Alaskan Alpine Club
Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Race reports.
The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Race is not affiliated with the Alaskan Alpine Club in any way. We offer the race information and reports because it is a classic Alaska thing, through the mountains.
This race is serious. Started in 1982, it is perhaps the first true wilderness race after the one Otzi the Ice Man ran against the guy with the bow and arrows. The race has a starting point and a finish point, somewhere in Alaska, with no required or set route. No traveling on roads. No motorized vehicles. Carry everything. Drop nothing. No food or equipment pick-ups or drops. Serious grizzly bear country, and they can run faster than you, and they are the least of the hazards. The race area changes every three or so years. Some of the winners over the years have been very innovative in route selection and techniques, as have some of the losers. Usually a 3 - 6 day race, in the summer.
If you have not done the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, do not too widely brag about any extreme adventure races you have done. If you have done the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, and survived, you might not brag about things anymore.
For more race information check the contacts on the Events Page.
One description of the race: "Just a group of friends who like to party in two places, about 150 - 175 miles and a week apart."
2011 ...... 30th Annual Pre-race info.
The race starts on 16 July. The course this year is the Alaska Range course. It starts at the Gerstle River Bridge on the Alaska Highway south of Delta Junction, in the Alaska Range. It runs west through or beside the Alaska Range, to near McKinley Village on the Nenana River, Parks Highway, in the Alaska Range. Spectacular country. Glaciers, crevasses, moulins, grizzly bears, irate moose, storms, raging glacial rivers, swamps, giant mosquitoes, trolls, and five forest monsters last seen just north of Mt. Hayes. Just the usual local conditions. But you must outrun them all.
Contact: Michael Martin, email: mickeyMamwc@Comcast.net
29th Annual Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Race Report - The web slave was asleep, and forgot to upload the report, but rumor has it that somebody won.
28th Annual Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Race Report - Aug 2009
The 2009 race report did not reach the club. The race committee and the club have similar paperwork slaves. Not all the reports get to the proper places, and some do not get written. The Roaming Dials webpage has a good video on the race, somewhere on the page: PackRafting.Blogspot.com.
27th Annual Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Race Report - June 15, 2008 - Chicken to Central
The running of the 27th Annual Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic race was the third and final installment of the grueling Chicken to Central course. The course will long be remembered as one of extreme difficulty and attrition, with success rates for the three year period hovering below 60%. The fact that this may well be the first ever Classic where the winning time in successive races became longer rather than shorter speaks volumes about the course. This winning time this year was 5 hours longer than the winning time last year, and 12 hours longer than the winning time in 2006.
A Showdown at Circle Hot Springs
The four winners of the 2008 Classic represented the merging of two teams: Tyler Johnson & Craig "Chunk" Barnard, and Butch Allen & Jim McDonough. How these two teams came to cross the finish line together is a story that will pass into Classic legend.
After traveling separately along slightly different routes over the previous 4+ days, the two teams arrived at Circle Hot Springs at almost exactly the same time, with only 8 miles of gravel road separating them from the finish line in Central. After the initial shock of seeing other racers this late in the game wore off, an old-fashioned, Wild West standoff ensued.
The two teams, although tired and battered, squared up, face to face, to size each other up. The tension was palpable. You could smell the testosterone and body odor. Who would blink first? Who would make the first move towards the road to Central? Nobody wanted to back down. As one racer had remarked at the start of the race, "There will be blood."
McDonough spoke first. "Well, gentlemen, we have two choices: we can take off running and run until the last man is standing, or we can all shake hands and walk into Central as winners." After a few seconds, Chunk broke the silence. "If we walk in, does that mean that I would still be exempt from having to pay future race entry fees?"
Race director Butch Allen replied, "Yes. Once you win a Classic you are exempt for life." "Then that sounds good to me!" Chunk replied.
With the tension finally broken, and Chunk dreaming of a lifetime of free races, the four racers shook hands and congratulated each other and began the victory march to Central. After several miles on the hard-packed gravel, the racers all agreed that the decision to not take part in an all-out sprint was a wise one. All four of the racers began to experience the phenomena that the previous race winner Bobby Schnell has dubbed "exploding feet." Exploding feet often occurs after hours or days of walking on soft, wet trails, followed by a rapid transition to hard gravel or pavement.
Feet swelled and blisters oozed. Walking the last eight miles was challenging, and by the last mile the pace of the group had slowed to 1.5 miles per hour. Fortunately, cold swamp water in the roadside ditches allowed for periodic soakings. Finally, the group hobbled into the finish like a bunch of old men. It was agreed by all that attempting to run the last eight miles would have done some serious and lasting foot damage.
A Tale of Two Routes
The Johnson/Barnard team (293 total miles) and Allen/McDonough team (284 total miles) followed similar routes. Concerned about possible low water in the Charley basin, both teams floated the 40-Mile River from Chicken towards the border. With travel in Canada strictly prohibited, the Johnson/Barnard team took out at the border and headed due north, following the border cut (a.k.a. the "Swath") directly. They stayed on the Swath for about 20 miles before traversing inland and taking the high country to the Yukon to avoid the last two burned-out canyons and the dreaded "Valley of 10,000 Sticks."
The Allen/McDonough team arrived a few hours later and took out at Sam Patch Creek, about a quarter-mile before the border. Having experienced the pain and misery of the Swath in 2006, the boys immediately headed for the high ridges just west of the border. By connecting the ridges and high points, they avoided traveling in the burned out valleys where the trees resembled a giant's game of "Pick-Up-Sticks". The ridges were fairly easy traveling since the burned up trees at elevation were smaller diameter and had not started falling over yet. Higher yet, the traveling was even easier on the treeless tundra. Their new route was 9 miles longer (34 miles versus 25) than taking the border cut directly, but they were able to shave almost 7 full hours off their time from 2006 (29 hours versus 36 hours). Having avoiding the dreaded "Valley of 10,000 Sticks", they were literally giddy with laughter when they reached the Yukon and inflated their rafts.
The 110-mile float down the Yukon to Woodchopper Creek that followed was fairly smooth for both teams, with Allen/McDonough making only two brief stops to allow storm squalls to pass. It was also a great opportunity to rest the feet and take some cat-naps in the warm sun. McDonough had purchased a larger packraft specifically for this purpose, and with his 5' 5" frame nestled fully inside the raft, it was like having a fully enclosed cabin-cruiser.
Allen/McDonough arrived at Slaven's Cabin just as Johnson/Barnard were leaving. Johnson said they had overslept, taking a total of six hours rest. They told Allen/McDonough exactly where they were going - all the way up Woodchopper and into the high country to avoid the swamps and bushwhacking. There are very few people in Alaska that are stronger in the high country than Tyler and Chunk, and they were certainly playing to their strengths. Tyler recently summited Cho Oyu without bottled oxygen and Chunk, a Cooper Landing carpenter, arguably spends more days backcountry skiing than anyone else in Alaska. Both are mountain goats for sure. After drying out their gear, Allen & McDonough slept for only three hours to make up some lost time. They gorged on sausage fried in bacon grease before hitting the trail.
The Ghost of Joe Vogler
Allen/McDonough initially planed to head all the way up the valley to the head of Woodchopper Creek, traverse the pass, and then drop down in the Yukon Fork of Birch Creek to float from there. However, the possibility of low water in Birch Creek had cast serious doubts on their plan. As they headed up the valley and started to climb, they crossed what later turned out to be the infamous Joe Vogler (a.k.a. Bielenberg) Cat Trail. They had heard rumors that the trail went all the way to Woodchopper, but nobody associated with the race had yet found the missing link. The Park Service claimed that they had stopped Vogler and his D-8 Caterpillar at Webber Creek, miles short of his intended destination: his mining claim at Woodchopper. The news reports said that Vogler's dozer was left in its tracks. The July 14, 1984 armed standoff between Vogler's crew and the Park Service was later dubbed the "Battle of Webber Creek" by the media.
Having a passable trail in front of them, Allen/McDonough abandoned their plans to head into the high country and followed the trail. It seemed to be the only possible way they could keep pace with Johnson/Barnard who, at this point, were several hours ahead of them.
Apparently, Old Joe Vogler must have snuck back in a few weeks later and fired up the cat to finish the job. The dozer track does indeed go all the way from Vogler's claim (now owned by Stan Gelvin) at Woodchopper, past Webber Creek, to the east shore of Birch Creek, and finally on to Circle Hot Springs. Allen/McDonough stayed on the track the whole way in, almost 40 miles from Woodchopper to Circle Hot Springs. Although the track is overgrown in spots and under water for at least half of its length, it was still manageable. By staying in one of the two depressions left by the dozer tracks, they avoided having to walk on top of the wobbly tussocks. The muddy sections presented the greatest challenge, where the depths would range from a few inches to over a foot deep. They had to be careful not to let the deep mud suck the shoes off of their feet.
It took Allen/McDonough about 36 hours to make the 40-mile run from Woodchopper to Circle Hot Springs. Several sections of trail forced them to wade through thigh-deep swamp, but by staying in the dozer ruts they could still manage at least a half-a-mile per hour through the worst of it. They slept on the trail for only one hour during the heat of the day, knowing full well that Johnson/Barnard may still have the advantage in the high country above them. Allen/McDonough could see the ridges and peaks to the south the whole time, and could only speculate on what kind of progress the other team was making.
The Amazing Taco Bell Traverse
As Allen/McDonough slogged through the swamp trail below, Johnson/Barnard were busy working on their masterpiece in the high country. The dynamic duo climbed to the head of Woodchopper, and stayed in the high country for close to 42 miles. Their route to Circle Hot Springs took them up and down no less than ten different peaks, with a total elevation gain of over 15,000 vertical feet (per TOPO route data). Johnson said they had no other choice than to tackle each peak directly. Slippery and unstable slopes of slag would not allow for any side-hilling whatsoever. Additionally, large, unstable boulder fields also had to be navigated, and on more than one occasion, the boys had to react quickly to avoid being crushed by an unstable boulder.
Their traverse should go down as one of the more noteworthy efforts in recent memory, especially when considering how late in the race it took place. At a time when most racers begin to fall apart, Tyler and Craig seemed to get stronger. Also noteworthy is the food the boys were carrying - mostly burritos from Taco Bell.
Into Circle Hot Springs
When Allen/McDonough hit the final stretch of the trail after crossing Birch Creek, they saw no human footprints in the mud ahead of them. Filled with adrenaline at the prospect of their first Classic victory, they pushed hard for the last 11 miles through the muddy trail.
McDonough was pumped up for what looked to be their first Classic victory in six attempts. Allen refused to acknowledge him, repeating the phrase "It's the Classic - anything can happen. Somebody could pop out of the brush at any moment." And Allen was absolutely right. The team was only about a third of a mile from Circle Hot Springs Resort when Johnson/Barnard simply "appeared from nowhere" from the high country and descended onto the trail. It took a few seconds to realize that the two men approaching them were not a hallucination.
McDonough summarized his thoughts: "All along the course, we kept waiting for the wheels to fall off like they typically do. But it just never happened. The food was plentiful. No major navigational mistakes. The route seemed to lie down in front of us. We slept for a total of eight hours which was just enough to avoid hallucinations. As the race went on, we became more and more aware of what was happening, as unbelievable as it was. It's not something that happens often during these races. Sharing the victory with Craig and Tyler was also special, after witnessing what they had done up in the high country. To watch those guys pull off such a huge traverse, especially so deep into a long race, was nothing short of spectacular."
The Jedi of Pain
This year's 2nd Place finisher was none other than the "Jedi of Pain" himself, Dr. John Lapkass. As most of you know, John typically makes it a point to race solo and goes to great lengths to keep his whereabouts and his route top secret. John also enjoys longer routes versus shorter ones, assuring that he will enter the "higher plane of enlightenment" that he seeks year after year. The 2008 race represents John's 16th Classic.
John followed a similar route as the winners, but skipped past Woodchopper Creek and opted for Thanksgiving Creek instead. After battling up Thanksgiving Creek (which is a straight-up bushwhack with no trails whatsoever), he hooked up with the Vogler/Bielenberg trail and followed the swampy track to the finish. His time of 5 days, 15 hours and 57 minutes was almost a full day faster than his time from 2007. John's 2nd place effort represents what is believed to be his best finish ever. Congratulations, John!
Those racers who stayed up into the wee hours of Friday morning to see John finish were able to witness his euphoric state firsthand. While standing around the fire, John pointed out many of the vivid hallucinations he was experiencing, most notably the Tin Man (from the Wizard of Oz) and the Talking Squirrel in the Fire. John also described the "rock radio" he encountered on the trail last year and again this year. He said the boulder was in the exact same location as last year, only this year it was playing Spanish music rather than Top 40 pop. The particular hallucination was so real that he actually inspected the rock to see if any wires were attached.
7 Days of Bliss
This year's 3rd place finishers consisted of "Iron" Mike Sullivan and Leo Claunan, both professional pararescue men (or "PJ's") with the Air National Guard in Anchorage. Mike and Leo were the only racers to complete the Charley route this year, and they deserve special mention for grinding out the route despite the low water conditions. They suffered through low water, dwindling food supplies, a few navigational errors, a huge hole in Mike's raft and Leo's blown-out shoe. As was the case last year, the Yukon Fork of Birch Creek had very little water in it, and the duo was forced to walk many miles of creek bed before they could float in their rafts. Mike, having scratched the two previous years, was bound and determined to finish the course this year. Their perseverance paid off with a finish time of 7 days, 8 hours and 44 minutes. Way to stay with it, fellas!
The Indomitable Dick Griffith
The 2008 Classic marked the first and only time that the race has had a Master's Division. Race director Butch Allen created a special rule that allowed all racers over the age of 80 to both enter Canada and use the Steese Highway from Circle to Central.
We only had one official entrant in the Master's Division - The amazing Dick Griffith, just shy of 81 years old. As most of you know, Dick is truly the Godfather of Alaska adventure racing and the Wilderness Classic. Dick also pioneered the use of the packraft and has floated more rivers since the Classic began in 1982 than most of us can count.
Dick was accompanied by longtime racing companion Jerry Dixon. Some of the duo's history includes racing together in 4 Wilderness Classics, traversing 7 mountain ranges and skiing 600 miles of the Iditarod Trail. For Jerry, a former smokejumper and Fire Management Officer in the 40-Mile/Eagle area, it was truly an honor to travel with Dick through his old stomping grounds. The pair made several historical stops along the way, including the Long Tom cabin on the 40-Mile River (built in 1910), Jerry's hand-made log cabin in Eagle, The public use cabin at Nation (built in 1908) and, of course, the amazing Slaven's Cabin. Dick and Jerry finished the course in the neighborhood of five days.
Jerry described his time with Dick as a magic journey, and likened the experience to "being 20 years old again." Jerry said one of the highlights of the trip was experiencing the thunderstorms, lighting and rain while on the Yukon.
Dick announced that this, believed to be his 25th race, will be his last Wilderness Classic. He said, "I was already old when this started", way back in 1982. Dick's favorite course is still Nabesna to McCarthy, with Eureka to Talkeetna a close second. When Dick introduced the packraft to the Classic in 1982 and nearly beat men that were half his age, he uttered one of his most famous quotes: "Old age and treachery will beat youth and vigor every time."
We sincerely thank Dick on behalf of all racers, past and present. Dick, your contributions to this race and to human-powered exploration in general will live on for generations to come. Sharing the course with you for one last time has certainly been our privilege. Best wishes on your future journeys.
Return of the Iron Maiden
The 2008 race marked the return of Nora Tobin, whom Dick has dubbed "The Iron Maiden." As most of you may already know, Nora suffered a severe back injury while skiing back in November of 2007, requiring extensive surgery and rehabilitation. She shattered 3 vertebrae, but luckily did not damage her spinal cord.
To have Nora on the course again was a treat for everyone, as she carries such a positive energy with her wherever she treads. Although low water in the Charley and blistered feet forced her and her partner Brook Kintz to scratch and float the Charley to Circle, it was still a great effort considering, just six months ago, she was hobbling around in a walker with metal rods and screws holding her spine together. She had the body cast removed in March. We all hope to see Nora again in 2009, when she is fully recovered and showing all of the boys how it is supposed to be done. Welcome back, Nora!
Cat Scratch Fever
As was the case last year, the Charley drainage was low and not kind to racers. The rookie duo of Kyle Amstadter and Ryan Johnson made a noble effort, but eventually scratched at Circle. After dropping into Fish Creek too early (they were lured in by snow that appeared to be water), the duo became separated and lost precious time to bushwhacking and attempting to float the low water in Fish Creek. Their key learning points were: stick to the plan, don't get separated and never forget that Alaska is Big.
Michael Martin, a professor of Oral Medicine for the University of Washington and a Classic veteran, was fully prepared to lay siege to the Charley route. Knowing it was a long course, he carried a well-stocked pack that weighed 44 pounds at the start. Unfortunately, he succumbed to severe nausea about 30 miles in. After resting and attempting to recover, he decided to slowly head back to Chicken.
Rob "The Yak" Kehrer and Matt Reardon, veterans of the Eureka to Talkeetna races, also fell victim to a similar illness when Rob went down during their traverse from the 40-Mile to the Yukon. The pair had been moving together very well up until the point where Rob's GI tract literally stopped them in their tracks. By the time Rob had recovered, the duo decided to finish the traverse to the Yukon and float down to Circle where they officially scratched. Knowing how much these guys enjoy racing together certainly guarantees that they will be back in the not too distant future.
Recap and Looking Forward to 2009
2008 was a success in that nobody required outside rescue. All of the people who scratched were able to self-rescue. No planes or helicopters were put into the air. Undeniably, the primary reason for this is the use of satellite phones. Sat phones will continue to be the one and only piece of mandatory gear required by every racer. It is a small price to pay to keep our humble little race off of the front page of the Daily News.
In keeping with Classic tradition, 2009 will mark the start of a new course for three more years. No course decisions have been made yet, but rest assured that the new course will be challenging, unique and will offer many possible route options.
A Special Thanks
Many thanks to the Busby Family and the crew of the Chicken Gold Camp, who once again sent us off in style from Chicken. Your kindness and accommodation will not soon be forgotten.
Thanks also to the Steese Roadhouse in Central, who served many meals to hungry racers and allowed us to use their facility as our command post.
We were fortunate to once again have use of Rourke William's family homestead at the finish line in Central. Rourke, we are forever in your debt! Many beers were consumed and tales told and retold around the comfort of your fire pit. And we can't say enough about having real beds to sleep on.
Sherri Tingey has come through once again and agreed to donate a brand new Alpacka Raft. Butch will be coordinating the drawing, which will take place at the post-race party. Stay tuned for times and dates.
And, last but certainly no least, a heartfelt thanks goes out to Ann Marie Sack and Gabriel Goldstein for giving up their time to help the racers at the finish. Ann Marie continues to be our "Angel of Mercy" at the end of a long course. We hope that she still finds us entertaining enough to lend support next year on the new course. And Chef Gabriel is welcome back anytime. That beef stew was to die for, brother!
Official Results - 16 starters, 9 finishers
First Place: Butch Allen & Jim McDonough, Tyler Johnson & Craig Barnard: 4 days, 22 hrs, 56 minutes
Second Place: John Lapkass: 5 days, 15 hours, 57 minutes (solo)
Third Place: Mike Sullivan & Leo Claunan: 7 days, 8 hours, 44 minutes
Master's Division Winner: Dick Griffith, age 81 (accompanied by Jerry Dixon): Approx. 5 days.
Scratched: Matt Reardon & Rob Kehrer (illness - floated out to Circle from above Eagle)
Michael Martin (illness - floated 40-mile back towards Chicken)
Nora Tobin & Brook Kintz (low water in Charley/bad feet - floated out to Circle)
Kyle Amstadter & Ryan Johnson (low water in Charley - floated out to Circle
2007 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - Chicken to Central, Report by Jason Geck and Butch Allen
With a new hazard to contend with, wildfires, racers of the 26th running of the Wilderness Classic made their way from Chicken to Central along the 180 mile route. Alaska National Guard Para-jumpers Robert Schnell and Chris Robertson repeated victory in the race with a time seven hours slower than previous year. Following a similar route as 2006, Schnell and Robertson traveled on historic mining roads out of Chicken to the headwaters of the Charley River. Low water on the Charley and South Yukon Fork South Fork of Birch Creek slowed progress.
Racers Jason Geck and Brad Marden took a nap after catching leaders which proved to be disastrous. As they slept near the divide of Yukon Fork South Fork of Birch Creek and Beverly Creek waiting for morning "fog" to clear, they awoke to a raging wildfire located in WoodChopper drainage. The team returned back to the Charley River under heavy smoke and packrafted to Circle via the Yukon River. This proved to be the route of several racers who self rescued due to wildfire or tired feet.
The team of John Pekarand and Kevin Linebarger along with solo racer John Lapkass each headed north to the Yukon River from Chicken avoiding the past burned areas along the Alaska-Canadian Border. After floating past the Woodcutter fire, they cut inland searching for the Bielenberg Trail that connects with the gravel road into Central.
Jeff Banish followed the majority of racers out of Chicken but gambled on saving time on Fish Creek to reach the Forty Mile - which lost him some time getting to the Charley River where he chose the energy saving mode of packrafting to Circle.
Racing veterans Butch Allen and Jim McDonough also headed to the Charley River from Chicken only to 'down climb' the river as water levels dropped lower and lower.
Rob Taylor made it to the Charley River and rested up his feet, which allowed him to avoid the worst of WoodChopper drainage fire and make his way to Birch Creek to Central where he was the last of the six to officially finish the race.
PJ Michael Sullivan traveled solo via mining roads / Fish Creek Route to the Charley where he came upon McDounough, Allen, and Maslow. Sullivan traveled on with them for most of the Charley until heading out solo to exit at Circle even with 'Marlo Brandon' hallucinations leading him astray.
The race had six official finishers, six self rescue via the Yukon River to Circle, and two drop outs. The only outside racer, Bill Maslow made it to within a few miles of Circle - but on the wrong side of the Yukon River. He flagged down a helicopter working on the fire and was flown to Circle. Kyle Lints self rescued via the Forty Mile back to the start in Chicken.
Robert Schnell, 4 days 17 hours 46 minutes
Chris Robertson, 4 days 17 hours 46 minutes
John Pekar, 5 days 22 hours 42 minutes
Kevin Linebarger, 5 days 22 hours 42 minutes
John Lapkass, 6 days 14 hours 31 minutes
Rob Taylor, 6 days 22 hours 43 minutes
Fortymile River back to highway...
rescued on Yukon River...
2006 - Race report did not get written. Those guys had a lot of fun, and just kept having fun instead of writing it up. You did not have time to read it anyway because you were too busy having fun or you were making a mistake.
2005 - Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic Race report, by Roman Dial
June 26 - 1 July, Eureka to Talkeetna.
Schnell and Geck shattered the Wilderness Classic records with
a sub-48 hour finish.
Long sunny days and afternoon showers raised glacial rivers to high volume during the first few days of the 160 mile Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic adventure race. Air Force PJ Bobby Schnell led his team of Jason Geck, Tyler Johnson, and Rory Stark to cruise to a sleepless victory in 1 day 23 hours and 29 minutes, beating last year's record by over 7 hours, breaking the 23 year record by 3 hours.
Running across 65 miles of mountainous terrain, including several high, snow covered passes, the group put in on the upper Talkeetna River using one man packrafts 23 hours after the start of the race near Eureka Lodge on the Glenn Highway. They then floated 45 miles to the Talkeetna Canyon, portaging the worst of the rapids, and floating an additional few miles before pulling out to follow bear trails through the canyon. They put in again at Iron Creek, 25 miles upstream of Talkeetna and paddled to the fastest finish ever in the 24 years of the event.
"It was all Bobby," said 32 year old Jason Geck. "I led for a lot of the river portion, but on land I felt like a sheep. I was impressed by Bobby's strength and his ability to keep it together all the time, even without sleep."
Schnell, however, said it was a team effort. "Everybody did their part, everybody helped in a critical way at some point in the race."
"We were more experienced in the packrafts than Tyler and Rory, but after they'd helped us break trail in the mountain snow, we just couldn't leave them behind," added Geck, who described the 8 foot waves they paddled in the Talkeetna Canyon as "very impressive."
Race rules allow for any combination of people to travel, start, or finish together. During the 2003 running of the Eureka to Talkeetna event, Schnell and Geck together finished fifth, after starting with other teammates. Tyler Johnson finished fifth in 2004. This was Stark's first Wilderness Classic.
Coming in second, less than two hours behind the leaders and five hours ahead of the 2004 winning pace, was solo finisher, 29 year old Bjorn Flora of Fairbanks. Bjorn took a slightly more northerly route, traveling the first 50 miles with third place finishers Butch Allen and Jim McDonough, to the Oshetna River. From there Bjorn headed up into the mountains following the so-called "APU" route down Aspen Creek to The Talkeetna River. Butch and Jim used their boats to go downstream on the Oshetna, to the Susitna River. Wilderness race rules allow for any route that is not near civilization (no roads, motor vehicles, caches or pack animals).
"The rivers were real high this year," said Butch, who with Jim has come in third place for the last three years, each year by a wildly different route. "We found the Oshetna very exciting, particularly the last five miles." When asked if they had slept during any of their 53 hour 38 minute run, he replied, "Yea, we took some cat naps when we tied our boats together on the Susitna."
The two portaged Devil's Canyon and Watana Canyon on their 210 mile route, first pioneered by Gordy Vernon in 2003 when he finished that race next-to-last. Gordy won the 2004 race.
2003 winner Hans Neidig teamed up with Dave Looney to take on a new route this year that involved floating the supercharged Chickaloon River. After reaching the river in the late afternoon, they inflated their packrafts and ran several miles of the river before coming to a blind curve.
"We couldn't see what was around the corner," said Looney, "until it was too late. There was a big rock on the right side of the river, with a log pushed up against it by the high water. Another big rock on the left side of the river had a big sweeper pinned against it.
"We both got by the first one, but Hans got caught upstream of the second one. I looked back and saw him coming out from beneath the sweeper without his boat."
"I got my arm dislocated going under the sweeper into a rock tunnel. I thought I'd cork that little rock tunnel and drown but I shot out of it and got washed over a submerged boulder. Then I was washed down between two cabin-sized boulders, getting caught in the hydraulics between them."
Looney was downstream watching helplessly as his partner was washed up and down in the huge "hole" below the house-sized boulders.
"I came up, over and over, but just couldn't get out. Finally, I thought, 'This is what it feels like to die,' when an image of my wife came to me and I realized I had to give it one last try. That last shove seemed to do the trick and I was washed out."
Hans was able to swim to shore with a dislocated shoulder that popped back into place.
Meanwhile the winning group made good time in the high waters. "Yea, it was pretty much a near-perfect run. We had no bear problems, no flips in the boats. We really didn't make any navigational errors either," said Schnell, who trained for this year's race by running mountains, trails, and even sprints at the track for speed work.
"It's a new race out there," observed Geck. "If you want to win you pretty much have to run down the hills and across the flats. These guys go really fast."
Next year's race is planned for the Brooks Range, from Atigun to Arctic Village.
Official results as of July 1
1. Bobby Schnell (Anchorage), Jason Geck (Anchorage), Tyler Johnson (Anchorage), Rory Stark (Anchorage): 1 day, 23 hours, 29 minutes.
2. Bjorn Flora (Fairbanks): 2 days, 1 hour, 20 minutes.
3. Butch Allen (Anchorage), Jim McDonough(Anchorage): 2 days, 5 hours, 38 minutes.
4. Zach Shloser (Anchorage): 2 days, 13 hours.
5. Bill Collins (Palmer): 2 days, 17 hours, 56 minutes.
6. Matt Reardon (Eagle River), Robert Kehrer (Anchorage):, Pete Ostrinski (Anchorage): 4 days, 30 minutes.
7. John Lapkass, (Anchorage): 4 days, 12 hours.
Did not finish: Dick Griffith (Anchorage), Dave Looney (Anchorage), Hans Neidig (Palmer), Donna Klecka (Eagle River), Will Gilmore (San Francisco), John McConnaughy (Anchorage).
2004 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic
Eureka to Talkeetna July 25-31, 2004
The 2004 running of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic was superlative in many ways. The race had the most entrants in twenty years, since Hope to Homer 1984. It assembled the strongest field, including the most previous winners ever, on what is the most technically challenging route. It had racers better prepared than ever before for evacuation, as all carried sat phones, and at least two racers used them. It had the youngest aged finisher among the 23 annual events. It had the greatest variety of completed routes covering a 6,000 square mile area stretching from the Kings River east to the Oshetna River, and from the Matanuska north to the Susitna River. And it had the most daring finish since Chuck Comstock flew the Stairway Icefall, with a parapent, in the Nabesna to McCarthy race in 1989.
Several racers have indicated that we maintain the tradition of a three year course. Many would like to beat their time and there is some indication that a sub 48 hour time is possible. Sat phones worked better than checkpoints as safety mechanisms. Future race organizers should take their cue from this year's experience with both.
Overall Winners: Gordy Vernon is now a four-time winner of the Wilderness Classic (this year, 1997 and 1998 Hope to Homer, 1993 Gates of the Arctic). He and Thai Verzone (who also teamed up with Gordy to win the 1997 Hope to Homer Classic) carried their "Atomic Bomb" of a boat -- a 34 pound cataraft -- to come from behind and pass all the "hand-gun" toting competitors in a sub-eight hour paddle from Entrance Exam to the finish in Talkeetna. They beat the Robertson/Neidig/Hannis 2003 time by more than 31 hours.
This brazen act of go-for-it competition has been a part of the innovative backbone of the Classic since its inception. In 1982 Dick Griffith introduced the packraft to the Classic and nearly beat men half his age. In '83 one team skied to victory across the Harding Icefield. In '84 the Harding was skied solo to second. In '86 Dave Manzer and partner skied across the Gakona-Canwell-Black Rapids-Susitna Glacier complex in the Mentasta to McKinley race, taking second. I in 1987 Hank Timm and Randy Pitney blew all the competition out of the water and the mountains with a collapsible canoe on mountain bikes, wheeling it east instead of west, and winning by 17 hours on a route twice as long as everyone else's. In 1988 Timm, Mark Stoppel, and Claire Holland packed the collapsible canoe across the Nabesna to McCarthy route to finish fourth. But the boldest race route in the history of the Classic belongs to the late Chuck Comstock.
Chuck Comstock competed in the 1988 and 1989 Nabesna to McCarthy Classics with a parapente and X-C racing skis. He hiked and skied up the Nabesna Glacier to 11,000 feet, then paraglided solo off the 6,000 foot tall Stairway Icefall, finishing last but finishing with style. As one long-time racer observer notes: "Nobody remembers who won the race those two years. But everyone remembers what Chuck did."
With some confidence we can likely say that no one will forget who won this year's Eureka to Talkeetna Classic or how they did it, even if it happens "never again."
Strong Field: This year had the strongest field of racers ever. Of the 34 starters, 24 had raced a Wilderness Classic before, and six individuals had between them won eight previous Classics. Of those 11 individuals who had never entered a Classic before, their impressive backcountry experience included previous traverses of the Talkeetna Mountains, the Brooks Range, and the Alaska Peninsula.
Technical Course: The competitive field was well matched by the route. The course provides feet-beating and thick brush ("Grade V XX") comparable to Hope to Homer ('82, '83, '84, '97, '98, '99), and technical white-water surpassing Nabesna to McCarthy ('88, '89, '90, '00, '01, '02). It's longer and harder than the Gates of the Arctic ('91, '92, '93) or Donnelly to McKinley Village ('94, '95, '96) routes. Only the infamous 235 mile Mentasta to McKinley ('85, '86, '87) glacier route is tougher.
Most racers ended up in the Talkeetna Canyon following bear trails. This was a bit stressful. Bear encounters seemed likely, particularly with steaming piles of bear scat punctuating these trails. The brush off-trail went from bad to worse as racers traversed the "Side-Hills of Insanity" starting in dry birch scrub but ending in full-on alder and devils club in the rain. Meanwhile the siren-song of boating was never more than 30 minutes down-hill, a risky adventure in a packraft, as capsizing a boat in the middle of a ten mile canyon of Class IV rapids, purportedly the longest run of continuous whitewater on the continent, would not be healthy.
Other Routes: Most popular was the Talkeetna Canyon route which included a host of variations. The Atomic Bomb route down the gut without a portage, a sneak-around-the rapids, then hike-the-left side, was used by the 2nd place finishing PJ's and 5th place team led by Hans Neidig. A right-side trail, river cross, then left-side trail was used by the 4th place team led by Jason Geck. An all-right-hand side route was used by Betsy Young and Jim Renkert for 12th place finish. There was also extensive variation getting to the Talkeetna. Some went the way of the Little and Big Oshetna (Big O) Rivers, like the 17-year-old on the mountain bike who finished 6th, while others went by way of Caribou Creek and Big O, and still others via Cardioceras Creek and Big O. Of these, some dropped into the smooth but oddly positioned and unnamed east fork of the upper Chickaloon drainage, while still others took Nowhere Creek to a pass into upper Black River and then Aspen Creek. Some skipped Oshetna drainages completely on Caribou/Glass Creek/Chickaloon. Bill Collins floated the Bog O to the Susitna and the Susitna to Talkeetna, finishing 7th overall. The husband and wife team of newcomers Bretwood (Hig) Higman and Erin McKittrick hiked past the Talkeetna drainage and walked down most of Iron Creek, putting in its lower reaches to float to the finish 11th. Farther west than even this route those innovative butt-boaters Butch Allen and Jim McDonough floated down the Matanuska as they did last year, but this year passed the Chickaloon and took out to hike up the Kings River, crossing the ice between the Kings and the Sheep Rivers, then floating the Sheep River to a 3rd place finish. According to Butch they slept eight hours. According to Gordy, he and Thai slept three. The difference may have made Butch and Jim the winners, although the PJ team, who apparently slept not a wink, claimed that sleep deprivation cost them several hours of inadvertent "circum-navigation" and possibly the race.
Women Racers: Erin McKittrick was the first female across the finish line in 4 days, 11 hours, 28 minutes, followed by Betsy Young who started solo but teamed up with Jim Renkert to finish early the next morning with a time of 4 days, 21 hours, 31 minutes. These are the first two women to finish this course. The fastest time by a woman on any Classic course is Peggy Dial's time of 3 days, 3 hours, and 40 minutes on the Gates of the Arctic course ('93).
Youngest Finisher: 17 year old Cody Roman Dial and dad finish in sixth place with a time of 3 days, 4 hours, 15 minutes, nearly 11 hours faster than last year's winning time. They rode mountain bikes to the Big O drainage, carried them over a high pass, packrafted them to the Talkeetna Canyon, then stripped deraileurs, chains, and crank arms to wheel them through the brush. Young Dial says he'll be back sans bike.
Alpacka Raft Drawing Winner: Chris Robertson won the needed raft. He has been borrowing rafts for two years running. Special thanks to Sheri Tingey of Alpacka Rafts for donating the raft this year and last. These rafts have revitalized the Wilderness Classic and made packrafting as much fun as mountain biking. Be sure to watch for new developments at Alpacka (www.alpackaraft.com).
Satellite Phones and Evacs: For the first time the race organization checked for mandatory equipment a satellite phone. Because of last year's search for missing racers, this year required everyone carry the perhaps wilderness-strangling piece of technology. Dick Griffith, who had said he wouldn't carry a phone (and, out of deference and respect to his having finished more races than anyone else, was granted permission not to carry one by race organizers), had this to say:
The 23rd Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Race was held this year between the Eureka gravel pit and the town of Talkeetna. This is the first race that I can remember (I have done 20) that search planes or helicopters have not been used to find late finishers. It's no fun waiting around at the end of a race waiting for the last entrant to show up. George Ripley, Roman Dial, Michael Martin and myself have spent many anxious days as race directors wondering if this is the year that we would have a serious accident.
This year my partner, Jerry Dixon of Seward, flipped his raft in a rapid just before entering the Talkeetna Canyon. He managed to reach shore with boat, pack and paddle. We were looking at the rapids at the entrance of the Talkeetna Canyon. Jerry's pack was very heavy from his recent swim and he slipped on a root and was pitched forward. He had a posterior shoulder dislocation. It was a very painful situation for both of us to be in. The usual technique of grabbing the arm and jerking it did not work. In this situation the sat phone was worth more than it's weight in gold. A trooper's helicopter reached us within four hours. Jerry was transported to Talkeetna and from there by an ambulance. The pain was so intense, even after double shots of morphine and valium, that he had to be removed from the ambulance and put on another helicopter which transported him to Providence Hospital. To reach help from the entrance of the Talkeetna Canyon would have taken me at least 20 hours of some very serious bushwhacking and boating. As far as I am concerned the sat phone saved the day.
This is litigious society that we live in; there are many horror stories floating around as to what happened to race organizers. There is no way to really protect yourself, especially if you have deep pockets. I don't want my name tied to any aspect of the race nor does Roman. We all want to maintain the integrity of the Classic and at the same time have some degree of safety. For the time being the sat phone is the best answer.
2005 Race: Most of this year's racers feel confident that they could improve their finishing time. Several even feel that a sub-2 day (48 hour) time is possible. This year's winning time of 2 days, 7 hours, 40 minutes is the third fastest in race history. The two fastest Classic times are on the Nabesna to McCarthy course, with the 2002 race at 2 days, 4 hours, and 24 minutes fastest. The record-holder finished then with a "hand-gun", breaking the Reifenstuhl Brother's previous record of 2 days 5 hours and 49 minutes.
There was talk that the 2005 race would take place in the Chugach, starting in Whittier with mandatory checkpoints at Knik River, Girdwood, Eagle River Visitor Center and a finish in the Front Range above the Anchorage Bowl. However, many racers would like to improve their time on the Eureka to Talkeetna route, and others would like to maintain the three-years-on-one-route venue that has been a tradition since 1982.
Mountain Rescue Fund: Unlike previous years, racers were not informed that they were enrolled in the Alaskan Alpine Club's Mountain Rescue Fund as part of their entry fee. They were enrolled, just not informed. This is unfortunate, as the Fund has helped carry costs of rescues in the race for two years in a row. Please note that it is a rescue fund, not a search fund.
For this year's rescue the Fund donated $1,630 to the State of Alaska for the costs of the Alaska State Trooper rescue helicopter time. For these two rescues in 2003 the Fund contributed $4,660 for the State Trooper helicopter time.
More information on this fund is found on the Mountain Rescue Fund link at this website.
OFFICAL RESULTS FOR THE 2004 RACE.......
34 starters, 29 finishers
1) Gordy Vernon (Kachemak Bay area)
& Thai Verzone (New Mexico): 2 days, 7 hours, 40 minutes
(Talkeetna Canyon, no portage)
2) Chris Robertson (Anchorage PJ) & Bobby Schnell (Anchorage PJ): 2 days, 9 hours, 40 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)
3) Butch Allen & Jim McDonough (Anchorage, both) : 2 days, 11 hours, 11 minutes (Matanuska River, Sheep River)
4) Jeff Banish, Jason Geck, & Bjorn Flora (Anchorage): 2 days, 12 hours, 25 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon via Aspen Ck)
5) Hans Neidig (Palmer), Paul Hanis (McCarthy), Ben Summit (Anchorage), & Tyler Johnson (Anchorage): 2 days 13 hours, 16 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)
6) Roman Dial & C. Roman Dial (Anchorage): 3 days, 4 hours, 15 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon w/bikes)
7) Bill Collins (Palmer): 3 days, 4 hours, 47 minutes (Oshetna, Susitna)
8) Kevin Armstrong (Healy & Girdwood) & Doug Woody (Ft. Collins, Colorado): 3 days, 11 hours, 55 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)
9) Bill Moslow (Virginia): 4 days, 5 hours, 50 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)
10) John Lapkass (Anchorage) & Michael Martin (Seattle): 4 days, 7 hours, 45 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)
11) Bretwood (Hig) Higman (Seldovia) & Erin McKittrick (Seattle): 4 days, 11 hours, 28 minutes (Iron Creek)
12) Jim Renkert (Anchorage) & Betsy Young (Anchorage): 4 days, 21 hours, 31 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon via Aspen Ck)
13) Rob Kehrer (Anchorage) & John Pepe (Anchorage): 5 days, 11 hours, 15 minutes (Talkeetna Canyon)
14) Dick Griffith (Anchorage): 5 days, 13 hours (Talkeetna Canyon)
Not Finishing: Jerry Dixson (dislocated shoulder out
with Troopers), Dave Looney,
Rick Peckham, Ian Thomas, Thor Tingey, Peter Ostrinski (bad feet ERA flight).
Two newspaper stories of the race......
ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS: July 25, 2004
Rescue on request - Wilderness racers must carry phones
by Ron Wilmot, Anchorage Daily News Staff
Competitors in this year's Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic will be required to carry a piece of gear that seems the antithesis of the race's ethic of self-reliance: satellite phones. The Classic, which began today at Eureka Roadhouse, is a backcountry race testing endurance, fortitude and wits. Racers choose their route and can use any means of human-powered transportation they want. Racers who hike mountains, paddle glacial rivers and navigate rugged wilds receive no logistical support; it is understood that in case of emergency, a rescue should not be expected.
But events in the past two Classics caused race director Roman Dial to change that somewhat. Four competitors required airlift rescues in last year's race, which, like this year, went from the Eureka Roadhouse to Talkeetna. One competitor, a parajumper with the Alaska Air National Guard, tripped an emergency locator device, thinking friends in the Guard would fly in and pick him up. Instead, the Alaska State Troopers received the call and picked him up. Troopers ended up rescuing two other competitors, and a fourth person who was carrying a satellite phone called and arranged his own rescue.
"That's, like, unprecedented," Dial said. "That indicates the challenging nature of this course."
Dial called the rescues "kind of an embarrassment." It was the first time in the Classic's 22-year history that anyone required rescue. Dial compensated the troopers by giving them $4,500 in entrance fees. (website editor - Alaskan Alpine Club Mountain Rescue Fund)
So this year, Dial, who faced his own dire situation as a competitor in 2002 when a freak July snowstorm soaked competitors in the Nabesna to McCarthy race, took a cue from the man who rescued himself. Each competitor will carry a satellite phone equipped with the number of a helicopter company in Talkeetna that has offered to provide emergency airlifts. Anyone who gets in trouble can call and arrange their own rescue. They'll also have to pay for it.
A particularly difficult course weighed into Dial's decision. The rugged,150-mile plus route through the heart of the Talkeetna Range features lots of raging white water. Most competitors will float sections of either the Matanuska, Susitna or Talkeetna Rivers -- cold, glacial waters with plenty of potential for hazard.
Dial and his 17-year-old son Roman scouted and floated the upper Talkeetna recently. Both flipped and had to swim to shore. Dial's big worry is someone will get macho and try to run Talkeetna Canyon, a 14-mile stretch of non-stop Class III and Class IV white water.
"Of all the routes, this one scares me the most," said Dial, ranking it ahead of the Hope to Homer, Nabesna to McCarthy and Brooks Range routes in terms of difficulty.
Besides heavy brush that makes it difficult to find routes, there's the threat of bears and unpredictable weather.
"It's a really challenging route," he said.
Because of those challenges, Dick Griffith, a formerClassic winner and race director, worries about liability. The loosely organized Classic carries no insurance. The competitors, most of whom have done the race before, sign a waiver and fully understand they are responsible for their own actions.
Griffith said the phones simply add a margin of safety and, if nothing else, can assuage family members worried about an overdue racer.
"We haven't lost anybody yet, but the potential is there because of so much water," Griffith said. "People flip, rafts or paddles get lost. This race is unique. It's not like the Eco-Challenge where they fly you around in a helicopter. This race is entirely different. You're on your own out there."
Dial and Griffith said some competitors have grumbled about the phones, which, along with packrafts, are the only required pieces of gear.
But Palmer's Hans Neidig, who along with Chris Robertson of Anchorage and Paul Hanis of Kennicott won last year's race in three days, 15 hours and five minutes, was OK with it.
"It doesn't absolve us of the responsibility of being very careful," Neidig said. "It doesn't cause you to change your judgment."
ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS: July 29, 2004
Vernon, Verzone brave miles of Class V white water to claim
victory, Wilderness Classic: Pair fights through "Entrance
Exam," "Toilet Bowl" rapids.
by Craig Medred, Anchorage Daily News Staff
Far from civilization in the backcountry north of the Glenn Highway early this week, Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic racers Gordy Vernon and Thai Verzone stumbled upon a group of trekkers who'd accidentally crossed the path of the state's craziest endurance race. Better hurry up, the young hikers told 48-year-old Vernon and his 29-year-old sidekick, the other competitors who'd left Eureka Summit on Sunday were far, far ahead in the 100-to-150-mile race to Talkeetna. Vernon told the youngsters he wasn't concerned.
"You don't worry about handguns when you have an atomic bomb,'' said Vernon, the veteran wilderness racer, who now lives in Cordova.
The "atomic bomb,'' in this case, turned out to be a 16-foot-long, frameless cataraft that Vernon and Verzone used to dominate the race. While other competitors made difficult, alder-bashing portages around the Talkeetna River canyon, Vernon and Verzone were riding their secret weapon through 14 miles of boiling Class V white water to victory.
Not that it was easy.
"Never again,'' Vernon said when reached by telephone in Talkeetna Wednesday. "We swam twice.''
"We failed the Entrance Exam,'' added Talkeetna's own Verzone.
Entrance Exam is a notorious hole at the start of the Talkeetna River canyon.
In his book "Fast and Cold -- A Guide to Alaska Whitewater," the late Andy Embick warns that Entrance Exam "has flipped rafts and thrashed kayakers. 'Swimmers' escaping this hole inevitably go into several more holes downstream.''
Verzone said he and Vernon avoided that fate only because they crawled onto the bottom of their overturned raft.
"The boat was upside down and going backward,'' Verzone said. "But we paddled it to the next beach before 'Toilet Bowl,' '' a second dangerous rapid.
On the beach, he said, they righted the boat and "got our composure back.''
Then they put back into the river, made it safely past Toilet Bowl and on downstream until they hit a massive, river-wide hole that almost swallowed the raft. Verzone saw the trouble coming.
"I'm yelling at Gordy, 'Paddle, paddle, paddle!' he said. "Just screaming at him.''
It wasn't enough. Vernon's frantic stroking with a kayak paddle powered the front of the long, skinny cataraft through the hole, but the back stuck. Verzone felt himself being sucked down to shoulder depth in the river.
"Then the boat disappears and everything turns white,'' he said. "I'm in the hole.''
He eventually pops up. Sees Vernon still paddling crazily. Then goes back down again.
"I wonder, in this chaos, if Gordy knows I'm not on the boat,'' Verzone said.
Not that it mattered all that much. Vernon had no choice but to try to paddle the boat out of the hole, which he finally did. Verzone, meanwhile, managed to kick to one side and break free of the current.
He rode a wave train down to the raft, climbed back aboard, and the two were off to their first Wilderness Classic win since the course went from Hope to Homer on the Kenai Peninsula in 1997.
"It was a good adventure,'' Verzone said. "You never know what's going to happen.''
Second-place finishers Bobbie Schnell and Chris Robertson, a pair of para-rescue jumpers from the 210th Rescue Squadron in Anchorage, can attest to that. They thought they had the race won until they rolled into Talkeetna.
"We didn't sleep during the race,'' Robertson said, "and the first two days we were flying.
"We came down the (Talkeetna) river. We hadn't seen anyone from the start. We'd crossed the creek nobody could cross last year.''
They thought they had the race in the bag, but what they didn't know was that while they had deflated their packrafts and begun an alder-bashing portage around the worst of the canyon, Vernon and Verzone were riding the river to victory.
"We had no idea of Thai and Gordy's secret weapon,'' Robertson said.
But then neither did anyone else.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 16 of the 35 racers who started the race had finished. Here are the early results and times:
Eureka Summit to Talkeetna - Finishers
Vernon and Verzone, 2 days, 7 hours; Schnell and Robertson, 2 days, 9 hours; Jim McDonough and Butch Allen, 2 days, 11 hours, 13 minutes; Bjorn Flora, Jason Geck and Jeff Bannish, 2 days, 12 hours, 30 minutes; Ben Summit, Tyler Johnson, Hans Neidig and Paul Hanis, 2 days, 12 hours, 51 minutes; Roman Dial and Roman Jr., 3 days, 4 hours, 20 minutes; and Bill Collins, 3 days, 4 hours, 50 minutes.
2003 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic - Eureka to Talkeetna, report by Roman Dial
The 22nd running of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic race began the morning of June 8 at Eureka Roadhouse on the Glenn Highway with the finish 160-230 miles away, depending on route choice, in Talkeetna. There were 43 starting racers. This was the first time the Eureka to Talkeetna route has been offered as a venue. The starting line-up was a mix of first timers and Classic veterans, including three-time Classic winner Gordy Vernon, 16 time finisher Dick Griffith, and 2001 Armed Forces Eco-Challenge winner Skip Kula. Vernon attempted to sandbag his competition by opening a cooler full of ice-cold Alaska Brewery beers in the countdown minutes of the race. Thirty-four racers, some with bikes and all with backpacks bristling in break-down kayak paddles, lined up in front of the lodge when Whitney McFayden yelled "Go!"
In the hustle to go Butch Allen and Jim McDonough confided their 200 mile route to the race organizer. "Is it still within the rules if we crawl through the culvert pipe under the Glenn Highway? We're not actually using the highway."
"Go for it boys," was the response.
After crawling under the highway, the duo rafted the Class III whitewater on the East and main forks of the Matanuska River all the way to Chickaloon. Next they followed trails they'd scouted up the Chickaloon and over to the Talkeetna River, which they floated for 35 miles to Prairie Creek. From there they hiked for 22 hours to the Susitna River at Gold Creek and put back in, floating the 45 miles to Talkeetna in six hours. They came in third.
The other two "teams" to finish, the first place trio of Hans Neidig of Palmer, Chris of Anchorage, and Paul of McCarthy, and the second place pair Jeff Bannish and Dylan Kentch, also took radically different routes. Finishing only hours apart, the 170 mile Bannish-Kentsch route and the 150 mile Neidig-Robertson-Hanis route overlapped for 22 miles on the Talkeetna River.
Meanwhile, Bill Collins headed directly for the Susitna via the Big Oshetna, while Gordy Vernon veered away from his planned route over Mazuma Creek to also take the Big O route. Bill opted out using his SAT phone to charter a pickup. Gordy broke his plywood snowshoes, trashed his raft, flipped his boat and finished only a few hours ahead of the sweep team of John Lapkass, Dick and Barney Griffith. Barney, as a teenager in the 70's, had made first descents of both the Talkeetna and Devil's canyons. Gordy's route took him 230 miles in a grand tour of the race course.
The fastest route portaged the Talkeetna canyon on river's right. The trio of Matt Reardon, Bob Kehrer and Brian Byrne portaged on the river's left, after several attempts. Curiously, as the three lead teams piled up at "Damnation Creek" new teams formed. Chris Robertson and Bobbie Schnell arrived first. Two hours later, Hans Neidig, Ben Summit and Dave Looney found themselves at the impasse and were soon joined by Paul Hanis and Jason Geck. For twelve hours this large group was stymied by the fast, deep water and steep canyon cliffs. Finally, the three teams broke up and switched out, in an adventure race version of wife swapping. Schnell and Geck headed back for Prairie Creek to take the Susitna route. Neidig, Robertson and Hanis crossed the Talkeetna to portage the canyon on the right side. The latter group finished more than 24 hours ahead of Schnell and Geck.
When the ill-fated mountain bike tour through the Mat-Su valleys (see Medred article in Anchorage Daily News) is added into the route mix, the 2003 AMWC covered an area over 5,000 square miles. In all 17 people finished, five were air-lifted out, and the rest dropped. Some dropped due to injuries. Some dropped due to bad boats. Of those picked up by helicopter, two paid their own way using a private pilot in Talkeetna, and three were flown out by the Alaska State Troopers. The Troopers were reimbursed $4,660 for the full cost of the helicopter expenses, from the Alaskan Alpine Club Mountain Rescue Fund. In this budget-cutting era, anything we can do to carry our own weight will allow the race to continue without public scorn. Next year, SAT-phones, but definitely not ELTs, EPIRBs or the like, may well be the first piece of mandatory equipment ever expected from racers. Voice communication instead of emergency locator signals can make a big difference in rescue costs.
About half the racers dropped out for various reasons related to the difficulty of the race. All in all everyone said the course was great, a real challenge.
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