Fast and Light Winter Travel: Insights from the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic
This article is reprinted with permission from BackpackingLight.com, March 2011. It is a little outdated. If you have questions, feel free to contact me.
Each spring, as greens are reborn and Alaska’s daylight extends into night, I feel a pang of disappointment for the loss of winter. While summer’s uneven footing requires attention to the ground, winter’s blanket of snow erases the ground from view, drawing awareness to wind-swept peaks, flowing glaciers, and starry skies. Winter camping and long tours can be daunting to fast-and-light adventurers because of the additional gear required for warmth and safety, but going ultralight in the winter can be done, and it opens the landscape to new and distant destinations.
For the last three years, I have participated in a winter adventure race in Alaska’s wilderness. The ‘adventure’ part has rewarded me with 430 miles of mountain scenery, knee-deep overflow, broken bindings, crevasse fields, and following fresh bear tracks to avoid breaking trail. The ‘race’ part provides motivation to travel quickly, which means to travel light. Observing my own limitations and seeking to improve my team’s performance has been an incredible learning experience. Each year we modify gear, cut pack weight, bring better food, move faster and finish in better condition. I expect that these insights will be helpful to anyone looking to extend their ultralight mantra to include winter trips. It is one thing to ditch a tent and sleeping bag in the summer, but stakes are high when cutting weight in the winter.
The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic, also known as the Winter Classic, is an annual ski tour through Alaska’s remote wilderness. The Winter Classic is an unsupported and unofficial adventure race. Participants compete at their own risk and are responsible for self-rescue. Every three years, the course moves to a different mountain range. Participants are given a start and end point and choose their own route, typically 140-180 miles long, taking four to seven days to complete. Up to twenty racers participate each year. The event is sponsored and organized by Summit Consulting, a small Alaska engineering firm.
Like the Summer Classic, detailed here in Andrew Skurka’s Race Report: 2009 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, the Winter Classic is a test of navigation, gear selection, and endurance. Winter’s added elements of darkness and sub-zero temperatures result in a less competitive atmosphere because racers have to be aware of the condition and safety of each other. The emphasis is clearly on ‘adventure’ rather than ‘race,’ but after finishing 30 minutes behind the winner in 2008, my team competed to win, and did, in 2009 and 2010. The courses are grueling; after each race I promised not to participate the following year. But, like most mountain athletes, within a few weeks my short-term memory dims the hardships and highlights the accomplishments. After regaining lost pounds and toenails, I begin planning improvements for the next race.
Partnerships and ‘Independent Nations’
In 2008 John Pekar, my adventure partner since high school, convinced me to compete in the Winter Classic. I had just returned to Alaska from graduate school and had plenty of free time, but no money. I scored a sweet sponsorship from the MPF (Ma and Pa Fund) by convincing my mom that soon I’d have a real job, wouldn’t be as fit, and wouldn’t have time for adventure races. Maybe my poor short-term memory is hereditary, because I used the same argument in 2009 and was MPF-sponsored again.
I learned most of my adventure skills from and with John, so we have an ideal dynamic in terms of attitude, pace, and endurance. We’ve teamed up for all the races. Each year we have planned to travel with a second pair of racers as ‘independent nations.’ ‘Independent nations’ is the brainchild of Chunk, our partner in 2009. The idea is that both groups (nations) want to travel together, but are functionally independent in case one pair needs to scratch or travels at a different speed. Each year, one guy from the other nation has had to cancel at the last minute, so we have traveled as three. Our third partner was Tyler Johnson in 2008, Chunk in 2009, and Brad Marden in 2010. Each partner has brought a different style and influence that is reflected in the information that follows.
Basic Strategy and Pack Weight
In 2008, we did a 140-mile route through the Wrangell Mountains starting with 38-pound packs (4.2 days). In 2009 we cut pack weight to 32 pounds, which included crampons, axes, and rope for a semi-technical 110-mile glaciated route (3.2 days). Last year we trimmed pack weight to 30 pounds for a 180-mile course with temperatures reaching -10 F / -23 C (4.5 days).
Our basic strategy is to travel light so that we move fast and need less total food and fuel. We wear thin layers while moving and puffy layers when stopped, which eliminates the need for mid-weight gear. We use lightweight sleeping bags (rated for about 20 F warmer than the expected temperature) because we eat a hot meal before going to sleep, sleep with hot water cozies, and don’t expect to sleep more than five or six hours before getting cold. If someone begins to get cold, we start moving. We break down camp quickly and start skiing. Once we’ve warmed up, we’ll stop for a breakfast snack.
Early in the race we take short breaks, five to ten minutes. We carry gear that needs to be accessible on our bodies so that we don’t have to stop and take off packs. Gear that needs to stay warm is carried against our stomachs in a tucked-in shirt or thin backpack worn backwards against the skin. We carry snacks, water, a fuel canister, GPS, and headlamp in these pouches. Hats, gloves, and mitts also go in the pouch so that we can adjust temperatures without stopping.
Toward the end of the race we need longer rests and typically fall into ~30-minute shifts breaking trail. While one person takes a break to drink water, eat a snack and attends to blisters, the others continue breaking trail. When the rested person catches up with the trail-breakers, the next in turn takes a break. This strategy works particularly well for me because I can put on my parka and take a five-minute nap before getting cold. I wake up re-energized, eat a snack, and start skiing to catch the others.
Our gear list and details are provided below.
The best way to stay warm is to keep moving. As soon as we stop, we put on puffy layers to trap heat. Base layers dry quickly, even under a puffy layer. We break camp and start skiing right away each morning and don’t stop to snack until we have warmed up. We carry a chemical heat pack (‘Little Hotties’) for each day. Used or not, we dump the contents of the pack (which is non-toxic) at the end of the day to shave weight.
We place hot water cozies (water bottles filled with hot water) and re-hydrating dinners in our jackets and sleeping bags to trap their heat.
A few days into each race, my fuel reserves are exhausted and I can feel the direct relationship between what I eat and the energy it provides. Keeping track of different reaction times for different foods has led me to discover my best food choices. For example, string cheese or Pringles take ten to fifteen minutes to kick in and are an effective snack on the trail. Jerky and bacon take longer for me to metabolize and are better first thing in the morning or with dinner.
The bulk of our food weight is fast food. Tyler Johnson, our partner in 2008, convinced us to bring ten-packs of Taco Bell burritos. The ten-packs provided convenient packaging, portions, and no preparation. In addition to being a reasonably good fuel, it always lightened the mood to see someone pull a burrito out of his shirt.
A highlight of the 2008 course was Tyler’s last burrito. We had passed through the most difficult section of the course and were making great time double-poling down bare ice in a creek canyon, dodging rocks and open water by headlamp and the glow from the northern lights. The dancing aurora was a great motivator, and one we needed with 50 miles remaining. Around 1:00 AM, we crammed into the two-man tent. Four hours later I woke to Tyler’s rustling – digging and throwing elbows in his sleeping bag. Eventually, he pulled out a bottle of Aleve, rattled out a few pills and dry swallowed them. He returned to digging in his bag and unearthed his last burrito. He had slept with the burrito to thaw it. We heckled Tyler, stumbled to our feet, and started the final push.
The Taco Bell era ended because
- eating frozen burritos is one of a very few ways to detract from a beautiful landscape.
- on a trip with Joe Stock, an IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations) guide, I got in the habit of checking calories per gram for different foods.
Two pounds of food per day, at 4 cal/gm, provides a ~4000 cal/day diet. Typical values are: coconut oil (8.6), butter (7.1), peanut butter (6.6), bacon (5.3), cheese (4.0), oats (3.8), flour (3.3). Black beans are only 1 cal/gm, and, after research in the frozen-food aisle, I chose thin-crust pizza as a better option than Taco Bell. Last year we each carried 5 pounds of pizza, half our total food weight, smashed into softball-sized chunks. We smash and bag everything to save pack space. If you get a chance to smash your food in front of kids or unsuspecting friends, it gets a great reaction!
An added benefit to the 4 cal/gm approach is that it makes food planning simple (editor’s note: see related article Food Planning Using Pounds Per Person Per Day by Mike Clelland!). Rather than pay attention to individual meals, I just make sure to have 2 pounds of food per day, with a reasonable mix of food groups. During the course, I eat whatever sounds appealing, whenever I need the energy. Typical foods include: nuts, cookies, string cheese, salami, bacon, potato chips, fruit snacks, wheat thins, chocolate, and anything with coconut oil (coconut bars, macaroons, etc.).
We carry a Mountain House single serving (Pro Pack to save space) for each evening. The dehydrated meals also serve as heat-packs stuffed inside our parkas while they re-hydrate, but be careful! This strategy led to the low point of last year’s race. I was so tired our final night that I didn’t fully seal the bag, and the precious food and heat spilled all over the inside of my jacket and onto my lap. Not to be outdone, within five minutes John fell asleep while eating his meal, spilling it on his parka and lap.
Melting snow takes a lot of time, more than we can afford when we need a break. We each melt our own snow to speed up the process, and we never bother bringing it to a full boil. We take advantage of any open water, overflow, or holes in ice to drink and fill water bottles (without filtering). These bottles have to be carried in the stomach pouch to keep them from freezing. Warm water gets packed in an insulated cozy and wrapped in a parka. Having the water bottle in the parka serves as a reminder to drink when we take a break and put on our parkas.
It is hard to drink 32 F (0 C) water, and we run pretty dehydrated. Gatorade powder or Emergen-C flavoring make drinking more appealing, adds salts, and depresses the freezing point slightly. When packing for the first race, Tyler held up a baggie of Gatorade powder and said with a big grin, “The best part is, it counts as food weight!” So apparently it counts toward your 2 lb/day total food weight.
Stove and Fuel
We each carry a stove, pot, and fuel canisters to speed up melting time and provide a back-up in case a stove breaks down. Canisters are a lighter and faster option than white gas for our limited melting needs. We carry 8 ounces per day and typically only use half that. To overcome the high vapor point of the fuel (canister gasses vaporize at ~10 to ~30 F depending on the gas mixture, which means that at temperatures below freezing some of the fuel is in liquid phase and cannot be burned), we insulate a canister in closed-cell foam and carry it in the stomach pouch. Other tricks are to place the canister in overflow (where pressurized river water seeps through cracks in the ice and pools on the surface) or invert the canister, which is possible with John’s MSR WindPro model.
I was sandbagged by Louis Sass, a friend, Denali Mountain and NOLS guide, on a glacier traverse when he convinced me to carry a light sleeping bag and wear all my puffy gear at night. I shivered most of the 0 F (-18 C) night in my +20 F (-7 C) bag while he slept warm in a 0 F (-18 C) bag with his wife and dog. But my poor short-term memory kicked in again, and two weeks later all I could remember was having shaved pack weight by 1.5 pounds. The weather reports prior to the 2010 Brooks Range race had lows reaching -5 F (-21 C), so, thanks to Louis’ sandbagging, I knew I could get away with my +20 F (-7 C) bag and water bottle cozies.
Last year, largely due to my +20 F (-7 C) sleeping bag, we all slept until I was too cold, typically five hours. Other years, we’ve tried sleeping four to seven hours, with similar results. John can’t nap during the day, so he turns into more and more of a zombie, but I can take cat-naps and feel rejuvenated.
Our sleeping bags get wet from the condensation on the tent walls, but strapping the bags to the outside of the pack on clear days dries them out nicely.
We wear heavily modified AT (backcountry) ski boots that are compatible with our Dynafit toe-piece binding. This system has the advantage of being stiff enough to allow skate skiing or wearing crampons, and also provides excellent insulation due to the thermofit liners. The modifications include removing the cuff, tongue, and any extra buckles from the boot shell. Our boots weigh about 2.5 lb/foot, including liners.
We’ve tried a few different skis, always metal-edged and with fish scales. The Fischer S-Bounds have been the best due to the less aggressive fish scales that taper off at the edges so that there is more glide while skate skiing. [UPDATE: Everyone has switched to Madshus Glittertinds or Vosses. Both are excellent skis and I’ll never ski fish scales again!] We skate ski as much as possible. We carry ‘skinnies,’ 0.75-inch skins that run the entire length of the ski, for steep climbs. This year, knowing how flat the course is, we will be skiing on classic skis (no scales).
Because of the overflow ice on the rivers, we carry long skate ski poles for more skating and double-poling power. We add a second grip to the pole at a backcountry tour height (~125 cm for me).
Blisters are a common problem every year. Between the sweat and overflow coming over the top of our boots, we can count on having wet feet the entire race. With this expectation, we take preventative measures from the start. We duct or Teflon tape the ball of the foot, pinky and big toes, and back of the heel. This tape usually lasts the first day, after which the liner’s moisture overcomes the adhesive. We also coat the foot in tincture of benzoin, which effectively glues the skin to the sock, to reduce slip. Eventually the wet liners prevent the benzoin from helping. When the liner is too wet for any adhesive, we coat our feet with petroleum jelly or other hydrophobic lubricant (I use Unpetroleum jelly). We recoat every four hours or so. I take my boots and socks off for any long break to evaporate moisture and check on hot spots. Once a blister forms we try to dry the foot and add fresh tape or band-aids, but ultimately, it is a losing battle.
Packing too light for any trip can be dangerous. There is a limit beyond which the risks outweigh the benefits. The Winter Classics have helped me find my limit better than any other outdoor pursuit. My biggest breakthrough was realizing that I can stay warm by moving, and that I can move all day and night if needed. I don’t need much food to ‘get by,’ and I can stay warm with hot water cozies in a parka or sleeping bag if I am at rest. The knowledge that I can grit through winter conditions has boosted my confidence in all my adventure pursuits.
And, of course, things can and will go wrong. On the drive to the start last year, Brad boasted, “I’ve had these boots and skis for 14 years! They are totally bombproof!” When the toe-bar ripped out of his boot 40 miles from the start, we sat on our sleeping pads and had a casual brainstorming session about the repair. John had some wide-gauge wire in his repair kit that we heated and used to melt holes through Brad’s toe boxes. Brad had a 10d nail that we fed through the holes, and we were back on the trail. The nail eventually ripped out, and we combined our cord and straps to tie Brad to his ski for the remainder of the race.
The rewards of traveling as a team go far beyond sharing repair kits. Each year I am amazed by the rhythm we fall into, the mutual dependence and support. We naturally fall into roles, stepping up to be the workhorse when the other guys are fading. We constantly applaud each other’s efforts, and never miss an opportunity to heckle bad decisions. Tyler best summarized the reward of these adventures in 2008. While racing down smooth ice under the northern lights, he hollered deliriously, “This is why I love this stuff. It’s just so much good.” I hope these insights can help motivate you to pursue fast and light winter travel, experience how rewarding it can be, and perhaps even reach Tyler’s level of euphoria.
The formated gear list is better formatted in the original article.
ITEM TYPE WEIGHT (oz g)
Boot Shells Dynafit TLT4 (remove cuff, tongue, etc.) 63.8 1808.7
Boot Liners Dynafit Thermomoldable Liner 18.0 510.3
Gaiters Nylon Fabric Glued onto Shells 4.0 113.4
Socks SmartWool Ski Socks 3.0 85.0
Night Socks SmartWool Ski Socks 3.0 85.0
Bottom Base Layer Patagonia Tights 10.2 290.3
Bottom Shell Layer REI Hard Shell, Partial Zip 17.6 499.0
Top Base Layer Long Sleeve Lightweight Wool 7.4 208.7
Top Mid Layer The North Face Softshell 13.8 390.1
Hat Winter Hat 1.8 49.9
Gloves Black Diamond Leather Gloves 6.7 190.5
Sunglasses 0.5 14.2
Top Insulating Layer MontBell Thermawrap Parka 14.4 408.2
Bottom Insulating Layer Patagonia Micropuff Pants 17.3 489.9
Top Puffy Layer Patagonia Down Jacket 22.9 648.6
Top Wind Layer Marmot Wind/Waterproof Jacket 7.0 199.6
Mitts Black Diamond Mercury Mitts 12.6 358.3
Balaclava Thin Fabric 1.0 28.3
Rope 8mm x 30m 48.0 1360.8
Ice Axe C.A.M.P. USA Corsa, 50 cm, w/ Leash 8.8 249.5
Crampons C.A.M.P. USA XLC 390 13.8 390.1
Harness C.A.M.P. USA Alp 95 3.4 96.4
Carabiners 2 Locking, 4 Wire Gate 6.0 170.1
Ice Screw 2.5 70.9
Prusiks and Webbing 3 Prusiks, Webbing, Cord 17.0 481.9
Ski Poles Swix Skate Ski Poles 17.0 481.9
Skis Fischer S-bound, Waxless 87.4 2477.8
Bindings Dynafit TLT Speed, Toe Pieces Only 10.0 283.5
Skins 0.75-inch ‘Skinnies’ 6.4 181.4
Backpack Osprey Exos 58 w/o Lid 38.4 1088.6
Tent Stephenson Warmlite 2R 41.6 1179.3
Sleeping Bag REI Sub Kilo +20, Regular 36.0 1020.6
Sleeping Pad 3/4 Closed-Cell Foam 7.4 208.7
Insulating Pad Thermarest NeoAir 13.8 390.1
Stove MSR Pocket Rocket OR WindPro (7 oz) 3.0 85.0
Spoon 0.5 14.2
Water Bottle Insulation Outdoor Research Bottle Parka x1 4.0 113.4
Water Bottles Nalgene 1.5 L Water Bottle Bag x2 3.0 85.0
Repair Kit Duct Tape, Knife, Lighter, Needle and Dental Floss, Wire,
Hose Clamp, Cord, Compass, Straps, Wood Screws,
Nails, Super Glue, Ski-Binding Bit, Space Blanket 14.0 396.9
Head Lamp Black Diamond 3 x AAA Model, Lithium Batteries 2.2 62.4
Toiletry Kit Toilet Paper, Sunscreen, Hand Sanitizer, Wet Wipe 4.0 113.4
Satellite Phone (required) Iridium 12.0 340.2
Maps 0.8 22.7
GPS Garmin Vista HCx 5.0 141.7
Medical Kit Bandaids, Tincture of Benzoin, Unpetroleum Jelly, Aleve,
Prescription Pain Killer 4.0 113.4
Camera Olympus Stylus Tough 6.5 184.3
Food 2 lbs/day, 5 Days’ Worth 160.0 4535.9
Hand Warmers 1 pair/day (Dump Contents When Used) 7.5 212.6
Fuel 8 oz/day, Maximum Propane, Isobutane Content 40.0 1134.0
Water 0-2 L, Depending on Conditions varies varies
Total Weight (Worn/Carried) 16 lb 4.8 oz 7.4 kg
Total Base Pack Weight 13 lb 12.8 oz 6.28 kg
Total Weight Consumables (w/o Water) 11 lb 14.4 oz 5.39 kg
Total Weight Group Gear (Tent, Sat Phone, Maps, GPS, Glacier Gear) 9 lb 14.4 oz 4.5 kg
Total Initial Weight (Packed) 25 lb 11.2 oz 11.66 kg
Full Skin Out Weight w/ 1/3 Group Gear 45 lb 4.8 oz 20.57 kg
*Note some of the ‘standard’ winter gear we don’t use: down booties, sleds, thermoses, extra clothing.