Monday, April 11, 2016

2016 Winter Wilderness Ski Classic

A blog resurrection? say it aint so! I guess I've been wanting to do a little more with my photos than just than them on Facebook lately.

The first few years I lived in Alaska I got to work on the North Slope a bunch. Mainly doing Spring hydrology studies, but a few times for winter construction inspection for 2 month saints. During this trips the highlight was often the flight during approach to Deadhorse, flying over the massive snowy expanse of the Brooks Range. I would gaze and daydream about traveling through this great white of mountains devoid of human sign.

One summer I brought my bike and had the chance to do a fast paced bike tour from Deadhorse down the Dalton. Pent up from weeks of work I hammered myself into the hills and ended up massively underestimating just how hilly the Dalton was! I experienced the bonk of my life after almost 500 miles sitting on the side of the road on a sunny day, out of food and my heart rate racing about 50 miles from Fairbanks. But this post is not about that trip, what I'm getting to is that somehow it took me another 12 years (!) before getting back up to the Brooks for a winter trip.

I wanted to do the winter classic for years, always half committing and being all talk but not carrying through with it. Finally this year I went to AMH, bought some Glittertinds and started "gearing" my way mentally into entry. Sometimes you really do just start to spend money to convince yourself you're doing something. Along the way somehow I talked Erica into being my partner. It did not take much, just constantly mentioning the classic seemed to be enough.

It was probably the worst snow year in Anchorage to train for such a trip. Having a kid and running a business has kept my big BC days pretty low, so I compensated with a decent amount of early morning garage-core workouts, hillside ice-skis(?) and bike rides. Anyway...

Getting to the start of this is an adventure in it's own right. 6 hrs north from Fairbanks above the arctic at Wiseman, you're still 2 hrs from the start further north at Galbraith Lake. Up there!

Natalie, Erica and Brad before leaving Wiseman.

So the morning of the start, amid last minute packing, Erica and I finally actually sit down and talk about the route. (!) We both are not into the 25 mile each way out and back that the Perigine pass route takes. My aim was to do a sweet fast paced ski trip, not really race others and leap frog. Turns out she was on the same page. We look at the graceful arc that the Northern Route takes across all new country to us and settle on it. We knew at least one other group of Scott and John were heading at least part of the way along the north.

Erica on the first day

We take off and before long are breaking trail on our own across the Itkillik River, although pretty deep there was still a supportable base. We were pretty sure we were ahead of Scott and John but were thinking they might have switched to the normal route after not seeing them follow our trail across the Itillik which took forever.
iPhone 6 nav
A few hours in we started wallowing, the supportable base was gone and our trail breaking slowed into a sugary base. At times you'd be mid-calf deep stuck in a sugar snow hole. Moral sunk. We crested a hard earned hill and had an honest sit down. Anaktuvuk pass was 50 miles away at least and this pace was a ton of work. I was wavering between going back and talking ourselves to keep going, 50/50, mainly I did not want to scratch due to a whim on choosing the northern route. Erica had similar thoughts, in the end we opted to contine, we did after all bring 6 days of food. Our reasoning was even if we take 4 days to get to Anaktuvuk pass we would have a highway of trail to follow and enough reserves to finish. Diving in, we keep going.
First day foothills

The next morning we eventually dropped into a ravine and to our surprise found a set of ski tracks! We were both shocked and stoked to go find these guys and share the trail breaking. Turns out they got up way earlier than us as we spent at least the next hour skinning up their trail into the big rolling foothills.
Heading up Scott and John's tracks

North siders!

We were all pretty psyched to be traveling tighter it was a big mental break for everyone. We were not out there alone, we could share breaking trail and had some mental company.  The weather was un-beatable too!

As evening wore on I noticed Erica was simply flying when breaking trail, she was an absolute machine and I could barely keep up with her.  I finally caught up and realized she had been rocking out to cheesy pop music and offered it up. Well that shit works and I took off stomping until it was time to fall over. Truth be known, I had "all about that Bass" and (to my astonishment) Mariah Carey's 95' "Fantasy" stuck in my head the ENTIRE race, even before I got my chance at the nano. It kept me laughing to myself that's for sure.

Day 3 - once again Scott and John beat us moving in the morning by well over an hour. As we crested a small divide the landscape changed to more wind hammered snow, less trail breaking. Sastrugi etc. We were rounding the corner to the Anaktuvuk river finally.

Some fun skating and slogging lead us to the river proper in the middle of a huge open valley. The minute we turned south we hit a headwind that did not relent until we reached the village like 9 hrs later. It was never that bad, just constant. The main thing I learned is that I would have been under-geared if temps were below zero in that kind of wind.

Erica and I were spent upon reaching the village, muscles were starting to fail, feet to rot. We exploded in the school home ec room where Luc and Holly served as the checkpoint. It was a total shock to be inside a warm comfortable building after the day we had and the crazy ice we skied across.

Scott was feeling like shit from a cold induced lung bronchitis ailment and hung back at the school while Erica  John and I found the nearest spot out of the wind to make camp. Our new team of 3 was short lived when to our awesome amazement Scott came skiing up the hill feeling better in the morning to join up with John. Rally! Woo hoo!

The rest of the trip went by in a blur and was pretty un-eventfull, just solid travel in a constantly beautiful place. We toured up to Ermine pass and down the fantastic trail through the Valley of the Precipices broken in by the leaders and were on the Kuskokuim, camping between the mountains that make up Gates of the Arctic by night fall. From there out we sadly did not see any other groups again. The skiing was awesome and diverse, glare ice - overflow, skating, classic, animal tracks everywhere, super fun!

We brewed up at 7:00 and made dinner at the turn off to Delay pass getting off the river. The conversation went something like, "well, should we start racing? we have not done that yet?" with that we pushed through the night finishing at 4:30 am. My increasingly tight calves reached the tipping point and I was locked up and hobbling on the many climbs, forcing me to double pole a lot of stuff and even walk. It was not the strong and graceful finish I had hoped for... The rumors of a long final downhill were a bit exaggerated. At Wiseman so many people had finished the day before that I just bivied in the yard and could barely walk to breakfast 3 hrs later with super tight and rather inflamed Achilles tendons.  Worth it, a week out and they are almost better...

Immediately I was thinking about next year. I can't wait. So fun.
Thanks to Erica, Scott, John, Luc, Dave Kramer, Bernie and the Hicker family, David, Kate and Sarah for the ride home. 

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