Dirk nudges the throttle forward, on his 1957 Dehavilland Beaver. The RPM’s race to 8000 creating a cloud of dust covering the gravel bar. Quickly the historic plane leaps into the air as if it were a simple grasshopper jumping off to it’s next destination. The dust settles leaving us and our 400lbs of gear on small gravel bar north of the arctic circle on the banks of the Alatna River, deep in the Brooks Range of Alaska
The noise of the plane is replaced by the ever present dull sound of the arctic river making its way to the ocean, hundreds of miles away. This is then replaced by the sounds of the wilderness, or the lack there of. No combustible engines, no sounds of music, no people chatting on mobile phones, no far off motorcycles, or semi-trucks crawling up huge passes.
There are few feelings similar to getting dropped off in the middle of the wilderness. I realize how small I am and how immense the world really is. Walking to the nearest road, which is over 200 miles away is nearly out of the question. The scenario quickly races through my head. I figure if worst came to worst we could fashion some sort of raft out the willows and the bear proof canisters we have with us and make a Lewis and Clark style expedition down river. Thankfully that is not the plan!
My mind snaps back to the task at hand, unpacking and repacking our 400 lbs of gear that needs to be split up into 4 oversized loads. We lay everything out, going over all of it one more time. This is the time when everything totally non-essential gets left out. The quickest way we can unload some weight is to start in on our 12 pack of beer!
We manage to get all of our gear and food into our packs which wasn’t necessarily a good sign. The two hour food shopping spree we had in Fairbanks might not have been adequate. Some quick math tells us we only have 1.75lbs of food per day, per person. This is a 1/2 lb under what we had hoped.
We helped each other get our 85+ lb packs on and started wandering across the tundra. From the plane the bush had looked low and easy to travel across, reality was much different. Bushes that I had guessed would be knee high were well over head. A special blend of passive aggressive hiking was needed to make it through the willows. 15 minute bursts of hiking started to add up to hours and a few miles travelled.
Before we knew it, it was almost midnight and time to give our backs some much needed rest. A perfect camp spot was found on a grassy knoll just within the canyon leading up to cloud covered Arrigetch peaks. This first night set the schedule for the remainder of the trip. Dinner at midnight, breakfast at 11:00am and lunch at 5pm. Luckily for us this schedule fits in perfectly with the land of the midnight sun.
Another grueling 8 hours under the bone crushing weight of our packs landed us in an idyllic meadow beneath the Maidens, some of the most notable peaks in the range. Quickly we setup camp so we could start exploring the range.
There is very little available beta on the Arrigetch Peaks, which leaves some serious leg work to climb here. And literally it is leg work. From camp we scoped an easy looking ridge to the east of the Maidens. We thought this would be a good objective to familiarize ourselves with the range. We left camp with a not so alpine start and meandered our way up 1500ft of loose talus to the start of the “real” climbing.
Kate and I choose to start out simul-climbing across the 4th class and easy 5th class terrain. The ridge gradually steepened and the exposure grew as we quickly covered ground. After a 1000ft of climbing we were forced onto slightly steeper terrain and decided we should start pitching it out. Two short 5.8 steps once again led to easier terrain with the summit shortly after. As we arrived at the summit the winds blew hard bringing cold arctic air. A quick snack and a check of the map and we were off following the ridge to the East.
We set our baring on the West ridge of the Citadel, one of the routes we had beta on. The beta was no more than a rating and a line on a map but it was something. Short up and down steps and a lot of loose talus negotiating brought us to the approximate starting point of the line on our map. We eschewed our ropes and opted for the quicker and therefore warmer solo up the west face. Enjoyable solid 4th and easy 5th quickly took us to the summit. Our plan was to continue on down the east face and summit one more peak but our motivation and energy wained. We had already set ourselves up for a substantial walk back to camp as there was no viable descent option back to the drainage we had climbed out of. A long walk and far to much loose talus eventually got us back to our tents totally exhausted but pleased with out first mission.
Luckily the rains came for a couple days giving our legs a chance to catch up with our motivation. Soon we were back at it making another exploratory mission to another peak located close to our front door, the Parabola. Again we had a line drawn on our map and a rating of 5.7. We meandered around alpine talus, creeks and lakes reaching the start of the climbing in under a couple hours. We gained the north ridge and followed this to the summit with relative ease. We encountered nothing more than 5.7 along the way on this truly classic alpine ridge. A short descent and we were skipping down a giant tongue of smooth granite leading all the way into a amazing turquoise lake.
This time when the rains came it didn’t come as rain, sadly it fell as snow. I guess this was to be expected given our position north of the Arctic Circle. Though it was still hard to believe it was August and it was snowing at 4000ft. We kept our hopes up that it would clear and all the snow would melt, but to our dismay that wasn’t happening.
Given enough time in a small tent rock climbing in the snow doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. We packed all of our clothes this time and headed farther up the main Arrigetch creek drainage to a peak named Caliban. Like many of the peaks in this area Caliban is a maze of ridges and drainages all making their way to the top. We choose a ridge that appeared to be less ice and snow covered than rest and started up. Again the climbing was fairly straight forward and went quickly that is until we hit the point where there was a 4” covering of snow on the rock. The pace slowed as we brushed off hand holds and foot holds to make progress. Soon enough were on top with cold and wet hands eyeing the way down. We traversed west to a gully and proceeded to do the longest butt-slide crab walk of my life. The 4” of snow was just enough to make the descent a loose and terrifying experience.
Our motivation to go rock climbing in the snow was significantly taxed at this point which severely limited our options for our next mission. This time we choose an objective that was a little lower and steeper hoping it would be free of snow. A short painless approach brought us to a gap on the NE ridge of the Parabola below a fairly striking buttress. Our beta consisted of a rating of IV 5.10 A0, which left a lot to the imagination. I volunteered to head up first into the unknown wearing all of my clothes, gloves and approach shoes. The climbing was good albeit devious. The first pitch stopped just shy of a large roof that looked almost worthy or rock shoes. But the thought of cramming my cold toes in tight rock shoes was out of the question. I continued on in my Gandolfs smearing and stemming over the roof loving every moment of it. The climbing continued on steep rock, weaving around a recent rockfall and over sections that would eventually become rockfalls. A few exciting moments interspersed with good hand jams and snow flakes lead us to the top of the buttress just after midnight. Carefully we reversed our steps and made numerous rappels back down the face.
Mediocre weather persisted for our remaining few days leaving us without another chance to go climbing. We made the best of it by taking day hikes around the valley trying to enjoy our last few days of solitude.
As we packed our bags for the long hike it was hard to not get a little sad that we had to leave already. We may not of had the best weather for the trip or were able to complete our main climbing objective but in the end that won’t be what I remember from the trip. It will be will running around in the mountains with good friends, having good laughs and feeling incredibly fortunate that I was able to spend nearly 3 weeks in one of the greatest remote wildernesses of North America.