mount brooks attempt - Denali national park - july 2015
As part of my 2015 Alaska adventure, Jayme and I met up with Alex who lives in Fairbanks to attempt to climb Mount Brooks in the northern part of the Alaska Range. Chris gave us a ride from Anchorage to Denali National Park and the next morning we took the nice bus ride to Wonder Lake. It rained the entire afternoon as we socialized with others under the shelter playing cards. As the rains died off, the clouds parted, and we saw the late evening sun hitting Denali off to the south. It was a beautiful evening.
The next morning, the three of us hiked the short two miles to the McKinley Bar and spent the next 2 hours working our way across the McKinley River. Most of the braids we crossed were manageable but two of them near the center were very challenging. We had to go in a train of three and walk sideways across as the water level went above my waist. It was probably one of the scariest things I've done, and a local from WA actually died crossing a river further north in Gates of the Arctic less than a week after we crossed the McKinley.
After making it across, we amazingly found the faint trail heading south towards Ostler Pass. We were able to follow it easily, through buggy Alaskan bush under overcast skies to Clearwater Creek, which was a cakewalk compared to the crossing we did earlier. It was at most knee deep, and clear! A few miles beyond this crossing we made camp near Cache Creek.
We woke up to beautiful clear skies and continued up along Cache Creek. It was a long flat slog through thick bushes at times when we lost the faint trail. Once we made it closer to treeline though it opened up. As the afternoon progressed we made a gentle ascent up to Ostler Pass where we were greeted with jaw dropping views of the northern Alaskan Range. We were truly on the outside looking in standing on the top of the huge moraine formed by the mighty Muldrow Glacier, which lie 400 feet below us, separating us from the heart of the range. Merely foothills we were standing on as the mountains across the glacier from us were 5000+ feet higher and covered in steep hanging glaciers. The dark shale of which the high peaks are composed of made it look eerie against the late afternoon sun. Jayme would make camp here and relax for 2 days while Alex and I pressed on. That same evening we made the crossing of the Muldrow Glacier, jumping over small rivers on the ice, and traversing boulder strewn glacier until we finally reached the base of Brooks' north ridge around 11:30 PM. The vibrant sunset colors were unlike anything I've ever seen. Deep red and orange on the clouds were unparalleled, so much that I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I will never forget that evening as it was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. Little did I know, we were in for a surprise.
There is an old saying that goes something like this:
"Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in morning, sailor's warning"
While this generally holds true, and I had it in the back of my mind during that amazing sunset, the exact opposite can also happen, especially in the Alaska Range where weather can come in from any direction, and how the sun "sets" in the north it throws everything amiss. Unfortunately, the opposite did occur, and it occurred with vengeance! For the next 60 hours it rained on us nonstop. We woke the next morning to rain and very low visibility, so bad actually we couldn't see Ostler Pass across the glacier. We didn't even leave the tent. Well, I did once to contemplate whether or not I should take just a little bit of the 20 bear cans of food that was air dropped at some point within the last week. It was just sitting there with no one to ever know if a couple candy bars were to mysteriously disappear! Against the demands of my dying hungry insides, it took all my will power to not touch it.
As the long day passed, Alex and I lay in the tent unable to sleep. We agreed to made a single push attempt leaving at 4am the next morning. I told Jayme we would be back no later than the morning of the third day after we separated. I was sure she was enjoying the rain on the flip side of the glacier...or not
So 4am came after our second night camped by the smorgasbord, and in a lighter rain, we started ascending the sh##ty talus on the lower ridge. After an hour and a half we made it to the camp about 1800 feet up on the ridge, just before the first permanent snowfields. Room for just a couple tents in a small flat section of ridge, we took a break here to clean out our wet shoes and prepare for entering a thick fog. The wet rock on the ridgecrest started to get covered in a snow dusting, making travel even more difficult on an ever increasing exposure level. When snow began falling harder, we stopped in a small rock cove and decided to see if we could wait it out a bit. I got into my sleeping bag and Alex put on all his rain gear and we waited...
waited for over 5 hours, until early afternoon came around and it was getting worse. We bailed and returned to the tent soaked. We wasted no time getting in and drying off, and agreed we would wait until the next morning to cross the glacier back to Ostler Pass. After another night of heavy rain, which didn't stop, we were forced to begin the crossing back in the rain. I was very thankful to have my nylon pack cover, which kept my gear dry. We retraced our steps back to Ostler Pass in a constant drenching rain. The 4 or 5 rivers on the ice we had to jump over coming in were just as harrowing to jump across going out. We had to find a spot where the ice was undercut, allowing us easier jumps.
Once we got back to Jayme, she was reading in the tent, only leaving her stoop in the short dry spells. She actually went up to the top of McGregor Peak that first day after we left during a longer dry spell, and was the only person on the trip to summit anything haha. Alex pressed on starting down Ostler Pass while Jayme and I packed up. Finally, just as we started down from the pass, the rain let up!
Slowly making our way down, we emerged out of the fog and the rain slowly stopped. It was here we saw a lone caribou in the valley. We continued back to Clearwater Creek, and upon arriving, it had quintupled in flow. All three of us immediately decided "f*ck that" and turned right, and decided to take a different route back, since we knew crossing the McKinley wasn't going to happen again.
10 miles of completely off trail hiking over tussiks, spongy ground cover and dense bushes we reached a tiny pond with a small bit of hard ground slightly elevated from the surrounding terrain. We fit 2 tents here and when we walked to the pond to get water, it stunk like smoke! The rain took the smoke particles out of the air from all the wildfires ravishing through Alaska over that very dry spring, and deposited them into all the waterways!
The taste was so bad, even after boiling for 10 minutes I couldn't drink it. Jayme and Alex though, who suffered a much greater thirst than myself, had no choice. I was way more hungry than anything else. Later in the evening, we finally saw rays of sun once again, and my camera saw the light of day after a near 72 hour hiatus.
We dried off our gear the next morning, in the pleasant sunshine. I couldn't believe our conservative 2.5 day window to climb Mount Brooks, which we could have done in one day, was entirely ruined by constant rain! I guess that's Alaska...
We had another long day ahead of us as we had to walk east for a long time, as we heard about another crossing of the Muldrow Glacier across from Green Point via Pirate Creek, and a better cross country route back towards Eielson Visitor Center. This allowed us to return back to the north side of the McKinley river by crossing the lower part of the Muldrow glacier (ice is better than a raging river!). We made it to a nice flat gravel bar at the mouth of Intermittent Stream, which flowed nicely that evening giving us clean water. The next morning however, it was indeed gone. The sunrise and sunset on Denali was especially vibrant from here, and we even saw the first people in nearly a week in this area since we neared the visitor center.
For our 7th and final day out, we finished our return hike back to the Denali Park road where we fell to the ground and napped while we waited for the next bus. One final soaking of the feet was in order merely a minute from the road, which pissed Jayme off just enough haha. Waiting on the road was painful, as 5 buses were going in before we caught the first one headed out.
I bless the person who succumbed her food to me...I gave her the look of "give me that food you have or else" and she obliged....maybe it wasn't that evil but regardless, I got some food to prevent me from starving to death on the long bus ride back. We even saw a future bear being made, just moments after the female abandoned her just old enough cub to fend for himself.
A very large pizza may have been consumed in short order after getting back to Alex's truck, who was nice enough to drive us to Fairbanks, where our next adventure awaited...