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.
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.
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 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.
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.