Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Nebesna to McCarthy...One Hell of a Classic

Three years ago I opened the Sunday paper and read an article about a race that places the competitors against not only each other, but against some of the more rugged terrain in Alaska. Once the race starts there is no support for the racers and they essentially had to cross the Brooks Range from north to south by using their own power, wit and previous wilderness experience. I read and re-read the article fascinated by the concept and the toughness of the competitors. The race was called the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic and I wanted to do it.
I still have that article and the two that followed in the next years. I met different people that had competed in the race and listened intently when they spoke about their experiences, and finally last winter I talked my friend Ed into participating in the 2008 Classic. The route no longer traveled through the Brooks Range (it changes routes every three years) now the routes take the competitors through the Wrangell Range. The race director, Dave Cramer says that even though the temperatures are not as extreme in the Wrangell’s (he has a shortened ring finger on one hand from a -50 day in the Brooks to prove it) that this route is much more challenging. Now after months of training and planning, Ed and I stood at the end of the Nebesna road ready to ski off into the wild hoping that after about 150 miles, 2 glaciers, countless unknowns and about 7 days that we would end up at John’s Bed and Breakfast in McCarthy. It was time to test our metal!

This would be the last time that group would be together in the race.

Ed and I at the starting line.

Dave and Chris skiing up the Nebesna River. There was a strong headwind through throughout this stretch but Ed proved early that he was ready for the challenge and double poled through the wind like a champ.

After the river we had to ascend Cooper pass. Cooper Creek became wall to wall ice after a while, so we donned our crampons to climb the ice and combat the headwind.

Whenever we found an open lead on a river we would dip some fresh water to help minimize the amount of snow that we needed to melt and conserve fuel.

About fifteen miles after reaching the top of Cooper pass we broke onto the Chisana River. We would travel a few more miles on the river and make camp for the night. We had a nice fire that night, but it got a bit chilly that night dropping down well below zero.

We came upon the Solo Creek cabin around 8 o’clock and were happy to stop the day at this shelter. This cabin was used as a stopping point for freight haulers back in the 1930’s.

The outhouse was a pretty sweet bonus too!

We had to stop along the trail occasionally to work on our feet. Blisters, trench foot and precautions regarding frostbite were some important factors during our time on the trail.

Once we neared the Russell Glacier we knew that our gravy miles where behind us.

While climbing Skoli Pass we stumbled on this Dall sheep ram skull. At least he died in good sheep country.

I was suffering from a nasty cold and ran out of gas as we began to lose light. We made camp right on Skoli Pass…most mountaineers would probably consider this a poor choice but it proved to be a pretty good camp site after some modifications.

A view from Skoli Pass. Looking down on the Russell Glacier.

Ed skis through some great country.

Ed skiing through an icy stretch.

Waxing my skis on the backside of Skoli Pass.

Dropping into Upper Skoli Lake.

Reaching Upper Skoli Lake was reason for celebration! The icebergs frozen into the lake made this a really phenomenal place.

We were able to ski on some fairly flat land again…it was nice to make some forward progress again.

That night we made camp under the Golden Horn (not shown). Across the valley there were several unnamed hanging glaciers that were calving off into the powder below making an interesting baseline to accompany the chatter that the ptarmigan were making all morning.

Once we realized that we were going to be long on fuel we began using the extra BTU’s to thaw our boots out a little before we rammed them onto our feet for another day.

We started out the day with some tough gorge negotiations. Ed is kicking into some wind packed snow along the face of the first gorge.

Ed ascending out of another gorge.

These three pictures show off my biggest weakness in the race…descending off of the mountainsides. I found myself facedown in the snow more often than not but we managed to get down without breaking any gear or body parts.

Bushwhacking was another necessary evil of losing elevation. I would estimate that we cussed at a rate of around 100 to 1 compared to rest of our travel.

Once we dropped onto Skoli Creek we had a few small obstacles to get through before reaching the Nizina Glacier.

The Skoli River had cut a small chasm between the face of the glacier and the mountain. This was a very unstable area. The glacier was dropping bombs of stone as we tried to make our way through this area. We were forced into the river after getting shelled by debris and needed to get out of the area.

Here I am working through the gorge.

In the lower right hand corner I am skiing through the area. It shows the enormity of the glacier.

We camped on the Nizina River after we made our way through the glacier. We did not take the time to dip fresh water so we had to melt snow that night

It was an exceptionally cold morning and our feet had a hard time coming around…Ed stopped and put his mittens on his feet in an attempt to warm them up.

I tried to ski hard to get my hart rate up and get some warm blood to my extremities…instead I wiped out in some jagged ice and got some warm blood to flow out of my head.

We had to cross some open leads in the Nizina to finally get to the McCarthy Rd.

After about 6 days and 7 hours we reached the finish. Dave treated to a great steak and potato meal while we kicked backed with a couple of beers and told stories.

Ed’s feet swelled up a little but I would have to say that internally, my confidence and pride is nearly as swollen. This was one of the best experiences that I have been able to participate in the few decades that I have been wandering on the northern hemisphere!

To read more about this trip check out Ed's blog at:


Lena said...

fantastic photos, stories - what an amazing journey!! i'm so psyched for you guys... sounds like a buttload of ass-kickin!

Fwx Sharon said...


Good for you and Ed!!!