This story comes from guest writer Hilary Eisen, my climbing partner of many years and best friend (despite the fact that we’ve never lived in the same state, much less the same town). I’ve chimed in in a few spots, but mostly let her take the lead on this year’s write-up.
Also, here’s a link to the article in the Newsminer, highlighting some (but not nearly all) of the fantastic stories that came out of this year’s event.
Last year Katie tried to convince me to do this crazy ski race in Alaska with her. I think she pitched it to me as something along the lines of “We would get to ski all day and never stop! Think of all the things we would see! And it’s not really a race, it’s a highly facilitated ski trip.” The prospect of seeing many things appealed to me, as did the idea of a really long ski trip. The prospect of doing that trip as quickly as possible did not. See, I am on the lazy side of fit. I like to take my time going places and eat my snacks while sitting down. Thankfully, I had a good excuse last year — I had to write my thesis so I could finish graduate school. This year things were different. For one, Katie had been telling me for the past year what a life-changing experience the 2013 Classic had been. Second, I recently turned 30 and was starting to feel like I needed to do something big to convince myself I’m actually still 23. Finally, and most importantly, I was unemployed and had enough frequent flier miles for a free plane ticket to Alaska. Just over a month before the 2014 Classic began, I cashed in those miles, bought myself some Madshus Glittertinds, and started skate skiing with heavy pack and plastic boots. There was no way I was going to be as prepared as Katie but I figured I should be able to maybe keep up. After all, my house is at 4,800 feet and almost all the other race participants live at sea level. Surely living at a higher elevation counts as training, right?
The Classic is organized by Dave Cramer, owner of Summit Consulting Services, and without his logistical support and organization there is no way this event would be possible. We convened at the Summit office in Tok and then loaded into company cars for the drive to McCarthy, where the race began.
The following morning, at exactly 11:00, we were off.
We spent most of that first day skiing, mostly skating, down the Nizina River. Much of the day, I frantically pursued the speedy Katie-dot in the distance, despairing that I was in over my head. However, as it turns out, my main problem was that I was spending too much time skiing and not enough time snacking. Once I learned the importance of taking time to fuel and hydrate, I found myself capable of skiing further and longer than I’d ever thought possible.
Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the Nizina was not 100% frozen, which meant we had to ford it. Three times.
That night, we camped at the toe of the Nizina glacial moraine just as the wind picked up. The following morning it had not died down and thus began our 2 day ordeal of trudging into the wind.
After leaving the moraine, we started up Tinplate Hill, a misnomer as it is definitely more of a mountain. Although we had hoped to not be breaking trail, Katie, John, and I were in front on this route and so a-trail-breaking we went. Skiing up through the trees was a nice break from the wind, but once we struck out above treeline, the gales returned in full force. Despite the wind, picking a safe route up the mountain, through some fairly serious avalanche terrain, was among the highlights of the trip for both Katie and me. In addition, while working our way up Tinplate, several other parties caught up with us, including a couple from Homer — Steph and Chuck — whom we traveled or camped with off and on for the remainder of the trip.
Eventually we crested the top of the ridge and descended onto the Frederika Glacier. We knew there was a cabin near the confluence of Frederika and Skolai Creeks but the wind and cold feet forced us into settling for pitching the tent in a semi-protected stand of alders instead.
We had hoped that the skiing in upper Skolai Creek would be fast and easy — after all it was slightly downhill and hard-packed. Unfortunately, the wind continued as strong as ever, forcing us to put kicker skins on our skis to make any forward progress at all. In addition, in the first part of the day we also had to navigate through some very serious avalanche terrain — wind-loaded gullies above cliffs. This section was scary and we were happy to team up with Steph and Chuck to pick the safest route and watch out for each other.
Eventually we made it to the Russell Glacier moraine, a beautiful but demoralizing (for me) place where we had to take off our skis and walk. My toes jammed into the front of my boots, making every step excruciating and sending me into a spiral of negativity that lasted until we stopped to camp for the evening. Katie, on the other hand, enjoyed the hike through the moraine and took some fantastic photos.
After two days of hard travel — trail breaking, wind, and hiking — we caught a break on our fourth day. After only a few hours of skiing on the White River, we ended up on a snowmobile trail that we were able to follow for the next day and a half. While the Wilderness experience was diminished by having this highway to follow, we appreciated being able to make up for lost time and gain some easy miles. We followed the trail up and over Solo Pass and down to the small community of Chisana. This was another highlight of the trip — skate skiing the snowmobile trail downhill from Solo Pass to Chisana was pure Type One fun. And, at the end of the day, we stayed in a public use cabin where we were able to dry our boots and hang out with the eight other skiers stopping in there for the night. Three, including John, were ending their trip here — unable to continue because of extremely blistered feet.
After Chisana, we continued to follow the snowmobile trail, and river ice, up Notch Creek and over Cooper Pass. For much of the day, the skate skiing up Notch Creek was cruiser and we covered ground quickly, especially once we perfected our technique of riding the metal edges of our skis like six foot long ice skates. Eventually the false flat caught up with us though and we had so switch to striding, and then skins as we ascended Cooper Pass. At the top of Cooper Pass, we crossed fresh wolverine tracks and then descended into an amazing ice-filled canyon. People traveling from Nabesna to Chisana and the White River on snowmobiles have to ride this canyon, which is almost entirely solid ice for miles. And it’s at a 10-20 degree angle for much of the time. Apparently you use a sled with a studded track, but even still it must take quite a lot of technical skill to keep your machine upright and going in the right direction.
Skiing up Platinum Creek the following day was a wildlife tracking bonanza. I am no fan of alder, and Platinum is choked with it, so as far as I was concerned there was no reason to look up. The interesting stuff was on the ground. Moose, caribou, bear, wolf, and other tracks criss-crossed our path, giving hints about the wildlife that live there and giving my imagination plenty of fuel to distract myself from the bushwacking. According to Katie, however, bushwacking through alder is like skiing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and is, therefore, “fun.” Silly Katie. We also differed on our approach to the numerous creek crossings that day — Katie charged through, nevermind the wet boots, whereas I opted for more “creative” options — climbing through trees and balancing across branches to avoid getting my feet wet at the deeper crossings.
In addition to being full of tracks, most of our few actual wildlife sightings happened while skiing up Platinum Creek. Not being from Alaska, I get really excited to see animals that are rare or non-existent in the lower 48, like caribou! We saw one all by its lonesome as well as a larger group up higher, at the base of Noyes Mountain.
Once we left Platinum Creek, we began the long climb up and across Noyes Mountain. The skin track put in by previous parties was much appreciated and going uphill was relatively easy. Down was another matter. While our ski/boot setups generally worked very well, it wasn’t ideal for downhills. As if skinny skis could ever be ideal for alpine descents. Our modified, low-cut, plastic boots are light, but they give you basically no control when skiing downhill. This is best dealt with by snowplowing very slowly. Katie is good at this. I am impatient and, therefore, get going too fast, try to turn, and then fall over. I think it’s fair to say I fell every way possible when going down Noyes. Thankfully, because I fall frequently, I’ve perfected my technique and can quickly transition back into the standing position so that I can repeat the process.
Our final day started out with one final climb up and struggle down the last bit of Noyes, followed by easy skiing along the upper reaches of the Little Tok River. Things were looking good. While part of me knew we probably had hours and hours of skiing before the finish, and that I’d probably be exhausted at the end of the day, a less rational and more optimistic side of me kept thinking that maybe it was going to be a gravy day — double poling downhill to an easy skate ski finish. Of course, I should have known better. Katie warned me after all.
Sure enough, the Little Tok began to meander and the skin track began to twist and turn through the willows and alder. Up and down steep little hills through gaps too narrow to ski. Just when I thought I’d lose my mind, the river opened up into an ice highway and we were able to make decent forward progress again. Unfortunately for Katie, however, the ski pole tip she’d broken in Platinum Creek the day before became more than a slight inconvenience as she struggled to find purchase on the ice. She quickly worked out a new technique though and we were able to cruise down the river. When the skin track reappeared in the trees, marking the end of our ice skating, we stopped to take a break and were soon joined by Steph and Chuck. The four of us continued on, happy to be traveling together on our last day.
Katie: Within the hour, Steph and Chuck got to observe Team Junk-Show at its finest: I had stopped at the bottom of a small dip to take my skis off to walk up a tight spot into the woods. Hilary thought she could join me but mid-hill realized there wasn’t enough space to drop down to me and actually stop. She ran full-on into me, knocking us both into a giggle-pile in the snowbank. At the time, we were wearing our matching R1 hoodies and looking like quite the pair. I think Chuck caught it on camera…
Update: yup! He did!
Of course, like the rest of the Classic, the final push was not as easy as we thought it would be. It took hours. Katie thought it flew by because last year she had skied this section in the dark and had to bivy under a tree mid-way. Chuck, Steph, and I thought it took forever because we were expecting the end to be closer. Eventually, however, we did make it to the road. At this point we knew we only had four miles to go.
With one last sprint to the finish (ok, Katie’s sprint and my exhausted shuffle/skate) we finally glided into the Log Cabin Wilderness Lodge driveway. Six days, 8.5 hours and approximately 200 miles after leaving McCarthy.
I learned a lot during our week of skiing across the Wrangells – about myself and about moving efficiently across vast distances. I also learned a few key things to help me out in future adventures. For example, pepper sticks and string cheese are a far superior combination to sliced salami and cheddar. And ProBar bolt chews are DELICIOUS. As to whether I’ll do another Classic, that remains to be seen. Already the memories of suffering are fading while the good times continue to stand out. All in all I’m really happy I let Katie convince me this trip was a good idea. And as for Katie? She’s already talking about her plans for the 2015 Winter Classic.
Katie: For those curious, here’s a link to our gear list. Our packs were 38lb at the start, without our water bottles full. We each carried a liter, so 40lb was about what we started with in McCarthy. Also, our approach to food is very different. Hilary eats like most participants, stocking up on real food and enjoying hot dinner. I’m perfectly happy with bars and not having hot dinner. In fact, I find hot dinner to be an annoying thing to have to fuss with at the end of the day, so I rely a lot on bars. Our food list is here (I’m page one; Hilary is page two).
Again, many many many thanks to Dave Cramer and Summit Consulting, the McCarthy Bed and Breakfast, John and Jill at the Log Cabin Wilderness Lodge at the finish, and all the other really great people we got to meet along the way and spend time with on the trail!!!