Blazing a Trail in the Eastern Alaska Range
“Adventure is a dish that is best eaten takeout, in the comfort of one’s own home…” – Michael Cabon
The “slip”—like all dumb-ass moments in my life—is perversely burned into my memory. One step too far in a rapidly rising creek—two poorly placed trekking poles—and I was face down in a roiling water slide. Desperate only to shed the waterlogged burden of my backpack—the trekking poles were blessedly history—I never noticed the missionary ride over a huge midstream boulder that I took before I managed to flip onto my back and pull my arms free. I was able to snag one shoulder strap and so crawled the last few feet of the crossing underwater, still equipped for the remainder of The Traverse.
The Traverse of the Eastern Alaska Range (EAR) earned italics as a grand dream only after too many dark winter-night beers at the Lodge at Black Rapids with a growing band of cohorts. For three years running from 2009 to 2011, I’d watched the Alaska Wilderness Classic racers head out in packrafts to cross the daunting Delta River on their separate ways along the Range’s north flanks. From my breakfast counter bar stool I always secretly thought, How hard could it be if they can race it?
The Eastern Alaska Range is a distant mirage for most Interior Alaskans and only a rumor in Anchorage. A small percentage of Fairbanksans can name Deborah, Hess, and Hayes as the dominant features titillating their southern horizon but few know which is which. I have made six unsuccessful attempts to climb the true queen of that triumvirate, 13,800 foot Mt. Hayes. I knew of her beauty and her beast, but I had always flown in.
The one out-of-print guide book to the area assured me that it was a simple three-day ski in to her base from the highway and an equally simple three-day climb. But years of climbing—and skiing—in our local mountain drainages had taught me otherwise: nothing is simple in the EAR and nothing in the alpine distance is a predictable “three-day” jaunt. So I, like the vast majority of Interior Alaskans, knew next-to-nothing about the land between the Richardson Highway and Mt. Hayes and fully nothing about the unseen miles of terrain from her to her sisters, Hess and Deborah.
After an overflight to determine a potential route, we divided The Traverse into three 30-air-mile portions. The actual hiking mileage over novel, uneven, demanding terrain was difficult to estimate. I conservatively guessed 30 air miles might be more like 50 on the ground. Unlike the Wilderness Classic racers (the winners completed it in a little over four days), we estimated taking 15 days of hiking which would amount to 10 miles each day. We planned to eat and sleep comfortably throughout our journey and so arranged for two strategically placed food/fuel depots to lighten our loads and brighten our spirits.
But my interest wasn’t to simply repeat with a modicum of comfort what hardier racers had pioneered. I had come to Alaska in 1984 with an adventurous itch I first scratched in high school with my older brother in the alpine meadows and mountains of Yosemite Park. Each summer throughout college we’d rendezvous to follow new trails into the Sierra Nevadas as we slowly found our separate ways to adulthood. Ultimately my way took me to distant Interior Alaska and I immediately sought out area trails. Repeated hikes to the heights on the Granite Tors and Eagle Summit Trails served only to point me in the direction of the distant Alaska Range.
And there the trails ended … and this story began.
There is none of John Muir’s “gentle wilderness” in Alaska. In fact, what I found on my summer forays into the Alaska Range was arduous bushwacking on dubious map headings that usually ended with soaked feet and blunted spirits. Buried in my misery and alder-hell, I got only brief glimpses of the mountains that called to me from distant Fairbanks. Eventually backcountry skiing became my key to entering the vastness of our local mountain kingdom. Winter’s cold and snow limited my explorations to the access provided by the frozen drainages and glaciers of Isabel Pass. Once construction of the Lodge at Black Rapids began in 2002, I was content to spend my summers building and maintaining the Lodge and day-hiking.
But there hasn’t been a single summer day at the Lodge where the foothills just across the Delta River haven’t called to me. Mts. McGinnis and Moffit, just visible from the lodge in amongst foothill gaps, sing snow-covered backup, the siren song of an extreme alpine Shangri La. And with equal regularity, European visitors would innocently ask upon arrival, “Where are your trails?” I would sheepishly point to the rough cross-country ski trails I had hacked out on the tame slopes that rose behind the lodge…
The summer of 2018 I vowed would be different. So with the patient compliance of my wife and the knowing sighs of my grown kids, I decided to lay out the makings of a trail that started across the river and went west until it met macadam. I not only wanted to walk in the footsteps of the Wilderness racers, I wanted to document the journey and assess its trail potential and building challenges. Ultimately I wanted to see Alaska host a second John Muir Trail, one on a scale even he might have trouble imagining.
To that end I enlisted a former long-time trail-building crew boss of the National Park Service, Tim Beale, professional wilderness photographer, Steven Miley, and an undergraduate geology student from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and his younger brother, both experienced drone operators, Philip and Grant Wilson. Together we set August 1st for tip-off. But talk about ‘build it and they will come’—Peter Winsor, UAF professor of oceanography and long-distance trail runner and accomplished climber, and Steven Decker, senior civilian instructor at the elite Northern Warfare Training Center at Black Rapids, soon added their names to the roster. Retired special-ed teacher and world adventurer extraordinaire, John Hildebrand, returning just in time from a solo 30-day mountain bike circumnavigation of Iceland, rounded out our entourage. Someone besides me had to be eligible for Medicare.
Sunny August 1st found us right on schedule, dragging a 14-foot rented raft nearly a mile to a calm river bend put-in on an alarmingly high Delta River. We’d had weeks of sunshine and warm weather but Alaskan rivers are weird: hot, dry weather melts glaciers and raises rivers. Seven guys with full packs crammed in paddle-ready and shoved off; Steven had preceded us in a packraft to film our arrival on the far side of the Delta River. Every single paddle was needed to safely moor our mildly-panicked boatload into our planned pull-out.
We gratefully tied our deflated craft to a half-buried logjam—Steven stashed his personal packraft judiciously apart—and we set out on our grand adventure.
An owl calmly watched our creekbed approach in the last broad daylight we were to see for the next seven days; five miles up-creek it was to start raining, the small glacier creek was to swell, and we would not cross any mountain defile without trepidation for the next seven days. Our photographic ambitions were to prove as dampened as the low-hanging clouds that soon smothered our pleasantly Google-mapped route.
From the air the small un-named glacier with which we were confronted on our first day seemed as unremarkable as the “gently” sloping meadowed approach to the first inter-glacier pass we were subsequently to ascend. Philip had skied up-glacier in an impressive ascent of a nearby peak the previous winter and buoyed our over-flight confidence. But at their terminus, even anonymous glaciers become giant fire-hoses as ice compressed over the centuries suddenly melts and seeks flow and release. No way were we crossing that moving water. Somehow we had to go up and over that cavernous outlet.
It was a moment into which Army Rangers are taught to step. And the only former Ranger amongst us—everyone called him “Decker”—stepped in, calmly climbing up, over, and around the gaping hole from which a foaming grey geyser shot.
Seven of us sheepishly followed only to be confronted with the nightmarish navigation of razor-sharp, loose, wet glacial moraine in dense cloud cover. GPS mapping apps kept telling us where we were on our phone-size map but the terrain was so tortured, no “route” seemed obvious.
Eventually, after skirting ice cliffs that fell away to frightening foggy depths, we found our way down to a glacial drainage we hoped might prove to be a side boundary and a way off and out, only to be confronted by a steep, scree-filled slope blocking our way on the other side.
Decker again proved his worth scrambling straight up the bluff, leaving the rest of us to somehow navigate our way up while avoiding the falling rocks of those ahead.
Our first rest break was amongst the seemingly impenetrable brush atop the bluff; the way out and up was only clear to Decker. He’d somehow taken a compass heading to the hidden pass above from what little we could glean of our place on the map and so, he confidently pointed us all in a general direction up. Switchbacking game trails soon merged and led us out of the brush and steeply up a clear trail to the spine of a distinctive hogback ridge I recognized from my overflight.
Our party soon spread out in a line that was to prove typical: Decker and Peter leading, Steven ranging about looking for interesting photographic perspectives, the Brothers Wilson gamely keeping up with packs loaded down with camera and drone gear, Tim trudging stolidly with a pack as wide as it was high (we came to learn he was used to mules carrying his gear, and had yet to learn to pack for human load bearers in the backcountry), John conscientiously sweeping, sprinkling encouragement and aid on any flagging member, and, finally, me … dragging my increasingly humbled self in unfamiliar distant last place.
This was not a situation or feeling I was used to. While I’m not the biggest or most accomplished climber or backpacker, I’d nonetheless always held my own in the backcountry. But on this rain-swept tundra ramp to our first campsite I was to experience my first real intimation of aging.
It wasn’t like I was dying. I knew that much from experience. I’d become something of a standing joke amongst family and friends for the many brushes with death I’d managed to survive. But I was to learn on this trip that the most recent was one I may never leave fully behind.
Three and a half years earlier I had survived being buried in an avalanche. I managed to dig myself out but not in time to save my buddy, Erik Peterson, or my best dog, Rowdy [see Last Frontier, June 2015 issue]. Two months later I was rushed into emergency lung surgery during which the surgeon discovered I’d inhaled glacier grit along with snow during my ordeal and had an abscessed, infected left lung. In the interim I’d nearly coughed myself to death, developed pleurisy in that lung, and laid in bed losing weight. Out of the hospital, I was determined not to give in to a crippling fear of avalanches. I was backcountry skiing by spring hoping to leave the tragedy behind.
But something didn’t feel right; I just didn’t have the oomph I once did. It took nearly three years of avoiding the issue—and doctors in general—before I finally confided to a new one that I suspected residual lung damage. She suggested pulmonary and stress tests. Turns out my lungs were fine but my heart wasn’t. Somewhere along the line I had developed atrial fibrillation (afib). My doctors, plural now (you soon have a team when you have “heart troubles”), don’t know what caused the afib; it can and, not infrequently, does come with age. It can also occur when your heart is put under extreme stress. My surgeon confirmed what I vouchsafe: being buried in an avalanche slide—for what felt like forever—and subsequently suffering a debilitating undiagnosed lung infection for two months counts as “extreme stress.” I had to consider that my near-death experience left me with a heart break that wasn’t just emotional.
The news came as I was putting together the Traverse team. I quietly went for a quick fix. When the defibrillation didn’t hold, I elected the more invasive repair of an ablation in early July. A surgeon threaded a catheter from an artery in my groin up to my heart; once there he inflated a tiny balloon in six small apertures in the upper chamber of my heart and freeze-burned the rims, effectively and strategically scarring my heart. Scar tissue had proven to be a poor conductor of the errant electrical impulses known as “afib” that can skip across the heart’s surface.
Three weeks later, follow-up found that the fix was in and holding, but my blood pressure needed management. I prepared to launch on our expedition with a newly regular heartbeat and an untested medication regimen.
I tried to tell myself that the struggle up that first major rise was just a break-in period, but it proved emblematic of my Traverse. I felt throughout like an aging Toyota Camry that couldn’t downshift from drive; I did OK on the flats but quickly bogged down going uphill.
As we climbed into the clouds, we couldn’t tell if and when we’d reached the actual pass between our first, unnamed glacier valley and the second larger McGinnis Glacier. We were forced to yell out routinely to keep track of our trailblazers. With some of us—certainly me—near hypothermic, we began searching instead for our first campsite and discovered the most surprising thing about summer hiking in the Range’s high alpine tundra. Though we stood in a driving rain, we could find no readily available source of drinking water by which to camp. The spongy tundra acted just like it looked and seemed to soak up all moisture. We stumbled along until finally we found a marshy series of tiny pools, threw up our tents, and dove inside. Quick meals were cooked inside our tents—against all bear-safety rules—and we were out.
We woke in the same thick cloud cover, but the rain had let up. We followed Decker’s compass heading and soon found ourselves dropping out of the clouds and into the McGinnis Glacier drainage. To our left, two separate arms of the glacier carved their way down out of the clouds, joined, and seemed to explode into a tortured morass of boulders, ice, and scree. To our right was the moraine terminus and rushing outflow of McGinnis Creek. With that crossing denied us, up onto another geological nightmare we headed, through which we struggled for hours; every step was tested; none, ever sure.
In the far uphill distance was a hazy green pinnacle that Decker assured us was a kinder, reachable goal. Closer by to our right were the steeply sloping sides of a high ridge that penned in the lower glacier. Its green cover drew us to the promise of a softer path, but Decker seemed intent on fighting his way up the rocky moraine path; he hated bucking brush.
I finally asserted what little authority I had left from the rear and led just long enough to drop us off the moraine and around an incredibly picturesque jewel of a lake tucked secretly along its edge.
Decker’s hated brush appeared to block our way up alongside the moraine, but as is so often the case in Alaskan wilderness, the way forward had quietly been judiciously cut by centuries of large mammal travel. We found ourselves quickly skirting our geological prison and steadily gaining higher tundra slopes, finally on a clear march forward.
I remember passing John on a promontory as he sat staring at McGinnis’ muscular mountain panorama slowly emerging from the clouds. I was too worn out to appreciate the moment and kept my feet moving and my eyes upwards on the still distant tundra ridgeline over which Peter and Decker had disappeared. They were again in search of a watered campsite in this green desert. The ridgeline proved to be a pass into yet another valley and afforded us the most spectacular and pleasant campsite of our whole adventure. It did have one drawback. The only available water was a long downhill trek to the tiny trickle of an almost-dry stream that drained from the pass. I gratefully accepted the heroic efforts of my dromedary teammates and set about erecting the tent I shared with John.
The air was still and the clouds were lifting so the Brothers Wilson managed our first drone overflight, obtaining some spectacular aerial footage of this seldom seen mountain wonderland. Those moments validated all we had put into organizing our trip. This was truly a place that needed to be seen, appreciated, and protected. It was a place to which one would always yearn to return.
Our third morning dawned with the peaks towering over us still hidden in clouds. The way on the map was clear. We were edging around the northern edge of Isabel Pass, on a westerly course towards the Trident Glacier and the Mt. Hayes massif. The way forward, down into a wide-open valley and then up an ascending ramp, was blessedly clear and an inviting green. But as we switchbacked up to hidden ramparts of the Range, we again entered the clouds and misting rain that stole any sense of progress, place, or destination. We headed out hugging the high line, crossing gravel slopes riven with run-off.
My memory of that day emerges only as we did out of those clouds, dropping down a gentle ridgeline and into a funnel leading in the direction of the legendary Trident Glacier. From the air, the Trident is huge and very distinctive. But, on our approach, as we stumbled our way down, pressed hard up against the Range, we could only suspect its existence.
When finally, in a cold drizzle, we reached the confluence with that river of ice, we were completely unprepared for the scale of the vista that confronted us. Even our drone footage can only hint at it. What stands out for me in memory is the impossibly huge icefall pouring out from the shadows between McGinnis and Moffit. I’d long studied pictures of the famed Khumbu Icefall that pours down towards basecamp on Everest. And I’d long known that from base to top, Mt. Hayes matched the elevation gain from that basecamp to the top of the world. Here was further spectacular proof that in the Eastern Alaska Range, Alaska possesses a commensurate wonder of the alpine world.
We could have spent the rest of the trip staring at what we’d stumbled upon … but we were too wet, cold, and hungry. After a quick standing snack we had to figure out a way forward. Decker argued for rocky navigation of the lateral moraine downstream until we could avoid the yawning crevasses created by a great bend in the glacier’s path. Once there, Steven argued, we could march directly across the ice. I relished neither prospect and advised retreat. The creek bank far above our heads on the downstream side was wide level tundra and held at least a promise of a surer, gentler path that stayed off the glacier. To gain access required a half-mile retreat back up the drainage, but we soon found ourselves on a grand game trail that rivaled any scenic highway for scale and grandeur.
The trail ran along the narrow top of a grassy lateral spine and continued unabated until it descended to a dry moat that shadowed the glacier’s downstream run. We comfortably followed this distinctively glacial characteristic for miles until we looked down and out over the beginning of the glacier’s huge terminal moraine and our best rocky route across. There we set up camp high above our only source of water, a tortured and steep hike down to glacial melt.
Day four dawned with a hike down onto the Trident Glacier terminal moraine that for scale I can only compare to descending into the Grand Canyon. It is a totally alien environment, one in which you know you are not supposed to be. Hiking through it is like finding a path through a geological war zone. In this challenging terrain, Peter and Steven took charge. Steven had previously crossed the Trident—alone—during a solo photographic outing while Peter visits Antarctica every year for his oceanographic research. To him jumbles of ice and rock are standard fare.
To the uninitiated and less world-traveled, the way forward across the Trident is not obvious. It looks like one of those mazes that has only one way through. A wrong choice looks to leave one stranded above a gushing glacier outflow or staring at a foreboding wall of ice. Even as we approached the final pitch that seemed to lead us up and off the glacier, our exit wasn’t guaranteed, and those first few steps on relatively solid ground were all the more welcome.
We paused only briefly to take in the crystal-clear beauty of Twin Lakes and waded through the mile of grassy marsh that fed them. By the time we reached relatively level tundra, a rising wind drove a steady rain, visibility was maybe 30 yards, and the only sense of direction again came from Decker’s compass rudder. Ghostly caribou flitted in and out of view—as startled by our presence as we were in begrudging awe of theirs.
My memory of that endless trudge over soggy tundra tussocks, once again in search of a water source for camp in a cold downpour, is the stuff of an old man’s nightmares. But camp we did. Our reverse-oasis was tagged by a few scraggly bushes that hinted at the hidden tiny trapped rivulet. I like to think we all collapsed exhausted into the four tents we scattered on grassy islands amidst the marsh. But maybe it was just me. I owe my tent mate and longtime friend, John Hildebrand, my undying gratitude for his solicitousness on that cold wet night.
I must have awakened to pack up the following morning. I must then have shifted that soggy pack up onto my weary shoulders before heading out into the clouds in my usual last place in line as we headed towards Mt. Hayes. But memory only serves as we dropped down off our tundra approach and onto the first of two glaciers, this one pouring down from the East Ridge and near vertical face. As we wound our way through that tortured icy drainage, a massive hunk of ice broke off the ridge; Philip alertly managed to capture it on video.
A steep climb up a gravelly margin deposited us at the base of the long winding northern ridge of Mt. Hayes. We reluctantly had to pass on the perfect campsite next to the two abandoned stone cabins that had served as base camp on my many Mt. Hayes attempts. On this, our fifth day, we were already a day behind our projected itinerary and on something of a forced march to our first food drop at the terminus of Gillam Glacier and the East Fork of the Little Delta River. We gingerly skirted the slick ice of the West Hayes Glacier and, by following its outflow, managed to get within a day’s shooting distance of that interim destination.
That evening, in the privacy of our nylon cocoon John struggled with the possibility of his early departure from the expedition. He had been one of the team’s strongest members—and certainly the most positive and funny—and his recently surgically replaced hip was doing fine! But he had joined our ranks, knowing the downhills would be painful on his well-worn knees and ankles. Although he’d had an exit strategy from the start, he was long past the point of a possible solo turn-around. But Tim and Decker—both short of time off work—had arranged a pickup at the first food depot. Their aerial ride out was John’s second option.
My spirits were flagging and I privately dreaded the loss of my inexhaustible tent mate and selfishly hoped he would continue. But later that evening Peter popped his head in with the inReach texted news that John’s nearly 100-year-old father was on his deathbed; Kathy, John’s wife, was desperately trying to get John home to his side in Seattle.
We hit the ground the next morning with a new sense of mission, determined to get our buddy on a bush flight out that evening. The light rain that accompanied our long descent into the valley of the East Forks didn’t dampen our spirits. But the near disastrous drenching I took in the small side-creek crossing nearly drowned mine.
We just managed to rendezvous with John’s late evening bush flight out.
In the cold wet solitude of my tent that night, I knew my trek was over. My gear was soaked and not likely to dry out in the ongoing monsoon we seemed to forever follow. The next morning I watched the remaining team of Peter, Steven, and the Brothers Wilson head off bravely into the mist and rain that now hung over the daunting crossing of Gillam Glacier.
They waded through waist-deep freezing water in that crossing and awoke to snow on the ground the following morning. Undeterred they would cross two mountain passes, manage to wade the daunting West Fork of the Little Delta—twice!—encounter twin grizzly bear cubs and live to tell their tales over beers at the 49th State Brewery in Healy. But none of those thrills compared to the excitement of the aerial delivery of McDonald’s Big Macs, courtesy of Philip Wilson’s girlfriend Mary; her father is a bush pilot. But I will leave those stories for the others to tell…
No one will ever get to hear the whole story of an unsuccessful river crossing earlier that summer in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Two older, experienced backpackers were found dead, huddled by the side of a glacial stream. Their backpacks were found some distance away washed up on shore. Searchers surmised that the couple had fallen in their crossing attempt, managed to escape the raging water but lost their packs in the process. Devoid of dry clothes or a heat source, they died of hypothermia.
I could feel for that tragic couple like I felt for my ski buddy, Erik Petersen, and best friend, Rowdy. I survived only by chance events that ended other beautiful lives. And while my ability to brave the backcountry may be blunted, I still hope to make the Himalaskan beauty of the Eastern Alaska Range a little safer—and more accessible—for those hikers who want to wander and gawk rather than race. I still cannot believe those guys actually ran through that country!