Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Valdez to McCarthy Wilderness Classic

Download the kml here if interested

Ok so this really doesn't start in Valdez, but rather at the elbow on the Richardson Highway at Thompson Pass. And it doesn't finish in McCarthy either, but rather at the Lakina Bridge, 15 miles west of McCarthy.

As a 130-135 mile traverse of the Eastern Chugach in the Wrangell St. Elias National Park Wilderness, it is indeed a classic. It's as burly as the Nabesna to McCarthy route is fast and easy. Nabesna to McCarthy is open and dry, with essentially no brush, lots of open gravel bars and animal trails, and a handful of ATV trails near Nabesna, Chisana, and McCarthy. Valdez to McCarthy can be slow going, mostly when dealing with alders and devils club. It is wet, with few gravel bars, and no ATV trails. It also has spectacular views, valleys, mountains and waterfalls.

I did it solo from July 8-- July 12, 2012. I think a week or ten days would be a good length, as well, although heavy loads in the Bremner and Little Bremner Valleys of Very Bad Brush will be challenging.

In addition, it was the bushwhacker's route for the 2012 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic and while I found it a really neat route, worth doing again, a number of others either tried it and didn't  find it worth racing again, or didn't finish it. In particular, the brush along the Bremner and Little Bremner is EPIC and so was the Lakina Brush, perhaps surprisingly.

From a packrafting perspective there are 4 pieces: 1) The Tasnuna River (described in Embick's "Fast and Cold") 2) Crossing the Copper 3) Running the Klu (low volume steep creek leading to meandering easy float in picturesque valley, turning into steep bouldery river) and 4) crossing the Chitina. I would suggest crossing the Lakina and hiking to the road as soon as possible as the walking along the Lakina is really horrific in my opinion.

Starting at Thompson Pass most of us contoured on really nice, open benches eastward until the second or so gully heading down. We linked snow-filled gullies and open alder patches (record breaking snows of 2011-2012 led to long-lasting snow) down to the creek that feeds into Heiden Canyon. That creek above Heiden Canyon has many open meadows linked by good animal trails leading to the open flats and gravel bars below Marshall Pass.

Those of us who stayed on the river right side of the Upper Tasnuna had the best going, although the deep snows burying the brush made for really good travel, suggesting that late June might be good in other years, taking advantage of deep snows that cover the brush to make the going fast and easy.

We dropped into a side canyon of glacial fed trib from the south that I was unable to ford so stayed river left until just above the confluence with the main Tasnuna. There I put in -- the others traveling near me put in lower. It was Class II+ maybe III (for those of you who know the PR system, it was PR3-4) with cold water and big waves but very few holes for a mile or two. I put in right around the 900 foot elevation on the side stream.

The 20 miles below the upper section was smooth sailing, although afternoon headwinds pushing up from the Copper were a bit bothersome. With the couple other big glacier tribs coming in the Tasnuna is a real river, fast and cold but easy. There are very few trees in the valley, most likely because of the steep slopes and high snow that crushes them under avalanches as they grow. Some beautiful peaks and waterfalls to the south rise above the carpets of alder on the valley walls.

It took us about six hours to make the 12 miles to the put-in (race pace!) and another six hours to get down to and across the Copper to the Bremner Dunes.

Crossing the Copper is straightforward channel hopping and bar walking. Make sure you do it in the evening when the winds have died (after six PM perhaps?). It would be hard to do in the big winds and a bummer to lose your boat.

I'd been to the Bremner Dunes 15 or so years ago on a Chitina to Cordova hellbike trip with Paul Adkins and Bob Kaufman using mtn bikes and Sherpa Packrafts so I looked forward to hiking them.

I hit the dunes at their most upstream end and walked along the edge with the vegetation until a bear trail took me in and I crossed a channel that comes down from the Peninsula. Fifty yards of brush and I was back to dune walking along the Bremner. The sand is firm and delightful and at night the light and the mountains and the wildness of the place is magic. The Bremner Dunes are certainly among the neatest places I have been in AK, mostly for the scenery , the views the good walking , and the novelty of the sand.

Walking upstream on river right of the Bremner I linked really good moose and bear trails in open sandy blow-outs for a couple of hours. These gave out eventually when the sandy ridge that separates the willow choked wetlands at the base of the mountains from the mixed alder/willow brush along the  Bremner narrowed. The best going was along the beaver trails on the Bremner side, although occasional forays inland to creek gravel bars and meadows led to good walking, too. Still, my best categorization for the stretch to the Little Bremner is as Class III-IV brush (very little V until you reach the steep corner when even on a relativley well-defined bear trail you must climb over and slip under on hands and knees perhaps big alders and some small cliffs).John Lapkass reports that crossing the Bremner to the other side is no better. Josh Mumm waded out into the foot deep waters and quicksand to the islands and made good time, using his boat to get back to the mainland. Mixed in with all the northside brush, especially at the sloughs of the Little Bremner, are nasty, knee-deep bog-slogging stretches.

We found that walking up the western channel of the Little Bremner to get to the Little Bremner proper was expedient: Cris-crossing a small shin deep stream for an hour or two to the Little Bremner. Walking up the river right Little Bremner is best. Bar walking gives way to bar hopping gives way to canyon after a couple of hours and it's here where you might want to head east for the magic 3000' contour line and contour into the East Fork Valley on its south side. The walking there is excellent and spectacular alpine tundra with great views of waterfalls in what seems all directions.

I stayed on river left (climber's right, i.e. south side) of the East Fork all the way to the pass over to Harry's Gulch (this is opposite what the Falcon Guide to Wrtangell St Elias says). The north side never looked appealing and I made very good time (check the graphic at my blog http://packrafting.blogspot.com/2012/07/2012-wilderness-classic.html).

Descending Harry's Gulch in late June would likely be similar to what we encountered: fast snowpack from avalanches. Down near the two tributaries at about 2500 feet the brush returns. The first trib has a 400 foot cascading waterfall that can't be seen well from below or above, but can be seen from across the creek. In any event, right around this 2500 foot contour stay river left as the Harry's Gulch creek starts canyoning-out and getting very steep. I linked meadows and clear passage to the climber's left of the big waterfall, not immediately left, but up a shallow gully just before it. It was one of the highlights of the route for me, as it was brush free to the top of the waterfall, across a snow bridge above the waterfall and then all brush-free travel from there and into the next valley east and up that and over into the Klu. The views were as good as the walking and it highlights what people fly into these Chugach to experience.

The pass into the Klu was full of new snow from near 3000 feet on the wet southern side to about 4000 feet on the drier northern side. This is another neat area.

I was able to put in on the Klu at 3800 feet which was running perhaps a bit low that morning at about 150 cfs. For a couple miles it is a steep  creek, drop pool architecture, with some pretty sharp rocks, maybe Class III (PR 3) in places. More water it would be IV-ish. I ran it in my decked scout with a Sawyer paddle and would have preferred my real whitewater paddle and a bigger boat. There was no wood in this stretch and it's all runnable by an experienced creeking packrafter, even on its 200 foot/mile section.

About where the first major trib comes into the Klu from the soiuth, the Klu cuts into a bunch of willow and the going is weird and sieved out by willow brush. After this section the river opens into a beautiful valley with very picturesque side valleys and isolated spruce. The going was mellow enough that I almost fell asleep. Around 3000 feet the Klu heads north and then northeast and starts dropping faster and is full of granite boulders. The volume is quadruple what it was above the first southern trib and it feels like a small river. There is lots of beetle killed spruce here and it's been washed onto the corners by floods. I never had to get out for any but it does keep your attention.

By the time the Klu heads east again at 2700 feet it is pretty much continuous Class II+, feeling a bit like Class III. I had a dry suit, but no helmet nor PFD nor partner and wanted those for this section. I was nervous and wanted a bigger boat and better paddle (I'd broken my Sawyer bade off the shaft and fixed it with a strap and a trekking pole) as the river was maybe 750 cfs and felt like the filler on Little Su at that level. I had originally planned to run the Klu and the  Chakina with a whitewater-skilled partner, but they had all bailed on me, and as I paddled down in my little Scout all alone I was glad that they hadn't come and we had not committed to the Klu-Chakina in July. The water is beautiful and fun but it drops steeper and more constricted.

I got out at the first major trib on river left, downstream of Coal Creek, at about 2500 feet. I was happy to get out and start walking up this trib.

The walking on the climber's right side was terrible. Luc Mehl and Josh Mumm, who did not float all the way to this unnamed creek, cut the corner and said that the walking on climber's left after cutting the corner was "not bad". It took me 2-3 hours to get up and above the lower canyon.

This creek has some spruce and good willows for a fire before heading high into the Steamboat Hills, and over those and down. There's a benchmark called "Shut" on the USGS topo just north of the extreme headwaters of Steamboat Creek (named on the map). Just east of the Shut benchmark is a shoulder and I followed steep tundra to alders to spruce to a burn to the banks of the Chitina through some pretty slow brush. I left the pass on the south side of "Shut" at about 9:30 and reached the Chitina River itself by 2:00 PM. That's like 5 miles and 4500 feet down in about 5 hours or so.

The Chitina crossing was easy, even with a bit of wind, and I climbed the easternmost, lightly vegetated open bluff on the north side, then headed northeast-ish to get to the Lakina.

My advice would be to cross the Lakina as soon as possible and get to the Road. The going along the Lakina itself was as bad as along the Bremner, in my opinion.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

2012 Wilderness Classic

The Thompson Pass to Lakina River Bridge AMWC route was maybe the slowest race in thirty years -- the winners (in Luc Mehl's video above) averaged 1.35 miles/hour. For comparison, Bobby Schnell, Jason Geck, Tyler Johnson and Rory Stark averaged more than twice that speed at 3.4 mph during the 160 mile Eureka to Talkeetna race in 2005. The next slowest (1.7 mph) after this year's race would have to be the Chicken to Circle 180 mile race in 4 days 10 hours by Bobby Schnell and Chris Robertson in 2006.

It took me 4 days 9 hours and 52 minutes (Luc's stats are based on my "I finished 12 hours behind you guys"), a bit less than 12 hours behind Luc Mehl and Josh Mumm and a bit less than six hours behind Gerard Ganey and Todd Tumalo.  John Sykes and Mike Loso came in a couple hours later than I did but I was asleep in Jason Geck's truck waiting for them when they came in so missed their time.

Like Josh (in glasses above) and Luc (back of head above), I took the bushwhacker's route. Unlike them I slept a considerable amount  as I like sleeping more than hallucinating (14 hours sleep, plus camp time). I generally slept under a tree and around a small fire I kept burning all night, no tent, no bag, just a foam pad, a puffy jacket and some expedition weight pants. The bivies were nice.

When I did hallucinate it was of the two in front of me, small figures waiting and watching, sometimes howling at me. Several times I ached to catch them just to share the beautiful moments and compare notes on the miserable.

Like the long day up the East Fork and down Harry's Gulch and then over the pass into the Klu. New snow and wind had buried their tracks going up and when I passed over the divide I found breakable crust and deep snow. I found it ironic that on sore feet after twenty hours of walking I looked for sharp rocks and moraine to avoid the snow. Eventually I found their tracks and they too were looking for rocks and sand and finding wet water beneath the snow.

 Carrying only a 1:250,000 lost me some time on the East Fork. Its lack of detail and a snowstorm combined to make it hard for me to discern big from small.

I cultivated a zen-like state moving through the Bremner River's  (Big and Little) brush, being alone as I was, and extra wary of injury in such deep, often steep stuff.

Curiously I held the lead from about 4:30 PM the first day after I put in and paddled the Tasnuna early on, passing Luc, Josh, and Dave Chenault (DC) in my little Super Scout. They were scrambling butt over rapids and brush and not looking back when I decided to blow up and pass up the lads who were just getting in when I rode the big waves on by. Looking back and seeing them portage gave me hope I might hold a lead.

And I did. But not really for very long.

Like terminators, Luc and Josh with DC in tow closed the gap quickly across the Bremner Dunes, making it to within 20 minutes of me by the end of that wonderful walking near midnight. Then we got into the brush and it took them another six hours to catch me.

Traveling with them for an hour or so was painful. First, poor old DC had a too tall of a  pack and was just stumbling through the brush in a decidedly painful fashion. And Luc, well he charged through the stuff along the bear trail we shared with a youthful vim and vigor I could only marvel at while he chased down his partner Josh, who paced up and down the lower Little Bremner like an impatient dog waiting for his owner .

I must say that aside from the horrible Lakina and Bremner book-ends of bad brush, the heart of the route -- from East Fork and down the Klu -- to be spectacular. The 20 miles of the Klu offer an outstanding packraft (snapped my Sawyer  paddle blade off one hour into it) of a creek turning into river and East Fork and Harry's Gulch waterfalls were beautiful in the rain and snow.

Would I do that route again?

Yes, certainly, even if it's remarkably slow. It is such Classic-Big-Chugach-Wilderness, like the Chugach State Park mountain range pumped up and made virile with testosterone -- bigger, bolder peaks, bigger, burlier waterfalls, bigger, brushier valleys, bigger badder brush -- the real deal in wildness. It's actually a great test of one's tenacity, as evidenced by the high drop-out rate. But once you get through the d-club and alder, you're rewarded as it opens up nicely and, again, the Klu paddle in the sunshine was a real highlight: beautiful water in a beautiful valley.

But next year I think I'll go for that glacier route. It looks neat and running the Tana Canyon really appeals, too. Kudos to Ganey and Todd for pushing on through the snow storms to paddle its Grand Canyon rapids.

In summary, Luc needn't worry that he has killed the Classic.

 No, he has only re-polished its reputation.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


From an email:

AlaskAcross 12:
Bob Gillis:          2da. 5hr. 44mn. (Wildermeister, AKX 12)
C. Roman Dial:      3da. 9hr. 20mn.
Mark Ross: scratched at 18hr. 20mn.

Weather conditions were near perfect for the entire duration of the event: temp 45F to 55F, high overcast to partly cloudy, dry air, ~nil biting insects.
high water provided efficient paddling in creeks and rivers, participants reported good moose and caribou trails.  late remaining snow fields/patches provided good footing above ~3500'.
Finish accomodations at the Meiers Lake Roadhouse are near plush: very comfortable bunkhouse, great hospitality by the Roadhouse owners (Harvel and Tina). Also, a possible mid-point termination station, the MaClaren River Lodge (proprietors Alan and Suzy), is friendly and hospitable.

Here's a bit of a trek log: AlaskAcross 12 (AKX 12) by Mark Ross:
Bob Gillis and Mark Ross met near the AKX 12 start area, old Denali, on Saturday, June 16. Finding no others in near vicinity and with the start impending in 1hr, they drove together in Ross' car searching for other wayward AlaskAcrossers. Finding no others within ~5mi north on the mining road, they planned to trek together, rather than compete, to explore AKX 12 terrain. Then, a man in a dry suit was sighted, reconoitering a swollen creek crossing. He was C. Roman Dial.  Quickly fording the stream on foot,  Dial shook hands and announced his intention of traversing the entire AlaskAcross12 route regardless of how many others participated. Within minutes, Dial took off south on the swollen Susitna River paddling a packraft. Ross and Gillis sent him off with the message not to dally for they would join in and make it a competition.  Setting out quickly overland on an easterly route, Gillis and Ross headed into the Clearwater Mountains. So, AKX 12 was on, with the three participants trekking as solo competitors. Dial's position in the country would remain unknown to Gillis and Ross until his arrival at the Meiers Lake Roadhouse finish area three days later, but he carried a "spot" transmitter which sent his position to computer-linked friends in Anchorage.
Gillis and Ross, traveling in proximity, traversed the narrow Roseveldt pass, intermitently following atv and caribou trails while traversing high snow fields and snow patches. In the high point of the pass a loping wolverine trail was followed for a mile. A day or two earlier the big mustelid had plowed a loping trail through new snow. Surprizingly, except for the wolvervine trail, no track or sign of large predators was seen through the pass; no sign of wolf or bear. Once across the pass, caribou and moose trails led through willow and birch shrub to the western headwater branch of Clearwater Creek. Down stream a few miles a small tributary contributed, and the creek was swollen well above cobble and bank. Gillis annouced his intention of paddling east to Clearwater Creek and down (south) to the Denali highway, then to negotiate his way overland to the Ahtna Plateau mountains south of the hwy (Alphabet Hills). Ross shared his intention of paddling east and assessing the next high pass east to the west fork of the MaClaren River. Thus, the three AlaskAcrossers planned to negotiate separate ~100 routes to the finish. Gillis was on the creek and floating with about a 5min head start. Ross, to his surprise, did not catch Gillis on that headwater creek. Gillis' position in the country would remain unknown until his finish two days later at the Meiers Lake Roadhouse.
In final summary, Ross did not go overland east to MaClaren west fork river, but continued paddling the swollen and fast Clearwater creek south to the Denali hwy. He then continued on foot south of the highway. After ~10mi of overland travel southeasterly, Ross scratched from the event in the early morning hours of Sunday. He backtracked to the MaClaren River Lodge, all the while amid the dawn chorus of boreal songbirds: Ross scratched at 18hr. 20mn of AKX 12. 
Gillis walked south to the mountains, then east to dickey lake, paddled the Gulkana and walked to the finish: 2da. 5hr. 44mn, thus earning the title of first arrival and Wildermeister of AKX 12. 
Dial paddled the Susitna south to the mountains then continued overland (hampered by a high thigh injury sustained early) east to Dickey Lake, then paddled the Gulkana from the white water outlet and finished with an 8mi walk to finish: 3da. 9hr. 20mn.   At the finish, Meiers Lake Roadhouse,  hospitality was plentiful: food, drink, a bunkhouse and friendly folks.
-Mark Ross,  June 24 2012
Gillis carried a camera and there may be photos in thursday's newsminer.

More details later
/* Use this with templates/template-twocol.html */