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 glaciers...so 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


Anonymous said...

Excellent tour Ed - thanks! Cankle doesn't look like much fun or that blister. But you had a good time! :) God bless!

Anonymous said...

Cankle? Looks more like camel toe to me!

Rogerio said...

DUDE!! AMAZINGG STUFF!! I am headin up to fairbanks March 2009 could you tell me some things nice to do there?? I am in New Zealand now! did lots of hiking throughout South island, do you have any tips or some nice things to do there?? I appreciate if you help me... once again wicked stuff dude...
my email is

yoshikio19@hotmail.com thx...

Rogerio said...

OW!! almost forget!!! how do I go to the Magic bus??? I need to go there!!! thx..

Dr. Cookie said...

hi ed,

beautiful photos. i did this route during the summer wilderness classic in 2000. we had about the same amount of snow at solo pass. i have a similar photo of my foot at the end -- less hairy, but otherwise identical!

hope you're taking similar photos right now on your way to mcgrath.