Roadtrip to Alaska

“Anchorage is great,” they say. “It’s only 20 minutes from Alaska.” By they I mean the red state rural minority who believe in the Three Ps: the Permanent Fund, divine Providence and Palin. As much as I hate the saying they have a point. 20 minutes from Spenard, strip clubs and Sams Club you can hit the park and head east for 400 miles before you hit another road. And most of the year I manage to get out of Anchorage and enjoy Alaska on a regular basis, but the fall is different. Fall in Anchorage means foul weather; freezing rain, sun and snow all in the same week.

Luckily Alaska is a big state and if you’re willing to commit to 14 hours in the car you can climb ice in the fall somewhere up north. So I made the pitch to Jake and after he bit we dusted off the ice gear and made the long drive north to Nabesna.

7 hours later we emerged from the warmth of the car and stood on a deserted road looking up at the Wrangell Mountains above Jack Creek. The wind was howling and the temperature hovered around 5. It was a frigid interior winter wind that crept through all layers and chilled you to the bone.

Darkness fell around 4:30 and we retreated to a connex trailer at a hunting lodge. The room smelled like cigarette smoke and the batteries in the carbon monoxide detector had died sometime around 1983, but it was warm and the beds were soft. Beers on the porch become frosty cold in about 10 minutes and we were asleep by 8pm.

Up early the next morning and by 8am we found ourselves hiking across frozen tundra dusted in about 6 inches of snow. Luckily a front had moved and the temperature had risen to a balmy 20. On the other hand the skies threatened snow – a bad prospect on a route that can have high avalanche danger.

Our objective was “The Corridor” – a 1500′ series of ice steps in the deep cleft above us. Aptly named, the route ascends a gully with several hundred feet of rock towering above you on each side. In places it’s about 10′ wide and feels very alpine-like. Jake led the first block of ice and had 3 nice 50′ pillars of Grade III ice separated by sections of easy ice and snow. I took the next block and had a couple of pillars but soon found myself scrambling up mellow ice without gear so we unroped and soloed the rest of the route until reaching the final short pillar of ice. We roped up once again for another 100′ of ice and shortly afterwards found ourselves in a bowl just below the summit.

Jake on the first pitch of the season.

The approach.

Photo by Jake Gano.

Jake a few pitches up.

My turn on the sharp end – photo by Jake Gano.

Jake mid route.

Nearing the top.

Jake up high.

Climbing out of the rock cleft we discovered high winds and flurries. Clouds were obscuring the mountains on the other side of the valley and somewhere in the back of the brain I began thinking about enduring past storms in the Wrangell Mountains.

Last pitch – photo by Jake Gano.

In the few minutes we were up high we witnessed an obvious increase in storm intensity. The winds picked up and the snow changed from flurries to a real snowstorm. Thus began the descent. Darkness overtook us after several hundred feet of downclimbing, creative boulder anchors and v-threads. I discovered I had forgotten to change the batteries in my headlamp and building v-threads became an object of concentration as the dim beam attempted to illuminate the night.

Jake testing the bomb anchor.

Mid route.

Last pitch to terra firma.

We finally reached the base of the route around 5:30 and began the hike back to the car. The storm had increased in intensity and once we left the protection of the corridor we found ourselves stumbling across the open tundra in a driving wind with horizontal snow.

Wandering through the tundra my mind began to drift. This was the real Alaska; remote, wild and cold with a better chance of meeting wolf than human. The snow began to cover our tracks and I drifted back and forth searching for our footprints from earlier. I stumbled off the tundra and found myself wandering across a frozen lake that creaked and groaned beneath my boots. If I were to fall through the ice would my core ever regain the warmth I had lost? Thinking out loud I muttered, “Well – if I am bound to freeze anyway, I might as well take it decently.” And standing on the ice looking up at the horizontal snow illuminated by headlamp I waited for the first glimmerings of drowsiness.

Jake beeped the horn and shook me out my trance. The truck was parked 100′ away and he really wanted to get back to cabin beers while I was out reenacting Jack London. I sighed deeply, turned my back on the real Alaska and crawled into the truck. A short sleep and a harrowing drive down single lane roads with more caribou than people and I was back in my heated office looking out at a suburban Anchorage landscape coated in sleet that didn’t seem Alaskan at all.

Alaska Highway 1 hell driving.