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Wrangell - St. Elias 1995

First view of the Chitistone

Monday, August 21 The tent flapped in the wind all night long, but we slept great. The people going out told us that last night had the least wind for five days. So, we might as well get used to wind. The pilot says there are so many glaciers around here that they create their own clouds and weather and wind, even though outside the mountains it's perfectly clear. That seemed to be true this morning when to the west there was beautiful blue sky but overhead, coming down from the glaciers up canyon, were heavy, wet clouds. Temperature around 42 degrees but with the wind, it seems less. The tarp is an absolute essential for halfway comfortable meals, blocking the wind. Our food made it through the night fine. Not much we can do about grizzly bears, since there are no real trees to hang the food, only the five-foot or so bushes. But ground squirrels are racing all around camp, and they're probably used to campers with food. So we hung our food as high as possible in the bushes; I set mine in the crook of a bush about two feet off the ground. No one remembers a ground squirrel climbing a tree, so, apparently, that was enough, as the food was fine.

There's no mercy on these trips, and anything you can kid someone about, you do. We kidded Ray about his truly ugly plaid wool pants that could have only come from Goodwill. Actually, he says someone gave them to him, they're wool, and he's not going to pass up wearing them. Roger and I kid each other about our respective Whisperlite and Svea stoves, and any small failing or misfunction in either is cause for exaggerated condemnation.

I have the usual Familia Swiss Granola for breakfast, while Barbara has either instant oatmeal or grits. Tang for both of us and coffee for Barbara, hot chocolate for me, with Kellogg's NutraGrain Bars to finish it off.

As usual, Ray is the first out of camp, promising to wait up canyon, before he goes up to the pass. Barbara and I leave at a little after 9:00 am. We are walking up one of those spectacular Alaskan valleys. (Click here for a 229 KB VistaPro overview of the route.) Dark grey-black mountain tops moving among the misty clouds. Below that are broad brown-green slopes that slide down to the valley floor, except where there's rockfall and the talus reaches down to the valley. The valley wall to the south, our right, is steep, and unfrozen waterfalls begin to appear as we walk up. They are fed by the glaciers above and at night pretty much freeze up and disappear. The valley floor is a maze of water courses, intermingling with green marshy areas and grey mud flats. At the upper end of the valley is a massive, several mile wide glacier. It lays white on the valley like a cloud that had decided to rest on the ground. Sunlight breaks out now and then and lightens up portions of the valley.

Our route is mainly up a tallus slope, rough walking. I've got new L.L. Bean Cresta Boots that have presented a blister problem the several times I've worn them. But today I wore an inner sock, and so far they're okay. We find periodic green rocks scattered around, evidence of the copper that made the Kennicott mines.

Barbara is obviously worried about her cats. Once, I come upon her when she was walking slightly ahead, and she's crying. I reassure her, but there's not much to be done, and Barbara really knows it, but finds it hard to accept.

As we get up the valley, we're supposed to go up the side of a thousand foot ridge to the right. We'd thought there would be an obvious trail, but the others seem to be traversing cross country up the side of the ridge. Although it doesn't quite seem the right route as described by the people who flew out this morning, we follow it. We catch up with Roger and Susie, who are tired of the route and the difficulty, so they have decided to simply go straight up the side. We continue following the others in the distance as they are silhouetted crossing over an outcrop.

We talk about the compulsion of some people to "get there." Barbara and I aren't as much interested in getting there as enjoying it along the way. Most of the others are in between, but Ray has a real compulsion to get there and is way up front. Very strenuous climbing, traversing the tundra looking out over the valley. In spots we see bright, blood red vegetation kind of like blueberry leaves. They turn red, and another similar leaf turns yellow in autumn, which is already coming to Alaska. We gradually traverse up the side of the ridge, complaining that the others have obviously missed the trail, since a fair number of people go up this way, and there are no signs of anyone. The going gets harder: and, at one point, Barbara balks at some rock climbing where the footholds are too high for her to reach. We have to circle around, and I have to carry her pack up a short distance. Then, as the steepness continues, what we really didn't need starts, a light and then heavier rain. As usually, we only gradually put on our rain gear, tops only first, which means our pants get wet, before we finally put on our bottoms. We are doing fine, struggling, when we come upon what is really a frustrating experience.

Huddled in a gully are Tom and Barbara, with Tom not sure he wants to go on. I send Barbara on up with her pack and try to talk him into going. Ray and Dolph also come down, and I finally leave and go up a ways, leaving Ray to try. I stand about one hundred feet above them and wait, and wait, and wait. For maybe one-half hour, Ray talks. Tom won't say he definitely doesn't want to go, but he's worried. His main worry is The Goat Trail. Dolph comes up, and we talk, and Dolph, who's great with practical advice, says that the next time we have a meeting at my house regarding a trip, and someone expresses reservations about whether they want to do it, as Tom did, that should be the end of the trip for them. Finally, Ray comes up and announces that Tom simply isn't going to go. Dolph tells of a wife of a hiking buddy, who won't leave the house and is afraid of driving across bridges and going through tunnels. Ray says if Barbara and Tom don't go on, he'll have to stay with them. So the potential is there for screwing up the trip almost before it starts.

Finally, I go down for one last try, and Dolph carries my pack up just in case. My pitch to Tom is to use some profanity about how he's messing up everyone's trip and then offer him a proposal that meets his alleged phobias. Why not go to this side of The Goat Trail, camp and, if he feels comfortable, he can go across. Otherwise, Barbara can day hike across The Goat Trail to Chitistone Falls, which is what we really want to see, and then back. Then she and Tom and anyone else can return to the air strip where we flew in. So, no forced crossing of The Goat Trail for Tom. I say, "Let's go." Surprisingly, he complies and starts up. I carry his pack to the ridge above.

On the ridge above, everyone is gathered, wondering where to go. They have seen Roger out to the west and want to go that way simply because they saw him that way. I urge waiting and go up above to the next bench to check it out and, luckily, there is the obvious trail, that we should have been on, right above us, which traversed up the side from on up the valley where we started. A great example of rushing without thinking.

The rain stopped pretty much when Tom finally started up; and, as we started on up the trail, the sun really began coming out. A glorious valley laid out before us, with a huge rainbow starting and ending in the valley floor. Up valley are great views of the huge glacier, mainly white but with dirty black at portions of the lower end. A muddy lake is located at the mouth of the glacier, and huge, white icebergs are floating around the lake. Barbara and I take a lunch break, with the others on ahead, on the side of the valley, sheltered from the wind, and simply enjoy the view.

The trail continues, obvious and clear, traversing up the side of the ridge from Nizina Valley over to Chitistone Canyon. At this point, we see a sight that, if everything else didn't, makes today's hiking worthwhile. Six sheep, one a young one, are grazing about one hundred feet below us and don't seem to be bothered, unless we approach closer. They look so picturesque, solid white against the green grass and valley below. We go over another ridge; and, below us, is an absolutely idyllic spot. A basin completely surrounded by glacial moraines, very green and with a stream running through it. Off to the right and up the side of the mountain is the Chitistone Glacier, hanging high and ugly. We still have one more moraine on the other side to cross and gradually make our way up it.

On the other side is the campsite, and everyone else has their tents up. Although high, at 5800 feet, and a very austere place, it's a great campsite. Barbara and I put our tent a little higher than the others, and we can see down the Chitistone Canyon and back over to the canyon we came from. On both sides of us are high alpine lakes. And on the wall opposite us is the high hanging Chitistone Glacier and a flock of sheep. We follow Roger and Susie to a small stream to take baths but can't bear to do much more than wash off except that Barbara is brave enough to wash her hair. I'm chicken and don't. The water is truly icy cold.

Just down from our tent are the remains of some kind of structures, possibly a hunting camp or some research station. Obvious tent sites with some poles left abandoned and small things like a mousetrap. More likely hunters, since they were pretty much irresponsible to leave the garbage. Indeed, over the side of the hill are a bunch of cans that they simply tossed away. Maybe some day the Park Service will clean it out.

Dinner is under the tarp again because of the wind that has blown all day. Refried bean burritos. We have three extra, and they go to Roger, Anne, and Dolph. Ray set up the tarp, but I also rig up Dolph's tarp to the side for a pretty secure shelter. After dinner, the wind dies down, and a beautiful sunset show begins on the mountains around us. Alpenglow on the glaciers and peaks. Most everyone heads off to bed fairly early.

I'm taking pictures of the sunset around 9:00 pm, when Dolph comes over. He actually shaved in his tent and is looking pretty fresh. We walk around a bit and examine the structures. While we're watching, a huge piece of the Chitistone Glacier falls off, echoing across the valley. I tell Dolph that's reason enough for having stayed up later than the others. As the sunset fades, I finally head for the tent. To sleep around 10:00 pm, prepared for what may be our coldest night with two layers of clothes on. It's going to be fairly clear outside, which means cold.

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William H. Skelton, 1995