FAIRBANKS - The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic is returning to the Brooks Range this year, and the move to a more northern route has spurred considerable interest in Alaska’s longest, unsupported backcountry race.
Event organizer Dave Cramer said the field for the 23rd annual Wilderness Classic, scheduled to start on April 4, is approaching the 20-racer limit.
“I’ve got a lot more interest than expected,” Cramer, from Tok, said. “We’re just about maxed out right now.”
The Wilderness Classic will start on April 4 at Galbraith Lake at Mile 261 of the Dalton Highway and finish at the Arctic Getaway Bed & Breakfast in Wiseman at Mile 189. Racers aren’t allowed to use the road and all travel must be self-propelled and self-contained.
A permit from the National Park Service — the course travels through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve — allows 25 racers but Cramer has always capped it at 20 competitors.
“We’ve never had to enforce that,” he said of the cap. “We’ve always had some dropouts before the races starts.”
This year, though, Cramer already has 19 competitors on the race rosters and the application deadline isn’t until March 31.
“This year more people are coming out of the woodwork than in the past,” he said. “I think we’re going to be right at the upper limit.”
About half the field is new to the Wilderness Classic, Cramer said. There are racers from Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and even the Lower 48, he said.
This year’s route is similar to the one used from 2004 to 2006 — the Wilderness Classic course changes every three years — with one exception: A mandatory check-in has been added in the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, which will add 25 to 30 miles to the route.
With the addition of a mandatory check-in at Anaktuvuk Pass, this year’s route will be about 150 miles, Cramer said.
The Anaktuvuk check-in was added to provide more variation to the previous route, which Cramer called “pretty straightforward by Wilderness Classic standards.”
“I wanted to tweak it a little bit,” Cramer said. “It’s a challenging addition to the mix.”
Racers won’t be able to re-supply or camp inside at Anaktuvuk Pass, he said.
The biggest challenge with the new course will be a steep descent to the Tinayguk River from Anaktuvuk Pass, Cramer said. Racers will have to climb over Ernie Pass to reach the village. The Wilderness Classic followed a similar route to Anaktuvuk Pass in the 1990s, Cramer said.
But the Brooks Range route isn’t as technical as the glacier-filled routes racers had to take the past three years on the route through the Wrangell Mountains from Nabesna to McCarthy.
“The routes into McCarthy are intrinsically harder (than the Brooks Range route),” Cramer agreed.
The one thing the Brooks Range route might have more of is overflow, he said.
“There’s more potential for overflow in the Brooks Range,” Cramer said. “Every year we’ve done the race in the Brooks Range people have gotten wet.”
Like most other places in the state this winter, the Brooks Range doesn’t have much snow. With lots of river travel on the route, lack of snow shouldn’t be a huge issue, Cramer said.
“I’m hoping to get a little bit of snow before things kick off,” he said.