Success should not always be measured in miles skied, peaks summited, or elevation gained. The wilds of Alaska continue to define me. Its daunting year round landscape provides challenges to last a lifetime. My years in Alaska have only honed my skills and sharpened my senses in the outdoors. Yet its times like this I’m humbled by her and forced to rethink what I call a successful backcountry trip. Is success simply spending two enjoyable days skiing with a friend. Or learning the way snow falls in new mountains. In the most morbid sense, success is merely returning home alive.
Did we complete the 3 day, 40 mile trip I had planned? No. Did we reach both cabins I had reserved for us? No. I hate to sound cliché, but if you measured success in these terms- we failed. One of the things I love most about Alaska is while she crushes your ego with raw elemental force; she builds you back up in her beauty. Alaska is always true to herself. Daunting. Deep. Unembellished while teeming with elegance and charisma. I find humility in the vigilant way this landscape lives and grows in the truest sense. Forcing those pursing her wilds to be always ready, as she is ever present.
It started as a three-day cross-country skiing tour of the While Mountains. We were planning to ski the Wickersham Dome to Summit Trail. Eight miles the first day to the Summit Trail Shelter. Day two called for 12 miles out the Summit Trail intersecting with the Wickersham Creek Trail, and arriving at a cabin I reserved, the Borealis-LaFouvre Cabin. Then, our third and final day we were to ski 20 miles along the Wickersham Creek Trail back to the Elliot Highway mile 28 parking lot. I knew the Summit Trail was the only non-motorized trail we would travel. I believed this trail to be groomed a couple times a season as well as highly traveled, I was wrong.
The first two miles of the Wickersham Dome trail were spectacular. Rolling well-traveled trails over a couple domes before arriving on the summit ridge of the Wickersham Dome. After another mile we were breaking crust on a windy exposed ridge. Despite the Elliot Highway still being visible, I felt committed to our pursuit of the Summit Shelter. This is the point my research failed. We dropped into dense spruce forests with waist deep sugary faceted snow. Even with skis on we were post-holing strait through to the frozen tundra below. The progress was exhausting and painstakingly slow. I think we traveled less than three miles in about eight hours. As the darkness enveloped us so to our goal of reaching the shelter became dimmer and dimmer. At 10:30pm Saturday night we made the call to stop, melt snow into water, and attempt to eat our first real meal of the day. After 13 hours trudging along we were exhausted, dehydrated, and in need of calories. The conversation quickly turned to our chances of surviving the night bivouacked here in the woods. I know I’m very naïve of others feelings at times, and overly confident of my own self in the outdoors. Surely both, because I wasn’t scared for a second about having to camp here, exposed, under the Arctic midnight. My partner had doubts. Maybe he had a better grasp of the gravity of the situation then me. I feel decisions such as those we had to make are shaped by experience. Several other situations came to mind where either I, or my Dad, made similar decisions. Trudge beyond fatigue and exhaustion to a safer location. Or, to the best of your ability, make this site safe as possible with any means available. Despite oncoming snow flurries and frigid temperatures, I opted to stay. Rest, food, water, and the warmth of a sleeping bag seemed to take precedent over continuing into the unknown. Despite being only 1.31 miles away, according to my GPS, that trek could take hours, in the dark, through unfamiliar territory. As I tried to melt snow and begin cooking food Scott collected wood and built a fire. The decision to build a fire was Scotts alone. I’m glad he was there, because it was a really good decision. I probably wouldn’t have built a fire were it not for him. The fire became an emblem of hope. “We can make it if we have fire.” I soon learned Jet Boil stoves don’t work very well in sub-zero temperatures. With a nearby camp fire, the Jet Boil began efficiently burning the containerized fuel allowing us to melt snow quicker and prepare dinner.
Quickly clouds moved in. Throughout the night we were dusted with fresh snow. I awoke in my sleeping bag several times over night, slightly chilled. Enshrouded in my cocoon it was hard to get up, knowing my ski boots were probably frozen. I cringed thinking about cramming my warm foot into a cold frozen boot. As I lay in my bivy sack, I yelled across our snow pit, briefing Scott- “Once we get up, we need to hustle. Right now we’re comfortable, in about 10 minutes we’re going to be freezing. Hands numb as we pack our bags. Toes blocks of ice as we move about in frozen boots. Just know the faster we get packed, the sooner we’ll be on the trail, moving along, warming ourselves back up. Don’t worry, it’s all part of winter camping.”
Dawn Sunday morning brought clear skies and fresh snow on everything. Scott and I quickly discussed our options as we packed our bags. Trudge another 1.3 miles to the shelter, then possibly five to six more miles down to the motorized trail, or follow our already broken trail back to the parking lot. I felt lost giving up on my expedition so easily. The 40 mile loop in my mind, the measure of success for this trip, had vanished. It was time to let common sense prevail, and consider returning via the known safe route. With little debate, we both decided to turn around. What took 13 hours Saturday, only took 8 hours backtracking the same route Sunday. In the densest of trees and deepest of snow the already broken trail was glorious. Atop the exposed domes our trail from the day before had already blown away. Leaving only hard crust that we quickly skated across.
My feelings of defeat turned to glory as we crested the Wickersham Dome. The midday sun shone through frozen spruce trees. The surface of the snow glazed over with a thin wind hammered slab. It was so hard my ski poles could not penetrate the surface. As we skied closer to our final destination, the sun began setting. Unlike the night before, when I had pull out my headlamp navigating the dark woods, trying to find a shelter- now I knew we would reach the truck before twilight. I enjoyed the orange, pink, and purple glow illuminated across the frozen White Mountains. All the clouds had lifted revealing the surrounding mountains. Endlessly the landscape lifted and fell in all directions. They were not jagged peaks but mountainous domes, rising above the valleys below. Tapering off into the great beyond. I wondered if on a clear day I could see the Yukon River from here, at least a hundred miles to the North. Despite fatigue growing and growing, the last 3 miles were enjoyable- with sun setting, fast trails, and a fun descent off Wickersham dome. I felt as if once again it had been a successful trip, until discovering the beers in the bed of my truck had frozen…