100 Miles in the Wrangell Mountains with Joe Stock
100 Miles in the Wrangell Mountains
Trip Report just in from: Joe Stock
The Wrangell Mountains sit like peaceful giants along the Glenn Highway in Alaska. As mountaineers drive by, they gawk at these beasts. Later, while daydreaming of lofty Alaska trips the Wrangell’s significance is lost to more glamorous mountains like the nearby Chugach and Alaska Range. Like most mountaineers, Dylan Taylor, Danny Uhlmann and I had never visited the Wrangells, but they sounded like a great place for ski touring.
Located entirely within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park—America’s largest National Park—the Wrangells are a 100-mile north extension of the vast Saint Elias Mountains. The Wrangells include Mount Blackburn (4,996 m) and Mount Sanford (4,949 m), the twelfth and thirteenth highest summits in North America, in addition to Mount Wrangell, a 4,317-meter shield volcano.
In early May, Gary Green’s Pilatus Porter disappeared in the distance leaving us in silence on the barren Skolai Pass in the eastern Wrangells. We had skis, food for ten days and a pile of maps. We also had big ideas, but only one expectation: to have a crazy adventure.
Carrying our skis, we hiked cobbles to thick overflow ice and skied under glowering clouds that stacked against the higher summits. That night we camped among the rubble of the Middle Fork Glacier moraines, feeling jittery with excitement at seeing a new range. We skied all the next day on thin snow over ice into a steep-walled cirque where a ground storm stopped us. The wind roared all night, loading the dramatic ski terrain. The next morning we found ourselves cul-de-saced by steep faces loaded with hair-trigger avalanche slabs. We searched the basin for two days for an escape route—often retreating from whumphing faces and sometimes remote triggering avalanches from a hundred meters away.
Eventually we found a 9,000-foot sneak to the Chisana Glacier, but there we discovered a new hazard—crevasses. Not just regular crevasses, but little, hidden and nasty crevasses that kept us roped together like dogs. In slow mountaineering-style, we crossed the vast Chisana neve and camped in silent, pink twilight at 8,700 feet. The next day we continued searching for thicker snow. Anything to bridge the crevasses and subdue the avalanches. The crevasses just became deeper and hungrier and the lurking avalanches wanting to stuff us into those terrifying slots. Trapped, we searched the maps for an escape route and gambled on the Nizina Glacier, hoping it would let us slog 50 miles out to the mining-gone hippy town of McCarthy.
We skied 25 miles down the Nizina Glacier, following a family of bears, but mostly following medial moraines that twisted like anacondas toward a pro-glacial lake. We skated marginal ice across the lake and crested a terminal moraine to see a sight of staggering beauty. The Nizina floodplain stretched flat and broad, lined with limestone walls, fading into a the distance, hazy with windblown glacial dust. For two days we walked together down the tundra-coated cobbles, often watching immense frozen waterfalls appear in the gullies. When the river banked hard against the mountains we bushwacked on bear trails, dragging our skis in the duff. Somehow the crippling beauty of Alaska subdued the irony and agony of carrying skis. Late in the evening we walked into McCarthy, a week before tourist season, the town was silent.
Maybe our trip wasn’t the Big Idea, but we didn’t feel cheated. Although we didn’t plan on dodging avalanches, tiptoeing over crevasses and carrying our skis for endless miles, our trip went exactly as planned: we had a crazy adventure. In Alaska plans are often just talking points. The real objective is the unknown and the plan is no plan. Except for one: I’ll be visiting the Wrangells again real soon.
On the expedition I used G3 Saint skis rigged with Onyx bindings and Alpinist skins. This system worked awesome! Thanks for making incredible gear G3!