Saturday, July 19, 2014

Adventures in Tibet: Five Treks, Two Koras, a Packraft Loop and a High-Altitude Train Ride

Looking for ice worms in Tibet was tough.

First there was the lack of good maps. I had a handful of old Russian military topos at the 1:250,000 scale. Horribly out of date, with unpronounceable names in an unreadable language made them not too good as road maps, and the contour intervals combined with the extraordinarily steep terrain made them good for little more than dreaming.

The best nav tool was an iPad Mini, cellular version that has a GPS, combined with Gaia GPS. Gaia is an iPhone or iPad ap that allows you to save images and maps to device disk when you have an internet connection and then acts as a GPS with those images/maps when you are away from cellular or other connections. It is a game-changer for wildland travel when maps are hard to get.

Second was what's needed to find ice worms: warm, wet glaciers in the dark during the summer monsoon. This meant hiking up muddy trails to yak pastures to make a camp. Then building a cairn chain across the moraine in the afternoon, generally between 14,000 and 15,000 feet; the best cairns were three rocks with the middle rock contrasting with the outer rocks, reflective white being best. Then hiking up slippery bare ice, hopping crevasses and getting above snow line as darkness fell with rain, now at about 16,000 feet, to stumble around in the darkness looking fruitlessly for worms. Then stumbling back down across the glacier, trying to follow our cairns across the moraine by headlamp in the dark and rainy mist after midnight, back to our tent, or maybe a cabin if we were lucky.

Third were the Chinese police and their Tibetan informers who eyed us Western foreigners suspiciously, as they have watched Western foreigners for maybe a half millennium or more. With tension between Chinese and Tibetans, Chinese and Americans, and the general xenophobia of superstitious mountain people isolated from others by Himalayan mountains, rivers, gorges, and glaciers (their dialects were hard for our Lhasa guides to decipher), we were hassled every few days and eventually chased out of the region and back to Lhasa by the authorities who did not trust what we were up to.

I'd scouted out potential ice worm locations as glaciers in the Yarlung Tsangpo drainage. The Yarlung is the primary Himalayan watershed, draining the north side from as far away as Everest, and runs east a thousand miles before cutting the arguably deepest gorge in the world past Namche Barwa, last 25,000 foot peak to be climbed (1992). Swinging south past Namche Barwa, the Yarlung flows into the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (which Brad M. visited after the Megalaya Show up and Blow up) and becomes the Brahmaputra. While hundreds of miles from the Indian Ocean, the summertime high pressure air lifting off the Tibetan Plateau sucks warm wet air off the Ocean as wet, summer monsoon winds. These winds bring daily afternoon thundershowers as they rise up the Brahmaputra and Yarlung valleys, making the region luxurious in conifers and glaciers, like a beefy Cascades or BC Coast Range, but twice as high and three times the distance to the ocean.

The main valley we followed was T-shaped and two hundred miles long -- more if the western extent -- totally off-limits to foreigners -- were accessible. The valley we wanted to visit is called the Yigong Tsangpo and it has been off-limits to climbers chasing granite spires rising off the biggest glaciers in the eastern Himalaya, kayakers looking for the steep-creek style but Grand Canyon scale rivers, and trekkers after untouched Tibetan nomads in lush mountain forests. It is also the valley reputed to have the Tibetan ice worm.

Using Google Earth we'd found a half-dozen 3-4 day trips that went from the road to 16,000 feet or at the firn line on monsoon glaciers.

The first was near Gyala Peri. We all went as far as a meadow filled with blue poppies the first night and then all but one of us went to the yak pastureland between glaciers, and then Thai and I went up to the glacier between Sendapu (22,349 ft) and Tiba Kangri (22,460 ft), to prime ice worm habitat.

Bridge across Wrong Chiu on the way up to glaciers in the Gyala Peri Range

The entire expedition on our first hike: we had one horse for the eight of us.

Mike in the low mid elevation birch forest.

Could be Alaska: log cabin with elder-berry

Iris and something familiar in yellow.

So familiar yet foreign: cabins, conifers, and cloud

The part of Tibet that looks like Alaska

Thai follows a yak trail bordered by willows.

Bear track -- this bear killed a yak calf.

This pasture was bounded by two glaciers and a mountain. The 35 yaks were herded by two young girls and an old man.

Yak camp below Sendapu (22,349 ft)

Pasture camp view -- spruce and steep, Himalayan headwalls.

Young yak herders up for the summer.

Tibetan hospitality. The radio played music off a USB stick.
On the fire is milk being heated to make butter.
Hanging above the fire pit is dried cheese on a string.
The girl was 18 years old.

June young.
Making yak butter tea, Tibetan style.

Heading out for the night.

Most glaciers are fed by avalanches from high above.

Thai went for simple spires on prominent rocks as cairns (on rock to right of him). Not always identifiable as cairns in the dark, though.

Excellent ice worm habitat but without any ice worms.

Looking for a spot to wait until dark.

North American ice worms like these creeks during the day.

Where we hung out for hours until dark, sheltered from the rain.

Marking our high point on the first of two glaciers we visited that night.

Future yak pastures?

Huge avy cones and moraine rubble.

It would soon start raining all night long.

Hanging out, brewing up, staying dry, waiting for dark.

This trip set the pattern: we'd drive to the valley coming out of the glaciers we wished to visit and make camp at the end of the road. Then our guide would talk to some locals who'd bargain for horses, if we wanted them. Then we'd pack light and head up in the morning, taking most of a day or more to get to the last yak meadow before the glacier moraine. This meant we'd encounter herders, up high for the summer, who'd share salty tea, yak butter, rock-hard dried cheese on a string, and if we were lucky the best yogurt I have ever eaten and maybe some greasy yak-meat stew.

After the first trip Thai and I were usually on our own, without any language save pidgin-sign. This meant for some good times with locals as we tried to explain where we were from, where we'd come down or up from, what we were doing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Month in Tibet

Last summer, July 2013, Thai Verzone, Mike Tetreau and Prof. Dan Shain and I went to southeastern Tibet, the part that doesn't look like what you'd expect Tibet to look like. And we went in June and July when most Himalayan trekkers don't go. Why don't they go in summer? Because the summer monsoon winds bring wet weather every day and the shining mountains the walkers want to see are hidden.

Southeastern Tibet in June looks more like the Cascades in winter than the Himalaya in summer.

We also went to Lhasa, the place that looks more like your imagination -- yaks and prayer flags, no trees, rounded mountains with smooth, polar glaciers, yurts and nomads, the high grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. But we spent just a week there in high Tibet, if you will, at the end, after three weeks in the Yarlung Tsangpo's tributary valleys.

Potola Palace at night from our hotel in Lhasa

This was the third time I'd gone to the tall, glaciated mountains of Asia, the largest alpine tundra expanse in the world, I'd guess.

A Himalayan tundra plateau steaming after a summer monsoon shower below Tsima La (16,200 feet)

Summer 2012 Young Roman and I visited Bhutan.

Tiger's Nest: Taktsang Monestary

 Summer 2011 Thai and I went to far western Yunnan Province, where China bumps up against Burma and Tibet at the headwaters of the Mekong River.

 Each of these trips we searched for the Tibetan ice worm. While we we unsuccessful with ice worms all were enormously successful otherwise.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Arrigetch Creeking 2012

Aiyagomahala Creek (aka South Arrigetch/Hot Springs Creek) at the end of the long Class III section and just above the Class IV.

For a number of years I wanted to fly into the Alatna Valley with a basecamp and big group to explore the many creeks that radiate (see last map) out from the Arrigetch Creek area. In a 20 mile stretch of the Alatna there are four creeks on the river left bank (Nahtuk, Pingaluk, Kutuk, Unakserak) and another four on the river right bank (Awlinyak, Arrrigetch, Aiyagonahala, and Takahula).

The idea was to hike on the wonderful game trails and ridges then float down the various creeks. I’d walked down the Nahtuk in 1986 with Peggy and packrafted its lowest reaches, but also marveled at its inner canyons. In the early 2000’s Thor and Ralph Tingey and later a trio of PJs packrafted Unakserak. In 2010, Andrew Skurka and I walked down the Pingaluk valley on wonderful animal trails while I drooled over its splashy rock garden canyons. Without a drysuit, PFD, helmet, nor partner similarly equipped or interested in running its Class III looking water, I regretted not paddling it. I’d also spent a month in the late 70s rock climbing in the Aiyagomhala Valley, and walked up Arrigetch Creek and over to Awlinyak a number of times: all three of those looked good for some boating, too, and in 2010 Dave Weimer packrafted Awlinyak. In a blog post I measured the gradient for all the creeks, too, and saw that there was potential from Class I on the Alatna to Class V on Aiyagomahala, Arrigetch, and the upper reaches of Awlinyak Creek.

After pricing out our options, it was most cost effective for nine of us (me and Peggy; Gordy Vernon; Toby Schwoerer; Mike Curiak; Ole and his brother Dennis Carrillo; Kim Mincer and Joe McLauglin) to drive to Coldfoot and fly with Coyote Air ($1596 for 1250 pounds) on wheels to a gravel bar near the mouth of Arrigetch Creek. After a week the pilot Dirk Nickisch returned to pick up Ole, Dennis, and Peggy and left Thai Verzone, Cliff Wilson and Stefan Milkowski. After the second week, Mike, Kim, Joe and I flew out from a gravel bar strip a mile and a half upstream of Aiyagomahala Creek (aka Hot Springs Creek and South Arrigetch Creek) while Gordy, Thai and Cliff walked the 80 miles to Anaktuvuk in 4 days -- Pingaluk to Kevuk (packraftable) to Walkaround to Yenituk (tussocky!) to John River (more tussocky!!) and Toby and Stephan walked to the Haul Road more leisurely.

We had bear barrels from nearly 3 to 30 gallons; a bear fence; a nine-person bug net shelter; a shade/rain tarp; basecamp food, clothes and tents. We had the sunny promise of June in the Brooks Range before Solstice, with, hopefully few bugs and lots of runoff.

Ultimately we had the sunshine and few bugs (until late June when rain and bugs arrived in force), but not really enough water for everything. In fact, Pingaluk and Nahtuk were dry (only inches deep); Kutuk (Class II+), Awlinyak, (Class III-) and upper Aiyagomahala bony; Arrigetch (Class IV) and lower Aiyagomhala (Class IV+) just right.

Generally we enjoyed great animal trails and relatively benign brush on one to three day trips out of basecamp (BC). We were able to make two summits combined with overnight camps and packraft floats out:

(1) a long day trip up and down the Kutuk (6 mile hike followed by a 6 mile Class II+ float down Kutuk and 1.5 miles on the Alatna). Highlights are views of the Arrigetch and fun little boulder gardens on the Kutuk.

(2) an overnight via Peak 4200 on the Unakserak (12 mile hike + 9 miles on Unakserak + 8 miles on Alatna). Amazing summit and fun climb up this peak prominent to the NW of our base camp. Some really good ridge walking connecting Kutuk and Unakserak valleys.

(3) a two night trip up Arrigetch Creek, over 6600 foot Ariel Peak and out Awlinyak Creek – possibly the best three day trip I have made (17 mile hike over 6600 foot summit + 14 miles on Awlinyak + 8 miles on Alatna). Gordy said the summit view was the best he'd ever seen from a mountain-top, looking out at the Arrigetch Peaks all around us. The creek was spalshy and full of grayling too. The weather perfect.

(4) an overnight down the Alatna, up Pingaluk via 2100 foot bluff, and over ridges back to BC with stunning views of the Arrigetch (4 miles on Altana + 22 mile hike over 3900 foot peak). Disappointed that there was no water in Pingaluk. The best whitewater landscape route in Gates of the Arctic would include this creek after the John River and finishing with a hike into the Kobuk headwaters for some lightly loaded rafting toward Walker Lake and maybe beyond.

(5) a day trip up Arrigetch Creek for an "instant classic" run of Arrigetch Creek that ultimately disemboweled my boat with sharp schist (3 mile hike up 1.2 miles + 300 vertical foot Class IV + 2 mile hike out). Until I cut my boat this was the most fun mile of packrafting I may have ever had. Comparisons to Ship Creek, Magic Mile, and Little Susitna were inevitable. A pool drop schist canyon w/big granite boulders too that thinned out near the bottom exposing the razor sharp rocks. The U shaped cut was maybe 2 feet long and reached from deck to hull. Bummer!

(6) a three day trip from BC to upper Aiyagomhala and out to the Alatna (25 mile hike + 8 mile paddle including a 200 ft/mile Class IV+ section) for pickup where some of us walked and some of us rafted and those rafting found exactly what we were looking for: challenging whitewater like Little Su in lightly loaded boats. Hot springs and beautiful bedrock waterfalls and slides on upper Aiyagomhala ("Little California"). Not enough water and some ugly stop rocks at the bottom of the drops in the "Little California" section of Upper Aiyagomahala. After the rain we could have put in at Hot Springs and ran from there but instead walked a mile or so downriver and put-in there to run nearly constant Class II and III to a mile or so with five Class IV and above drops, all of which we ran.

Going in earlier than we did (we were there June 16-30) could mean better water from snowmelt and even fewer bugs (some of us never used bug dope for the first twelve days); July would have bad bugs (as discovered by those who walked out first week of July); August would be hit or miss with water and would have dark nights, but pretty colors.

Spending a month in an Alatna basecamp with rock gear (see as well as elbow pads and face masks and beefed up packrafts could be even more fun: Rainy? go boating! Sunny? go climb granite peaks!

There are plenty of steep creeks left on both sides of the Alatna (as well as clean lines on rock). For example Upper Aiyagomhala and the lime-section of Arrigetch (i.e upper canyon -- we did lower canyon) have some obvious Class V+ potential. We left those drops for the next-gen packrafters.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Arrigetch Creeking" -- 25 years of Packrafting in the Brooks Range

On Thursday night I'm going to present on 25 years of packrafting in the Brooks Range, starting with Peggy's and my Gates of the Arctic leg of a 1000 mile traverse from Kaktovik to Kotzebue in 1986 and finishing with the "Freezing Man Packraft Festival" in the Alatna-Arrigetch in 2012.

It's with the Knik Canoers and Kayakers: 7 PM Thursday March 27 at the Loussac Library here in Anchorage.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Wilderness Classic at Eagle River Visitor's Center

Dick Griffith, the oldest competitor and arguably the founder of Wilderness Racing and packrafting, and John Lapkass, who's completed and entered more Wilderness Classics than anyone else, and I will be telling stories and showing old photos tomorrow, Sunday March 23.

Getting ready for that led me to this 1985 Outside Magazine old story about the third Hope to Homer Race in 1984. Most of the pictures in it I took the year before (1983) when Jim Lokken and I raced together across the Harding Icefield with nordic racing skis and then crammed ourselves in one Sherpa Packraft to float down the Fox River.

/* Use this with templates/template-twocol.html */