2015 Winter Wilderness Classic, Wrangell Mountains
If the Park Service ever needed evidence that the Classic is a ‘special event’ rather than an ‘adventure race,’ this was the year to prove it. After 3.5 days traveling on 4 different routes from McCarthy, 9 participants discovered each other at the base of Platinum Creek and travelled as a supergroup the final 60 miles to the Tok cutoff (120 to 200 miles depending on route). Granted, at one point Toby Schwoerer, Danny Powers, and Derek Collins decided to push through the night, but when their snow machine track disappeared 30 minutes later, they returned to the group to share trail breaking. By ‘share,’ I mean to let Ben Histand help Toby do all the trail breaking.
On Friday March 20th most of the Classicers met at Summit Consulting Services near Tok. Kathy’s chowders, cookies, and rhubarb bars were ready in the kitchen as old friends caught up, and five of the six new participants (Mike Loso, Pat Farrell, Brian Kramp, Matt Vial, Colin Shanely) were welcomed into the fold (the sixth rookie, Toby, met the group at Glenallen Saturday). When we were driving the shuttles back from McCarthy Sunday, Dave Cramer said something about the new guys looking a bit green. Yeah, maybe. Mike used to work as a mountain guide in the Wrangells, Pat did a human-powered trip from Bellingham to Kotzebue, and Toby was an international ski racer who has moved on to big Alaskan peaks and summer classics.
Saturday in McCarthy was spent discussing last minute gear options. A hot item of discussion was to bring puff pants or not. Everyone in the discussion decided against it. Scheming on ways to deal with the many open water crossings on the Nizina was also popular.
I tried to get a sense from Greg Mills (Team Heavy) for how he was doing going into his first Classic without Rob Kehrer. He said he was going to use Rob as motivation, but that he wasn’t going to put too much pressure on himself. Greg really wanted to finish the Noyes part of the route, a section that he and Rob had scratched on just 20 miles short of the finish in what will likely go down as “the hardest scratch of the classics” (though, the guys that packrafted the Copper River to Cordova on the summer route must be contenders). Greg once said something like, “Man, even scratching is hard on the Classics.” Greg got flown out this year near Chisana due to a nasty lung infection that Scott Peters and Sarah Histand also developed on the course. Greg said he could only walk about 20 steps before needing to stop. When he called Dave on the sat phone, Dave said something like “Are you sure you’re not just out of shape?” Ha! Insult to injury, literally. Oh, and he got bit by the terrifying dog at the Log Cabin Wilderness Lodge (the finish).
OK, the start. Everyone lined up in downtown McCarthy. 16 pairs of Madshus skis, mostly Glittertinds. Toby was on a pair of Karhus with 1/2 length metal edges. Sounded like he missed the rest of the metal by the end of the trip.
And they’re off. Katie Strong and Scott Peters turn around, heading up the road to Kennicott to try the most technical route, up the ice fall from Packsaddle Mountain, as pioneered by Andrew Cyr and Danny Powers last year. This will be Katie’s third Classic and by three different routes. Scott works as a guide in McCarthy during the summer and scoped the route in anticipation of the Classic.
Danny Powers and Andrew Cyr picked up Toby Schwoerer to try the Regal Glacier, a route that hadn’t been done in this or the previous round of Classics through the Wrangells. There was potential for major crevasse trouble, especially with this year’s low snow.
Forrest McCarthy and Derek Collins returned from Wyoming for their second winter Classic, having done the Brooks Range course 4 or 5 years ago. They did the Presidents Chair route.
The ‘green’ team, Mike Loso, Pat Farrell, Brian Kramp, Matt Vial, and Colin Shanely, also did the Presidents Chair route.
The brother-sister team of Sarah and Ben Histand returned for their second Classic, excited to repeat the valley route with more confidence and less gear. They each shaved ~12 pounds from their packs, and Sarah’s ski set up was 3 lbs lighter. Starting pack weight was 30 lbs.
Nicholai returned from last year too, prepared to go solo again but expecting to be moving at the same pace as the Histands, like last year, which they did.
Greg Mills and Chris Zwolinski, solo, rounded out the group for a total of 17.
I was able to monitor inReach updates from Katie/Scott and Ben/Sarah/Nicholai during the week. Seeing Katie’s location on top of the ice fall gave me a huge smile. That’s the route I’ve wanted for years, and I would need someone with Scott’s experience to feel comfortable with the technical sections. I know what their view looked like because we hit the same elevation trying to go up Blackburn a few years ago. I’ve got that view on two of my walls at home.
Ben/Sarah/Nicholai were cranking. 35 map-miles a day the first few days, then a 45-mile day. Incredible. I saw that they camped just a quarter mile short of Katie and Scott at Platinum Creek, and I was wondering if they knew it. They had travelled an additional 40 miles at this point. I overheard a guy in the Valdez grocery store tell Sarah, “Oh, but you guys did the easy route.” I snickered. He must have meant, ‘non-technical,’ because choosing to cover an additional 40 miles isn’t easy. Sarah said they smelled smoke that night, but couldn’t tell how old it was. Derek passed through their camp in the dark after leaving Forrest to scratch at Nebesna with a broken binding. Forrest must have been frustrated, but at least he had seen the heart of the route. Derek had medication for a bout with pneumonia a month ago, which Sarah took now and was a huge factor in getting her to the finish. After passing the Ben/Sarah/Nicholai camp, Derek then found Katie and Scott camped with Andrew, Danny, and Toby, so he set up camp there. Andrew had a broken boot or binding too, and would back-track to Nebesna the next day, a huge disappointment for him. This was Andrew’s fifth or sixth winter Classic in a row, the most of anyone out there.
So, as a group of eight, the supergroup slogged through the Noyes passes and into the dark for a warm night in a trapping cabin on the Little Tok River. I think Scott took some of Derek’s meds and this point, and Danny got some pain killers from him too. Derek seems so innocent, but you know something is up when he says the first dose is on him.
With less than 10 miles to the finish Scott’s binding broke, or boot, I can’t keep track of all these BCSNS and 3-pin breaking parts (and yes, I know I’m a Dyanafit snob and that the plastic boots destroy everyone’s feet… but they haven’t been breaking), so he fell back intending to hike to the finish. Scott reached the Log Cabin Wilderness Lodge 45 minutes after the rest of the crew. Mike, Pat, Brian, and Colin pulled in 4 or 5 hours later, in good shape and high spirits (Matt Vial scratched due to equipment… I’m going to make a wild guess that it was a 3-pin boot or binding). Chris Zwolinski finished a few days later, all smiles.
This was probably the hardest part of the Classic for me to miss out on. I’m certain that everyone was sprawled out on the deck, shoes and socks off, sharing stories as conversation skills slowly returned, faces burning with sun, wind, and glow of such a huge accomplishment. To cut trail on four routes, then regroup to share the finish with an amazing group of old and new friends, it just can’t get any better. And won’t. That can’t possibly happen again. There are a few trips I’ve finished and thought, “Wow, if I hadn’t done this trip I would have missed out… in life.” Something that big. I just missed out on one of those. And I know it isn’t about me, but I am about me, so I’m holding onto the parts of me that were there… helping Katie and Sarah mount their skis, convincing Ben not to bring his museum-grade puff pants, a little voice in Danny’s ear suggesting that he take care of his feet.
I’m proud of these friends in a way that doesn’t make sense, that I don’t have the right to be. All I can think of is that this must be what motivates Dave Cramer to put so much work into the Classics. He must be proud of enabling them to grow so much in five days. I know he is proud of putting me on this path 8 years ago, giving me the benefit of the doubt on a course I wasn’t really prepared for. I know because I give him an awkward hug when I see him. Dave Cramer isn’t really the kind of guy that wants an awkward hug, but he hugs back.