Wednesday, June 10, 2009

2002 Race Report

News Release from Race Director Michael Martin

2002 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

The race began in a moderate rain with a little snow evident at elevation around Nabesna. Last year it had been raining for weeks, and the race began in a moderate rain but at least there wasn't snow.

By mid-afternoon this year, after rafting the near-freezing Nabesna River, and ascending Cooper Creek through 30 or so ice-cold stream crossings, the racers encountered heavy snow falling at about 3000 feet. As elevation increased, the snow became a real blizzard with white-out conditions and strong winds. 14 racers made it through the pass that night. I was the last, with my partner John Lapkass. We encountered the worst conditions, with 18-20 inches of snow and 4 foot drifts, gale winds, snow that would accumulate on our packs at the rate of several inches every 20 minutes or so, and a total white-out. Although there were hints of the tracks of racers in front of us, we were post-holing through the deep snow mostly by Braille. Fortunately, we'd both been in the pass before, so we SOME idea of the lay of the land.

Although the racers in the AMWC are all very qualified wilderness travelers, no one could have anticipated a true blizzard at the end of July. In the 21 years of the race, no one could remember anything quite like this happening before. We all go extremely light. I, for example, was wearing running tights, very light boots, two light polypro tops and light rain gear. I had light polypro gloves, which were soaked or frozen 100% of the time. I had a tiny tent and light bag, but the idea of bivying in 2 feet of still-accumulating snow with my level of hypothermia seemed like certain death. John and I kept grimly acknowledging that this was "really desperate", and that our only chance was to keep moving, hoping to get below the snow line and to some spruce to make a fire.

By about midnight, we had managed to wade out of the snow, and down onto Notch Creek. It was another 3 miles or so to any spruce. By about 1:30 we had a fire going, and felt that we might live after all. More than two weeks later, I still have no feeling in the fingers of my left hand, or in all of either foot.

Twelve racers in front of us had suffered similar fates, some succumbing to hypothermia and injuries, everyone feeling they had escaped something ominous. Those behind had wisely or of necessity chosen to bivy below Cooper Pass, and cross the next day. Greg Tibbets and Mel Strauch used their boats and tarps to line a snow cave, and reported being pretty comfortable during the night.

So began the 2002 Wilderness Classic.

Ultimately, 13 people would fly out of Chisana, the first checkpoint, and an accessible bailout point. I had started the race with a broken bone in my left foot, and never really figured I'd make it to McCarthy. The foot got worse with all the cold, and I flew out at Chisana.

There were 27 racers signed up and present at the start the night before the race. One did not show up in the morning at the start line. Another scratched at the start due to pre-existing injuries. One more pulled out at Jack Creek, the first "float": which occurs about 5 miles into the route. 25 started and 11 finished.

The hyped competition between Roman Dial and Rocky and Steve Reifenstuhl was set aside during the threatening blizzard, and these supremely competent wilderness adventurers worked together to assure that they and the few traveling with them at that point remained safe. Rocky would leave the race at Chisana from an injured knee, Steve Reifenstuhl from severe hypothermia, Mel Strauch of Anchorage from a badly sprained ankles, the race legend, 76 year old Dick Griffith from an injured foot.

Roman Dial finished first, running naked (other than a tiny loincloth) from the waist down, up the main street of McCarthy to the finish line on the porch of the Wrangell Mountain Air. Chafing.

There were several "firsts" accomplished during the race, not necessarily things to be repeated, but nevertheless "firsts":

Jeffery Bannish of Anchorage made the first known descent of the "wrong side", the southeast side of the Chitistone Canyon. This is opposite the Goat Trail side and is, if anything, steeper. The Goat Trail itself is merely a suggestion of a trail. Jeffery made his own. Some of his fingernails are still present. He left many on the scree cliffs at the canyon. This route did afford him an excellent view of the Goat Trail and the rarely viewed Chitistone Falls. He urges others not to consider this route.

Roman Dial made the first packraft descent of the complete Chitistone River. Roman, like Jeffery, does not necessarily urge others to perform this act.

23 racers sported new packrafts from Alpacka Rafts. These are made by Sheri Tingey and were highly praised by every racer.

John Lapkass walked down the Chitistone River as far as Glacier Creek, where most racers felt that it might be possible to begin floating the Chitistone, only to find that his screw-on paddle blades had fallen from his pack somewhere in the wilderness. He found some scrap tin from an abandoned cabin and beat together a paddle blade from it. It turned out that the weight of the blade was too much, and caused him to swivel wildly from side to side while using it. Ultimately, when he got to the Nizina, the last huge glacial river which runs almost to McCarthy, a combination of strong winds, high waves and an unbalanced paddle caused him to flip over in a bad rapid. He had to choose between his boat and his pack, so swam after the pack. The boat likely made the ocean by now. He was later flown out from Dan Creek.

The good folks at Wrangell Mountain Air, Natalie and Kelly Bay, were once again very generous with their help, assisting in tracking racers on the course, taking reports of bailouts and needed rescues, and having the finish on their porch.

The post-race party was held at Tailor-made Pizza in McCarthy. The last two racers to finish, Butch Allen and Jason Geck, came walking up the dusty road right past the party. I handed them beers, and we all cheered.

The race began at 9:08 Sunday morning July 28th.


Roman Dial 2 days, 4 hours, 24 minutes (new course record)

Kevin Armstrong 3 days, 10 hours, 42 minutes
Doug Woody " "

Jeffery Bannish 3 days, 13 hours, 33 minutes

Kristian Seiling 4 days, 6 hours, 7 minutes
Hans Neidig " "
Ben Summit " "

Kyle Joly 4 days, 15 hours, 8 minutes
Martin Robards " "

Butch Allen 5 days, 7 hours, 37 minutes
Jason Geck " "

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