The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic (aka the Winter Classic) has become an important part of spring for me: a chance to connect with friends, travel through new terrain, and see what skinny skis are capable of. This year, I teamed up with my good friend and occasional housemate Scott Hamilton Peters for the trek between McCarthy and the Log Cabin Wilderness Lodge on the Old Tok Cutoff. As I’ve mentioned in previous trip reports, this is all made possible by Dave Cramer, his wife Kathy, and the folks at Summit Consulting Services. The Classic community owes them the world.
Seventeen of us lined up in downtown McCarthy on Sunday morning. Fifteen headed toward the Nizina River and three different routes that branch off from there. Scott and I did a 180 and headed up to Kennicott to see if we could repeat a route pioneered by Andrew Cyr and Danny Powers the previous year.
The initial miles cruised up a snowmachine trail to the old mining community of Kennicott. From there, we followed the Root Glacier Trail to where we could drop down onto the Root Glacier and then onto the Kennicott Glacier.
Lucky for us, a snowmachine track easily led us through sections of otherwise tricky moraine.
We also lucked out on the weather. A major draw of this route was to get up really high next to some big mountains. With bluebird skies, we had stunning views of Blackburn, Ahtna, Peak 12454, and so many others.
The snowmachine trail eventually headed the wrong way, and the cruiser section of the glacier we continued to follow soon did the same. We spent much of the rest of the evening picking our way through toward easier traveling on the edge.
Our route seemed improbable on first glance, given the numerous icefalls. We had spent a considerable amount of time studying Andrew and Danny’s photographs from the previous year and the satellite imagery available on Google Earth, and hoped the path they found was still open. With a bit of winding around cracked up sections of the glacier, we were able to weave through.
After spending much of our second day climbing, we reached the final steep portion of Packsaddle Pass. We put our skis on our packs, crossed the bergschrund, and booted to the top of the pass.
We crested around sunset. The Nabesna Glacier comes right up to the top of the pass on the other side. Scott lowered me past the bergshrund and then downclimbed to join me on the glacier. We put our skis on and tried to lose elevation before dark set in.
The next day, we continued our way down the Nabesna Glacier. It’s the longest valley glacier in the world, so by the end of the day we still hadn’t reached its toe.
We got off on the moraine to camp and to avoid an impassible section of glacier. The next morning, we continued sidehilling until we found a good spot to get back on.
We regained the glacier and were able to start making quick time again. Around mid-morning, a set of wolverine tracks led the way onto a series of lakes at the glacier’s toe.
We were relaxing and enjoying the ice formations on the lakes when the trio of Andrew Cyr, Danny Powers, and Toby Schwoerer skated around the corner. It was perfect timing. We were about to hit the fast going of the ice on the Nabesna River, and had negotiated all of the technical portions of our route as the first party through (the other glacier routes started to overlap with ours at varying spots down the Nabesna). Now, we had the fun and energy of extra company.
We initially flew down the Nabesna. Then, the head wind kicked in, and we began the sufferfest that is double poling as hard as you can to move very little. Eventually, we took off our skis and walked the final bit to reach Platinum Creek. A proper lie-down was in order.
After sharing chocolate and fixing some gear, we cruised up the creek until Andrew discovered that his boot had broken. We made camp early, and even had a fire. It felt pretty relaxed for a Classic, but it was a welcome break. By this time, the breathing problems Scott had been experiencing since the first evening of the trip had worsened significantly. Just as we all settled in, Derek Collins cruised into our camp. His teammate Forrest McCarthy had to bail at Nabesna due to broken gear, so Derek was traveling solo. He brought news that three other skiers — the Histand siblings, Ben and Sarah, and Nicholia Smith — were camped 20 minutes back. That meant 9 of the initial 17 skiers were all here, having reached essentially the same spot via four different routes at the same time. Incredible! It also made for a wonderfully social time over the remaining two days. We all took turns “winning,” aka breaking trail, up the creek and over Noyes Pass. Sadly, Andrew had to spend hours walking out and wasn’t able to finish with us.
We regrouped at the top of Noyes Pass. Everyone’s hope was to make it to Dave’s cabin down on the Little Tok for the evening. Scott toughed it through his increasing difficulty breathing and we joined the others in the warmth of the cabin for our final night out.
The next day, we traveled as a super team of 8. Until Scott’s binding broke. Everyone helped fix it but the sad reality was that at any moment he might be forced to walk the remaining way. The remaining 7 skied into the finish together; Scott made it in 45 minutes later.
Only a few hours later, a team of 4 — Mike Loso, Pat Farrell, Brian Kramp, and Collin Shanely — cruised in just in time for dinner (their other teammate, Matt Vial, had to bail early because of broken gear). It was incredible to have the chance to hear so many stories and hear of all the adventures.
Chris Zwolinski finished a few days behind, punctuating his trip with a monster 21 hour push. Greg Mills had to get flown out at White River because he had the same breathing issue as Scott and Sarah (although it sounds like he had it much, much worse). Chris stayed with Greg until the plane arrived to make sure he was okay; another shining example of how this community takes care of each other.
The Classic, true to form, was a huge learning experience for me. Chasing after Scott on the glaciers and watching him pick our line was incredible. With the distance becoming more familiar, the challenge of this trip was the terrain we moved through. I remember at one point during the final climb up to Packsaddle Pass looking around and thinking “I could be on the cover of Alpinist Magazine right now!” It was just that beautiful and just that exposed. It’s probably the most rewarding trip I’ve ever been on.
I’m so grateful for having the chance to ski with Scott and learn so much from him. And for all the friendships — new and old — that the Classic forms. This year — like all the others — was truly special and unique. The first half of my trip was trial-by-fire in glacier and alpine travel, and the second half was a wonderfully social time, inspiring not only due to the surrounding terrain but also by the incredibly strong and savvy wilderness skiers surrounding me. Counting myself among them is one of the most significant accomplishments I can claim.