Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The weather looks to be good for the Classic so far this year. The race is through wilderness so there's no telling for sure what weather the racers are experiencing but here's a few webcams that could be similar.

This link is to a webcam at Black Rapids which is where the first checkpoint in the race is, about 50 miles into the race. Click on "All Sites" and then scroll down until you see "Black Rapids".

Here's a link to Cantwell weather which isn't too far from the finish.

At least one team was thinking about taking a route just south of the Central Alaska Range via glaciers. This webcam at Maclaren River isn't too far from their intended route.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wild Thing

Check out the full page advertisement for Wild Things Gear in Alpinist Magazine on page 21. The ad features Chris Roberston and Jon Davis on a 300 mile long Brooks Range trek. The photo is taken by Bobby Schnell. Bobby and Chris are perennial contenders and winners in the Classic and are competing this year also as I'm typing this.

Sorry, there's no online link to the actual photo but you can probably find a copy of Alpinist in your local climbing store or maybe even an REI.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

And They're Off . . .

This morning the 28th Annual Wilderness Classic began from the Gerstle River. Under overcast skies with nice warm temperatures around 60°, a group of intrepid adventure racers began their journey toward McKinley Village. This route has been run before in the mid-1980's but the race this year adds an additional 50 miles by starting from Gerstle River on the Alaska Highway. The first checkpoint on this year's race was where the the race used to start.

There are several very strong contenders this year. Previous winner Roman Dial is running the race with Forrest McCarthy. Previous race winners Chris Robertson and Bob Schnell have signed up as well this year. This duo has dominated the race for the last few years. Also running for the first time this year is Andrew Skurka. Even though he's a rookie and isn't from Alaska, it would a mistake to discount him as a serious contender.

The pre-race meeting at Dick Griffith's house a couple days ago was entertaining as usual. Many racers looked nervous and people hovered over maps and discussed the route. "Discussed" is a loose term because the conversations actually involved significant strategy and bluffing. The idea is to gather information from others about their routes without giving out information on your own.

I'm not running the race this year and I would give updates but there's no way to know where racers are on the route. However, given the strength, speed and experience of some of the racers I would imagine that the leaders should get to the first checkpoint, at about mile 50, about 24 hours after the race starts. Someone could potentially finish the race in about four days.

The route is bound to be brutal with so much time on the feet. Given the likely route, most racers will spend the majority of the race on their feet and not float any significant amount of time until near the end of the race.

The race travels very close to Fort Greely military base which is part of the fledgling missile defense system. Interestingly enough, there are rumors stretching back 50 or 60 years of nerve gas tests in the area and small nuclear test plants. To make things even more interesting on this route, there has been a high incidence of racer-bear interactions in the past. The Wilderness Classic is never boring.

Monday, July 20, 2009

More Pictures from 2004 Race - Eureka to Talkeetna

The morning of Day 2. 4:00 am start after "sleeping" on the ground for 2 hours.

4am sunrise - upper Oshenta River drainage

This was a hard morning as I tried to choke down some dry food with ice cold water while hiking. I lagged a bit behind my partners but felt better after an hour or so. I didn't want them to slow down for me and they didn't. That's why a partner on the Classic is so valuable, to keep you on the pace. This picture is in the upper headwaters of the Oshenta River. We came across intrepid adventurers Erin and Hig and talked with them for a couple minutes before going our separate ways.
Upper Oshenta River drainage

Climbing to the 6000 foot pass that divides the Susitna River drainage and the Talkeetna River drainage.
Gaining elevation on moraine

On the Talkeetna drainage side of the pass. We followed a nice sheep trail up to the top of the ridge visible in this picture and then slid down scree. The ice was bullet-proof hard so we carefully skirted it on scree and unstable moraine.
Scree, moraine and ice near the Talkeetna/Oshetna divide

After a couple miles of large, unstable moraine rock, this down-sloping tundra was a great respite. About 55 miles into the race. Not long after this picture was taken, Roman and Roman Jr. passed us on their mountain bikes, making excellent time over relatively flat ground.
Smooth terrain heading to the Talkeetna River

About 58 miles and 24 hours into the race.
Hiking near the Talkeetna River headwaters

Here's that super-sweet but short highway of a trail that gradually descends for a few miles to the Talkeetna River. This trail is so smooth you can almost sleep while you're walking it. It's the middle of the day and warm, exhaustion is starting to set in, the tundra looks soft and comfortable. A nap was really tempting but we pressed on at a fast hike knowing we could start floating in just a couple miles.
Sweet trail descending to the Talkeetna River which is visible in the back

After 62 hard miles on the ground, we were happy to get off our feet and into the boat. However, the water was fast, rocky and difficult. One of our team dumped his boat within 100 yards of launching in the water. In an amazing feat of gymnastics, he was able to get back in his packraft, grab his floating pack and navigate Class II-III glacial water all at the same time. A couple miles downstream, we passed Roman and Roman Jr. on the bank of the river. This picture is us getting ready for the first float of the race.
Preparing to packraft the upper Talkeetna River

We floated the next 12 hours on the Talkeetna River until it got dark and hypothermia set in. At about midnight and mile 80 on Day 2, we built a fire with driftwood on a gravel bar and tried to warm up. We were floating again super early and by noon on Day 3 we were portaging the Talkeetna Canyon which is somewhere past the 100 mile mark. We portaged the Talkeetna Canyon on the left by using a bear trail. This trail was scary and strenuous with FRESH piles of bear scat as it gained and lost elevation in and out of gullies. At one point, as we thrashed up and out of a steep ravine through thick undergrowth, trying to find the faint trail again, we climbed past a den that smelled strongly of bear or some other carnivore.

This picture is on the bank of Iron Creek about 140+ miles and 58 hours into the race. Just a few hours left to float on the mostly flat Talkeetna River. Just as we started to inflate our packrafts, Jeff, Jason and Bjorn floated by us on Iron Creek. We hadn't seen them the entire race and they floated by just a few minutes ahead of us. Right after they passed by, we saw a fresh half-eaten salmon a few feet away. We inflated our packrafts as fast as we could and just as we were launching through the weeds of the bank of the swift stream, we saw the good sized grizzly across the creek about 100 feet away. We yelled and waved our arms, it hesitated and we almost fell over each launching our rafts and floating away, leaving the bear to finish it's lunch.
Inflating packrafts and nervously watching for bears

Friday, July 17, 2009

Pictures from 2004 Race - Eureka to Talkeetna

Here's a few pictures from the beginning of the 2004 race. These were all taken with a disposable camera which explains the quality (or lack of). The focus is lightweight adventure racing though, and not documentation, so any pictures of the race are a bonus.

Day 1. Just 6 miles into the race on one of the few very short sections of dirt road that were legal per the race rules.
Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 2004

About Mile 9.
Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 2004

The first short break 4 hours and 20 miles into the race.

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 2004

Caribou Creek drainage.
Caribou Creek Drainage

Excellent traveling terrain along Caribou Creek.
Caribou Creek Hiking

Fine hiking on a four-wheeler trail on the Upper Caribou Creek about 30 miles into the race.
Upper Caribou Creek

Slightly off course at about 35 miles.
Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 2004
Back on course with a standing only pause before another push into the night. About 38 miles into the race.
Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic 2004

One of many creek crossings through a glacial cold stream.
Stream Crossing somewhere near Upper Caribou Creek

About 40 miles into the race.
About 40 miles into the race
The midnight huddle, trying to see the map as it gets dark
Figuring out which way is the fastest
Even on flat ground, it got too dark to see at about 2am so we called it a day. About 45 miles into the race.
18 hours and 45 miles into the race

Thursday, July 16, 2009

2005 Race Report

Thank you to Roman Dial who emailed me this race report.
2005 – Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic
Eureka to Talkeetna – June 26--July 3, 2005

Overall Winners: The big news this year is that the 48-hour barrier in a Wilderness Classic was broken by Bobby Schnell (2nd Place 2004), Jason Geck (4th place in 2004), Tyler Johson (5th place in 2004) and newcomer Rory Stark, all of Anchorage. Their time was 1 day, 23 hours and 29 minutes. Solo racer Bjorn Flora of Fairbanks came in second with a time that also nearly broke the two day mark (2 days, 1 hour, 20 minutes). Third place went to Butch Allen and Jim McDonoungh (2 days, 5 hours, 38 minutes). This pair has finished third three years in a row, each year taking a new primarily floating route. All three teams smashed the Gordy Vernon and Thai Verzone “atomic bomb” (cat raft) record carrying only “had guns” (packrafts). That’s how coups are pulled, no?

Route Dist. Time Winner(s)
1982 Hope to Homer 150 miles 6 d 10 h 15 m Roman Dial
1983 Hope to Homer 150 miles 4 d 20 h Roman Dial & Jim Lokken
1984 Hope to Homer 150 miles 3 d 13 h Dave Manzer
1985 Mentasta-McKinley 235 miles 7 d 22 h 12 m Hank Timm
1986 Mentasta-McKinley 235 miles 5 d 23 h Hank Timm
1987 Mentasta-McKinley 235 miles 4 d 18 h 27 m Hank Timm & Randy Pitney
1988 Nabesna-McCarthy 150 miles 2 d 16 h 28 m Roman Dial
1989 Nabesna-McCarthy 150 miles 3 d 6 h 9 m Dave Manzer, Adrian Crane & Tom Possert
1990 Nabesna-McCarthy 150 miles 3 d 8 h 42 m Brant McGee & Jeff Gedney
1991 Gates of the Arctic 130 miles 2 d 6 h 18 m Brant McGee & Adrian Crane
1992 Gates of the Arctic 130 miles 2 d 16 h Brant McGee & Dave Dixson
1993 Gates of the Arctic 130 miles 2 d 7 h 52 m Gordy Vernon
1994 Donnelly-McKinley 140 miles 2 d 12 h 36 m Frazier Miller
1995 Donnelly-McKinley 140 miles 2 d 12 h 20 m Clark Saunders
1996 Donnelly-McKinley 140 miles 2 d 12 h 20 m Steve & Rocky Reifenstuhl
1997 Hope to Homer 150 miles “fifth day” Gordy Vernon & Thai Verzone
1998 Hope to Homer 150 miles 4 d 23 h 30 m Gordy Vernon
1999 Hope to Homer 150 miles ???? Jim Jaegar & Laura McDonough
2000 Nabesna-McCarthy 150 miles 2 d 11 h 43 m Steve & Rocky Reifenstuhl
2001 Nabesna-McCarthy 150 miles 2 d 5 h 49 m Steve & Rocky Reifenstuhl
2002 Nabesna-McCarthy 150 miles 2 d 4 h 23 m Roman Dial
2003 Eureka-Talkeetna 160 miles 3 d 15 h 5 m Hans Neidig, Chris Robertson, Paul Hanis
2004 Eureka-Talkeetna 160 miles 2 d 7 h 40 m Gordy Vernon & Thai Verzone
2005 Eureka-Talkeetna 160 miles 1 d 23 h 29 m Schnell, Geck, Johnson, & Stark

Long sunny days and afternoon showers raised glacial rivers to high volume during the first few days of the 160 mile race. Air Force PJ Bobby Schnell led his team of Jason Geck, Tyler Johnson, and Rory Stark to cruise to a sleepless victory in 47 hours 29 minutes, vaporizing last year’s record by over seven hours and breaking the 23 year record by three hours.

Running across 65 miles of mountainous terrain, including several high, snow covered passes, the group put in on the upper Talkeetna River using packrafts 23 hours after the start of the race near Eureka Lodge on the Glenn Highway. They then floated 45 miles to the Talkeetna Canyon, portaging the worst of the rapids, and floating an additional few miles before pulling out to follow bear trails through the canyon. They put in again at Iron Creek, 25 miles upstream of Talkeetna and paddled to the fastest finish ever in the 24 years of the event.

“It was all Bobby,” said 32 year old Jason Geck. “I led for a lot of the river portion, but on land I felt like a sheep. I was so impressed by Bobby’s strength and his ability to keep it together all the time, even without sleep.”

Schnell, however, said it was a team effort. “Everybody did their part, everybody helped in a critical way at some point in the race.”

“We were more experienced in the packrafts than Tyler and Rory, but after they’d helped us break trail in the mountain snow, we just couldn’t leave them behind,” added Geck, who described the 8 foot waves they paddled in the Talkeetna Canyon as “very impressive.”

Race rules allow for any combination of people to travel, start, or finish together. During the 2003 running of the Eureka to Talkeetna event, Schnell and Geck together finished fifth, after starting with other teammates. Tyler Johnson finished fifth in 2004.

Coming in second, less than two hours behind the leaders and five hours ahead of the 2004 winning pace, was solo finisher, 29 year old Bjorn Flora of Fairbanks. Bjorn took a slightly more northerly route, traveling the first 50 miles with third place finishers Butch Allen and Jim McDonough to the Oshetna River. From there Bjorn headed up into the mountains following the so-called “APU” route down Aspen Creek to The Talkeetna River, while Butch and Jim blew up their boats and headed downstream on the Oshetna, headed for the Susitna River. Wilderness race rules allow for any route that is not near civilization (no roads, motor vehicles, caches or pack animals).

“The rivers were real high this year,” said Butch, who with Jim has come in third place for the last three years, each year by a wildly different route. “We found the Oshetna very exciting, particularly the last five miles.” When asked if they had slept during any of their 53 hour 38 minute run, he replied, “Yea, we took some cat naps when we tied our boats together on the Susitna.”

The two portaged Devil’s Canyon and Watana Canyon on their 210 mile route, first pioneered by last year’s winner, Gordy Vernon, in 2003 when he finished that race next-to-last.

2003 winner Hans Neidig teamed up with Dave Looney to take on a new route this year that involved floating the supercharged Chickaloon River. After hiking into the river in late afternoon, they blew up their packrafts and ran several miles of the river before coming to a blind curve.

“We couldn’t see what was around the corner,” said Looney, “until it was too late. There was a big rock on river-right with a log pushed up against it by the high water and another on river left with a big sweeper pinned there, too.

“We both got by the first one, but Hans got caught upstream of the second one. I looked back and saw him coming out from beneath the sweeper without his boat.”

“I got my arm dislocated going under the sweeper into a rock tunnel. I thought I’d cork that little rock tunnel and drown but I shot out of that and got washed over a submerged boulder. Then I got washed down between two cabin-sized boulders, getting caught between them in their hydraulics.” Looney was downstream watching helplessly as his partner was washed up and down in the huge “hole” below the house-sized boulders

“I came up over and over but just couldn’t get out. Finally, I thought, ‘This is what it feels like to die,’ when an image of my wife came to me and I realized I had to give it one last try. That last shove seemed to do the trick and I was washed out.” Hans was able to swim to shore with a dislocated shoulder that popped back into place.

Meanwhile the winning group made good time in the high waters. “Yea, it was pretty much a near-perfect run. We had no bear problems, no flips in the boats. We really didn’t make any navigational errors either,” said Schnell who trained for this year’s race by running mountains, trails, and even sprints at the track for speed work.

“It’s a new race out there,” observed Geck. “If you want to win you pretty much have to run -- down the hills, across the flats. These guys go really fast.”

Alpacka Raft Drawing Winner: Butch Allen won the Alpacka raft donated by Sheri Tingey of Alpacka Rafts.

Satellite Phones and Evacs: Once again Sat Phones were required equipment and once again they worked very well, both for responding to emergency circumstances and for getting out of the race in no-emergency situations. They will continue to be required gear.

2006 Wilderness Classic: Next year’s race is planned for the Brooks Range. Possibilities are (1) Atigun Pass to Arctic Village or (2) Haul Road to Coldfoot with mandatory checkpoint at Anaktuvuk Pass. Current plans are for last week of June or first week of July, possibly with a van driving to the start from Fairbanks. For the Atigun Pass to Arctic Village route racers would be responsible for getting out, taking the daily Wright Air Service flight to Fairbanks ( $155 currently – more next year!).

2005– Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic -- Eureka to Talkeetna

OFFICAL RESULTS 19 starters, 13 finishers

1. Bobby Schnell (Anchorage), Jason Geck (Anchorage), Tyler Johnson (Anchorage), Rory Stark (Anchorage): 1 day, 23 hours, 29 minutes NEW RACE RECORD
2. Bjorn Flora (Fairbanks): 2 days, 1 hour, 20 minutes
3. Butch Allen (Anchorage), Jim McDonough (Anchorage): 2 days, 5 hours, 38 minutes
4. Zach Shloser (Anchorage): 2 days, 13 hours
5. Bill Collins (Palmer): 2 days, 17 hours, 56 minutes
6. Matt Reardon (Eagle River), Robert Kehrer (Anchorage):, Pete Ostrinski (Anchorage): 4 days, 30 minutes
7. John Lapkass, (Anchorage): 4 days, 12 hours

DNF Dick Griffith (Anchorage), Dave Looney (Anchorage), Hans Neidig (Palmer), Donna Klecka (Eagle River), Will Gilmore (San Francisco), John McConnaughy (Anchorage)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

2006 Race Results

1) Bob Schnell and Chris Robertson: 4 days, 10 hours, 42 minutes
2) John Collins, Craig Barnard, Gordy Vernon, Thai Verzone, John Pekar and Tyler Johnson: 5 days, 13 hours, 10 minutes
3) John Lapkass: 6 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes
4) Brad Marden and Merrick Johnston: 7 days, 5 hours, 5 minutes
5) Rourke Williams and Bob Grosclose: 9 days, 1 hour

Scratched: Jim McDonough and Butch Allen, Michael Martin, Mark Ross, Luke Osborne and Robert Taylor, Chris Tellsworth and Mike Sullivan.

Monday, July 13, 2009

2005 Race Results

These results may be incomplete or slightly inaccurate but it's all I can find for now.

1) Bob Schnell, Jason Geck, Tyler Johnson, Rory Stark all from Anchorage: 1 day, 23 hours and 29 minutes
2) Bjorn Flora from Fairbanks: 2 days, 2 hours.
3) Butch Allen and Jim McDonough of Anchorage, 2 days, 5 hours, 38 minutes.
4) Zach Shloser of Anchorage: 2 days, 13 hours.
5) Bill Collins of Palmer: 2 days, 17 hours, 56 minutes.
6) Matt Reardon of Eagle River, Robert Kehrer and Pete Ostrinski of Anchorage: 4 days, 30 minutes.
7) John Lapkass of Anchorage: 4 days, 12 hours.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Few Pictures from the 2000 Race

These four pictures were sent out to racers with the end of race packet.

The beginning of the 2000 AMWC in Nabesna, Alaska. 27 adventure racers started and 22 finished.

2000 AMWC Race Start

Michael Martin at the mouth of Cooper Creek. The Nabesna River is behind him. Racers typically travel 5 miles from the race start at Nabesna, blow up their packrafts to float Jack Creek for a couple miles and enter the swift Nabesna River. After several miles and a couple hypothermic hours of floating the Nabesna, racers take out at the mouth of Cooper Creek to start hiking.

Cooper Creek near the Nabesna River

Michael Martin on the Goat Trail. The Goat Trail starts about 100 miles into the race and travels down the Chitistone Canyon until it reaches the Nizina River. Calling the Goat Trail a trail is a euphemism because it's often impossible to find and goes places humans wouldn't willingly go.

Hiking the Goat Trail in the Chitistone Canyon

Greg Tibbets floating the Nizina River. The Nizina is the last section of packrafting on the race. It's fast, cold and dangerous. After this section of floating, it's 10 miles to the town of McCarthy, which is where the race ends.

Floating the Nizina River

Friday, July 10, 2009

Life Jackets

Life Jacket Vest

Many racers take some form of life jacket now. Racers have come up with an amazing variety of methods to keep themselves afloat if they dump their boat and ingenuity is rewarded in the Classic with weight savings, versatility and comfort.

The most obvious first choice is the basic kayaking vest. Vests are comfortable and will keep you warm when you're floating. They can double as a sleeping pad and if you have a good sized pack you can also use them as a back support. Vests usually have good flotation capability but they also weigh quite a bit for a fanatically light-weight race and they are very awkward to carry in a small pack. Still, if you're looking for maximum flotation safety, this is the way to go. You won't be sorry you brought a vest when you're floating big water in a small raft. You will be sorry you brought a vest when you're thrashing through slide alder and thick undergrowth and the vest you tied to the outside of your pack keeps getting snagged on branches.

There are a couple different types of inflatable life jackets. Inflatable PFD's are a little more svelte than full sized vests, so they will save you space but they are just as heavy because of the CO2 cartridge that fills them with air. You can alter most inflatables by cutting off the cartridge and extra fabric to make them a little lighter. Just make sure there's a way to blow it up manually before you go crazy with your scissors.

Adventure Racing Inflatable Life Vest

Even better is an inflatable belt. Belts are about half the price of inflatable jackets and weigh a lot less. Buy one that allows manual inflation and cut off the CO2 cartridge and you'll have a skookum flotation device that weighs about 8oz and takes up hardly any space in your pack.

A few racers have used box wine bladders as a creative flotation solution. Buy a box of wine and empty it. Wait until the hangover subsides and you can use the bag as a flotation device. It's strong, it's light and it packs down to almost nothing. Tuck it inside your clothes or maybe tie a few of them securely together. Use your imagination. Preferably though, put it against your chest or stomach and not your back, otherwise you might end up floating face down in the water when you're knocked unconscious by that nasty overhanging sweeper.

This list isn't exhaustive but it'll get you thinking in the right direction. There are other better methods and designs that adventure racing veterans regularly use. Just think light, strong and versatile.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

2004 Race Results

2004 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Eureka to Talkeetna

July 25-31, 2004

The 2004 running of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic was superlative in many ways. The race had the most entrants in twenty years, since Hope to Homer 1984. It assembled the strongest field, including the most previous winners ever, on what is the most technically challenging route. It had racers better prepared than ever before for evacuation as all carried sat phones and at least two racers used them. It had the youngest aged finisher among the 23 annual events. It had the greatest variety of completed routes covering a 6,000 square mile area stretching from the Kings River east to the Oshetna River and from the Matanuska north to the Susitna River. And it had the most daring finish since Chuck Comstock flew the Stairway Icefall in nabesna to McCarthy 1989.

Several racers have indicated that we maintain the tradition of a three year course; many would like to beat their time and there is some indication that a sub 48 hour time is possible. Sat phones worked better than checkpoints as safety mechanisms and future racer organizers should take their cue from this year's experience with both.

Overall Winners: Gordy Vernon is now a four-time winner of the Wilderness Classic (this year; 1997 and 1998 Hope to Homer; 1993 Gates of the Arctic). He and Thai Verzone (who also teamed up with Gordy to win the 1997 Hope to Homer Classic) carried their "Atomic Bomb" of a boat -- a 34 pound cataraft -- to come from behind and pass all the "hand-gun" toting competitors in a sub-eight hour paddle from Entrance Exam to the finish in Talkeetna. They beat the Roberston/Neidig/Hannis 2003 time by more than 31 hours.

This brazen act of go-for-it competition has been a part of the innovative backbone of the Classic since its inception: in 1982 Dick Griffith introduced the packraft to the Classic and nearly beat men half his age; in '83 one team skied to victory across the Harding Icefield, and in '84 the Harding was skied solo to second; in '86 Dave Manzer and partner skied across the Gakona-Canwell-Black Rapids-Susitna Glacier complex in the Mentasta to McKinley race, taking second; and in 1987 Hank Timm and Randy Pitney blew all the competition out of the water and the mountains with a collapsible canoe on mountain bikes, wheeling it east instead of west and winning by 17 hours on a route twice as long as everyone else's. In 1988 Timm, Mark Stoppel, and Claire Holland packed the collapsible canoe across the Nabesna to McCarthy route to finish fourth. But the boldest racer route in the history of the Classic belongs to the late Chuck Comstock.

Chuck Comstock competed in the 1988 and 1989 Nabesna to McCarthy Classic with a parapente and X-C racing skis. He hiked and skied up the Nabesna Glacier to 11,000 feet, then paraglided solo off the 6000 foot tall Stairway Icefall, finishing last but finishing with style. As one long-time observer notes: "Nobody remembers who won the race those two years. But everyone remembers what Chuck did".

With some confidence we can likely say that no one will forget who won this year's Eureka to Talkeetna Classic or how they did it, even if it happens "never again".

Strong Field: This year had the strongest field of racers ever. Of the 34 starters, 24 had raced a Wilderness Classic before, and six individuals had between them won eight previous Classics. Of those 11 individuals who had never entered a Classic before, their impressive backcountry experience included previous traverses of the Talkeetna Mountains, the Brooks Range, and the Alaska Peninsula.

Technical Course: The competitive field was well matched by the route. The course provides feet-beating and thick brush ("Grade V XX") comparable to Hope to Homer ('82, '83, '84, '97, '98, '99), and technical white-water surpassing Nabesna to McCarthy ('88, '89, '90, '00, '01, '02). It's longer and harder than the Gates of the Arctic ('91, '92, '93) or Donnelly to McKinley Village ('94, '95, '96) routes. Only the infamous 235 mile Mentasta to McKinley ('85, '86, '87) glacier route is tougher.

Most racers ended up in the Talkeetna Canyon following bear trails. This was a bit stressful. Bear encounters seemed likely, particularly with steaming piles of bear scat punctuating these trails. The brush off-trail went from bad to worse as racers traversed the "Side-Hills of Insanity" starting in dry birch scrub but ending in full-on alder and devils club in the rain. Meanwhile the siren-song of boating was never more than 30 minutes down-hill, a risky adventure in a packraft, as capsizing a boat in the middle of a ten mile canyon of Class IV rapids, purportedly the longest run of continuous whitewater on the continent, would not be healthy.

Other Routes: Most popular was the Talkeetna Canyon route which included a host of variations. The Atomic Bomb route down the gut without a portage, a sneak-around-the rapids, then hike-the-left side, was used by the 2nd place finishing PJ's and 5th place team led by Hans Neidig. A right-side trail, river cross, then left-side trail was used by the 4th place team led by Jason Geck. An all-right-hand side route was used by Betsy Young and Jim Renkert for 12th place finish. There was also extensive variation getting to the Talkeetna. Some went the way of the Little and Big Oshetna (Big O) Rivers, like the 17-year-old on the mountain bike who finished 6th, while others went by way of Caribou Creek and Big O, and still others via Cardioceras Creek and Big O. Of these, some dropped into the smooth but oddly positioned and unnamed east fork of the upper Chickaloon drainage, while still others took Nowhere Creek to a pass into upper Black River and then Aspen Creek. Some skipped Oshetna drainages completely on Caribou/Glass Creek/Chickaloon. Bill Collins floated the Bog O to the Susitna and the Susitna to Talkeetna, finishing 7th overall. The husband and wife team of newcomers Bretwood (Hig) Higman and Erin McKittrick hiked past the Talkeetna drainage and walked down most of Iron Creek, putting in its lower reaches to float to the finish 11th. Farther west than even this route those innovative butt-boaters Butch Allen and Jim McDonough floated down the Matanuska as they did last year, but this year passed the Chickaloon and took out to hike up the Kings River, crossing the ice between the Kings and the Sheep Rivers, then floating the Sheep River to a 3rd place finish. According to Butch they slept eight hours. According to Gordy, he and Thai slept three. The difference may have made Butch and Jim the winners, although the PJ team, who apparently slept not a wink, claimed that sleep deprivation cost them several hours of inadvertent "circum-navigation" and possibly the race.

Women Racers: Erin McKittrick was the first female across the finish line in 4 days, 11 hours, 28 minutes, followed by Betsy Young who started solo but teamed up with Jim Renkert to finish early the next morning with a time of 4 days, 21 hours, 31 minutes. These are the first two women to finish this course. The fastest time by a woman on any Classic course is Peggy Dial's time of 3 days, 3 hours, and 40 minutes on the Gates of the Arctic course ('93).

Youngest Finisher: 17 year old Cody Roman Dial and dad finish in sixth place with a time of 3 days, 4 hours, 15 minutes, nearly 11 hours faster than last year's winning time. They rode mountain bikes to the Big O drainage, carried them over a high pass, packrafted them to the Talkeetna Canyon, then stripped deraileurs, chains, and crank arms to wheel them through the brush. Young Dial says he'll be back sans bike.

Alpacka Raft Drawing Winner: Chris Robertson won the needed raft. He has been borrowing rafts for two years running. Special thanks to Sheri Tingey of Alpacka Rafts for donating the raft this year and last. These rafts have revitalized the Wilderness Classic and made packrafting as much fun as mountain biking. Be sure to watch for new developments at Alpacka (

Satellite Phones and Evacs: For the first time the race organization checked for mandatory equipment ­ a satellite phone. Because of last year's search for missing racers, this year required everyone carry the perhaps wilderness-strangling piece of technology. Dick Griffith, who had said he wouldn't carry a phone (and, out of deference and respect to his having finished more races than anyone else, was granted permission not to carry one by race organizers), had this to say:
The 23rd Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Race was held this year between the Eureka gravel pit and the town of Talkeetna. This is the first race that I can remember (I have done 20) that search planes or helicopters have not been used to find late finishers. This year my partner, Jerry Dixon of Seward, flipped his raft in a rapid just before entering the Talkeetna Canyon. He managed to reach shore with boat, pack and paddle. We were looking at the rapids at the entrance of the Talkeetna Canyon. Jerry's pack was very heavy from his recent swim and he slipped on a root and was pitched forward. He had a posterior shoulder dislocation. It was a very painful situation for both of us to be in. The usual technique of grabbing the arm and jerking it did not work. In this situation the sat phone was worth more than it's weight in gold. A trooper's helicopter reached us within four hours. Jerry was transported to Talkeetna and from there by an ambulance. The pain was so intense, even after double shots of morphine and valium, that he had to be removed from the ambulance and put on another helicopter which transported him to Providence Hospital. To reach help from the entrance of the Talkeetna Canyon would have taken me at least 20 hours of some very serious bushwhacking and boating. As far as I am concerned the sat phone saved the day.

2005 Race: Most of this year's racers feel confident that they could improve their finishing time. Several even feel that a sub-2 day (48 hour) time is possible. This year's winning time of 2 days, 7 hours, 40 minutes is the third fastest in race history. The two fastest Classic times are on the Nabesna to McCarthy course, with the 2002 race at 2 days, 4 hours, and 24 minutes fastest. The record-holder finished then with a "hand-gun", breaking the Reifenstuhl Brother's previous record of 2 days 5 hours and 49 minutes.

There was talk that the 2005 race would take place in the Chugach, starting in Whittier with mandatory checkpoints at Knik River, Girdwood, Eagle River Visitor Center and a finish in the Front Range above the Anchorage Bowl. However, many racers would like to improve their time on the Eureka to Talkeetna route, and others would like to maintain the three-years-on-one-route venue that has been a tradition since 1982.


34 starters, 29 finishers

1) Gordy Vernon (Kachemak Bay area) & Thai Verzone (New Mexico): 2 days, 7 hours, 40 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon, no portage)

2) Chris Robertson (Anchorage) & Bobby Schnell (Anchorage): 2 days, 9 hours, 40 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)

3) Butch Allen & Jim McDonough (Anchorage, both) : 2 days, 11 hours, 11 minutes (Matanuska River, Sheep River)

4) Jeff Banish, Jason Geck, & Bjorn Flora (Anchorage): 2 days, 12 hours, 25 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon via Aspen Ck)

5) Hans Neidig (Palmer), Paul Hanis (McCarthy), Ben Summit (Anchorage), & Tyler Johnson (Anchorage): 2 days 13 hours, 16 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)

6) Roman Dial & C. Roman Dial (Anchorage): 3 days, 4 hours, 15 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon w/bikes)

7) Bill Collins (Palmer): 3 days, 4 hours, 47 minutes (Oshetna, Susitna)

8) Kevin Armstrong (Healy & Girdwood) & Doug Woody (Ft. Collins, Colorado): 3 days, 11 hours, 55 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)

9) Bill Moslow (Virginia): 4 days, 5 hours, 50 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)

10) John Lapkass (Anchorage) & Michael Martin (Seattle): 4 days, 7 hours, 45 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)

11) Bretwood (Hig) Higman (Seldovia) & Erin McKittrick (Seattle): 4 days, 11 hours, 28 minutes (Iron Creek)

12) Jim Renkert (Anchorage) & Betsy Young (Anchorage): 4 days, 21 hours, 31 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon via Aspen Ck)

13) Rob Kehrer (Anchorage) & John Pepe (Anchorage): 5 days, 11 hours, 15 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)

14) Dick Griffith (Anchorage): 5 days, 13 hours (Talkeetna Canyon)

Not Finishing: Jerry Dixson (dislocated shoulder), Dave Looney, Rick Peckham, Ian Thomas, Thor Tingey, Peter Ostrinski (bad feet).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Gear alert

Sherpa Designs Halka Jacket

I recently came across a great jacket from Sherpa Adventure Gear. The Halka. At 10.6 ounces it's very well designed and is windproof, waterproof and breathable.

There was a rumor in the 2002 race that a race leader took only a Patagonia Dragonfly as a jacket. Remember, this was the route through the Wrangells and 2002 was the year of the July snowstorm. On Day 1 of the race, a blizzard dropped several feet of snow near the top of Cooper Pass. The Dragonfly is super lightweight at 3.1 ounces but mere mortals will probably want to take a jacket that provides a little more warmth, like the Halka. Besides, I don't think Patagonia is selling the Dragonfly anymore and Sherpa is a unique and innovative company.

I got my jacket on a recent trip out of state and there doesn't appear to be a local store in Alaska that carries their stuff so you'll have to do your homework. The quality gear should make it more than worth your time though.

An added bonus with this jacket is that it has the story of the jacket printed in Tibetan on the inside in case you're stuck in a tent somewhere and feel like learning another language.

Speaking of gear, don't forget about the REI Outlet store. You can often get screaming deals here on new lightweight gear.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Classic Workout

I went out for a good half day workout this last weekend that was a perfect Classic training run. I started from the Rabbit Creek trailhead in Anchorage, ran back 5 miles to Rabbit Lake and went up South Suicide. I dropped down 1000 feet to Windy Gap and then went up North Suicide. After the long scree slide back down to Rabbit Lake, I jogged a mile down the valley and climbed Ptarmigan Peak.

I kept the pace steady and took a sandwich, two liters of water and a jacket. Final tally was about 13 miles and 6200 feet of elevation. It was hot and two liters of water wasn't enough so I ended up slurping meltwater off a small dripping snowfield just below the summit of Ptarmigan.

South Suicide Peak with Rabbit Lake in the foreground. South Suicide Peak

Ptarmigan on the summit of North Suicide Peak. Ptarmigan on Summit of North Suicide Peak

Monday, July 6, 2009

Wild for Alaska

Check out this book by an Alaskan adventurer. It's bound to have some interesting and hair-raising stories. By Jerry Dixon, veteran of the Classic. Wild for Alaska