Subject: Joe, Michael and Jacek's Most Excellent Alaskan Adventure
Day 1: 12+ hour day hike.
Subject: Joe, Michael and Jacek's Most Excellent Alaskan Adventure
Gorgeous loop hike to the "Hole in the Wall" Glacier, with views of the Frederika Rohn and Regal Glaciers, and Mount Regal (13,800 ft.) Saw caribou, and had probably the prettiest, most soothing vista of the trip: The glacier cascading down snow covered Mount Regal, highlighted by a powder blue sky and the green valley with a braided river below.
Scary moment 1: Glacier Hike --
Did a "two-stage" jump over a 70 foot deep (Michael's estimate -- and he's not one to exaggerate) crevasse. The first "jump" was a short step to a narrow spit of ice, followed by a second longer jump. The second jump was longer than a jump I had missed crossing a stream earlier. Adrenaline carried me through, and I made it OK, although my heart was beating at a furious pace. Jacek and Michael wisely decided that the glacier was impassable after this, and we diverted to a talus covered slope. Not fun, but manageable.
Scary moment 2: Scree Crossing--
Crossing a scree covered ravine, slipped down and grabbed a stationary rock. Had the rock not been there, I could have slid down about two hundred vertical feet (my estimate -- may be flawed). Literally pulled myself up, and made it across the ravine, with tentative footing. Jacek was about twenty yards ahead of me non-chalantly tying his boot-laces.
Scary moment 3: Torrential Glacier-fed Stream Crossing.
The stream crossings are probably the most common cause of death in the Alaskan wilderness. This was the end of the day, so the glacier melt made this one particularly frightening. Jacek tried a wet crossing, but described it as a "humbling experience," since he went numb shortly after entering the water and he couldn't fight the current, but made it back OK. Michael guided us across by showing me how to do a "superman-type" leap from one rock to clutch a second rock. I made it with room to spare, but hesitated greatly before trying it. The distance was farther than my previous jumps, but it was deceiving since we were jumping from a higher point to a lower point, so the vertical "added" some margin. My heart was again pounding.
By the time I got back to camp (about 9:30 PM), I was completely exhausted and slightly nauseous. I forced down half of my freeze dried [dehydrated] dinner, but couldn't eat any more. Using "Leave No Trace" guidelines, I wrapped the uneaten portion in a baggie and packed it with my trash.
Day 2: Easy backpack to Chitistone Pass.
The "normal" route of following the valley to a switch-back was deemed to boring, so we switch-backed our way up a nearby slope to reduce our distance. I was still completely exhausted from the previous day, and just couldn't climb. Michael took notice, made sure we took a break and gave me some sweets and other food. Jacek also gave me some advice about walking switch-backs rather than straight up the slopes. It was then I realized one of my mistakes -- I had been following Michael for most of the trip. Whereas Jacek is the classic mountain man, I think Michael is actually Mountain Goat and he appears to almost run straight up the slopes at their steepest point. After the break, I felt much better, and could have gone on longer than I did. We camped at a spot with a gorgeous view of the nearby valleys, mountains, and glaciers.
There were numerous bear prints near our campsite.
Saw numerous bear tracks and scat on the climb up. Michael was ahead of me, and as I approached him, he pointed to an area. Thinking he was pointing me to an easy route, I started to follow him. He waved his arms wildly, mouthing (but not saying) "No! No!" It turns out he had walked in front of a grizzly den, and I was within 20 feet of it. The bear had grunted at Michael. I diverted away from the den. This was actually much scarier for Michael, but my heart was still pounding.
One of the fears I overcame on this trip was camping in Grizzly country.
Day 3: Easy backpack to beginning of Goat Trail.
Incredible scenery. We entered a valley which would lead to the "Chitistone Canyon." I tried to find something to compare it to, but Michael said "It's incomparable." Numerous colors were visible, including black lava rock, green tundra, and various reddish hues. Sort of a combination of Grand Canyon and Bryce, with the addition of glaciers and snow capped peaks. Had lunch by the Chitistone Rivers, and Jacek and Michael shaved. I didn't bring a razor. We got a little disoriented towards the end of the day, so rather than continue to route find, we set up camp at a very nice site overlooking the valley, and decided to orient ourselves the next day.
Scary Moment: Had to climb down into a ravine to get water. Jacek said it was easy, Michael disagreed, due to the unstable rock. Jacek was able to find a route which was mutually agreeable. We each went down, and on the way up I began to slide down the dirt/unstable rock. Jacek guided me across the terrain to more stable vegetation. I was carrying two liter bottles of water and a three liter collapsible jug, and Jacek reached down and grabbed the jug from me. He offered me his hand, but it was a matter of pride for me to complete it on my own. It was only about a twenty-thirty foot drop, but was steep. Jacek later told me I handled it well, I didn't panic. Actually, I was on the verge of panic. If I had panicked, I would have kept going down, gained momentum and been unable to stop myself. Regardless, I would have survived. The drop was steep, but not that high. At the time, though, it seemed frightening.
Day 4: Backpack along the "Goat Trail"
This was supposed to be the scariest day of the trip, the day the rangers warn you about. You use a faintly marked trail (actually a series of footprints) across a series of scree covered slopes above a 1500 foot drop. The bush pilot told us "No one has died on it this year, and you really won't [die/fall] unless you do something stupid." Ordinarily, this trail would have frightened me, but it was nothing compared to my previous days. By carefully looking where you place your next step, and ignoring the vertical drop, you could make pretty good progress. It was fairly easy hiking. Due to route finding and dilly dallying, we didn't make the progress we should have. We had dinner around 7:30, set up camp, and decided to brace ourselves for a possible 12-14 hour day the next day. The pilot was picking us up at noon on day 6, and we had a lot of ground to cover.
Scary Moments: None!!!!!!! (Although ordinarily, I would have been frightened by the Goat Trail.)
Day 5: Hike to the Chitistone Plateau
I braced myself for a long day. We got up at 6:30, had breakfast, broke camp, and were on our way by 8:30. I've found that the way to hike for long days is to force myself to take a five minute break every hour, even if I don't feel tired. The general rule is to make sure to take a break before my body tells me that I need one. In addition, I try to eat frequent snacks.
My plan to take frequent breaks hit a major roadblock, in that I just couldn't keep up with Jacek and Michael. They would occasionally stop and wait for me to get closer, but would continue walking as I got near. I whistled twice, our signal for "wait," which resulted in a momentary pause, after which they continued walking. I finally caught up to Michael, who was taking a break and making sure that I was OK, and told him that I needed a break.
We took one, then spotted Jacek on a nearby hill. He had scouted our landing strip, and pointed it out to me. I said, "Oh,"
followed by a startled "Oh!" when I realized that we would have to do
a huge "U" around the plateau. We might be able to do it if we huffed all day, then got up first thing in the morning. Michael suggested an alternate straight line route, where we would descend into the valley, then climb back up a mountain.
We had already climbed 1000 feet (albeit with a very gradual slope), and the straight line route would result in a drop of about 2000 feet combined with a climb of about 2000 feet. (I need to look at the map to confirm this.) I had begun to lose some of my fear, so I said, "Let's give it a try."
As we descended into the valley, I started to feel the same exhaustion I felt on day 2. Usually I have no problems with hiking downhill, but each step seemed to require energy that I didn't think I had. I continued to follow Michael and Jacek, carrying my pack even though I thought it was pointless, because I looked up at the mountain and figured no one in their right mind would try to traverse it. Ahead of me, Michael and Jacek were pointing in various directions towards the mountain. I caught up to them, expecting them to say that we needed to turn around and take the long route.
Michael approached me and said, "We'll be climbing up that middle triangle [Incredibly Steep -- Could I do it? At least it has vegetation!] then following across over the pass to the plateau."
At this point, I'm sure my face blanched. Above the vegetation, I saw nothing but scree slopes, the kind I had been slipping on constantly before.
This time though, there would be a 3,000 foot drop attached to it, and I would be walking across it with a full pack, exhausted after a full day's climb.
The top of the mountain looked treacherous, as the footing looked particularly loose between two large patches of snow/ice at the top. I remembered the pilot's comment, that the only way to die was to do something stupid. I realize that one man's stupidity is another man's adventure, and there's a fine line between the two, but for my abilities, I thought I was on the "stupidity" side of the line.
I was sure Jacek and Michael could do it, but was not sure about myself.
I can only describe my feelings at this point as coming close to a panic attack. As we continued hiking down the valley, my stomach was churning and turning over. It's not so much that I thought I could die, it's that I thought I would die unless I took major steps. I considered my options. Returning back to our original landing strip would take several days.
There was a landing strip at Glacier Creek, another day's hike (at least) through the gorge, and I could try to signal a passing plane there. Getting there would involve some major stream crossings, worse than the ones we had already tried, though. I had limited food, and there was only one map between us. I rejected the idea of splitting off because it seemed like the risks I'd be taking hiking alone in the Alaskan Wilderness without a map through uncertain terrain were worse than the risks I'd taking with Jacek and Michael. This goes against all of my wilderness ethics, but I started to make a list of non-essential items I could leave at the bottom of the valley so that I would improve my chances of making it to the top. I told Michael "I'm ditching some equipment."
I also made a mental note to give Jacek and Michael my emergency contact information -- I couldn't remember if I left the info at the bush pilot's office.
We got to the bottom of the valley, did a stream crossing, at which point Michael and Jacek started taking equipment from my external backpack pouches and placing it in their backpacks.
This is probably my most embarrassing moment ever - as a back packer or anywhere else. It was similar to those dreams where you realize you forgot your clothes and came to work naked, but this was real and much worse. I knew I wouldn't wake up from this one with my clothes on. I protested strongly, but Michael mentioned that it was teamwork, and I was still panic stricken enough to allow their offer to overcome my pride (what little I had left.) They lightenned my pack by about four pounds, which makes a huge difference on an incline.
We had lunch, (for fortification for the estimated five hour climb), and I started to feel a lot better. I spied a gentle ridge which I though might make an easier climb, and might still get us there, but didn't mention it in deference to Michael's and Jacek's superior knowledge.
After lunch, Jacek mentioned that we would be climbing along the ridge. I was feeling better already. About an hour into the climb, Michael found saw some footprints leading in our desired direction.
This made me feel even better -- Someone had done this route before, and maybe I wasn't doing something "stupid!" He would occasionally take breaks to build cairns for future hikers. An hour and a half into the climb, Michael passed over a ridge, and yelled back "Joe -- remember the scree and ice that scared you so much? Well there it is."
I made it to the ridge, looked at it, felt incredibly foolish, and almost laughed. Before the trip, it might have frightened me, but now it really looked like a non-event. Occasional footprints lead through the intermittent dirt patches between the talus slope. It required some care, and shouldn't be taken too lightly, but was not a major deal.
Michael explained that based on his experience climbing mountains, it always looked worse until you got up close. A half hour later, we were over the icy ridge.
Our estimated five hour climb had taken a little over two hours. We took a break on a grass covered overlook. The views here were everything I expected and more. A few thousand feet below us was the Chitistone River, braided, and flanked by greenery. Across the river were mountains, where the greenery gradually gave way to rocks and finally snow patches. Behind these mountains were higher snow-capped mountains. Behind these mountains were some of the major peaks in the park, completely snow covered, including University Peak (14,700'). Mt. Churchill (15,800), and Mt. Bona (16,400). Within two hours, we were at our landing strip. We had hiked about 10 hours, and although I was physically exhausted, I felt great. I had survived!!