Saturday, April 14, 2012

2012 Winter Wilderness Classic (Photos by Forrest McCarthy and Derek Collins)

Recent texting between me and an accomplished backcountry ski pioneer regarding the 2012 Wilderness Ski Classic--
Me: "That Luc Mehl is effin' studly."
Chris: "You didn't wup him?"
Me: "Nah. Didn't want to hurt his feelings. He's the sensitive type, you know"
Chris: "Yep. That's why I let him break trail. We are becoming more empathetic with age. BTW do lunges 4 yer hip problems."
My frozen thumb-tip is not yet healed enough to hit the space bar as I write this (my index finger is working that purpose well), but my lips are healed enough to smile, and my feet enough to keep down to bang out this brief report of the Brooks Range Ski Classic.

So the first and obvious question is "What was I thinking?"

Off the couch and into new boots (Salomon X-ADV 6) back in early March, I figured I had plenty of time to get ready for a 200 mile ski trip across the Brooks Range. After all I'd done that before: skied hundreds of miles across untracked arctic winter wilderness from Kaktovik to near Galbraith Lake (start of this year's Classic), in fact.

I'd even done Winter Wilderness Classics before, too. Hell, they'd originally been my idea: "Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic" (AMWSC) way back in the late eighties, but had become an event organized exceptionally well by Dave Cramer for the last couple of decades.

And training? Figured I could ski to work, and the days I rode the fat bike, I could ski at lunch. Commuting plus an hour a day for a few weeks would do it. Right?


What about winter travel and camping in the Brooks Range? How hard could that be?

Sure it was -22 F in Anaktuvuk the week before the event (can't quite call it a race for me). But wasn't I the guy who's skied across ANWR for three weeks when it never got above zero during a record breaking cold snap? I had the experience, even if was from another century (millennium?).

I even had the gear: a Go Lite 4 season Adrenalin down bag, a sled, some new mittens (toasty warm), a brand new set of Stephensen vapor barriers (top and bottom), and two puffy jackets and puffy pants. I even had modified my Jet Boil and would -- in emulation of the new style of Classic ski racing -- forego a tent.

Problem was, the last time I'd winter camped was 2002, when Isaac Wilson and I, both on the adventure racing Team Earthlink, had entered the AMWSC in the Wrangells and dropped out on day two when we couldn't get out of our NNN bindings after skiing through a bit of overflow.

So at the ripe old age of 51 I headed north with the big bad boys to prove to myself I could finish.

Except I didn't. Instead I made all the mistakes a noob would make.

Carl's advice: "Better get out and ski some miles in those boots -- make sure you don't get any blisters." Hmmm. Guess my commute and half dozen lunch-hour skate skis weren't enough.

Cody Roman's observation: "Dad, you could barely keep up with me on the University ski trails at lunch." He's being generous, actually.

Peggy: "Why are you doing this? You're going to hurt yourself."
Forrest on Day 2

It was -24 F at the noon start on the edge of Galbraith Lake, North Slope of the Brooks Range. Andrew Cyr and Aaron Wells of Fairbanks had bolted, breaking trail across the undulating hills.

Luc and John Pekar, his partner in most of the Winter Classics (this would be their fifth Classic and their fourth win together -- Luc also won last year when John couldn't make it), cut west early, their plan to stay on the Slope until Anaktuvuk River.

The first night, when finally arriving at the camp of Wyoming's Forrest McCarthy and Derek Collins (they'd caught the Fairbanks duo of Andrew and Aaron near dark), I climbed into their two person tent in desperation.

"Thhhh thhhhh tthhhh thanks, Fff fff fforrest. Yyy yyy your ss ss saaaavvv vvin mm mm my ass."

"Yea, well you saved mine last time, buddy."

Here Forrest was referring to the 2009 Summer Classic when his knee went bum on day two. Forrest, from Wyoming, is the only one from Outside Alaska to finish both the summer and winter events. Not only that he took second in each on his first time entering. He's tough and talented.

That night it was at least -25 F (felt like -30) with a breeze, nipping my thumb on a metal gaiter snap as I struggled to get boots and gaiters off and into the tent.

Soon after that nip, my modified Jet Boil nearly caught fire when the copper heat transfer modification melted the plastic while calm, cool, and always happy Derek heated water for me with the melting Jet Boil to soothe my violent shivering.

All of this with us three crammed into one of those tiny Black Diamond Bibler-style tents.

The next morning, in return for the favor of keeping me alive, I broke Derek's carbide ski pole tip. That way he'd be handicapped like me.

"If that's the worst that happens to me," he quipped, "I'll be happy."

One of my tips had broken, too, the day before and on the second day I broke the other as the baskets on the quarter-century old poles crumbled. Not a good sign so early in an event that's mostly on river ice.

An hour later Derek left to catch Forrest, who'd left us to warm up (it was -25 F that morning). I wouldn't see either one's face again until Wiseman, three days later, when Forrest would ski into the Dance Hall in Wiseman with both skis frozen to his boots.

Later that first morning I caught up with Thomas Bailly, a Girdwood/Anchorage backcountry skier who had entered the race last year and had a most miserable time.

"Yea, that first night it was thirty below and Doug was wet from falling face first into overflow. We crammed three of us into a two man tent. It was frosty and tight and we just shivered violently in our plus twenty bags long enough to doze a moment or two, before shivering uncontrollably again." Sounded horrific to me.

"If we'd had a sat phone I would have called for a rescue. Instead I learned that I could survive a hell of a lot of suffering."

I asked him why he was back this year.

"To wash away the demons, really. I was messed up in the head for months after that. We suffered every night from cold and every day our feet were just destroyed. I really like winter and wanted to get that good feeling about it back. This time I have a neg-twenty bag, not plus-twenty."

Same with Luc and John. They've gone from plus 20 to "neg 20" sleeping bags, and, like Thomas and I, carried canister stoves and no tent.
Five toes mean wolverine.

The two of us ended up travelling about the same pace, following the trail of a pack of wolves and cutting wolverine tracks every few hours. I'd given up on keeping up with the Wyoming Team.

Thomas and I travelled the same pace, but not because I could keep up with him, me pulling my dumb-school sled with piss-poor conditioning.

But because I cut the corners on the Itkillik River's bends.

Because I milked the downhills with shallow descents.

Because I never stopped to sit down.

Because, other than drinking and eating, I didn't bother to take care of myself, to spread any sunscreen on my lips (it was frozen too stiff to rub on), to retape my feet rubbed by new boots.

By day two we were holed up together at Summit Lake on the Arctic Divide, and I was suffering physically and emotionally.

"Yea, I think I'm gonna head down the North Fork to Wiseman," I whined, "skip Anaktuvuk, or maybe go back and follow those snowmachine tracks over Oolah Pass. I'm not ready for this. I was falling asleep on the trail today and feel like I am just crawling along. But I'm going to take a 12 hour nap here anyway, see how I feel tomorrow."

"Really? Twelve hours?"

Thomas pulled off his socks and showed me a nasty blister under his foot. "Think I should pop this?"

"No, don't pop it tonight. Maybe tomorrow. You should think about a twelve hour break, too. Might give that blister a chance to heal. You'll definitely feel better after 12 hours."

He admitted to crawling along too, but the fact that in my near-dream state I had caught and passed him spoke to that.

We'd make great Classic partners: the kind who meet on the race because their pace is well matched.

And while we'd begun unbound and selfish, we'd likely finish together and sharing, like partners.

Looking back from Peregrine Pass

Twelve hours later I felt great. "Yea, I think I'll go over Peregrine Pass, head to Anaktuvuk," I announced.

The night before I'd tried to talk him into going down the North Fork with me but Thomas said he wanted to go to Anaktuvuk. He'd never been there before.

In the morning he said, "Funny, I was just thinking I'd go down the North Fork, but that'd be great to have you along and go over Peregrine"

So that was that. We skied past small bands of 'bou and followed the Fairbanks-Wyoming teams' trail up and over Peregrine Pass together.

On the way down to Grizzly Creek I fell, rolled over a pole and broke it in half. This was no problem for a couple miles of wonderful trail to the start of Grizzly Creek overflow, but then fearing I'd break a rib after slip-sliding on the steep ice without metal edges or any ski-pole tip, I climbed out of the canyon and we cut the corner to Ernie Pass.

The cold snap had broken and while maybe 10, 15 below zero it felt far warmer than -25 as we clambered over sastrugi and bare tundra.

Around midnight we stomped out a bivy pad at Ernie Pass and put in another 12 hour camp.

It was nice to lay there as Thomas melted snow and heated water, passing me food and hot drink beneath clouds too thin to snow more than the flurries that fell, but thick enough to make the sub-zero night feel warm.

By Ernie Pass my boots, out for blood, had bitten and chewed my tender foot flesh and the beautiful tour into Anaktuvuk turned into a painful shuffle.

Wyoming and Fairbanks teams in Anaktuvuk Valley
At first we made a good ten miles in two hours with a tail-wind and a downhill on wind-blown snow followed by blue ice. It was exhilarating, but also clear from counting skate ski tracks that the Luc-John and Fairbanks-Wyoming teams were already heading toward Wiseman after tagging Anaktuvuk. It felt like they were a good two days ahead of us, at our pace, and we were only on day four day into our race.

At this point in the event I felt like an amateur who takes art and music classes not to make art or music, but rather to appreciate the artists and musicians who can: wilderness artists like John and Luc, Andrew and Aaron, Forrest and Derek. They awed me.

If we had found the others pushing on from Anaktuvuk over the pass to Tinayguk, then I would have followed, but I had neither the time nor pain threshold to break trail on our own to Wiseman.

And I had no interest to ski back this way, uphill into a head wind, with just a single pole -- a pole that lacked a tip.

On the blue ice I called out, "Heh Thomas!! can I borrow a pole!"

"NO!" he called back over his shoulder and poled quickly away.

Well it was my own hubris that led me to bring my old Excel poles from the 80s, poles with sun-rotted baskets and snapped carbide tips.

A few moments later, he must have remembered that what I had was more like a stick then a ski pole, as he dropped one of his carbide-tipped skating poles for me to pick up.

Thomas and I had not been racing after Day 1, really, and enjoyed the tilted, layered mountains all around, crusted in frost that soared above us in brilliant blue. The warm sun in our faces and wind to our backs, made for an enjoyable 25 mile day following hard snow, blue ice, ski tracks and snowmachine trails.

At one point three monster snowmachines, each pulling sleds and one pulling two sleds full of action packers and fuel stopped alongside me.

"Hi there," I said.

"How's it going," asked one as he stopped his motor.

"Great. Nice day. Park Service?"

"Naw. Not quite."

"Where you going?"

"Kotzebue and on to Nome."

"Wow. See any other skiers?"

"Yea, four of em on the other side of Ernie Creek. Another two passed us when we were camped up at Bombardment Creek."

"Yea they're racing. And those guys are animals. They're skiing like 50 miles a day with sub-thirty pound packs and no tents."

As I shuffled into Anaktuvuk in the fading 10 PM light, a young Nunamiut girl in her PJs walked up pulling a sled with her younger sister.

"Going sledding?"

"Yep," she smiled and added, "your friend is waiting for you."

"Thanks," and I shuffled on.

"You're very old," she called after me as I gimped onward with short strides and sore feet to catch up with Thomas and see what we had next in store for us on this adventure.

Which was where to camp in Anaktuvuk.

I struggled to remember names and finally a truck pulled over. Its driver told me where the Nome-bound snowmachiners who'd come to town earlier that day were.

"That brown house over there. At Juste the Norwegian's place."

I knocked at the door.

It opened.

"Hi! Are you Juste the Norwegian? Is this the hotel?" I half joked.

The man at the door squinted his eyes at me, "Do I know you?"

"Maybe. You look familiar. My name's Roman."


"Yea. We just skied over from Galbraith and need a place to sleep. Feel bad to impose this way, but could we give you some money to sleep on your floor? We don't have a tent."

And of course Alaskan Bush hospitality held the day.

Thomas and I swapped stories and gear lists with the snowmachiners and our hosts, school-teachers for 17 years in Anaktuvuk. It was warm and lively and an excellent interlude on our arctic adventure.

Luc's video:

The next day we caught a Wright's Air flight to Coldfoot ($200/each), where Luc and John picked us up from the truck stop where Lance and Dick Mackey held court with stories of their recent dog-mushing caribou hunt on the Slope.

Telling Lance that I was an admirer of his style, I mentioned that Luc and John had just skied over 200 miles in less than four days, the same four days that the Mackey men were recounting as gnarly-cold days to be in the Brooks Range.

"Yea, well those distance skiers, they are hard-core, especially up here. I need dogs to pull my sorry ass around. Ha ha ha!" said Lance.

John and Luc had finished the 200 mile course in less time than it had taken us to ski less than half the distance and fly the rest. And while John looked a bit like a sleepy, disheveled wolf, Luc looked like the Wolverine character from then X-men movie, as if the wilderness had changed him into a beast.

Yes, they were wild animals indeed, those two, champions of a new era of wilderness ski racing in the Winter Wilderness Classic, perhaps the most challenging adventure race in the world.


  1. Good to know I wont be outgrowing such hubris. ;)

    Awesome write-up.

    1. DC --

      WOuld be neat to see you up here for this event next year. It's even better than the summer Classic in terms of creativity and design for fast, light, and efficient travel.

    2. DC- You need to plan on it for next year. Us "Outsiders" need to keep the Sourdoughs on their toes. They may win but lets not let them have it to easily.

  2. A good lesson to be reminded of -- past performance is no guarantee of future results.

  3. Humbling stuff, Roman. Stuff like this will make us young bucks proud to get older.

  4. Fun traveling with you Roman, looking forward to the next time.

    1. Likewise Thomas.

      Think I'll start skiing a bit sooner this next season :)

  5. Nice write up Roman. Some funny shit you guys get up to!

  6. See, I've read reports of this race over the last few year and thought 'that would be so cool'... Thanks for dispelling that fantasy!

    Great report Roman.

    1. Joe, It IS cool! You live in the right place to be prepped for it and even though I feel a bit battered now, I am planing a return to whatever course they put together next year. It's super fun for lightweight innovation.

  7. At least you gave it a go - a wonderful writeup, thanks for posting it. Packrafting season is almost here..

    1. yea and I'll give it a go next year, hopefully, and with a few miles on the skis beforehand.

  8. Good story. Had no clue you were in the race until reading this just now. Sounds like you should have come along on Winter Wilderness back in January to get yourself into shape.

    1. Yes, that would have been a good idea, except we were paddling Dixie....biggest disappointment was not getting into Tinayguk. Never been in that valley. Want to go, though.

    2. We're slated to be up there the same time as the Classic, which I'm guessing, given the new course, is your next adventure project. Will certainly let you know how the Tinayguk is.

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  10. Great stuff. Good to get a Roman/AK fix.

  11. Very inspiring stuff Roman! There were two especially good points in the post: wilderness travel as art and the sort of a beast within thing. Going fast & light on skis over wast wilderness is definately on my to-do list. I just have to find one late-winter season when I wouldn't be doing these "expedition things", and preferably could afford coming to AK.

  12. Check out Forrest's Post event Gear Analysis:


  13. Thanks for posting this Roman. This article has reminded me why I train and has added urgency and meaning to the training that I am doing for the summer race.

  14. Really great article Roman. You're an inspiration. It's the painful ones you remember with fondness 10 years after the fact. -DC

  15. Oh wow it was a hell of a winter over there. his face froze.


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