The moon lit the trail in front of me, northern lights danced overhead, and mountains framed the valley on either side. Left, right, left, right. Shuffle, shuffle. Skate ten or fifteen feet. Return to shuffling. Deep breath. Can I eat a shot block? My stomach protests, but my brain wins the argument. In five minutes, the sugar hits and my mood soars, only to crash again as the nausea settles back in and keeps me from getting anything else down. It’s 2 a.m. and I’m nearing the end of what a friend later calculated to be a 70+ mile day, at the end of the 2017 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic. I’d been skiing since 5:45 a.m. the previous morning, when cold forced me out of my sleeping bag and made me vow to keep moving until I arrived back in Wiseman, where sleep could happen in a warm bed in a cozy cabin and not in a 20 degree bag in the open arctic air.
The 2017 Winter Classic promised to be a year of adventure and exploration. It was the first time the Classic had been allowed to take place in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. With so few people skiing in the area, information was limited. Calls were made — to avalanche control for Atigun Pass, to pilots, to other locals — all in an attempt to get a sense of the snowpack, and a mental image of what the topo lines and Google Earth imagery suggested. During our time gathering in Wiseman and then driving north to our starting point at Atigun Gorge, participants shared the scraps of knowledge they’d gathered. Patched together, we still didn’t have much to go on. The unknown was intriguing, but had the downside of leading to unusually heavy packs as we stuffed in extra food and other supplies.
Limited bail out options on the Refuge side upped the commitment factor. On the Gates of the Arctic National Park side, it’s easy enough to catch a commercial flight out of Anaktuvuk Pass. On the Refuge side, you either have to ski back to the start, ski to Arctic Village (at closest, something like 50 miles off the course), or have a plane fly in to get you. Keeping an eye out for each other seemed even more important this year, and the community — already having a solid tradition of taking care of its own — stepped up to the occasion.
Because of the increased commitment factor, and the unknown terrain, participants could chose to ski on either side this year. Three rookies — Jack McClure, Heath Sandall, and Tyson Flaharty — chose the Gates side, and started from Galbrath Lakes. Fever, two (!) broken Dynafit toe pieces (the lightweight kind, I believe), and frostbite encouraged them all to fly out of Anaktuvuk. Sounded like the right choice, and like they all still had a rewarding trip.
The other eighteen of us set out down Atigun Gorge (all 21 of us started mid-day Sunday). Nerves and excitement fueled the early miles and quickly split everyone up. I prefer a more of a tortoise-like start, and dawdled taking pictures and letting the field ski away. Only Chris Zwolinski succeeded in stalling more, which was actually a fairly remarkable feat and I have to think was intentional on his side as well.
My initial plan this year was to ski solo. Then I waffled and convinced John Wros to ski with me again. Work pulled him away, and I managed to talk Brian Kramp and Kate Fitzgerald into letting me join them. After our trip last year in the Talkeetnas, I trust Kate to handle stress in the backcountry with grace. Brian and I had spent the summer packrafting and picking blueberries, and I had confidence that traveling with him would be enjoyable as well. I’ve also been fairly avalanche-worried this season, and appreciated his ski patrol background and conservative decisionmaking.
We quickly settled into a relaxed pace, reacquainting our legs with movement after two and a half days of sitting in the car. The slight downhill slope of the Atigun Gorge helped me achieve my lazy-start goal even more.
We leap frogged with a few others much of Monday morning, sharing snacks and catching up on each other’s lives during breaks. That morning was hard on folks: Chris Z., Malcolm Herstand, and Doug all pulled muscles, and each made the hard choice to turn around and ski back to the start rather than making their injuries worse (the right, and very smart, choice that’s always so incredibly hard).
Tuesday, we woke to strong winds that quickly calmed as we crested the Continental Divide and dropped south. At this point, people had spread out and the tracks leading down the valley were the only evidence of the skiers in front of us. We were settling into a good pace, and neared the small lake where a plane had dropped off a sign-in sheet earlier in the week. It was the one checkpoint where everyone had to go. After that, a number of route options opened up, and the next few miles of snow conditions would dictate whether people split off from the leaders to explore different routes, or stuck to the broken track. Planning to melt snow and boil water at the checkpoint, I skied ahead and got to work with the stove. Kate arrived shortly after. After chatting a bit, we both started to wonder what happened to Brian. Kate went looking. It took long enough that I started to consider backtracking as well. Then they came into view. Kate carrying Brian’s pack, which had his skis strapped to it, and Brian post-holing behind. He had stopped to apply kick wax before the climb up to the checkpoint, and one of his skis had snapped at the binding. Looking closely, it appeared that water had gotten in where the binding was mounted, and the wood had started to rot. The force of corking in the kick wax was enough to cause the break.
In terms of breaking gear, it happened in a spot that afforded almost too many options, and indecision ensued. We knew a plane could land there, and probably would land there to pick up the sign-in sheet. But wouldn’t it be better to fix the ski and get ourselves out, whether moving forward or heading back to the start? Was the other ski similarly rotten? Could we fix the ski well enough to hold for at least 70 miles? Would it be smarter to fly out? And who should fly out? And should we all wait? What gear should stay with Brian, and what did that mean for the safety margin for Kate and I if we wanted to move forward? None of the options were ideal, and we did a lot of talking things through, both to explore our options and to assess our different levels of comfort with each of them. We started gathering info on flight options, and eventually put ourselves to the task of fixing the ski and remounting the binding.
We spent much of Wednesday evaluating the fix, continuing to weigh options for getting out, spending time on foot care, eating, mountain gazing, and generally processing things. Our eventual decision was that Brian would wait for a flight out and Kate and I would ski forward. We left the tent and Inreach with Brian, along with our luxury items. Like my camera (so, no more photos to share…). Having spent 24 hours at the checkpoint, Kate and I needed to move, and move fast, if we were going to make it out on our available food and fuel. We finished paring down our packs and started off at 3:30 p.m. We were in last place, and the next closest group was Lindsay and Jenna, who had passed through the checkpoint late the previous evening. We weren’t sure when we’d catch them, but wanted them behind us so that if anything happened, we’d have help (from them, and — if necessary — the outside world, as we knew they were carrying an Inreach).
We pushed the pace to get over a pass before nightfall, especially because the wind had already mostly hidden the tracks. Dropping into the next drainage, we were treated with a peaceful moonlight ski down a creek through the forest. It was one of my favorite sections of the trip. We stopped to sleep before leaving the trees to stay out of the wind. I had brought a 20 degree bag, which was perfect when squeezed in between two people in a small tent. But, out in the open, even with my puffy pants and parka, and the foot of my bag crammed into my backpack for additional protection, it was a cold night.
Thursday morning at 9 a.m. we caught Lindsay and Jenna, and breathed a sigh of relief. They were looking happy, and shared some breakfast-time sour patch kids with us as we stopped to chat for a bit. The rest of the day, we just skied. The track was mostly unaffected by the wind, and the traveling was fairly easy. One of the passes was full of frozen overflow on both sides, which made for some interesting uphill skating on ice and some adrenaline-filled descents. We stopped after making it onto the Chandalar River for dinner, and planned to ski well into the night again.
About an hour later, we saw a tent. And then another behind it. My mind couldn’t quite grasp it: I knew all the skiers ahead. They’re all incredibly strong. The group included ten powerhouses: Toby Schwoerer, Miles Raney, Jeremy Vandermeer, Chuck Lindsay, Stephanie Schmit, Nicholai Smith, Diana Johnson, Ben Histand, Chris W., and Robin. Why weren’t they already in Wiseman, drinking beer and eating pie? We neared, and got the news: the trail breaking had been challenging since the checkpoint, and it had taken them approximately twice as long to break the trail as it had taken Kate and I to ski it behind them. They were spreading out to avoid having too many people bunched up (our permit restricted us to groups of 10 or less, so they would have been okay all together, but they were being cautious). The group had settled in for the night after a hard day of slogging through the breakable crust. Kate and I shared the news we had, and then moved on to find places to sleep. Happily, we were both offered places in tents.
I joined Toby and Miles in a mid, and Toby kindly offered a hot water bottle and his parka for me to add to my sleeping bag (we were rationing fuel too much for me to have the luxury of making hot water bottles to stay warm at night). Those additions to my sleeping situation were the only thing that afforded me even a few hours of rest. By about 3 a.m., the water bottle had gone lukewarm, and I began fighting the cold. By 5:30 or so, I couldn’t do it anymore. Hating to wake everyone, but unable to handle it, I struggled to get into my boots and headed out to generate some warmth by taking the early shift of trail breaking. I left without waking Kate, knowing that she would know exactly why I left (to get warm) and exactly what I wanted to do (get to Wiseman that night), and betting that she would easily catch me given the report we’d had about how difficult the trail breaking was. I set off, and made it a mile or two down to where Chuck and Stephanie had camped. They were making breakfast, and we chatted a bit before I had to keep moving.
Eventually, the river turned to ice, and I was happy to see that we would all get to make faster time. Double poling along, all of a sudden the ice gave out underneath me, and I fell up to my knees and elbows in overflow. I picked myself up, and struggled my way out. Knowing now that stopping was no longer an option, I picked up my pace to try to avoid letting my now sopping mittens and pants turn into ice bricks. Further down, there was more tricky overflow and I splashed around up to my shins again a few times. At one point, the river all went beneath the sand, and I was thrilled to get out of my skis and simply walk. And even happier to get back to a section of hard trail breaking where I could generate more heat.
Eventually, the sun hit and Toby caught up. I looked at him, and all that came to mind to say was “this morning, the struggle is real.” It was for him too. Turns out he faceplanted in the overflow, as did a bunch of others. We kept moving, and then Miles and Jeremy caught us, and I finally had enough time being out front and enough time in the sunshine, and stepped aside to let Miles break the last bit of trail to Chandalar Lake, which was wind-blown and relatively easy travel.
I asked about Kate, feeling concerned that I couldn’t stop to wait given how wet I’d gotten. They let me know that she was fine, and was warming her boots by the fire and planning to ski with a few of the other folks. If I hadn’t known Kate to be so laid back and understanding, I would have worried about being self-centered and prioritizing my needs — which, that day, was to ski and not stop skiing until Wiseman — instead of compromising and sticking together. It was good to remember the phrase she’d been repeating earlier in the trip: “team work makes the dream work.” I realized that we were still a team, even if we had different agendas that day, and convinced myself (happily, it turned out to be right) that she would have encouraged me to go. So, I committed myself even further to my plan of skiing all the way that night, and found a spot to leave her the stove so that she’d be sure to have hot dinner and water whenever she wanted.
And then I began the business of trying to ski with Toby, Jeremy, and Miles as long as I could. They stayed fairly low-key across the lake. At the end of the lake and the beginning of the snowmachine trail, we found a spot of open water to fill up our bottles, and sat down to pour the water out of our boots and change socks. The next section was our first — and only — portion of snowmachine trail on the route. But it so happens that it was a long section. Not by design: we were encouraged to ski over a pass to arrive directly in Wiseman, and only knew that the snowmachine trail would take us to Coldfoot because we were warned NOT to miss the turn. Given the difficulty of the trailbreaking, the decision was made to ignore (embrace?) the warning, and to ski the long way round: going all the way to Coldfoot and then north to Wiseman via the pipeline.
Once on the snowmachine trail, we shifted into race pace. I started out front having left our break spot early, and was shortly passed by Toby and Jeremy. I never saw Miles again that day. I kept Toby and Jeremy in sight for a while. Then, I’d just see Jeremy when he’d stop for breaks. After a few hours and much to my surprise, I passed Jeremy. The rest of the evening, I was alone. I concentrated on Toby’s tracks and visualized skiing right behind him and keeping pace. I had never brought music with me before, but was happy that Kate and Brian had convinced me to bring a small music player, enjoying some dance music to keep my spirits up. My focus wasn’t on racing for the sake of racing, but racing for the sake of a warm bed as early as possible.
I made it into Coldfoot around 11p. After getting a bit scared by civilization, I jetted out of town and sat on the side of the road and had a conversation with a few inner demons that thought I should just call for a ride. After all, it’d been a long day. And, I had just technically broke the rules by leaving town via the road after struggling to find the pipeline and deciding that I didn’t want to accidentally wander into some crazy person’s property late on a Friday night (and certainly wasn’t going into the bar to ask for directions and have some drunk man overhear where I was going to be for the next 3-4 hours). I forced down some sugar and water — I struggle with nausea during long hard days — and my better self reminded my less better self that, well, at least I wasn’t crying so it couldn’t be THAT bad. In fact, it wasn’t bad. It was gorgeous out. It was just going to be a few long hours that weren’t necessarily fun. And, so, I coaxed myself to shuffle down the road a bit until I saw the pipeline and could get onto the trail that parallels it and would lead me to Wiseman. (In the meantime, I’d decided the Katie-not-getting-raped exception to the no-traveling-on-the-haul-road rule should be a thing, and even if I was disqualified, I still felt like I’d made the right call for keeping myself safe.)
And that’s how I found myself shuffling north, alternating between immense gratitude for being so lucky that I was skiing through the Arctic and watching the northern lights, and despairing at how slowly the miles seemed to tick by. I arrived in Wiseman at about 2:44 a.m., about 21 hours after I had started my day. Bernie and Uta woke up, fed me, insisted on hearing a few stories, and then helped me find my duffle so that I could take a warm shower before collapsing in bed (Brian had been picked up a day after we left him at the checkpoint, and was there to welcome me and give me a big hug too; it was so great to finally know that he made it out, and wasn’t still out there waiting for help to arrive).
Toby had arrived about three hours before me. Jeremy about an hour behind me, and Miles about an hour after him (he ended up hitching a ride with a trucker from Coldfoot to Wiseman). Chuck and Stephanie arrived around 9 a.m., having skied nonstop just like we did. The others arrived in a couple batches throughout the day (all having, quite reasonably, stopped to sleep). Kate made it in, and gave me a huge hug and assured me that I made the right call, and also was so proud of me for making it in in one big push. That meant a lot, and I was happy to hear I had guessed right about how to accommodate both our needs.
In between people arriving, I alternated between napping and eating and storytelling time. We all thought Lindsay and Jenna would arrive that night too, and tried to stay awake for them. I’m glad I gave up because they arrived early the next morning, just before we left to get back to Anchorage. It was good to see Lindsay, still smiling, having reached the finish, and to know that everyone was accounted for and everyone was healthy. Well…healthy may not be true. A nasty cold was circulating. One that I fear that I’m now fighting, and I know a bunch of others came down with. A small price to pay for a week full of so much: so much goodness, so many challenges, so much snow, so many mountains… just simply so much.
When we were socializing late Saturday evening, Bernie brought out his old guestbook for us to look through. It was so cool to read entries from as early as 1994 of people skiing the Winter Classic on the Gates side (then called the Brooks Range Ramble). For one thing, I love history. But the most striking thing to me was the dedication of folks like Bernie and Uta (who’ve been hosting the Classic when it’s held in the Brooks Range for over twenty years), and Dave Cramer of Summit Consulting (the event organizer who makes all the magic happen, year after year, and who is responsible for generations of folks coming through and participating in — and having their lives significantly impacted by — the Classic). Really, we (I) cannot thank them enough. I added a short note of my own to the guestbook, hoping that years from now I’ll be able to flip back through, and remember this year and all the special memories and people that made them happen. Thanks to everyone who participated this year, who supported the event (and those out there skiing), and to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for allowing us to experience the beauty of the Refuge.
And special thanks to my coworkers at Trustees for Alaska, who spend countless hours working to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a wild and magical place.