It had been a grand summer in the northern interior, but is was time to head south to meet up with Angela and have an adventure in the Yukon, so after tying up loose ends in Fairbanks and getting the archaic Toyota back into travel mode, I say goodbye to Sven and all the great folks I had met during my stay in Fairbanks this summer, gas up, and hit the highway. Driving south and seeing once again the massive central Alaska Range dominating the skyline, it is decided nearly instantly that I wish to head back to Delta for a few days to have a closer look around to do my own thing, shoot some photos and video, and look for animals. That evening at my familiar camp along the Delta River, another sublime sunset graces the southern horizon and showcases the white giants I dream of so often.
The areas around Delta Junction had fascinated me for sometime, and a venture with Dennis up nearby Donnelly Dome just south of town had wet my appetite for the vast tundra and river valleys of the region. It’s an area of concentrated wildlife, dense forest mixed with open tundra, raging glacial rivers, and giant mountains. In the morning following, I whip up some tailgate coffee and breakfast and soon head south to an area surrounding Donnelly featuring herds of wild Bison, Caribou, Moose, Grizzly Bear, and a vast network of dirt roads unexplored by yours truly. After stomping the brush filled valley below Donnelly and scaring up a large bull Moose near the Alaska Pipeline, I decide to drive up a dirt road I had spied some weeks prior that led past an old military installation and winding down to Jarvis Creek, but a sizable pool of water and it’s inherent mud hole prevents passage to the places I seek. So I stomp the area on foot on search of anything of interest. Grizzly tracks lead from and abandoned military bunker where once inside, I scare up several big Owls who are surprised by my presence and flee the scene entirely. Walking through the thickets, a large bull Caribou trots past not far off and climbs a short brushy hill to get a better look at me. Such a magnificent animal in silhouette against the storm encumbered sky; he smells the air briefly before descending the north side of the escarpment and soon is gone from my sight. Another Caribou appears and gallops fast to catch up, and soon I am alone walking the old dirt road en-route back to the truck. It begins to rain in earnest and soon it I am engulfed in a frigid downpour; in the dry and warm confines of the truck, I call Angela to solidify our plans to meet in the Yukon in another week or so for a climb up Mt Archibald in the beautiful and enchanting Kluane region less than a three hour drive from Haines. But for me, the drive will take a full day or so, but I have time to kill and decide to take my time and explore and maybe even climb a peak on the way south. I drive the old truck back north to Delta and back to my camp along the Delta River, where it rains hard for most of the night.
The next day is spent driving slowly, stopping often, exploring dirt roads and gawking at one of my favorite parts of Alaska. This place has the sensation to me of an ancient and somehow significant nature; people have lived in these vast northern valleys for thousands of years, flourishing in this striking and beautiful land. So many rivers, creeks, and un-named mountains here… It is a staggering thought to try to encompass all of its geography into my psyche. There is a thousand lifetimes of exploring to do here, and I can only hope to come back again and again to see and experience as much of it as I can in this one life. I pull down a dirt road and scope out an area for a hike and possible peak climb in an area north of Tok about 20 miles. Feeling satisfied that I have my bearings about me, I head down the road to Yerrick Creek, one of my favorite creeks in the area, to gather drinking water and bathe my stinking carcass. After a pleasant bath I drive to Tok for supplies and head back up valley to a sweet camp along the Yerrick. Once again, that night it rains a rain that can only be described as intense. Morning arrives and the rain shows little signs of dissipating, so I pack the truck and ponder my next move.
I decide to head back to Tok and do some laundry and fuss around town some where I drop into the visitor’s center for a look at the weather forecast that tells of inclement weather gaining momentum; after a walk through the old Tok cemetery during a rush of raindrops, I decide that the best way to spend my time before Archibald is to simply head back to Haines and catch up on much needed house projects that have been neglected all summer. Driving south of Tok through the maze of high forested ridges and immense wetlands, I emerge into the great taiga filled river valleys of the Robertson River, Johnson River, White River, and the beautiful Donjek River, all giant glacial fed braided specimens born of true and unrelenting wilderness. The Kluane region is now at hand and a pair of blonde Grizzlies graze at road’s edge as I pass. I camp down an old dirt road overlooking the fantastic St Elias Range where a small herd of Dall Sheep can be seen on a neighboring hillside grazing in the midnight twilight. Passing near Haines Junction the following day, the mass of Mt Archibald comes clear and its steep and glaciated east face dominates my view. Back in Haines hours later, I settle into my little house and fondly breathe in its strangeness; I have not been here for over two months, and it seems foreign to me. Nonetheless, a good nights sleep is to be had, and now preparing myself for the new electrical breaker panel that needs to be installed at the power lines adjacent to my house was in order. Five days later, the breaker panel is installed, the truck worked on, and gear and supplies gone through for the next Yukon adventure with Angela mostly taken car of.
The day before departing again back into the Yukon, Angela comes over and we spend several hours organizing gear and prepping for the Archibald climb. It feels good to be in a state of anticipation of an adventure goal once again, and soon we are ready. The plan is to leave late morning or even mid-day and casually head to Haines Junction to re-group and find the dirt road that leads Thunderegg Creek where we will spend the night before the hike in to our basecamp for Mt Archibald. Casually driving up the Haines Highway and up and over Haines Pass, AKA Chilkat Summit, it feels good to be in the high country once again. We take our time stopping from time to time to explore a little here and there and taking in the peaceful valley where the stimulating Klukshu River flows; it is a tiny river with runs of large King Salmon, but none are seen here today. It is a place of crossroads where cultures of the Aishihik and Champagne peoples would meet with the Chilkat Tlingits to trade goods and furs for the highly sought after Hooligan fish oil. In Haines Junction to gas up, we get to the visitor’s center just before closing time to secure our permits for backcountry travel, but are told that we need no permit to enter the area we are going as it is just outside of the Kluane National Park boundaries. Suits us fine, and we hit the Little Green Apple, Haines Junction’s tiny grocery store, for our supper supplies and hit the road north towards Thunderegg Creek.
Thunderegg creek is the drainage that flows from the un-named glacier that grows from Mt Archibald’s southeastern flanks and is named so for the marvelous round “eggs” of stone that grace the corridors of the raging river. In the morning, we pack up casually and shoulder our relatively light packs and begin the stomp up valley towards the glacier. The accounts we had read on-line gave a thin description of a faint game trail that peters out into thickets of Alder, Willow, and Aspen that must be navigated in order to avoid the impassable shores of Thunderegg Creek. Soon we find the trail disappearing and the thrashing through Alder thickets begins. The descriptions mentioned that the bushwhacking should last “no more than an hour”. True to the description, we emerge from this dense northern jungle in short time to find ourselves clamoring up an exposed ridge where two drainages parallel one another. At the ridge’s top, flat walking lead to a decision: either continue bushwhacking higher to where tree line ends and the glacier and moraine begin, or bushwhack down and to the left into the drainage of the creek that flows from the ice. It seems the downward option is our best bet, and another great and thrashing jungle session begins. The going is slow and methodical; it is very dense, but it is fairly short and soon we are deposited into the dry and rocky creek bottom, sans creek. We had hoped for water here, but none is found. An uphill trudge of about an hour and a half brings us to the very base of Archibald herself, where sprouts of tundra meadows appear. We ponder camping here, but realize quickly that not only is there still no water here, but the base of the Southeast Ridge that we intend to climb would be much better gained higher up the moraine. Getting both dehydrated and exhausted, we trudge on in hopes that drinking water and a suitable bivouac will reveal itself. Following the lead of the description we had read, drinking water could be found at the base of the terminal moraine; we gain the base of the massive scree to find none at all. Working up and around the lower portion of the moraine, a decision is made that we must go up and over this beast to find salvation. Another 20 minutes of scrambling and we are on top of the moraine and looking down slightly to a flowing creek of fine glacial drinking water. Dumping packs, we scamper downward to the creeks edge and fill ourselves with the glorious liquid. Bringing no tent along on this adventure due to the outstanding weather forecast and wishing to save every once of burden from our backs, we spy a small shelf situated at the exact starting point of our proposed climb. It is stupendously perfect. After moving rocks around for a few minutes, we have ourselves a perfectly flat and relaxing spot to throw down our sleeping bags; but it is hot. Very hot. The sun will not be behind the rim for another two hours and all we want to do after supper is go to sleep for our 3 am wake up call for the climb. So we wait… After the sun begins it’s descent behind Archibald’s summit ridge, we close our eyes and…. not sleep. We are both gifted with a bout of insomnia that allows us just scant minutes here and there of real rest. This seems to happen to me a lot on these high mountain bivy’s. Not sure why, but it seems I am just too much in awe of the glorious alpine setting and can’t seem to get my eyes or mind to sleep. Occasionally, when I am camped in these high glacial cirques, there exists sometimes the sensation of faint voices; like souls wandering these glaciers and whispering slightly. It is a strange phenomenon and Angela speaks of it as well… a curious thing these voices. The northern summer twilight that never really gets dark soon gives way to a display of the Aurora Borealis that sets our hearts on fire as we gawk in awe at it’s offering. Soon, the Aurora dissolves into the early morning dawn as the 3 am alarm goes off and we are up packing, cooking oatmeal and tea, and rubbing the lack of sleep from our bewildered eyes.
Following Dall Sheep trails up endlessly steep and sliding scree, we emerge on the top of the lower ridge to find a staggering sight: the un-named peaks to the west of Archibald are adorned with glaciers exhibiting broken seracs and icefalls, lit up by a full moon rising above their rarely seen summits. A post-Aurora alpenglow that sears the sky with streaks of pink and orange light outlines the mountain horizon to the east and north. The sight fills me with the notion of being a part of this grand and ethereal landscape that is not to be taken lightly. I find that being in these place gives me a sense of deep spiritual and emotional connection to the natural world that allows me completeness as a Human Being living on this strange and beautiful planet.
The southeast ridge of Mt Archibald is a long and rocky ridge, perhaps 3 miles in length and rising nearly 6000 feet from Thunderegg Creek to it’s 8,491 foot summit. This ridge is a steep and sometimes narrow feature sporting many sizable ‘summits” along it’s way, several gendarmes up to class 4-5 climbing, and near it’s top, the glacial ice from it’s east face creeps over the top of the upper ridge where steep and exposed snow and ice climbing accesses Archi’s true summit. It is a big mountain with a huge elevation gain for a peak of its height, and requires a variable set of skills to reach its summit. One must be comfortable with loose rock, exposed class 4 rock climbing, route finding, and snow and ice climbing skills. Given the length and elevation gain of Archi’s bulk, exceptional fitness is also a must.
A short scramble from our perch atop the lower ridge and we are surmounting the first of many gendarmes, most of which are in the solid class 3 range. Up and over, side hilling scree, of traversing back and forth across rock ranging from shattered Schist, to loose scree, to blocky talus generally accomplishes dealing with these many features and false summits. The hardest part of this ridge is the elevation gain… then loss, which one must deal with when going up and over these false ridge summits.
After a couple of hours of traversing and scrambling, the sun begins to crest just above the distant horizon and the ridge begins to get steeper, looser, and more exposed. Sections of steep scree lead to flatter sections of the ridge, where Dall Sheep sleeping platforms appear; there are several spots grouped together and have been manicured by hoof to produce flat and comfortable sleeping arrangements. Most are right on the apex of the ridge itself where wind and exposure are a way of life for these magnificent and hardy animals.
Higher up, another steep gendarme is negotiated by means of traversing left and scrambling the steep, exposed and shattered rock diagonally and then climbing directly upward and over it’s tiny summit; a brief down climb leads to another short traverse on it’s right flank to a point where the ridge eases off once again before climbing abruptly to the base of what had been described as the crux of the route: a true summit in it’s own right, a sub-peak of sizable proportions that bars access to the upper ridge, and the final stretch of chaotic mass of shattered debris below the steep and forbidding summit snow and ice where the glacier bends itself agonizingly over the summit ridge’s lip. Once the bulk of the gendarme is reached, the climbing turns to extremely exposed and loose class 4 climbing. We brought no rope so great care was taken climbing through this section. Once gaining the broken, tiny summit of this mammoth sub-peak, a view towards the final rib of snow and ice can be seen for the first time on the climb; it appears to be a steep knife-edge leading directly to the Archibald’s summit.
We are extremely lucky today to have the unbelievably outstanding weather we are experiencing, and from this point on the upper ridge, a view west reveals completely unobstructed and crystalline views of the entire Mt Logan massif and all of the big peaks of one of the most expansive glaciated mountain ranges on the planet. After moving through a section of broken towers and blocks, we find a pool of drinking water and fill our bottles and eat; we are both getting tired.
Another long, steep section of extremely loose scree forms a knife-edge and leads to a long flat section of ridge where, at its end rises the final snow and ice where the summit lie just beyond. After donning crampons and ice axe, we begin up the steep snow, Angela above of me front pointing then plunging the axe’s shaft, and repeating till there was no more. We are standing on the tiny summit; in fact it is just barely big enough for both of us to sit. The weather is striking and the views are mind blowing; however, I had been developing vision problems for the last hour or so from sunscreen dripping into my eyes, and now sitting here on Archibald’s summit, the pain is increasing, and my vision getting very bad indeed. We have 6000 feet of dangerous and time consuming ridge to down climb and here I am with only one working eyeball. We snap some photos and then begin the long and arduous descent back down the snow rib and the long loose section leading to the big gendarme. By the time we reach the dangerous class 4 sections, my vision is really bad and the pain increasing still. I have one semi-working eye in which to navigate the down climbing past a deadly exposed section, where if one fell or slipped, it would be the end of you. After managing, I stay close to Angela and she down climbs the bad section; relief hits us both and we are soon traversing and side hilling the long mid section of the route; I have managed to sort of “ski” the scree in my mountain boots, making downward progress a little less tiring, ice axe in hand just in case. After a few more hours, we are at the top of the Dall Sheep trail that leads back to the bivi. I am so tired, I can barely stand, but commit to this last section with abandon. Angela does the same and when we reach our bivi site, we collapse for a brief spell and ponder what we are doing.
Again, my eyes are inflamed and I cannot see at all out of the left eye, leaving only my bad right one still working, which has been of poor vision since childhood. We decide that hiking back to the truck is in order and the possibility of seeking medical attention a reality. After packing up our alpine ghetto, we shoulder our packs, our bodies scream, and we begin descending the debris covered glacier towards the dry creek bed and the route home. The going is slow, but soon we are at the point where we had bushwhacked from the ridge and into the drainage. Not feeling like going up through the thickets, we opt to stay in the dry bed in hopes that we may find a way to navigate around the toe of the buttress and it’s inherent Alder thickets. After stomping down through the Bear tunnels and shouting “Hey Bear!!” every so often so as to not startle one and provoke an encounter, we find ourselves on the shore of Thunderegg Creek. Fed by the glacier we had just come from, this specimen is no creek, but a dangerous and massive river, dark chocolate with debris, very deep, very fast, and very cold. We walk it’s shores for a very short time before realizing that we are trapped by the dense thickets leading directly to the edge of the raging torrent. Everything we had done to avoid the bushwhack just exploded in our faces and the only option left is to aim uphill and attack the matrix of the dense and unforgiving web of Alder, Aspen, Willow and small Spruce. Not 50 feet into it, we are encountering the worst bushwhacking of our lives. I once was a part of a conversation with some Washington climbers years ago about how the locals had a “bushwhacking rating system” for back country travel and mountaineering approaches in Washington state. I thought it was kind of of funny at the time, but now, after living and stomping in Alaska and the Yukon for a few years, it is no joke. This thicket we are in is definitely “class 5+” bushwhacking. Add a full pack and a pair of trekking poles to the mix and you’ve got some real fun. After about an hour or so of this, we emerge on a faint trail that leads to the cliffs at Thunderegg where the truck is parked and rest awaits.
The exhaustion we feel is overwhelming, and my eye is in horrible pain; perhaps the worst pain I have ever felt. It is late and we decide that staying here for the night is the best option, since the closest clinic is in Haines Junction or possibly even Whitehorse over 100 miles away. Oddly, there is phone reception here and Angela gets on the telephone and inquires about the clinics and general eye care with a nurse in Whitehorse. Not only would the drive be horrendous, but the cost of such an endeavor would be very difficult for me. We hunker down for the evening in the tent, sipping a cup of wine and me trying desperately to hold on. The pain is overwhelming. After a few agonizing hours, I pass out and wake hours later to my eye feeling slightly better, but still not good. We pack it in, drive out the long and sustained 4WD road back to the highway and head into Haines Junction for some grub and decide to head home and go to the SEARHC clinic in Haines.
The drive back over the pass is striking as always; the tundra surrounding the peaks laid out like a sub –arctic blanket and the peaks themselves jutting proudly to meet the sky. The drive from the alpine at the pass down the Chilkat corridor to Haines is always an interesting one to me as witnessing the transition from one ecosystem to another is always a joy, even with one eye. At the clinic in Haines, the visiting eye doctor examines my eyes and runs me through a series of tests that determines that the sun screen was in fact the culprit, and that applying some eye drops and rest will alleviate the pain and irritation. The entire experience, from the sleepless bivouac and the early morning Aurora, to a long and arduous route and it’s subsequent beautiful summit, to a terrible bushwhack and a murderously painful eye condition, has been one of great significance in a lifetime of outrageous adventures spent in an array of wilderness places that continue to touch our hearts and souls. It is being in these places that both Angela and I seek, both on a physical and spiritual plane.
The Kluane area of the western Yukon remains one of my most revered place on this planet; it is a place where some of the largest glaciers on Earth are born from some of the mightiest and remote mountains… it is home to scores of Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Wolf, Lynx, Dall Sheep, Moose, and has an ancient Human cultural spanning thousands of years. The wilderness here is far reached and commands respect from any creature passing through it. It is a place near my home and one that I will return to visit time and time again to explore and experience magic.