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

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Confronation with the Locals Part 2

I had undergone a transformation over the past year and a half.  On the Colorado Trail in the summer of 2014, I found myself so scared of bears after hearing one huffing and stomping around in close proximity to my tent one night that I thought they were waiting around every bend.  I would get quizzical looks from people on the trail while passing them, for they had heard me singing quite loudly to myself before they had came into view.  The bears (both real and imaginary) would be one of the reasons I left the trail a few days later.  Fast forward a few months, I am camping out in a state forest in northern Michigan while taking a Wilderness First Responder Course.  On three of the five nights, I hear black bears tramping around the forest, sneezing and scratching their backs against big trees.  Yet this time, I had no fear.  To validate my feelings, I remained fearless and calm while being charged by a black bear mother with her cub half a year later in northern Alaska.

Though I now mostly lacked fear of bears, there has remained a niggling thought always present in the back of my mind.  Statistically, my odds of ever being mauled by a bear are extremely low.  Cases like Timothy Treadwell (who lived in close proximity to brown bears before being mauled in Katmai N.P.) demonstrated how tolerant bears are.  Yet, the cultural fear that was ingrained in me did remain.  I had read the accounts of people being attacked in their tents while they slept, or of those that had been stalked by grizzlies in areas not far from where I am now living.  Sure, these are extremely rare instances, but they are not reassuring for the emotional side of my brain.  And besides, all my close bear encounters up to this point were black bears, not grizzlies.  While black bears certainly can be dangerous, they lack the aura that surrounds grizzlies. Especially those of the far north.

Fall came and went with the changing colors of the leaves and tundra.  Snow began to fall on the mountains, ultimately creeping down until snow covered the entire valley.  Cold began to grip the land, as the lakes and ponds quickly froze up, while ice began to enshroud the creeks and rivers.  I continued my treks into the country and had not seen any sign of bears for quite some time by mid October.  It was highly likely that the vast majority (if not all) had denned up for the next 7 months.  However, that pestering thought remained in the back of my mind. Although even more unlikely than previous scenarios, there was the infinitesimal chance of coming across a winter bear, the worst kind.  A winter bear was hungry, relentless, and afraid of absolutely nothing.  These bears didn’t stay out late because they wished to socialize; rather they’re usually old, hungry and eager to lock their teeth on anything that moves. In traditional times, natives would carry spears with them on winter journeys in case they ran into the ice bear.  Dog mushers today still carry heavy weaponry on them in case of this possible scenario.  A number of years ago, there was such a meeting between a dog team and a winter bear on the pipeline access trail between Wiseman and Coldfoot.  A tragic event, that nobody would wish to repeat.  It was with these thoughts in mind that I traveled through the landscape.

Late in November, I had a group of Chinese guests that signed up for an aurora tour.  An aurora tour consists of driving guests from Coldfoot to Wiseman and hanging out at a historic gold miner’s cabin, where we watch the aurora if it presents itself.  Clouds covered the night sky and snow began to fall as we loaded into the van for our departure.  I had a sour mood, as I do not enjoy staying out late staring at clouds.  Thirty minutes later we were in Wiseman.  They shuffled into the cabin and I assumed my post next to the double barrel wood stove outside.  After building a fire, I began to scan the sky for any sign of aurora, while falling snow sizzled as it came into contact with the wood stove.  The guests weren’t interested in much in this area, besides getting some selfies with the aurora to post on Facebook, so it would be a relatively easy night.

As one could likely imagine, staring at the clouds gets pretty boring after a certain point.  I fiddled with the fire as much as I could, while I tried to find something interesting to look at in the near area.  Adjacent to the wood stove and cabin, there is a rough vehicle path that leads back to a summer resident’s storage area.  Looking down the path, I detected movement no more than 30 yards away.  That grabbed my attention.  I squinted, attempting to gain a better view through the falling snow.  Were my eyes deceiving me? It definitely seemed as if something was moving back and forth.  Something large.  I put the woodstove, between myself and whatever it was that lay out there.  Turning on my headlamp, I tried to gain a glimpse of what it was, if anything, that lay out there.  The beam from my headlamp struggled through the falling snow and dark night, but I picked up a gleam that looked like a pair of eyes.  “Oh shit. This isn’t a joke.” I thought to myself.  The dark shape had resembled a bear before and now I was almost certain.  I was a mere thirty yards away from one of my greatest fears, a winter bear.

It was the end of November. There was over two feet of snow on the ground and it had been cold. The temperature frequently dropping down below twenty below zero.  There wasn’t much life out and about at this time of year, certainly not enough for a bear to sustain himself.  I was legitimately scared.  What was I to do?  Do I go into the cabin and alert the group?  Should I retreat ten yards to the van that lay behind me? My mind was racing and my heart was thumping.  I grabbed the iron poker that lay at my feet and began to beat on the woodstove.  “Get out of here!”  “Go!”  It didn’t seem to work.  From my view, it was just moving back and forth, contemplating its next move.  I was literally shaking in my boots at this point in terror.  If bears can sense fear, this one’s sensors must have been going off the charts.

I finally decided that I would retreat to the van.  Bringing the poker with me, I retreated slowly then quickly moved the final few yards, slamming the door behind me.  My heart was still thumping and I thought I should get a better view of what I’m contending with.  I started the van, put it in reverse and angled the lights down the path to the left of the woodstove.  Angled correctly, I turned the brights on to find that my foe was a clump of alder trees, twenty five yards distant.  I had sworn it was a bear. “What an idiot,” I thought to myself.  I put the van back where it was and got out.  Looking down the path again it still seemed like it was a bear.  I cautiously walked down the path, for there still was a part of me that thought there was a bear there, and shined my headlamp on the location where my fabled bear was. Sure enough, it was just the trees.  I wandered back down the post and assumed my post once again with my tail between my knees, hoping the guests inside hadn’t noticed or heard anything odd going on outside.

I walked into the cabin to check in, “How are you guys doing in here? Nothing going on out there.”  We went back to Coldfoot a couple of hours later, with no sign of the aurora or problems with any of the guests, yet sure enough, my mind had conjured up a way to provide enough excitement for the otherwise dull evening.

Winter Notes

Darkness.  I stand in a clearing, surrounded by the boreal forest as snow falls down at a rapid clip.  The clouds have sunk quite low in the valley, encompassing the mountains and the surrounding area, limiting my view to silhouettes of spruce trees a few hundred yards distant in the dark Arctic night.  This land is shaped by the variations of light.  The time of light and joy has quickly come and gone.  As each day passes, the landscape moves ever more quickly into its winter state.

There are plenty of signs of winter abound even now in late October.  Ponds and lakes have a thick sheet of ice atop their surface.  My snow skates have been dusted off and have already been put to heavy use.  The creeks are almost completely frozen, with small channels continuing to flow between sheets of ice.  The river seems reluctant to freeze.  Well past the typical freeze up point, there are ice jams and ice at the edges, yet water continues to flow.

The sun is becoming an elusive sight.  Clouds continue to blanket the landscape, hiding the sun which is already showing itself less and less each day.  At this time, it doesn’t show itself until right around 10 AM, up for just a few hours before setting once again after 6 PM.  In less than a month, the sun will dip behind the mountains and then below the horizon, for where it will remain until it rises again in January.

In what many consider to be a depressing and bleak landscape, there still remains plenty of beauty and life.  Ravens dance in the daylight as they dart back and forth in the air, looking for a source of food.  Snow blankets the mountain and the forest floor, providing new perspectives and contrasts in the landscape.  On clear nights, the sky is blanketed with stars and auroral displays, providing magnificent displays of light in a region that’s known for its lack of it.

Animal tracks lay abound, as the snow reveals all travel in these winter months. The tracks reveal vast stories.  A fox wanders along the lake ice, circling “push-ups”, turf that muskrats shove in the ice to keep an unfrozen hole in the ice for breathing and feeding, in hopes of a meal.  A lone wolf trots up the hill away from the lake, quickly changing its course after encountering the tracks of a snowshoe hare, possibly hoping for a meal of its own.

As the days continue to shorten, winter provides a time to slow down for all life.  The Arctic ground squirrel and bears follow this in a literal sense, having denned up and gone into hibernation/deep sleep.  For humans, it provides a period of silence, contemplation and solitude.  A season for which one can recoup and recover after the busy and never ending days of summer.

The snow continues to fall, accumulating on the top of my jacket.  Soon temperatures will plummet far below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  Soon the river will freeze over.  Soon the light will almost completely disappear from this landscape.  I try to grasp the idea that this darkness will be present for the vast majority of the day.  The sun will not show itself for longer than it does now for another four and a half months.  Winter has arrived.