Rob Kehrer and the Wilderness Classic
It is surprisingly difficult to convey how much the Wilderness Classics have meant to me. I was introduced to them through my recreation partner John Pekar, who had done a few summer Classics before convincing me to join for a winter course. It was grueling. I lost toenails, got frostbite, and took months to recover from tendonitis in my knees, ankles, and wrists. I swore to never do it again. But as the physical ailments wore off I was left with the realization that I had experienced 180 miles of Alaska’s mind-blowing wilderness, 40 miles a day under my own power and with one of my best friends. I learned a lot about myself, physical limits, and backcountry travel. I’d never learned so much so quickly, and I was aware of a lot of room for improvement. I felt super-human, empowered, invincible. I was addicted.
The first several years were all about the accomplishment, proving that I had the muscle to cover the ground and the skills to manage the risks. The learning curve was steep. I reveled in the tricks I learned, my improvement, and the stories of successes and failures from the other participants. Racers ranged from professional Air National Guard Pararescuers to hermits that crawled out of the woods carrying more pot than food.
Rob Kehrer was a constant presence, year after year, summer and winter. We teased each other about our opposing strategies. I can’t remember if he was already “Team Heavy” or if Greg or I coined that term. He loved to remind me that John and I spent 15 minutes discussing the option of each carrying one crampon, and finally decided not to bring either. Rob on the other hand carried creature comforts, like down booties, even on the summer course, when most folks don’t bring a sleeping bag. More than once he carried extra gear that he forgot about. At the end of a winter course Rob pulled out his repair kit and realized that he had forgotten to repack it after his snowmachine work for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. He had carried spark plugs and wrench through 180 challenging miles of the Wrangells, while I had opted to leave my toothbrush at home.
The learning curve grew more gradual. My friendships from the Classics grew into month-long big-mountain trips: Denali, Logan, Fairweather, the Cook Inlet volcanoes. We realized that our combined experience enabled us to include less experienced friends, girlfriends and others, and share with them the rewards of covering hundreds of miles in Alaska’s wilderness. What these groups all had in common was the ability to laugh through the hard stuff. Nobody could do that better than Rob. You just kind of isolate that part of your brain and convince yourself that things will improve, because they do. Oh look! A squirrel!
The Classic has been more than a community to me, almost a family. Dick Griffith is the grandfather I never got to know and am uncomfortable bothering. Roman would be the dad but he isn’t mature enough, so Dave Cramer is the dad. Roman gets to be an older brother, still pushing the competitive spirit even as his ankle fuses. Rob was the mom! He’d probably be pissed to hear me say that. But what else could he be? All heart. Always picking up solo travelers, taking care of everyone else. Always there. This year Greg Mills told me, “It’s ok if you forgot something because Rob always has extra.” I forgot warm pants and socks and on the first night was boiling hot water to sleep with to keep me warm. Rob said, “I brought extra pants and socks, you should use these.” I told him that I didn’t want to take his dry pants, and he responded, “No, these are the extra extra pants, I have another pair of dry pants. Really, take these.”
Rob wasn’t a mountain athlete. He never got the hang of gliding on skis, never got comfortable on water even though he rafted the Talkeetna, Tasnuna, Copper, Yanert, Klu, and ultimately, fatally, the Tana. I wish I had asked why the Classics were so important to him. I think I get it, I think we have that need in common, but I would have liked to hear him say it. I think Rob was there because time in the wilderness, the mental and physical challenge of navigating the land, was grounding for him, completed him. Rob needed that experience to counter the stress and reality of ‘the real world.’ He told me how much he appreciated my videos and that he had watched them hundreds of times because they were the next best thing to being out there.
So what now? The Classic community, this family, is in mourning. We lost big. This is from my mom:
Rob so clearly loved to brave the challenging beauty of the natural world. And he did it over and over again. And if I loved him the way I love you, would I put a stop to his adventuring if I could, in order to protect him from harm? Even if I had that power, I would do as I do now. I take the risk of losing you.
Thank you to all the friends and family, blood and Classic, that have reached out to support Rob, Tammy, Greg, the Classic, and myself. I am blessed to have you in my life.
2014 Race Report
Twenty-three racers started the third and final year on the Thompson Pass to McCarthy course, arguably the most difficult course to date. Of the starters, 13 had attempted or finished the course in 2012 or 2013. This was the first time the Classic was held in August for many years, and it meant losing light around 11:30, thick brush, low water in the small drainages and high water in the large.
Sunday’s weather was drizzly, low clouds rolled in and out of Marshall Pass providing limited glimpses of the route. Only half the racers made it past the Tasnuna River put-in on the first day. Chris Shumate and Kalin King ran into trouble running the rapids in the dark, both lost their boats and spent the night around a fire. Racers lower on the river found the boats and paddles and propped everything up on the shores so that they could be picked up later. Chris and Kalin flew out the next morning.
Danny Powers and Wyatt Mayo pioneered a new route that accessed the Tebay Lakes. Lee Helzer and Alan Rogers planned on a similar route but turned around when the barely manageable brush turned to unmanageable steep and loose rock. Danny and Wyatt were due for a finish after bailing just 5 miles from the bridge in 2013 due to Danny’s systemic infection. They finished Saturday at 10 AM.
Besides Alan, Daniel Osborne, Mike Smith, and Eileen Wilkie were the other participants to come from out of state. Despite serious training on the east coast, the Alaska brush was overwhelming. They made it to the Bremner Dunes for a flight out Wednesday. Daniel said, “The brush wasn’t very friendly, but the other racers sure were!”
Everyone else opted for the ice route. Todd Tumolo and Gerard Ganey had done the route in 2012 and were in great shape to crush the course record. They finished in 3 days and 10 hours, for an incredible pace of nearly 60 miles/24 hrs! Good thing the legendary PJs Chris and Bobby retired, because they would have had a tough time beating these two. Ganey has been running up and down Exit Glacier for his grad school research at Alaska Pacific University (advisor: Roman Dial). Todd has been on Denali guiding for Alaska Mountaineering School. They are both class IV paddlers. They traveled without stove fuel (not on purpose) and lost a paddle for their 2-man Alpacka Gnu on day 1. Powerhouses! Todd wrote:
I can tell you that this trip taught me more about perseverance and acceptance then I thought possible from a wilderness trip… That was when we knew that our skills, experience and confidence would see us through these mistakes and that we can deal with circumstances and make due with what we have. We worked through them and I believe we are better individuals because of it and a better team in the wilderness.
If anyone could give Todd and Ganey a run for their money, it would be Toby Schwoerer and Gordy Vernon. Toby has been winning ski and mountain running races his entire life, and Gordy is a Classic legend. Todd Kasteler travelled with them, which can only mean they were cruising, because Todd is a monster. But apparently they opted for more than the 11 hours of sleep (total) that Todd and Ganey took. Todd Kasteler peeled off at some point and flew out because he was overdue for another commitment. Toby and Gordy finished Thursday.
Tory Dugan had scratched last year and returned with Meg McKinney and Matt Kress for the ice route. The group pushed into the night Friday to finish by headlamp, 3 AM Saturday morning. They were partially motivated by having run out of food. All three were absolutely radiant with the accomplishment when I saw them that afternoon. It was awesome for me to see that. Meg was bouncing with energy, while my legs were barely sturdy enough to make it to Stefanie’s ice cream shop.
I started the trip with Team Heavy, nervous about my bad foot and coming into the course off the couch. I had always assumed that Greg Mills and Rob Kehrer moved slowly, and was surprised to discover otherwise. Rob is slow on the transitions, but while we were moving it was a good pace. It was really fun for me to watch their dynamic. I’d been fascinated by Rob’s passion for the Classic since I’d first met him on the Nebesna to McCarthy course in 2008. I watched several times as Greg would silently pick up a dangling strap from Rob’s pack and attach it to the pack without Rob noticing. Greg describes Rob as both the big and little brother.
We finished the first night traveling with John Pekar and Matt Kupilik. It had felt weird not to be traveling with John, my primary partner before he grew up and started a family, so this was ideal for me. The five of us spent the next day floating the Tasnuna and Copper rivers in a mix of sun and rain, but with consistently beautiful cloud layers. We saw two groups of rafters on the Copper. The first was my friend Shasta Hood and his family, who gave me beers and a puffy jacket (in my rush as organizer and participant, I had neglected to pack my puffy pants and jacket for sleeping). Rob and Greg were thrilled to have a beer on the float. The second group was Classic vet John Lapkass with friends and family. John gave me another beer which I passed on to Rob.
From this point on, the scenery was new to me, which was my motivation to try the ice route. I’ve never seen such steeply vegetated mountain walls. It reminded me of the jungle walls I’d seen in Mexico. We pulled out at the Wernicke River and camped near Tory, Meg, and Matt, with waterlogged alder that refused to burn hot enough to boil water.
As we approached the ice I decided to keep traveling with John and Matt. I had spent a lot of time on the decision. I loved the novelty of being with Team Heavy, but John was ‘my people.’ We’ve shared so many miles, it is effortless to travel together. Matt was wide-eyed about the scale of everything, “This has been a lot harder than I expected,” but in great shape and able to keep John and I motivated to keep moving.
Traveling the ice was awesome. There were countless crevasses, most too small to be any danger, but also some fields that were a maze to navigate through. We were especially inefficient getting off the Fan Glacier. When not watching our feet, the mountain scenery was incredible and we lucked out to have the clearest days while on the ice. This was the most visually stunning route I’ve been on. We spent one night on the ice. I had been nervous about being cold without a sleeping bag or tent, but my hot water cozy and Shasta’s jacket earned me a solid 4 hours sleep.
When we split off with Team Heavy, Russell Nyberg joined them. Russell’s original partner bailed at the last minute, but he decided to try the course solo. Russell is a paramedic and strong paddler, but he was still nervous as hell about the Classic. He was deeply appreciative of his time with Team Heavy:
This challenge was a milepost in my life and has affected every facet of the way I understand wilderness and friendship. Both Rob and Greg had a huge impact on the attitude of my trip, and I am thankful for the short time I was able to spend with Rob. One of his favorite quotes: “I come here to find the cracks within myself, then I come again next year to see what I did with the cracks.” Thanks go out to you all. Love and sympathy to Rob’s family and friends.
The cracks quote is attributed to Bill Merchant of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Russell continued solo after leaving Team Heavy, only to lose his boat in the headwaters of the W. Fk. Tana River. He was picked up by Paul Claus (Ultima Thule Lodge) later that day.
Greg said that he and Rob were anxious to talk to the other racers back in town to be told the easy way to get on and off the ice. I laughed because we were struggling just as much.
Twelve racers reached the Tana Canyon, a class IV section in the otherwise comfortable, though rapid, Tana River. Embick writes in his Fast & Cold whitewater guidebook:
The Tana River is, in some ways, the epitome of a remote, wild, huge, fast, and cold Alaskan river… The Tana has 8 or 10 rapids on the scale of those in the Grand Canyon… it is of pool-drop character, with relatively gentle sections between major drops… the drops are not between true canyon walls, and sneak routes are possible… In the canyon itself… powerful boiling eddies are encountered, but no riverwide drops.
Of the twelve, Todd, Ganey, Toby, Gordy, Tory, Meg, and Matt ran the entire canyon, and all had run it previously on scouting missions (or in Todd and Ganey’s case, during the 2012 Classic). Even so, both Tory and Matt had brief swims. John, Matt and I decided to skip the canyon entirely by bushwhacking over to the Chitina, a frustrating abuse on our tired feet, but consistent with our risk assessment. Matt had lost his pfd in the brush and was wearing mine while I had half of a sleeping pad stuffed into my jacket. As we approached the canyon and the rapids grew more powerful, Matt said, “That’s my limit,” and there was no need for further discussion.
Rob and Greg walked above the cliffs to pass the class IV rapids and put in where the portage route forced them down to the water, just short of a 90 degree left hand bend in the river. They were only in the water a short time when the powerful boils and eddy lines flipped Rob’s boat. Greg didn’t see Rob again. Greg was able to paddle through the boils, collect Rob’s boat, and work his way to a gravel bar on river right. He worked his way back up the bank on foot, yelling out for Rob.
Greg used his sat phone to leave messages with our in-town contact and my sat phone. I contacted Ultima Thule Lodge that night, and Ben Gray was in the air by 7 AM. The potential need for help was relayed to the Air National Guard and NPS at that time, and the rescue effort was fully deployed when Ben returned with no sighting. Due to the combined effort of the PJs, NPS heli and ground crews, and Ultima Thule’s pilots Paul Claus and Ben Gray, Rob’s body was recovered by mid afternoon.
Greg had had the night to make peace with the loss of his best friend and hero. He and Tammy later talked about how excited Rob would have been to watch the ultra-efficient rescue effort and to get to fly in the Blackhawk. Tammy’s incredible strength and love was evident as she had to confront this new reality. It was clear that she and Rob had often talked about the risks he took and that she understood how important the Classics were to him, so important that they were part of their wedding vows.
The news rippled through the Team Heavy support crew, ‘The Outlaws,’ camped at the Lakina Bridge, a group of Tammy’s friends that plied each racer with chili and beer, even if they arrived in the middle of the night. The heart-wrenching news spread to family and friends, and then an overwhelming volume of love and support poured in for Rob, Greg, Tammy, and the Classic.
I’m telling myself that this is another of Rob’s gifts to us… to bring together a community, a family, and to remind us how to live life to its fullest. And it won’t be his last gift. There are so many stories about Rob. He was so humble that he was quick to let people know of the hilarious mistakes he made, from soiled pants to broken bindings. He was silent about his accomplishments, but we know those too. Those stories will keep circulating. Thank you Rob for the laughter, inspiration, and everything else that you continue to give us.
Thank you also to the Air National Guard PJs, the Wrangell-St. Elias Park Service Rangers and Rescue Volunteers, and Ultima Thule for their help and support.
Gerard Ganey and Todd Tumolo: 3d 10h
Toby Schwoerer and Gordy Vernon: 4d 11h
Tory Dugan, Meg McKinney, Matt Kress: 5d 16.5h
Danny Powers, Wyatt Mayo: 5d 23.5h
John Pekar, Matt Kupilik, Luc Mehl: 6d 2h