There were thirteen participants for the 2013 Wilderness Classic. None of the finishers from 2012 returned this year. Makes you wonder. The five finishers (effectively seven) travelled the Bremner Brush route, 150 miles from Thompson Pass to McCarthy, in nearly 7.5 days. The route was even harder this year due to less snow and higher water.
Lee Helzer, Steve Duby, Len Jenkins: 7 days, 8 hours, 42 minutes
Lee, an IT manager and Steve a rural teacher in Nulato, AK, both had partners that weren’t able to join and arranged to travel together as blind dates to form Team FILGO. Len Jenkins was solo the entire race and met Lee and Steve at the Lakina River a few miles from the finish.
Steve swam shortly after putting in on the upper Tasnuna losing both his boat and paddle. Lee, in hot pursuit of Steve’s boat, hit a large hole and also swam. Lee did manage to retrieve Steve’s paddle. Kalin and Chris saw the swims from upslope and dropped to the river to shared warm clothes and food. Team Heavy found the boat 3 miles downstream and set it on the shore like a great beacon of hope. Despite the rough start, Steve and Lee continued to the Copper, and ultimately, the finish.
Len was the wildcard; a South African who heard about the race at the last minute and wanted to give it a shot. He asked a lot of questions to the other racers and politely disregarded all the advice. He carried a warmer sleeping bag (0 F) for the Summer Classic than most carry for the Winter Classic. He’d say, “At home we have adventure races every weekend!” We argued that this is different. Everyone was nervous how he would handle the wilderness. He travelled alone and the guys that saw him on the course said he was ‘legit,’ with exceptional strength in the water; he is a competitive kayaker in South Africa. Even so, he lost his paddle and stove on the Tasnuna (while trying to use his Jetboil in the boat) and finished the race hand-paddling the rest of the rivers. He was wide-eyed at the end, convinced that this was as much a mental as a physical challenge, and very grateful for the experience. He was also convinced that he didn’t need a zero degree sleeping bag.
Rob Kehrer, Greg Mills: 7 days, 11 hours, 15 minutes.
It is one thing to go into a Classic naive about the conditions, but it is another to know how bad it will be and still commit to finishing. In 2012 Team Heavy (Anchorage) nearly reached tree line above the Bremner before calling it quits. This winter they got to within 20 miles of the finish of the Winter Classic (after skiing 200 miles), so they were very determined for a finish on the summer route. Rob swam in the Tasnuna, but managed to (accidentally) clear some class III(+?) rapids in the Klu. Greg is no longer the ‘student’ learning tricks from Rob (which include using Flintstones Vitamins for role play). These guys have an awesome dynamic. “Hey Rob.” “What?” “Fuck you.” 5 minutes later… “Hey Rob.” “What?” “I love you man.”
Team Heavy is also becoming a misnomer. They cut gear comforts and don’t sleep much. Near the end of this course Greg was mapping their location while Rob read coordinates off the GPS. Rob would read, “61….” and fall asleep. Greg would wake him, and ask for the coordinates again. “61…” asleep. This happened for several minutes. Later, the roles were reversed. Greg would nod off for 15 seconds, snap-to, and demand of Rob, “How long was I out for!?” “Uh… I don’t know man, maybe like 15 seconds?” Repeat.
Danny Powers, Wyatt Mayo
Danny and Wyatt came down from Fairbanks. Danny has completed a summer and winter course, Wyatt is a guide in McCarthy and maybe on the ski team at UAF? This was Wyatt’s first Classic.
Danny and Wyatt flew out from Lakina Lake Sunday afternoon, just 5 miles from the finish. They had been travelling with Lee and Steve, staying as a group to make sure that Danny would get out. Danny had a severely infected rash on his ass, which likely started with a Devil’s Club swipe through his ‘plumber’ pants. The guys took turns carrying his weight and even towed him across some of the water. He got to the hospital with a fever of 104. Wyatt looked like nothing had happened in the past week. He was clean, chipper, and jogged to the ice-cream shop while Danny struggled to get into the truck. Wyatt will be kicking butt in future Classics.
Toby Schwoerer, Tory Dugan
Toby and Tory (Team Torby) are brothers-in-law from Anchorage and Valdez, respectively. Both have competitive pasts, though not in a Classic. Few in Alaska can match Toby’s speed. They had the smallest packs at the start of the race.
Team Torby hoped to pioneer an ‘Alpine Route’ that could avoid some Bremner brush. They ran into an uncrossable section of the East Fork of the Bremner and decided they only had enough supplies to turn back for the ‘alternate finish,’ Cordova, a spicy packraft in the flooded Copper River.
Kalin King, Chris Shumate
Kalin and Chris, police officers in Valdez, were also new to the Classic. They fit right into the nature of the Classic, sacrificing their progress to aid Steve after his swim in the upper Tasnuna. They got turned around in the Bremner area and Chris’ inflamed hip flexor resulted in a scratch to Cordova. They guys that saw Kalin in the woods said he was tough as hell. He’ll be back.
John Lapkass, Michael Martin
John (Anchorage) has finished more Classics than anyone else, and Michael (Seattle) probably holds the record for most self-rescues. They hoped for a less brushy route by descending along the Tiekle River to the Copper, then up Dewey Creek to Tebay Lakes. This route would have avoided all the Bremner brush, a brilliant strategy. Unfortunately, the Tiekle brush is worse. They covered one mile in 6 hours, a new low-time record. And these guys know how to travel through brush. After calculating that the race would take two months at that pace they fought back up to the highway for a scratch.
The 2014 Wilderness Classic will be in August to continue the trend of different months for each of the three years in the series. As far as we can tell, the Bremner Brush route is the hardest terrain the Classic has ever offered. It would be great opportunity for folks out of state/country to test their skills. The ice route will likely be the more popular option. Longer but easier, participants will need to have crevasse rescue experience and be comfortable floating the Tana River (which should be relatively low). The class IV section can be portaged.