2011 Alaska: Failure in the Brooks Range

Places Alaska. Dalton Highway, Brooks Range
Time & length July/August 2011, 12 days
Partners solo trip
This trip was supposed to be my “big hike” in 2011, unfortunately I had to cancel it. Now I want to explain the reasons, maybe this is helpful for other people.
From the end of July to the beginning of September I wanted to be on a hike in Arctic Alaska: from the Dalton Highway to Kaktovik, about 600 kilometers off-trail hiking and packrafting in one of the world’s most remote areas. I planned this hike very carefully for many months and put all my efforts and enthusiasm in it. I knew before that it was going to be very challenging; there are a lot of difficult passes, river crossings and other challenges on the way. I designed the route on my own, I even made custom maps. From a point close to Atigun Pass at the Dalton Highway I wanted to hike eastwards along the Brooks Range’s continental divide until I got to the Hulahula River. There, a little bushplane would meet me in order to bring food and my rafting gear – of course I organized all that in advance and put a lot of money in this project. Then I wanted to raft down the Hulahula in order to reach Kaktovik, from there I needed to catch a flight back to Fairbanks which was already paid for as well.

Here are the reasons why I ended up not doing the trip. I don’t really feel like I need to justify myself, but maybe my explanations can help other people to make well considered and rational decisions in similar situations.

1. At the beginning of my hike I was already five days late due to some serious illness I cured in Fairbanks: strong stomachache, throw-ups, diarrhea, weakness… in fact I could only lie in my bed for the first three days, then it started getting better slowly. I most likely picked up some sort of bacteria in Delhi, where I had been just before. When I hitchhiked up to the Brooks Range I already felt the uncomfortable time pressure: my itinerary was timed pretty tightly: because of the food drop I needed to be at the Hulahula River at a certain time (there was just a small timeframe), same with the flight back from Kaktovik. Now I wouldn’t have had any spare days – looking at the demand as well as the length of this trip, being under serious time pressure was one of the worst preconditions I could think of.

2. Together with Michael who picked me up close to Livengood I spent three days on the road until I got to my starting point – and it was raining almost all the time. In Coldfoot a Park Ranger told me that it had been raining for a week and that the forecast didn’t really give any hope for a change in the next week as well. Looking at my gear I was prepared for rain periods, my bigger concern was the water level of the rivers that I needed to cross. The ranger advised me to not even try this hike – with so much water in the rivers, crossing can be very hard and even deadly Over the years many hikers have died in Alaska by getting swept away in such icy and fast flowing water, more than by bear attacks or other things. On my route I had to cross the headwaters of Sagavaniktok River, Marsh Fork, and Canning River, to name just a few of the bigger ones… usually they are wide, flat and quite easy to ford – but not in times like this. And because of the time pressure it would have been hard to follow each big river upstream to its origins in order to cross each of them separately. So now I started to query my plans but still wanted to try it.

3. I started hiking on a rainy afternoon and went uphill towards the first pass. I knew before that this pass was probably the hardest of the entire route and when I made camp just beneath it I couldn’t even see it as the pass was fully covered in clouds. It rained all day and all night long. My backpack was stuffed with food for 24 days and now that it was soaked with water it became even heavier. Because of this and the slippery ground I had already fallen to the ground twice. I took a longer break and reconsidered my situation carefully. In my mind I made a list of everything that could happen, of all plan B’s. I was ready to take risks but I also wanted to make sure that I knew about the risks I was taking – this is what matters. Then I saw the pass for a few minutes – the way up was much steeper than I expected. There was no way I could climb it in this wet conditions, at least I had to wait until the stony ground was dry again. But how would it look at the other side of the pass?

While I was contemplating all this I got the feeling I would risk my life here. In fact I had never had this feeling before – for the first time I felt that this could be a decision for my life. You would think that from this point of view it must have been easy to turn around but it wasn’t – in fact it took me hours to finally make this decision.

With a partner I might have tried it, maybe. Alone there was no chance anybody could find me if I fall and end up lying on the ground unconscious and unable to send an SOS signal. Despite all the enthusiasm I brought to Alaska that year I cancelled this trip and hitchhiked to another place further north where I met the pilot who was going to bring my food to the Hulahula River. There I spent a couple of days and later hitchhiked all the way down to Palmer.
I guess that was the hardest decision I have ever made on a trekking tour so far and it took me a while to overcome the disappointment. At the same time this experience taught me a lot of lessons, a year later I’m now very glad about how everything has worked out.

Click here to see how my journey continued.