Monday, July 23, 2018

Alpine Style: Deep.

I woke up worn down.  Long, hard days of travel chasing young bucks whom don't seem to need breaks will do that to you.  Or at least me.  Hearing rain drum down on the cabin roof most of the night probably had at least a little to do with it.  I rolled over and pulled my hat down over my eyes 6 or 7 times before finally accepting that I was awake for good.  I creakily exited the bag, put water on to boil, then shuffled out into the dank morning air to relieve myself.

The previous evening's honey light and stunning views were gone, obscured by a ground-level cloud that looked permanently parked.  I wondered if we would have enjoyed the fine riding last night nearly as much without those views and that light.  Unlikely.

We dawdled away a few hours inside the cabin, reading the logbooks and wall carvings, repairing gear, cooking and eating breakfast, adding our own mark to the register.

With no chores left to do and a lot of miles to be covered, we tie the door closed and head toward the White River.  Everything is sodden, and probably because we've been burning it at both ends for days, everything feels uphill.  Especially the uphills.

The travel isn't particularly hard unless you compare to how easy it was the last 2 days.  We walk next to our bikes through tussock fields, occasionally rolling them ahead of us on back wheels as we punch through patches of alder.  When the alder arrive at a certain combined height and thickness we hoist bikes overhead and stumble through that way, but those moments are rare.  The morning passes slowly and we are all wet through from the alder 'car washes' more than the light drizzle.

We cross a steep cobble-filled gully and follow it down, down, down -- riding when possible and walking when the gradient goes richter.  Doom is navigating and says that despite the wall of vegetation we must punch through to leave the gully, that a rumored trail we've been looking for is (according to the GPS) 'right up there'.

We stumble and grunt our way up and, one by one, express delight as we pop out of the veg and onto a bonafide ATV trail.  For the next ~15 minutes we become a riotous conga line: Four elated humans shucking, jiving, and belly laughing our way down a fast, fun, duff and root strewn trail through the woods.  

The trail opens into a wildflower strewn meadow, from whence we splash across a rivulet and arrive at a small collection of cabins: Solo Creek.

We lean bikes against a split-rail fence, drape raingear over the same, then dive into lunch.  No one is going hungry but the limited fare and hard travel mean we've all constantly got an appetite.  The buzz of a small plane appears overhead, circles, lands out of sight but very close by, then taxis up into the cabins and parks not 100 yards away.  Team diplomat Davis wanders over and strikes up a conversation with Tom (same Tom from "fire" sign at cabin, above?), and eventually we all join him. Tom gives a brief tour of his own cabin, shows us the one he's building for friends, clues us in to the local pack of wild horses (he was up in his plane checking on them when we arrived), offloads Oreos and trail mix onto hungry-ass Bailey, then turns the questions on us about our trip and especially our bikes.  He takes mine for a brief spin and immediately finds the upshift lever and dropper remote, but can't figure out the downshift.  He returns from his brief, inaugural fatbike ride smiling -- the way people do.  He tells us about his original Mountain Klein -- still in service since the early '90's -- but quickly makes clear that a fatbike is in his very near future.  Says he'll use it instead of the airplane to go check on the horses.

Tom gives us beta on how to exit the cabin complex -- usually one of the more confusing navigational tasks on any Alaskan adventure -- and sends us on our way.  We ride quickly along gravel bars and sediment benches along the White River until arriving at Lime Creek.  The first 4 braids are tricky but doable, and each of us make it safely across even though our lines diverge wildly.  The biggest braid sees all of us stumbling but only manages to trip poor Bailey -- whom again gets trundled and banged up in the ensuing tangle with his bike.

Nothing seems as real or as scary as being tossed about by a pissed off river.  Bailey seems a bit rattled (whom wouldn't be?) but quickly shakes it off and leads us on toward the glacier.

The terrain gradually changes from gravel bars to gravel benches, and we can feel the land rising almost as fast as the air cools on our ascent toward the snout of the Russell.

Pre-trip, Eric had made clear that once we hit the snout of the glacier there would be no more riding -- maybe for days -- which makes us all the more grateful as the riding continues much further than expected.

An occasional debris fan impedes our flow, causing us to cast about before finding yet more good riding never far away.

Doom suggests calling it an early day so that we can camp at the last of the wood.  Being able to dry out gear and cook over flame sounds appealing to all and we turn our collective attention to sussing out a spot.

A spot with a view and some protection from down-glacier breezes presents itself and we all busy ourselves collecting wood.  Fire is kindled, sodden clothes removed, tents erected.  We have time to eat and share the first of our bad jokes before fresh rain moves in and chases us into the tents.  

Mercifully the rain abates long enough to pack up in the morning, and again we are surprised to be riding at all, much less over relatively smooth terrain with exceptional views.

At Flood Creek the wheels come off.  Figuratively at least.  The crossing is sketchy -- steep gradient, ample flow to sweep our feet -- both amplified in our subconscious by the thundering of cobbles being rolled along in the current.  

Doom and I work our way upstream identifying potential crossings as Brett and Jon head downstream doing the same.  A cold wind chills us as we do, making every possibility seem less likely.  Wind aside none of them look good.

Jon and Brett return with good news: moving lower looks better.  We cross -- gratefully -- with little drama, and then stare upward at a mountain of moraine.  Silt, mud, pebbles, cobbles, boulders -- just an amalgamated mess -- all pushed up against a hillside with no easy or even obvious path through.  Pedals come off, bike bags are unloaded or outright removed and stashed in backpacks, then up we move.  Slowly.

Again Brett opts for the hands-free approach.

We can see ice everywhere but it takes an hour of sidehilling for it to manifest itself in an obvious way beneath our feet.  In trying to descend into a gully Doom kicks off a mudslide and we watch its' slow motion steamroll in detached fascination until the earth beneath all of our feet begins to move.  Then we're not so detached.  A veritable quagmire engulfs each of us at various points -- wet concrete moving so slowly that you wouldn't think to be alarmed by it, until you realize it's underlain by slabs of ice upon which there is no possibility of traction.  We each struggle and stumble in the most undignified ways while traversing each successive hidden-til-you're-in-it iteration.  I don't have a good image of these but there's a brief clip in the video (soon!) that gives an inkling.

At one incongruous moment I stop to remove gravel from my shoes and while doing so notice a bumblebee pollinating flowers, immediately beyond which the entire universe seems to exist only as snow, ice, or gravels.  Anthropomorphic rationalization can give "life" to the moving glacier and all that it lays waste to in its gravity-fed slow-motion excavation.  But that's not the same as flowers and bees and it feels alien, and welcome, to be sitting in (on) this minuscule island of life surrounded by so much that just isn't.

While attending to my shoes I note that Eddie Van Halen has left his mark on my rear wheel.  Thanks Ed!

As I'm framing the above shot of Brett I notice a wall of rain moving up-valley at us.  I drop pack and don rain shell, and before Brett has caught me a cold wind-driven rain has enveloped us.  For the next several hours the rain is a constant companion as we continue schlepping upward, now sliding on greased rock with perpetually muddy feet.  Except when we wade through icy creeks or posthole through rotten snow.

Doom positively kills the navigation, leading us over and through myriad snowfields with no obvious landmarks by which to reckon.  As the day winds on my sodden shoes begin going to pieces, and I have to continually stop to clean out gravel and apply patches in hopes of keeping said gravel out.

These too-frequent stops have me chilled to the core and regretting my sunny-day decision (back at the start) to forgo any sort of gloves.  I move as efficiently as I can and take extra care with each step, but still I have to stop all too frequently and the boys get further and further ahead.  I know they're waiting when they can but as skinny as they all are I also know they're likely colder than I and as such must maintain motion to produce heat.  There's nothing to be done but to keep moving as efficiently as possible and hope they don't start eating each other.

As the day winds down into dank foggy dusk we are nowhere near anyplace level or earthen enough to camp, and so we keep on pushing.  I'm soaked and shivering and sorely tempted to add my last dry layer, but know that I'll be much happier if I save it to wear inside my bag overnight.

Many cold hours later we descend into the headwaters of the Chitistone.  Edging along a high bench I spot the boys a few hundred feet below, right next to the river.  They aren't moving and it takes a moment to realize that they've decided on a camp spot.  I work my way down the sketchy slippery slope and as I near I can see that they are all quite literally shivering.  They've got tents laid out but they need the paddle and pole to erect them -- both of which are in my pack.  Wordlessly I drop pack and remove these essential items so that we can finish the job and get inside.

The next hour is the longest: shedding sodden clothes, wriggling into sleep kit and bags, heating water for dinner.  The shivers recede slowly, unwilling to immediately release their grasp, aided in this endeavor by the psychosomatic pounding of rain on tents, the piles of sodden clothes we'll need to put back on in the morning.  Bailey sums it all up in a single dispassionate utterance: "Grim".  

Deep in the night I break consciousness to pee.  Our floorless tents make this task easy if a bit gross.  Say what you will but I'm not getting out of the bag or the tent if I don't have to, when there is bare ground right there.  I note approvingly that the rain has stopped and pass back out.  Some time later -- minutes, hours? -- I'm awakened by something very cold pressing on my face.  I rouse and flail and when real consciousness finds me realize that it's the tent wall, being pressed down by inches of wet, heavy snow.  I pound the walls to dislodge it, then shout to wake the others so that they can do the same.  The rest of the night passes in a series of too-brief naps punctuated by cleaning the tent walls to keep them from collapsing onto us.

During one of these naps I'm startled awake by a sharp report, which turns out to be the cracking of the paddle blade.  Our *only* paddle.  So much snow had accumulated on the other tent -- while those slackers slept through it -- that it could no longer support the weight.  Then another noise, a deep rumble, reaches us from across the valley.  Then one from our side of the valley.  Then others, more distant.  Avalanches -- point releases of snow, mud, and rock -- are coming down all around.

Although I'd never leave the tent entirely all day, at this point I stood and poked my head out to assess our campsite in terms of avalanche safety.  If several more feet of snow were to fall -- a distinct possibility -- we could be in real danger.  For the immediate future we're safe.  I drift back to sleep.  

Between naps I use the Inreach to communicate with Eric in Anchorage and Jason Geck in Kennicott.  Eric tells us the Goat Trail is hard to find even with no snow, Jason says the upcoming terrain is hazardous even when dry.  Stay put is the message and we have no interest in differing with it.

We nap, graze lightly on food that is already running thin, nap again, then when rain stops and clouds brighten we wring out sodden gear and hang it from any surface that might support it.  In this manner we pass a day and to all of our surprise our clothing dries completely.  I contemplate sewing my ailing shoes back together but can't see a way that that will actually work -- the sides are already too frayed.  I compromise by cutting my one tube into sleeves to wear over the top of the shoes, hoping that each sleeve will do dual duty in keeping gravel out and protecting the frayed material from further decomposition.  And then I nap some more.

As night falls the drizzle returns, and we drift off in hopes that we won't wake to yet deeper snow.