2016 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic
After twenty-some years, the Classic moved back to the Brooks Range. I resisted the move because there is only one road corridor to access the mountains, limiting courses to be short, require an arbitrary mid-way point to pull people off the highway, or require a fly-in. We originally hoped to travel through the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, but the permit application was rejected, partly because, “The proposed use is not a wildlife-dependent recreational activity,” and “competitive events are not appropriate in Arctic Refuge.” I have major issues with both of these objections, mostly because I am certain that the Classic is lower impact than the for-profit commercial fly-in trips that are permitted. We considered doing the course through ANWR anyway, but want to see the appeal process (headed by Katie Strong and Dave Cramer) go through.
Without the ANWR options, we reverted to to the start and end points of the Winter Classic (Galbraith Lake, Wiseman). One of the major perks of plan B was that we were hosted by the Hicker’s Arctic Getaway Cabins in Wiseman. The Hickers have been supporting the Winter Classic for years, and only the Outlaws can match their support and enthusiasm for the Classics.
Numbers were low until the last minute, when a handful of guys from Fairbanks showed up. We started with 22, 9 were rookies, 4 or 5 more had started a few courses but hadn’t finished.
I expected to be disappointed with the short course, worried that it wouldn’t feel like a full Classic, but I ended up really appreciating it. I teamed up with Todd Tumolo, whose legs were fresh from guiding a Denali climb, and we got excited about trying to cut more corners than we had on previous courses. The minimal distance, and the ease of a potential bail-out to the haul road, allowed us to leave more gear behind. When we arrived at Wiseman the Hammond was barely floatable; we joked that if you fell out of the boat, you’d just need to sit up to get your head out of the water, so we left our spray skirts and pfds in Wiseman. The water was so low that the only local participant, Jack McClure, opted not to bring a boat at all. Jack’s pack weighed 13 lbs, ours were 22.
After some easy tundra walking we started climbing the first of four passes (for a total of ~12,000 ft.). Each pass was in the clouds, rain, and featured rotten un-supportable snow. Some of the other teams avoided the passes by taking slightly longer valley routes. But the cost of gaining elevation was quickly repaid with world-class scree and/or snow descents on the south sides. The first pass was especially rewarding, allowing us to take 10 foot strides in the fine-grained shale scree.
The valley sections remained pretty easy and fast, with the main problem being poor visibility, rain, and rapidly swelling rivers. We travelled incredibly efficiently, more than I’ve ever experienced. Todd would fall behind me with his iPhone/GPS to make the macro-scale navigation calls while following my steps through the micro-scale terrain. We ate and drank on the fly, never needing to carry water. We stopped once during the hike, to heat Mountain House meals at ~2:00 AM.
We arrived at a tributary to the Hammond at noon, having covered ~55 miles in 24 hours. We had anticipated needing to hike another ~20 miles before the Hammond collected enough water to float, but due to all the rain, we were able to float soon after reaching this high tributary. We abandoned our plan to rest and build a fire, opting to spend as much time as possible on the water during the heat of the day.
The Hammond was an excellent float (at high water). The mountains featured a lot of scenic rock outcrops, and the river had enough tree hazards to keep us awake. There were a handful of Class III bedrock rapids and then a ~2 mile canyon section that was benign with the exception of a nasty Class V land-slide rapid.
We pulled into Wiseman at 10:00 PM, cooked hot meals, caught up with the Hickers, and settled in for a deep sleep. The rest of the guys trickled in through the morning and next days, everyone hobbling as much as we were. 20 people finished, including John Lapkass, with swollen feet and hallucinations, capturing his 24th finish! Lapkass shared stories of the imagined people he saw on the course, building a foot bridge, at a cemetery, and even following home after the drive to Anchorage. They were all very friendly, and responded in kind when he waved.
The other major accomplishment was Jack McClure’s finish without a boat. Jack had a 13 lb pack, and would certainly have finished first if the Hammond had stayed at low water. Instead, he hiked another 55 miles. Jack looked so nonplussed when we were on the 3rd pass together, that I told Todd something like, ‘I just hope he gets humbled by his first Classic, because I sure did.’ I don’t know if he was humbled, but he was definitely hobbled, check out the video to see Jack at the finish.
We saw three HUGE grizzly bears and one grey wolf. Some of the other guys saw a wolverine and wolf pups. John Pekar, Matt Kupilik, and Kalin King were false-charged by a grizzly in the Hammond River.
Lee Helzer and Alan Rogers convinced themselves that Ron Koczaja and Jeremy Vander Meer were black mountain goats, because it couldn’t possibly be other hikers that were moving so fast. Ron and Jeremy also opted for the ‘easier’ Koyukuk float, which turned out to be sustained Class III. Danny Powers and John Lapkass had swims, I’m not sure about the other guys.
Lee and Alan’s route, Itkillik valley to Hammond River:
On Foot – 60 miles, 52% distance, 77% time, 1.875mph
On Water – 54 Miles, 48% distance, 23% time, 5.46mph