UAS Outdoor Studies Director is Handy Wilderness Companion
According to a recent article in the Fairbanks Daily NewsMiner, when you’re on the longest backcountry ski race in Alaska, you might want to bring along ODS director Forest Wagner.
From: "Wilderness Race is a Grueling but Beautiful Grind," by Tim Mowry, published Thursday, April 2, 2009.
FAIRBANKS — As he skied 40 miles down the Nizina River, Ned Rozell tried to ignore the pain produced by a halfdollar- sized blister on his left foot. It was bleeding, he knew, because Rozell could see bloody fluid oozing from his boot.
“I was just trying not to think about it,” he said. “I didn’t want to camp again because I didn’t want to deal with it the next day. I just wanted to get done and get out of those boots. So Rozell kept skiing. The blister kept bleeding.
“You’re just trying to eat up the miles and not let those things slow you down,” he said. “That’s the Classic.”
That would be the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic Ski Race, the longest unsupported backcountry ski race in Alaska.
Seven of the nine racers who started this year’s 150-mile race from Nabesna to McCarthy through the Wrangell Mountains, including Rozell, finished.
Having completed the race on the same route twice before, the 46-year-old Fairbanks writer knew what he was getting into.
Traveling with fellow Fairbanksan Michael Gibson and former Fairbanks resident Forest Wagner — racers can race solo or in teams — it took the threesome six days, 14 hours to make it to McCarthy.
They were more than three days behind the winning team of Craig Barnard, Luke Mehl and John Pekar, who chose a shorter but more dangerous and technical route through the Wrangells.
This year’s race presented the same sort of challenges every Classic does, Rozell said.
The blister came on day four of the race as he, Gibson and Wagner were sidehilling their way along a series of steep gullies through Skolai Pass. Rozell could feel the blister forming, but there wasn’t anything he could do to prevent it.
“The sun was so intense that my foot got warm and was sweating,” Rozell said. “It was on such a (steep) slope that you couldn’t stop to adjust anything. You just have to keep going.”
It was on day five that he fell into Skolai Creek while crossing a narrow ice bridge along the side of a canyon wall. The water was only about a foot deep, so it wasn’t like Rozell was in danger of drowning or getting swept away, but his ski boots got soaked before Wagner pulled him out of the creek. Rozell neglected to put them in his sleeping bag that night to keep them thawed out, and they were frozen solid the next morning.
“They froze so solid I couldn’t get my feet into them,” Rozell said.
It was Wagner who figured out how to solve problem. “He took my boots and dunked them in the creek for a while until they thawed out in the 36-degree water and I could put my feet in them,” Rozell said.
The fact that the boots were still soaking wet didn’t really matter at that point. Rozell was wearing neoprene socks to keep his feet dry and his boots would have gotten wet soon enough anyway because the skiers had to cross open sections of the Nizina River a half dozen times later that day for the final 40 miles of the race.
“My feet just got wet a little early,” Rozell said.
Neither was the ski pole that Rozell broke a couple days earlier a big deal. They were able to splint it with an extra piece of pole Wagner was carrying and three hose clamps Gibson had, along with some duct tape, of course.
By going over Presidents Chair pass, the three racers were able to avoid skiing down Skolai Creek and cut about 30 miles off the more traditional route favored by the rest of their Classic competitors.
“It was great to cut that out,” said Mehl, who took the Skolai route last year.
Coming down Skolai Creek was brutal, just like it always is, Rozell said.
“Going through Skolai Creek is like full-on mountaineering,” he said. “Going up those gullies is like trudging up Denali. It’s just a total grind.”
Without the help of Wagner, who was able to kick steps with his crampons into the hard, windblown snow, Rozell isn’t sure if he and Gibson could have made it up and down the steep slopes. Neither one was carrying a pair of crampons.
“That was the stress of the route,” Wagner said. “It was very precarious. We were all happy to be done with that.”