Black Rapids to Healy Traverse Part III: Gillam Glacier to Paradise

 
 Buchanan Pass, the second highest point reached during the traverse. (Elevation: ~6300 feet.)

Buchanan Pass, the second highest point reached during the traverse. (Elevation: ~6300 feet.)

This is the third entry in a series covering my traverse from Black Rapids to Healy in early August 2018. Read Part I & Part II.

After reaching our first food drop we no longer had to worry about running behind schedule. With only one more glacier to cross and several relatively easy gravel bars and alpine valleys to follow, the remaining 80+ miles to Healy promised to go by much more quickly. However, continued wet and dreary weather would make it difficult to stay warm and we expected to encounter a few difficult water crossings along the way.

Day 7:

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After saying goodbye to our companions who decided to fly out, the remaining four of us (Peter, Phillip, Grant and I) began hiking along the south edge of the East Fork Little Delta River to Gillam Glacier. Light rain was falling and we couldn’t see much through the dense fog. There was no sign of Mount Deborah or Hess Mountain up the glacier valley, which I found quite disappointing. The river raging beside us had carved steep walls in the bank which prevented easy gravel bar travel. Instead, we were forced to bushwhack and scramble over a few small hills on the way to the glacier. We passed this Dall sheep skull along the way, which symbolized the morning’s mood.

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Gillam Glacier was a mess and crossing it to get around the East Fork Little Delta River was much tougher than I had expected it would be. We skirted a big lake in front of the glacier and picked our way around standing pools of water as we approached the terminus. The rain intensified as we hiked up and down over the steep hills on the moraine toward the north edge of the glacier, where we encountered a wide stream emptying into the lake. Hiking farther up the glacier to avoid crossing the stream looked like a significant detour, though we couldn’t tell exactly how significant due to the fog. Gigantic, 20-foot high chunks of ice had collapsed off the side of the glacier and were lying in the stream next to where we would otherwise have to cross. Peter scouted the stream and successfully crossed to the far side with the water reaching his thighs. After some hesitation the rest of us followed one-by-one, taking about a minute each to cross through the icy water. After a steep climb onto the bench above Gillam Glacier we spent the rest of the day marching over tundra and sidehilling along the slope above Buchanan Creek through the fog. We passed a couple shadowy caribou but couldn’t see much else.

Day 8:

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When I unzipped the tent the next morning the tundra was sprinkled with wet snow. It was tough to put on my wet socks and hiking boots, but we were expecting Phillip’s girlfriend and her dad to drop McDonald’s to us from a plane later that day and that was enough motivation for me to get moving. Most of our gear was wet, but Peter was determined to keep his gloves dry in the cold rain by wearing plastic bags over them.

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Light rain turned to snow as we hiked up Buchanan Creek toward Buchanan Pass. Once we entered the clouds everything became monochromatic. We hiked up the steep incline to the pass over slippery, snow-covered rocks and then found our way down the other side with a little help from the GPS. Continuing along the unnamed creek on the far side of the pass we encountered a couple grizzly bear cubs at close range, but the mother never showed herself. The cubs looked at us curiously for what seemed like two or three minutes, then moved into the brush.

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The low cloud ceiling over the West Fork Little Delta River threatened to derail the McDonald’s air drop. When we neared the river we waited on the hillside for the plane, watching as smoke rose from the chimney of a hunting cabin down below. Finally, we heard the sound of a bush plane echo through the valley and we collectively started drooling as we waved our arms at the plane. A few packages fell from the sky containing maps, four McDonald’s Quarter Pounders and 20 Chicken McNuggets. The fast food certainly helped our morale, even if it barely made a dent in our appetites. More rain fell that evening but we were expecting the clouds to finally clear the next night.

Day 9:

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The water level of the West Fork Little Delta River had visibly decreased overnight and we could tell from our campsite above the river it wouldn’t be difficult to cross. A plane shuttling hunters and their gear to the cabin landed multiple times on the gravel bar as we packed up and hiked down to the river. A hunting guide approached us to chat about the area and what we were doing, and we laughed when he asked what kind of waders we were using to cross the rivers. We crossed the river easily and hiked along the gravel bar until a major fork blocked our way and forced us to take a detour up a side valley to find a safe crossing spot. The rest of the way along the gravel bar was easy, though we had to cross a few channels here and there. We turned up a valley leading to our next pass as traces of sun appeared on the mountains for the first time in three days.

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As the clouds cleared and the sun came out I attached a circular polarizer to my lens for the first time since the start of the traverse. Everybody’s mood instantly improved and the nameless valley we were hiking through might as well have been called Paradise. Sheep and caribou trails crisscrossed the steep scree slopes around us, and a small group of caribou ran to the opposite side of the valley as we approached.

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After nine days of backpacking we could finally set up camp in the sunshine! We set our clothes and gear out to dry and used solar panels to recharge our electronics. That night was probably the coldest we experienced during the traverse but it was worth being dry. By this time we could start to feel the finish line and we were looking forward to our first meal back in civilization.

Fourth and final part coming soon!

 

Devils Thumb Aurora

 
 Aurora borealis over Devils Thumb in the Alaska Range, near Black Rapids.

Aurora borealis over Devils Thumb in the Alaska Range, near Black Rapids.

Devils Thumb is a prominent rock feature that juts out from the north side of the ridge between Trims Creek and Castner Glacier in the Alaska Range. (Not to be confused with the mountain of the same name in Southeast Alaska which contains some of the craziest rock faces on the planet.) After looking at the thumb from afar for a couple years I realized it would make an interesting foreground subject in an aurora image—even more so if I could find someone to climb it. Grant, my friend who accompanied me on my recent traverse from Black Rapids to Healy, thought the idea sounded cool and brought his rock climbing buddy Matt along for the adventure. We weren’t sure if the rock quality would support safe climbing, but there was only one way to find out.

We started hiking late in the day and reached Devils Thumb well after sunset. My companions’ eyes widened when they saw the rock up close for the first time—it was a lot bigger than they expected from the pictures I had sent them from a previous scouting trip. We scrambled down a short section of snow-covered rock and walked along the narrow spur leading to the thumb’s base where we dropped our heavy packs. Grant and Matt immediately began preparing their climbing gear as the moon crept over the mountains to the east. The rock readily crumbled away as they inspected it, but Grant tried climbing it, anyway. There were holds everywhere but Grant struggled to find any that were stable, and he couldn’t find any cracks to place protection. I snapped a few photos of him climbing in the dark with his (too) bright headlamp while keeping my eye on the faint band of aurora developing over the northeast horizon.

 Grant climbing Devils Thumb in the dark with Matt belaying. The rising moon is casting a warm glow on the mountains.

Grant climbing Devils Thumb in the dark with Matt belaying. The rising moon is casting a warm glow on the mountains.

 Grant and Matt light up Devils Thumb with their headlamps as the aurora rises.

Grant and Matt light up Devils Thumb with their headlamps as the aurora rises.

After testing another route Grant finally found a crack and pounded in a piton, then continued up with Matt belaying from below. By this time I was busy looking at aurora data on my phone, so I was startled when I heard one or perhaps both of them shout. I looked up and saw Grant falling, watching as his headlamp flashed around the base of the rock. He landed on the scree slope next to Matt and slid a short way down before coming to a stop. His piton ripped out during the fall, but luckily the landing wasn’t bad and he survived mostly unscathed. Grant tried scrambling up one more time but slipped on loose rock and half-fell, half-ran back down the thumb without incident.

It was clear my companions weren’t going to find a safe route up Devils Thumb in the cold and dark, so we set up the winter tent we brought and waited for the aurora to brighten. The aurora remained dull and low on the horizon for a short time until an arc suddenly rose over the thumb and stretched across the mountains to the northeast. Even though the arc wasn’t that bright or impressive, I quickly took several different compositions just in case this was the best I was going to get.

However, the aurora soon brightened and treated us to an unexpectedly brilliant show that lasted two hours. Streaks of vivid pink flashed fleetingly across the sky while green arcs twisted into wild shapes and oscillated in brightness. During its peak intensity the aurora spread into the southern sky, doing battle with the mostly full moon over the peaks of the eastern Alaska Range. There’s no better place to view the aurora than a mountain on a moonlit night; you can easily forget your attachment to civilization while you stand overwhelmed by the scale of everything surrounding you—the landscape, the aurora, the stars in space…

Grant hiked farther up the ridge to take photographs with the lens I loaned him while Matt watched the aurora near the tent until he succumbed to sleep some time after midnight. I photographed from the narrow confines of the spur and had to be careful not to let my gear roll down the steep slopes on either side of me.

 Matt watches the aurora next to Devils Thumb and our tent.

Matt watches the aurora next to Devils Thumb and our tent.

 An intensely bright and fast-moving aurora display over Item Peak and Trims Glacier. The aurora details came out blurry even though this was a relatively short 2-second exposure.

An intensely bright and fast-moving aurora display over Item Peak and Trims Glacier. The aurora details came out blurry even though this was a relatively short 2-second exposure.

 Aurora and the moon in the sky with our tracks on the spur in the foreground. Grant is visible as a small black dot on the rightmost false summit.

Aurora and the moon in the sky with our tracks on the spur in the foreground. Grant is visible as a small black dot on the rightmost false summit.

After the aurora began to fade I went to find Grant. I spotted his headlamp on top of the nearest false summit along the ridge and caught him walking back about half-way in between. The aurora flared up one last time while we watched from the ridge, but it grew quiet after that and I gladly crawled into the warm tent where I stole a few hours of sleep.

We packed up our gear in the morning and began descending the ridge back to the highway. Several caribou were grazing in the morning sunshine off to our left as we quickly dropped elevation. Once we reached the brush we perplexingly spent more time bushwhacking than we did on the way up. We reached the highway before noon, then stopped at JB’s Thai in Delta Junction for lunch before the boys left for Fairbanks.

I think Grant and Matt want another attempt on Devils Thumb but I’m guessing they’ll wait until next summer. The cold temperatures and short daylight hours of winter are quickly approaching so shots like these will become significantly harder to undertake. Shooting the aurora from the backcountry requires significant physical effort, outdoor skills and extra gear, but it also requires the right conditions to nail a shot, including weather, moon phase, auroral activity, time of year, etc., which vastly limits the number of opportunities I have to attempt shots like these.

 Hiking and glissading back to the highway. Devils Thumb is peeking over the ridge between Grant (left) and Matt (right).

Hiking and glissading back to the highway. Devils Thumb is peeking over the ridge between Grant (left) and Matt (right).

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