AK Day 5

From here out, I was too tired at the end of the day to write a full post so I’ve reconstructed the following from quick notes and memory typed before passing out.

We woke up and continued climbing talus towards Skinny ‘Bou Pass. The going was slow but we were close to a low ridge which we thought was the pass. It turned out not to be which was kind of a downer since we’d headed out before breakfast, as was our custom, and had been hoping to eat at the pass.

The actual pass required some ticky side-hilling on talus, and snow travel where we all lined up and followed Andrew’s tracks. At one point, he post-holed deeply when passing one side of a boulder, reversed to the other side but dropped through there as well, and so we helped each other in rapid succession up on to the boulder (video). It was kinda like some sort of game you’d expect to play at camp. The issue with post-holing in this area is that the rocks under the snow can be large and sharp so falling through the snow onto them potentially dangerous.

Skinny ‘Bou pass itself was a small notch in the south side of a bowl ringed with steep, ragged granite ridges. Very pretty but very steep on the descent and Justin to, “keep them out of trouble”. At the bottom of the talus immediately under the notch we had several hundred yards of picking our way over mixed rock and snow with the snow hiding more sharp rocks.

Finally, we breakfasted at a lake near on the right side of the valley below the snow line. The meal was an southwestern egg burrito which was finicky to cool but delicious. A fitting reward, however delayed, for the morning’s work.

On the lake was a small bird with black and white feathers. It hopped around on the very thin ice, pecking at the surface. We recounted the surprisingly few number of birds we’d seen so far on our journey, just four.

The next pass, appropriately named Talus Top, was less than a mile away on the other side of the head of the valley. A thin, long ridge of pure talus to the left of a pointed peak. There was a small stream to cross and everyone got their feet wet. It was strange to realize that this was the latest in the day we’d gotten wet feet. Normally, wet feet are a constant out here and letting them dry at every sufficiently long break is imperative.

Talus Top pass was a steep 900ft climb but wonderfully straight forward. There were no turns or navigational issues. No false passes. No snow. I had been feeling a little down for some reason and remembered something John had said about cycling psychology: when you think you’re suffering, go to the front. I shot up Talus Top as fast as I could, pretending I was a kid climbing a gravel pile. It was exhilirating and exactly what I needed.

The way down was very steep scramble. I hadn’t been able to see a way down but Andrew found one. The transition to snow at the bottom was tricky because snow near rock is the most likely to give way suddenly and dangerously. We handled this by sliding down the snow which spread out our weight. It was short and not steep but was a delightful break from the concentration of the down climb.

The snow was melting into a stream which came rushing out from under it and down the left side of the valley. Crossing to the dry bench to eat lunch was quick but cold. I have a little extra bread and so got to eat three PB&J sandwiches instead of my planned two. It was good to feel full and not just not hungry.

From lunch we descended a drainage, with incoming branches, to Awlinyak Creek. The going was dry, firm, and largely devoid of brush. In a word: pleasant. At one point we got to walk the nose of a medial moraine with a game trail on the top. It was so nice, and the peaks across the valley so dramatic that we stopped and took a group photo.

One group member’s achilles started bothering them. They only slowed slightly and moved well on the downhill. By InReach, we’ve had word that someone in the other group is having significant knee trouble and can’t keep pace. We’re all happy that our group is strong, healthy, and experienced enough for the terrain.

On the last side hill before reaching the Awlinyak, our easy going ended. We’d initially found a game trail which Andrew had noted on a previous trip to these parts. Eventually it disappeared and we were pushing through slide alder on a slope for some time. We decided that you knew you were bushwhacking when the bushes started whacking you. No one let it get to them and the comraderie was good but we were all relieved when the final nose down to the Awlinyak had only small brush. Justin captured the group’s feeling when we came out of the bushwhack with leaves under his hat, holding his trekking poles like a weapon, and acting like a crazed jungle soldier.

There was something about our first tough bushwack which made me understand why Andrew had always been so quick to move us to better terrain. Earlier in the trip, if going was so-so, I’d usually stay the course because it could easily be worse elsewhere. After dealing with the alder, my mind changed: why put up with anything difficult longer than strictly necessary?

Crossing the Awlinyak turned into quite an affair. It was clearly deep in places and moving fast. Andrew scouted two potential crossings but turned back (video). He’s done a great job pushing the group while staying well within it’s capabilities. This was just another example. River crossings are a leading cause of death in national parks and this was not place to mess around. We could wait for morning when the flow would be lower and, do to good trip planning, had the time to spare. Ultimately, he found a place where we could all cross. The guides went first with the lighter group members. There was an underwater gravel bar part way across which we regrouped in shin deep water. Then there was a deep channel where a lighter members of the group had trouble fighting the current to stay on the safe line which had been scouted. This differed from our normal stream crossing technique which we’d been taught: head across the current until it starts pushing you, then walk with it, angling only slightly for the far bank. For whatever reason, I was pretty comfortable in the water and walked along side a teammate in the channel for morale support.

We had a snack break to let the intensity of the crossing subside and I ate a bag of jerky. So much food today! I’d really enjoyed crossing the Awlinyak since it was a long crossing and you had a chance to see the river from it’s middle which is an unusual view given that we usually walk on the banks. The Awlinkyak Creek valley had trees, a first for the trip. It was nice to rest and travel in the shade.

For the rest of the day we walked mostly on game trails through the forest. The game trails would disappear near slides or open areas but we’d pick them up again. In one place we found a bear tracks mixed in with the footprints from the group about a day head of us.

We also found a tree with claw marks running up it’s trunk. Apparently bears do this to mark their territory. The highest mark indicates the size of the bear, warning that you’d better not come in unless you’re ready to tangle with something at least that tall.

When we stopped, the camping on was good, flat ground with water nearby. This was probably the most intense day of the trip and it was nice to decompress over dinner. I traded tents with Lance since I’d wanted to try some of the other styles.

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