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Sunday
Apr302006

Neacola Traverse

If you look across Cook Inlet from downtown Anchorage on a sunny evening you'll see a high, glaciated volcano called Mount Spurr. Left of Spurr is a low break in the mountains where Chakachamna Lake sits. Left of Chakachamna Lake are the Neacola Mountains, visible as a low and jagged set of peaks that stretch southwest for 81 miles to the Tlikakila River and Lake Clark.

Andrew Wexler, Dylan Taylor and I wanted to ski the full-length of the Neacola Mountains.  

 

Derek Nelson gave us some info, then we hit the maps. 

 

On April 6, 2006, Doug Brewer flew us to 5,000 feet on the Glacier Fork where we cached 100 lbs of food and beverages. Doug then shuttled us to the east end of Chakachamna Lake. With six days of food, and a single 1:250,000-scale map, we headed back to our cache, across the high neves of the McArthur, Blockade and Tanaina Glaciers.

 

Wex enduring chute envy on day one. We had just five days of food for 60 miles of unknown touring from Chakachamna Lake to our cache in the center of the Neacolas. No time for chute skiing. 

 

We did have some great powder skiing along the route though.  

 

But then the weather kept us roped together as we groped through the soup. 

 

We reached our food cache and waited for the weather to clear so we could ski chutes.  

 

Dylan curious if his supplement stash is making him huge.  

 

The weather cleared. Andrew is probably thinking about powder skiing. 

 

Andrew is probably also thinking how long the run is.

 

And how the length of his contrail relates to his speed. 

 

When the snow stabalized we headed for the 3,000-foot Gorilla Finger couloir. Here's Dylan belaying Andrew into the entrance. 


We shifted base camp to the North Fork Glacier.

 

Dylan Taylor taking first dibs on the 3,000-foot Immortal Technique Couloir. 

 

 

We kept skiing after the Immortal Technique Couloir. 

 

Until we had logged 10,000 vertical feet by 10 PM.  
 
 
To finish the traverse, we toured another four days, then walked to Little Lake Clark. Many huge bears at Little Lake Clark. Dylan had never seen a bear in Alaska and really wanted a photo. Andrew is deathly afraid of bears. He slept the last night clutching his ice axe and the remaining stove fuel, ready to douse and torch any marauding bears. 

 

Doug picked us up on a gravel bar by the Tlikakila River on day 22. It was a rowdy take-off, but we were eating burgers in one hour.  

Wednesday
Mar292006

Portage Icefield

On March 29, 2006 Andrew McCarthy and I left the Portage Visitor Center at 4am. Eighteen hours later we skied into Moose Pass. Our tour was 45 miles and climbed 7,000 vertical feet. We used metal-edged, scaled skis with skinny skins. 

Sunrise over Prince William Sound from the Burns Glacier.

 

Slogging up the Spencer Glacier to the Trail Glacier.



Near the top of the Spencer Glacier below Isthmus Peak.
  

Water breat at the top of the Trail Glacier.


Skiing the Trail Glacier.

 

Crossing from the Snow Glacier into the Grant Lake drainage. 



Nearing Grant Lake.

 

Downtown Moose Pass. Andrew hitching back to Portage.

Friday
Apr292005

Chugach Crusher

Wind slammed the peak of our tent like a grizzly. The walls sagged like potbellies from wind-packed snow. Our living space compressed into a three by five-foot sarcophagus. After three days in the tent, I was suffering cabin fever insanity. If the storm kept pounding, we would eventually succumb to thirst and hunger and bail out the Matanuska Glacier to civilization. If we bailed out, I would spend another year wondering why I only made it halfway across the Chugach.  

A year earlier Dylan Taylor and I did bail out at the Matanuska Glacier, halfway across our intended traverse of the Chugach. We had insufficient information about the route ahead and our food was running out. Or so I told myself when the rigors of an unsupported trip had beaten our egos flat. What if we had pushed a little harder? I abused myself with doubt for ten months until I recruited the Canadian powerhouse Andrew Wexler—and three caches—for another shot at traversing the Chugach in 2005. In harsh déjà vu, Andrew and I were now storm-stalled at the same horrendous halfway point through the Chugach. 

Shopping for endurance food for the backcountry athlete. 

On day one we skied 27 miles and 7,000 vertical feet, from Glen Alps in Anchorage to Crow Pass near Girdwood. Andrew looking from Paradise Pass into Ship Creek.

You can think of the Chugach as steep helicopter skiing near Valdez. Or, you can think of the Chugach as infinite unexplored mountains. Rising from sea level to over 13,000 feet, this range sponges moisture from the Gulf of Alaska and extrudes massive glaciers down ice-coated peaks and passes. The Chugach merge into Alaska’s only metropolis, yet no one had skied the longest uninterrupted section—the 175 mile Anchorage to Valdez traverse. 
 
Snagging this grand prize of North American ski mountaineering was almost a given with Andrew. Andrew guides big mountains around the world. On days off, he climbs 5.11 fingertip cracks like stairs. An easygoing personality makes everyone his friend and bulging biceps mean women want to know more. While guiding on Aconcagua in Argentina, I prodded him to attempt the traverse with me. He gave in when I exaggerated the true steepness of 31,000 vertical feet of downhill skiing over 175 miles. 
 
In April 2005, my wife Cathy drove Andrew and I into the dark foothills above Anchorage and we tore off for Valdez like manic dogs on day one of the Iditarod. With empty packs we skied for the first of three caches, twenty-seven mountainous miles away. On firm powder we toured through desolate valleys and over passes criss-crossed with courting ptarmigan tracks. Thirteen hours later, we ripped off our skins at Crow Pass and dug into our cache under a cranking aurora. 
  

Crossing the Eagle Glacier on day two. This is on the popular Eklutna Traverse.  

Disaster! Broken minidisc at Hans' Hut.

On day three we skied from Hans' Hut down the Whiteout Glacier to Lake George. Our route down the Whiteout Glacier is visible above Andrew. 

Chilling on the shore of Lake George.

We picked up our second food cache at Grasshopper Valley. Although we torched 20 pounds of food, our packs were still huge. Travel conditions were so good that we had excess food.

Days of splitter weather pushed us deeper into the Chugach: Whiteout Glacier, Lake George, and the Marcus Baker Glacier—where my Minidisc sputtered out. I crevassed the excess weight and resigned myself to Andrew’s hip-hop incantations. Hit the gear. Hit the clutch. Hit the gas and I’m gone. I didn’t miss the headphones. My mind stayed occupied by the glacial horizon and a reappearing image of our bronzed faces drinking pints of Alaskan Amber at the Pipeline Bar in Valdez and celebrating success. But on the eighth night we crossed a 9,000 foot col of bare glacier ice and side-slipped onto the Matanuska Glacier, our halfway point, and a raging storm. Ridgetop winds that began that morning were now stuffing our sunglasses with spindrift. In a blinding ground storm, I followed Andrew down the Matanuska to a rock buttress that slowed the wind and split the avalanches. Where we spent the next five days. 
 

Joe halfway up the Marcus Baker Glacier. Above is Mount Marcus Baker, the highest summit in the Chugach. 

Wex waiting out day three of a mega storm that pounded our Bibler tent with 100 mph winds.

By the third stormbound morning our food sack still bulged. Fully rested, I forced Andrew to let me do all the cooking, and I exposed an eyeball to the blizzard each minute to check for lifting. The image of the Pipeline Bar had been replaced by Cathy’s smile. Each stormbound minute became a wasted minute away from her and more fear of failure. 
 
On the fifth morning the wind reduced to a dull roar. After hours of prodding, Andrew agreed to attempt moving—probably just to shut me up—and we packed up camp. A rope length beyond the lee of the buttress I walked back into the storm. I groped blindly in the blizzard until the Magellan GPS in my hand became a white blur. I belayed Andrew in with a prusik, hoping he’d know how to read a GPS in two-inch visibility. 
 
“It’s pretty bad.” Andrew yelled into my ear. 
 
“No, it’s okay.” I yelled back, blind from inactivity and seeing our return to the buttress as the demise of the whole trip. Without waiting for his reply, I staggered into the 100 mile per hour wall for ten more feet until I fell backward. “Sorry. You’re right.” I yelled back at Andrew, who hadn’t moved. We backtracked to the sheltered rock buttress where I had a solid surface to beat my head. 
 

A clearing after four days of storm. We bailed to the Scandinavian Peaks Hut for another night. We had to nail the hut door shut to keep out the 100+mph winds.

After five days of storm we set off again, touring through wind ruts up the east branch of the Matanuska Glacier.

Infinite blue skies rose above us on our fourteenth morning after leaving Anchorage, and I plowed across the Matanuska Glacier like a Jack Russell terrier on a quadruple-shot frappuccino. The violent winds had deposited drifts tens of feet thick in places and scoured the snow down to neve in others. From the Matanuska we crossed high passes between the Powell, Sylvester, Tarr, Nelchina, and Tazlina Glaciers. Leaving the halfway point far behind, we moved about eight hours a day with me breaking trail until exhaustion and then Andrew leading us miles beyond our intended camp. The image of us clashing pints at the Pipeline appeared again and I bolted after it. 
 
Each morning Andrew loaded my veins with Kaladi Coffee. The coffee-making process had been a pre-trip point of contention. 
 
“Filters and mugs are too heavy.” I said.
 
“Have you tried this MSR filter? It makes the best bean.” Andrew said. 
 
“It’s the concept though.” I said. “If we take the filter, then we’re taking frivolities. If we make cowboy coffee, then we’re going light and fast.” 
 
“If the filter doesn’t go, I don’t go.” Andrew said. Seventeen days into the Chugach I was a filter addict and learning to take Andrew’s opinion as fact.  
  

Skinning up the east branch of the Matanuska Glacier from the Scandinavian Peaks hut after the storm. From the Matanuska Glacier to Valdez took us five big days.

Wex above the Nelchina Glacier. 

Wex skiing down to the Nelchina Glacier.

On the seventeenth day, fearing that Valdez would vanish if I didn’t go faster, I launched from Brontosaurus Peak and mowed down fifteen miles of wind ruts across the Tazlina Glacier to Cashman Col. Valdez was just over the Col, but I’d milked the dregs of my energy. I stripped naked and sprawled in the sun while Andrew caught up. He kicked steps over Cashman Col and broke isothermal slop down the Valdez Glacier while I schlumped along whimpering. Valdez was only ten miles down glacier when we dropped our packs in the slush and collapsed onto them, feeling like three-quarter inch rebar and unable to move for 30 minutes. 
 

I lay comatose in the tent, sinking into the Thermarest. I watched the clouds floating above, and only moved when Andrew passed in hot Cytomax. The image of the Pipeline Bar was close to reality and my fear of failing was gone. I relaxed deeper into the Thermarest and listened to Andrew sing Impala. Tomorrow afternoon we’d be drinking those pints at the Pipeline. 

Day 17, feeling the cumulative effect. 

Joe crushed and unable to stay upright on the Valdez Glacier.

The scenic Valdez rock quarry and shooting range!

Trip Summary

In April 2005 Andrew Wexler and I skied from Anchorage to Valdez. Over 18 days we covered 185 miles and about 31,000 vertical feet. We had three caches located at Crow Pass hut (skied in), Grasshopper Valley (dropped ten days earlier), and at the Scandinavian Peaks hut (flown into us) on the Matanuska Glacier. Eight days of clear, calm and cold weather got us to the Matanuska Glacier from Anchorage. One hundred plus mile per hour winds and snow pinned us down for six days and then five more days took us to Valdez.

On the first day my wife Cathy dropped us off at the Glenn Alps trailhead in Anchorage and we skied over Ship Lake Pass, down Ship Creek, up the North Fork of Ship Creek to Moraine Pass and Paradise Pass, down to Raven Creek and up to the Crow Pass Hut in 13 hours. From Crow Pass we covered part of the well-traveled Eklutna Traverse route including the Raven Glacier, Eagle Glacier and Whiteout Glacier. We then descended the Whiteout to Lake George (15 miles of skating), across the Knik Glacier to Grasshopper Valley and up the Marcus Baker Glacier to a 9,000 foot pass and the Matanuska Glacier. We took an easy glacial bench (~8,500’) from the west to east fork of the Matanuska Glacier to gain Turtle Flats and the Powell Glaciers. We crossed a series of easy passes between the Powell and Sylvester Glaciers (7,200’), Sylvester and Tarr Glaciers (6,300’), and Tarr and Nelchina Glaciers (6,700’). Once on the Nelchina Glacier, straightforward slogging took us across the Tazlina Glacier, up Cashman Col (6,300’) and down the Valdez Glacier to the Valdez Pipeline Bar.

Thursday
Apr292004

Mt Thor of the Chugach

In April 2004, Dylan Taylor and I skied from Valdez to Caribou Creek by way of Mount Thor and the Matanuska Glacier. We left our car at the Valdez airport and slogged up the Valdez Glacier, over the steep Cashman Col, across the Tazlina and Science Glaciers to the intimidating precipitation vortex of the Columbia Glacier. A corridor between Mt. Elusive and Mt. Valhalla offered us a low angle route up the east shoulder of Mount Thor (12,251’), the second highest peak in the Chugach. Wearing crampons, we double carried our kit down the aesthetic north ridge of Mount Thor to the Sylvester Glacier. An easy 7,200 foot col linked us to the Powell Glacier and high glacial benches for 15 miles to the west branch of the Matanuska Glacier and out to the Glenn Highway at Caribou Creek. Our route gained about 19,000 feet over 98 miles.

Dylan sledging up the Valdez Glacier toward Cacheman Col on day two.


Kiting the Tazlina Glacier with a ten-square meter NASA-enhanced parawing kite.


Snowmachiners on the Tazlina Glacier. These guys rule the western Chugach. They'll ride five hours across glaciers from Valdez to have lunch in Eureka then ride back.


Disaster! Joe drinking strong Tang from a malodorous bottle. His regular water bottle cracked.


Dylan on the summit of Mount Thor (12,251'), the second highest summit in the Chugach Mountains.


Dylan at camp below the north ridge of Mount Thor. We down climbed this beautiful route twice to get our gear to the Sylvester Glacier.


Dylan at Turtle Flats.


Eli Helmuth, Mark Kelly and Dylan at the Scandinavian Peaks Hut.


Dylan hitching to Anchorage from Caribou Creek on Day 18.

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