After scratching during last year’s Ski Classic, I made it my mission to return and finish. This year I would be attempting to ski the route through the Arctic Refuge, from Atigun Gorge to Wiseman, via a checkpoint on the Wind River. In 2017, the going had proved to be slow for those on the east side, with the first participants finishing in 6 days. All signs seemed to suggest more of the same. Northern Alaska had experienced heavy snowfall throughout the winter, blanketing the Interior and Brooks Range in a thick layer of snow. At the pre-event dinner, we were told that most of the passes along the divide had hardly been affected by wind. Furthermore, there were some river valleys south of the divide that were said to have nearly three feet of bottomless, sugar like snow. In my final preparations, I tossed a few ounces of extra food into my pack, in hopes of being prepared for the likely slog ahead.
On our way to the start, clouds hovered low above the road near the Continental Divide, reducing visibility and obscuring our view of the mountains around us. High winds brought blowing snow and drifts across the road, slowing our progress. It was the worst conditions I’d seen along this stretch of road during my time in the area. By the time we reached our starting point at Atigun Gorge, it was enough to make two participants reconsider their decision and back out of the race.
We set off with a bang. The ceremonial firing of the potato gun shooed us off the gravel pad and beneath the bridge spanning the river. In the spring of most years, Atigun Gorge serves as a popular location for dog mushers and skiers who wish to travel in the refuge for recreational or hunting purposes. For whatever reason, there were no travelers this year so we were forced to make our own trail. A line developed and we alternated back and forth between leaders, busting through the snow until we were overheated or desired a break, steadily advancing the whole time. The pace was slower than preferred, but within 3 hours, the walls faded away, signifying the Gorge’s end and the valley beyond. Our entrance into the Sagavanirktok Valley was marked by a small herd of caribou darting across the river and continuing up valley.
The clouds thinned and blue sky shone above as we made our way up the Sag. As night fell, the clouds behind us burst out into streaks of crimson and orange, illuminated by the setting sun. All of us had decided to take a pass dubbed as “the shortcut,” a creek from the Sag into another along Accomplishment Creek that cut miles off the suggested route. Attaching skins at the base, we wove our way through the narrow creek bed, up towards the top. Distance and darkness would prevent us from crossing that day, and we dropped off one by one, stopping to camp at various points along the way.
The next morning found us making our way up and over the pass, into Accomplishment Creek. In most years, it is rare for large groups to travel together during the event. There comes to be a point where the leaders are able to break away and everyone’s pace differs enough to provide for random spacing. That process was delayed with the deeper snows but began to develop as we continued. Tobi, Chuck and Josh led the charge out front. I did my best to keep up and found myself a few minutes behind them. As we neared an icefall near the headwaters of the valley, I caught up and shuffled behind. The ice was bare and too steep to allow passage, forcing us to pick our way among the slopes on the side. A combination of skinning and boot packing led us past this obstacle. A few miles later, we repeated the process again, navigating a headwall before a lake atop a pass.
Advancing up the headwall had required skiing across a steep wind blasted slope. This necessitated the use of the metal edges along my skis and I dug into the side with each step forward. The situation was less than ideal, with no way to self-arrest and a few large rocks dotting the slope below. After falling back once more prior to ascending, I had caught up to the group ahead, but was quickly left behind. They strode confidently across the face, took off their skis halfway across, and scrambled to the top. I moved slowly, hesitant to make any error that would lead to sliding a few hundred feet to the base.
I had made a large change in gear selection from the prior year, switching my boots from Dynafit with Intuition liners to a pair of 3 pins. While the 3 pin boots were great for avoiding blisters, they weren’t the best for travelling downhill. Keeping them very loose prevented blisters from developing, but it also prevented a sense of control when descending. Combined with my less than stellar downhill skiing skillset, this made for a handful of crashes along the way. Descending from this pass into the headwaters of the Ribdon Valley was no different. The trio out front had rocketed ahead. The snow offered a great surface for travelling, firm from being blasted by wind. It was exciting if you wanted to move quickly, nerve-wracking if you were worried about crashing. Nevertheless, I eased my way down. On one of the smaller slopes, there was a set of large cracks adjacent to the others’ ski tracks. My first thought was crevasses, but we weren’t anywhere near a glacier, meaning that they were signs of snow fracturing and possible avalanches. I stayed to the side, following tracks off the slope and down rocks to a safer spot below.
Not long after, the trail from those ahead wound its way down through the gully and up a small slope on the other side, continuing across a larger face above. I descended into the gully, shot across and lost my balance, crashing into the uphill portion of the slope. As I crashed, the slope above me let loose, a small avalanche descending down towards where I lay. I tried to move away, but struggled to get up from my position in the snow. Within seconds of the first one, a loud boom rang from above. I looked up to see the large face above break out, about 300 yards wide, and come crashing down. I floundered around in the snow but was unable to make any headway. Helpless, I turned to the lip above, waiting for a wall of snow to come rushing over the top. Seconds passed, the wall of snow never came. 50 yards below, the entire gully had been filled with snow. Where I sat in the snow, it had stopped above the gully rim. A matter of pure luck and chance that likely prevented the loss of my life.
I moved out of the small debris that was around my lower legs and skied over to the opposite side. I was shaken and wanted nothing to do with being up high, desiring to get down as soon as possible. But my confidence had dropped, reducing my movement to a crawl, as I sidestepped down the slope. As I descended, I wondered about the others. They were much faster, but their track had gone directly across the face. Had they been caught in the slide? My fears were soon alleviated as I saw the three of them racing up to meet me from the valley below.
After waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, we all decided to camp together nearby. However, the evening’s excitement wasn’t yet over. After the sun had set, the sound of thudding rotors sounded off in the distance. Within minutes a massive helicopter landed with personnel rushing out. A known design flaw in an InReach device among our group had allowed for the SOS button to be depressed in the locked position, unbeknownst to the user. After assuring the responders that the person was in the area and was OK, they took off and the silence of the valley took hold once more.
Most of us decided that the avalanche was enough of a signal to keep us from moving on. There were more slopes ahead, with much higher risks and probabilities of going than the one I had just encountered. Only six would continue on, making an attempt at crossing the Continental Divide (They would successfully cross and end up going to Arctic Village). A group of five would backtrack and follow our trail back to the start. I wanted nothing to do with avalanche terrain and set off with seven others down the Ribdon Valley and out to the road.
The Ribdon turned out to be spectacular, leaving us all fulfilled and satisfied with the trip. The path was straightforward but there were enough obstacles to keep us on our toes and provide for a challenge. Hot springs made for abundant sections of open water, causing us to search for snow bridges and safe passage around without getting our feet wet. Temperatures of -10 F during the day and -30 F at night prevented us from taking too many breaks, as we bundled up and tried to stay ahead of the cold. Along the way we were left to marvel at the mountains, moose, a herd of muskoxen and the many tracks that were spread throughout the landscape. We reached the road just before 10 PM on the second night after heading back, weary and worn, yet satisfied with our “North Slope Classic.”
Late last fall, I interviewed the event sponsor and director, Dave Cramer, for my podcast. In our conversation we talked about the Ski Classic and what brings people back each year. While each person may have the desire to win, Dave said that it is the sense of community and place that ties everyone together. Participating in the Ski Classic is no walk in the park and requires significant mental and physical preparation if one is to finish. With such effort and time involved, it is easy to be disappointed upon being forced to turn back. But unlike last year, I found myself satisfied with the end result. I didn’t get to finish the Ski Classic, but I did get to ski through a magnificent landscape with people that were inspiring and a pleasure to be around. The event leaves the Brooks Range and will return to the Wrangells next year. I’ll return for the first time to the place where I initially fell in love with Alaska. I’ll return to see familiar faces and the community I have come to cherish. And I’ll return with the intention to finally finish the damn thing.