Posts Tagged ‘alaska mountain wilderness classic’

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic 2018

Saturday, August 18th, 2018

To preface this post, when I wrote last year’s write up, it showed up as one of the top of the hits from Google for searches for the Alaska Wilderness Classic, which makes me feel a bit bad about it. This write up is just intended to convey my experience. I didn’t approach the event all that competitively, and I am a bit of a idiot (or a really big one if you believe my daughters) . Luc Mehl has a much better write up and Andrew Skurka has a very nice writeup on the 2009 race – I would start with those to get a better unstanding of the event, rather than starting here. -Jay

Last year’s Wilderness Classic was an awesome experence for me. It had a lot of the fun of the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) without being really cold, and it got me out to see an area that was new to me. Alas, we bailed at the first pass, and took a less optimal route that was way longer than what most of the rest of the folks did. This year I really wanted to stick to the original route, copied from Luc Mehl’s write up from 2016. I mapped out two other options around glaciers in the high passes that could be issues, but otherwise the plan was to stick to Luc’s route. I was a bit worried that Tom was going to be too busy to join me, but he was free and game, so it was on!

Late morning Saturday Tom and I headed out of town, joined by Nick from California, and drove up to Wiseman. Alas, the forecast was not hot and it rained on and off for most of the drive. We arrived in at the Arctic Getaway B&B in Wiseman, excited to see that Greg Mills was also there, so apparently the fun was going to happen — hurrah!

Eventually folks started arriving, and we soon had a group of 13. The group consisted of two Nicks (one from Anchorage, the other from San Francisco, California), two Jays (me, and a Jay from Anchorage – yay another Jay!), Greg, Matt, Kevin, Ken, Adam, Steph, and two 17-year-olds, Bremner and Leo. After a nice dinner (thanks Burni and Uta! ), we hit the sack on the lawn of the Arctic Getaway, and in the morning shuttled out to Galbraith Lake. And then we were off!



WC 2018 from JayC on Vimeo.

For the first few hours we were back and forth with a few of the other folks. Much like last year, the walking was great to the first pass.


AWMC 2018

We bounced around a bit with a few other folks, including Matt and Kevin from Anchorage, and Nick from California. Jay and Nick from Anchorage were doing the entire route on foot without a boat and were (barely) in sight until the first pass.


AWMC 2018


AWMC 2018

At the first pass we took a different route around the glacier that stymied us last year, and while it was work getting up, the walk down to the Atigun River valley was fast.


WC2018 - Tom's
Photo compliments of Tom.

After the first pass we didn’t see anyone else until we finished at Wiseman.


AWMC 2018

Alas, the Atigun River had a lot of water in it, and we had trouble crossing it until we were most of the way up into its headwaters, making for some less than awesome hiking. It was reasonably fast though, and we made pretty good time.

On the Atigun River we saw footprints, which I assumed were from California Nick as there appeared to be only one set. Anchorage Nick and Anchorage Jay were supposed to be ahead of us, but I (wrongly) assumed that since there was only one set of tracks it must be California Nick, the only person traveling alone near us, and concluded he was ahead of us. Later we were to learn that Anchorage Nick and Anchorage Jay had very similar shoes, and the tracks were from them. Anchorage Nick joked later that they “walked in each other’s tracks” to confuse us. They had a very ambitious route planned, going over several large passes that then took a ridge near Oolah Pass over to the Wiseman area.

We climbed the next pass early in the morning in a bank of fog, and we came out of it into a beautiful valley, only to have to slog up to another pass, with steep slippery scree.


WC2018 - Tom's
Photo compliments of Tom.

Alas, my camera’s battery died at this point, and I was too lazy to find the replacement battery in my pack, so I didn’t take any more photos for the rest of the trip.

The third pass had an icy glaze that covered all the rocks, making it really hard to get a grip on anything. Initially I thought I had mud on the bottoms of my shoes that I somehow couldn’t get off – alas, it was just a layer of ice. I assume that overnight, warm wet air blew through, leaving a layer of moisture which froze on the rocks. Fortunately, the sun was soon out, and it warmed up enough that the rocks lost their slippery coating. The climb up to the top of the third pass was slow going, with lots of loose shale scree.


WC2018 - Tom's
Photo compliments of Tom.
WC2018 - Tom's
Photo compliments of Tom.

Once we were over the top it was a long glide down to Kuyuktuvuk Creek valley.


WC2018 - Tom's
Photo compliments of Tom.

Kuyuktuvuk Creek was pumping, and our hopes of fast gravel bar walking were soon dashed by little cliffs and bluffs on the creeks banks. We ended up walking the benches above the creek, which were a bit brushy, but fortunately we were able to follow game trails (some good, some bad) for most of it. The creek looked like it would be fun packrafting, but perhaps a bit on the bouncy side, with big rocks and rock walls. We considered floating it, but the idea of floating a fast creek (it looked like it dropped around 150ft a mile, so a bit steep) while sleep deprived and without any beta seemed not quite worth it. Later we learned Nick from CA floated it, flipped, and swam, losing his boat and gear and ended up having to walk out to the Dalton Highway.

We turned off on an unnamed creek to hike over a lowish pass to Blarney Creek. The unnamed creek had a lot of water in it, and we crossed at the only spot we could find that looked passible. The creek was beautiful, with a wonderful waterfall emerging between two Lord of the Rings looking giant rocks.


WC2018 - Tom's
Photo compliments of Tom.

The hike up and over the pass was fast, and soon we were heading down Blarney Creek. We stayed up high on a bench on the right hand of the creek, worried we would get cliffed out, but eventually walked in the creek — only to get cliffed out. We had to climb up out of the creek, where we immediately found some awesome game trails. Alas, soon after that we encountered a bear trail — in some places bears walk so frequently on a trail they leave offset depressions. I have only seen these once before in the Brooks, but they are pretty common in Southeast Alaska where I grew up. I immediately went on full bear alert, and soon after that we saw a mid-sized dark colored brown bear on the other side of the creek. We then cut away and hiked directly over to the Hammond, where we inflated the boats and hopped in. Hurrah – the walking was over!

We floated until around 1:30 am or thereabouts, when it got a bit too dark for floating, then pulled over and made a fire. The fire wasn’t as big as I would have liked, but it was warm, and Tom and I got a bit of napping in while waiting for the sun to come back up. Eventually it got light enough to float again, and we were back to floating. Alas, the temperature had dropped a lot overnight, and it was cold enough that I had frost on the deck of the boat.

Fortunately the sun eventually hit the river, and mid morning we pulled over for a short nap in the sun, then floated down to the canyon. I was a bit worried about the “falls”, a rock slide in the canyon that isn’t runnable — at least in packrafts. A bit to my surprise there was some large rocks in the creek that created some bouncy rapids that were a bit more spicy than I expected, but fun. The canyon itself was pretty mellow, with beautiful rock walls and very slow current. The waterfall ended up being a narrow pinch with a shoot of water flowing between it onto a pile of rocks. It was possibly runnable in a kayak if one could get out beyond the pile of rocks, but who knows — I don’t kayak. Tom and I ended up deflating and portaging on river right, then inflating and floating the last 10 miles or so into Wiseman.

When we arrived at Wiseman we were greeted by both Nicks, Anchorage Jay, and the Hickers (Uta, Berni, and Julia ). Our total time was around 50 hours. The evening was spent waiting for other folks to come in, and eating a wonderful dinner compliments of the Hickers — thanks! In afternoon Matt and Kevin came in, and near midnight Steph came in. When we left Wiseman Bremer, Leo, and Greg were traveling together, and about to start floating the Hammond. California Nick, as mentioned, lost his boat and gear, and had hiked out to the Dalton Highway to be picked up. Anchorage Nick and Anchorage Jay had bailed near Oolah Pass, and had also hiked out to the Dalton to be picked up. Ken and Adam turned around on Atigun Creek and floated back to the road.

California Nick had a bit of a adventure – losing his boat and gear, but still made it out without (too) much drama – major kudos to him for pulling that off. His mishap made me think a bit about what gear I will keep on my person in the future – I think I might start carrying a lot more stuff on my person in case I lose my boat (and gear) like he did.

Bremner and Leo are I think 17, which makes them some of the youngest finishers of the ASWC. Wikipedia says Cody Dial did the 2004 Eureka to Talkeetna course when he was 17, so that is a select group. Congrats to Leo and Bremner for pulling it off, I am not sure I could have it at that age!

I would like to thank Tom for his company. You are a great adventure partner, Tom; thanks for joining me on this adventure! I would also like to give the Hickers a huge thank you for the awesome hosting. You guys rock. And of course thanks to my family for letting me disappear for a few days.

Alas, this is the last year of this route. Hopefully next year the course will be as awesome!

Things I need to do better:

  • Keep a full set of survival gear and communications stuff on my person. I kept some gear on my body, but I didn’t keep my Inreach or other critical items on me. If I had lost my boat like California Nick did, I would have been in trouble.
  • Use something besides a bivy, perhaps a tarp. I tried a very light bivy and it worked in light rain, but there was a brief spell of hard rain when I was trying to get an hour of sleep and it leaked. Some other option so I can get a few hours of sleep would be a good idea.
  • I need to bring a “real” camera, or a tiny camera that doesn’t suck. I took an older camera (an Olympus-zx1), which normally works great, but the battery died almost immediately. I should have taken my mirrorless camera with the nice lens; it would have worked better, and I would have taken better photos.
  • I need some sort of mount for the little Go-Pro (that doesn’t make me look like a bro getting ready to huck off a building – in other words looking like an idiot). I just carried it in my hand, and that was a bit of a pain — or in my mouth, which was more of a pain.
  • The HMG pack – I am still a bit meh about the HMG pack. It is light, but it is a bit short of perfect, regardless of how much other folks seem to love theirs. The side pockets suck, and it is hard to get a water bottle out of them with the pack on.
  • My pack was too heavy. I should pare it down a bit. Other folks seemed to be in the mid 20s, I was almost 30 lbs. I think I could cut it down a bit, and I finished with a fair bit of food.
  • My food selection could use some work. I took too many protein bars, and not enough cheese. I took out a ⅔ of a pound brick of Gouda, but left in ⅓ of a pound of Wensleydale. The Wensleydale was great, but I should have packed a brick of smoked Cheddar as well. I also should have added in some dry crackers, perhaps pilot bread.
  • As always, I need to be in much better shape. If I was 20 lbs lighter those hills would be a lot easier.

Things that worked well:

  • This spring I purchased a new packraft meaning to get the zipper in the body to store gear. That system works great, and I can stuff my whole pack in there, which is great. I used a big bow bag to keep everything I needed accessible, and that also worked well.
  • The shoes: I really like the old Montrail Mountain Masochist trail runners. I used a brand new set for this race, which I had never worn before, and didn’t have any blisters — hurrah! Alas, this is my last set; I don’t know what I will do once these wear out.
  • I packed two freeze-dried meals, which were awesome, and fast to make.
  • Leukotape: I pre-taped one foot with Leukotape and the other with some other brand of tape recommended for feet. The Leukotape lasted the entire race, while the other stuff fell off half way. I am not sure if the taping helped or not, but I didn’t get any blisters.

On the route:
I am not sure that this route is much faster than the option going over to the Oolah Valley, across to the North Fork of the Koyukuk, and though Kinnorutin Pass to the Hammond. I think that route is slightly longer (7-10 miles), but a lot flatter, and it has pretty good walking.
Besides all the climbing (and there was lots of climbing!), the route was pretty awesome. It would make a good trip, though having all the packrafting at the end might be a bit of a bummer.

Stats for the route, minus most of the float:

I will probably update this post with details as I remember them.


WC2018 - Tom's
Photo compliments of Tom.

Our route:

2017 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic – No Sleep ’til Wiseman!

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

To preface this post, this page is now near the top of the hits from Google for searches for the Alaska Wilderness Classic, which makes me feel a bit bad about it. This writeup is just intended to convey my experience, and I didn’t approach the event all that competitively, and I am a bit of a nincompoop. Luc Mehl has a much better write up and Andrew Skurka has a very nice writeup on the 2009 race – I would start with those to get a better idea about the event, rather than starting here. -Jay

For years I have followed the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, following the antics of Rocky R and Roman D, and later generations. I have wanted to do one for years, but alas, there was always some sort of conflict making so I couldn’t attend, or they seemed a bit too crazy. Finally last year the route switched to Galbraith to Wiseman, which is an area I am fairly familiar with (and shorter than some of the past routes!), and after sitting out last year due to conflicts, this year my friend Tom agreed to join me – yay!

We drove to Wiseman, spend the night camping on the lawn of the Arctic Getaway (great folks!), and the morning loaded up and drove to Galbraith. There were 14 folks and 7 teams doing the event, including another group from Fairbanks.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
The Winning Edge
Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Lindsey and Ellen, team Giggle

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Matt (I think)

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Harlow in his bug proof ultra running attire

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
John (I think)

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

After a bit of futzing around and someone waving a flare gun around, it went off (fortunately pointed up and safely at the sky), and at around 12 we were off!

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Our plan was to take the “direct” route over to the Hammond River, going over 4 passes, and floating the Hammond out to Wiseman.

Things started well, zooming along enjoying the fast walking..
Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
photo compliments of Tom

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
photo compliments of Tom

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alas, when we reached the final pass, we couldn’t find a way over it, working from the west side to the east side. It ended in a small glacier which had a pretty shallow angel, but was a bit too steep for me to feel comfortable to walk on. Later I would find the Toby and Harlow walked straight up it.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Failing at route finding.. photo complements of Tom

It was pretty socked in, and the brief glimpses of the east side of the pass showed cliffs – so we turned around and headed back down to take the scenic route around the passes.

On the way down we bumped into Lindsey and Ellen on the their way up. We wished them luck with the pass. I was pretty sure they would find a way across, Tom was less certain. Later we were to find out they found a pretty straightforward up it on the east side.

We headed back down, and over to the Itkillik River, taking a pass over to an unnamed creek that lead to the creek. It was mostly uneventful though at 2am I got a bug stuck in my eye, and there was a few minutes of fussing before I got it and a ruined contact out of my eye in a comical bit of futzing.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

We headed over to the divide between the North Fork the Koyukuk and the Itkillik, then headed down to the North Fork.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
photo complements of Tom

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

There is a deep canyon were the north fork drops off the divide, and while I had been told it was possible to walk the canyon, we walked the benches above the river. Eventually we dropped down to the river, and followed the creek until it looked (safely!) floatable.
Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
my styling head net replacement..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

The north fork quickly turned floatable, and we put in, deciding to take the scenic route to Delay Pass and out the Nolan road to Wiseman.

The floating was fast and fun, eventually turning very fun, with lots of nice fun boulders and water features. Alas, Tom was having spray deck issues, and we ended up walking a few miles around Bombardment Creek, but soon we were back in the boats enjoying gliding along with minimal effort..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

After a nap on a sandbar near mid night with a small fire, we pushed on to Delay Pass, where we took out, and grabbed another hour or so of sleep, then packed up and began the hike out.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
Me, catching some sleep, and breaking the no-sleep-til-wiseman rule

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
signs of racers in the past..

Everyone says Delay Pass is miserable hiking, but I didn’t find much of it to be actually miserable, and while it was a bit of a slog, we made pretty good progress.

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

We cut off a fair bit of the winter trail by taking a ridge around the worst part. Climbing up the ridge kicked my butt, and my feet were starting to get a bit sore and waterlogged, and my achilles were starting to hurt, but otherwise everything was mostly fine. Once I loosened my shoes a bit my achilles were much happier.

Soon we were on the road out of Nolan, slowly shuffling down the road to Wiseman. These 6 miles took forever and were a bit hard on the feet..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic
two miles from Wiseman..

Alaska Summer Wilderness Classic

We finished Wednesday at 4:30am, 65 ish hours since the start.

It was a great experience, thanks for the company Tom, and thanks to the Hickers of the Arctic Getaway Cabins for hosting us!

I am already thinking about next year..

As a post scripts of sorts – folks often accuse me of saying things were “mellow” when they are not. This trip wasn’t mellow – but the walking was mostly good, and the floating really split things up so my body got a nice break, making for a relatively trauma free adventure. And of course, we got 4 ish hours of sleep, making things even nicer. The “harder” parts, and things I need to improve on would be to walk a bit faster, concentrate more on micro scale route finding (sticking to the bands of nice walking though the areas of not nice walking), and “staying the course” when the planned route appears to go bad, and finding a way to make it work. On the last point, I feel pretty disappointed with myself that we turned back at the first pass, assuming there was no way over, even though we knew at least one other party had gone over – Harlow’s footprints were pretty distinctive, and I saw the prints on the first climb up the pass, so I so I knew folks had made it over.

A second post script – here are some brief notes (to myself mainly) on things that worked or didn’t work:

  •  i used Gaia GPS for a bit of the navigation on this trip, and was amazed by how much easier to navigate with vs the garmin unit I normally use.  I should pre-cache satellite imagery for tricky bits, i expect that would help with navigation.
  • I brought a ultra lightweight bivy, and it was great for a little extra warmth and to keep the bugs off.
  • I pre-taped my forefoot and heels, and the tape lasted most of the trip, and I survived with only a few small blisters – success!
  • I had treated my shirt with Permethrin, and it worked great for keeping the bugs away.
  • The hmg backpack was awesome – worked great, comfortable, and light.  I wish it was made of something besides cuben fiber, as it already appears to be showing signs of wear, but I guess that is life.

A few things that worked less well:

  • My food choices could have used a bit more thought – i bought about 5 of the ominously named “Meal Pack Bars” – they are very calorie dense and pack well, but taste bad and are like eating dirt – dry and unrewarding.  Otherwise my food selection was fine, though perhaps more Snickers next time.
  • I brought a freeze dried meal, which I made before hiking delay pass – I should have brought two more, it went down great.
  • I was a bit unhappy with my footwear – montrail mountain masochist trail runners.  They are light and grippy, but need a stiffer rock plate for some of the walking – i bruised my feet a bit.  Otherwise they worked great – I just wish the forefront of these shoes were stiffer.  Otherwise they worked fine.   If anyone has recommendations I would love to hear them.  I would love to just use low top hiking shoes for these sort of trips, but alas I can’t find any that are not goretex.
  • I didn’t bring enough foot lube – I could have used a lot more after my feet dried out after the nap before delay pass.  Live and learn..
  • trekking poles would have made some of the hiking faster, and some of the stream crossings easier – next time I will bring them!
  • I really wish I had brought some sort of lightweight bug proof long sleeve top with a hood – it would have made the bug pressure a bit easier to deal with at times.
  • I suck at micro scale navigation – I need to work on finding those sections of nicer walking in sections of bad walking.  Mostly I think it just requires me to be more aware of where I am going – something to work on.

The route:

Summer of 2018 update
The 2018 version of this is just around the corner, and I was digging around for info on the water levels when we did it in 2017. Alas, I didn’t save the info (curses!), but
The Slate Creek Gauge looked like this:

The current state of the gauge is: Slate Creek
For some reason I cannot find historical data on the river gauge at Bettles, but the current info can be found here: Koyukuk at Bettles