Alaska | Wrangell-Saint Elias Trip Report & Video

The short story:
When I planned the route described in the last post, I gave us a 60% chance of finishing it as it looked on paper. My biggest concern was the weather being not stable enough to go for the full 20 days without too many cold and rainy days. Having observed the Alaskan weather all summer long I hoped for an mild early autumn. In the end we had to bail out of the route earlier than expected, from 12 days in the field it rained on and off for about 7 days. The last 3 days so heavy that we where stuck in the tent for 3 nights. Temperatures dropped, we where just under the snow-line and allready low on food.


(watch on vimeo for higher resolution)

The more detailed one:
Ruth & Brian, a couple from Anchorage I contacted before to arrange a drop-off at Nabesna road end, picked us up and drove us all the way from our hostel in Anchorage out to Nabesna. They continued on their journey to McCarthy and delivered a resupply box for us in town where we would pick it up later in our trek.
At the road end we said „good-bye“ and shouldered our packs following an atv track towards the old Nabesna Mine. At a „private property-do not enter“ sign at the side close after the mine, we veered off into the bush to our left. I said to my dad that this will be the last trail we would see for a while, trying to find a way through dense scrub. Later as we gained a little bit of elevation we got into the forest where walking was a bit easier than before. I checked the GPS every now and then to make sure we are heading in the right direction towards the Jacksina Creek, which we wanted to reach that night and start rafting out the next morning. Later the Jacksina would confluence with the Nabesna River.
As we came closer to the river, it got dark already. We tried to find a way down to the river for about an hour but the cliffs where just to steep. I hoped it would be just a matter of time till we would find a small ravine between the cliffs to climb down. For today we decided to use the last daylight for finding an proper campspot and have dinner. As the last tent peg was in the ground I noticed that big old tree hanging into an other just above our tent. I hoped that it would last another night and left camp in safe distance to fire our gas stove. If the tree would drop in the middle of the night and rip our tent or batter us this would have been an early ending of the trip.
The night passed very silently, the tree was still over our heads and soon after breakfast we where ready to go. Eager to find a place where we can drop down to the river and start rafting. We followed the cliff for a litte longer and found a place where the drop looked possible. We tried it and minutes later we where inflating our rafts on the riverbank. My father never pack rafted before, but had experience with larger rafts and kayak. I was not concerned that he could fail in the packraft.

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The river was not too fast but also not too slow to be boring, the main challenge for both of us was to not hit the low water channels. Because of the silty water it is impossible to see the ground and so we had to climb out of the boat to drag the raft into deeper channels quite often.
After about two hours on the river we where at the Nabesna confluence. We looked at each other and asked at the same time „is it a good idea to keep paddling into this?“ The Nabesna was that big and we felt very tiny in our small rafts. I could see more sandbanks in the distance and as long as there are sandbanks we felt kind of safe. So we paddled on. What else could we do. We found a rhythm with the river quite fast and just continued rafting downstream. The Nabesna is a fast river and it did not take too long till we came to that area where we thought to be at the right spot for the ascent towards Cooper Pass.

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We hiked up dry riverbeds, along glacial moraines, through meadows and dense forests, every now and then we could also follow game trails. My anticipation to see our first bear grew with every pile of bear scat on the ground.I think our very regular „hey bear“ yells helped to scare them away long before they came in viewing distance.

On day 4 we arrived in Chisana, a tiny settlement and remainder from the gold rush area only accessible by airplane or foot. Nowadays it is home for hunting excursions and a few people who chose to life off the grid. A day before Chisana we met one camouflage suited hunter on a horse searching for another party of hunters (which we have not seen). Another one in „town“ and two other persons who where going for the mailplane on a quad. We stayed one night in the public cabin right in town, fired the oven and dried our stuff while listening to the rain dripping on the cabin roof. We hiked out the next morning, hoping for improving weather during the day.

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4 hours into the hike leading up a riverbed the rain got stronger, so the river. We could not really cross the river anymore to gain elevation so going around it in the bush was the only option left. Further up (about 10mi from Chisana) I spotted a roof on the left side. It was raining and cold and we where of course curious. Soon we found ourselves on a trail leading to a hut which was not in the maps. So we where sure it is not a forest service hut. It was unlocked and to our surprise unlocked (and well stocked). I am not going into details here. We stayed a night, had some cans of fresh fruit, left money and a letter on the table and where gone by the early morning the next day towards Solo Mountain. (Gabriel, why did you bring this flag?)

Despite the rain, the hiking was great. Good views, open tundra. No more riverbeds for now. As we approached Solo Mtn Hut the rain got stronger again. Luckily another night under a roof. Solo Mtn Hut is a very rustic cabin but the roof was leakproof. I spent the rest of the afternoon reading the hutbook, where legends like Roman Dial, Andrew Skurka and friends from Austria left their entries years before. While doing so my dad was gathering wood from the riverbed and surprisingly spotted Moose up river. We observed it for minutes before it ran off towards the hills behind.

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Next morning was just beautiful. Clear blue skies, views on big mountains and glaciers and the best thing to look at, a fresh snow line above the tundra. We where eager to hike again in good weather and continued our trek towards the Solo Mtn airfield. Looking at the map it made no sense to loose all the elevation and hiking out the valley to the airfield and so I thought it might be a better idea to cut off to the right and to bushwhack down to the river which we had to follow upstream towards Skolai Pass. So we did. The trek through the bush down the side of the mountain was strenuous but despite the good weather conditions still a good option.

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We where more than happy that the weather finally turned great! But little did we know. The next morning clouds where moving in again. We could hike another full day in dry conditions all the way up Skolai Pass where we found a good spot to camp. It was really calm this evening. No wind. not to cold and I was confident that the weather would become good again for our final leg on the Goat Trail towards McCarthy. In the middle of the night I awoke to heavy rainfall and gusts of wind hitting the silnylon of our tent. I just hoped the stakes in the ground would keep our dwelling save till the morning. The weather did not change for 3 days. We where stuck in the field. As far as I knew, most of the Goat Trail was higher in elevation and exposed. So I was not very comfortable with the thought that all we have for shelter up there is a wet tent. The risk of getting hypothermic was too high for me to take also thinking of my dad. I know I am able to move for 20 hours or longer if I had to, but this was too big of an risk for both of us.

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We had to make a decision, with about 5 days away from the nearest town of McCarthy but only 3 days of food left it was clear, that we had to think of an Plan B. I knew somewhere here is the Skolai Air-Field where hikers can get to per plane and start their trek towards McCarthy on the Goat Trail. A route frequented more often than anything else in Wrangells. Our map was a bit outdated so the air-field was not in the place the map showed. There was just an old barn with dry wood (we used as shelter) and rusted chevron barrels (great as seats) in it. So we had no idea where the „new“ airfield was neither how to contact one of McCarthys pilots to get us out of here. Suddenly we saw that plane going low over our heads and started waving. We watched the plane and because of his low route we knew the field must be somewhere „around the corner“ but still too far to go and have a look. My father hiked up the hill a bit and spotted a group of hikers with his binocolars ( a nice to have tool up here). Without the field glas we would not have been able to see them, even it was just on the other side of the valley. I knew that was our chance. So I ran across the valley for about 20 minutes and found, somewhere along the hills and brush a group of hikers. To our advantage they had a Delorme inReach device and where able to send a text to McCarthy Mountain Air. We set up a pick up for tomorrow and got that confirmed within minutes! Thanks!

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We spent a couple of days in McCarthy, rafting the McCarthy Creek and discussing what to do. I knew I had to let my dad make the decision on continuing or not. With the weather ahead, I was not disappointed of his decision of not continuing. Rafting in rain with 2°C down a river as large as the Copper River made no sense to us at all.

I knew that for this trip I have to queue behind my own expectations and goals a bit but it was still a cool trip for both of us.
I am still impressed how vast and quiet the landscapes are up there and will be definitely back for more someday.

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Regarding the Gear we used, I only would change one thing. Bringing a two way communication device such as the DeLorme inreach or a Satphone instead of the spot (which is still better than nothing)

Watch the full set of picture on my flickr account

2 Responses

  1. Sehr cool Matthias, und auch Respekt für Deinen Vater Dich auf so ein Abenteuer zu begleiten!

    1. November 2015 at 14:21

    • Matthias

      Vielen Dank Hendrik, auch für die Erwähnung im TWIR, much appreciated.

      1. November 2015 at 16:25

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