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 (http://www.alpackaraft.com/).
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.
OFFICAL RESULTS FOR THE 2004 RACE.......
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).