The 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic featured a blizzard, a foot of fresh snow, over 30 crevasse breaches. This is supposed to be the Summer Classic?
The 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic didn’t fail to deliver. I partnered with John Sykes, my companion on spring trips to Sanford and Carpathian. We went as ‘independent nations’ with Tyler Johnson and Todd Kasteler, meaning that both pairs were self-sufficient in case anything went wrong or our paces didn’t match. Our team was well-suited for this semi-technical route; John and I were on Denali this May/June, Todd and Tyler were on Dhaulagiri (8167m, Nepal) in April/May.
Several old friends attended the race this year, including fan-favorite ‘ultra-heavy’ Rob Kehrer, who is basically my nemesis, and John Lapkass, who would hold the record for most finished courses upon reaching McKinley Village. Rob teamed up with Greg from Sleeping Lady Brewing Company, who tried to convince everyone that the first beer or two hydrates better than water.
It was also fun to start with friends nervous and excited for their first classic. Besides John Sykes, Dave Chenault from Kalispell and Paige Brady from Anchorage were ready for the suffer-fest. Notably missing from the race where Chris and Bobby, which meant that a victory was possible. Traveling the shortest route and teaming up with Tyler and Todd, both previous winners, made me more optimistic about winning than I’d dared before.
John and I practiced ‘Kama Sutra Packrafting‘ in Goose Lake to see if we could share one boat and reduce the weight in our packs. I’d paddled some miles with a 120-pounder sitting up front, but John’s 6’4″ frame didn’t fit quite as well. We used the ‘beast with two backs’ position to get across the Delta River, but switched to ‘honeymoon’ for the Yanert. Todd and Tyler swam instantly in the Delta, tried a second time, and then Tyler ran back to the start to grab his boat and paddle.
We started with 25 pound packs that included a 30m rope, crampons, ice screw, limited hardware, and 7 lbs of food.
We had an incredible team dynamic. Everyone stepped up to take lead and set the pace at different stages of the course. I was very confident about John’s crevasse navigation skills after we skied down Sanford in the dark, so I let him know we were expecting him to be on lead through the crux field of crevasses. Despite having slept 20 minutes in ~48 hours, John stayed alert and led us through hundreds of crevasses hidden by blowing snow and a fresh foot on the ground. Cumulatively we had 36 crevasse breaches, but never anything that we couldn’t pull ourselves out of.
It was too cold to sleep for more than a few minutes; no one got more than 30 minutes of sleep during the 64 hours on the course. I had a really strong sense of deja vu while navigating the Yanert Glacier and moraine. I kept thinking, “I’ve done this before… we just need to keep moving down glacier, it doesn’t help to stop and evaluate each route option… where did I do this? Was I with Tyler? John? When did I pick through a moraine and then packraft?” I replayed all the glacier trips I’ve done and couldn’t find a match. I told Todd about it and he said, “Weird. Tyler just told me the same thing.”
Floating the Yanert was really cold for John and I. We flipped the raft 3 times despite the stability of the luge position. We stopped three times and Tyler and Todd had fires roaring to warm us up. On the 8 mile ATV trail exit we were moving fast, but even so I wasn’t able to generate enough heat to warm up. I didn’t get warm until we got to Anne Beaulaurier’s empty cabin conveniently located 1/4 mile from the finish. We cranked up the electric and wood stoves, and found Missy Smith’s chili waiting for us in a slow cooker. Unbelievable!
The victory was really meaningful for all of us: the third victory on three different courses for Tyler, consecutive wins for Todd, a rookie win for John, and winter-summer victories in the same year for me. We were so thrilled! And a bit loopy…
Thanks to Black Rapids Lodge, Anne, Missy for the hospitality, and especially Michael Martin for organizing the race!