“We all know better than to do this race.”
The sound of recirculating holes and giant wave trains greeted us when we rounded the next bend. Failing in the midnight light to see a good line through this next series of rapids — or, really, to just see the rapids at all — we opted to take out then and there. Chris and Bobby, my two soaking-wet teammates, were shivering as they climbed ashore — their penalty for floating 25 miles down the flooded, fast-moving glacier-fed Yanert River in glorified 3-pound pool toys known as the Alpacka Scout. (I was in much better shape thanks to my whitewater-worthy, decked 5-pound Alpacka Yukon Yak.) We hurriedly packed up our boats and followed a mile-long riverside horse trail to the mouth of Ravine Creek, where we were hoping to find an ATV track that would take us seven miles to a gravel pit on the Parks Highway, the anticlimactic — yet somehow fitting — finish of the 2009 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.
At the creek mouth, in the fading beam of Chris’ headlamp, I saw freshly etched into a sand bar a word that would invigorate most people who have been tramping through Alaskan bush for 3.5 days: “Cabin,” with an arrow pointing upstream. Immediately every 4-letter word that my sleep-deprived mind could recall was emanating from my mouth. Chris and Bobby joined my outburst when they saw it too.
“How did they do it?” I demanded to know, feeling like a villain whose plans to take over the world had just been foiled by a super hero — in this case, my plans to win the Classic as a non-Alaskan rookie, a feat that has occurred only three times in the race’s 28-year history. “We haven’t seen any footprints the entire race! We took the most efficient route! They could not have passed us when we were sleeping — we’ve slept just 2.5 hours over the last 85! Ahhhhh!” Chris and Bobby were equally mystified, yet we were convinced that somehow we had been outsmarted and outraced, probably by the famed Roman Dial and his partner Forrest McCarthy. We concluded the sandbar etching was playful ribbing by the race’s leaders and interpreted it to mean one thing: “Ha, ha! We were here before you and we’re going to win. You might as well pull into the cabin and get some rest — second place is the first loser.” Completely dejected, we picked up the ATV track and began a heavy-eyed trudge towards the finish.
About the Classic
The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic could be considered “the original adventure race.” It was first held in 1982, seven years before the first Raid Gauloises, thirteen years before the first Eco-Challenge, and twenty years before the first Primal Quest. I’ll add that the Classic could also be considered the only “real” adventure race — today’s most well-known races are really just a prescribed sequence of outdoor sports; and burdensome rules, substantial mandatory gear lists, aid stations and support crews, and numerous checkpoints neutralize much of the “adventure” from these television-oriented events.
The Classic has always been an organic, non-commercialized insider’s race. The race is not coordinated by a formal organization; the race organizer is a volunteer position; there is no dedicated race website or online forum; entry forms are distributed via email to a select group; publicity about the race rarely goes beyond the Anchorage Daily News and a few low-traffic blogs; some portion of the $150 entry fee is always returned to the racers after expenses are paid; there’s no prize money, sponsors, race standings, or official records; and racers are explicitly told before the race, If you get yourself in trouble, you need to get yourself out of trouble. We’re not responsible for you; you are. If you’re not okay with that, don’t come. This setup is completely intentional: as the 2009 race organizer told me in an email, “[The Classic] is absolutely unique, and we want to keep it that way. Small, limited to folks who can survive the thing, and who have a certain frame of mind about wilderness racing. Publicity beyond what we already have would almost certainly doom the race.” (It’s with some reservation that I submit this article, then, to Backpacking Light; though I have no doubt that the Classic will successfully stay true to its roots even if there is an unlikely surge of interest in 2010.)
Class of 2009
One of the most redeeming features of the Classic is the near absence of rules. The information I was given before competing in the 2009 race went something like this: “The 2009 race starts on Sunday, July 26 at 10 AM at the Gerstle River bridge over the Alaska Highway. Racers must reach the gravel pit located three miles south of McKinley Village on the Parks Highway by Saturday, August 1 at 5 PM. There is one mandatory check-in point at Mile 238 on the Richardson Highway. All racers must be self-propelled and self-contained (i.e. no motorized vehicles or pull/pack animals; and no caches or aid stations), and they must have a satellite phone and either an Alpacka or Sherpa raft (no Sevylors). Mapped roadways are off-limits. See you there, and good luck!” As a result so few rules, racers become very creative with their route choices and forms of travel, and complete surprises in race positions are common. At the start of this year’s race, racers scattered in three distinct directions. In past years, racers have toed the line with mountain bikes, skis, and even a paraglider. In the 2008 race the two winning teams took two entirely different routes and ran into each other four days later, just 8 miles from the finish. Furthermore, having minimal rules adheres truer to the race’s wilderness ethos — for in true wilderness, there are no artificial, manmade rules.
Between its loose organization, 28-year-history, big-personality participants, and wilderness locations, more than one night around a campfire would be needed to recall all Classic lore. One of the more well-known stories involves Dick Griffith, finisher of 17 Classics, with the last being in 2004 at the age of 81! In the Classic’s inaugural 1982 Hope-to-Homer race Dick outsmarted the other racers by carrying a packraft, which he used to float across the glacier-fed Skilak River and then down the glacier-fed Fox River, while all the other racers nearly drowned in the Skilak and then bushwhacked through alder down the Fox. As he unpacked his raft on the Skilak’s braids he donned a fuzzy red Viking hat with blue horns, looked at his competition (which included the then 21-year-old Roman Dial), and said, “You may be fast, but you young guys eat too much and don’t know nothin’. Old age and treachery conquer youth and skill any day!” A story from the 2009 Classic that will probably enter the history books comes courtesy of 2008 AMWC winner Craig “Chunk” Barnard and teammate Jordan Manley of eastern Oregon, who attempted a dangerous but straight-forward route on the Black Rapids and Susitna Glaciers. After crossing miles of jumbled moraine and then more miles of earthquake-caused debris slides, they put in to the East Fork of the Susitna River. Chunk poorly scouted a Class IV rapid while clutching riverside willows, flipped his boat and began Maytagging. Jordan, on his second packrafting trip ever, dropped into the same hole and pushed Chunk out, but got himself stuck. He lost his boat, paddle, and a shoe; he thankfully was wearing a PFD and eventually got tossed out. The PFD served a second purpose when he reached terra firma: with some duct tape Jordan fashioned a shoe and started hiking out, only to find his boat and paddle a few miles downriver. They floated to the Denali Highway and called it quits.
Even if it’s not lore-worthy, it seems that every Classic racer goes home with a story to tell. What’s remarkable is that “character development” is the only potential “prize” for this suffering, and that there is never a shortage of individuals who want to compete, some year-after-year. Appropriate taglines for the Classic (courtesy of my teammate Chris) could be, “The race that everybody loses,” and “We all know better than to do this race.”
About the 2009 Classic: Gerstle River to McKinley Village
The 2009 course was an extended version of the 1994-1996 course, from Donnelly to McKinley Village. The new starting point was the Gerstle River bridge over the Denali Highway; Donnelly was made the one mandatory checkpoint. The course’s straight-line distance is about 117 miles; the actual distance of the conventional route is 170-180 miles, with a maximum of 35 miles (20 percent) being packraft-able.
The course traverses the northernmost portion of the Delta Range and then the length of the Hayes Range. (Both ranges are sub-ranges of the Alaska Range). After skirting around or over Granite Mountain, the conventional route passes through foothills north of the Hayes Range’s crest, which is a series of 10,000- to 13,000-foot glacier-covered peaks, including the namesake 13,832-foot Mount Hayes. Three enormous glaciers — the Trident, Hayes, and Gillam — spill out into valleys along the route and must be crossed. Most of the conventional route is above 3,000 feet, which is the upper limit for trees, so racers find themselves trekking mostly through brush, tussocks, “sponga” (soft, energy-sapping tundra with ankle-biting vegetation like dwarf willows), or joyous hard tundra. Racers who had competed in the 1994-1996 race recall the route being less brushy than it is now — whether this is a global warming-caused reality or a function of old age and fading memories is unclear.
Challenges specific to this year’s race were mostly related to unseasonably high temperatures. Glaciers were melting rapidly and glacier-fed waterways were dangerously swollen. Hayes “Creek,” for example, was a frothing Class VI torrent of filthy gray water and had to be crossed by climbing atop the glacier above where the creek emerges below it. And the Yanert River, usually a pleasant Class I float, developed Class III holes. The high temperatures may also have placed additional stress on racers’ feet in the form of increased sweating and friction. Destroyed feet seem to be an inherent part of the Classic so it’s difficult to say whether this year’s field suffered any more than those in the past.
Hayes Creek, with man in suit for scale (and to reflect Chris’ actual sleep deprivation-caused hallucination)
The 2009 Race: My Story
The 2009 Classic was designed to be the final bookend of my first trip to Alaska. I first heard about the race in 2003 while developing content for GoLite’s website — Roman Dial was a GoLite-sponsored athlete at the time and included his Classic accomplishments in his bio. I looked online for details about the race, found nothing, and wondered what the big deal was. Over time I heard more about the Classic and about Roman, and concluded that no one made a big deal of either because too few people truly understood them. Really, how many people can relate to racing across remote Alaskan wilderness on no sleep, with no potential for fame or fortune, and with no outside assistance or safety systems? And who can comprehend the many accomplishments of Classic racers: the late Chuck Comstock pioneered hard ice climbing routes in Valdez and the Wrangell’s, and also traversed the Brooks Range and Chugach Range in cross-country racing skis in the 1980’s; Barney Griffith made many first descents of classic kayak runs in the 1970’s, including Devil’s Canyon of the Susitna River (when he was 18) and the Talkeetna Canyon (when he was 17); Rocky Reifenstuhl is an 18-time finisher of the Iditabike and 8-time winner; and Roman became the first person to mountain bike the length of the Alaska Range in 1996 and successfully hiked 600 unsupported miles across northwest Alaska in 2006, in addition to outstanding performances in the early Eco-Challenge races.
The primary focus of my first trip to Alaska was a 700-mile 4-week trip through the south-central part of the state. I started in the small hamlet of Hope, located across Turnagain Arm from Anchorage, and followed the original Classic route to Homer, from where I took an Erin & Hig-inspired route through the Kenai Fjords to Seward. From Seward, I made my way north into the western Chugach Range and then, after more vertical gain and loss than I care to remember, I crossed the Matanuska Valley and entered the Talkeetna Mountains. This final section was the climax: 200+ miles in 8 days, mostly on hard-packed tundra; daily caribou sightings and several glorious packrafting sections; and 4 days without seeing a human footprint, 5 days without seeing a manmade track, and 6 days without seeing anybody. The Talkeetna’s were so good that I resupplied and returned there for 4 more days and another 100+ miles.
In the Kenai Fjords
Expectedly I showed up to the Classic in great shape: my body was leaned out, my feet and legs were strong, my skills had been sharpened, and my comfort level in Alaskan wilderness was much higher. Even so I was still unsure about how competitive I would be — Are Alaskan-bred racers just on a different level than Outsiders like me? Do racers really run off the line and go days without sleep? I don’t think I can maintain that pace, and I’ve never stayed awake for more than 48 hours. How am I going to outrace and/or outsmart Classic veterans and multi-time winners?
Gerstle to Donnelly
At the starting line the field could have been broken into two groups: fast backpackers and suffering-tolerant racers. The former carried ultralight backpacking loads: frameless packs, tarps, stoves, foam sleeping pads, decked packrafts and PFD’s, etc. They were planning to hike fast, get some sleep, and stay safe. The latter group carried, well, the “essentials”: a packraft and satellite phone (the only two mandatory items), a few days of calorically dense food, a rainsuit, and maybe an insulated parka and/or space blanket. These participants came to win, or at least to perform well, and they didn’t believe that things like shelters, hot meals, bear spray, or polarized sunglasses were worth their weight.
Two of the suffering-tolerant racers: Roman Dial, left, and Bobby Schnell, right.
I fell somewhere in between these two groups. I was willing to forgo my shelter and sleep system, figuring I could always pitch my packraft like a tarp and wrap myself in a space blanket; and I left behind my PFD, knowing that the rivers were usually just Class I-II, which is within my comfort zone. But I was reluctant to leave behind my bear spray, since I was planning to race solo, or my 5-oz alcohol cook system — a full, steaming pot of potato spuds on a rainy night…priceless. My base weight came to 15.3 lbs — the packraft setup was 7.9 lbs and the remainder of my gear (including the 12-oz satellite phone) was 7.4 lbs. See my full gear list. And I was carrying about 4.5 days of food, which weighed another 11 lbs — more than I would normally have taken but my metabolism was very hot due to the 800 miles I had just finished.
Just before the start I approached Bobby Schnell and Chris Robertson, two Anchorage-based pararescuemen (“PJ’s”) who had six wins between them since 2003 and who were probably the race favorites. I met Bobby and Chris at a pre-race cookout two days earlier and had exchanged a lot of route beta; we seemed to have similar temperaments and to be approaching the race with a similar mindset. So they were very welcoming when I asked if they would mind if I accompanied them for at least the first 40 miles, to the checkpoint at Donnelly, from where I thought I would pull back and settle into my own race. I never really thought that I would race the entire way with them.
A starting gun would be too fancy for the Classic so the race director simply says, “Go!” Bobby, Chris, and I took off running northwest down an ATV track, with the intention of going around the north side of Granite Mountain by stitching together various tracks with short cross-country segments. Other racers went in complete opposite directions — some headed towards St. Anthony Pass while others took the proudest line, up and over Granite Mountain. The fact that we were running down the track concerned me — doing 9-minute miles with a 25-lb pack seemed unsustainable.
A south wind became fierce as we approached the Delta River — a weather front was trying to push north across the Alaska Range but was hung up by the range’s high peaks, and so the whole system was trying to squeeze through this corridor, just one of three that cuts through the range. We checked in at Donnelly at 10:30 PM in first place and headed out onto the gravel flats.
Donnelly to Gillam Glacier
Given the river’s swift current and the strong headwind, which was now approaching a steady 50 MPH, we decided to put in a half-mile upstream of our planned take-out point, just above the mouth of McGinnis Creek; it looked as if we would have to cross three or four braids. We tucked behind some alder to inflate our boats, which we lashed to our paddles knowing that our boats could take flight once beyond our windbreak.
Bobby put in to the first braid and was quickly carried downstream of the intended take-out — his Alpacka Scout looked squirrely in the current and he couldn’t ferry well with his Ultralight paddle. I put in next and ferried smoothly across in my Yak. Chris squeezed his 6’1″ 190-lb frame into his boat and immediately flipped, twice, before adjusting his center of gravity and paddling across to meet me. We crossed the remaining three braids without incident and grouped back up on the other side behind another alder thicket, somewhat shaken but also pleased with our success under such challenging conditions.
The sun struck McGinnis Peak, Mount Moffit, and Mount Shand a few minutes after we emerged from the woodlands into tundra. The peaks were now protecting us from the wind but we could see dust being blown down the Delta River flats below. “For their sake I hope no other racers have to deal with what we did last night,” remarked Chris, feeling a little fresher after our first break, a 15-minute snooze. I thought the comment was indicative of the friendly competition among the small Classic community.
We went across-the-grain of sponga-covered benches towards the Trident Glacier and its 1.5-mile-wide moraine. After dropping down steep, loose slopes of dry glacial silt and embedded rocks we started across the moraine directly in our general line of travel but realized quickly that our progress across this jumbled, pattern-less field of ice, rock, and sand was painfully slow and treacherous. So we cut straight across instead and then paralleled the glacier downstream once we reached the other side.
More sponga awaited us on our way to the Hayes Glacier and its outlet “creek” (see the story above), and again on our way to the East Fork of the Little Delta River, which is fed by the Gillam Glacier and which had plowed an entirely new channel through its valley that forced us to slog several more miles in a swamp forest than we had hoped to. By the end of the day it was clear that the course’s alternating variety of sponga, swollen waterways, and treacherous moraines over the last 30 miles was wearing on us — we all felt as if we’d put in a 50-mile effort. We were definitely no longer running.
Plodding across sponga between the Trident and Hayes Glaciers
Gillam Glacier to the Yanert River
The course conditions improved west of the East Fork: our route was consistently above 4,000 feet, just beyond the upper limits of the sponga; the river crossings were more manageable; the creek bottoms were gravel-filled and the river bottoms were wide and braided; and excellent game trails paralleled the waterways through willows and birchbrush. We made good time over 6,200-foot Buchanan Pass to the West Fork of the Little Delta River, and we were looking forward to getting off our feet after crossing a 5,700-foot pass in the dark at 2 AM and reaching the Wood River at 5 AM. The Wood is normally too low-volume to float but we assumed correctly that it would have enough water this year.
Our arrival at the Wood marked the beginning of the homestretch — the remainder of the race consisted of just a 10-mile float, an easy 17-mile trek over a pass, a 25-mile float, and 7 miles on ATV tracks. We knew we were getting close and with some degree of confidence we began projecting a finish time. It must have been entertaining to watch us calculate: using the same assumptions about our rate of travel, we calculated three different finishing times before having a repeat number on the fourth try. With our brains overwhelmed by the simple mathematics we stopped calculating and decided that one must be correct.
Even though our spirits were lifted by the proximity of the finish line, the effects of trekking 120 rugged miles in 2.75 days were definitely showing. A few hours earlier I applied Krazy Glu to the cracking trekking pole-caused calluses along the inside of my thumbs, and in the process I glued the tube securely to the pad of my thumb and had to cut off the top layer of skin with my knife in order to remove it. Bobby’s lower back was horribly chafed and almost bleeding due to pack-rub. Chris had bad tendonitis in his ankle and carried on only with the help of regular “Tylenol cocktails” that consisted of 800 mg of ibuprofen and 200 mg of Tylenol. Chris and Bobby had fashioned trekking poles from debarked alder they found on the gravel braids in order to aid their tiring legs. And we were all walking gingerly on our macerated feet, which we had treated with fresh air and dry warmth for about the same amount of time that we had slept — cumulatively, 2 hours.
The Krazy Glue incident
We floated 10 miles down the Wood in two hours to Big Grizzly Creek. Rafting had been faster than walking but it was not straight-forward: we occasionally had to walk our boats around short, shallow sections where the river braided out; and Bobby and Chris got soaked by the river splashing above the 10-inch tubes of their boats. Everyone was drier and happier after 30 minutes around a big fire, though; and I also inhaled a bowl of creamy hot soup.
Old horse trails took us up Big Grizzly Creek and into Edgar Creek. Along the way we had our only bear encounter — a sow and two cubs ran a quarter-mile towards us across a meadow only to run even faster in the opposite direction when they saw we were humans, not delicious moose or goats. That encounter was typical of all my bear encounters in Alaska, where the animal seems to still have a healthy fear of man.
We reached the Yanert River at 5 PM; Chris and Bobby requested a 30-minute time-out before getting in the rafts. I was buzzing from a caffeine pill and couldn’t rest, which came back to haunt me later in the evening: I managed to both “sleepraft” and sleepwalk, thankfully without consequence. While they were resting I broke out my large-scale maps and concluded that there was no obviously better route than we had taken, and I was happy to tell them when they woke up that I thought we were going to win.
After our “Cabin” discovery at Ravine Creek we dejectedly plodded along the ATV track towards the gravel pit. It was the lowest point for all of us: our bodies were demanding rest and recovery, especially since there was barely enough light to see and there was nothing along the tracks to demand our attention. Yet we continued to push onwards and self-inflict further pain and misery, struggling to justify it for second place but ultimately unable to halt our own locomotion that had apparently become automatic after 3 days and 18 hours of near-constant movement towards the finish line.
A brightening sky helped us pull it together for the last mile; our conversation was marginally sensible. After we arrived at the most anti-climatic finish line that race organizers could find, an abandoned gravel pit off the Parks Highway, we located the hand-written sign-in sheet — it was duct-taped to a post and protected by a Ziplok bag — and cautiously approached it, looking for signs that other racers had been there. None had been — the sign-in sheet was blank! We had won.
Two-and-a-half days later, after returning to Anchorage and enjoying an 18-hour slumber, Bobby, Chris, Roman, Forrest and I recounted our Classic experience over burgers and beers. And we also solved the Ravine Creek mystery: one of the racers who had dropped out at Donnelly hiked in from the Parks Highway to the cabin and thought she was doing us a favor by telling us where the cabin was. Little did she know how we would end up interpreting her note in the sandbar. Oh well, it made a good story and it certainly will not dissuade us from competing in the Classic again.
High fives all around at the finish — we won!