2014 Alaska (2/2): Eastern Alaska Range Traverse II

Places Alaska. Eastern Alaska Range: Fielding Lake – Robertson River Bridge
Time & length September 2014, 2 weeks
Partners Keith Earley
After a full summer of guiding clients in Alaska, I finally went on a personal trip through the eastern Alaska Range with my friend Keith. We started close to Fielding Lake on the Richardson Highway and crossed several rivers and glaciers on our way east. In a total whiteout we put on our snow shoes and hiked over a glaciated pass before we ended up on the north side of the range and followed the Robertson River all the way to the Alaska Highway.

My guiding season ended on September 13. That day I flew from Deadhorse to Anchorage and got picked up by Keith, who brought me to his home in Palmer, where he lives with his wife Bev. Keith and Bev have been very good friends of mine since they first picked me up hitchhiking in 2010 when I was on my way to my very first hike in Alaska.

My goal was to complete the eastern Alaska Range traverse I started last year with my friend Katharina from Austria. With her I hiked from Healy to the Richardson Highway at Black Rapids but couldn’t continue all the way to Tok due to heavy snowfalls. Now Keith and I tried to complete the missing section, starting just north of Summit Lake at the Richardson Highway. To make sure snow wouldn’t stop us again this year, both of us brought a pair of snowshoes and plenty of enthusiasm, so we would overcome whatever circumstances might get in our way.

We left Palmer in the morning of September 16 and started our hike in the afternoon of the same day. The sky was covered in black clouds when we reached our first campsite at the Hoodoos, but we were both greatly motivated and were looking forward to what was lying ahead of us. For me it was the only private trip this summer – and I couldn’t wait to be not guiding but do and act whatever I felt like for a while. For Keith it was one of the biggest adventures he had ever prepared for – and preparation is something he takes very seriously. In order to get ready for this hike, he climbed up and down over ten thousand stories in the hotels he gets to stay in during his job as a FedEx pilot. He additionally worked out at the gym regularly to strengthen his muscular system, his skeleton, ligaments and joints. Keith was fit.

The second night we camped at the Gakona Glacier, which we started crossing the morning after. It was Keith’s first actual glacier crossing ever – at first he was a bit skeptical but trusted my route finding skills and soon enjoyed the walk on ice and moraine. It was a great day!

Technically the crossing wasn’t that difficult. There were several medial moraines and of course two bigger lateral moraines to get over, but it could have been much harder, we thought.

On September 19 we reached the western end of the Chistochina Glacier, which we traversed the next day. On its top there was plenty of ice left, but on its lower parts we were mostly travelling on gravel and moraine. We eventually pitched our tent at a lake at the glacier’s eastern end.

September 21 was a relatively easy day. We followed a dirt road which presumably has been built to support the seasonally active mining operations south of us.

The next morning we had to make a decision. We were at the upper Slana River and now had two options: the easiest way to our destination was hiking over Gillet Pass and down into the Tok River drainage. The more difficult option was a much higher pass, 1,850 meters above sea level, covered in glaciers and snow. That nameless pass leads over to the north side of the Alaska Range and down to Rumble Creek and the Robertson River. The weather was marginal: deep clouds and low temperatures made it look like we would be getting more snow very soon.

We still opted for the bigger challenge and decided to try the glaciated pass. At least we wanted to climb up to where we would almost reach the continental divide, camp and hope for better visibility the next morning.

When we woke up the next day, the weather improved for a couple of hours and we were able to see the pass. It looked difficult but doable. When we had almost reached the pass, the weather changed and we found ourselves in a total whiteout. That didn’t make our operation any safer, but we still loved being up there – what a great experience!

The descent was admittedly quite dangerous: fresh snow covered the crevasses and we had to be extremely careful not to fall into them. I went first and actually almost fell through the snow into a completely covered crevasse – fortunately my arms got stuck in the snow before it was too late and I was able to climb out of the danger zone. Normally one would bring crampons, ice axes, harnesses and a rope on such endeavors. Although we had to take a few risks, Keith and I both agreed that this day was the highlight of the entire trip. We had such a great time on those two glaciers! Late in the day we reached Rumble Creek and made camp in the valley.

The last four days went like clockwork. We were now north of the range and had “Interior” weather: blue skies and low temperatures. We had to cross Rumble Creek and the Robertson River countless times in order to avoid most of the brush on both sides of the water, but after a while our feet got used to the cold. Every morning began with a little shock when we put on our frozen boots after we watched the northern lights bouncing around in temperatures of -12°C at night. Honestly that’s just how we like it: cold and dry.

In the evening of September 27 we reached the Robertson River Bridge and started hitchhiking back to Glennallen, where Keith had parked his car. One day later we arrived home in Palmer and celebrated our return in old tradition – with pizza and beer. Two days later I left Alaska and flew back to Vienna.

For me this trip was the perfect end of the season – the route we picked had so much to offer and the weather was almost perfect (yes, I also enjoyed the whiteout on our last pass!). Keith and I got along perfectly; he is a great hiking partner and I’m glad he was with me on this one.

For Keith this was an adventure of a lifetime. During our journey he told me that he hadn’t felt that kind of freedom since he flew fighter jets for the Air Force thirty years ago – I’m pretty confident that he will now reach for even bigger adventures and keep exploring the beautiful state he is a resident of.