Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Chilled on the Chitistone

Trevor enjoys a mid-summer day on Chitistone Pass

Splat-splat-splat.....woooooooosh. I awoke from an unrestful sleep to the sound of sloppy wet snow flakes pelting the wall of our tent and periodically sluffing off in sheets to the ground. Either I was still lost in a dream or the weather had somehow become confused about what month it was. This is July in Alaska? The height of the summer season with endless twilight, hordes of mosquitoes, and wildflowers. So much for the sunscreen I had thrown into my pack and the plans of jumping into a high alpine lake and drying myself in the warm mid-summer sunshine. Instead I found myself arduously post holing through knee deep snow and gazing out of the tent into a wintry landscape.

I was accompanied on this most recent packrafting trip by my friends Trevor and Jim....and my 14 year old nephew Mark-E. This was Mark-E's maiden voyage into the rugged Wrangell Mountains - as well as his first experience being dropped off by a fixed wing aircraft on a remote carpet of tundra and packrafting many days back to civilization. Since the weather conditions were far from summery....I was hoping that being cold and wet for many days would only raise his tolerance of discomfort rather than thwart his desire for any future trips into the mountains.

Our flight took us from the old copper mining town of McCarthy to Skolai Pass. From there we ascended Chitistone Pass and then scrambled across the infamous "goat" trail high above the Chitistone River canyon. We continued to follow the river until the water was tame enough to throw the packrafts in and set sail for McCarthy via the Chitistone and Nizina Rivers. The entire route was about 50 miles and 5 days through rugged and untamed wilderness. I was rather excited to see this area in the summer after recently crossing some of this terrain back in March during the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.

Mark prepares to board our McCarthy Air flight in the Porter to Skolai Pass

Looking up the Chitistone River Valley - in several days we will be packrafting down this sharply cut valley to the Nizina River below.

During our flight we passed numerous waterfalls cascading thousands of feet to the Nizina River

The air cowboy of the Wrangell Mountains - Gary!

Gigantic puzzle pieces of glacial ice haphazardly float in the muddy waters of Nizina Lake

The landing strip (aka: wide spot in the tundra) on Skolai Pass

Drops of H2O resting peacefully...

High on Chitistone Pass we received a warm greeting from a pod of playful marmots

Mark-E ascends the freshly snow covered rocks on the approach to Chitistone Pass with an expansive view of Skolai Pass far below.

Crossing Chitistone Pass with our packrafts

My nephew Mark-E was absolutely oblivious to the driving snow and was more focused on the bright pink tufts of moss campion protruding through the white blanket covering the ground.

Descending Chitistone Pass towards the alpine lake I spotted on the map prior to departing on this trip which I had hoped to take a dip in.

Mark-E witnessed an enormous serac separate from a hanging glacier and plummet more than a thousand feet. The cone of debris and the subsequent avalanche cone can be faintly seen at the base of the cliff in the distance.

I crawled out of our orange shelter several times during the night to knock down the accumulating snow.

Weary and cold boys...ecstatic about another day in the mountains

Ahhh....summer in Alaska.

We came across this giant slurry of mud and rock which had recently sloshed down the mountainside. The unbelievable force of this debris flow was evident by the large boulders which were strewn onto the tundra adjacent to the channel.

Perhaps the highest spruce tree in Alaska? The altimeter indicated 5100 feet above sea level.

Jim gazes up at a portion of the "goat" trail. This section is appropriately named because it is terrain that should only be crossed by the most shear footed goats. The notes we had strongly encouraged us to traverse across the yellow scree just below the base of the upper cliff face - or else face imminent death...

We begin our side-sloping across the first part of the yellow scree. One false move or misplacement of the foot would lead to an accelerated slide down the slope which would abruptly end with a free fall off one of the cliffs below.

The goat trail - our path is faintly visible contouring across the yellow scree slope

Clinging to the slope high above the Chitistone gorge

We stared at them and they stared at us.....

Mark and I high above Chitistone Falls (total height: 300 ft or 91 m)

Camping on a large terrace more than a thousand feet above the Chititsone River

Jim checks out our upcoming route down the Chitistone River valley

Crossing the glacial waters of the Chitistone River. Usually in the summer this river is running fast, high and cold. The cool weather dampened the glacial melt and the river level was actually quite low for July. This made our crossing relatively easy.

The cabin at Glacier Creek. There is a gravel airstrip here where most goat trail travelers fly out of - instead we would jump in our packrafts and float back to McCarthy.

Mark inflates his packraft on the banks of the Chitistone during our brief 3 hour stretch of sunshine

Mark ready to show off his rafting skills on the Chitistone River

The lower Chitistone River was fast class II water for much of its length. A few good wave trains with standing waves 3-4 feet tall drenched us as a cold rain fell for most of the day. The water mellowed some as we entered the broader Nizina River. We pulled out of the Nizina where it intersects a small road from McCarthy. From there we made our way 9 miles back to town and some warm food.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dialysis doesn't deter Dea

Dea is eager to packraft down the Sanctuary River in Denali National Park

This blog post is dedicated to my friend Dea. Dea defies the image of someone who lacks properly working kidneys. Two years ago her kidneys failed and she has been forced to plug herself into a dialysis machine ever since - 3 times a week for about 4 hrs a day. I don't know much about dialysis but I do know that it drives the majority of patients to live stagnant and very careful lives. There are many days Dea is wiped out or sick BUT always seems to shine with a positive attitude even if she feels completely crappy. She has an inner energy and drive to enjoy each day regardless of her situation...

Dea has facilitated a handful of my backcountry adventures recently by either shuttling cars or picking me up from a distant trailhead. She is always enthusiastic and excited to hear about the most recent adventure even though she has to live it vicariously through my stories and photos. I have been sort of subconsciously searching for a trip she can squeeze in between dialysis sessions and I just recently found one. Last weekend I did a traverse from Cantwell to the Sanctuary River in Denali Park but heard that the route from Sable Pass was a bit shorter. I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to take Dea and her husband Ben on packrafting trip through the rugged Alaska Range. So here are some shots from Dea's 14 hour adventure in the shadow of North Americas highest peak.

I have to say that this is one of the best trips I have taken in the backcountry recently. This is not because the scenery and weather were superb - but because I got the pleasure to see the biggest smile plastered on Dea's face as she bobbed up and down in the whitewater of the Sanctuary River...

We started our 28 mile traverse at Sable Pass on the Denali National Park road. From there we headed down to the Teklanika River, up the Calico Creek drainage, and then over a pass before making a steep descent to the Sanctuary River. From there we packrafted about 16 miles back to the park road and pulled out right at our campsite in the Sanctuary River campground.

As usual with any backcountry trek in Alaska we had frequent water crossings. Fortunately this stretch of the Teklanika River was made up of multiple, shallow braided channels and was quite easy to ford.

Criss-crossing bear imprints were abundant along the Teklanika River

Dea makes her way up Calico Creek. This route to the Sanctuary River lacked any thick brush and the walking was very appealing.

Dea's posse of boys above Calico Cr - Ben, me, Dan and Ted

We were forced to climb over several small outcrops along Calico Cr

These unusual conical formations were in a lingering snow field.

We crossed fields of beautiful wildflowers on the approach to the pass

The final push up the pass was quite steep and required us to climb on all fours

Dan at the top of the pass with a view of the Sanctuary River valley below. Windy Pass can also be seen in the distance to the right - this is the route we took last weekend on our hike from Cantwell to the Sanctuary River.

The slope was wickedly steep on the way down from the pass.

Dea kicks up dust as she takes giant leaps and plummets down the scree slope

Looking back at the pass we descended - it looked like a formidable wall from this side.

Dea and Ben sideslope across a precarious slope of loose rock during our decent

Dan curls up like a baby in the warm sun on a soft carpet of tundra

Gazing down towards the Sanctuary River valley...

We dropped our packrafts in the river far below

The flotilla of packrafters are ready to hit the Sanctuary River

Ben trying to get a handle of the packraft before we reach some more challenging sections on the lower reach of the river.