I kicked steps into the wind blasted slopes, each one sending tufts of floor down to the valley below. The snow was shallow, my steps often punched right through to the rocks inches below. Without an ice axe, I traversed towards the pass with some trepidation. There were large rocks scattered below, not enough reason to panic, but nonetheless something worth avoiding. Continuing into the valley on the other side, I followed the drainage to the south. Within a mile or so, I would come out in Holden Creek and end up back on the road. The sun lit up the limestone rocks on the mountain above, while the rest of the valley remained shadowed. It was the first of February. The sun had just recently returned and was up for only a few hours each day. As I trudged forward, the distance seemed too great. It appeared as if I’d have to climb another pass miles further before entering my exit valley. That couldn’t be right. The map hadn’t shown any large rise or significant distance. A debate began to rage within. I could proceed forward under my pre-established plan, or turn around and attempt to find a way out in the other direction. The other direction featuring uncertain terrain and a waterfall that dropped hundreds of feet to the Atigun Valley below.
I kept my distance from the edge, looking to see if there was any reasonable way in which I could descend. The area surrounding the waterfall was far too steep and would be near suicide. I’d have to venture along the mountain side, with hopes to reach the valley’s high plateau further on. As I rounded the corner and began my traverse on the high slopes, my mistake in judgment was realized. No more than 15 yards separated me from falling nearly a thousand feet to significant injury or death below. The ground was a mixture of loose vegetation and rock, with a light layer of snow above. I couldn’t have asked for anything worse. Despite my misgivings, I continued across on all fours. I’d kick in my feet, attempting to find the best possible hold before bringing the other side of my body over. Slowly and with the utmost attention to placement and movement, I made my way across the mountain side. Eventually, the slope below began to become more gradual and I soon found myself on the plateau. In the fading pink and purple light of dusk, I let a whoop of exultation, thankful to have survived.
I’ve spent much time among the mountains and off the road system in the past two and a half years that I’ve lived in the Brooks Range. Travelling in wilderness areas is not without its risk. Far from medical care or rescue, decisions carry a greater weight and the seriousness of any injury becomes heightened. That being said, travel in the backcountry isn’t substantially (or even necessarily more) dangerous than everyday urban activities like driving a car. Yet, it does hold its inherent dangers. Rock fall, hypothermia and drowning are the main causes of death among backcountry users each year. Living in an area with large mountains, frigid temperatures and plenty of waterways has led to me acquiring some experience in each of those categories. Whether those experiences were desired is another question.
Before arriving in Alaska, the only time I had used a packraft was on a calm lake in northern Wisconsin. What did experience matter? I was 22, had watched plenty of videos on YouTube and was ready to try it out. I slid off the aufeis into the creek a few miles above the confluence with the river. Even though it was just past breakup, the volume of the creek was low enough to cause me to get the raft caught up on the creek bed in a few instances. Its meandering course and numerous gravel bars offered ample opportunity for portaging any sweepers or other hazards. I passed an opportunity to take out along a trail, figuring I might as well head towards the river.
Soon after passing the take out point, I rounded a bend to find a wall of logs greeting me head on. Frantically paddling, I tried to make my way to the side, making desperate attempts to grab at brush on shore. The water’s pace quickened as it neared the jam, with all water filtering through the logs. A last chance grab at a spruce tree succeeded, but in the process my raft was being pulled under, inundated with water in the process. I tossed my pack ashore, weaseled my way out of the raft and tossed that as well. I was a few feet away from the safety of shore but the outlook was dim. Without anything substantial to move towards, I’d have to take a chance. I let go of the spruce tree leaping for the base of a small shrub. It held and I pulled myself out of the water. Wet, cold and shaken, I deflated my raft, walking the rest of the way home.
Water presents such a danger because of its power and a person’s inherent loss of control. Strong currents can sweep away a person’s legs attempting to cross. Strong currents can lead you into rapids beyond your skill level. Strong currents can bring you in contact with hazards like sweepers and strainers or even result in foot entrapment. Following break up in 2016, swift water and poor decision making led me to make poor decisions on two separate instances. Eager to float after a long winter, I put in on the Middle Fork a few days after break up. As I detailed here , I paddled myself into a jam and became subject to the whims of the icepack. Not long after, I had another near miss on Wiseman Creek. Unfamiliar with the creek, I paddled along with the swift flow of the tannin infused water. The sight of a three foot drop had me paddling quickly for shore. And a further scout indicated a long stretch of large drops, big rapids and boulders as the creek began its run into the canyon. In each instance, ignorance, a lack of preparation and poor to mediocre decision making led me into what could easily have been deadly situations.
On my own, I’ve found myself in more precarious situations than I choose to admit. It’s part of the risk in participating in these activities and is the cost to pay as I learn more about travelling through the country safely and efficiently. Travelling on my own, I’m comfortable with most of the risks I take. I’m aware of my capabilities and have travelled enough to get a good sense of what I’m getting into. But travelling with others presents a whole new worry. A new set of unknowns enter the equation. Unknown feelings, skills and motivations impact decision making and actions.
In late May, Claire and I went to climb a limestone mountain. She was studying lynx and snowshoe hares in the region. We had met earlier in the winter but this would be the first time we’d be spending significant time together. We made our way up to the snowfields, enjoying the warm weather of late spring, spotting a group of ewes along the way. Crossing the top of the mountain, we made the decision to walk down the other side and loop back to the car.
Halfway down we came to a fork. We could continue down a steep drainage following a more direct path or continue our way down the slope to the creek below. I wasn’t so sure about the drainage, but agreed to go. Claire sat down and proceeded to edge her body over the side, sticking a foot in the snow. She slipped. I could do nothing but watch from above as she slid down the snow and over rocks. She went over the first drop 10 yards down and continued to fall with no inclinations of stopping. Another drop lay ahead. Claire went over with her head low to the ground. I was sure that she had hit it upon some rock. Before the most significant cliff of the bunch, she miraculously came to a stop, seated upright. “Holy fuck!” She exclaimed as she stood upright. Somehow the fall had resulted in no broken bones or significant injuries, leaving one leg deeply bruised. I made my way down to her via a different route and we continued to pick our way down the mountainside. Well aware of the luck that had befallen upon us.
My friend Jess likes to call me an “unsafe explorer.” I’ll admit to taking risks from time to time, but most of those risks leave me with the ability to walk away unharmed (although some like the above go too far). I think it’s important to push one’s comfort zone. Not only to find where the limits lay (or to shatter imaginary ones), but to learn more about travelling in the country. In the year and a half since the episode in the Atigun Valley, I’ve been more wary of steep terrain and less likely to pursue risky routes. I’m more prone to scout rivers and creeks to see what lies ahead. On some occasions, not floating at all if conditions seemed to pose too great a risk. I’m sure there will be more mistakes that I’ll make in the future if I continue to spend time out. My only hope is that they will continue to be minimized as my knowledge grows and decision making improves.