Unabridged Adventure in the Wrangell Mountains
The Wrangells didn’t follow our plan, but we realized a first class adventure was guaranteed when our bush pilot looked like Merle Haggard.
In early May, Gary Green’s Pilatus Porter shrank to a speck on the horizon above Skolai Pass, and then the mountain silence surrounded us. Dylan Taylor, Danny Uhlmann and I were left standing on the desert-like Solo airstrip in the eastern Wrangell Mountains. We had skis, food for 10 days, a pile of maps and a heap of curiosity. This was our first visit to the Wrangells, a high and glaciated range that juts north from the Saint Elias Mountains in Alaska.
Carrying our skis, we hiked to skiable auffice (overflow ice) and skied all day along the Middle Fork and camped among rubble at the glacier terminus. The next day we skied a thin coating of snow over glacier ice into a steep-walled cirque until a ground storm stopped us. The wind howled all night and loaded the dramatic ski terrain with hairtrigger avalanche slabs. Encased and trapped by avalanche slopes, we searched the basin for two days for an escape route — often retreating from whumphing faces and sometimes releasing avalanches from hundreds of feet away.
Eventually we found a 9,000-foot sneak to the Chisana Glacier, but there we discovered a new hazard—crevasses. Not just regular crevasses, but little, hidden and nasty crevasses that kept us roped together like sled dogs. In silent, pink twilight we crossed the vast Chisana neve and camped at 8,700 feet looking across to Mount Bona (16,421’) and Mount Churchill (15,638’). The next day we continued searching for thicker snow. Anything to bridge the crevasses and subdue the avalanches, but the crevasses just became deeper and more hungry and the lurking avalanches waiting to stuff us into those terrifying slots. Trapped, we searched the maps for an escape route. We gambled on taking the Nizina Glacier out toward the mining-gone hippy town of McCarthy.
We skied 25 miles down the Nizina Glacier, skated across the new pro-glacial lake and crested a terminal moraine to see a sight of staggering beauty. The vast Nizina floodplain stretched out and around the corner to McCarthy. For two days we walked together down the tundra-coated cobbles, stumbling as we watched dramatic patterns on the limestone walls and iceflows appear in the steep canyons between. When the river banked hard against the mountains we bushwacked on bear trails, dragging our skis in the duff. But somehow the irony and agony of carrying skis was subdued by the crippling beauty of Alaska. Late in the evening we walked into McCarthy. A week before tourist season, the town was silent.
Compared to our Big Idea, the trip was a non-event. Our plan was not to dodge avalanches, tiptoe over crevasses and take our skis for a stroll. But we didn’t feel cheated. In many ways our trip went exactly as planned. In Alaska plans are often just talking points. The real objective is the unknown and the plan is no plan. Except for one plan… I’ll be visiting the Wrangells again real soon.
See more of Joe’s photos at: www.stockalpine.com/posts/wrangell-ski-tour.html