2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic race report

“The will to power would rather will nothingness than not will.”
-Nietzsche

Paige Brady, and Luc Mehl the zombie.

The difficulty I’m having beginning this report well reflects the race itself; the stakes I set myself for both are very high.  While in Alaska a few people asked me, both before and after, where I first heard of the classic.  I still cannot recall, but it has been in my consciousness for quite a while, growing all the while.  It’s been my Everest, my Tour de France, the summit and presumptive summation of a large number of my personal and athletic aspirations.  A big fucking deal.

So I was nervous, for weeks, before and about the race.  Not because I was worried about sore feet, bears, river crossings, getting lost, or getting cold.  I’d been training for the classic, specifically with it in mind, for around two years.  Long enough to know how to deal with all the aforementioned details with confidence, and more significantly long enough to know that my primary struggles before and during the race would have very little to do with physical obstacles, and everything to do with fear.  Fear of failure.

I would do well to dispense a few naked facts about me and my life.  My parents met working in a backpacking store in Atlanta.  My first backpacking trip was early enough that I can only recall flashes of details.  I’ve always, always liked walking uphill.  On even the rare occasions when I wasn’t bad at traditional American sports growing up, I was never good, and never felt anything athletic resonate until I started rock climbing in 8th grade.  Little did I know then, in middle school, that one competitive event did feature hiking as it’s primary skill, and little wonder that when I came across it I was immediately smitten.  So then, the story of the wilderness classic and I is the cliched, prosaic one of a late bloomer and slow learner finding vindication in the exercise of a heretofore inaccessible cultural trope, physical competition, in an atypical and at-last relevant and advantageous to him setting.  Take that, long arm of American high schooling.

One of many moose sheds on course.

I’m ill at ease with this impulse to beat other people, due to a lack of familiarity in its exercise, a distaste for braggadocio, and the concern that I might not live up to my own aspirations.  For all these reasons, especially the last, I never admitted aloud to anyone that I wanted to win the classic until I told Paige on our second day two, something to the effect of “We’re doing really well, and I should thus say that I wouldn’t mind winning this.”

“Me too!” she responded.  Paige is a former collegiate nordic ski racer and tele freeride world champion, and was I think a bit more comfortable saying this.

We didn’t win, rather coming in as first human team to Luc, John, Tyler, and Todd.  A bold gamble paid off for them, with their route putting them above the brush that soaked us Monday, and altitude that avoided most of the rain which did the same.  Most significantly, they didn’t have our luxury of stopping mid-route and waiting for the weather to improve, if they hoped to continue under any circumstances doing so now was the only option.

They made the correct choice, as did we, and the contrast between the two points right at the heart of the classic.  We had to choose, just as they did, and decide which parts of their decisions were practical fears and which were psychological, and thus under some contexts and from some perspectives, illusory.  It’s easy to see heuristics, especially in outdoor adventuring, as overly simple, with safety and the choices out of which it is built existing apart from ego and perception.  This is not so.  What is safe for one group is dangerous for another, and in the exact same circumstances.  Could last Monday evening, with its soaking rain, wet brush, and then wet snow have been safe to continue into for a different pair of people with better gear and more determination?  Very possibly.  Due to gear, circumstances, and attitude, for us it was not.  If we had been different, or the weather had been kinder, and thus enabled us to push through the evening into the night, could we have challenged for the win?  Unlikely, though the splits are tantalizingly close.  Close enough to give me one more reason to come back next year.

Paige, first shoes off break, Sunday afternoon, before the Trident glacier.

Neither Paige nor I spoke about teaming up before the race was underway, though we later admitted we both wanted to.  Neither of us had done the classic before, though we both had lots of relevant experience, albeit from very different sources.  Neither of us admitted we wanted to win, though we both wanted to.  We even consulted, right before the start in the gravel lot by the old Black Rapids roadhouse, on whether to inflate our boats before the start.  We both decided to not, due to the wind, and then both changed our minds shortly thereafter.  I put in and got a jump on the field by running all the larger waves, but Paige and a member of Team G-Force came back to me when I made some bad line choices and got hung up on gravel bars, and we two took out at McGinnis creek together, hiked the ATV trail up to the plateau together, and in a few hours were a team, officially.

It was a wise decision, though when Paige pushed the pace on a few hills early on I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to hang (we were averaging 12 vertical meters/minute).  We switched leads naturally and well, me leading in brush and sponga (spongy tundra, see video in previous post), Paige across the Trident and Hayes glaciers.  She rallied late at night while dealing with the moose trail and my drowsiness in the moat at the NW edge of the Hayes, and by 4 am we were building a fire under the arms of a particularly large willow a few miles below the west toe of the Hayes glacier, a strong 18 hour push in the bag, and almost off the first of my three maps.  It was after our 2.5 hour break, including about 100 minutes of sleep, when my feet and legs felt shockingly fresh and the rain had yet to start that I declared my desire to win.  We kept momentum climbing up out of West Hayes Creek and down to the Little Delta, though it flagged slightly as the tail wind chilled us on the hike up the river, detouring on several occasion to look for a crossing.  We found a good if fast crossing, though Paige fell in getting out of her boat, which sealed the deal on making a fire to warm up.  We took another good nap under our very nice tree, before setting out into the bushwack.  The tangled mile across the flat was only the preamble to 1000 vertical feet of bear trails through head high grass.  Not horrid travel, but utterly soaking.  The choice to fly back to our tree was an easy one, as such good sources of shelter and dry wood were scarce.

It was the next morning, with an impressively low snowline across the valley, low ceiling, and steady drizzle that doubt really began to take hold.  As Paige noted several days after the race, my mind rarely stops working, and certainly didn’t on that occasion.  In truth, we had both gotten very cold the previous evening returning to camp, even with a fire raging we shivered for hours after, and that had freaked me out.  We were about 3 times as far from a road as you can get in the lower 48, with an exactingly minimal safety net.  I was right up against the choice of the wilderness classic, confronting my psychological limits and just how large a role they played in building the boundaries I use to guide myself through the world.  Failure was not a matter of pure circumstance, as we and especially I had plenty of food, but of will.  I waffled, called a few flying operations on the sat phone to feel out our options, while Paige stoically slept a bit more and called previous winner Bobby Schnell to get a weather report.  His data indicated a general clearing soon, and as the clouds started to lift around noon so did my psyche.  I woke Paige up, and we blasted.

Camp.  We cut pine boughs off other trees to make our more rain proof. 

I had, with no small amount of patient assistance from Paige, passed the test, and what followed was the most remarkable, sublime 14 hours of hiking I’ve yet done.  Tundra and drizzle led over a short pass into Buchanan Creek, which climbed into the clouds in one aesthetic boulder-floored upward slash.  A few regular inches of snow appeared around 5500′, truly confirming the two sets of human tracks we had already seen here and there in the mud of the stream bed.  After a few diversions as the creek steepened and the clouds closed in I knew that the guy with big feet and Inov8 OROCs was a good route finder, and the tracks led effortlessly over the pass and down the other side.  We breezed past Chris from Eagle River and Don from Colorado, dropping them without trying.  I was firmly in the lead then, with legs turning over utterly absent any perceived stress or exertion.  Our unnamed drainage hit the West Fork of the Little Delta, and on instinct I cut into the brush and within 30 seconds happened upon a multi-species game trail worn mountain-bikable with abundant traffic.  We swooped out onto the gravel bars and around the bend southwards, flying.  The sky was beginning to clear and darken as we stopped for dinner and a shoes off break, with the peaks and drainages marching with stunning symmetry up either side of the river.  Conversation and confidence flowed as we continued up to and into the precipitous side canyon which would give us passage to the Wood River, and take us off my second map.

What had already been a reboundingly superlative day of extremes continued into the next.  Close to the pass a sheep trail cut up onto steep tundra and talus, and Paige had to tell me out load that the white rocks up above were actually just rocks, and not mysterious baby sheep hiding from us in plain sight.  Indirect moonlight and the dull Alaskan midnight sun bent the steep pass into angles which seemed impossible, but yielded easy walking up sheep trails all the same.  We summited the pass at 1230, and looking down into the Wood valley I was brought to tears thinking that this moment and all the memories of which it was built was the apotheosis of every step I had hiked in my life, every trying hike when late in the day I looked within myself to find the will to go on, every route finding challenge, every five more miles, every fire built in the rain, every trip planned in earnest, every book and article read.  Everything I was and had been made of over the past thirty years of my existence, and at the end was my late father, dead 19 years ago of cancer, sitting watchfully in whatever spiritual afterlife atheists like me believe in, roaring in approval at every next step I took.

In most respects I could have ended the race right there and had all I ever wanted.

We were still 50 miles from the road, and few intentions of stopping until we got there.  The descent canyon was even more extraordinary than that used for the ascent, resembling in its steep rawness nothing so much as a Death Valley canyon with a snow-fed creek howling down the cobbles.  I kept looking over my shoulder at oblique flashes of light, wondering why Paige was indulging in flash photography.  It was the moon, which we couldn’t see, but which was shot towards us from the huge snowy mountains finally absent cloud cover.  The upper Wood River, early that morning, was quite the place to be.

We still had one more bivouac in store, wilfulness or not.  Around 230 I started to fall asleep on my feet and Paige, more alert, took the lead.  My seven hour high had come to an end, and by 3 I was sleep walking extended stretches with no guess, in my moments of alertness, how I managed to stay upright.  Soon Paige was doing the same.  I called a halt, backtracked 50 yards, gathered three likely piles of driftwood into one, fires them up with the pocket rocket, emptied my pack onto the gravel, and passed out, shoes on.  We both slept until the big piles had burned down to ashes.

Paige near Buchanan Pass.

We were both motivated to resume progress, but like before the shivers had hold of us and would not let go.  My shell pants, put away wet the previous evening, were stiff with frost.  I built up another big fire, and we fired up our stoves and inhaled hot coffee and calories.  We would be packrafting the Wood soon, and best to do that in the sun, if at all possible.  2.5 hours seemed to be the sweet spot for breaks, as this one, like the very first two days before, had been that time almost exactly.   A bit more walking got us in the early morning sun and into our boats, for a ripping 8 mile, slightly more than 1 hour run down the Wood.  There were plenty of sweepers to avoid, but with my greater comfort on the water I ran point for most of it and we made the takeout near lower Grizzly Creek without incident.  The boating was as good as packrafting gets, due in no small part to the marvelously speedy break our feet got.

I was beginning to smell the barn, and jumped back into the sharp end of finding the best trail up the brushy creek.  It took a while for the several trails to resolve themselves into one, but when they did that path took us up into the tundra and the top of our last pass with ease.  My legs were reveling in it all, as was I, bit in the teeth, last significant climb of the race, emptying the tank.  We averaged 11 vertical meters per minute for the last 30, almost continuously, which at the moment seemed a borderline absurd vindication of my training.  Paige was not far behind as I sat on the soft tundra, looking at last into the Yanert valley.  Paige took an Aleve, and gave me one (mine had gotten wet two days earlier).  At my request she gave me a Tylenol as well, which upon further reflection was in fact a No-doz.

If you had told me then we had 10+ hours left, I would have been irate, but everything must come to an end, and we lost our momentum inexorably as we descended.  Quads and feet were sore, and slowed on the rough terrain.  Minds were tired, and slowed further still in the alder and willow ‘schwacking.  The Yanert, fast at first, slowed drastically as it lost gradient in the last five miles before Moose Creek.  Lastly, our feet and legs swelled and stiffened during over 3 hours sitting in small boats, and our will to push a pace on the final 8 miles of ATV trail was not extent.  Adding to the aura of mundane endings, the mosquitoes came out in force.  We didn’t talk much on our way to the gravel pit, and hardly talked more as we found the sign in sheet and signed in, seeing that Luc and crew had shot the moon with their improbable route and finished 20 hours in front of us.  Luc had a left a note with directions to a friends cabin down the road, and it was there in the unbelievable, foreign familiarity of carpets, clean wood walls, chairs and pillows that I realized we had in fact finished it.

A life-long goal, with an amazing partner found in unlikely (?) circumstances. I was sad to’ve lost, though not much, and numb from the routes final beat down, though not for long.  Mostly I was slowly, as here not quiet a week later I still am, coming to terms with an irrevocable fact: I would carry the burden of the wilderness classic for the rest of my life.  My intimate, tactile, direct knowledge of my capabilities had been thrust back and broadened with a suddenness the like of which I cannot recall happening since I became a teenager.  The act of having traversed a huge swath of remote terrain with precious little artifice in which to find comfort had removed, preemptively, any number of future excuses for any number of future challenges.  It had been revealed to me that humans, me being one, were capable of astonishing things, and under duress were capable of them right fucking now.  There was, is, no going back.

Naturally, I’ll be doing the classic next year.  The door is open, and now I can go in and explore, for real.

Postscript:

I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise my partner, Paige Brady, in more explicit and extravagant terms.  I do most of my adventures solo, under the perhaps specious excuse that I can’t find anyone who wants to do those trips with me.  Putting that largely aside, the reality is that after my dad’s death I’m not the most easily trusting of people, at least when it really counts.  Paige’s easy strength and confidence, to say nothing of her tolerance of my rampant doubt, made my race much easier.  Most importantly, she was an enormously pleasant and enjoyable person to hike with.  I cannot say it enough: Thanks Paige.

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24 thoughts on “2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic race report

  1. This may well be your finest writing yet Dave. Really, really vivid stuff. The way you describe your childhood and your initial involvement in sports may well have been written by me.

    I just acquired an Alpacka…..and am headed to Alaska in 2 weeks to break it in. Hopefully I’ll see you at the Classic sometime!

  2. Thanks so much everyone.

    It seems quite futile for me to comprehend the whole experience, let alone communicate it. Ergo its especially fulfilling to think that I’ve at least in part succeeded.

    B, you surely need to do the classic.

  3. “My intimate, tactile, direct knowledge of my capabilities had been thrust back and broadened with a suddenness the like of which I cannot recall happening since I became a teenager. The act of having traversed a huge swath of remote terrain with precious little artifice in which to find comfort had removed, preemptively, any number of future excuses for any number of future challenges. ”

    Welcome to the club, Dave!

    The Classic is really the best training there is for something — and that’s using its methods elsewhere.

  4. How were you to become a full fledged man without your dad here to guide and assist has haunted and propelled you. There comes a time when adult children teach and show their parents new tricks (which is a major bonus for parents). You are solidly there. Your dad would have loved to hear all about this new trick of yours!!! You have turned out just fine, rather very fine. We have a gap in our lives from having to live without him but you have grown into a solid man. Appreciate that ultimately parents guide and assist but we each chart our own course. You are doing a fine job of owning your life.

    I went by his grave while you were out there….don’t do that much as he is in my heart….but just in case I told his gravestone what you were up to…covering all the bases. He is very close to me now as we revel in your achievement.

  5. Dave,

    Great report and again kudos for a terrific finish.

    My interest in the Classic goes back to the first time I heard of it back in the early ’80’s. It was something I have had on my radar to do for a long time but for what ever reason never have.

  6. Dave,

    Love this post man, thanks for sharing the experience. Much of it is foreign, while much more is familiar ground to wheeled backcountry experiences I’ve had. Struggling with the prime directive to beat others…and wondering (from an atheist POV) how those no longer with us view our efforts…so much of this experience resonates loudly.

    Bravo!

    DH

  7. Just had a chance to really read this. A truly great effort and a fantastic report. I can really relate to the perspective-altering experiences when one really pushes there personal limits. And I can also relate to the allure of the Wilderness Classic. It, too, was one of the first big Alaska endeavors that I learned of, long before I even lived in Alaska. The Winter Ski Classic still has huge appeal to me personally, though I admit it’s still too daunting to seriously consider. Your insights do show me how I can break down my own mental barriers to take the necessary steps toward achieving something like skiing across the Brooks Range in the winter. Maybe someday.

  8. I don’t think you should cut boughs from trees just because you don’t want to carry a tarp. Why ruin nature?

    1. A fair point, and in a less remote spot one I’d hesitate to take.

      I’d encourage you to be more articulate in the future, least you be moderated (assuming “ruin nature” wasn’t just taking the piss).

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