Wrangell - St. Elias 1995
Across the Goat Trail
Tuesday, August 22 We awoke to an almost cloudless sky, bright blue everywhere overhead and pretty much gray and black all around us except for the snow fields and glaciers. A beautiful day. Frost on everything that stayed outside, but it begins to melt quickly. So cold apparently that no one even checked the temperature, although it must have been in the mid-twenties. The tents and tarps are very wet from condensation and are a good excuse not to rush off, in addition to the beautiful weather. The morning is amazing for the total lack of wind. Indeed, everyone cooks breakfast outside the tarps in the sun. Tom is very quiet during breakfast, but he's usually quiet. Barbara and I linger, finally departing after the others at 9:45.
Just above the lake below camp and down valley, we pass an airplane tail, the horizontal portion. Nothing else and there's obviously a story as to how and why it's here. Then, we go over a rise and are looking down the long and steep Chitistone Canyon. To our left is a good size glacier from beginning to end. A huge mass of chunks of snow at the upper end that smooth out into an almost ice rink like area at the bottom, then dirty snow. The roar of the creek that flows out of the glacier will accompany us all the way down. Dolph and Barbara A started the day in shorts, but the wind soon picks up and proves the folly of their choice. Clouds begin to form above the peaks. The trail proceeds high above the valley floor, wandering in and out among the rocks, grassy areas, and bogs. We can see what we think is The Goat Trail, way down canyon and wonder how bad it really is.
We stop for an early lunch after our first serious creek crossing. We find a way across that isn't too bad, but it's a forecast of what's to come. As we proceed down the valley, the trail is pretty obvious most of the time, weaving over and around a series of brown ridges.
We almost catch up to the others at their lunch stop at another creek crossing. Regina waits and hikes with us. The trail then descends from the valley side down to the rocky bottom for much of the rest of the way to The Goat Trail. The roar of Chitistone Creek is even louder as it descends, muddy brown in a torrent.
The next creek crossing we had not anticipated. Because of the warm temperatures and sunshine today, one of the usually crossable creeks coming down from the glaciers is not easily crossable. Indeed, it requires wading. We figure that out when we see everyone in the distance with their packs off and obviously taking their boots off. Ray finds a pretty good spot, knee deep and fast, with several good rocks you can hold onto as you cross. He goes across first and gradually everyone, including even Tom, manages to get across with wet feet. I help Barbara across last, after Ray has carried her pack across. Regina tried out her method keeping dry feet which involves duct taping boots at the tops to her skin and then covering that with gaiters. It doesn't work, and she's got wet boots. Supposedly it does work in Colorado.
On down stream, the canyon really narrows down, and the infamous Goat Trail begins. The first segment is a short climb in loose dirt that is extremely difficult. We hope that it is the full Goat Trail but know in our hearts that it isn't. Ray comes down and helps Barbara up, and the others are only a short distance away. We hike across a grassy bench, and then the real fun begins. Gradually up, over, and around a series of ridges, moving ever higher and higher. We continually see the others ahead, and usually Ray crossing over a ridge, silhouetted against the sky. We keep thinking that's it, but instead there is another ridge. The footing is extremely difficult in places, being loose dirt, and in other places the dirt has hardened with rain and is more secure. Always narrow, about a foot wide. The views are spectacular, but we have little time to enjoy them. A huge sloping green side of the valley on the other side. Where we are, there's a band of reddish rock and above that, yellow rock and dirt. The ranger told us to make sure we took the trail that went up the yellow section, and we were remembering yellow over red. They had warned us that the trail junction wasn't obvious, but it really wasn't a problem. We're both tired, but Barbara is doing extremely well. She doesn't like precipitous trails but, with a little help now and then, does fine. Ever onward and upward, finally reaching a huge ridge covered with rock and grass, with a view of almost everything we've covered today back up valley. A narrow ribbon of muddy water snaking its way down the valley. I am also tired. I am really sure the next ridge is it, but when we get there, total disappointment. Another steep decline and then climb to another ridge, where we see Ray. And down at the turn, we see several of our group struggling to get up a section. It looks difficult, nothing but bare dirt with some loose rock, and Anne is sliding backward as she steps forward. Gradually, they make it up, and we head on. Barbara is quite good at climbing up, it's the down sections and narrow, horizontal sections that bother her. We make it fine where the others were having trouble. Then up to a small rock outcrop where we see the others on the ridge beyond. Ray had yelled earlier that "this is the top," so we knew that was it. We're tired and probably not being careful, hence the events that follow.
As best Barbara and I can reconstruct it, here's how it happened. Just beyond the rock outcropping was a very treacherous section of the trail, which we really didn't fully appreciate. The others commented later that it was bad for them, and they had knocked loose some of the footholds, leaving almost a shear slope for us to cross. Only about ten feet long, I make it across and then turn around with my front toward the slope to extend a hand and help Barbara, as we had done so much already. Barbara takes a few steps and somehow, suddenly, and I'm not sure why, I fall. I manage to stabilize myself for an instance, but as I'm falling, Barbara grabs to try to hold me, realizes she cannot, and then she falls. She slides slightly below me, and I'm yelling, "Hold on!" I'm scared at that point for Barbara more than I have ever been scared for anyone in this kind of situation. I wasn't totally sure what was below, but I knew that it sloped down precipitously. As a matter of fact, the slope extended down about one hundred feet and then went over a rocky outcrop and dropped another hundred feet to another slope. Almost no rocks to stop on the first hundred feet except for the rock outcrop beside the trail that we passed. Barbara manages somehow to grab the very bottom part of the rock outcrop and somehow holds on.
The small rock I'm holding to pulls out, and I slide again, a second time, burdened by the pack which tremendously unbalances me. After falling the second time, I again stop myself quickly by clawing at some small rocks, using my elbows like ice axes to dig into the loose rock. But we think in my second fall, I hit Barbara's pack, knock her loose, and she falls again, a second time also. At that point, I'm really frightened for her. I felt so helpless, barely holding on myself, not really being able to reach out and grab her and hold her like I had so much already. Instead, she loses her grip on the rock and goes shooting past me, and all I can do is yell, "Hold on, Honey! Hold on, Honey!" She does really well, and I am so proud of her. Barbara manages to stop and stabilize by digging her fingers as well as her boots into the loose dirt. At that point, I know that I have to do something, for the others, I thought, had gone on. Indeed, Barbara asks where the others are, and I tell her "they've gone." It turned out, however, that reliable Ray, the guy you always want with you in dangerous situations, was sitting up above watching, and when he saw Barbara slide, he yelled, "Get the rope!" and charged up hill to get the rope we had brought, mainly for river crossings. Then he raced down the several hundred yards to where we were.
While Ray is coming, without my knowledge, I know that I cannot last where I'm holding on, because the rocks are falling out, and it's extremely unstable, so I, more from instinct than anything, somehow manage to pull myself up and gradually work my way across to the rock outcrop. Barbara is twenty feet below holding on, laying on her side. I then, very carefully this time, walk out the now pretty much gone trail, more in a rock climbing mode and much more carefully. Then using Barbara's walking stick, which somehow ended up at the rock outcrop, I plant it in the loose gravel and dirt and work myself down to Barbara. Then I anchor the stick below her butt so that she could lean against it. At that point, there was a lot of dirt, and I was able to anchor it well so that she was much more secure. Then we simply sat there and waited, because it was going to be difficult and dangerous to do anything more.
Ray arrived and set up a belay and tossed the rope down. I took Barbara's pack off, tied her in, and she climbed back up with Ray belaying her, missing some falling rock from the rock outcrop. I then also climbed up with Barbara's pack and Ray's belay. Barbara is shaky as am I, but she was remarkably calm while it was going on. Dolph has also come down and is waiting on the other side of the dangerous section. I carefully walk over with Barbara's pack and give it to him. Then I lead Barbara, and Ray belays her across the dangerous section. She and Dolph go on up the trail, Dolph carrying Barbara's pack. Finally, I go across the hard section with my pack, and then Ray comes last, and we're finally done with what is the crux of The Goat Trail without question.
Barbara is at the top by the time I reach it and is obviously shaken. She reported that Regina was crying and everyone extremely concerned. They had cheered when she got to the top belayed by Ray. Barbara later says that what really worried her was that she thought everyone had already gone on, since I'd mistakenly told her they had.
At the top is what we had been waiting for, a beautiful, broad grassy ridge that provides incredible views of glaciers in almost every direction. You literally feel like you are on top of the world. Unfortunately, we're not in a mood to enjoy the view. We first walk down to the creek, a long walk, which had caused several people to want to go on. But the majority wanted to stay on the beautiful ridge top. We get water and also wash up. Both Barbara and I had gotten some bruises and particularly my left arm had lots of cuts and abrasions, very bloody. Then we walked back up and got the tent up. Barbara gets in. The others are obviously tired too, since they are simply plopping down in front of their tents and cooking in the wind. I opt instead to set up the tarp, with Tom and Barbara's help. Then, we start rehydrating with me carrying hot liquids over to Barbara in the tent. Bouillon is about best thing possible when you're tired and dehydrated, and it hit the spot. Then some tea and finally Barbara wanted Tang. I cooked Lipton beans and rice with Southern Comfort hot sauce, and Barbara ate a little of that. Barbara is obviously upset, and I try to comfort her. I have a hard time going to sleep, because I am so tired and, I guess, hyper over the excitement. But we both finally get to sleep around 11:00 pm.
© William H. Skelton, 1995