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Competitors brave backcountry in Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic

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Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 11:51 pm | Updated: 12:49 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — It’s not every day that competitors in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic go too fast, which is why Luc Mehl, Brad Marden and Eben Sargent wanted to take advantage of the situation for as long as they could, even if it meant bodily harm.

Sliding down the frozen reaches of upper Ernie Creek, which pours out of an area known as the Valley of the Precipices in the heart of the Brooks Range, the trio of Anchorage skiers found themselves wrestling with a very un-Classic-like dilemma — they were going too fast for their own good.

With a 25 mph tailwind was pushing them down what was essentially a luge run, they had a hard time maintaining control even with sharp metal edges on their skis.

“We’d aim for bushes or little patches of snow that we could check our speed on,” Mehl said. “With that tailwind it felt like if you fell the wind would push you until you hit a rock or a hole.

“I counted a couple of times and with one double pole stroke you could go 100 to 200 feet,” he said. “The wind was blowing that hard and the ice was that smooth.”

Marden described it this way.

“It almost felt like whitewater boating more than skiing,” he said. “There’s a (downhill) gradient and you’re choosing your eddies, which in this case were snow patches.”

It was a matter of “pick your landing pad,” Marden said.

Mehl and Marden estimated the skiers hit speeds of 20 mph on some of the steepest, smoothest stretches.

Considering skiers are usually lucky to average 2 mph on a good day in the Classic, a 150- to 200-mile backcountry ski race with no checkpoints, no trail and no resupply points, that is not necessarily a bad thing, at least until it gets too dark to see what’s in front of you.

That’s what happened at 1 a.m.

“We eventually got to the point where the ice was continuous enough that we couldn’t see beyond it and it was getting steeper,” Mehl said. “All we could see was fast ice. There weren’t any safe zones as far as checking our speed.”

So the three skiers did the only thing they could. With no tent — they opted not to bring one for weight purposes — they had no choice but to seek refuge behind the only shelter they could find.

“We found three big boulders below a cliff and burrowed in for four hours,” Mehl said. “We just threw our pads down and curled up and tried to get some sleep.”

While the boulders helped block the wind, they didn’t prevent spindrift — swirling snow as a result of the wind — from finding its way into the openings of their sleeping bags, which made for a fitful few hours sleep, if you can call it that.

Such is life in the Wilderness Classic, Alaska’s longest — and only — unsupported, winter human-powered race. Marden, a two-time finisher, describes it as “a camping trip without the amenities.”

Qualified success

This year’s Classic started April 3 at Galbraith Lake, 350 miles north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway. From there, racers headed west toward Anaktuvuk Pass. From Anaktuvuk Pass, there basically two options: 1) Backtrack 25 miles to Ernie Pass and go down Ernie Creek to the North Fork of the Koyukuk River and follow it 50 miles before turning off to Wiseman; or 2) go down the Tineyguk River to the point it connects with the North Fork.

Of the 14 competitors who started this year’s race, Mehl, Marden and Sargent were the only ones to complete the entire course from Galbraith Lake to Anaktuvuk Pass to Wiseman.

Only one other racer — Andrew Cyr of Fairbanks — managed to make it to Anaktuvuk Pass, a remote village where racers were required to sign in, but he stopped there and called in a plane to fly him out.

The remaining 10 competitors, for various reasons, all chose to bypass Anaktuvuk Pass and ski down the North Fork of the Koyukuk River to Wiseman, a decision that cut approximately 50 miles off the route but also essentially disqualified them from the race.

Even so, race organizer Dave Cramer, who was one of the racers who bypassed Anaktuvuk, deemed this year’s Classic a success.

“Everybody skied a hell of a long ways through some rough country,” Cramer said.

It was the second straight Classic victory for both Mehl. Last year, he and partner John Pekar won the race going down the Tinayguk River. Marden, who traveled with them to Anaktuvuk Pass before backtracking to ski down the North Fork, ended up catching up to and finishing with Mehl and Pekar but disqualified himself for accepting assistance in Anaktuvuk to repair a broken ski binding. Racers are not allowed to accept assistance from anyone except other racers.

Different route

This year, Mehl said he wanted to travel through the Gates of the Arctic, a pair of towering, rocky peaks on both sides of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River that is the prominent feature in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

While backtracking 25 miles from Anaktuvuk Pass wasn’t necessarily fun, it was worth it to ski through the Gates of the Arctic, Mehl said.

“The Gates were awesome,” said Mehl. “That was definitely the highlight for us.”

Mehl, Marden and Sargent finished in 4 days, 13 hours and 30 minutes, which was about four hours faster than the time Mehl and Pekar clocked last year even though the route was 20 miles longer.

The faster time was because racers didn’t have to break trail for the final 50 miles of the race after turning off the North Fork because a group of five women from Denali Park who had skied from Anaktuvuk Pass to Wiseman had done it for them, an effort they were extremely grateful for.

“If we would have had to break trail over that it would have added at least 12 hours to our time,” Mehl predicted. “It would have really slowed us down,”

Mehl, Marden and Sargent managed to make it over Ernie Pass before the winds that stalled other racers picked up. By the time they reached Anaktuvuk Pass, signed in and backtracked to Ernie Pass, their tracks were wiped out by the wind, Mehl said.

“We just snuck through a six-hour window,” he said.

Avalanche worries

Ned Rozell and Michael Gibson, a pair of Classic veterans from Fairbanks, ran into trouble going up Peregrine Pass that altered their plans to go to Anaktuvuk. As they began climbing up the pass, which Rozell described as “a low spot in a knife-edged ridge,” they realized a screw on one of Gibson’s three-pin ski bindings was loose.

They also started hearing “whumping” noises as a result of the snow settling, a sign of potential avalanche danger. A foot of fresh snow had fallen by the time they got there, Rozell said.

The two skiers decided to retreat in order to repair Gibson’s binding and try again the next day.

“We went to bed that night and woke up in the morning at 7 o’clock and couldn’t see anything,” Rozell said.

They waited a few hours for the weather to clear and by that time a train of five other racers — Dave Cramer, Rob Kehrer, Yoshi Nishiyama, Andy Sterns and Chris Zwolinski — caught up to them. They all agreed turning down the North Fork would be the wise choice.

“By not going up (Peregrine Pass) the first time we kind of lost a day there,” Rozell said. “We knew if we went to Anaktuvuk there was a good chance we’d pull the plug and fly out.”

Even though he and Gibson didn’t complete the course, Rozell said the ski from Galbraith Lake to Wiseman was a great trip. It took them 6 1/2 days to reach Wiseman.

Along the way they saw a group of several hundred caribou on the north side of the range and a pack of five wolves just before they hit the North Fork. They also saw tracks made by grizzly bears, lynx, wolverines and wolves.

Skiing through the Gates of the Arctic was an experience he won’t forget, Rozell said.

Humbling experience

The rookie team of Thomas Bailly, Doug Jewel and Miles Rainey actually hit the ice on Ernie Creek before Mehl, Marden and Sargent because they bypassed Anaktuvuk Pass. At first, they welcomed the ice because it meant they didn’t have to break trail. After a few miles, though, they weren’t so sure

“You’d start picking up speed and have no control,” Bailly said. “You’d kind of let go and cruise and hit a patch of snow and hope you slowed down.”

They weren’t surprised when Mehl, Marden and Sargent overtook them the next day as they skied down the North Fork.

“What Luc and those guys did was awesome,” Bailly said. “They went longer days and had shorter nights.”

Bailly, an experienced backcountry and mountain skier, described his first Classic as a “humbling” experience.

“That race definitely changes your pespectives on mileage,” said Bailly, who prior to the race didn’t think it would be hard to travel 40 miles a day. “It’s one thing to bust out mileage and sleep at home or bust out mileage on a nicely goomed trail. It’s another thing to bust out mileage when you’re skiing over glare ice, overflow, fresh snow and up and down mountains.”

Even so, Bailly described the Classic as “an awesome experience.” Now that the swelling has gone down in his feet and his blisters are healed, he’s even thinking about doing it again.

“During the race I told myself I have to remember how awful I feel now so I won’t do this again but I’ve done enough outside suffering where you say, Why am I doing this; I can’t wait to be done, and then you get done and you think it’s great,” he said.

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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