2012 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic
Josh Mumm and I were shocked to finish first at the Lakina Bridge Thursday morning. I had calculated that Tyler Johnson, Todd Kasteler, and Danny Powers, the guys on the Tebay route, would be a full 24 hours ahead of us, and after not having seen Roman Dial since day one, I assumed he had found a cleaner route and would be waiting for us at the end. We found Dave Chenault, who had flown out from the Little Bremner with concern about travelling the thick brush alone and an inflamed ankle. Dave told us that the Tebay guys had bailed to Cordova and Team Heavy (Rob Keher, Greg Mills, Matt Reardon) and John Lapkass were flying out that afternoon. I thought out loud, “Oh shit. I just killed the Classic.”
Five hours later we saw Todd Tumolo and Gerard Ganey at the sign in. They had completed the ice route (Wernicke Glacier to Tana River) and were beaming. Travel had been good, despite the 12 inches of fresh snow. Ganey said it was the best trip of his life. I needed to hear that! I thought everyone would be frustrated with my choice for the race this year. Within the next eight hours Roman completed the Bremner route and John Sykes and Mike Loso completed the ice route. Seven finishers out of fifteen isn’t bad, and the general consensus is to keep the course for the next two years rather than bailing to something easier.
Roman said it was the hardest couse yet. There was a lot of nervous energy at the start; no one knew the best route or if they had brought the right gear. Travel was good until the Bremner brush. Josh Mumm and I travelled 50 miles the first ‘day’ and only 10 the second. At one point we were paddling upstream in the Little Bremner to avoid the brush, walking a gravel bar, crossing to the other side, paddling up eddies when possible. We had expected animal trails but they were faint at best. Much of the forest was choked with fallen spruce. It was often fastest to climb onto the logs and log-walk up slope to other fallen trees. But the consequences of a slip were painful and our shins were bleeding. Rob Keher has some nice scars on his face from a fall.
We considered turning around for a scratch-float to Cordova. The big unknown was whether the travel would get better or not. It had to get better for us to finish with our limited food and fuel. After clearing the worst of the brush around 3 am, we passed a large boulder with an overhang. I said to Josh, “Too bad we aren’t looking for a shelter rock.” He asked, “Are we not looking for a shelter rock?” It had started to rain, so we crawled under the rock and shiver/slept for a few hours watching the rain turn to snow, cooking a meal and hot drinks to keep warm. From there the terrain continued to ease up. We walked the rim of the East Fork Bremner which was non-stop class V, VI rapids and waterfalls, none of which I was able to capture with my fogged camera. We got into the fresh snow and were able to increase the pace, especially over the pass and dropping into Harry’s Gulch. We followed very fresh bear tracks in the snow, then turned out of Harry’s toward the Klu drainage. The Klu River was also beautiful- clear water and boulder gardens. We paddled the upper canyon in the dark and pulled over when our paddles started to ice up. We spent a few cold hours shiver/sleeping by a fire. We started again on the river when we ran out of wood, but pulled over soon for another fire. The skies had cleared and the sun came out for a huge boost in heat and morale.
We stopped paddling the Klu when it started to steepen, and cut through the forest toward Steamboat Mtn. We climbed Steamboat and took a snow gully from ~5000 ft to ~3000 ft. The travel was fast, but the choice committed us to a drainage that was starting to cliff out. We were able to sneak onto a ridge to clear the cliffs, but the exposure was uncomfortable, a fall would have big consequences, and we were pushing our limits by running on maybe 6 hours of sleep in 3.5 days. We stumbled our way to the Chitina River and walked up gravel bars as far as was easy. The sun was rising, it was our 3rd sunrise, the light was gorgeous. I marveled at Mt. Logan and Castle Peak… Josh and I were on Logan in May and were between Castle Peak and Blackburn in March. The forest along the Chitina was pretty good travelling and we made great time to the bridge and finish.
I didn’t get many stories from the other guys. I heard that someone on the Ice route (the two teams travelled together until the Tana River) had managed to fold a live shrew into their packraft after floating the Copper. When they unfolded their boats to sleep on the snow, the shrew escaped and scurried around on the snow. The Tana rapids were comfortably raftable.
The Tebay team ran into horrible brush dropping down the Cleave Glacier/drainage. Tyler called it ‘sex-whacking’ instead of ‘bush-whacking’ because they found themselves in so many awkward (and strangely exciting) positions crawling through the alder. After making 3 miles in 12 hours they realized they didn’t have enough food for the course and took the elegant bail-out to raft the Copper to Cordova. They wanted to scout Abercrombie rapids but when they pulled to the bank there were six Grizzlies. They tried to scout a few other places but there were too many bears.
Roman was really impressed with Josh Mumm’s micro-scale navigating… whenever Roman looked down he saw Josh’s tracks, but not mine. By Roman’s rationale, if Josh went the same way that Roman did, he must be an excellent navigator. And this is true. Whenever it got thick I’d fall in behind Josh, put my head down and try to match his pace.
It was the hardest route I ever want to do, largely because the exposure spooked me in several places. I’m still sensitive to risk from the Logan trip accidents, and I’m not sure how much that influenced my discomfort with some of the rapids and cliffs. Having completed this route feels like a huge accomplishment. I felt like the route was a test for a complete skillset that I’ve been developing since high school… rock climbing balance, technical paddling, making the right decision when to get out of the water, taking care of my body, having the right gear, route finding, etc.
Luc Mehl and Josh Mumm, 3d 22.5h, Bremner Route
Todd Tumolo and Gerard Ganey, 4d 4h, Ice Route
Roman Dial, 4d 9h 52m, Bremner Route
John Sykes and Mike Loso, 4d 12h, Ice Route
DNF: Dave Chenault, John Lapkass, “Team Heavy” (Greg Mills, Rob Keher, Matt Reardon), Todd Kasteler, Tyler Johnson, Danny Powers.
Fairbanks News Miner Article
Ganey’s video of the ice route
Dave Chenault’s report and more.
Greg Mill’s report:
I am recalling this tale without the use of maps so some information may not be totally accurate. This race may be summed up using Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Team Heavy started the race with a bang. We immediately took off to the right of the drainage at the start. We led the race for about 200 yards. A cliff halted our forward progress and as a team we decided to head back to the starting line and see what the left side of the drainage had to offer. The weather was lovely and the walking was pleasant. We played leap-frog with Lapkass all the way through the pass. We did a side-hill up and down sort of thing, but in retrospect, we should have gone high and stayed high. Eventually, we reached the big snow field. The snow was compact and the travel was swift. The next step was to find a way down to the raftable portion of the Tasnuna. We were told that the river might be decent at 900 ft (or lower).
We went low towards the river but our progress was halted by a small black bear. Reardon wanted to take pictures and Rob wanted to run. I couldn’t tell if the bear was old enough to be on his own or if mom was hiding just around the corner. We did our best to scare the bear and immediately gained higher ground. We held the ridge for some time and laughed when we saw Lapkass walk right through the bear area. Closer to the river, we did some very scary, very sketchy alder side-hilling on our way to the water. We finally reached a portion of the water that would allow us to ferry to the other side where we could walk the river bank. We took the river bank as far as we could but our progress was halted by the darkness. Our next step would have involved running unknown potential rapids in the dark. Team Heavy decided to take a break and sleep until the sun arose.
In the morning, (Reardon and Rob put on the their man-pants and) we ran the Tasnuna almost all the way to the Copper. We cut across a portion of land to put in higher up the Copper. We paddled across the Copper to Bremner Dunes. Here, we took another small break to eat, dry gear, feed the mosquitoes, and nap. The Dunes proved to be the absolute most exciting part of the trip. I cannot fully describe the sand dunes and don’t believe that pictures really do it justice. It’s amazing. We crossed the desert and eventually reached the shore of the Bremner River. The shore finally led to trees and we were able to hold various game trails and/or the shoreline for some time. By nightfall, the rain paid us a visit. We walked as far as we could but realized that we were expending way too much energy and going in circles. We decided that it was better to wait for the morning to continue. This was the first time, and certainly not the last time, that we used the giant saw that Rob always carries. We found a huge spruce that would provided shelter from the rain. We cut the lower limbs of the tree to make room for us and used the boughs as bedding. We tied our tarps around the tree and attempted to sleep. Reardon eventually turned himself into a burrito with his tarp and went to sleep. Rob spent his time sleeping and eating jelly beans. I spent my time shivering, feeding more mosquitoes, and getting annoyed by the sound of Rob smacking away on those damned jelly beans.
The sun rose but the rain did not stop. We found our way back to the edge of the river and continued bush-whacking. We finally found what can only be described as a beaver trail. It was a trail under the brush that was lined with shin-high punji sticks. We would continue to bush-whack for the rest of the day. We went along the river, up the mountain, down the mountain, but everything we tried led to more bush-whacking. Finally, we found a small Bremner tributary that looked a 2-mile-long lake. We pulled out the boats and paddled upstream as far as we could. This led to river banks and smooth walking that got us all the way to the Little Bremner. We decided that we would cross the Little Bremner and make camp. The theory was that we would eat and sleep and make some amazing mileage the following day. We awoke refreshed and ready to tackle the Classic. Our spirits would soon get crushed. The walking started decently and we were making good time until our initial ascent. We were slowed by thick alders and devil’s club. We figured that we would push on through and gain elevation because it has to get better. It never got better. The alders and devil’s club were joined by fallen spruce trees everywhere. We continued because we figured that it had to get better. It never got better. We continued pushing forward and for higher ground. The alders, club, and fallen trees were now joined by giant glacial boulders hidden under moss. We continued because it had to get better. It never got better. We had traveled almost 3 miles in about 10 hours. We were fatigued and dehydrated. We had also noticed that Rob had lost a paddle blade somewhere in the brush.
We held a team meeting and discussed our options. We decided that scratching was the only option. We were half-way through the allotted time but not half-way through the race. We swallowed our pride and headed back to the Little Bremner. I will not describe the details of our descent, but it was truly awful. Scary, dangerous, and awful. We descended the 1500 ft in 4-6 hours and finally reached the Little Bremner. We inflated the boats and started our journey home. It only took 10 minutes of rafting to get back to where we started over 12 hours ago. That is demoralizing. We camped that night and made an amazing fire. We ate well and slept hard. Rob built a paddle blade from sticks, tape, and the back plate of my Go-Lite back pack. We called Wrangell Mountain Air and the said that they could pick us up around 330 pm at the Bremner dunes.
In the morning, we packed up and and began the final float. Early into our float, we see John Lapkass come stumbling out of the woods. Perhaps this was fate for all involved. We paddled over to him and explained our decision to scratch. He travels by himself and was hoarse from screaming at the brush. Like us, he thought that it just had to get better. He had tried some of the same things that we had done. He even paddled to the other side of the Bremner to see if the walking was better. It was not. Within minutes, Lapkass inflated his boat and became an honorary member of Team Heavy. For the record and for the future, the Bremner is wide, slow, often shallow, and full of extremely dangerous quick-sand. You are often required to get out of your boat but it is very dangerous because of the sand trapping your feet. We made it to the dunes with time to spare. We called in weather reports to the pilot and set up a wind sock for him. He landed, loaded us up, and got the hell out of Dodge. He was nice enough to act as a tour guide and flew over our proposed route. I am amazed the Luc, Josh, and Roman made it through. That night we partied in McCarthy. A “local” pointed to the “I (heart) the Wragells” bumper sticker and stated that it should read “I Love the Wrangells From A Distance!” He couldn’t be more right.