Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Alpine Style: Down, then out.

No new snow.  Yesterdays accumulation rapidly melting, but with unsettled weather about we don't dare linger longer.  It's easy to motivate quickly because we have little left in our larder to eat, thus no breakfast to dawdle over.  That, and after ~36 hours inert we're bedsore and ready to move.

Routefinding for the first ~mile is easy: Sense the negative space where veg is light or boulders are smaller, and move toward it.  Discover abundant tracks of animals when you arrive there.  Feel a sense of satisfaction at learning to move like the locals.

Where the Chitistone Gorge begins we get pinched up onto the infamous Goat Trail.  I cannot specifically recall when first I learned of this route but it's been at least two decades and maybe almost three.  Delayed gratification.

^ Looking back toward camp before it recedes from view.

I could add context -- some quip or anecdote -- to every one of these pictures but doing so doesn't really make them better.  The place is stunning, exceptionally so.  My verbal gropings attempting to explain it are anything but.

I can't be sure if they're inspired by the scenery or just too cold to stop, but the boys are setting a spirited pace and again I struggle to keep them in sight.  Only because the trail dives deeply into incisions before emerging out the other side does it seem like we are "close".  Glad I brought a 200mm lens.

There are a few engaging, exposed, heart-in-throat moments but mostly we just keep traversing and gaining elevation.  We get much higher than expected, or seemingly needed.  Then we come to a side creek that has cut a gorge equal in size to the Chitistone's, and it becomes obvious why we've ended up so high: absent a parachute it's the only way through.

A brief snack, some attention getting snowfield sidehilling, then we hit what feels like a "real" trail and I snap pedals back in and ride.

Trail builders -- no doubt discussing NEPA documents and matching funds.

We regroup at an obvious bench, snacking and laughing, admiring the falls, the amphitheater, and the gorge while Brett transitions back to hands-on-bars mode.

Across this Julie Andrews meadow we ride, briefly, before a ~45 minute 'schwack to get down to the Chitistone again.  At last.

We suss out a crossing just upstream, spend the hour it takes to get across, then resume mostly riding riverside benches and bars.

The previous owner of this rabbit (actually hare) foot would like to disagree with your notion that good luck comes to it's possessor.  We saw dozens of these -- mostly along the Nabesna and Nizina -- always coincident with dwarf willows stripped of all bark to about our navels.

We pedaled along the Chitistone and occasionally -- when pinched -- were forced to 'schwack up into the alders to get past constrictions at river level.  Below, approaching Glacier Creek.

Pre-trip, Roman had leaned hard on us to forgo multiple boats so that we'd be better able to take advantage of the incredible riding on this route.  At the same time, Eric had made clear that when we arrived at this point -- near the Chitistone/Nizina confluence -- we would sorely regret not having multiple boats.  

Part of Roman's schtick was to pass off the floating -- especially *right here* -- as 'boring grey glacial mank' -- and it is certainly that.  But the riding could also be classified as boring, or at least tedious.  Back when Roman and friends did this route -- 3 decades ago, remember -- the idea of riding wilderness animal trails was so far out there that I think the fact that they were able to ride at all was like a bolt from the blue to them.  Hell, mountain biking anywhere was in it's infancy: there were at most a few thousand people worldwide that had opened their eyes to it.  I could see how to Roman, Jon, and Carl riding this route would feel exceptional.  Considering how few have completed it with bikes in the ensuing three decades it's *still* way ahead of it's time.

Given where bike technology has gone since then, and where each in our group has taken these incredible machines in our explorations, cobble bar riding is simply not much to get excited about.  So it's not that Roman was wrong -- although Eric was certainly right -- so much as just that times have changed.  We know we can ride cobbles -- and we also know there's nothing particularly exciting about them.

We alternately ride and 'schwack through the day, all sort of sensing that the trip is coming to a close -- a rookie trap to fall into before the trip has actually ended.  Past the Nizina confluence the river pushes us up into the willows, then alders, then swamps.  The bugs are ferocious, the day steamy.  Map scrutiny reveals that this 'schwack could last 3 hours -- all to cover less than a mile.  Doom, after energetically leading us through so many others, drops his bike, turns back toward the group and utters "I'm not sure I can do another one of these -- my patience is worn really thin...".  Indeed.

Thus begins the first of many crossings of the Nizina.  This is a big, braided, glacial river that's swollen from the recent rain and snow.  We can wade some of the braids but the boat is necessary to cross several.  Over the next 6+ hours -- we don't stop until past 2AM -- we cover little ground despite constant motion to get across in whatever way makes the most sense.  With hindsight we're certain that we could have ridden 99% of what we already have -- even with a full boating kit per man.  Had we opted in that direction we'd have floated effortlessly past this spot over 2 days ago.

Above, crossing the Nizina at Dan Creek.  Below, the Chugach coming into view downstream.

We're tired, sore, bug bitten, stinky, cranky.  And getting hungrier.  The trip has been amazing, largely because of the challenges.  No one wants to be crossing glacial melt at 2AM in the gloaming subarctic twilight, but with flights to catch in less than 24 hours -- and food more or less gone -- we've run out of options.  We brew and share a thin hoosh then nap a few hours before resuming our slow progress.

A deep, fast braid of the Nizina pushed hard against a rock wall mandates that we pull out the boat.  Again.  So much prior practice makes the crossing go quickly and once on the other side we see -- mercifully -- ATV tracks.  We follow these to May Creek, where an actual road begins.  We take a minute to celebrate the moment, shaking and sharing the last dregs from our snack bags as we transition gear from backs onto bikes for the long climb up to McCarthy.

I'll be back in a few days with a video, some closing thoughts, and -- of course -- some gear geekery on what worked, what didn't, and what I'd do differently if I were to attempt this route again.

Thanks for checkin' in.


  1. Holy cats that is big country. On the goat trail thing, I -think- I would have been riding a lot of the stuff I see photos of the guys walking, but maybe the transition from hiking to riding is a hassle?

    1. Ha. We'd have left you for dead 6 days before... ;)

      Some of that is rideable, sure. Much of it is sketchy -- exposure, much more than the pics show.

      The surface is never as uniform as the pics show. Plus lots of (wet) cobbles, snow in the crevices, and mud stuck to tires. With the end result that sure, you might be able to ride a little, but at what cost if you blow it?

      Last factor is that you're tired. You've been tired for days. Is it worth it to swing a leg over the bike to ride ~100'? Or likely less? Only then to have to swing the leg back over to get back to walking? All knowing that you're walking about as fast as you'd be riding, but you're putting out less effort to walk?

      Only once you've been there (that tired in that scenario) can you understand that last part.

    2. That all makes it much more understandable. Fatigue plus exposure plus limited value. Check.

  2. Is that a lauf fork I see, interested in you opinion of that.


    1. Great fork. Light, durable, plenty stiff, just enough to give yo take the sharp edges off. I really liked it on this trip because it seems tailor made to install a Revelate Jerrycan or Gas Tank on each leg to hold light ride snacks without changing the handling of the bike.

  3. Video makes the difficulty of riding much more clear. Honestly, it seems 50/50 whether the bikes were a benefit or a drag. Question: How necessary are the bike helmets? Do they serve any other functions besides a brain box in case of wreck?

    1. Same function as at home, riding everyday trails: Protection from crash impact, while bashing through veg on little-used animal trails, and from sun for us follicly-challenged folks.