Mount Gordon

The morning after arriving on top of the plateau we woke bright and early to walk over to our improvised airstrip.  We had selected a 100 yard runway that was pretty flat and absent of any large rocks.  After lining the runway with neon orange colored duffel bags and creating an improvised wind sock out of a trekking pole and a wind shirt, we waited for Kirk and “The Hulk” (the name of his plane) to arrive.  Soon enough, we heard a soft humming and watched as the plane came up the valley through the mountains.  Kirk gave a quick fly over on the first go around to inspect the runway for any potential hazards or risks.  He circled and came back around slowing down to a very slow speed before bouncing down on the runway and zooming up towards us and our gear.  What a sight!  This tiny Super Cub was a work of art and a beauty to behold in the skies.  Kirk had built the plane himself out of fabric and there was only one other plane in the world like it. The Super Cub was perfect in this environment as it is able to go at speeds as low as 30 mph and only needs 100 yards to land. We went about our duties of sorting food, refilling spice bottles and fuel, filling up the peanut butter jar (Yum!) and taking our glacier gear out of the plane, which we had brought in so that we could begin mountaineering earlier than planned.  After taking off a few bags, I happily moved away from my responsibilities to chat with Kirk and the instructors about his plane and flying in this part of the country.  He eventually had to get going so he hopped back in The Hulk leaving us with our gear and food until we saw him at our next re-ration 8 days later.  We then lugged our gear back and after eating breakfast we spent the rest of the day learning about various mountaineering knots and harnesses and also reviewing first aid material.

The plateau was a fairly flat, rocky area so when we wanted to dispose of waste (aka poop) we would just have to go a few hundred yards dig our hole and crouch down with no privacy from bushes or trees.  That was not a problem for our group as we had become pretty comfortable with using the bathroom around each other so nobody thought it was a very big deal.  During the evening, one of the girls went on a “nature walk”, as some liked to call it, and was doing her business when a sheep popped up over the ridge behind her.  She had not seen the sheep, while back at camp someone had spotted it and we began pointing and yelling behind her.  She had no clue what was going on, frantically looking around in all directions as she jumped up thinking there may have been a bear behind her!  The sheep ran off as we laughed and we proceeded to enjoy another cool night out in the wilderness.

The next morning we woke up to rain pounding on our tent and the floor of the tent body wet beneath us.  The tents tend to exaggerate how hard the rain comes down, but it had been coming steadily enough to create a flow of water from the hill behind us through the tent area and finally through the middle of our kitchen before falling off the slope towards Mt. Gordon.  Wearily, we examined our wet gear and began to set up tarps so that we would not become drenched while we were cooking breakfast.  The rain continued to pour down and it was the last thing we needed on what was expected to be a tough day.  It was not only our first day in plastic boots, which are pretty immobilizing and tough to walk in on dry land, but we would be double-carrying to our base camp at Mt. Gordon a little over 2 miles away.  Essentially what that meant is that we were not strong enough to carry all our existing gear plus the new glacier gear that was dropped off by Kirk (ropes, skis, crampons, sleds, ice screws etc.) and would have to make two trips to carry the gear.  We decided it was best to wait out the rain for a little bit as it had become much stronger and was pouring down on our tarps. So far it was a miserable day.

The rain eventually let up and we picked up our heavy packs and began on our way.  We began walking across the plateau, our packs loaded down with all sorts of gear, eventually dropping down along a small creek.  Here we took a break and learned a few things about glaciers and glacier safety using the base of the glacier a few hundred yards to the side of us as a reference point.  A tiny beautiful black and white bird sang and soared through the air as we looked on.  It was the first animal we had seen in days and the last we would see for a long time to come.

We continued upwards toward camp now climbing over steep rocky mountainsides and eventually moving onto moraine, where we would set up camp.  A moraine is an area where a glacier has receded, leaving debris such as rocks and dirt that have accumulated over a base layer of ice.  The moraines can have anywhere from a lot of small dirt pebbles to a few feet of dirt and rocks between your feet and the ice layer beneath the earth.  It was very chilly at camp with a strong breeze coming off Mt. Gordon and with an ice field 200 yards behind us.  We had to head back for the second trip though, so we could get back early enough to get some rest to prepare for a long day of learning the next day.   The instructors split off to scout Mt. Gordon and two sick/injured students stayed behind as the rest of us made or way back to retrieve our gear.  It took us almost no time at all without any weight on our backs, only an hour and a half, to travel the distance back to the previous campsite.  At the campsite, we rounded up the miscellaneous fuel, ropes and other glacier gear that was left behind and began to schlep it all the way back for the final time.  As we moved tension became high, as most people were tired and both physically and mentally exhausted from lugging this heavy gear around, and a few heated exchanges were made before we made it back to camp.   We had a long discussion at our nightly s.c.h.l.e.p. meeting (Shout outs, comments/concerns, hot question, learnings, entertainment, plan) before retiring to our tents to get some rest.  We woke early the next day to low gray skies, more wind and no view of the summit.  Throughout the day we learned and practiced new skills in camp and on the nearby ice field such as rope travel, how to walk in crampons, how to stack rope and related material so that we would be prepared for a potential ascent of Gordon the next day.

My alarm went off at 4:30 am the next morning. I groggily sat up in my sleeping bag as I heard Grayson, one of my more energetic and motivating peers, give a cockle-doodle-a-doo to make sure everyone was up and ready to go.  I laughed but the girls in my tent didn’t find it so funny and promptly told him to shut up.  We were out of camp by 6, climbing the hill next to camp to begin our journey to the top of the mountain.  The sun had not come up over the mountains yet and we began the day feeling a little chilled.  The initial part of our climb was over rock and we followed it up and around heading west.  Our plan was to traverse across the west shoulder before climbing up the steep north face to the summit (the gnar wall).   Reaching the ice, we took a quick break before tossing our crampons on and crunching our way across the shoulder until we reached snow.  At this point, we had to break off into 3 rope teams of 5, 4 and 4 (one of the instructors stayed back at camp sick).   The idea of a rope team is that members are evenly spaced along a rope and hooked in from their harnesses.  If a member falls into a crevasse, the other members can self arrest using their ice axe and prevent their team member from falling all the way to the bottom and likely dying.  Although highly unlikely, there have been 140 ft. crevasses that have opened up on glaciers and swallowed whole rope teams.  I was hoping none of us would be so unfortunate.  With an instructor leading the first rope team, the rest of us followed up as she probed for crevasses every so often.  When a rope leader out front sees a sign of a crevasse along the side of the mountain, a dip or a visible crack/opening, the leader uses a 9 foot long steel pole to “probe” deep into the snow for crevasses.  If the snow bridge is found to be too thin, the rope leader must strategize and navigate another way around the hazard or set snow/ ice protection (anchors that are clipped on to the rope) to add as a further safety measure.  On our way to the top, the instructor placed multiple pieces of protection as we crossed over crevasses where we could see the open cracks a couple hundred yards off to our left.

I anticipated we would be at the top quickly as we were climbing pretty fast and seemed to be making good time.  Near the top, we stopped and my student rope team fell to the back of the pack as our other instructor rushed to the front to solve a potential problem.  My rope team sat in the back uninformed of what was going on up ahead since we could not see the first rope team over the slope in front of us.  I plopped down on my pack and enjoyed the beautiful view of the valley and mountains behind us.  You could see multiple sets of mountains in the distance, the plateau where we had our re-ration and even part of the Jacksina River, back where it all began.  Hours passed and we became cold from the lack of movement.  Along with knowing how to face the other elements, learning how to heat your body up is one of the most valuable skills in the wild.  It doesn’t take much for your body to cool off with a lack of food, water and layers when exposed to the cold and high winds at close to 9,000 feet.  There is only a small difference in body temperature between life and death.  I managed to stay warm by stomping out a platform on the steep face and doing push-ups on my pack but I was anxious to get moving again.  Eventually we were told to put our crampons on but we still didn’t have much of an idea what was going on besides that it was something involved with a crevasse.  Well after over 2.5 hours of sitting high on the north face we finally proceeded to move up.  The problem was that there was a bergschrund (crevasse at the top of the mountain) right before the summit.  To reach the summit we would have to step on a 4 ft wide snow-bridge over the 7 foot wide crevasse, then climb up an 8 foot ice wall using ice axes and our crampons.  I was not overly excited as I watched my peers move through the anchor system the instructors had built and then up the wall onto the summit.  A couple of my peers had struggled getting up the wall and when they fell back down punched their foot through a side of the snow bridge into the open crevasse.  As I stepped onto the ice bridge for my turn, I looked down on either side, seeing all kinds of ice shapes stick out of the wall.  I wondered how deep it went down but I knew that I didn’t want to be the person to find out!  I grabbed the ice axe, kicked into the steps that were no longer there and scampered up unharmed.  We had reached the summit.

There was a beautiful 360 degree view of the valley behind us and the glacier and the snow capped mountains that lay ahead of us.  Summiting Mt. Gordon was almost like a rite of passage from the tundra to the glacier.  We climbed up Mt. Gordon with the tundra at our backs and reached the summit with a view of what lay ahead.  In the distance, we could see the majestic glaciated mountains, Blackburn and Sanford. The only problem we faced on the summit was extremely high winds, and that was the last thing we wanted to deal with after being already cold due to a lack of movement for 2.5 hours.  After the last member of our team reached the summit we paused for a minute before quickly descending down the other side of the mountain and back into camp.  We had bagged our first peak climbing 2000 ft with 10 miles of total travel in 12 hours.  Exhausted yet feeling accomplished, my tent group enjoyed a hearty meal of couscous and beans before climbing into our sleeping bags for the night.

We spent the whole next day ice climbing on the ice wall at the bottom of our ice field next to camp.  The instructors had spent the morning setting up the anchors while we lazed around camp and had breakfast.  I was very nervous to try it for some reason but after strapping on my crampons and tackling my first wall with a couple of ice axes I had found a new activity that I enjoyed!  I then tackled steeper walls increasing my level of enjoyment. Everyone was having a blast as some tried out techniques such as climbing with only one ice axe or climbing with no ice axes.  It was a perfect follow-up to our peak ascent the day before. We would now enjoy a few more days of dry land before calling the ice and snow our home for almost 3 weeks.

The Hulk on arrival

The Hulk on arrival

The Hulk, Kirk (on the right) and myself. Mt. Gordon towering in the background

The Hulk, Kirk (on the right) and myself. Mt. Gordon towering in the background

Looking back from near the summit

Looking back from near the summit

On the summit. The glacier in the distance

On the summit. The glacier in the distance

Descending Mt. Gordon

Descending Mt. Gordon

Yeehaw

Yeehaw

Yukon Cornelius

Yukon Cornelius

The Battle of Monte Cristo Creek

We had finally set up camp down in the canyon and were now prepared to enjoy this rest day under the beaming sun, another day of clear Alaskan blue sky.  Down in the canyon was just as beautiful as above, as we were surrounded by 100 plus feet of rock walls shooting straight up on either side with a raging creek running right down the middle.  The funny thing about Alaska is that what they call creeks would be considered a raging river anywhere else.  And the Monte Cristo certainly began raging around mid-day as we started to hear the large rocks on the rock bed beneath the surface churn along with the rapids, clunking over other rocks as they moved further along with the water.

As for myself, I didn’t have a worry in the world for the rest of the afternoon after I had my lunch.  Each of us students chose a mentor, from the 3 instructors, and we had decided that this would be a good day to have our mentor check-ins which left the afternoon free (besides the time you had your meeting).  I definitely took advantage of this free time and was productive for about ten minutes doing a good ol’ fashioned cleaning of my clothes in the silty creek.  After that, I proceeded to put on my fashionable sun hat (pictured below) and nap on my pack for a majority of the afternoon. It was glorious!

The sun had been beating down all day, moving many of us from our positions in the middle of the canyon to the outer edge under any shade that was available.  Many of us also sat next to this new flowing stream, which had formed at the base of the canyon wall, but at the time paid no attention to it, not realizing what lay ahead of us this very night.  Dinner was going smoothly until one of the instructors began to notice that the channel (which moved along the outer edge, down past our tents and further down the canyon) had been rising along with the main section of the creek.   Many of these Alaskan creeks and rivers are runoff from glaciers and are largely affected by sun exposure and heat.  We were a couple hours from the high water level of the day. Needless to say, we did not wish for anymore increase in river flow.

Unfortunately (or fortunately as we had a blast!), our wishes were not granted and the side channel began to cut across our camp, between the tents and kitchen, connecting with the main creek 30 yds. away.   At this point we had 2 options, either just sit and watch as the river continued to rise, which would result in the side channels likely reaching our tents, or work like hell and try to divert the river. Obviously, we chose the latter!  We moved our kitchen to higher ground by our tents and began strategically throwing rocks to alter the course of the channel away from our tent.  These channels became bigger and bigger with time and one eventually went across where we had our kitchen, just 20 minutes earlier.  Believe it or not, we were able to alter and direct the flow of the side channels   Somehow we thought we could stop the “main” side channel, now rapidly flowing, along the edge of the canyon by throwing huge rocks and making a wall.  This did not succeed but we had proved successful, passing the river’s high point with our tent and equipment dry.  There were no complaints from anyone regarding the hour-hour and a half or so of “work.”  Smiles all around as a fun time was had by all conquering another challenge from Mother Nature.

The next day our journey continued up the canyon.  It was my last day in the LOTD rotation and we had selected an X about 5.5 miles from our current campsite, thinking this would be a somewhat easy day hiking along the gravel bar the whole way.  I don’t think we had learned much yet because NOTHING is easy in Alaska.  My group was first off again and we began the day, crossing the creek near the main side channel (now dry 12 hrs later, with gigantic mounds of large rocks).  We moved fairly easily until we were faced with our first challenge. We would have to cross the creek multiple times as the gravel bar didn’t continue on at that exact point.  Asa (another student/friend) and myself went to scout the river as the rest of my hiking group waited behind.  We crossed the first part fairly easily and were now faced with a moving back across to the small gravel bar, which continued past the cliffs we had stopped.  This section of the creek had multiple bends which often causes the water to move fairly quickly in certain areas and it didn’t help that it was mid-thigh deep.  Asa and I picked out the best spot to cross that we could find and began to travel across.  The water was moving very fast and I slipped a couple times behind Asa as we moved 8 ft or so towards the center of the creek.  The scary part began when Asa slipped and at that point we had to retreat.  Asa is 6’ 4” 220 lbs. or so and it definitely takes a good bit to make him move!  At this point, the other groups had caught up to us and we went back and decided that we were going to split up and scout a way ahead.  Adventure time!

(Note:As stated in an earlier post, if a river or creek is strong, one option we used was the eddy-line method.  Basically 2-5 people form in a line and side step across. Grabbing and pushing down on the person in front of you to provide more stability.)

My group went back about a quarter mile to explore a drainage we had passed earlier, while another group tried to cross different parts of the river and the other tried a drainage right at our meeting spot.  We were to meet back in an hour and a half.  Our group headed back and began the trek up the half vegetated, half rock drainage out of the canyon.  To make the most out of our scouting mission, we basically sprinted up the last few hundred feet or so, bushwhacking our way to the top.  It was definitely worth the loss of breath though as the view was magnificent.  Open tundra with views of mountains in every direction and the canyon below.  And the best part was there were no hummocks!  We all commented on how beautiful this area was and how lucky we were able to see it as we moved along the tundra, past our trouble point below.  Ideally, we were looking for a route down another drainage further ahead that bypassed the trouble and any potential further issues we could see ahead. We happened to find a drainage and myself and the instructor from our group, Andrew, scurried down about three-quarters of the way to make sure that we could get down. It was passable, but we were hoping the group scouting the river had found a way across.

Our scout team made it back to meet the other groups and they had found a way to move further down the creek.  We would cross our initial point but instead of crossing again, would travel for a hundred yards or so in the creek along the cliff wall before making two more eddy line type crosses and reaching a large gravel bar.  It was definitely a challenge moving along that cliff with much of the rock being too crumbly and weak to offer support.  Anyways, we made it across and continued our journey down the canyon.  Travel was not easy as there were multiple points where the gravel bar ended and we were forced into the bushes for more bushwhacking, or the flat land stopped and we had to climb steep dirt walls and move along to the other side.   After travelling along another cliff through the creek and bushwhacking another 30 yds. we settled upon a large portion of the gravel bar where we would be able to make camp after this long day.  It was about a mile short of our X but we decided it would be best to make camp as it was already 6 p.m.  and the route ahead didn’t seem promising with the current water level.

In the morning, while cooking breakfast, a large boulder came rolling down and off the steep canyon wall towards the tents.  Thankfully, it diverted and ended up stopping before it reached the tent, but it could have definitely injured someone as most people were still within their tents.  Our day began with a short walk in the creek along the wall to the gravel bar on the other side.  Besides our first day of hiking on the ATV trail, this turned out to be a fairly easy travel day.  We continued to follow the creek until it reached a bend where we walked up 500 ft or so in elevation out of the canyon.  Again, we were faced with beautiful open tundra. This was the Alaska I had envisioned. There were rolling green hills, a large lake and mountains in the distance.  Further up the canyon we caught our first glimpse of the glaciated Mount Gordon. It couldn’t have been better at that point.  After taking a long break at the top, my hiking group continued to our X, reaching it fairly early around 1:30 or so in the afternoon. This campsite would be perfect. The grass was very flat and soft and we had a nice small stream flowing off the nearby drainage.  However, it was not to be. Ideally we wanted to be 1.5 miles further, on top of the plateau that sat above us so we could be prepared for our re-ration early the next morning. The LOTD scouted up the nearby drainage (while I napped) and determined that we would move ahead.  We moved up the drainage, spotting our first caribou on one of the cliffs, and trekked across the rocky plateau finally setting upon a place to camp.

Across the way was Mt. Gordon.  Our goal was to climb that within this next week and I was fairly intimidated by the icy and steep slopes from a distance.  Little did we know of the challenges we would soon face as we attempted to summit the mountain.

Looking down canyon from camp

Looking down canyon from camp

Caribou antlers and my fashionable yellow hat

Caribou antlers and my fashionable yellow hat

Monte Cristo Creek with Mt. Gordon towering in the background

Monte Cristo Creek with Mt. Gordon towering in the background

Alpine tundra

Alpine tundra

Out of the canyon. Mt. Gordon sits snow-capped in the distance

Out of the canyon. Mt. Gordon sits snow-capped in the distance

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Hummocks, Tussocks and Tundra! Oh my!

Our group was only 6 miles away from our starting point at the remote lodge, but it had already seemed as if we stepped back in time.  We would venture even deeper into part of Alaska’s wilderness. Each hiking day we would split into small groups of about 4-5 people including 1 instructor.  Every hiking group had a Leader of the Day (LOTD) and the leaders were responsible for determining our plan for the day, which included selecting our final destination, which we marked on the map with an “X”.  The LOTDs picked their own route for the group based on their individual preferences or leadership style.  For example…    After breaking into our groups for the day, we scrambled up a small muddy slope, adjacent to the gravel bar, into the thick brush.  The first steps in this new terrain brought about much confusion among the other students in my group and me as we attempted to navigate through the spruce trees and dense vegetation that provided limited visibility.

A light rain came down as we made our way out of the forest and onto the tundra, where we had our first encounter with hummocks and tussocks.   On the Alaskan tundra there are these evil little land features in certain areas called tussocks/hummocks.  Basically, they are square-ish pieces of earth that protrude out of the ground, are roughly a few inches across in size and they are NOT stable.  Most of the time you are trying to maintain your balance moving across them as they wobble and try to get you off.  Walking in the gaps between them can be somewhat easier, but the bottom-line is, either way makes for very physically challenging travel and it is very slow going.

After struggling off and on through this rough terrain for a few miles, we arrived at a lake.  Joining the other groups, we made our final steps of the day.  We moved together towards our determined camp on the opposite boggy shores, thankful for the opportunity to finally relax.  My legs were tired and the wetlands provided a perfect habitat for the nagging mosquitoes to enjoy an evening feast.  Before moving to my tent, I watched a beaver silently float through the calm waters, slapping his tail on the surface, prior to diving below the clear lake.

The following day, I was a LOTD leading a hiking group of all girls.  There were basically two options for our route that day to our selected destination: climb up the hillside to our right and tackle the high road, or stay low and follow along the shores of a long lake to open tundra.  I chose the lower route because I thought climbing up high would be unnecessary.  Also, I had heard that the lake was beautiful from people who had seen it from a hill next to camp.

Our hike began with a mile-long trek over the hill near our camp, gaining a quick 100 feet in elevation, to the beginning of the lake.  Unknown at the time, this was by far the easiest part of the day and we made it to the lake in good time.  The surrounding area of the lake was wooded or rocky in some parts, so it became much more difficult to travel on this hot day wore on.  As we bushwhacked and followed game trails through the woods, we decided that we should take a break and swim.  I took off everything except my boxers and jumped in the freezing water.  It was invigorating and definitely refreshing after our struggles climbing the hills through the woods, in the sweltering heat.

Feeling fresh, we began walking again.  Not long after, we came across a peculiar situation.  On the ground we began to see weird yellow sponge-like material.  Was it natural? Had someone else been here? After another couple hundred yards or so, we stumbled upon a small cabin along the lake.  It seemed to have been abandoned for quite some time and also subjected to the bears, as the door was wide open and the yellow sponge like material (most likely foam bedding) was all over the place, as well as a few other things, such as a fishing net, boat and various cans of food. What a great place to live! On this beautiful lake, in the woods, miles from civilization.   I don’t know how you could ever abandon that.  Unfortunately, the girls became somewhat scared when it seemed that bears had messed with the place so we were on our way again.

After the lake, we only had about 2 miles left to our X (based on our analysis of the map and surrounding area) across seemingly open tundra.  Easy right? Be there in a couple of hours? WRONG! It turns out that the rest of the 2 miles was ALL tussocks.  We trudged our way across taking multiple extended breaks, which is uncommon.  Everyone was exhausted from both the heat and the physical exertion that was required. We took one of our final breaks at a spot that was about  500 yards to half a mile from our final X (our X was by a hill so it was somewhat easy to tell where we were stopping.)  Why the huge range in distance?  It is almost IMPOSSIBLE to tell how far things are away in Alaska.  I don’t know why, most likely due to the grand scale of everything, but everybody constantly underestimated this throughout the expedition.  During our break, we were laughing about/bemoaning our final death march to the hill over the remaining hummocks/tussocks. We would have been pretty content with just setting up camp right at that spot!  Some people thought it was a few hundred yards, some thought a quarter mile or more.  I’ll never know, it sure felt like forever though.

We were the first group to arrive at the X and we had established before we left that the first group would scout for camping.  There are basically two criteria we consider when looking for a campsite: 1) access to water, and 2) relatively flat and dry spots for sleeping.  At this point it was very late, around 6 p.m., and, after travelling since 10 am that morning, we were exhausted and scouting was the last thing we wanted to do – but off we went.  About 200 yards from where we stopped the tundra steeply dropped off about 200 ft into a canyon.  As LOTD, I decided to head in this direction (towards the canyon) because I thought our X might have been a little further ahead.  There seemed to be great camping below with a huge gravel bar alongside a river, but the terrain became way too steep for us in our current physical/mental states.  We headed back up, scouted an area by a nearby lake without much success and then headed back to our packs to wait for the other groups.  Hungry and tired, we waited for a little while until the second group came up and met us.  Now we had 2 groups at the “X” but no campsite….and where’s group 3?  The second group decided they would head off in the opposite direction from where we had previously scouted and search for camping as well as the third group , who took a different route (higher above the tree line)than our two groups that were together.

They came back about 45 minutes later with both a camping site and the other group.  One of our the other students from the third group was in terrible condition and was sweating salt as well as having back problems and had given up all the weight in his pack.   He had been sick during our brief layover in town, which resulted in a large imbalance between water and salt within his body.  Due to the late time of day and the physical state of some group members we moved to quickly set up camp, right at the edge of the cliff.  It wasn’t the safest thing we had done but it had to do.  We were not practicing proper bear protocol either, camping at the edge of a fairly vegetated area and our kitchen was less than 10 yards from our tents (to follow proper bear protocol, it’s supposed to be at least 100 yards away).  This decision hinged on the fact that there wasn’t much area that was suitable for camping and we could not afford the time to spend a significant time searching for a better location.

Finally, after setting up our tents at about 9:30 or 10:00, I enjoyed a delicious meal of rice and beans and got to relax 12 hours after we had started this day of travel.   At that point in the expedition, that was the most physically exhausting day that I had ever had in my life.  We had travelled through a beautiful area though and, like the rest of the trip, I would do it over in a heartbeat.

(Note: there was somewhat of a dispute between the 2 groups who took the low road and the group who took the high road as to where the “X” was.  We found out later that we were using maps with completely different scales.  A little distance on a large scaled map makes a big difference.)

The next day, we woke up somewhat late (around 9) and had discovered that during the night a sheep had eaten some of our equipment, located less than 20 yards from our tents.   Among the victims were a couple water bottles (including one of my own), some oil and some dried beans.  We figured after that that we should not only be bear proof but sheep proof as well!

This day would be a layover day and we would move down into the canyon below, where we would set up a new camp.  I led a group again, moving down a steep drainage through a wooded area to the canyon below.  This was one of the many fun mini-adventures on this trip as I was given full authority to scout and strategize a route down the steep, sparsely vegetated slope with minimal coaching from Kevin.  We made it down fairly quickly and set up camp before noon on yet another beautiful day.  Settling in, we were unprepared and completely unaware for what would transpire later that day.

 

 

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View from camp

View from camp

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2 miles of hell

2 miles of hell

Looking down at Monte Cristo Creek below our camp on the cliff's edge

Looking down at Monte Cristo Creek below our camp on the cliff’s edge

 

Gold!

Gear laid strewn out in every direction as we attempted to pack for the coming 48 days in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  We moved as a group from one task to the next, from making sure our boots fit into our ski bindings to bagging one of the many pounds of food we would consume over the coming weeks.  Andrew along with our two new instructors for this section, Jesse (JQ) and Kevin, assisted us in determining what equipment was essential so that we could travel as light as possible. Following the hectic day, we all piled into the bus once again, eager to make the 7 hour journey east towards our starting point.  We chatted excitedly, passing the numerous mountains, glaciers and valleys that bordered the single lane highway, eager for the unknown challenges that lay ahead.

Awaking on the grassy airstrip at Devil’s Mountain Lodge we were anxious to begin our first day of hiking and shake off our sea legs.  The night before we had been swarmed with mosquitoes but they did not seem to want any breakfast this morning.  Our hike today would be fairly straightforward, hiking along an ATV trail until we reached a trail breaking off which we would follow to our camp next to the Jacksina River.  Supposedly, there was an abandoned gold mine along the ATV trail and that was the talk of camp that morning as myself and others were really hoping to see it.  After breaking off into hiking groups, we were off into the wild.

As we had expected, going was pretty easy along the ATV trail as I became accustomed to my 55 lb. pack that would be my “home” the next 50 days.  Kevin, one of our new instructors for the mega section, pointed out the plant, Spanish Blue Bell, which is wild spinach and it was delicious.  It was an excellent fresh snack to grab on the go, one that I would come to greatly enjoy.  We continued on, finding the possible entrance to the trail but scouted ahead to make sure it was the right spot.  On our scout further up the ATV trail we stumbled upon the gold mine.  Kevin was probably the most adventurous of our instructors and we decided as a group we would go explore.

We entered the large clearing and were awed by the building that sat up on a hill.  We could see mine shafts further up on the mountain with chutes leading down towards the building.  After taking some pictures at the base of the building, we climbed up to begin exploring.  We were able to look inside the old wooden building, seeing various machinery and operation equipment, yet couldn’t go in the first floor because the flooring didn’t look very stable.  With that, we climbed an old broken ladder and went in on the second floor.  There were tools and equipment everywhere, if it wasn’t so dusty you would have thought the mine was still in operation.  It was fascinating to see the old electrical system that they used for electricity as well as the various pulleys and giant machinery they used to mine the gold.

We went back outside, around the rear of the building to see what more we could find.  We found where the chutes came in from the mountainside above. There was also an intricate weighted system that they used as a pulley system, involving large rocks in wooden crates.  Walking over to the other side of the building we sat down and enjoyed the beautiful view of the valley around us. One of my peers began playing with the rocks and found one that was yellowish and sparkling. Gold! We were filthy rich! Not quite, it was fool’s gold, almost completely worthless but making men crazy and broke since the gold rush.

For some historical context, we later learned that the mine was in operation from the 1920s before shutting down before World War II in the 1940s.  The miners were able to mine gold, silver as well as other minerals.  They had been able to mine over $8 million dollars in gold at this location, which is close to $100 million today. The owners and the employees had abandoned everything when it shut down and the mine has sat unused ever since.  Someone was able to purchase the mine for himself some years ago and it is private property.

After spending over an hour at the gold mine, we decided it was best if we continued our travel to the Jacksina River.  On our way out of the clearing, we passed one of the other hiking groups who were on their way in to inspect the mine for themselves.  We later learned that this group had a run in with a grizzly bear at the mine.  They were in the clearing below the building when they had heard some rustling in the bushes.  All of a sudden, a grizzly came bumbling out walking curiously towards my peers.  At this point, the group had pulled their bear sprays out (safeties off) and were prepared for any possible problem.   The bear continued to move closer to the group until it was about 30 yards away.  After telling the bear, “You don’t want to do this bear”, “Go home bear you’re drunk!” and other various things the bear turned back around and stumbled back into the woods, just as he came.  I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home.  It is highly unadvisable to tell a bear it is drunk or to speak to them in a threating tone.  They are not very understanding.

Eventually, after travelling through boggy area and doing a little bushwhacking we arrived at the gravel bed along the Jacksina River.  After debriefing, we learned and practiced techniques for crossing rivers, as we were hoping to cross the Jacksina the following morning.  In order to cross, we would have to scout this large flowing river.  Eight of us split up into two groups of four to scout locations both up and downriver.  There are various techniques that a group can use to cross a river, such as an eddy line or the New Zealand method. These methods involve forming a connected line of people, facing upriver and perpendicular respectively, in order to gain more stability and control in fast moving water. Using the eddy line method, we were able to strategize and move across the river, moving from one strip of rocky sandbar to another.  Some parts of the river were much more challenging than others but our scout team, as well as the others, had found a way across. We were all set to continue our journey tomorrow at 5 am.

At 5 am we awoke to the news from Kevin that the river had not fallen as we would have hoped and we were going to try again later that morning.  Glacial river (such as the Jacksina) flows are largely dependent on temperature.  A higher temperature means the glacier’s rate of melting will increase, resulting in a higher water levels and faster river.  Usually, the flow of these glacial rivers decrease during the night due to cooler temperatures.  We happily laid back down on our sleeping pads and dozed off until we prepared to cross around 10. We would be following the route of the upriver scout team as we and they thought that their route was much less challenging than ours.

We began moving across, with some surprise at certain points as the rest of us were informed by the scout team that certain parts were much easier or harder the day before.  Reaching a sandbar in the middle of the river we realized that the rest of this route would not work as we had planned.  The river was too deep and was moving way too fast to cross at this point.  We would have to continue scouting.  Groups moved about both up and down river, trying to find a spot where we could cross in a safe and efficient manner.  After much time had passed, we were able to find a way across and make it onto dry land.  What we had thought would be a quick 30-45 minute crossing turned out to be a three-hour ordeal.  One of our instructors said it had been the most challenging river crossing he had ever done with students.

We spent some time relaxing on dry land and drying out our boots and socks in the strong sun before moving on in our hiking groups an additional 2 miles, to our camp for the night.  With gold mine, a grizzly encounter and a large challenging river crossing under our belts we were already well on our way to an epic Alaskan adventure.

 

 

The gold mine

The gold mine

Old Electrical System

Old Electrical System

Tools

Tools

UFO? Large piece of unknown machinery

UFO? Large piece of unknown machinery

Pulleys and various machinery

Pulleys and various machinery

The second story of the gold mine

The second story of the gold mine

The weighted rock system

The weighted rock system

On a gravel bar of the Jacksina River

On a gravel bar of the Jacksina River

View from camp

View from camp