With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

Race report, gear and food, and, for the really ambitious, pointers for entering a wilderness race.

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by David Chenault | 2011-09-06 00:00:00-06

“The will to power would rather will nothingness than not will.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

 

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 1
The author and Paige Brady at the finish of the 2011 Classic. Photo: Paige Brady.

What is the Classic?

As Andrew Skurka wrote here a few years ago, the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic is "the original adventure race." It came about because of a bet concerning who could run from Hope to Homer (on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage) the fastest. It first ran 30 years ago and has continued under the same mores ever since. Point to point through roadless Alaskan (big) wilderness, courses run around 100 miles in a straight line. The rules are elegant: carry everything you need from start to finish, use only human power, first to the finish wins.

It's a thinking person's race, as evidenced by the races' first three-year cycle, on the Hope to Homer course. Roman Dial won the first year, as well as the second, though in dramatically different fashion. Scarred by heinous bushwhacking and older and wiser from frightening river swims, Dial brought skis, a packraft, a partner, and a different route. He and Jim Lokken all but cut the previous year's time in half by skiing across the Harding Icefield and packrafting the Fox River. History indicated that while strong legs are a prerequisite for a strong finish in the Classic, they are hardly a guarantee.

For those tangled in a long-standing affair with backpacking, and the not infrequent outgrowth of wishing to expand the range of backcountry experience as far as possible, 'the Classic' is known as merely that for a reason. Speed is hardly the universal apotheosis of backpacking, but the difficulty of moving quickly through the wilderness is possessed of a purity which is as undeniable as it is unrivaled. I think I'm in good company in being of the opinion that the primary difficulty in any athletic pursuit is intrapersonal, with the presence or absence of competition only a more or less efficacious catalyst. Wilderness and its unrivaled ability to highlight human fragility only makes this more plain. Alaska has the biggest wilderness around, which is why 'the Classic' gets to wear a capital C.

My Race

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 3
Paige takes a cookie break.

In Alaska a few people asked me, both before and after the race, where I first heard of the Classic. I still cannot recall, but it has been growing in my consciousness for quite a while. It’s been my Everest, my Tour de France, the summit and presumptive summation of a large number of my personal and athletic aspirations. A big effing deal. So I was nervous for weeks, before and about the race. Not because I was worried about sore feet, bears, river crossings, getting lost, or getting cold. I’d been training for the Classic specifically, with it in mind, for around two years. Long enough to know how to deal with all the aforementioned details with confidence, and more significantly long enough to know that my primary struggles before and during the race would have very little to do with physical obstacles and everything to do with fear. Fear of failure.

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 4
Paige descends towards the Trident Glacier in the afternoon of day one.

My team didn’t fail, but neither did we win, rather coming in second to Luc Mehl, John Sykes, Tyler Johnson, and Todd Kasteler, who traversed the Black Rapids, Susitna, and Yanert glaciers on a route substantially shorter and more committing than ours. A bold gamble paid off for them, and their route put them above the brush that soaked us on day two, at an altitude that avoided some of the rain which did the same. Most significantly, they didn’t have the luxury of stopping mid-route and waiting for the weather to improve, as we did. If they hoped to continue under any circumstances, doing so continuously was the only option.

They made the correct choice, as did we, and the contrast between the two points cuts right to the heart of the Classic. We had to choose, just as they did, and weigh which parts of their decisions were practical fears and which were psychological (and thus under some contexts and from some perspectives, illusory). It’s easy to see heuristics as overly simple, especially in outdoor adventuring, with safety and the choices out of which it is built existing apart from ego and perception. This is not so. What is safe for one group is dangerous for another, and in exactly the same circumstances. Could that second evening, with its soaking rain, wet brush, and then wet snow have been safe to continue into for a different pair of people with better gear and more determination? Very possibly. Due to gear, circumstances, and attitude, for us it was not. If we had been different, or the weather had been kinder, and thus enabled us to push through the evening into the night, could we have challenged for the win? Unlikely, though the splits are tantalizingly close.

Neither Paige nor I spoke about teaming up before the race was underway, though we later admitted we both wanted to. Neither of us had done the Classic before, though we both had lots of relevant experience, albeit from very different sources. Neither of us admitted we wanted to win, though we both wanted to. We even consulted, right before the start in the gravel lot by the old Black Rapids roadhouse, on whether to inflate our boats before the start. We both decided not to, due to the wind, then both changed our minds shortly thereafter. I put in and got a jump on the field by running all the larger waves, but Paige and another racer came back to me when I made some bad line choices and got hung up on gravel bars. Paige and I took out at McGinnis creek together, hiked the ATV trail up to the plateau together, and in a few hours were a team, officially.

It was a wise decision, though when Paige pushed the pace on a few hills early on I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to hang (we were averaging 12 vertical meters/minute). We switched leads naturally and well, me leading in brush and sponga (spongy tundra), Paige across the Trident and Hayes glaciers. She rallied late at night while dealing with the moose trail and my drowsiness in the moat at the northwestern edge of the Hayes, and by 4:00 AM we were building a fire under the arms of a particularly large willow a few miles below the west toe of the Hayes glacier, a strong 18-hour push in the bag, and almost off the first of my three maps. It was after our 2.5-hour break, including about 100 minutes of sleep, when my feet and legs felt shockingly fresh and the rain had yet to start that I declared my desire to win. We kept momentum climbing up out of West Hayes Creek and down to the Little Delta, though it flagged slightly as the tailwind chilled us on the hike up the river, detouring on several occasion to look for a crossing. We found a good, though fast, crossing, though Paige fell in getting out of her boat, which sealed the deal on making a fire to warm up. We took another good nap under our very nice tree, before setting out into the bushwhack. The tangled mile across the flat was only the preamble to 1,000 vertical feet of bear trails through head high grass. Not horrid travel, but utterly soaking. The choice to fly back to our tree was an easy one, as such good sources of shelter and dry wood were scarce.

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 5
The author headed towards the snowline in Buchanan Creek. Photo: Paige Brady.

It was the next morning, with an impressively low snowline across the valley, low ceiling, and steady drizzle that doubt really began to take hold. As Paige noted several days after the race, my mind rarely stops working, and certainly didn’t on that occasion. In truth, we had both gotten very cold the previous evening returning to camp; even with a fire raging, we shivered for hours after, and for me that had been quite scary. We were about three times as far from a road as you can get in the Lower 48, with an exactingly minimal safety net. I was right up against the choice of the Classic, confronting my psychological limits and just how large a role they played in building the boundaries I use to guide myself through the world. Failure was not a matter of pure circumstance, as we, and especially I, had plenty of food, but of will. I waffled, called a few flying operations on the sat phone to feel out our options, while Paige stoically slept a bit more and called previous winner Bobby Schnell to get a weather report. His data indicated a general clearing soon, and as the clouds started to lift around noon so did my psyche. I woke Paige up, and we blasted.

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 6
Paige a few hundred vertical feet below Buchanan Pass.

I had, with no small amount of patient assistance from Paige, passed the test, and what followed was the most sublime 14 hours of hiking I’ve yet done. Tundra and drizzle led over a short pass into Buchanan Creek, which climbed into the clouds in one aesthetic boulder-floored upward slash. A few regular inches of snow appeared around 5,500 feet, truly confirming the two sets of human tracks we had already seen here and there in the mud of the stream bed. After a few diversions as the creek steepened and the clouds closed in, I knew that the guy with big feet and Inov-8 OROCs was a good route finder, and the tracks led effortlessly over the pass and down the other side. We breezed past Chris Wood (a professional sheep hunting guide from near Anchorage, and the owner of the OROCs) and Don Moden, dropping them without trying. I was firmly in the lead then, with legs turning over utterly absent of any perceived stress or exertion. Our unnamed drainage hit the West Fork of the Little Delta, and on instinct I cut into the brush and within 30 seconds happened upon a multi-species game trail worn mountain-bikeable with abundant traffic. We swooped out onto the gravel bars and around the bend southwards, flying. The sky was beginning to clear and darken as we stopped for dinner and a shoes off break, with the peaks and drainages marching with stunning symmetry up either side of the river. Conversation and confidence flowed as we continued up to and into the precipitous side canyon which would give us passage to the Wood River, which would take us off my second map.

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 7
The clouds clear in the upper reaches of the West Fork of the Little Delta River, late in the evening of day three.

What had already been a reboundingly superlative day of extremes continued into the next. Close to the pass a sheep trail cut up onto steep tundra and talus, and Paige had to tell me out loud that the white rocks up above were actually just rocks, and not mysterious baby sheep hiding from us in plain sight. Indirect moonlight and the dull Alaskan midnight sun bent the steep pass into angles which seemed impossible, but yielded easy walking up sheep trails all the same. We summited the pass at 12:30, and looking down into the Wood valley I was brought to tears thinking that this moment and all the memories of which it was built was the pinnacle of every step I had hiked in my life, every trying hike when late in the day I looked within myself to find the will to go on, every route finding challenge, every five more miles, every fire built in the rain, every trip planned in earnest, every book and article read. Everything I was and had been made of over the past thirty years of my existence, and at the end was my late father, dead these 19 years from cancer, sitting watchfully in whatever spiritual afterlife atheists like me believe in, roaring in approval at every next step I took.

In most respects I could have ended the race right there and had all I ever wanted.

We were still 50 miles from the road, and had few intentions of stopping until we got there. The descent canyon was even more extraordinary than that used for the ascent, resembling in its steep rawness nothing so much as a Death Valley canyon with a snow-fed creek howling down the cobbles. I kept looking over my shoulder at oblique flashes of light, wondering why Paige was indulging in flash photography. It was the moon, which we couldn’t see, but which was shot towards us from the huge snowy mountains finally absent cloud cover. The headwaters of the Wood River, early that morning, was quite the place to be.

We still had one more bivouac in store, willfulness or not. Around 2:30, I started to fall asleep on my feet and Paige, more alert, took the lead. My seven-hour high had come to an end, and by 3:00 AM I was sleep-walking extended stretches with no guess, in my moments of alertness, how I managed to stay upright. Soon Paige was doing the same. I called a halt, backtracked 50 yards, gathered together likely-looking piles of driftwood, fired them up, emptied my pack onto the gravel, and passed out, shoes on. We both slept until the big piles had burned down to ashes.

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 8
Paige packing up after a sleep-enforced bivy on the upper Wood River, on the morning of day four.

We were both motivated to resume progress, but, like before, the shivers had hold of us and would not let go. My shell pants, put away wet the previous evening, were stiff with frost. I built up another big fire, and we fired up our stoves and inhaled hot coffee and calories. We would be packrafting the Wood soon, and best to do that in the sun, if at all possible. Two and a half hours seemed to be the sweet spot for breaks, as this one, like the very first two days before, had been that time almost exactly. A bit more walking got us in the early morning sun and into our boats for a ripping eight-mile, just-over-one-hour run down the Wood. There were plenty of sweepers to avoid, but with my greater comfort on the water I ran point for most of it, and we made the takeout near lower Grizzly Creek without incident. The boating was as good as packrafting gets, due in no small part to the marvelously speedy break our feet got.

I was beginning to smell the barn, and jumped back into the sharp end of finding the best trail up the brushy creek. It took a while for the several trails to resolve themselves into one, but, when they did, that path took us up into the tundra and the top of our last pass with ease. My legs were reveling in it all, as was I, bit in the teeth, last significant climb of the race, emptying the tank. We averaged 11-12 vertical meters per minute for the last 30 minutes, almost continuously, which at that moment seemed a borderline absurd vindication of my training. Paige was not far behind as I sat on the soft tundra, looking at last into the Yanert valley. Paige took an Aleve and gave me one (mine had gotten wet two days earlier). At my request she gave me a Tylenol as well, which upon further reflection was in fact a NoDoz.

If you had told me then that we had over ten hours left, I would have been irate, but everything must come to an end, and we lost our momentum inexorably as we descended. Quads and feet were sore, and slowed on the rough terrain. Minds were tired, and slowed further, still in the alder and willow ‘schwacking. The Yanert, fast at first, slowed drastically as it lost gradient in the last five miles before Moose Creek. Finally, our feet and legs swelled and stiffened during over three hours sitting in small boats, and our will to push a pace on the final eight miles of ATV trail flagged. Back in the willows, we had both stopped caring about being fast to be fast, being instead motivated only to be done. Adding to the aura of mundane endings, the mosquitoes came out in force. We didn’t talk much on our way to the gravel pit, and hardly talked more as we found the sign in sheet and signed in, seeing that Luc and crew had shot the moon with their improbable route and finished 20 hours in front of us. Luc had a left a note with directions to a friend's cabin down the road, and it was there in the unbelievable, foreign familiarity of carpets, clean wood walls, chairs and pillows that I realized we had in fact finished it.

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 9
Paige floating the Yanert as the evening grew long.

A life-long goal, with an amazing partner found in unlikely circumstances. I was sad to have lost, though not very, and numb from the route's final beat down, though not for long. Mostly I was slowly coming to terms with an irrevocable fact: I would carry the burden of the Classic for the rest of my life. My intimate, tactile, direct knowledge of my capabilities had been thrust back and broadened with a suddenness the like of which I cannot recall happening since I became a teenager. The act of having traversed a huge swath of remote terrain with precious little artifice in which to find comfort had removed, preemptively, any number of future excuses for any number of future challenges. It had been revealed to me that humans, me being one, were capable of astonishing things, and under duress were capable of them right now. There was, is, no going back.

Naturally, I’ll be doing the Classic again next year.

Gear and Food

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 10
Aside from the bottle of olive oil, which I did not bring, this picture shows my complete menu and kitchen for the Classic.

The Classic traditionally melds three different gear paradigms: lightweight backpacking, packrafting, and race-pace sufferfesting. In Packrafting! Roman Dial writes about his participation in the first classic, and his obsessive weight-shaving beforehand, including adding insulation under the top of a bivy sack “...to make a sort of weather-proofed top-half-of-a-sleeping bag.” The start of the race this year featured almost all the major brands of packs common to ultralight backpacking, and it’s safe to assume that a comparably extensive influence would have been in evidence had I exhumed every pack’s contents.

Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Gear List

Category Item Weight (oz) Post-Game Comments What I'd Bring Next Time (Same Route, Similar Conditions)
CLOTHING LaSportiva Crossleather 28 Wore with Inov-8 insoles (less arch support). Worked great, wished I could have durability and fast drying in one. Experimenting with LaSportiva X Country at the moment.
  Injinji CoolMax Mini-Crew 1 Great overall, cuff height may have exacerbated abrasions on ankles from side hilling. Injinji CoolMax Crew
  NRS Hydroskin 3 Perfect. Kept feet warm in snow and glacial rivers, but not too warm while just hiking. Wore whole trip. Same
  Dirty Girl Gaiters 3 Light, dry/drain fast, kept gravel out. I add a 2" x 2" patch of velcro to heel for extra security. Same
  Haglofs OZO 7 Great shell, bomber in the route's modest bushwhacking. Hood is fantastic, and thumb loops keep rain and splash out. Same
  Montane Featherlite Pants 4 Wanted rain pants instead, esp for wet brush. Kokatat Deluxe Boater's Pants
  Pile Hoody 15 Wanted more torso insulation. Patagonia R2 Vest, MontBell Thermawrap Parka
  Capilene 2 Long Sleeve 6   Same
  Capilene 1 Stretch Short Sleeve 5 No chaffage. Same
  Patagonia Traverse Pants 10 Perfect pants. Same
  Capilene 2 Boxer Briefs 3 No chaffage. Same
  Buff 1 Good warmth for weight. Same
  SmartWool Cuffed Beanie 2 Hat redundancy a good thing. Can layer without causing eyes to bug out. Same
  Sunday Afternoons Sun Tripper 2 Dries faster and vents better than conventional ball cap Same
  Polarized Shades 1.5   Same
SLEEPING Capilene 2 Bottoms 5 Useful, could have been heavier. Maybe something heavier.
  SmartWool Socks 2 Sleep socks very useful. Same
  Heatsheets Bivy 4 Not so good, kept wet in, esp after condensation from first use. Better to have a small tarp for rain and wind. 5 x 8 foot flat tarp
COOKING/FOOD BPL Firelite 900 3 Good size. Overall hot food and drinks were key to keep warm and awake, totally worth the weight. Might be worth having, as a team, one Jetboil and one bomber firestarter (that's lighter than a stove).
  Sea to Summit Aluminum Spoon 0.5    
  MSR Pocket Rocket 4 Good for starting fires, much slower than Paige's Jetboil. A tradeoff.  
  Gas 6 Almost killed cartridge by trip end, estimate 70-80% of use was starting fires.  
  15,000 calories 128 My food was close to ideal. Finished with ~3,000 calories, a decent safety margin. More candy and chocolate. Would probably cut that safety margin finer.
  Silnylon Sack 1    
PACKING GoLite Jam 31 Perfect, no chaffage. Kept compactor hooked the whole time. Lighter MYOG pack with similar harness, slightly smaller, better side pockets.
  Sea to Summit 13L Drysack 3   Same
RAFTING Alpacka Yukon Yak (decked) 87 A decked boat is much drier and warmer, highly recommended. Same
  Aquabound Shred (200cm) 40 Have since replaced with lighter, stiffer, longer, smaller bladed Werner Shuna. Werner Shuna
  Inflation Bag, 2x Lash Straps 5    Same
MISC Repair/Med Kit 10 Never used! Same
  Canon S90 w/Shoulder Bag 10 Would've used a WP camera more. Same
  Photon Light 0.5 Not needed, but hard to give up. No light!
  Sat Phone 12 Mandatory gear. Same
  Nalgene Canteen 3 Fail. Sprung leak and was too hard to drink from on the go. 20 oz Specialized Bike Bottle
  Black Diamond Distance 130cm 10 Collapsability great for boating and airlines. Good stiffness, great grips. Tiny baskets a mixed bag, but ok. Length is 10cm longer than I've been using, but with the dual grip handles the long length provided extra push forward when I wanted it and longer lengths for bogs and stream crossings. Same
  Compass, Maps 8 Combo of big maps, a small pocket map, and a GPS (Paige had a Garmin Dakota) works well. Similar setup, planned with partner.
  SPOT2 6 Was neat to let folks at home follow along. My mom did panic a bit when we stayed put for so long. Not sure, possibly same, possibly none.
  Bear Spray 10 Worth it for possibility of encounters in thick brush. Same
  Spyderco Clipit Rescue Knife 3 Specific knife in case of entrapment while packrafting. Baladeo 22.
Total Weight (oz)   483.5    
Total Weight (lbs)   30.2    

The benefit of a light pack for the Classic are obvious. As Roman Dial wrote in this magazine half a decade ago: “weight kills speed.” Making certain that all necessary gear is as light as possible is the first task of going light, re-interrogating what "necessary" means is the second step. Going at race pace means finding out how little sleep is necessary, and for every one of the thirty years of the Classic racers have done what Roman did and left traditional sleeping gear behind to save weight, ensure minimal sleep, and thus maximize speed. Paige and I both employed this strategy with reasonable success. The team that beat us hardly slept at all, and the ten hours they gained by so doing was half their margin. Luc, John, Tyler, and Todd have comparable gear selections, but being up on glaciers for the majority of their route lacked the option Paige and I had to build fires and thus sleep for extended periods. This contrast points to a central tenant of the Classic: necessity is the best midwife of extraordinary human performance. The Classic may seem to reward boldness in gear selection, but only because the human spirit does the same.

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 11
Paige napping on the morning of day three. So long as we were somewhat dry and warm, sleep came easily.

Training for the Classic

Having completed the Classic, and in so doing having had such a fulfilling experience, my natural inclination is to encourage friends and acquaintances to seek out the same. This might not be so wise, but read these tips with the following in mind: I’ve only done one Classic and as such know very little, and these are written with the non-Alaska dwelling rookie in mind.

Patience is vital when training for the Classic. The mental capacity to deal safely with the unknown, the skill sets which need to be nurtured, and the nature of the physical development the Classic requires are all necessarily built over years. To a large extent they cannot be rushed. My specific physical training plan for 2011 centered around backcountry skiing in the first few months of the year, as well as a twelve-hour adventure race in April. These counted as, relative to the Classic, short and hard efforts. I would then take the fitness, specifically speed and power, gained therein and build more specific endurance via a series of intense backpacking trips. I ultimately did four of them, two or three days each, in late May and June. The primary criteria for each was to have 14+ hours a day of difficult foot travel, with a secondary purpose of building up my packrafting and route finding skills. I had half a dozen routes picked out for these purposes, but due to our heavy and late winter here in northwest Montana, every one had to be either heavily modified or scrapped altogether, as avalanche danger lingered well into June. Though the new routes were almost always shorter, the low snowline and resultant tough conditions ended up being perhaps the greatest asset my training this year had. I reaped the physical and mental benefit of some truly awful slogging in rotten snow, which is in both respects ideal training for the Classic.

Trails

 

One of the hallmarks of most Classic routes is the absence of human-made trails. We had perhaps 16 miles of ATV trails on our route, split evenly at the very beginning and very end. While the footing on the glaciers, sponga, river cobbles, and game trails varied enormously, it was always varied, and usually fairly soft, at least when compared to the trails common to the Lower 48. The bottoms of my feet have been more sore after numerous sub-30-mile dayhikes on the hard packed trails of Glacier National Park than they ever were during the Classic, in large part because the footing was so varied. Putting in big miles on trails is thus not especially good training for the Classic.

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - 12
The author feeling the burn after a three-day, ~100 mile traverse of the southwestern Bob Marshall Wilderness over Memorial Day weekend, 2011. The cold, wet packrafting, hiking, and snow slogging on that trip was superlative training for the Classic. Photo: Meredith Chenault.

This highlights the extent to which it’s hard for those outside Alaska to prepare specifically and well for the Classic, especially if you happen to not live close to the large wilderness complexes of the mountain west. Even in my backyard, the Bob and Glacier, the overwhelming majority of major valleys have a human-built trail. Constructing a route which compared favorably with the Classic is not possible in snow-free months. Residents of the midwest, south, or mid-Atlantic should seek out what off-trail travel they can to build the muscle and connective tissue necessary for safe, fast travel, and count on at least one training trip to the greater ranges of the Lower 48. The difficulties of melt-off in the mountains peak at an ideal time for a training trip approximately one month before the Classic.

The aforementioned backpacking trips were hard enough, mentally and physically, that I couldn’t do them on consecutive weekends. They ended up all being two weeks apart, with shorter outings occupying the intervals between. This arrangement, which my body obliged me to make, had the dual benefit of providing plenty of time for recovery, and allowing for shorter more intense efforts to ensure no top-end power was lost. To further serve this end, I did hill hiking intervals once during the week, 1-3 minute efforts with 5-10 reps. This general approach of training power/speed and then endurance is one I used racing mountain bikes, and I was pleased with how it generalized to a much longer event on foot. The weekend before I left for Alaska, I was already officially in taper mode, but took advantage of the four-mile hike in to a packrafting first descent in Glacier to test my fitness. With a ~20 pound pack and no trekking poles I hit sustained rates of vertical ascent (18 vertical meters per minute, measured on my Suunto Observer watch, which is an invaluable training tool) close to my all out best in training (22-24 vertical meters per minute). On the morning of day four, hiking up the last ascent of consequence before descending to the Yanert, we were able to sustain 11 and 12 vertical meters per minute. That extrapolates to 2,360 feet of ascent in an hour, a rate which will get you up the South Kaibab trail in the Grand Canyon in almost exactly two hours. I did not expect to see figures anywhere near that high so late in the race, and I take it as a sign that my training was solid.

Rest

 

As important as hard training is for the Classic, hard resting and recovery is even more vital. The Classic is enormously stressful on connective tissue, and your training must be equally hard. At the same time, going into the Classic anything other than fully healed from such stress is quite foolish. My experience tells me that connective tissue takes exponentially longer to heal than muscles (be it from training or injury), and thus a good rule for the hardest of training for the Classic is to over-rest. My last backpack was three weeks before the race start, and I didn’t do anything hard that lasted more than an hour or so for those three weeks. For the week before the race, I spent my time crewing for friends at a race, working, and once in Alaska hanging around Anchorage going to parties and eating scones. Mental, and well as physical rest was key to being able to empty the tank once out on course.

Skills

 

Finally, there are also the various skills necessary for the Classic, though packrafting, navigation, and fire starting stand out. It doesn’t strike me as very reasonable to go into a Classic without being an outright expert at the latter two. Packrafting experience in scrappy little creeks, without beta and in first descent mode, is a very good idea, as is experience in big and small water Class III, but you can always walk more and boat less. Picking a good route and starting a fire when you must are not so negotiable. The macro navigation on our route was pretty simple, it was the micro work which could make hours and hours of difference. Some of this is Alaska-specific - what sorts of brush are found on a given aspect and elevation - and outsiders are at a handicap. Other parts come down to the intuition for finding the best game trail or route through scree and boulders, and are built only by practice and more practice. Fortunately this practice can take place anywhere away from obvious human influence. To highlight a point from above, the game trail we hit coming into the West Fork of the Little Delta was a thing of beauty and saved us 20-30 minutes over staying out in the gravel bars.

Conclusion

 

In the end, training for a Classic isn’t unlike training for any other athletic event. Set the date for the race, decide where you want to be on that day, and work backwards through a course of development races and training trips. The Classic is just bigger, and that development course might run back for years. Remember the truth in cliché: the training is the meal and the racing merely dessert. If you can line up for the Classic in good condition, you’ll already have become the person you want to be. Finishing the race will just highlight it all the better.


Citation

"With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic," by David Chenault. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/ak_mountain_wilderness_classic.html, 2011-09-06 00:00:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic on 09/06/2011 15:44:31 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

Chris W
(simplespirit) - MLife

Locale: WNC
Re: With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic on 09/06/2011 16:47:31 MDT Print View

Awesome! Thanks Dave.

Ike Jutkowitz
(Ike) - M

Locale: Central Michigan
Wilderness classic on 09/06/2011 19:28:06 MDT Print View

This is an amazing accomplishment and one that should be cherished for a lifetime. I can't even imagine the strengths it took to place where you did, and yet I look forward to seeing the rematch. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Anne Flueckiger
(annefluke)

Locale: northern Minnesota
congrats on 09/06/2011 20:50:43 MDT Print View

Congratulations! and thanks for writing it up.

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Thanks on 09/07/2011 10:48:34 MDT Print View

It is great to read about your adventures. Sounds like a blast: a tiring, wet and scary blast!

Gabe Joyes
(gabe_joyes) - F - M

Locale: Lander, WY
congratulations on 09/07/2011 10:50:41 MDT Print View

High Five

Erin McKittrick
(mckittre) - MLife

Locale: Seldovia, Alaska
congratulations on 09/07/2011 17:45:44 MDT Print View

The Classic is quite the race. The one time I did it, I thought the best part was hanging out with all the other racers. That said, I don't think I have enough of a racer's heart to take that kind of punishment again. After the first time (and coming in nowhere near second), I ended up thinking the exact same trek would have been much more fun at half the speed, so I've gone back to my pokier wilderness adventures.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
thanks on 09/08/2011 07:58:19 MDT Print View

Thanks everyone.

Erin makes a very good point, that this (and other classic route, no doubt) would make as excellent backpacking trip of just about any length. The diversity and beauty of the terrain were really outstanding.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Just Awesome on 09/09/2011 00:13:50 MDT Print View

Congratulations, Dave!

Something to be very proud of at the least!

Simply an amazing adventure that at this point, I can only dream of.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic on 09/09/2011 09:39:53 MDT Print View

I just don't get sick of reading about the AMWC.

Eugene Smith
(Eugeneius) - MLife

Locale: Nuevo Mexico
"With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic" on 09/09/2011 11:22:35 MDT Print View

This is first class. It's obvious this was a seriously enlightening experience for you, almost equally a pleasure for us to read. I've followed your training and mental preparation for a while now over at the 'Bedrock' and it's awesome to see all those cast arrows over the year finally hit their target in your completion of the Classic. Well done Dave.


What changes will you make next year in your training? Physically? Logistically? Gear?

Will you attempt this solo? Your training trips in MT were all solo, this seems to be a natural approach to how you engage wilderness and challenges.

How necessary is a packraft for the Classic?

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
training, etc on 09/09/2011 15:14:53 MDT Print View

A packraft is essential, really. Supposedly required gear, not that anyone will check. This is supposedly just about the only Classic route which has been raced without rafts (first cycle on this course, back in the 90s). Crossing the Delta and Yanert without a raft would almost certainly require swimming, and while hairball would be doable (if you're a nutter). Most other routes have enough floating that 7-8 pounds of raft/paddle/etc is more than made up with fast floating miles. Even on this route, it's hard for me to see the lighter pack being better than the miles of floating.

I wouldn't do anything categorically different for training. The main flaw in my buildup were two hitches in the winter/spring. In February I smacked my leg into a tree backcountry skiing and had to take about 3 weeks off almost all physical activity. Then in late April after the adventure race I got sick and took the better part of two weeks to get up to speed. Baring these, and with more aggressive training in deep winter, I'd be able to hit the overnights harder earlier and peak at a higher level. I hope to do a mid-April training trip to somewhere without snow next year, too.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
solo on 09/09/2011 15:29:22 MDT Print View

As for solo, I'd prefer to do the race with a partner. It's faster, almost certainly, and when it works more fun.

I trained solo for two reasons:

-It was scarier and thus better mental training. This is an invaluable aspect of it that I'll repeat in the future. I also find the solo time necessary given my line of work.

-I know a very few number of people whom I'd invite on my training trips (especially the Bob Memorial Day trip), and none of them live close by. It can be a good experience (especially for stubborn me) to adapt your preferences to those of others on a trip (did it last weekend), on that Bob trip it just would not have been safe.


On the other hand, the Classic probably shouldn't be as scary as it often is. Going fast is one things, but for most who do the "race" it's a kicka$$, a$$kicking 25-30 mpd lightweight backpacking trip.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic on 09/09/2011 17:48:19 MDT Print View

congrats - great details!

Andy F
(AndyF) - M
Re: With a Capital C: My 2011 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic on 09/10/2011 22:15:09 MDT Print View

Congratulations David! I enjoyed reading every part of this. This is one of those races which everyone who finished won.

Chris Wood
(crwood) - M

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
Dave and Paige breezed by Don and I for sure! on 09/10/2011 22:38:44 MDT Print View

Dave, sweet write up right there. I re-lived the cold wet misery and sweet euphoria all over again!

In our defense, Don and I combined had almost 30 years over Dave and Paige, lol. Us old men inadvenrtently also slept longer on our rest breaks because I could not hear my wrist watch alarm.

Also, Don and I had an up close midnight encounter with a Grizzly sow and 2 nearly full grown cubs, and I will absolutely bring bear spray or "bear banger's" cracker shells next time.

Things I brought that provided a bit more margin over Dave's Kit:

PFD- 14 ounces
TI Goat Epic Bivy 9 ounces
Homemade climashield quilt 14 ounces (not warm enough though!)
Cut up ridgrest to fit bottom of packraft (llama) 7 oounces
Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn tarp 9 ounces

I used a Granite Gear Blaze AC 60 pack due to it's incredible hip belt and frame sheet, a MUST HAVE for my ruptured L5-S1 and L4-L5 disks.

Looks like I had about 8 to 9 more pounds of kit, and it DOES make a big difference over the terrain, and at the speed needed to be competitive in the "Classic".

Congrats to Dave and Paige for showing up Don and I.

Great to meet you up in Alaska, and we will most definitely meet up again at a future winter or summer Classic!

-Cheers!

Trevor Martin
(trevormar) - MLife

Locale: Rockies/ Desert Southwest
Altai Skis Hok on 09/11/2011 21:13:18 MDT Print View

Cool article! I'd love to be able to do this trip some day.

This is only tangentially related but I noticed in your pic that you have a pair of Altai Hoks. How do you like them? I've been looking at them for a while and they seem really intriguing and like they could possibly be great in certain situations, but as an AT/Tele skier in the backcountry I have a hard time getting past the fact that they seem like "kiddie" skis so to speak. I suppose that they appeal to me as a different/versatile sort of snow shoe. I haven't really been able to find any useful reviews of them on the interwebs

Edited by trevormar on 09/11/2011 21:41:22 MDT.

David K
(aviddk) - F

Locale: SW Oregon
Me too! on 09/11/2011 21:51:54 MDT Print View

David,

I am going to second Trevor's comment about shoeskiing. I thought you were preparing a review about The Hok and the Marquette Backcountry skis, is that still forthcoming? Thanks

David

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
Hoks on 09/11/2011 22:09:17 MDT Print View

The Hok article is in the que, and will be published soon (whenever Addie wants to).

Chris, you guys rocked it. That is a hard route. That espresso in Talkeetna is still the best I've ever had. Until next time sir!

Ed Tyanich
(runsmtns) - F - M
Wilderness Classic History on 09/12/2011 08:43:01 MDT Print View

I had an interesting find yesterday while cleaning out my Mom's house, who passed away last month. In the basement I found a folder of stuff of mine I had saved over the years and in the folder was an article on the Wilderness Classic from 1985 in Outside magazine. The Classic has intrigued me ever since and like Sam said, I never tire of reading about it.