After a long flight from Manchester, the expedition arrived at Anchorage (Alaska) airport and the team was whisked quickly away by Alaskan hosts to camp for three nights in their “yard” (garden) to give us time to recover from jet lag, to shop for food and other supplies, and to prepare for our stay in the wilderness.
We left for Hatcher Pass in heavy rain. That rain stayed with us, with just one decent break of about 12 hours, for the whole of our time in this part of Alaska, which was not surprising as we were in a mountain range which generated its own weather patterns. It was not comfortable to be wet all day long, to cook and eat in the rain, and then, after a warm dry night in separately retained sleeping gear, to be forced to don cold wet clothes the next morning. But everyone’s spirits remained high and “suffered” the experience willingly.
Of our time in this region we spent four days clearing the birch, alder and willow from the foot trail in Mint Glacier / Little Sutsitna Valley, much to the appreciation of the State Park employees and the climbers with whom we spoke.
Once that task had been completed we hiked back six miles to the road-head, had a celebratory few hours eating “proper” food in a typical Alaskan roadhouse, and then hiked back up the trail to our valley basecamp with 10 days’ food for the next stage of living, working and playing high up, next to and on Mint Glacier itself.
But the poor weather continued. After a very steep muddy and rocky ascent of the valley trough-end, we arrived at an empty mountain hut run by the Alaska Mountaineering Club in which we stayed the night, protected from the worst of the rain and cold.
Next morning we awoke to blue skies and sunshine (our first so far) so dried out as much as was possible before going to inspect the glacier, and found that it had a 4″ layer of new snow. Research and local knowledge had established the glacier was as safe as any crevasse-free glacier could be, but its surface was very wet, which was not good news for our potential period of field research, training, and mountaineering.
The weather continued to deteriorate, snowing high up. We spent a further night in our tents and decided to much disappointment that it would be prudent not to attempt Montana Peak (too much new snow) or the Bomber Traverse. Instead we returned to the Trailhead. This was not a simple matter, as we still had very heavy packs for we had food for many more days and just descending the trough-end to the valley floor (3000′ descent) took us almost five hours and then a further five hours to walk out.
After a night at the trailhead car park we drove to a new location hoping to find better weather, and our hopes materialised. At Eagle River Nature Center, we decided that the Crow Creek Pass was a suitable alternative to the Bomber Traverse and so the team hiked this challenging route, with the younger members now alternating leadership but still with the support of a leader presence.
The team was met at the highest point on Crow Creek Pass tired but elated having completed the 3 day / 30 mile hike along part of the famous Iditarod Trail. They had stories of bears, river crossings, beautiful scenery, solitude, and – of course – food (or lack of it). We returned to the grassy luxury of our hosts’ garden in Anchorage and the next day was spent washing, eating and visiting new parts of the city in order to re-provision for the expedition’s next phase, the long awaited and anticipated wilderness river raft. This activity necessitated a long journey via Glennallen to Chitina in interior South East Alaska. The evening of our arrival was spent investigating native salmon fish wheels on the Copper River near Chitina and dinner (in the rain of course) was taken under the McCarthy Road Bridge before early next morning we met the River Wrangellers (RW), our commercial rafting providers. We transferred minimal personal and group gear into a minibus and, along with trailer carrying two 5-seater inflatable rafts, set off along the very bumpy and pot-holed former railroad track for 60 miles to McCarthy, our ultimate destination and raft “put-in point”; as speed was limited to less than 20 mph this took almost four hours.
To the relief and utter joy of the Chief Leader the weather improved minute by minute throughout the journey, the Wrangell-St Elias Mountains came into view and blue sky appeared, giving our first real views of this stupendous national park in sunshine, a rare commodity in south east Alaska this year. It was a busy time as the team erected tents, and arrangements made for the next few hours. A free ride was negotiated along the further four miles to the historic mining centre of Kennecott where camera and curiosity were used in equal measure!
The group took a different route back to the camp site which went via an airstrip, and the expedition members were “gobsmacked” when the Chief Leader announced that they were to have a 35 minute fly-see, visiting the huge mountains, glaciers and ice falls of this part of the Park. This was a planned surprise funded in part by the YET David Hollier Award. We were carried in two small planes and the trip was simply awesome.
The next morning, on 08/08/08, we set off down the McCarthy River in the rafts after a very comprehensive introduction and safety talk by our guide as we were to encounter challenges in this very cold fast flowing river. All went well and we practised guiding, navigating and riding the main current (thalweg) and longitudinal waves. As we arrived at the Nizina canyon the speed and obstacles (and so the technicality) of the venture rose a big notch, but all was well. Frequently waves over spilled into the rafts making us all cold and wet, but only Al Bagley (our Anchorage host who joined us for the journey) came near to travelling down the four miles of river outside the raft. But we got him back into the raft for what was to be an exciting and adrenaline rushing 10 minutes or so. Joining the Chitina River the surface calmed but nevertheless we still moved at 7-8 mph down the silt laden river, avoiding gravel bars, shallows and rocky outcrops. No doubt the team will have its own memories of bear tracks, scat, and salmon, and after two further nights on the riverine gravel bars of the Chitina River, we arrived at O’Brien Creek to meet the River Wrangellers’ trailer on time. So as planned, everyone had a great time on and around 08/08/08 – we had had a truly Alaskan experience in the air and on the river, and even managed to take a photograph of 8 people each holding up 8 fingers with the digits 08.08.08.08.08 sculpted into the sand with rocks at 08:08 on 08.08.08 – memorable! The weather had changed from gorgeous clear blue skies to a blanket of low cloud preventing any aircraft activity over the mountains, so we had got our plane trip in just on time!
We continued from Chitina to Valdez via the Worthington Glacier and ultimately camped on a gravel bar just inside the city boundary (Valdez=4000 population). We encountered a black bear on the main street, cooked our evening meal and went to bed early as we were to be up at 0530 the next morning in order to catch the ferry across Prince William Sound. We awoke to stupendous weather of clear blue skies with not a cloud to be seen and the Sound was as a mill pond. During the crossing we saw whale, sea otter, seal, sea lion, tidal glaciers and ice bergs. After six hours we arrived at our destination, Whittier and we drove to Moose Pass to meet more Alaskan friends and be offered a wonderful “cook-out” of halibut dressed in macadamia nuts, home made ice cream, served with great company.
The next day was the first day of the final phase, the peer-led hike, remotely supervised by the leaders, which qualified as the expedition section of the young members’ Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award (having earlier undertaken a full practice expedition in the Peak District). They left the trailhead in great spirits for their four day hike along the Resurrection Trail from Cooper Landing to Hope. By now the participants were more in tune with the Alaskan wilderness than possibly 85% of Alaskans and they went armed with appropriate knowledge and equipment to meet almost every eventuality, accomplishing their journey in fine style.
We had a final night on the lush grass of the Bagley’s yard, a day in downtown Anchorage, a party to say goodbye to our Alaskan friends, a journey to the Airport at 0130 on Sunday morning, and then the long and tiresome journey home, arriving at Manchester at 1000 the next morning.
The expedition achieved all its aims; it was a developmental exercise, with the young members maturing at a far faster rate than normally expected; and the leaders gaining skills and experience for future ventures. The British Consul in Anchorage commented that it was a truly challenging program(me), and it was, but it was great fun and within the safe compass of all participants. We developed into an excellent team and will remember our brief time in Alaska and the expedition activities with much affection.
Tony Whiting – Chief Leader