Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Asian Particulates

The late evening sun is on fire above the northwestern horizon.

The skies over northern Alaska have been unusually hazy the past few days. It has looked more like the smoggy LA basin as the haze has obscured the mountains. Our more typical bright blue atmosphere was replaced with a "dirty" airmass as a gigantic high pressure center built in over the state this week. The fine particulates which are clogging up our skies are apparently originating from fires burning in Russia and dust storms raging across Mongolia. The only benefit of the haze that I can see are the intense red sunrises/sunsets.

There is an article about the haze in the Daily News Miner.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Tour De Alaska Range

An ice fall plummets thousands of feet down the east face of Mt Hess.

I flew around the Alaska Range south of Fairbanks for a few hours today with some NOAA pilots that have been in AK for the past 2 weeks. They are here with an aircraft that is equipped with instrumentation that uses gamma radiation to measure the amount of water in the snowpack. There are a few hundred flight lines around the state that are roughly 10 miles long. They fly these lines at an altitude of 500 feet above ground level and obtain an average snow water equivalent for each flight line. This data provides insight into how much water is stored in the winter snowpack and is used to estimate the amount snowmelt runoff that will enter the river systems.

We flew over some absolutely awesome terrain and and countless glaciers.

The Black Rapids downhill ski area - I have heard about this ski hill south of Delta Junction for years but I have never actually seen it before. There was a lift and a few short runs.

One of the flight lines took us within a few miles of Bus 142 where Chris McCandless died back in the summer of 1992. The pilots were psyched to see the rusting hunk of steel so we made a low pass over this "sacred" location. For more photos of my ski to the bus click here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

In search of Big Windy Hot Springs

Dan and Brad ski up Birch Creek in search of Big Windy Hot Springs

Big Windy Hot Springs - You mention this destination to almost anyone and they sort of cock their head and give you a blank look and then ask: "Where is that? I have never heard of it." And the few folks that have stumbled across Big Windy during a Google search of Alaska hot springs have most likely never been there. Here in lies the mystery of Big Windy and the reason for our search of this rarely visited location.

Big Windy Hot Springs is located 20 miles as the crow flies south of Circle Hot Springs. This translates into about 33 miles of skiing up several tributaries of Birch Creek. The springs are situated in a deep valley on a rocky slope above Big Windy Creek. I have never actually met anyone that has ventured out to this oasis in the boreal forest on foot. A researcher at UAF did write an informative paper about the unusual flora and fauna which inhabits Big Windy. Apparently this is the northernmost extent of the water shrew...interesting.

Dan and his younger brother Brad geared up for the journey to Big Windy. Brad was up from Colorado for the weekend. Dan informed me as we were getting ready to depart that Brad had only cross country skied a couple times. Dan what are you thinking?!? -- this could be a grueling trip.

For first 12 miles from Circle Hot Springs to Birch Creek we followed the Bielenberg Trail which was nicely packed by snowmachines. After that we broke trail the last 20 or so miles on the creek. The Bielenberg trail is an old mining trail which continues on towards Woodchopper and Coal Creek on the Yukon River.

Dan had forgot his sunglasses so he improvised some eye protection using a hat and bandanna.

We encountered many stretches of overflow, or river water under pressure that is forced to the surface and then spreads out over the ice. So our feet got soaked as the icy water splashed up or poured over the top of our ski boots.

The river ice is so abrasive that we had to re-apply kick wax numerous times.

Dan throws himself on the ice to suck water (and possibly giardia) from a small fissure.

We came across some awesome stretches of glare ice where you could just tap your poles and effortlessly excel forward. These are moments of glory to embrace as you shoot across the ice.

We tried to dip at every watering hole in order to stay hydrated. This is much more efficient than stopping and pulling out the stove to melt snow.

As we traversed up the Big Windy drainage, the valley gradually narrowed, the snow deepened, and we began to encounter thin ice and open water.

We had to negotiate stretches of open water a mile or two downstream from the hot springs. This required precariously jumping from rock-to-rock in order to cross the river.

Dan was too lazy to keep taking his skis off and thought he could jump this small stretch...he was wrong.

In some places it was possible to bridge your skis between rocks and work your way across the stream. Dan is still having some bad luck. He will keep his skis on to the bitter end...

The boulders and deep snow increased as we continued up the valley.

Finally the boulders were impossible to ski through. So our only option was too walk up the creek or bushwhack along a steep slope through deep snow and downed trees. So it took us more than an hour to cover the last 1/2 mile to the springs.

At last - Big Windy Hot Springs!!! Hmmm...where is the inviting pool of warm water? The bathing beauties? the wet bar??

This really doesn't look too inviting.

And this looks more like a slimy water slide and not something to plunge your body into.

So it looked like at some time long ago someone had piled some rocks up around this location. Maybe this was the hidden oasis we had traveled 2 days to reach...

I stuck my snow shovel into the murky abyss and found that there was about an 18 inch column of hot sludge beneath the green slime surface - perfect!!! So I played pool guy, dropped my pants and got to business scooping out some of the natural healing mud and algae.

Voila! Big Windy Hot Springs is open for business.

The camping was very limited. The best spot was on a slight slope littered with rocks.

We had a nice campfire to dry out our gear. The grass adjacent to my boots caught on fire and before we knew it my boots had ignited and totally torched the toe. Fortunately they would still fit into my ski bindings even though the plastic sole beneath the toe was deformed.

So we did the Big Windy. The mystery of this springs has been uncovered. There are reasons why its not a hot spot on the hot springs circuit: difficult to access, limited sites suitable for pitching a tent, and a not so appealing pool of muck to soak in. But--overall its a great trip and well worth the hard work to get there.

I have more photos of our trip in picasa.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Abstract Ice

I was up north for work this week. The scenery this time of the year is always quite stunning with the spring sunlight brightening up the northern landscape. I came across some absolutely amazing abstract designs in the ice at Island Lake on the north side of the Brooks Range. The oily blackness of the clear ice contrasted beautifully with the delicate cracks that penetrated deep into the frozen medium.

We passed what must have been several hundreds of caribou grazing on the lichens protruding out of the tundra. It just amazes me the these large animals can survive on crunchy, frozen lichens all winter.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Alaska Wilderness Ski Classic

Brian is dwarfed by the blue face of the Nizina Glacier

Brian and I just spent 7 days enduring the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic in Wrangell-St Elias National Park. Wrangell-St Elias is essentially a road less national park with two main access points: Nabesna and McCarthy. The race this year traversed the rugged country between these two small towns. There are no established trails, checkpoints, or food drops and participants are completely self sufficient. The route we skied, walked, post holed, crawled cursed, and left us in awe was roughly 150 miles long and crossed some absolutely spectacular, and at times, inhospitable terrain.

Here is a map of our traverse that I tracked using my gps. We took a relatively non-technical route which skirted along the perimeter of several we didn't need a full suite of climbing gear. This year there were only 9 participants and only two attempted a highly technical course through cravasse ridden glaciers - unfortuntely the route was impassable and they had to bail out.

Brian and I at the start in Nabesna - radiating feelings of anxiety, excitement, and nervousness. We were uncertain of the weather, snow/ice conditions, discomforts, and challenges in which we were about to experience during the next week or so.

After leaving Nabesna we attempted to cruise down the glare ice of the Nabesna River. There is nothing more pleasing than the sound of the sharp click of my ski pole tips biting into the brittle ice and effortlessly shooting me forward across the frictionless surface. Unfortunately we were fighting a 20 to 30 mph headwind - so I ended up tacking back-and-forth into the wind in order to make some forward progress.

This is the soupy remains of our first campsite. During the night overflow from Cooper Cr pooled up under the tent and we found ourselves in several inches of water. Lesson learned...dont camp near overflow.

The upper part of Cooper Cr was wall-to-wall ice that gradually steepened as we progressed upstream. I double poled uphill as far as I could before dropping the skis changing my mode of transportation.

So out came the crampons during the last few miles up Cooper Cr.

Brian ascends the upper portion of Cooper Cr.

We left the icy Cooper Cr drainage and skied down Notch Cr on our way toward the Chisana River. There was a snowmachine trail along this stretch and the skiing was fast. We quickly learned to enjoy the good moments because conditions and attitudes could change in a matter of minutes.

Brian avoiding open water along Notch Cr.

Where do we go? Here we are trying to pick the most direct route across the Chisana River which would avoid areas of open water. We still got our feet wet in several inches of overflow pooled up on the ice surface.

Wet boots + below zero temps = rocks in the morning. We took advantage of being below treeline to soften up our boots which were frozen solid. From this point we would be climbing out of the trees and probably wouldnt encounter any firewood for several days.

Blister maintenance - its best to stop and take care of these potentially incapacitating demons before they make your life miserable.

Dipping for water (and hopefully not giardia) along Geohenda Cr. We pounded water at nearly every open spot in order stay hydrated and preserve our fuel for cooking.

Traversing across wind hardened drifts on the way toward Solo Mtn.

Solo Mtn Cabin - we found ourselves here just before dark on the 3rd night out. So we decided to live the luxurous life and crash in the very "well ventilated" shelter.

The snow was patchy and thin across the Solo Mtn flats. This area is in the shadow of the Wrangell Mtns and receives much less snow than one would expect.

Brian waxing up - we stopped to apply kick wax numerous times throughout our trip. When the terrain steepened we had to ditch the wax and resort to applying skins to our skis.

Traveling up the White River towards the Russell Glacier and Skolai Pass.

The late March sun is pumping out enough energy to melt the areas with thin snow cover. It was faster to just keep the skis strapped to our feet rather than removing them for short stretches.

Brian admires some intricately folded rocks on the way up Skolai Pass.

Late evening sunshine lights up the mountains above the Russell Glacier near Skolai Pass.

The hike up through Skolai Pass was arduous as we side sloped through alternating stretches of loose/icy rocks and thigh deep snow. We passed this recently drained lake on the Russell Glacier with massive ice blocks haphazardly scattered about.

Boiling water for breakfast on the flanks of Skolai Pass.

One of our only self portraits from the trail.

We were psyched to reach Upper Skolai Lake and leave the tedious and tricky footing of Skolai Pass behind us. We had a few "gravy" miles ahead skiing down the smooth and flat surface of the lake which was littered with delicately sculpted ice bergs.

So my motto was: "enjoy what you have because conditions are bound to change..." Nothing was static for very long in this race. The pleasant and enjoyable skiing along Skolai Lake was quickly replaced by a heart pounding fear brought on by clinging to a rock hard slope above Skolai Creek. I carefully kicked my crampons into the nearly impenetrable snow trying to ward off thoughts of slipping and careening out of control 1000 ft into the abyss below.

We encoutered several gullies in a row. Some were skiable...others were not.

Most of Brians traverses resulted in bombing downhill out of control through uneven snow and brush. He always completed his trip down the slope in a puff of snow with a spectacular crash.

Brian skinning up before the steep bushwhack up above Skolai Cr. We had to climb high in order to avoid being "cliffed out" by deeply cut gullies which intersected our planned route of travel.

Goldenhorn looms in the distance - we will eventually skim across the base of the horn in order to detour around impassable gullies.

Seracs teetering on the edge of this cliff would occassionally plummet downward and trigger an impressive avalanche of snow below. This was followed by an omninous "boom" which would echo across the valley. The power of these mountains is difficult to comprehend and made us feel insignifcant as we gazed out and watched from our safe perch.

My only blister! and surprisingly it was not on my foot. This formed where the waist belt on my pack hugged my hip.

More damn gullies to contend with...

A well deserved stretch of pleasureable skiing high above Skolai Creek after contending with a sketchy gully and a steep climb.

Brian ponders a potential route down to Skolai Creek and eventually the Nizina Glacier in the distance.

Brian tangled in thick alders during our descent to Skolai Cr. This unforgiving vegetation is certainly a test of patience. It would take hours to cover a mile or less through this web of frustration and anger. Branches would wrap around our skis, grab our packs an ski poles, throw us off of our feet, lash our faces - it was unbeaerable at times and we were forced to just put our heads down and keep on crawling forward.

We thought the skiing would be easy along Skolai Cr. I eventually learned to expect the unexpected and not have any expections about easy travel. Our 10 minutes of casual skiing immediately transitioned into us squeezing through a narrow ledge above the creek.

This narrow chasm between the Nizina Glacier and the adjacent bedrock recently opened up. We tried to haul ass through here as bowling ball sized rocks bombed us from above and splashed into the water. At one point our narrow ledge of snow petered out and we were forced to walk in the turbulent icy water.

We had to pick our way through a chaotic array of house size ice chunks and boulders.

Brian tries to pull himself together after his head plant into the ice.

The Nizina River presented us with many opportunities to get our feet wet.

The last creek crossing and the start of the 10 mile road into McCarthy.

Cankle (or according to the urban dictionary: An aesthetically unfortunate physiological condition which leaves its victims with no discernable narrowing of the ankle between the calf and the foot). My feet totally swelled up after we reached McCarthy. They were hiddeous but fascinating. Apparently it is not uncommon to retain water after many days of strenuous excercise.

I hope you enjoyed the pics. The scenery and opportunity to travel through this amazing landscape will be something that will stick with me for the rest of my life.


Check out Brian's Wilderness Classic post: Nabesna to McCarthy...One Hell of a Classic

Here is the link to the newspaper article about the wilderness classic in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner