2003 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic
Eureka to Talkeetna
From Race Director Roman Dial
The 22nd running of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic race began the morning of June 8 at Eureka Roadhouse on the Glenn Highway with the finish 160-230 miles away, depending on route choice, in Talkeetna. There were 43 starting racers. This was the first time the Eureka to Talkeetna route has been offered as a venue.
The starting line-up was a mix of first timers and Classic veterans, including three-time Classic winner Gordy Vernon, 16 time finisher Dick Griffith, and 2001 Armed Forces Eco-Challenge winner Skip Kula. Vernon attempted to sandbag his competition by opening a cooler full of ice-cold Alaska Brewery beers in the countdown minutes of the race. Thirty-four racers, some with bikes and all with backpacks bristling in break-down kayak paddles, lined up in front of the lodge when Whitney McFayden yelled "Go!"
In the hustle to go Butch Allen and Jim McDonough confided their 200 mile route to the race organizer. "Is it still within the rules if we crawl through the culvert pipe under the Glenn Highway? We're not actually using the highway."
"Go for it boys," was the response.
After crawling under the highway, the duo rafted the Class III whitewater on the East and main forks of the Matanuska River all the way to Chickaloon. Next they followed trails they'd scouted up the Chickaloon and over to the Talkeetna River, which they floated for 35 miles to Prairie Creek. From there they hiked for 22 hours to the Susitna River at Gold Creek and put back in, floating the 45 miles to Talkeetna in six hours. They came in third.
The other two "teams" to finish, the first place trio of Hans Neidig of Palmer, Chris of Anchorage, and Paul of McCarthy, and the second place pair Jeff Bannish and Dylan Kentch, also took radically different routes. Finishing only hours apart, the 170 mile Bannish-Kentsch route and the 150 mile Neidig-Robertson-Hanis route overlapped for 22 miles on the Talkeetna River.
Meanwhile, Bill Collins headed directly for the Susitna via the Big Oshetna, while Gordy Vernon veered away from his planned route over Mazuma Creek to also take the Big O route. Bill opted out using his SAT phone to charter a pickup. Gordy broke his plywood snowshoes, trashed his raft, flipped his boat and finished only a few hours ahead of the sweep team of John Lapkass, Dick and Barney Griffith. Barney, as a teenager in the 70's, had made first descents of both the Talkeetna and Devil's canyons. Gordy's route took him 230 miles in a grand tour of the race course.
The fastest route portaged the Talkeetna canyon on river's right. The trio of Matt Reardon, Bob Kehrer and Brian Byrne portaged on the river's left, after several attempts. Curiously, as the three lead teams piled up at "Damnation Creek" new teams formed. Chris Robertson and Bobbie Schnell arrived first. Two hours later, Hans Neidig, Ben Summit and Dave Looney found themselves at the impasse and were soon joined by Paul Hanis and Jason Geck. For twelve hours this large group was stymied by the fast, deep water and steep canyon cliffs. Finally, the three teams broke up and switched out, in an adventure race version of wife swapping. Schnell and Geck headed back for Prairie Creek to take the Susitna route. Neidig, Robertson and Hanis crossed the Talkeetna to portage the canyon on the right side. The latter group finished more than 24 hours ahead of Schnell and Geck.
When the ill-fated mountain bike tour through the Mat-Su valleys (see Medred article in Anchorage Daily News) is added into the route mix, the 2003 AMWC covered an area over 5,000 square miles. In all 17 people finished, five were air-lifted out, and the rest dropped. Some dropped due to injuries. Some dropped due to bad boats. Of those picked up by helicopter, two paid their own way using a private pilot in Talkeetna, and three were flown out by the Alaska State Troopers. The Troopers were reimbursed $4,660 for the full cost of the helicopter expenses, from the Alaskan Alpine Club Mountain Rescue Fund. In this budget-cutting era, anything we can do to carry our own weight will allow the race to continue without public scorn. Next year, SAT-phones, but definitely not ELTs, EPIRBs or the like, may well be the first piece of mandatory equipment ever expected from racers.
As promised, because race funds were used to search by helicopter and by super cub for three racers, there is no rebate. One racer got out on their own, albeit late. The race organizer found another, and the third was picked up by the Alaska State Troopers.
The racer who was found spread gear on a high, bare knoll and built a signal fire. The one who walked out called the organizer immediately. The one who was found by the Trooper helicopter feared building a signal fire and could not signal.
Advice: bring a sat phone, bright colors, and smoke. Flairs are a one-off deal and are frequently missed by searchers. Every pilot in Alaska will look into a smoky fire. Bright orange, yellow, and red are seen more easily than any other colors, according to pilots.
All in all everyone said the course was great, a real challenge. Next year, the race will be in July, a sat phone may be mandatory, and the Talkeetna canyon may be packraftable.
T-shirts, hard-copy, and newsprint copies are on their way. Thanks for your patience.
And the winner of the raft random drawing is ..... Gordy Vernon!
OFFICAL RESULTS: 34 starters
l) Hans Neidig (Palmer), Chris Robertson (Anchorage), Paul Hanis (McCarthy): 3 days, 15 hours, 5 minutes( 87:05)
2) Jeff Bannish, Dylan Kentch (both Anchorage): 3 days, 18 hours, 11 minutes
3) Butch Allen, Jim McDonough (both Anchorage): 4 days, 5 hours, 11 minutes
( 101:11 )
4) Skip Kula, Chris Widener (both Anchorage): 4 days, 5 hours, 40 minutes(101:40)
5) Bobby Schnell, Jason Geck (both Anchorage): 4 days, 16 hours, 40 minutes
6) Bob Groseclose, Rourke Williams (both Fairbanks): 5 days, 9 hours, 20 minutes (129:20)
7) Brian Byrne (Anchorage): 5 days, 11 hours, 5 minutes
8) Gordy Vernon (Cordova): 6 days (144:00)
9) Dick and Barney Griffith, John Lapkass (all Anchorage): 6 days, 5 hours, 7 minutes (149:07)
DNF: Chris Flowers (Anchorage), Doug Woody (Healy), John Gartiez (Anchorage), Jacques Boutet (Anchorage), Jim Jager (Anchorage), Laura McDonough (Anchorage), Craig Medred (Anchorage), Dave Looney (Anchorage), Ben Summit (Anchorage), Bill Collins (Palmer), Rob Kehrer (Anchorage), Matt Reardon (Eagle River), James Archoleta (Chugiak), Mike Sirofchuck (Kodiak), Donna Klecka (Eagle River)