BRB… (Brooks Range Break)

FasterSkierSeptember 3, 2011

It’s funny, there is definitely something about the mountains. I am probably blogging to the choir here, but looking back on my excellent recovery week in early August, I just have to say something about how refreshing and rejuvenating it was. I hadn’t had a real recovery week since mid April, so mentally I was incredibly ready for a break. Often the trouble is not that my body can’t physically take anymore training, but that my mind gets tired of pushing me through workout after workout. I don’t think this means that I get tired of my sport or that I am a total pansy, but that there are imitations to how long I can have that much self-discipline. And I think that denying the fact just makes it worse. Obviously you can talk yourself into needing more time off, it’s the dreaded self-fulfilling prophecy: thinking that you are at the end of your tolerance can make it true. However, when you are truly at the end of your rope, you need a break.

The point is that I had one of the best recovery weeks ever. I was really ready for it, and it definitely did its job. In my newly-formed opinion, hiking is the ultimate way to spend a recovery week. You are working, so you don’t get totally lethargic. There aren’t any computers or movies so you go to bed really early and sleep a ton, and you get to get away from everything you’re used to. It’s really productive to step back from all your intense focus and see everything from a much broader perspective, and for me, the mountains really help with that. Being out in a beautiful place where your day-to-day activities are kind of simple and continuous helps me settle down and re-focus. It helps me re-evaluate my goals and decisions, and I tend to decide that I am happy with the direction that my life is headed. There are always doubts while you’re training, that’s the hardest part about living such a socially obscure lifestyle. People wonder what you do with yourself all day, and that makes you wonder how productive you really are. It takes a little bit of time alone to remind yourself why you love this and what you’re try to accomplish, and having some beautiful scenery definitely expedites this process.

To see pictures from this trip, you can go to my album on Facebook even if you don’t have a Facebook account.

The Trip Rundown:
We went north from Fairbanks on August 3rd, and drove all the way past Atigun Pass to Galbraith Lake. I didn’t really know that the Brooks Range is another seven or eight hours north of Fairbanks… that’s like driving to Anchorage in the other direction! It helps to give you an idea of how big Alaska really is: most people tend to stay in the Anchorage area and explore the Chugach for adventure. Denali is another great place to go hiking. However, Most of Alaska is north of Denali National Park, and quite a lot of it is north of Fairbanks! It’s really mind-boggling how much land is up there, and how little of it is developed. If you feel like you’re off the grid when you’re climbing in the Chugach, try driving the Haul Road to the North Slope. It’s really humbling to see how much awesome country there is to explore up there, extending as far as you can see on either side of the road. We didn’t even make a microscopic dent in the places that can be seen and the mountains hiked or rivers packrafted. There is too much potential up there for one lifetime.

It was rainy and muddy until we got north of Atigun Pass and crossed the continental divide. There it was sunny, and we could see the rolling tundra north of the mountains. Galbraith Lake is a little bit north of the big mountains, nestled in the foothills. There at our first campsite of the trip we got a small taste of the famous arctic mosquitos. The bugs aren’t that bad in August, and we had a light breeze a lot of the time so they were relatively mild. However, they were clustered on the leeward side of just about anything that would block the wind. I don’t want to think about what they would be like in June! We crossed the stream south of our campsite to check things out, then set up our tent close to the truck. The view to the north was all treeless flatland, something that has always fascinated me. The idea that it’s far enough north to be above treeline at less than a thousand feet of elevation has kind of an odd allure for me.

The next day we started hiking. We aimed for a flat spot on the contour lines of our map, a pass that was at about 6,000 ft. Our elevation gain for the day was about three thousand feet, which wasn’t too shabby I don’t think. Once we got across the flatter benches and moraines to the mountains the walking got a little better: in the north flat ground is usually wet with lots of tussocks. We headed up a drainage towards a small glacier, aiming for the pass to the west of the glacier. Once we were in the rocky drainage I started to find some amazing rocks, mostly with very interesting patterns of iron oxidation. One was striped exactly like a bullseye, and I still have no idea how that could have formed. It was really fun to hypothesize about the different stones and how they could have gotten that way. After naming the glacier Little Luna because of its moonscape moraine, we got into the pass. The photo at the top of this blog was taken there, and our tent is hidden in the red stripe of the rainbow. We called it Rainbow Pass for obvious reasons, and I loved it because of how exposed it was. I really felt like I was on the moon, and the mountains on either side were spectacular.

On day three we descended down the other side of Rainbow Pass. We were a little concerned that we were going to get cliffed out as we went down, and would have to turn around. However, we got lucky and were able to sidehill around the trickiest section and come down some scree. This drainage had substantially nicer water in it because there was much less iron around, although it was quite a bit narrower and it made you feel vulnerable to any kind of loose rock on the steep slopes around you. It seemed like it was probably a huge collection zone for avalanches on either side, and we confirmed this when we found a pile of snow at the bottom of one particularly obvious cute. The weather was great all day, and we walked in a big flat loop almost back to Galbraith Lake. While the walking was technically easier, I am so much more suited to hiking uphill that it made me more tired than our elevation gain the day before. Ski training doesn’t consist of a lot of flat walking, and I could really feel that. Our camp that night was near a convergence of two streams that dad named Shrike Fork because of the Northern Shrike that he spotted that morning. Since it was Dad’s 51st birthday we ate some celebratory KitKats for dessert, and he immortalized his birthday in this amazing photo:

He is quite spry for so wizened a man!

The next morning we walked the quick one hour back to the truck and decided to drive north to the Sag River. Dad hoped to see some musk oxen up there since he had in the past, but large mammals continued to evade us. We had seen many many signs of Dall Sheep, but not actually sighted a single one. Getting to drive north into the tundra that I am so enamored with was really exciting. It was like driving through a prairie, but better in my opinion. It was so wide and open, and we were surrounded by tundra instead of plains. After a quick stop to glass the hills for musk oxen, we headed back. We explored some limestone cliffs and caves east of Galbraith Lake for a couple of hours, and saw even more signs of sheep but still none of the actual animals. There were some awesome fossils in on the slopes to the cliffs, and we spent some time searching for the best ones. Next we drove south of the continental divide to camp. On the way over the pass I finally spotted some ewes and lambs perched in an alpine meadow north of the pass and we stopped to check them out. Our camp was on the Chandlar Shelf, and was only a thousand feet below the snow line then. We estimated that if we had been in Rainbow Pass we would have been snowed on! Chef Becca made some really good quesadillas with black beans and pepper jack for dinner, and we slept the last night near the road.

The next morning we headed back to Fairbanks. It was kind of sad to leave, although the drive allowed for some good retrospection. I was feeling pretty good about the trip, it was nice to still have had some challenges (camping is never like a spa day in a hotel or anything) so we still felt like we accomplished something, but it was a relaxing few days. I had spent some time thinking about skiing and how I love being in shape for these kinds of adventures, and how I was satisfied with the progress I was making in training. I was excited to get back into training and put in some more hard work.


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