Delta Junction, Alaska
In an earlier post, “Becoming a Lean, Mean Adventuring Machine,” I identified a “go big or go home” moment as part of the hardening process. I finally had that moment, a few weeks ago in the western Alaska Range (as predicted), and I’ll share it now.
The western Alaska Range between Roan Roadhouse and Cantwell was my first significant off-trail portion and my first long stretch without town stops. It’s rugged country even by Alaskan standards. It features big mountains, big glaciers, serious weather, and no local help if something goes wrong. Look at a map—there’s NOTHING between Nikolai and the seasonal Wonder Lake Campground. “Just go downhill” is not sage bailout advice. My planned route was 280 roadless miles, which I made logistically possible by having two caches brought in beforehand (one by plane, another by dog team). The terrain included enormous braided river bars (which in early April are still covered with ice), tundra-covered 4,000-foot benches just to the north of Mount McKinley, textbook Interior taiga forests and tussocks, and the debris-covered terminal moraines of Straightaway, Foraker, and Peters glaciers.
Making this segment even more challenging were the springtime conditions. Snow coverage could be bare on a south-facing slope, but thick on an adjacent north-facing aspect. There may be a supportive crust in the morning, but not after 11 a.m., leading to a postholing-filled afternoon. And there may be good snow at 3,000 feet in one location, but 15 miles away there’s no snow, because the local mountains are such weather makers.
The first day out of Rohn was glorious: easy skiing on frozen overflow ice up the Tatina River towards its source glacier near Shellabarger Pass. The second day was “real:” a stormy whiteout with 50 mph winds, which made skiing across the terminal moraine of Tatina Glacier even dicier. Those conditions prevailed through the third day, when I was hoping to make it over a critical pass between the headwaters of the Dillinger River and Pingston Creek, which would avoid a longer, brushier, and more arduous alternate route.
A National Geographic photographer and his guide (also my friend and expert “Nordic mountaineer” Forrest McCarthy) had joined me at Rohn Roadhouse and had hoped to ski to Cantwell with me, but this alternate route was not viable for them and they pulled a FUBYOYO, the polite interpretation of which is, “Forget You Buddy You’re On Your Own.”
And literally I was. Standing with Forrest and Michael at the starting point of this undesirable alternate route, wilderness was forcing a decision on me: by entering it and pushing on, I would suffer but ultimately be rewarded; by waiting for the bush plane, life would be easier but I would miss out. It’s not that I had considered quitting this expedition, but following my original decision to ski out of Kotzebue, there had not been any moments when I really had to commit to it either. The prospect for newfound self-reliance was appealing (“I can do this”), but the potential consequences were humbling (“If you do this, you better do it right”).
When I stepped into my bindings and skied away into the forest, I was basically telling Mother Nature, “Okay, it’s on. Bring it.” I was exposing myself to a new and unprecedented (at least for this trip) level of risk and reward. I don’t consider nature an adversary, like it needs to be conquered. But I do have a relationship with it—sometimes it’s pure fun, other times it’s playful one-upmanship, and occasionally its a street fight. Skiing into the woods was the equivalent of asking a girl to tango or to get married, or getting on a roller coaster—I’m committed to this expedition now until the music stops, until death due us part, or the ride ends.
It was liberating to make the commitment. Now, my path and goal is certain, and my focus in very clear; I have a hunger inside. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been singing Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” all week.