Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2017

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic 2017

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.

Watching the ANWR group begin

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.

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Looking up the Itkillik 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.

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Itkillik Pass

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.

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Headwaters of the North Fork

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.

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Looking back while ascending the pass

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Top of Peregrine with a view into Grizzly Creek

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High winds blowing snow off the ridge

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.

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Taking advantage of the hot afternoon sun to dry out

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Mountains along the Ernie Creek Valley

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.

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Travelling hard packed snowgo trail on the Anaktuvuk

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!

Katie Strong’s trip report from the other side

Atigun-Sag

Dubbed by many as “the run” on the Haul Road, the Atigun-Sagavanirktok float offers intense boating through the northern reaches of the Brooks Range and onto the North Slope. I had wanted to do the trip since arriving in the country. Something always seemed to be lacking, mainly a partner or time.  In late August, I finally had both as my friend Ian and I took off north to the tundra.  Such a route was not without a troubled history.  Some had lost their lives in the past, falling off of cliffs and drowning after flipping their boats.

From the road, the river teases you.  It winds back and forth across the broad Atigun valley, slowly meandering towards the north.  It almost leads one to believe that it offers a gentle float to the coast.  For those who have travelled its lower reaches, they know that this is hardly the case.  The river makes a hard right at Galbraith Lake and heads east into the mountains, through what’s known as Atigun Gorge.

Not long after putting in, the action began.  Class II/III rapids were the rule.  Flat sections of any length were the exception.  We took out and scouted everything that looked questionable as a precaution, but ended up running everything with the exception of a bend where the main channel funneled directly into a rock face.  It was thrilling, we were always on edge.  Peeking around corners and craning our necks to see what lay ahead.  At the edge of our comfort zones, the experience was also mentally draining.  As such, we spent only a few hours on the river that first day.  A couple friends of mine were running the river as well and we joined their camp that first evening.

The river provided much of the same character that next day with almost non-stop action, bend after bend.  In one set of rapids, I glanced further downstream to see Ian’s boat floating upside down.  A quick scan of the water found him near shore unharmed.  He had lost his paddle and was a little shaken up.  We set out along the river’s edge, scanning up and down the bank for its tell tale bright yellow blades.  Without luck, we continued on.  The incident had occurred near where my friend’s group had taken out to scout for caribou.  Glassing amongst traditional campsites of traditional peoples, they offered Ian a ride down river on one of their bigger boats.  A much larger convoy travelled down the river.  The big boats took the lead, my packraft and I bringing up the rear.  One large rapid remained before we left the Gorge and in light of the recent event, I decided to portage. Instead helping the big boats come through before moving on.  The tight enclosing nature of the Gorge was behind us.  No longer were we surrounded by cliffs and mountains rising up directly from the river.  We encountered a seemingly larger landscape upon entering the broad Sag valley.  Rugged mountains rose out of the valley to the south.  Downriver the foothills of the Brooks Range rolled out onto the North Slope.  For now, gone were the major rapids.  The gas wasn’t flat, but much more gentle than what we had experienced over the past couple days.  Camping with my friends again that night, we moved in and out of the rain.  We shared meals (or receiving them in our case…Thanks Barry!) and stories, enjoying the experience of being out in the country.  In the evening, Ian and I wandered over the tundra. We found numerous caribou antler sheds, signs of movements in the past.  Rain drizzled down as we walked towards a small lake, picking blueberries along the way.

Before we had arrived in camp, Ian had found his paddle.  It had floated a few miles down from where he had flipped and had washed up on a bank.  With necessary gear in hand (or boat) again, we set off the following day.  It was just the two of us continuing on, the others would remain to hunt caribou.  Like the Atigun, the Sag at this stretch was deceptive, with calm and flat waters. We knew it’d pick up later on with more nonstop action and one large class IV rapid before we were to end our time on the water.  Pyramid Peak came into sight, the marker for which we were told was a sign of the big rapid somewhere in the not too distant future. Out front, I craned my neck at the riffles ahead.  It seemed to be just lower grade rapids so I turned to give Ian the all clear sign.  How wrong I was.  It was the big one.  Big rapids amongst a large boulder garden.  I maneuvered as best I could, constantly attempting to scan ahead for obstacles.  Water filled my boat and I had bounced off a few rocks but I had made it out safely.  I dumped my boat out, looking back and hoping that Ian had recognized my mistake (he did).

It was rock n’ roll from there to the take out with large wave trains every few hundred yards.  On a flat stretch, we watched a grizzly walking on the gravel bar towards the river.  Once it sighted us, it took off and bolted the opposite direction, only stopping to glance back when it had reached higher ground.

The river was thrilling, providing plenty of challenge and excitiement but not too much to be overly intense.  With the incident the day before, Ian wasn’t feeling completely comfortable.  We took out early, hiking the few miles back to the road near Slope Mountain.

This was a great trip and one I plan to make again somewhere further down the line.  For those who are skilled and short on time, the trip can be done in one long (intense) day during the summer.  Total float time was probably around 16 hours or so, with lots of scouting.

The end of the trip ended up being the most frustrating aspect.  Ian’s truck was parked back at the put in, 30 miles down the road.  We tried to hitch back, standing at the side of the road for about 2 hours.  With no luck, we decided to start walking.  It was another 3 hours and 10 miles of walking before we caught a ride at last light.  A state trooper and a couple in a Subaru were the only ones that stopped before we were able to get a ride.  The couple stopped to ask us if we had seen any caribou.  When we said no, the driver gave us a disgusted look and drove on.  Break down in a car on the side of the road? Plenty of people will stop for you.   Find yourself looking to get a ride without one?  Good luck.  It seems to become harder and harder with each passing year.

Mosquitoes and Glaciers

Roche Mountonee Creek

Roche Mountonee Creek

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.

Lower Roche Mountonee Valley

Lower Roche Mountonee Valley

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.

Roche Mountanee on opposite mountain side. Formations in rock are created due to glacial erosion.

Roche Mountanee on opposite mountain side. Formations in rock are created due to glacial erosion.

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 valley ahead

The valley ahead

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.

A look back towards the descent route

A look back towards the descent route

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.

Upper Trevor Creek Valley

Upper Trevor Creek Valley

The Brooks Range Odyssey

 

June 4, 2014: Today I head north to  begin my adventure.  I will hopefully begin my trek tomorrow.  My mom will be posting weekly or so updates of my expedition to this blog.

Brooks Range_Wikipedia

 

With winter winding down, I feel as if now is as good time as ever to announce my plans for this summer.  After I graduate in May, I will be beginning a new set of (hopefully successful) adventures.  I wanted to start off my own personal adventures with a bang.   So for the past few months I have been planning a trek that will likely challenge me more than I have been challenged  at any other point of my 21 years of existence.

On June 4th, I will be departing for The Brooks Range, located in Alaska’s Far North.  I will be spending the next four months there, hiking and packrafting, back and forth across the Brooks Range for a total of two full traverses that total just over 1,750 miles.  It has been my dream for quite some time now to spend a summer in The Brooks and I have devised a unique route that will allow me to do just that.

The Plan

A basic descriptions of my route is as follows: I start just short of Atigun Pass on the Dalton Highway.  I will head east, stopping close to the Canadian border.  From there I will proceed to hike and packraft west along the Continental Divide, before floating the Ambler and Kobuk River south/west past Ambler.  I will head northwest past Noatak before turning around and hiking across the northern section of the range, until floating out through the Gates of the Arctic to Coldfoot on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River.

The total route of 1750 miles will be traveled on foot roughly 70% of the time, with the remaining miles using a packraft to float various rivers within the range. I will be resupplying my rations in the sparsely located towns (Arctic Village, Ambler, Anaktuvuk Pass, Noatak) in and around the range, along with one food cache  near the Dalton Highway.

Overview

Overview

Why?

One of the most common questions one faces when they look to embark on an adventure is why do this?  It is a tough question to answer.  For me, there are multiple reasons that answer this question.  The number one reason would be to return to Alaska, a place I fell in love with in the summer of 2013.  I have never experienced the level of natural beauty or sense of complete inner peace, at any other place or moment during my life.  I strongly desire to return to that simple way of life and being.

Other reasons include immersing myself in The Brooks Range (as stated above) and challenging myself in order to see what I’m capable of. To live. To be free.

I’m both very excited and scared for what the months ahead hold.  This is the adventure of a lifetime, yet I hold a fear for the unknown.  Stay tuned, more details to follow.