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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking back while ascending the pass

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Top of Peregrine with a view into Grizzly Creek

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Taking advantage of the hot afternoon sun to dry out

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

Advertisements

Redemption Float

The pain stopped me in my tracks.  A jarring sensation went up through my lower legs, from my shins on down.  I thought again if it was worth it.  Should I just turn back?  No. I told myself once again that I wouldn’t be mentally weak.  Almost reluctantly, I continued on stumbling over tussocks toward the pass.

Three weeks prior, I had completed the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.  The experience was exhilarating, but had left my legs in shambles.  The following weeks were comprised of me stumbling around, hobbled by swollen feet.  Once the swelling had decreased, I still could not walk quickly without pain.  Nonetheless, after a couple days without significant pain, I decided I was mostly healed.  During the Classic, I had walked the Hammond while everyone else had floated.  Now I wanted to see what I had missed.

The pass wasn’t far, roughly four miles distant from my starting point.  It’d be another four miles down the pass towards my put in, where I’d then float the ~30 miles to Wiseman.  I picked the wrong side of the pass to ascend, ending up unnecessarily climbing and descending numerous side drainages, clamoring over tussocks most of the way.  There were more instances of pain, though like before, I soldiered on.

After reaching the lake at the top of the pass, I hooped onto a well trod moose trail.  The trail wound the spruce forest, running parallel to the trickling waters of the creek. “Hey OOOH,” I yelled.  With fresh sign abound, I didn’t wish to surprise any moose along the trail.  The echo of my voice from a mountain bowl above was the only reply. By the time I had made it halfway down from the pass, the pain was no longer fleeting, having become a constant presence.  Each step provided a short of pain to my shins and lower legs along with a sort of mental anguish.  I debated whether it’d be better to turn around and head back or continue the last few miles to the valley floor.  More walking wasn’t an attractive option, so I lumbered on.  Fear and doubt crept in.  What if there wasn’t enough water?  During the Classic, everyone had been able to float the river from its headwaters with water levels near their peak.  Now in mid-July, the level had receded and even though I was trying to float from the halfway point, the water could still be too shallow for floating.  I dreaded the thought of more walking.

I had finally made it into the main Hammond Valley, weaved my way through the last spruce trees and arrived on the gravel bar.  I anxiously scanned the braided river channels.  There wasn’t much water, but it was just enough to float without scraping the bottom of the boat.  For the next seven hours, I paddled downriver.  The upper portion was more of a chore than anything else.  The low volume didn’t provide much of a current to propel me forward and I had to constantly paddle not only to advance, but to avoid shallow sections hoping to not scrape the bottom of my raft.

In the early hours of morning, I found enjoyment again in the Hammond Canyon.  With the large walls rising vertically on either side, I was in more familiar territory once again.  I paddled into the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk Valley to Wiseman, the diffuse colors of sunrise lighting the horizon at my back to the north.  Finished with the journey, I was now content and pleased with the idea of being able to finally rest.  My legs certainly had not fully healed and it would be a while before I was to go out again. In the entryway of an old cabin, I fell asleep in a rocking chair, pulling a caribou skin up over my torso for warmth.  I had travelled about 40 miles in 10 hours through big wilderness, but it wasn’t without its price.

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.

Confrontation with the Locals

All summer I had stared at her. She lay glittering right across the river or just off the road depending on where you were, changing colors with the seasons.  If you think I am talking about a woman, I’m going to guess that you haven’t been to Arctic Alaska.  For there are no women here, at least none that make themselves available to a strapping young lad like myself.  Though I am talking about a mountain, Michelle Mountain*, just across the valley from Wiseman, AK.  As part of my job, I spend a fair amount of time in the town of Wiseman.  As part of my life, I try to spend a good bit of time in the mountains.   After spending quite a bit of time staring at Michelle Mt. from Wiseman, I decided that I needed to become intimate with her.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sad to discover I only have one picture of Michelle Mt.  This is one week from one week after the hike described in this post. Picture taken in Wiseman on the banks of the  M. Fork of the Koyukuk.

It wasn’t until mid-August that I finally decided to make an attempt up the mountain.  Late in the day, after tours and dinner, I made my way the 10 miles down the Dalton to the base of Michelle. I quickly made my way out of the rock quarry in which I had parked, beginning to ascend through the forest.  It was not long before I found myself above treeline, for I was climbing the west face of Michelle, which does not receive much sunlight.  The going was steep, yet not overly strenuous. I enjoyed the beginning of the fall colors, as the ground and surrounding vegetation varied from green to yellow and red.  I soon found myself rounding a large rock outcropping and at the top of the first ridge.  I had a wide view of the valley, but I could not see much higher up the ridge, likely only about 40 yards or so.  Looking around, I thought that this would be a perfect spot for a quick break.

The next thing I know, there is a black bear running downhill, directly at me.  There are a few standard guidelines for travelling safely in bear country. So far on this hike, I had followed none of them.  Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Travel with others: I was alone, as I often am on many hikes, bears aren’t deterred by single humans.
  2. Carry bear spray: If you live or travel in Alaska you will hear from many people who live in Anchorage or Fairbanks that you shouldn’t travel in bear country or if you do, you should bring shotguns or various heavy artillery so that you can kill these indestructible creatures. The favorite past time of many people in Alaska is to tell bear stories.  As one of my friends says, “You’ll hear stories of bullets bouncing off skulls or impossible to kill.  Don’t listen to them; they’re drunk or poor shots.  Many of these people haven’t even seen a bear.”  At the least, many recommend that you carry bear spray.  I had neither.

However, I did do a few things correctly.  I instinctively raised both my arms into the air, protruding out in a wide formation, trekking pole still grasped in one hand. As I did this, I began to yell at the bear in quite a loud manner. “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!”  The bear was either really anxious to say hi or did not like me very much, for she did not stop.  As I continued yelling, as if I was a broken record, she continued to rapidly make her way toward me.  During this time, I had no fear. My thinking was extremely clear. I debated whether or not I should throw my trekking pole at her.  I also thought that the bear would not stop.  This whole process felt like minutes, but only occurred in a matter of seconds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the few women in the Arctic

Finally, she stopped at a mere 10-15 foot distance away.  She did not rise up or change in action, but noiselessly stood there, staring intently at me.  At this point, the record was still broken for I continued to yell, “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!” on repeat.  She quickly became bored with the conversation after about 5 seconds(“These stupid humans only knows 2 words.”) turning around and walking back up the slope.  This seemed to appease my internal mechanisms and I stopped yelling.  She continued walking, stopping to glance back every 20 feet or so. As she stopped, I’d yell once again. “Go on, get out of here!”    She responded, “What rude manners, these humans are oh so insensible.”  As she made her way to the edge of the slope, I caught a glimpse of a cub trampling through the willows.  She joined her cub and they ambled over the edge into the unknown.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Check out dat butt. Dang girl, you fine! You can see the cub’s ears/head directly to the right of mama.

At this point, I could either continue up the mountain, proceeding up the slope and over the edge to where the bears likely now lay, or I could retreat down the mountain and call that enough for one day.  I elected to choose the latter option.  As much as I would have liked to continue up the mountain side, I don’t think I left a positive enough impression on Mama Bear to chance a second encounter.  Michelle remains for another time, meanwhile continue to dazzle me with her everlasting beauty.

 

*While there may not be many women in these parts, there sure are a high number of natural features that bear names of women from the past, who lived in this valley!  There’s Clara Creek, Emma Creek, Emma Dome, Minnie Creek, Minnie Dome, Kahlabuk, Rosie Creek….the list goes on.  However, I still prefer the living, breathing kind over the names.

Snowden

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rock formation on Snowden Mt.

All I had been hearing all summer was how it couldn’t be done.  “Oh you can’t do that, X couldn’t ever do it and he was a really good hiker.”  I had never met X but I could tell you one thing.  I did not really give a shit whether he had done something or not.  Someone else’s failures would not stop me from doing any trip.  As you may be able to tell from my writings, meager successes and failures, I am fairly ambitious and have some lofty goals.  But I’d much rather try and fail, then sit around musing about other people’s journeys.  The mission was the summit of Snowden Mountain.  Snowden sits in the Dietrich River valley 40 miles to the north of Coldfoot.  At ~6,400 feet, it towers over everything in the near vicinity.  A friend and I were planning on making an attempt at one point, but were turned away due to wildfire smoke.

Snowden represented much more than a mountain to me.  It was a mental hurdle.  By this point in the summer, mid-July, I was largely dissatisfied with what I had achieved in the hiking and packrafting domain.  Sure, I had done more and been out more, than everyone else in the area.  Enough that people were coming up with stories about what I’d done that weren’t even true.  It was like a scene from the Wild West, where a basic event eventually turns into an incredible and unbelievable yarn.  All this was very flattering, but I tried to downplay it as much as possible. Because for me, and for who I was trying to be, what I was doing was nothing.  Thinking about people I looked up to for inspiration in the outdoor world, like Luc Mehl and Roman Dial, put my situation in perspective. It was peanuts.  That is certainly fine, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more.

It is with all that in mind that I prepared to make an attempt on Snowden.  My friend was way too busy with work. This would be something that I had to do alone, as it should be. By the middle of July, I could procrastinate no longer.  One clear evening, I hopped in the van and made my way along the Haul Road to that familiar spot.  As mentioned in the previous post. I had received beta from a local and had studied the route on topographic maps quite extensively.  I would start on the north side of the mountain, just off the road, edging my way along the northern face until I hit the summit ridge that would lead me directly to the top.  It wouldn’t be as straightforward as it sounds, I’d be gaining over 5,000 feet in the process and travelling over 12 miles total while attempting to navigate around the various rock formations on this massive mountain.

Soon I had begun my journey, navigating through the dwarf birch and tussocks of the spruce forest.  One step in front of the other, I slowly made my way uphill. After fighting my way through a dense patch of willows, I finally found myself above tree-line and onto the firmer tundra.  Low growing vegetation interspersed with various rocks lay beneath my feet.  I quickly ascended to the base of one of the “molars” of the rock formation that’s locally known as the wolf’s jaw.  Leaving the grass and mosses behind, I stumbled over rock and lichen, paralleling the rock formation up to the canine, or the highest protruding rock.  The process was slow, as I moved across steep talus fields, picking my way so as I would not tumble down, unlike some of the rocks I was setting loose.  Moving along, I reached an opening in the rock formation, gaining my first glimpse of the summit while on the mountain.  I had a long way to go, as I gazed up at the jagged limestone formations on the main western face.  Not long after this grand view, I stumbled across a sheep trail.  Those high mountain dwellers had established a narrow, well maintained single track trail that followed right underneath the wolf’s jaw.  I quickly left the jumbled talus fields behind, electing to follow the path well traveled.  My pace drastically increased, as I was able to move quickly along the established path, stopping every so often to pick up the trail again wherever it went faint.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Wolf’s Jaw

Eventually, the trail ended at a scree field consisting of thing shale rocks.   These rocks lay between me and where I wanted to be, so there was no other path but to follow them up to the top of the wolf’s jaw.  It was a lengthy process.  Not only was I travelling up a steeper slope, but for every two steps forward, the talus seemed to cause me to sink one foot back.  Slowly and surely, I found my way to the top of this section, atop the wolf’s jaw. And what a view lay ahead!  I was taller than most mountains in the vicinity that allowed me to have quite the view of the region.  I looked south down the Dietrich Valley towards Dillon Mt. and Sukapak.  North, east and west lay innumerable lofty mountain peaks protruding into the clear, never ending summer “night” sky of the Arctic.  While the view may have been glorious, the route ahead did not.  I had ascended most of the elevation necessary to achieve the summit, yet distance wise I likely only remained just beyond halfway.  The immediate route ahead wasn’t promising.  It looked as if I would have to traverse a very narrow ridge (potentially non-existent) ridge to a steep colouir.  Whether or not I could get across the colouir to the summit ridge was unknown.  Scanning the area, I noticed that if instead, I had taken the creek north of where I started, it would have led me to a more gradual ridge that eventually connected with the ridge leading to the top.  I pondered what my options were.  I could consider as planned, although that route wasn’t likely to go.  The other route that I spotted, looked like it would, but that would involve descending, then ascending yet again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Abyss.  Snowden summit in center background.

I stared into the metaphorical abyss.  This felt like it could be a point of the transformation. Into the person that I wanted to be and knew I was.  I knew the route.  I was almost 100% confident that it would work.  But what would I choose?  The easy retreat? Back down the scree and into the easy comforts of civilization? Or would I transform, moving forward, doing what I know what I could accomplish, yet undergoing some sort of pain on the way. Definitely mental, possibly physical as well.  For whatever reason, I once again stepped away from the edge, convincing myself to retreat down the mountain.  Quickly, descending via the scree back to where I started. What had taken five hours to reach and ascend, only required an hour and a half to follow back down.  A lump in my stomach remained.  I knew how close I was to the other side, but for whatever reason I didn’t continue.  This may not have been the time, but I am there. I feel as if I am on the edge of a breakthrough of some kind, whether it is just physical or of my character remains to be seen.  My Snowden journey awaits.  I don’t know when, but I will stand on the summit, crossing to the other side.

Smokey Days

 This past summer, there were over 3 million acres in Alaska that burned as a result of over 600 different wildfires.  A lack of snow last winter, coupled with a normal, dry summer in the interior, provided a perfect catalyst for wildfire conditions.  Although there weren’t many fires nearby Coldfoot, we were not immune to the effects.  There were numerous days on end, in both the months of June and July, where we found ourselves surrounded by a thick layer of smoke.  It could be anywhere from a light haze to thick, choking smoke that obscured any visibility beyond ¼ mile.  Needless to say, not many people enjoyed it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Smoke filled sky

One day in early July, I found myself sitting shotgun in my friend’s Ford Ranger, traveling north along the Dalton Highway in the midst of this dense soup.  Our plan for the day was to make an attempt on Snowden Mountain, the tallest mountain in the near vicinity at about 6,400 feet.  This mountain was unlike many, in the sense that it wasn’t a standard steep walk up.  Snowden on the other hand, was rather limited in route options for ascent, with numerous steep and sheer vertical slopes.  It wasn’t something that was frequently attempted.  I had only heard of two people who had successfully summitted the mountain in the past 30 years or so.  They had supposedly ascended the near vertical south face, with minimal relief.  As someone who enjoys seriously challenging myself, all this information was music to my ears.  I had gained some beta on a possible route from one of my local friends, who had previously flown around the mountain.

We hoped that we would be able to escape the smoke once we moved a little further up the valley, past Wiseman.  Cloud formations tend to bunch up at the lower end and we were hoping the smoke would do the same.  Thirteen miles into our journey we found ourselves across the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River Bridge 1 and beyond Wiseman Road, yet still in the heart of the smoke.  Another fifteen miles later, we were travelling past the Skagit limestone spectacle that is Sukapak Mountain, though if we were ignorant we wouldn’t know, because we were still enshrouded in smoke.  Another fifteen miles passes.  We were at the base of Snowden, only to find the upper half encased in hazy smoke, without even a glimpse of the summit.  Snowden wasn’t happening today.  I’m not a smoker.  And I definitely didn’t feel like inhaling a few packs to ramble around with no visibility.  So we pushed on.

The beauty of living in The Brooks Range is the endless options that lay in waiting.  Sure Snowden would be great, but anything within the 100 mile corridor, from Coldfoot to the end of the mountains, was great.  To think that this is only a small segment of the Brooks Range too.  Great or not, the smoke didn’t care. For it followed us past the northernmost tree and up on top of Chandalar Shelf.  Surely the smoke couldn’t  be on the other side of the continental divide as well? Surely we were wrong.  We crossed Atigun Pass, at ~4,700 feet, the highest point on the road system in Alaska and also the Continental divide, only to find the Atigun River valley to the north encased in smoke as well.  Soon we were out of the mountains, 100 miles and a few hours north of Coldfoot, yet still in a smoky haze.  Well, we made it this far we figured, might as well try a little farther.  Our persistence paid off. While we didn’t find the end of the smoke, we did find a section that we deemed tolerable enough to walk about in at Slope Mountain.

Slope Mountain isn’t so much a mountain, rather more of a massive hill.  Though for our purposes, it would more than suffice.   Stretching our stiff legs, we made our way down the pipeline access road in which we had parked, onto the uneven, soft tundra.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Smokey haze from Slope Mountain

Hopping from tussock to tussock, we glanced up at one of the steeper slopes, counting the white dots that indicated Dall Sheep.  It wasn’t long before we were scrambling up the loose shale, finding ourselves with expansive views.  The foothills continued off beyond our field of vision to the west, gently rolling hills of tussock sedge grasses.  To our east lay a section of The Brooks Range that curved north as it continued east into the Yukon Territory.  It wasn’t a hard hike by any means, yet it was highly enjoyable as is the case with almost all of them.  Before long, we found ourselves at the rounded summit.  We looked out in all directions, as a peregrine falcon shrieked overhead, flying back in forth in front of us.  We must have been near its nest on the wall for it was relentless. It was fascinating to watch, the fastest creature in the world with the ability to fly at over 250 mph, though I hoped it wouldn’t try to defend its young and go on the offensive against us anytime soon.

We watched for a while before deciding to give the falcon a break.  From above, we had spotted a band of Dall sheep and we decided to try and sneak up on them on the way down.  Descending down the talus fields, the sheep eventually came into view.  Imagining ourselves in another era, as hunters from the Pleistocene age, we snuck down.  Crouching low to the ground, we crawled on our bellies on to an overlook not more than 100 yards from the sheep that lay grazing below.  We thought we were sly, as we whispered about their beauty but I imagine they had seen us long before.  Dall sheep have high density rods and cones in their eyes, having the ability to detect slight movements more than a mile distant. It wasn’t long before one of the ewes was staring right at our position.  The band continued grazing along the slope, moving north over a ridge and eventually out of our sight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dall Sheep

Continuing down the slope, we soon arrived back in the wet tundra greeted by even more wildlife. The mosquito! We didn’t have to sneak up to find them, they were nice enough to come to us. After stopping to watch some unidentified waterfowl on a small lake, we soon found ourselves back at my friend’s trusty old Ford Ranger.  It wasn’t the adventure we had planned, but it would suffice.  Any day wandering around the north country is good enough for me, especially when that day contains a variety of observable wildlife.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Can you see why it’s called Slope Mountain?

Arctic Myths

As part of my job, I interact with people from all across the world and spend at least a few hours with them.  I hear a lot about people’s preconceived notions of the Arctic and how it differs from what they imagined, especially in the summer time.  I hope to dispel some of those myths here.

Cold

No matter the time of year, many people expect it to be cold during every month of the year. For 8 months of the year they would be right! However, in the summer time (when most people decide to come), I have encountered many people who step off the plane with heavy winter coats, hats and mittens, while I’m usually sweating in short sleeves.  Many are dismayed to realize that it is actually quite warm in the Arctic in the summer.  This past summer we had a day that reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit and it was not uncommon to have days in the low to upper 80s from late May until the end of July.  The warmest temperature in Alaska was recorded in the Arctic.  Fort Yukon recorded a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Due to its high latitude and rotation of the earth, the sun is directly over the North Pole for 6 months of the year, basking the Arctic in endless daylight.  For example, in Coldfoot the sun is up for 33 days straight in the middle of summer.  From June 4 to July 7 the sun does not set below the horizon.  With the sun up for such a long period of time, it is pretty difficult not to have warm temperatures.  People complain about the warm temperatures, but when it gets cold they complain as well.  Hmmm…  The bottom line is if you come to Alaska in the summer, certainly bring warmer layers, but leave the heavy winter gear at home!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The sun still above the mountains at 1 am on June 15th. Solar midnight in Alaska is 2 am.

Don’t be mistaken though, it is typically quite cold here for much of the year.  In an average year, the rivers, creeks and lakes will be frozen by the beginning of the third week of October and remain so until the middle of May.  From the beginning of November to the end of March the average daily temperature ranges from 40 degrees below zero to 0.  The coldest I have seen so far this winter is -35 F, last Thursday.  About 60 miles east of Coldfoot is likely the coldest area in Alaska.  There is an old mining settlement there called Caro.  It sits at the base of three major river valleys with mountains trapping the cold air that pools at their bases.  In the winter of 1989 there was a man living there who recorded the temperature at -100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit on three separate thermometers!! This is much colder than the coldest temperature ever officially recorded in Alaska at Prospect Creek, which was -79.8 F in January of 1971.  It goes without saying that,that is some serious cold.

Snow and Ice

The Arctic is covered in snow for and ice for much of the year, but during the summer it is almost impossible to find any snow.  Remember that sun from the paragraphs above? Well, circling around above the horizon for so long melts all the snow from the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean.  You won’t find any snow in the middle of the summer, besides on the handful of glaciers and permanent ice fields. However, it is possible for it to snow in every month of the year (in fact, I have seen this occur).

Something that is surprising to most people is the fact that the Arctic is a desert.  In Coldfoot, we receive about 9 inches of precipitation, with most of that coming as rain.  The average snow depth is right around three feet.  With permafrost (ground that is permanently frozen for >2 years) covering almost the entire landscape, water is not able to permeate through the soil and drain out from the surface.  That is why there is lots of green vegetation in the Arctic, compared with minimal vegetation in the desert.

Another interesting anecdote is that the roads are actually much safer for the most part in winter.  There are nine different types of ice, ranging from water vapor to solid as a result of both temperature and pressure.  Most people in temperate latitudes are used to ice near the freezing point and associate it as very slippery.  In the Arctic, since it is so cold in the winter time, compacted snow/ice becomes a solid.  At -40 degrees below zero, you can stop a vehicle in the same distance on ice/compacted snow as a vehicle on dry pavement.  Even around -20 degrees Fahrenheit, you are only losing about 15% stopping distance.  To maintain the gravel sections of road, they actually dump water on it in the beginning of winter (60,000 gallons per mile!!!!).  It does not become an ice rink, but a solid that makes for excellent travel.  As long as the road is free of uncompacted snow, it is quite pleasant to drive in the winter!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A raven flys over the Dalton Highway just outside Coldfoot.

Animals

Despite what the television shows would like you to believe, Alaska (and especially the Arctic), is not a Serengeti.  There is a low diversity of animals that are present here, and of those animals they are present in small quantities.  The climate is too harsh for the majority of the year to provide for adequate food sources. For example, we have moose from the tree line near the top of the mountains down to the valley floor. Yet their density is less than 0.2 moose per square mile.  It takes 5 square miles to have one adequate habitat for moose.  Dall sheep, which live on top of the mountains (and have hair, not wool) are here in even smaller densities. There are 0.1 Dall Sheep per square mile. It takes 10 square miles for one Dall Sheep.  Bears range over vast distances.  Coldfoot is approximately 50 miles south of the northernmost tree. So we also happen to be nearing the northern limit of Black bear habitat (who need trees to climb away from larger bears). Grizzlies range over large territories anywhere from 15 square miles to 100 square miles depending on where you are.  The most numerous large animal species of the north is the caribou.  In the northern third of Alaska there are over 500,000 caribou divided into 4 different herds.  Their population density is less than 1 caribou per square mile.  While you may see hundreds, if not thousands of caribou in one area, there are millions of acres where there are no caribou at all.  Finally, most animals are nocturnal because they can’t stand the warm temperatures, making it even more unlikely to see them during the day, especially near the noisy road!  If you see an animal in Alaska, consider yourself quite lucky! It is a treat!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not a rare sight! A snowshoe hare munching on food in Wiseman. Notice the white ears and feet, it is transitioning from its brown summer coat to a white winter coat.

Why?

Not a myth but persistent question. WHY do you live here?*  Well, for one nobody is forced to live here.  It is a conscious choice. In fact, many people quite enjoy it!  One of the residents in Wiseman likes to respond to this question by saying, “Everyone has a home. Dorothy and Todo live in Kansas. I live here.” That one always gives me a chuckle. While most people these days are content to live among large numbers of people, I am not one of them.  I enjoy living in close proximity to nature, in large wild landscapes.  For those who have traveled here, or at least seen pictures, the beauty speaks for itself.  So far I believe I have found a perfect match, living in one of the last great wildernesses left in the world.   Although, there was one gentleman who was trying to tell me how Vermont was wilder and more remote…

 

Now that you are enlightened, go forth and preach the good news of the Arctic!

 

*This is constantly followed up by what are options for medical services/where is the nearest hospital? As if everyone is breaking their legs every other month. For those who are curious, there are no medical services.  The nearest medical services are in Fairbanks, a 6-7 hour drive one way, or an expensive plane ride on the scheduled air service.  People tend not to become ill very often around here.