We arrived at the edge of McCarthy to Frank's amazement. Amazed perhaps because we didn't actually arrive in McCarthy, as much as at the edge of it. It is impossible to drive into this little remnant of a town. The road finishes at the footbridge over the Kennicott River, and from here, it's a half-mile walk into the town. After flying from one corner of the continent to the other, and then driving all day across the largest state in the nation, we arrived at, literally, nowhere. We parked and walked over to the town, hungry and looking forward to a meal. What we found, much to our chagrin, was a nearly deserted, somewhat dormant village, with a few scattered folks wandering the two streets as we were, with that kind of half amazed, half disgusted look of disbelief and bewilderment that people get whenever things don't turn out as they had hoped for, without any understanding of why or what to do next. We did find one lone bar open, and serving drinks, but with a closed kitchen we had no reason to stay long.
Walking back to our car and campsite, we contemplated the adventure ahead, knowing we hadn't yet begun to scrape at the edges of it. Accepting that we held no control over what was to come, we camped down for the night, close to the river, the bellowing of it's rushing current serving to remind us of the awesome power of this geology, as well as to lull us to sleep. [5000 ft. vertical Stairway Icefall and Donoho Peak behind our McCarthy camp.]
Morning came with disappointing yet predictable news. Bad weather had served to prevent our pilots from picking up their hikers yesterday, and now from taking off. As had happened on my solo trip last year, it was merely a matter of waiting. Fortunately, our luck held and the clouds abated. Before too much longer, we were aboard the Super Cub, and ready for the short flight to Skolai Pass. Here the weather actually turned in my favor, causing the pilot to fly up a different drainage than the one in which we would hike. We turned east up the incredible Nizina River drainage, with views of Mt. Frederick, and the awesome Nizina Glacier. The gorge itself is hundreds of feet deep; cliff faces dropping down from the sky towards the silty brown murky waters of the roaring river below. Layers of rock depict the forming of the land here, and their twisting, gouging lines illustrate the enormous upheavals that have created these amazing mountains. The force required for all of this was mind boggling. Every minute of precious time spent in this area makes me think of one thing: power! [Bush Planes are the taxis of remote Alaska. Author on right.]
Arrival in Skolai was for us what I am sure it is for everyone who has had the good fortune to visit this place. A mixture of wonder, of amazement and awe, and of anticipation. It is simply stunning. The flat drainage basin, the marshy tundra, the rolling plateaus and plains, the nearby glaciers, with their huge endless moraines, the mighty peaks and rugged cliffs, and the vastness of it all. The scale of the place is incredible. It's overwhelming to suddenly step out of the plane, from the 21st century, into this land that knows no limits. This land knows no time, no space, and no distances. As the plane turned about on the runway, and flew into the sky, humility set in like it rarely can. Frank turned and said, "well, I guess we're here now," and the reality of that simple sentence slowly began to play itself into my mind.
"Yeah mate, 'ere we are!"
The best choice, as far as we could decide, was to leave our heavy packs where they lay (always one of my favorite choices), and to make the hike up towards a nearby unnamed peak. What looked like a short, easy hike rapidly showed itself to be a long, rough, and rigorous scramble over a vast and energy sapping moraine. What appeared to have been the best course of action was proving itself to in fact be the second best course of action, and we changed direction, staying to the grassy lines above the moraine, as we climbed higher into what is known as Hole in the Wall. This huge bowl in the mountain was formed long ago when the glacier carved its way completely through the face of the mountain, leaving behind a gigantic U-shaped window into the Nizina River drainage. Remaining glacial fingers now probe down from the jagged mountain peaks, with textbook copy examples of nearly every possible glacial landscape feature found right here. Hanging glaciers, ice walls, erratics, terminal, medial and lateral moraines, calving glaciers, ice falls, cirques, etc. all show themselves in classic formation, a study in glacial-formed terrains. I had seen and read about these in the geography books of my high school years, long, long ago, but until now, this had all been purely academic. Here it was larger than life and more majestic than any textbook portrayal could render it. Clambering up the steep slope of one section of a moraine became more and more difficult, as we both began to have trouble with our footing. Closer inspection of the ground beneath us showed solid ice, inches under the rocks. The moraine was, at this point, merely a thin layer of rock debris over the glacier itself.
We safely made our way to the peak of this section, found a couple of large flat rocks, and took our rest. I enjoy the sitting, the watching, the listening, the breathing, smelling, and feeling of the mountains around me. And there is no better place to do this than in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The region is known by some folk as the Himalayas of North America, and this title is earned by the sheer grandeur of the locality's geography. Containing nine of the sixteen tallest peaks in the United States, four of them greater than 16,000 feet, the park is home to Mt St. Elias, second only to Denali in the United States, and adjoined by Kluane Park in Canada, wherein lies Mt. Logan, the second highest peak on the entire North American continent. The convergence of three mighty mountain ranges, the St. Elias, Chugach and Wrangell, has created a limitless puzzle of massive craggy peaks and vast river valleys. The harsh Alaskan weather makes exploration in this area extremely difficult, with the result that much of it remains untrodden; dozens of raw peaks remain not just unscaled, but as yet unnamed. Sitting back on the bed of my rock, I gazed in simple wonder at the beauty of the land around me. The Dall sheep grazing across the moraine, the sun reflecting off the glazed ice, the constant calving glacial crashes behind and above me reminding me that this land is not a static entity, but a very lifelike, very moving and continually evolving geologic system. Frank was lying peacefully on his rock not 30 feet from me, but here I was completely alone. We both were. Our worlds were within meters of one another, yet a thousand miles apart.
Shouldering our packs, we headed south towards Chittistone Pass. Over the rocky terrain, across the tumbling creeks and rivulets and marshy grasses, through the alder-like groves, and up the steep face to the plateau beneath the pass. We were fortunate enough to witness from here one of the most beautiful sunsets I have yet to see, as the sun edged through the clouds, through a bowl in the mountain ridgeline, backlighting the grassy tundra and meandering river beneath us. The color wasn't the most dramatic I have seen, but the composition unquestionably was.
Camping in a destination as breathtaking as this is good for the soul. Everywhere we turned the view was simply awesome, the dramatic mountains an indicator of the incredible power of this land. The country here is laden with jagged peaks, deep ravines cutting down the mountain face, debris-laden moraines, miles wide, and raging rivers. Something very akin to sensory overload sets in, and it's difficult, probably impossible, to take it all in. I felt so secondary, of utterly no consequence whatsoever in this mighty land. At the same time, it felt good. Very good. A feeling of freedom. Of life. Of being alive.
I've often been told how important it is to 'spend some time in nature.' How we must 'get away from it all,' etc. To me, we are nature. That's where we come from, and for some unknown reason, we isolate our lives from this home, and live in a bubble of civilization that we create, removed and out of touch with the earth, the water, the vegetation and wildlife that is truly a part of who we are. I find it so vital, so imperative to return to this, when possible, and try to reconnect with that which we have left behind.
Our second day in the wilderness, and we had the kind of adventure for which people crave, albeit slightly more dramatic, fearful, and real than that which they would enjoy. Leaving our camp after a lazy breakfast, my specialty, we wandered east, parallel with Russell Glacier, along a grassy plateau, over a rolling bench of tundra, with thousands of spring blossoms covering the ground like a botanical carpet. Streams raged down from the steep mountain, tearing at the ground. Though small, they required careful crossing. In this corner of the world, water moves fast, as though being frozen for so many months of the year means it is released with time to make up, like compressed air from a canister. In a sense, this is the case. Precipitation in this region is high, but runoff is restricted to a few short months a year. What results is a sense of urgency, a kind of pent-up form of power, the moisture, piled on top of itself through the long desolate winter and released in the spring with accelerating power, eroding, scouring and carrying the land as it scuttles toward the ocean. I am fully aware of the awesome power of such rivers, having had a close call with a crossing not far from here 12 months previous. Fortunately, the creeks we crossed on this trip, though extremely fast, were not voluminous enough to pose anything more than the threat of wetting our feet, and maybe a bruise or two if we slipped. Carefully we picked our way across the remaining patches and beds of snow lying in the deeper ravines and north facing slopes. Ahead, the sky appeared to be breaking up, and glimpses of the mighty University Mountain Range filled us with anticipation. The promise of what lay ahead, while exciting to both of us, was also a distraction from other matters closer at hand. Over my shoulder, the wind had picked up, and I did not notice the warning signs of the onset of a rapidly approaching storm. Concentrating on the hiking at hand, we closed toward the edge of the huge Russell Glacier, and the mountains began to come fully into view.
Scanning the distant miles with my binoculars on full zoom, a slight change in the angle I held them suddenly filled both lenses with a mother grizzly and her two tiny cubs on the tundra in front of me. I uttered the perfunctory profanities, and called of their presence to Frank. Lowering my glasses, I saw the trio was grazing, slowly making their way in our direction, maybe a quarter mile away. Immediately I began setting up my tripod and camera to get some shots. Of some concern was the fact that while certainly in no hurry, the three bears were on a route that would bring them ever closer to where we stood, exposed on the open tundra.
I started shooting the bears from the safety of this distance, and Frank started worrying. Whining is a better term. He complained about the severity of the situation, and offered no ideas as to how best to alleviate it. All he knew was that the bears were getting closer, and he wanted the situation to be different. Specifically how, he knew not. As the bears disappeared behind a large erratic in front of us, his worrying elevated. I began packing my camera bag, preparing to leave the area, and he grew more concerned with every passing second. I packed, and rose to consider our options. Ahead, and to our right were the bears, to our left the ridge fell away steeply to the edge of Russell Glacier below, and behind us, the storm came rapidly on. I felt descent was the best choice, and we clambered down the face of the hill towards the glacier. Feeling some comfort from the fact that we were now heading away from the bears, we relaxed. Frank said he needed to relieve himself, and do so immediately. I voiced the notion that the bears had done the proverbial, and scared the shit out of him. And they had. I started gathering rocks from a small cleft in the hill, to build a wall from which to hide from the cold winds blowing in, and Frank left his mark on the tundra below.
Coming back to me, he looked decidedly happier, and helped build the shelter. Before long we'd enough rocks piled up to protect us from the weather, and we sat down warmer, happier, and in Frank's case, two or three pounds lighter. We waited there until the storm abated, passing as quickly by as it had appeared. Frank asked where I thought the bears would be by now, and I replied they could well be anywhere; right where we had last seen them, miles away, back at our camp, right over the ledge above, or anywhere else within a two or three mile radius. We rose, and climbed back to the plateau on which we'd been hiking, raising our voices and yelling as we did so to alert any bears in the vicinity of our presence. As we crested the final rise, I wondered aloud, half in jest, "now just where did that pesky bear go?" Frank froze and replied "Carl, she's RIGHT THERE!!!"
Precisely as he spoke I too saw them, not 40 yards in front of us, with the mother now lifting her head and staring us down. For one barely perceptible moment, we regarded one another, before she took charge of the situation, and rose off her haunches, racing away. The cubs followed at her heels, as we shouted and waved our hands above our heads, hollering encouragement to the bear's sagacity.
It really was funny actually, as our fright turned quickly to joy, and our fear turned to mock showings of bravery. Cries of "Hey bear, Go'ooonnnnn, get on outta here, GIT!!!" turned to taunting; "yeah, THAT'S right, you know what's good for ya, keep ON runnin' baby" and, "Come on back here and get some of THIS!!!" The sow turned her head back every few yards at first, probably to see if we pursued her, but we imagined it to be her way of replying "OK, I'll take these young 'uns up here where they're safe, and I'll be RIGHT back, I might just have me some of that!"
Regardless, we were much relieved that she chose to deal with the situation as she did.
What followed was a sight that will never fade from my memory. The sow, running quickly away, glancing back at us every ten yards or so, led her tiny cubs across the plateau towards the jagged mountain, over a snow patch, up a steep glacial bed, and straight over the top of the mountain. The evening sun glistening on her huge back and shoulders, she covered the ground with amazing rapidity, her seemingly effortless strides consuming the yards before her. She kept going up and up, higher and higher, well beyond the places I could ever hope to go, well beyond any place I ever in my wildest imaginations could envision a four hundred pound bear and two tiny cubs scaling, up the steep face of the rocky cliffs, along precipitous ledges and out of sight. I watched her through my binoculars, completely overawed by the power, grace and majestic beauty of this amazing animal.
The bears made their way safely over the peak of the unnamed mountain, casually now, safe from the terror we had apparently posed. We gazed on silently, frozen against this landscape by the sight and presence of an animal too commanding in her grandeur for words to describe.
The threat of this encounter never truly struck either of us until well after it had passed. We turned to one another and grinned, then laughed in the pure joy that can only follow the excitement of such an experience. The words we spoke were garbled, babbling we rejoiced in life. What a thrill to come so close to such a powerful animal, entirely on her territory, on her terms, and immediately afterwards witness such an awesome sight. I can honestly say that never in my life had I run such a gauntlet of emotion. To experience such deep emotions, excitement, fear, real fear, joy and wonder, within minutes of each other left both of us flattened. On a high like no other, we turned northward and hiked back toward camp.
As we closed on our camp, I noticed the light turning to that point in the evening known by photographers as the "magic hour," when the sun sidelights the landscape, it's beams of light coming from nearer the horizon. The atmospheric haze, dust and moisture particles deflect and refract the beams into a soft blanket of warm golden rays, the light seemingly giving life to the land, and it dances over the terrain. Keen to begin my photography, I lingered to shoot some pictures of the surrounding mountains as Frank hiked back to prepare dinner, only to inform me later that a small herd of caribou had sauntered past him earlier.
The following morning we rose to a gorgeous day, sun streaming down from the clear blue skies. A beautiful sunny day of an Alaskan summer is like no other, particularly here in a wilderness the size of Wrangell-St. Elias. The air is clean, the scent of it alive with the mountains, crisp and clear with the all the freshness of the early season. Breakfast in such environs is always a treat, regardless of its nutritional value.
After packing our camp, the arduous hike over the pass into the Chittistone valley began. The Biggie-sized packweights we carried slowed us, but hardly dampened our spirits. I pointed out the spot where a year earlier I had encountered my first ever grizzly bear, another sow with two small cubs along the trail over the pass. It is apparent that the female bears of this region enjoy the relative safety of the high barren mountain passes, the large aggressive males seeking out the richer lower valleys this early in the season.
Chittistone Pass is an incredible place. The eastern view down the Russell Glacier Valley is seemingly endless, the distant mountains shimmering in the haze. Such wide-open spaces, such vast untrammeled land give the place an empty, free feeling, inexhaustible, emoting to the adventurer, opening your soul. The antithesis of this vista is the feeling from the towering bluffs nearby. Juxtaposed against this infinity, they stare down, closing in, hulking over the trail like enormous sentinels of this mountain gateway. The dark jagged faces of the cliffs provide stark textural and color contrast from the snow and ice that lay on the ground, melting in the sun. Impenetrable, the pass through here is clearly the only option to hike from Skolai over into the Chittistone Valley. Ultimately this is the underlying truth of Wrangell-St. Elias. These incredible open landforms, so rugged and beautiful in their eternity, are also very definite in their reaches. Indeed it is the very nature of their ruggedness that defines these unbounded boundaries. Gouging crevasse-ridden glaciers, torrential rivers, and sheer, vertical cliff faces clearly demarcate such borders, preventing the hiker from traversing, and often even reaching, large areas of the park. Viewing a map of the entire park, it's intimidating to consider the few locales within it that hold the potential for a lengthy backpacking trip. So many wonderful areas within the park are cutoff from other areas or nearby landing strips because of the numerous, unnavigable obstacles.
We took the obligatory snapshots, posing, on the large glacial erratic near the trail here, conquerors of the ascent. As happens frequently when we hike together, we stopped for a break, enjoying the wonder of our surroundings. Frank's comments perhaps once again summed up the hike most succinctly, "this place just gets better and better!" Every new vista, each new scene just added to the last. Everywhere we turned, the mountains took on a new look.
We hiked off again, eager to reach a distant campsite that night, miles down the Chittistone Valley, close to the Goat Trail we would attempt to traverse the following day. Deep, crusted snowdrifts lay across our route, most of which we crossed without wetting our feet. As we descended, and began to edge along the larger of the two unnamed lakes in the pass, we were afforded our first views of Chittistone Valley.
Rising from restful slumber, we enjoyed a short breakfast, and packed our camp meticulously. Stability on the steep scree slopes would be enhanced with a compact, tightly packed and balanced backpack. No drink bottles or Tevas carabined from the side, or thermarests folded under the flap. A short climb took us to the lip of the first ravine, a well-defined path leading through the chasm. Leaning into the face, we scrambled across it, rocks and dirt sliding down the ravine beneath us. Footing here was precarious, but sufficient. The next two ravines were deeper and steeper, requiring closer attention in their crossing. The third in particular was a deep ravine, the trail ran across the face, before heading across then straight up the other side. Cresting the lip brought us to a short grassy plateau, the equivalent of a mountaineer's false summit. Ahead lay the final gorge to cross, the widest, steepest and deepest of the ravines. Here I decided to relax, eat lunch, drink and regather for the final and toughest crossing of our trip. A couple of smaller ravines and a rolling grassy knoll lay between this formidable terrain and us. [The Goat Trail is quite aptly and accurately named by its discoverers.]
My pack sliding to the ground, something ahead caught my eye. I raised my binoculars, and focused on the subject. I counted one, two, and then three large bears on the far edge of the ravine, making their way casually into it, toward us. I told Frank and we watched together as the bears, evidently a mother and her two yearling cubs, trotted into this gorge. The second cub stayed behind a while, his attentions focused on some sight or smell that delayed him. With his mother and sibling now well ahead, he then playfully ran down the steep face, past his companions, and out of our sight. I unpacked, searching for my camera and tripod, and the longest lens I had with me. In no time at all, and well before I was ready and expecting them, the trio appeared on the lip of the gorge on our side, and continued along the trail.
Rushed, and somewhat nervous now, I hastily tried to set up my gear while they advanced with a disconcerting speed. Before I managed to shoot even one exposure, the bears had reached the edge of a small gorge, which had they crossed, would have bought them within 30 feet of us. Caution taking priority over my photography now, we stood and yelled, showing ourselves, with hands waving above our heads, just like the manual says, to the bears for the first time. Much to our chagrin, the two younger bears stopped, considered us all too quickly, and raced forward, disappearing into the ravine. The mother joined the fray, and we now had 3 grizzly bears charging toward us. With no real alternatives, we waited, seated precariously in the lap of the Gods. Fortune fell our way, as the sow reappeared, eventually with both cubs in tow, heading back out of the gorge, away from us.
Nervous breaths abated to sighs of relief as the bruins raced down the mountainside. I wondered aloud where they thought they were headed to, as the terrain beneath them appeared impassable. To my amazement, they scampered over the precipitous cliffs, crossing the thunderous Chittistone River, climbed another cliff face, and reappeared before much time had elapsed, browsing the vegetation on the other side of the valley, half a mile and many worlds away.
After such an exciting few minutes, we still had the final gorge ahead of us. Taking full advantage of the beauty of the area, we took the time to relax, have a meal, write, and shoot some pictures. Half an hour later we packed again and set off for the Goat Trail.
At least 4 times wider than the previous ravines, this gorge is deeper. Much deeper. The bottom falls completely away, a mess of fallen rock and debris that plunges out of sight, into the valley floor below. Way below. The many faces here are exceedingly steep, and it is indeed an awesome sight. The gentle slopes of the grassy ridge on the far side seem a very long way from the precipice on which we now stood.
Approaching from the northeast, it becomes evident that this ravine is different. Dall sheep and mountain goats had made their homes here, and numerous trails created a confusing labyrinth, the 'correct' route not at all evident. I pointed out where I had initially attempted crossing the previous year, then turned back, and to where I had eventually climbed and made my own route across, high above. We discussed the options, and decided on what appeared to be the best choice for a successful traverse.
Leaning into the face once again, we carefully picked our way over the trail. The trail rounded several small ridges, crossing horizontally, before branching to the right and climbing higher up the face, a steep route leading what appeared to be the way. The going was slow, but so far, reasonably passable.
Cresting a small ridge, with no more than 50 yards of the gorge left in front of me, I saw the trail had become washed out, or eroded away. With no other obvious route leading from here, I edged forward, trying to reach a large rock, ten yards in front of me. The face of the ravine here was VERY steep, with little or no footholds. I'd not made it halfway when I could advance no further. With my feet precariously placed on what little footholds I found, and searching vainly for a handhold, I asked Frank if he thought it possible for me to return. My pack restricted the view behind me, and turning around on that face seemed impossible, pushing as it would my pack and bodyweight out, away from the cliff. Frank said he thought it not possible for me to make my way back, and I realized I was completely stuck on the face on a mountain, here in the Alaskan wilderness. As the reality of this hit me, my left leg, bent underneath my body, cramped. I was stuck on a near vertical wall unable to move, with no handholds, and most of my weight on one leg, which now cramped. Somehow I edged and fought my way to the rock in front of me. One hand at a time, each foot carefully searching out something on which to support my body weight. Inch by inch, I slowly made my way, miraculously, to the safety of the rock. To this very moment, I can't say for sure how I managed to complete those final five or six yards. Settling onto the rock, breathing deeply as I straddled it, I gathered my composure and tried to weigh our options. At this point, they seemed few, and very unappealing.
Talking with Frank, I was very clear that he should NOT attempt to cross where I had. He agreed, but perhaps it was the intensity of the situation, and we communicated poorly. I could see from my vantage point that advancement from here was highly dangerous and probably impossible. My intention was for him not to even try to reach me, but to cross below me, and beyond up the steep face. However, he angled across beneath me, and upon reaching the base of the rock, began climbing the loose scree towards me. Rather than alarm him and say turn back, I reached down to help him climb, the rotten rock now falling away beneath him, providing no stability at all. He clambered up on the rock behind me, straddling it as I had done, only to now see the futility of our position.
We agreed that advancement from here was hopeless, and that our safest course was to return along the route he had taken, through the loose scree below. Going first, he made the precarious crossing, loose rock giving way beneath him and plummeting down the sharp face. Once he gained solid footing back on the ledge we'd left before, I began. All stability on the rock was gone now, large chunks of it freely falling away. I managed to get below the rock and started to cross the scree. The further I went, the less footing I found, as everywhere I tried to place my feet sent rocks hurtling down, bouncing their way into the depths of the gorge. After a minute or so, I found no stable footing at all, and was stranded against the rock, hands spread-eagled above me and my feet below. Here the weight of my pack worked against me, with nothing to support my weight, I began to fall. Slowly, it seemed so surreal at first, I slid downwards.
I remember, vividly, as though a slow motion replay. My mind detached itself and I felt as though I were merely an audience to the spectacle, as you the reader are to this recounting of it, looking in from without.
Reality struck me and my thoughts turned to self-preservation. I said to myself "if you don't want to die, then RIGHT now is the time to do something about it." Drawing on every ounce of energy left, I simply dug in as tightly and deeply as I could, hands and feet together. Miraculously, the descent stopped, and my body, and time, I'm sure, paused, hung against the face of a cliff in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
Frank called encouragement to me, I don't remember what, and I fought to hold on. Drawing my entire bodyweight and that of my backpack onto my hands, I searched blindly with my feet for something, anything, that would support me. Here, my recollections go somewhat hazy. I clambered, edged, crabbed, slid, fought and willed my way sideways. And somehow managed to inch over to Frank and the ledge he stood upon.
Drawing up onto the ridge, I sat. Frank spoke, asking if I was OK, and I replied I would be. I just needed a few minutes. And I did. The crossing had sapped energy out of my every pore, and I couldn't stand. So I sat. I thought of just how close that had been, how very nearly my world had ended. Saying thanks to whatever powers above had kept me alive, I realized that grace was that which had prevented me from moving on. I gazed, in a daze, back at the face I had just been on, and clearly saw the power of the mountain. A rock, the size of a kitchen plate, kicked loose by me earlier, now gave in to that power and plunged downward. As it fell, it bounced high into the air, perhaps 20 feet or more, shattering as it hit the edge of the ravine, falling over the ledge a hundred feet below me, the fragments disappearing as they plummeted out of sight.
I don't know exactly what stopped my fall, but I do know it wasn't me. Somehow it wasn't my time to go, and I stopped. This point struck me clearly, and I needed some time to acknowledge it. Rising out of that gorge was a feeling I will never forget. Relief flooded my body as never before, and I was overcome with emotion. Frank had the same reaction, and walked off to be by himself. I simply sat and stared in awe at the land around me. My mind raced, no single thought occupying more than a few seconds. I feel certain that had I not stopped falling precisely when I did, I would simply not have stopped at all. Frank was anxious to return to our previous night's camp, and leave the gorge behind us. After several minutes silence, I'd gained the composure I needed to do so, and we walked out the way we came.
- Carl Donohue -