Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Triple A": All Across the Gates

"Triple A"-- a route that visits many of the scenic highlights of the central Brooks Range as it crosses the seven million acre Gates of the Arctic National Park. It's a route I suggested to Andrew Skurka, who modified it a bit. I posted some of the middle section of Triple A, the part from Anaktuvuk Pass to the Arrigetch, on my previous blog post and as a guest on Hiking in Finland. Each of those links have more photos and text.

The route is best done during August (3-6 weeks), when bugs are sparse, days are long, and colors intensifying, with food drops at Anaktuvuk Pass (Post Office), Circle/Kutuk Lakes (bear barrels) and Pingo Lake (bear barrels). Bring a sat phone.

Anaktuvuk, Arrigetch, Ambler are three touchstones of the central Brooks Range from east to west, and as a packrafting trip in the Brooks Range it's hard to beat these 400 miles. The route passes through the best mountain sections, including the Doonerak region, Arrigetch Peaks and front range of Igikpak. It floats North Fork of Koyukuk to Ernie Creek, John River to Wolverine Creek, Pingaluk to Alatna, the Noatak to Lake Matcherak, and all of the Ambler River. It follows game trails and excellent creek and river bars and avoids more tussocks and brush than you'd believe.

Drive up the Dalton Highway to a little turn-off to the west, just before the pipeline road leaves the Dietrich valley bottom and just downstream of Nutirwik Creek. It's about sixty miles north of Coldfoot (you could fly to Coldfoot from Fairbanks on Arctic Air for $250). Hike up Koyuktuvuk, Trembley, Blarney Creeks and over Kinnorutin Pass to descend Amawk Creek and paddle N. Fork Koyukuk (PR 3 -- PR 4 at high water). Climb Doonerak via a scramble up its south ridge, if you like heights and broad views.

From the junction of North Fork Koyukuk and Ernie Creek there is a bit of tussocks to the Valley of the Precipices. Unbelievably, this should be one of only two tussock stretches, if you read your landscapes well en route to Ambler. Bar-hop on mature willow bars or follow well-drained tundra ridges and noses to Graylime and Anaktuvuk Creek. If you are travelling light (i.e. have a food cache in Anaktuvuk mailed to the PO there) these creeks are mostly paddleable, except for some braids on the lower Anaktuvuk, where you can pick up an ATV trail and follow to Anaktuvuk Pass, a friendly village IMO. Peggy and I took a week to Anaktuvuk in one boat in 1986; I walked from Anatuvuk to the road in a day and a half in 2006. Plan for four-five days, three days if you have Wilderness Classic experience.

From Anaktuvuk to Takahula/Circle/Kutuk Lakes is another 4-7 days. Pick up food in Anaktuvuk that you have mailed ahead; although it may be possible to buy what you need at the Nunamiut Store. There are about five flights a day to Fairbanks, and sometimes to Coldfoot, so you can bail out if you need to, or hike up a pass beyond "Giant Creek" and float the Tinayguk (PR 3) back out toward Wiseman.

Eventually you will see the river start to drop around Kollutuk Creek into rock gardens of PR3. This is fun and splashy and easy with rain gear, no PFD, a Sawyer Paddle, and neoprene socks, even in the rain, if you wear a puffy jacket under your rain gear. Just pull up the sleeves to keep from soaking the arm insulation and rest your elbows on your knees. When the steep bit ends, three creeks (Ekokpuk, Masu, and Kolluturak) unite and come in from river right, doubling the flow of the John, making it feel like a small river instead of a creek. There are cottonwoods here. The river cruises nicely to Till Creek where raids begin again up to PR3, ending a couple miles above Publituk Creek, where the first spruce appear (ya!).

When the Hunt Fork comes into the John,
the river gets big but the gradient has lessened. Three hours below Hunt Fork, take out at Wolverine Creek (pic) and barhop and game trail follow west to its headwater pass. The travel is among the fastest and best westward walking on the Triple A route. White boulders make the upper stretch scenic and fun.

Cross into the upper Iniakuk drainage (see pic left) below Nahtuk Mountain and drop down and climb again over a second pass leading into the upper Nahtuk drainage. The upper Nahtuk also has an awesome network of game trails (mostly BMWs = bear/moose/wolf trails) but be sure to cut over to the Pingaluk at the lowest, most obvious pass, as the lower Nahtuk is the worst walking I have encountered in the Brooks Range.

The three hours along the upper Pingaluk's eastern tributary isn't much better thank the lower Nahtuk (shown right and typical -- brush on the right side, tussocks, humocks, sponga on the left and a nasty sharp rock canyon near the bottom), but when the main Pingaluk River is reached, awesome BMWs lead downstream to where a couple of canyons offer up spicy PR 3 (first canyon) and PR4+ (second canyon). These are easily portaged on moose trails that go high on river right. If you lose the trails, no problem: the woods are open and the ground relatively firm and dry. The lower Pingaluk is easy PR2 (for its sweepers and wood) and leads to the Alatna.

Nasty walking upstream to Circle Lake or Kutuk lakes along the base of the river right hillsides includes bad brush and tussocks. Longer but better travel wanders out onto the old bars and sloughs and open forest of the Alatna and heads upstream that way. I have done both and am not sure which I prefer. But there is NO good trail along the base of the hills to Arrigetch Creek from Circle Lake or Pingaluk River mouth.

Pick up a food drop if you can at Circle lake or Kutuk Lake, or even Takahula, then head up Arrigetch Creek's "use trail", which is on river right on the first canyon's rim. The use trail ends below the "Elephant's Tooth" at the forks of Aquarius and Arrigetch Creeks, where it's best to cross to the river left bank of the main Arrigetch Creek and follow caribou trails relatively high up-valley to below Ariel Peak.

Arrigetch Peaks from the use trail. The use trail has some remarkable campsites, but is a boggy, soggy, brushy route that is worse than most of the game trails in other valleys. It's still the best way into the main Arrigetch Valley.

Camp at the Forks in Arrigetch Valley. There is wood here and some signs of use, but it's clean and you'll feel compelled to keep it that way. The Aquarius Valley (up the left fork) makes for a good day trip and the big north walls of the Maidens and Badille are spectacular.

I used these Salomon shoes and like their aggressive grip. Mike didn't get enough support, but I find these my favorite shoes (Speed Cross, I think). They need some beefing up with glue-goo on the toe seems before leaving or you'll find yourself sewing.

The unclimbed Grayling Wall on Xanadu. If you look closely you can see the big dorsal fin of a grayling outlined on this wall. It's about 2000-2500 feet tall, I think.

The disappearing glacier on Melting Tower. Older photos show the glacier extending all along the ledge to the right. I saw it that way last time I was here in this valley in 1994. I wish I had all my slides scanned so I could post that image.

Looking down Arrigetch Creek with the Elephant's Tooth on the right and Nahtuk Mountain far off on the horizon. "Triple A" goes along the base of both mountains. The views from here are worth the hike, even from Kutuk Lake. Ariel is a surprisingly easy climb, no harder than Flattop in the Anchorage area.

Caliban, the highest peak in the Arrigetch. Ryan Hokanson climbed Caliban a couple years back with Sam Johnson. They called their route the "Pillar Arete", 5.10, Grade V, 16 pitches via a long and complex ridge route.

At the base of Ariel, looking back at the main Arrigetch Peaks. This meadow is a good palce to get a drink and eat before pushing up talus to the ridge and on to the summit.

Make your way to the backside of Ariel and follow its north ridge (chossy but doable with fifty pounds on your back) to where the long chossy shards change to a firm rotten granite that looks like sandstone. Drop your packs here and continue on the third class scramble to tag the summit and grab a fantastic view. Back to the packs follow the loose scree between slabs to talus below and take a break at the small lake shown on the 1:250,000 maps (but not shown on the 1:63,360).

Ariel is airy! But remarkably stable. Stay close to the ridge on the long shards of chossy rock.

Granite spine on Ariel -- leave your packs at the base and tag the summit. The chossy shards end at the base of this rib. Follow it to the summit but climb back down to make your way off the backside of Ariel.

Good, safe footing -- just don't stumble! In the background is the initial spine. This is the final summit ridge. You need your hands in a few places.

Summit Ridge of Ariel.

Looking off the overhanging summit of Ariel. The summit is small and very much overhung.

Wichman's Tower (left) and Xanadu's Grayling Wall (right). These are easy views to get and worth the 4500 feet of climbing from the Forks of Arrigetch and Aquarius to the point of Ariel.

Disneyland (l), Badille (c) and Shot Tower (r), peaks I climbed as a teenager in 1979. The expedition was rainy and thick with conflict. We still managed some neat climbs and I learned a lot -- mostly that I needed to work on my expedition behavior and wanted some new climbing partners.

Arthur Emmons (l), Pyramid (c) and Wichman's Tower -- the last a peak I tried solo. Nearly made it up Wichmans Tower in 1986 but verglas turned me back. That was pretty much the last climb I did.

Summit photographers.

Working between slabs on way down. If we'd left our packs at the granite rib we wouldn't have them here.

Working the scree descent off Ariel's backside.

Looking up the backside of Ariel. The summit is that pointy finger.

Looking at Xanadu on edge from far base of Ariel. This talus is big and loose.

From here descend to the Awlinyak (see Arctic Circle route for how), bailing out by floating down that bouldery PR3+ stream back to the Alatna if you've had enough mountains, as there are more rocks and passes to come. These are the last spruce until the Ambler or you choose to leave the high country.

Walls above the creek coming down from east fork of Awlinyak and Deception Pass.

Crossing the east fork of Awlinyak Creek. The creek gorges out downstream of here.

Heading to Awlinyak on a wonderful game trail on the crest of this old moraine. This avoids the gorge to its right and gives a good view of the West Fork Awlinyak trib across the valley.

Awlinyak Creek -- float this back to Alatna if you want to shorten your trip. Dave Weimer has an engaging story on his blog about paddling it.

Get high on the river right side of the unnamed Awlinyak trib coming in from the west to follow awesome caribou trails through Class III brush (hands needed). Stay high for the next couple miles until the brush ends, sticking to the trails and resisting the ones that lead down to the horrible cobblestone bar.

The good trails stay high on the left (i.e., river right). Do not get sucked down unless you enjoy cobble-hobbling.

Looking back at the lower West Fork Awlinyak trib and its brush with the Arrigetch behind, notably the big square block summit of Xanadu. Its right hand (W) ridge was climbed by Jon Krakauer in the 1970s.

Steve Hackett named these peaks the Little Arrigetch back in the early 1980s. It's a good name.

There is a sweet caribou trail leading up between the split West Fork Awlinyak trib, as you can see here.

Once in the tundra, follow the nose between the split tribs, veering right to scamble talus to a high meadow, then climb 500 feet over Talus Top Pass.

The descent of Talus Top is done best by dropping straight down the other side. Bears use this pass and that's simply amazing. Follow meadows and rock hop to the left side of Skinny Bou Pass and follow more rocks to the tundra and slabs at the top of Kaluluktok.

The West Fork Finger of Fate rising above a hiker on the caribou trail on the moraine that splits the West Fork Awlinyak tributary.

Lichen and moss on boulders near a spring. The orange lichen is associated with high nitrogen levels where birds often perch.

Looking down the West Fork of the Awlinyak Creek toward the Arrigetch.

Descending Talus Top Pass is slow and laborious -- be careful, too.

Between Talus Top and Skinny Bou are dry meadows with good camping but no willows.

Rocks with green crustose lichen tend to be more stable than the rocks with the black leafy lichen.

The approach from the east is pretty easy and gentle.

Looking back up at the pass from the west side.

At the pass.


Looking back at Skinny Bou Pass you can see the talus is extensive. If you are good at rock hopping and have the right shoes and a light pack, this goes pretty quickly.

Igikpak is the highest peak in the western Brooks Range and forms a glacial and snow source for the Noatak. Its twin peaked top has been climbed only a handful of times and is quite a dramatic summit.

The alpine country in the Arrigetch and Little Arrigetch have these nice tarns that invite swimming on hot days.

There are solid boulders among the talus and even bedrock that makes for great walking.

The bad thing about these high routes is the big talus, standing at a steeper angle of repose than more southern stuff. Remarkably large rocks shift and tip and are quite startling. Thoughts of Aron Ralston frequently float into your head and psyche you out. The black lichen is slick as greased rubber in the rain and fog, so try to go light and pack the trekking poles away -- or if you have a grippy handle flip the pole upside down and use the grip for balance.

Between big piles of talus are strips and fields of tundra, sometimes grassy, other times filled with heather and lichen like this. The lichen gets slick in the rain as it has no roots and comes free. It's quite crunchy in the dry and makes for good fire starter.

This is Akabluak Pass, probably the best way to get to the Kobuk or Noatak drainages from the Alatna, via an unnamed valley just NW of Awlinyak. The caribou trails leading up to it are amazing, like rutted double track. That route would be the fastest but would be less interesting than the Arrigetch/Little Arrigetch route.

Looking down at Kaluluktok Creek, an upper trib of the Kobuk. About a thousand feet below here there is spruce, but just below here a few hundred feet is willow.

The biggest wall I have seen in the Little Arrigetch is this thousand foot monolith. In 1986 I walked over a pass just to its west, but getting to that pass required another pass that is not very good.

A nice tundra climb leads up to Mystery Pass over to the Noatak. The pass itself is full of big rocks and small, but these will be the last of the traverse, thankfully for sore feet.

The mystery spot, so named because it seems as if the water is flowing the wrong direction. Several travelers through here have commented on this optical illusion. The views are good, but the rocks to come are bad, if short -- the last ones, really.

Looking up at the pass to the Noatak. The pass is the saddle below the peak in the background. The best route drops into the gut here and scrambles over the rock glaciers debris. These are big, loose boulders.

Big, loose rocks. They required a lot of effort to maneuver around. Any bigger and we'd have been doing lead climbs.

Tupik Tower near Igikpak.

Looking back at Mystery Spot Pass from the Noatak side.

Descend to the Noatak and bar hop through mature willow bars as far as the big unnamed glacial creek coming in from Igigpak's east face on river left. The walking is great. If the water is high enjoy PR 3+ boulder gardens that are NZ-stle down to Lucky Six Creek. If the water is low, enjoy bar hopping and awesome game trails down to Lucky Six. Even at low water from Lucky Six down is easy boating.

This is good PR3+ when water is high -- at low water, it doesn't go.

Hiking to runnable flow on a low water Noatak.

Igikpak in the clouds -- on the Noatak above Portage Creek.

"Siwash" -- a sourdough-style bivouac.

Fly out from any of a number of lakes near Portage Creek ("Pingo" or "Nelson Walker" or "12-mile Slough") or pick up additional food for the final, easy 100 miles to Ambler.

Paddling the "Sloatak" -- Noatak low.

At low water several parties find the "Sloatak" painful and instead walk on the dry mature bars as far as Nushralutak River opposite Lake Matcherak. Curiously there grizzly bears fish for chums on Kugruk River Katmai-style. Good bar-hopping and tundra with caribou trails leads to Nakmaktuak Pass. Stay on the rim on the left side until you can make your way through a break in the limestone and descend to the upper Ambler. The views of the upper Ambler are beautiful and forested. Say good-bye to the tundra Arctic and hello to the Kobuk watershed.

Good walking leads to the first big gravel beds of the Ambler. Put in here for splashy PR 3 down to Ulaneak Creek or walk, your choice. Below the Ulaneak the river slows and then braids and really slows on its way to Ambler.

Fly out to Kotzebue or buy food and continue down the Kobuk River, restocked at Ambler and visit Onion Portage, Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, and maybe a side trip into Kobuk National Park's Salmon River, made famous in McPhee's book, Coming Into the Country.

You have just completed a trip twice as long as the John Muir Trail, longer than VT Long Trail, and just a bit shorter than the Colorado Trail. Perhaps the Brooks Range classic.



  1. I think the trip would be worth it just be witness the Grayling Wall. Wow.

  2. Amazing trip! What do you guys use to keep warm in environments like that? Cant be easy...have you heard of a product called SharkSkins?


    No affiliation with company myself but they seem to get good reviews. In fact the main complaint with SharkSkins down here in Oz seems to be they are too warm! Wondering if they might be well-suited to the Alaskan environment.
    (Dont know how heavy they are though).

  3. Epic! Makes me want to go for a trip to Alaska! ...but I have some other things to do first. Maybe the Alaska will wait out there for a while.

  4. Looks like the trip of a lifetime.

    Thanks for taking the time to share such detail.


  5. Awesome journey.. I want to go to AK

  6. On your guest post on hikinginfinland, you mention the “Big Southcentral Loop” a 500 km loop around Anchorage. I looked on your site but can't find any more information on it? Could you link me to it? Thanks

    1. Hi Nonstop,

      Unsure if I posted it anywhere in detail, but this is it: Starting in Anchorage head through Chugach State Park in any number of ways, with the last bit taking Winner Creek Trail into Twenty-Mile River drainage, then work your way over to Whittier (or just start in Whittier).

      Next: Whittier to Valdez by Sea Kayak (A Prince William Sound Classic) or what I've been studying for more than a dozen years but haven't taken the time to do, by linking Hemlock forest and muskeg meadow walks with fiord crossings by packraft.

      From Valdez, head up Valdez Glacier and cross over to Tazlina Icefield then onto Nelchina Glacier and out to Glenn Highway. Then head to Talkeetna from Eureka Roadhouse via any number of ways that converge on Talkeetna River and take that to Talkeetna, then the Susitna to the Knik Arm and cross the Knik.

      I don't know anyone who has done that as one single May/June month long trip, but many of us have done all the pieces.

      Let me know if you do it!


  7. Hello Roman,

    Thanks for the years of inspiration. I’m putting together another Gates trip (Haul Road to Anaktuvuk, hiking only, Aug), and I have a couple questions for you:

    - I’ve studied your trip reports, and it seems like you’ve done this route a number of ways - I see a figure-8 of options. From the Dalton, we can a) take the Oolah route, or b) take the Trembley/Kinnorutin route. And from when we hit Koyukuk, we can c) take the Koyukuk/Ernie to Ernie Pass, or d) take the pass north of Als Mountain. Which path is most stunning, and most pleasurable to walk? Any specific river crossings to watch out for in Aug? I see you mention the pass north of Als is steep.

    - Any must-see side valleys or scrambles? We wouldn’t have climbing gear, but I’d like to find something similar in difficulty to Ariel.

    - Which direction would you hike it? I like the travel logistics of east->west, but I would love to hear from experience.

    - (obligatory) If you were to gamble on a week in Aug, trying to maximize weather, fall color, sunlight hours, and temps, when would you go? I’ve heard the warm winters have tweaked the seasons a bit, and I figured no one would know better than you.

    Thanks again for everything.

    1. Hi Devin,

      My pleasure to offer some beta.

      Here are some attempts as answers:

      "obligatory) If you were to gamble on a week in Aug, trying to maximize weather, fall color, sunlight hours, and temps, when would you go? I’ve heard the warm winters have tweaked the seasons a bit, and I figured no one would know better than you."

      While indeed the season has lengthened, the length of night vs day as a function of day-of-year remains constant. I prefer the longer days of early August. Later August will, likely, have fewer bugs, more intense fall colors, and higher chance of northern lights, but also more rain and colder temps (possibly wet snow, hard frosts if clear), so maybe heavier packs, shorter days and more dark.

      "Which direction would you hike it? I like the travel logistics of east->west, but I would love to hear from experience."

      I still like the Haul Road to Anaktuvuk direction. I have done that more times (maybe Anaktuvuk -> Haul Road only once) and that is likely the only reason I prefer it: a frequency bias.

      "Any must-see side valleys or scrambles? We wouldn’t have climbing gear, but I’d like to find something similar in difficulty to Ariel." If passing Kinnorutin way to Amawk Creek, Doonerak is a must-climb, but somewhat exposed scramble. If going Oolah Pass, then the unnamed valley due east of Cockedhat Mtn is iconic.

      "we can a) take the Oolah route, or b) take the Trembley/Kinnorutin route. And from when we hit Koyukuk, we can c) take the Koyukuk/Ernie to Ernie Pass, or d) take the pass north of Als Mountain. Which path is most stunning, and most pleasurable to walk? Any specific river crossings to watch out for in Aug? I see you mention the pass north of Als is steep."

      If I had to make a recommendation, it would probably be the Oolah Pass, Peregrine Pass (north of Als Mtn), Grizzly Creek route. That has been the most popular over the decades. Dearest to my heart, of course, is the Trembly Creek to Kinnorutin Pass and Doonerak route, but I have only done that once, waaayy back in 1986, and it may well be too brushy now. My least favorite is the middle route along Alinement Creek. Brushy and not so scenic.

      Hope this helps and that you have a good trip!


    2. Hello Roman,

      Thanks for the incredible beta. COVID prevented us from running the trip last year, but we just finished an amazing week in the Gates.

      I espied your signature in the Summit Lake cabin, from your epic Arctic 1000 run in ‘06 - was a highlight for me, even among the world-class wilderness.

      We took a fun route, would love to be able to share with you.



  8. Hello Roman:

    Great trip report. Sounds like an amazing experience.

    My friend and his girlfriend and I are planning on paddling the North Fork of the Koyukuk. We were looking to climb Mount Doonerak and looking for some beta. I have climbing experience and was planning on bringing a light rack to make her feel comfortable. How difficult is the scramble? Any information you could provide would be useful and very much appreciated.


    1. Jamie, I climbed this back in 1986 (!), solo. I recall that it looked like it wouldn't be easy to protect on lead, but I'm sure you could find anchors for top-roping a second who follows. It took me 45 minutes to get to the top from the saddle via the south ridge. I was no Alex H or Mark L! In my memory it remains an airy, exposed scramble, usualy with both hands and feet on the rock I think. I don't want to sandbag you, tho!

  9. Awesome trip report Roman, thank you! I'm working on putting together a solo packrafting route in The Brooks and I'll use this beta for sure. Question: Would you not suggest this route in Mid/Late June?

    1. Hi Hunter,

      June may be the best time, between snow of May and bugs of July


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