If you survived the race, congratulations on finishing or on making a wise choice to drop out. If you didn't do the race this year, you should probably be glad you didn't. Happy reading.
2010 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Race Report
The problems began early for this year’s trouble-plagued Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic. This year’s race, the 29th annual event, ran from the Gerstle river crossing of Highway 2 to McKinley Village, which is something like 120 miles away across the Alaska Range as the crow flies, and up to 180 miles depending on the route chosen. Even before the starting cry of “OK, let’s go!” on Sunday morning June 20th, problems began for race coordinator and racer Michael Martin when his partner (and son) awoke with fever and nausea, forcing a scratch only hours before the race. This left Martin scrambling to re-pack for a solo approach.
19 racers registered for this year’s event, including a higher than usual percentage of racers from outside. Racers came from Washington, Colorado, Utah and Florida. With one scratch at the start, 18 set out Sunday morning to navigate over or around the Granite Mountains between Highway 2 and the Donnelly Creek campground checkpoint on Highway 4. From there they would choose between any number of routes to reach McKinley Village.
As usual in the Classic, racers showed real creativity in routes and methods of travel chosen. The rules state that all travel must be self-contained and self-propelled. Racers are not allowed to add or leave anything once the race has begun. No help from non-racers. Luc Mehl and Eric Parsons had perhaps the most unusual approach, showing up with custom “tundra bikes” outfitted with a series of frame and other bags designed by pro-designer Eric (Revelate Designs®) which held their pack rafts, skis and other gear. They planned to ride the ATV trails around the Granite mountains, then ski (towing their gear and bikes in their inflated pack rafts), boat, ride and hike to the finish.
“Chunk” Bernard and partner Tyler Johnson planned a southerly route following the checkpoint at the Donnelley campground. They would walk south to Black Rapids, cross the Delta, ski up the Black Rapids glacier and follow a glacier route to the Nenana. They would then packraft the Nenana to the finish.
Most others chose to race along the north side of the range, crossing the Trident, Hayes and Gillam glaciers in various combinations and at various points. Most would float or walk the Wood river and float the Yannert, getting off before the Yannert enters a gorge near Denali Park, and walking into the finish near McKinley Village.
A team composed of 2009 Classic winners, Bobby Schnell and Chris Robertson was joined by Todd Kasteler. They planned to jog the first section to the checkpoint, and were accompanied by newcomer Danny Powers and the team of Chunk Bernard and Tyler Johnson, reaching the checkpoint in just over 13 hours. But the weather was not going to cooperate this year, and by the time even the fastest racers had reached the Donnelley checkpoint, most racers were hypothermic from sleet and rain, and many had been significantly slowed by fog and extremely wet conditions making travel across even good tundra “mushy”.
The “G Force” team of Jeff and Greg Gedney, joined by Floridian Jason Speigel found themselves overwhelmed by freezing rain and fog in the Granite mountains, not finding the Richardson Highway (and Donnelly checkpoint) for 36 hours. Speigel had a badly hurt knee by that time, and that combined with hypothermia caused the team to scratch at the checkpoint. Peter Calvin and partner Susannah Pratt originally made the checkpoint in good shape and crossed the Delta only to find that the weather was even further deteriorating in the high ground between the Delta and the Trident glacier, and returned to the Donnelley checkpoint where they left the race. In fact, by Monday evening 10 of the 18 starters had abandoned the race at or near the Donnelly Campground because of hypothermia, weather and/or injury. This included rookie Travis Carbough, who had made good time over the Granite mountains, but succumbed to the same weather challenges as many others.
Chunk Bernard and Tyler Johnson, having made it as far as Black Rapids on Monday, spent several hours evaluating the weather and making tough decisions about going on over the long glaciated route. They report that the peaks and glacier were completely socked in, and with regret, they also decided to drop out.
From the point of view of race director Martin, the language expressed in the AMWC application “Responsible racers will make timely decisions about whether to drop out or attempt to finish when difficulties present themselves….there is always another race.” is key at times like this. The Classic is perhaps the toughest cross-country race around, but it is meant to provide a challenge, not irreversible consequences. And in the 29 years of the race there has never been such a problem, largely due to the intelligent decisions of the participants at times like this.
The team of Rob Kehrer and Matt Reardon and solo racers John Lapkass and Michael Martin all eventually found their way to the Donnelley campground at various times on Monday, and began to consider whether to drop out or go on.
Each made a decision to spend the night at the checkpoint, assay the weather in the morning, and decide whether to continue. Because the weather seemed to be improving, all continued, crossing the Delta in the morning and heading for the high ground to cross the Trident. By this time, Martin’s original partner, Michael Peñuelas, was feeling better, and joined him for the second section.
In the meantime, the weather, although seemingly locally improving, continued to deteriorate, with thunderstorms, hail and sleet dogging the racers all along the route. The group of Bobby Schnell, Chris Robertson, Todd Kastener and Danny Powers, leading the remaining racers by a huge margin, themselves ended up hypothermic and needing an 11 hour layover in the mid-section of the second part of the course to warm up and regroup. Nevertheless, their finish time of 4 days and 48 minutes indicates that had the weather cooperated, they would have handily beat the record of 3 days, 17 hours and 54 minutes.
Martin and (at that point non-competitor) partner Peñuelas had the astonishing luck to film a wolverine crossing the center of the Trident moraine. They later scratched from a tiny airstrip on the Little Delta, realizing they would not make another exit point in a reasonable time, but were awed by the beauty and challenge of the route, and left the race in good shape. The same could not be said of veteran Classic racer John Lapkass of Anchorage, who suffered a medical emergency and was extracted by helicopter from the last-third section of the route, proving definitively the value of the required satellite phones for all racers. From his hospital bed, Lapkass expressed deep regret because he had been in great shape at that point, and poised for a satisfying finish at McKinley Village.
The only other finishers, sharing second place this year were Rob Kehrer and Matt Reardon, finishing in great shape (except for Matt’s impressively damaged feet) in a time of 6 days, 9 hours and 22 minutes.
According to Martin, who has participated in Classics since 1993, and served as race director for 5 of those years, this Classic was as “classic” as the race gets…a widely varied group of competitors, wildly imaginative routes, weather of every variety, and challenges at every step. This year also boasts the lowest finish ratio in memory, and emphasizes that this race is extremely tough and unpredictable, and that the objective hazard of the weather can make all the difference. According to Dick Griffith, holder of the record for the most Classic finishes, in reference to this years race, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.”