The Journey Continues: 2012 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic
My Classic in five words: I got scared and bailed.
Dick Griffith’s gorgeous house in the hills east of Anchorage, Friday evening. I flew in early that morning, found Luc Mehl’s van parked at the airport, managed to drive through Anchorage on the vestiges of last year’s memories, and slept on the couch. We drove around all day running errands, running into many friends and multiple other Classic suitors, and in every instance the talk is what it is right now: how bad will the brush be along the Bremner and Little Bremner rivers? There are a number of possibilities in this years brand new course, and aside from the Wernicke glacier, every reasonable option (climbing straight out from the Copper looks in my eyes too steep) hinges on ascending into the high country out of the Little Bremner. My route, which in a very confidence inspiring turn of events in also Luc’s route, looks like the best because it winnows down the brush-based unknowns to that stretch only. Keeping the scale of the terrain, and of the unknowns, in mind that’s not much of a comfort.
Roman Dial, winner of the very first Classic 31 years ago, sweeps his finger across a stretch which has become well worn in everyone’s gazetteer: a green patch at the northeastern edge of the Bremner dunes, dotted with sloughs and ponds, leading into a kilometer and a half where the southward hook of the Bremner drives up against the mountainside with counter intervals closely spaced marching straight into the water. The Happell Slough, another ambiguous stretch of green laced with blue, then leads to the distinct gravel bars of the Little Bremner, with more chaotic and steep green beyond, bedrock riven with glacial stretch marks, in all directions leading to the high country.
“Those ten miles, that’s a ten hour bushwack.” Roman says, in a declaration all the more emphatic for it’s soft almost academic neutrality. Luc and I look at each other. Roman’s certitude is unmistakeable in his modest tone, and indubitable in his decades of experience. Hoping against him, as we both surely are, does not seem like a wise use of thought.
“Hi Roman.” I say in what seems to me an unconscionably squeaky voice. Intermittently but unerringly I feel like a little kid in this crowd. It’s 24 hours later and most of the people who will start the Classic the next morning have been drinking PBR from a case while sitting on picnic tables at a campground near Thompson Pass. Roman, who had just stacked a Brooks Range packrafting trip atop a guiding gig for National Geographic, had said the night before he would not come. He and Peggy are buying a house, closing on it any day, and besides Thai Verzone didn’t want to come and commit to running the Klu and Chakina, Roman’s route of choice. But here he is anyway. This route, so unknown still, will not remain that way any more and it’s this year or never for a beta-free trip.
The next morning Luc hands around a scale. My pack is barely over 26 pounds, including all the odds and ends so easy to leave away. No one else’s is as light, though Luc’s and Roman’s come close, but are much smaller than mine, which with my PFD stuffed inside is almost taller than my head. This will prove not so good in the bushwacking to come. Roman displays that gift of making item after item, drysuit, clothing, a vast bag of snack-sized chips, more clothing, a jar of peanut butter, disappear into what is (aside from Todd Kasteler’s) the smallest pack in the group. We awkwardly load up and drive all the cars to a dirt lot down the road, vehicle shuttle arrangements are hurridly made, a photo is taken, and only a few minutes after 10am we’re off, walking down the shoulder of the road.
The next hours pass in a disorienting blur, both because I’m hurring to keep up with various others and because a ways in I look at my watch and mistake the altitude for the time. First I’m tailing John Sykes and Mike Loso, just able to keep up. Then I swing through, do my own thing, find and follow Luc’s tracks on a great bear trail. Just when I think I’m all alone I see Roman across the canyon, with Ganey and Todd Tumolo fifty meters behind him. I alternate between following tracks and my own judgment, and suddenly there are eight of us in view, all within a 200 meter radius, crossing a big flat snowfiled over what is no doubt a massive willow bog at the pass into the Tasnuna. The last two hours haven’t been fast, we’ve gone perhaps 6 straight line kilometers, but tundra ridges, snow patches, and game trails have made it a lot faster than it could have been.
I’m hanging off the back of the line in what is, from the mountain biking days, a very familiar position. Fast enough to get ahead of the slower pack, but not really strong enough to stay with the fast folks. Every time I pause to get water, snap a picture, or grab food a gap opens which takes ages to close. I’m at my limit trying to keep pace, and trying very hard to do so. This worries me. I’m burning matches I’ll need later for reasons sufficiently deep in my gut that under the circumstances I cannot say no. The obvious and essential comes to me, for the first of many times, with singular and crushing finality.
“You are totally screwed. You are in serious, dangerous, trouble.”
Since April I’ve chosen , when faced with a big solo trip and a smaller social trip, to go with friends. I am thus lacking both the punch, which I had last year, to keep up in tough terrain as well as the practice and inclination to be out solo. And I am reminded; safety is not a function of fitness or skills or gear, but of the mental strength to apply all of those with discretion. It is clear in the air already that this is going to be a rigorous trip, and I’m left only a matter of hours off the start with few reasons I think I’ll be able to maintain the margin I expect of myself under the circumstances. Oops.
Not that I didn’t try. I caught Roman towards the end of our long traverse, linking snow patches and alder thickets above the upper Tasnuna. We descended to a major fork (pictured above) and as we were searching for a way across it Luc and Josh appeared from upstream, having failed to find a good crossing. I shamelessly jump wheel and follow them around several cliffs, climbing just above the torrent and bushwacking through the first fully-blooming patches of Devil’s Club. I even more shamelessly follow them as they inflate rafts and run or portage the initial stretch of the Tasnuna. Luc is an excellent boater and following his lines is both expedient and comforting. I’m not doing any of this on my own terms anymore, balancing the disconcerting inefficiency of going at a too-fast pace with the reassuring presence of other people. But be it down the river fighting a headwind or walking across the majestic Bremner dunes at sunset, I’m in the same position: just barely able to hang on, and dogged by the knowledge that I’m placing on them a burden I would not wish to have myself.
The evening’s heinous ‘schwack and resultant foot injury from one of the innumerable falls (aggravated no doubt by sub-par fitness and clumsy haste) were in many respects just a winding down of a choice I had already made. Our trio made numerous mistakes, chiefly not taking the bear trail at the start of the brush. As happened last year, I fought a serious sleep monster from 1am til first light, though the ‘schwacking demanded enough mental activity that it never got too bad. In spite of making five miles in eight hard hours, whose severity even direct personal memory cannot accurately recreate, we did cross some terrain worth recalling. We waded numerous chilly ponds in the long twilight which is Alaskan mid-summer night, one featuring a wild suspended carpet of thick vegetation a few feet underwater. It held our weight (thankfully) and flexed out in a five foot radius like a cheap mattress as we walked. The bear trail was always there though the initial flat and swampy section, though often the vegetation was soft enough to make it invisible. The bear trail became hard and definite again in the steep side-hill section, but the growth of alder and Devil’s Club, as well as spruce downfall, made it if anything harder going. We caught Roman in this section, and when he and I had lunch back in Anchorage he noted that in most other places in AK, a trail so often used would be more maintained, the animals themselves biting and stomping vegetation to aid their own future passage. In the coastally-influenced southern Wrangells it would seem that even the bears give up fighting with the vegetation, and generations of them had obviously slithered under and through in ways which humans with packs could never hope to emulate.
At some point in the early morning, Josh had ran out of tolerance for the brush and waded out into the river to forge his own path. Given how profligate the quicksand was I have a hard time seeing this as practical, and my own recollection is hazy enough that I could not recreate that stretch if I tried. My mind had gone to ground, and even though I thought paddling up the slough might be best (something Team Heavy later did) I dutifully followed Luc and Roman out onto an island and more alder and bog as we looked for Josh. Luc and Josh would eventually split and waste hours finding each other, while Roman and I camped from 8am til 1030 or so, napping and eating amongst the hordes of mosquitoes. When we got going my feet were predictably wooden, understandable given that we had gone 50 miles (almost half the distance!) in less than 24 hours. We had camped on a gravel bar, a side channel which easily led us to the Little Bremner. Roman was amenable and wise company, and while a partner was immensely appealing (to say nothing of traveling with a high school hero), we both knew something was amiss. My left foot did not loosen, the top staying tight like setting cement as we walked, wading channels and tromping gravel and sand at a modest pace. We ferried the Little Bremner, Roman talking about floating out to Cordova, or perhaps flying out of Tebay Lakes. It seemed obvious to me that he would complete the route, and I assume it was equally obvious to him that my goose was cooked. He packed up first and left, and while I paid lip service to following him, knew it was of little use. Back at our takeout the breeze had finally come up, and I sat enjoying a bug-free moment when Luc and Josh, back together, walked up the other side of the river. That they, with their strength and confidence and huge strides, would finished seemed axiomatic by comparision to my tweaked foot and crushed psyche.
I opened my pack, put on a layer, pulled out the stove, and made some hot coffee. By the time I slowly finished the cup my certitude was iron-clad. It is easy, now, at home on the couch shaded by four walls from a hot clear day, to think that I could have continued. And in the literal light of retrospect that is in several ways true. I had plenty of food. I had all the right gear. I had made it through at least 50% of the crux brush. While further activity would no doubt have aggravated it, and while I do not yet know the full extent of the damage, my food would have probably held up with good care. All of this is academically true and all of it was in the moment dead wrong. My mind and will were gone, crushed by disappointment in my own lack of foresight. I may have been foolish enough to both underestimate the route (which most did) and to enter into absent certain necessary preparations (which few if any did), but I was not stupid enough to push on merely to satisfy pride. As I told my camera (below) shortly after that moment, the happiest part of the whole trip was making the best judgment call I made the entire time: that it was time to bail.
A hard conversation with myself, to make sure I would remember it well.
The regrets I have are two-fold. The first it that I didn’t get to experience on-the-ground the superlative looking high country Paul Claus showed me on the flight out to McCarthy. Though access is problematic, the packrafting and hiking in the guts of the southern Wrangells looks worthwhile. The second is that my lesson of patience, humility, and self-awareness had to be won at such expense. Suffering and inconvenience is all well and good. Money I have less of, but that horse left the barn.
The rest of the trip proved to be both an excellent normal vacation and more of a good learning experience. I arrived in McCarthy Monday evening with a sore foot (it really hurt on the gently downhill road from the airstrip) and no clean clothes. The folks at the Wrangell Mountain Center hooked me up with loaner clothes, a shower, and a couch to sleep on, while Sophie, Stephanie, and others at the bar provided much desired conversation and drink. Stephanie was by coincidence the masseuse in town, and after examining my swollen ankles out of professional interest strongly encouraged a visit the next day. Besides a hefty discount she identified my historic weakness all but instantly, and gave some emphatic feedback on the various ways in which I’ve been athletically lazy over the past four years. The rest of the trip was both odd, in that I didn’t get my clothes bag until Thursday morning and generally suffered from a lack of defined purpose I always take on holiday, and enlightening, in that the absence of said purpose allowed me to be a tourist and work on being happy with the more innocuous things in life. The wonderful people I met in both McCarthy and Anchorage were as numerous as they were charming and unfailing in their generosity (especially when I was still homeless on Wednesday evening and Karen Loso fed me and put me up at their gorgeous house).
I return to Montana imbued with, I hope, a more crystalline sense of purpose. My prostestations in the video above to the contrary, I will of course do the Classic again. I want a lot out of it yet, including if not a victory at least one year in which fear and general mental problems do not factor as the foremost limitation of my performance. Of course, it’s only been but rarely in mountain biking and ultrarunning/hiking that I’ve had that, but humility in the Classic does not mean stop wanting the exorbitant. But before I do that, I have a backlog of lazy habits and physical maladaptations (most going back to my chronically tight hamstrings) of which I must rid myself. I’ve resolved a good six months of training, absent any concrete direction, before goals begin to enter the picture.
Before the next steps of the journey there is work to be done.