have company in tackling this section. Yet, each glance only revealed my lone trail. Frustrated, I settled in early for the night among the willows, with the base of the pass still lying ahead.
After slogging it out for another hour and a half in the morning, I attached my skins before making my way off the main valley and up the creek towards the pass. Off the valley floor and with a little bit of elevation, the deep snow subsided and I quickly ascended over the harder packed surface. A lack of stickiness at points with my skins slowed me down but otherwise I was able to skin up to the pass without any significant issues. The major fear on Peregrine Pass is that of avalanches. While there were previous minor avalanches within sight, conditions were perfect that early in the morning and I was not very worried. The view off the top was spectacular, but with strong winds I didn’t wish to linger long and prepared for the descent. The butt slide down did not meet expectations. The going was steep, but with me being the only one and no established trail, it was not the super slide that I had hoped for. Nonetheless, I happily found myself in Grizzly Creek and on the other side.
I anticipated dealing with deeper snow once more but was pleasantly surprised to find relatively good going. Most of the way down the creek I followed a heavily trafficked wolf trail before running into overflow that provided quick travel down towards the base. Ernie Pass brought me to the Anaktuvuk River and with it, solid snowgo trails that inevitably led the ~23 miles to Anaktuvuk Pass. I eventually left the trail and hit the large sheet of overflow that spanned across the river. With the wind at my back, I was able to cover some serious distance. My worry was that I was going too fast and I’d often attempt to find slushy spots or snow in order to slow my speed. The idea crept into my mind that I could maybe just double pole the rest of the way into Anaktuvuk. Alas, it was not to be, after a few miles, the ice sheet ended.
My fantasy of arriving in Anaktuvuk that evening disintegrated with my first strides off the ice. The ice had been hard on my knees and feet and I was reduced to a slow shuffle through the snow. Not particularly pleased with my progress, I shuffled until just before dark before finding shelter amongst the willows once more.
After finding the snowgo trail again in the morning, I had what should have been an easy ~13 miles into the village. Instead, it was anything but. Each stride resulted in pain in my feet. My shins were slowly wearing raw with each step, even with the foam liner as the only contact point. The morning waned on and finally under the heat of the mid day sun I descended the last hill on the approach in to town.
I found the check in sheet at the Park Service building and with no surprise discovered that I was the first of the three to arrive in town. There was a potlatch going on across the street and after being invited in for hot food for what likely was the tenth time, I made my way inside. I filled up with water and chatted with some of the local residents about skiing and the area. Not long after I returned to my post across the street, the duo (Tyler and Heath) arrived. They brought word that they were considering bailing due to Heath likely having Bronchitis. I had been examining and managing my feet since arriving, and they weren’t looking particularly promising. My shins remained raw and I had blisters around both ankles. The thought began to creep into my mind of backing out. Bad feet and being the only one out on the course didn’t seem like a good combination. There was still roughly ~100 miles to go and I’d have to be breaking trail through much deeper snow. After wrestling with the idea for a little while, I decided to end my trip there. We arranged for a flight and flew out to Coldfoot the following morning.
Pulling out of the race early was/is embarrassing. After arriving back in Wiseman, I discovered that the small blisters on many of my finger tips were a result of frostbite, further adding to my embarrassment. With a couple weeks past and my feet largely mended, self doubt and questions start to fill the mind. Could I have kept going? What could I have done to prevent this? Was my preparation adequate? None of these questions can be put to use now or in the past, but can guide me going forward. I envied the sense of accomplishment and joy of the other skiers as they came into Wiseman. Chatting with others post race, I tried to gain as much information on strategies and gear so that I can better perform in the future. For now, a void remains until next spring.
Appreciation must be given where it is due, so with that I’d like to thank the Hickers for being such gracious hosts, Dave Cramer for all he does in organizing the event and the people of Anaktuvuk Pass for being so friendly and welcoming. Congratulations to all those who finished!