Monday, June 27, 2011

2nd annual BRAK, part 4

List of things that can kill you in the Brooks Range

1. Mauling (bears, wolves, moose, musk oxen)
2. Hypothermia
3. Drowning
4. Lightning
5. Rabid small animals (foxes, etc)
6. Mosquitos (Ok, not really. Alaska mosquitos do not carry disease. But according to a ranger talk at Coldfoot, death from blood loss would occur if you were naked and helpless for four hours. The more you know.)
7. Falling.
8. Rockslides**

** This is a new one to me. Here I was, hiking back toward the highway, minding my own business and cursing the rain, walking alongside a cliff and all of a sudden: CRACK CRACK SMACK overhead.

Instinctively, what does one do in this situation? One looks up, gazing in stupified wonder at where the noise came from! Exactly like the golfer, who, upon hearing "FORE!" perks his head up likes a dumbass and stares intently at the direction of the shout, while he should instead be crouching down and covering his head with his arms to protect himself from the projectile that he knows is headed in his direction.

So I acted on instinct, dutifully staring up toward the sky, agape, watching head-sized rocks falling toward me from sixty feet up. By the time I assumed the correct golfer's "FORE" pose, the rockslide had come to a blissful conclusion, and fortunately I escaped unscathed.

I was a little more careful to stay away from cliff bases after that.

I thought this was neat. It's not a great picture, but it's my boot print, from the walk in, preserved under three+ days (2 inches or so) of rain.

The amateur geologist in my wonders how the heck this rock was formed:
And here was the last obstacle before the spruce bog that stood between me and my car:

And so after four days of rain in the Gates of the Arctic, I made it safely back to the Dalton. And now I had a few days to kill, since I was hoping to spend at least five days in the wild!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

2nd annual BRAK, part 3

Could it be.... Blue sky? Really?

YES!!! Then, no. The sun came out for fewer than 15 minutes, then the rain started again.

The good news so far is that my rain gear (other than my boots) has held up rather nicely so far. I have heard mixed things on rain gear-- some insisting that you have to pay a lot for true, breatheable waterproofing, some saying it can be done on a bargain. I chose to believe the latter, and bought an entire Driducks set for around $20. And even though the bottoms split at the seams before I even got here, I put my faith in the top. Fortunately, through several days of rain, it has faithfully kept me far dryer than last year's jacket did which soaked through after only a few hours.

Day 2 brought more rainy creek crossings, and not much else. Signs of wildlife, to be sure, but no actual wildlife (other than birds, snowshoe hares and arctic ground squirrels.) Here are some moose tracks next to some wolf tracks:

And here are some bear tracks! I was thinking grizzly at the time, but now that I think about the size of the prints, it was probably a black bear.

Would I rather encounter a black bear or a grizzly? Grizzlies are obviously much larger, and arguably more aggressive. However, they are not known to hunt humans for food, whereas black bears are. They also (at least according to conventional wisdom available on the Internet) are likely to call off the attack if the human plays dead, since the attack is probably a territorial show of force rather than one necessarily lethal.

(One more reason I preferred hiking above the treeline, as i did last year, is that I only had to worry about one kind of bear. Black bears don't tend to occur without trees to hide behind.)

Toward the end of day 2, I ran into this.

Suddenly, that thing I said a while back about always being able to walk on one side of the river was disproved by counterexample. Basically, at this point the stream curved to the right, and narrowed so the current was very strong. On the left of the stream is a cliff face, and to the right is a very steep hill. The hill is composed of head-sized boulders at the beginning, and abruptly switches over to muddy scree (going right to left... or in the above picture, going from below the pic to the middle. I'm standing in the boulder field.)

I had three options:

1. Laterally scale the cliff face on the left, hoping to find shallow water or a jumping off point to the right.

2. Climb the boulder field, hoping to get around the obstacle by going over it.

3. Jedi-walk across to the scree, slide down, and hope for good footing or a passable crossing at the bottom.

I decided to try option 3 first. Then I chickened out, climbed down, and went for option 1. I was able to hop across to the cliff face, at which point I lost my footing on the slippery rocks and fell in. Waist deep. I scrambled out like a cat in a bathtub and found myself on the left side, standing on a slippery boulder in a strong current, hugging the cliff face. To progress, I would have to leap from my current position to a an even slipperier looking boulder, beyond which, i could not even be sure i could continue. Bad idea.

So I climbed back up, steeled myself, and went for option 3 again. Then I chickened out again and talked myself into option 2. However, after a brief climb, I only succeeded in creating a rock slide, getting banged up by rocks and ending up right where I started, only now a little more shaken and bruised.

Nothing left to try but option 3. I Jedi-walked across the slope and was able to grab some plants to prevent sliding all the way down. Then I eased myself down slowly, using the plants as handholds (knowing that I would need to use them on the return trip as well). Unfortunately, I eventually realized that this path was taking me down to the slipperier looking boulder encountered above in option 1. So I gave up.

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Location:Brooks range, Alaska

Saturday, June 18, 2011

2nd annual BRAK, part 2

Following Trembley Creek wasn't terribly difficult at first. Other than the constant rain, and the fact that both of my boots were leaking, the main obstacle is the creek crossings. I don't know, geologically, why this happens, but streams like this generally have a side you can walk on (usually a rocky or gravelly "coast") and a side you can't. For example:

You can stumble along fairly easy on the right, but sooner or later (normally sooner... usually around each bend) the situation will reverse, and you must cross the stream. Less than a mile in, I stopped counting stream crossings after the 10th one. Luckily, many had enough rocks I could hop to and from, and the ones that didn't were no more than shin deep as a rule, but my boots were taking on 32 degree water at each cross.

Again, because of the rain, I didn't take many pictures, but here are a few:

Covered a little more than six miles in this stretch, which probably doesn't sound like much, but isn't far below par for the Brooks Range. Maybe could have done better were it not for breaks for dumping water out of my boots and wringing out my socks :)

UP NEXT... could it be... sunshine?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Brooks Range, Alaska

Friday, June 17, 2011

Second annual Brooks Range ass-kicking

The story once again begins on the Dalton Highway, the road recently made famous by History Channel's Ice Road Truckers. They cleaned up the sign since last year.

As you can see, the road was rather slick thanks to rain. The forecast called for chance of showers, but rain all day it did. So I didn't stop much for pictures on the drive up, but fortunately I saw most of this stuff last year (see last year's Alaska blog entries).

I had two routes in mind, a difficult one and a more difficult one. The latter route was still in the forested area of the Brooks Range and began with a river crossing, and since I prefer not having bears lurking behind every tree and also being dry, I decided to keep trucking north, beyond the famously dangerous Atigun Pass, to the top of the range and then hike in from the north. The forecast in this area called for cold temperatures and possibly some flurries.

Well, when I got there, it looked like this:

It was flurrying something fierce.

Undeterred, I geared up, hiked a few miles toward the mountains, camped, slept, froze, and woke up to this:

Maybe it was the snow talking, but at this point, I was welcoming the thought of river crossings and bears lurking behind every tree, as long as the rivers weren't too high and the bears were nice and warm. So I backtracked to the car and drove south back toward the more difficult route. I can now say that I have driven up Atigun Pass in a snowstorm.

Shortly south of Atigun, the snow changed over to rain. It was still raining when I arrived at the launch point for the second route, so I waited in the car for a while hoping it would pass. Eventually I had to accept the fact that the rain was here to stay, so I geared up and set out.

Had to bushwhack a bit to get to the river crossing. Disclaimer time: due to the rain, I did not take nearly as many pictures as I should have, and those I did take suffered from the poor light. I wanted to put a picture of the river here, but this is the best pic I have. It was only about 30 feet wide and knee-deep, so definitely passable.

Side note: those of you familiar with the story of Chris McCandless know that one of the reasons he died was that he did not take into account the seasonal impact on the arctic rivers. This definitely weighed on my mind, knowing that this (and other) crossings may be more dangerous on the return trip.

Having passed the first obstacle, it was time to enter the spruce bog. This is kind of like tundra bog with the major difference being if there is a bear or moose around, you won't know until you're really close to it.

Does a bear shit in the woods? Well, this one did.

After sloughing through about two miles of spruce bog in the rain, I made it to what would be my trail over the next few days: Trembley Creek.

TO BE CONTINUED... with more foggy, rainy pictures!

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Location:Brooks Range, Alaska

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mount Washington

So this is long overdue, but I think I should blog this before much more in Alaska. I probably don't recall enough specifics to make this narrative all that interesting, but I remember a few important points.

1. I think this was my most difficult hike ever. More difficult than my previous hikes in the Rockies, the Cascades, the deserts of Utah and California, the volcanoes of Hawaii, and the trail-less wilderness of Alaska.

2. I was extremely proud of Alice for completing this hike with me.

Just above treeline, spirits still high :)

Man, there's still a long way to go!

Tuckerman's Ravine

The last few steps up the summit cone.

Snow on the summit!

The damn Cog Railway

Mount Washington hotel in the background.

We did it!

It was necessary to add "by man" recently, as the highest wind speed ever recorded was recently broken. But by a machine. Got it? Yeah.

Lakes of the clouds... And their hut.

Somehow we made it all the way down. Oh yeah, the other thing I remember is that I had to walk another mile to get my damn car!

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Location:Mount Washington, New Hampshire

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Alaskan non-wilderness

There are two rental companies in Fairbanks (well, two with web presences at least) that rent SUVs suitable for driving on unpaved roads. One charges close to $200/day, and the other charges close to $100/day.

Unfortunately, the latter one did not have availability until 6/12, so I would spend the first day carless, in Fairbanks. No big deal. Woke up to a huge breakfast buffet, including biscuits with sausage gravy (it's not a southern thing, is it? It's a red state thing.) And no sense in not gorging myself now, as I will surely not be eating like a king over the next several days.

After a spending a few minutes figuring out the Fairbanks bus system, I managed to find a bus stop and subsequently end up in downtown Fairbanks. After a vain search for wi fi, I went to the Ice Museum, whose exhibits contain a video on ice carving, several sculptures to look at, and finally a live demonstration (would have never guessed it was all that judging from the outside of the building, which looked like a small abandoned urban movie theater.) Here is some ice:

Tomorrow I get my car and drive into the wild.

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Location:Fairbanks, AK

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Test post using BlogPress

Day before Alaska, part 2. wondering whether I need to bring laptop for blogging purposes, or if iPad will do the trick.

Photo test... Pic from recent warmup hike in Nipmuck State Forest.

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