Backpacking in Denali (6): “Just an Hour More”

In my last post, I wrote about how we had spent the balance of the day hiking through the Toklat River Valley to get to a campsite marked on the map near the Toklat Visitor’s center.

When we reached the visitor’s center – exhausted – we met a staff member who informed us that the campground was only for the park staff.  “So what do we do?” we asked.  She pointed to a spot on the mountain we had just passed.  She described it as “out of sight of the road” (a requirement for backpackers) and “only” another hour’s journey.  It looked like there was an opening, a creek bed where we could walk right up the mountain.

Exhausted after 9 miles (8 hours) of difficult hiking, an hour climb up the mountain was the last thing we wanted to do, but it was 8:30 pm and we were out of options.  We headed in the direction she had pointed, but were confused when it seemed like there the opening we had seen never came.

So we just plunged in to the willows.

What would follow was the single most difficult thing that we did during the trip.  We had to cut a path for ourselves, breaking branches, imposing our will on the willows, for about 1000 feet.  We were frustrated and furious with the girl who had sent us into this thicket, but had no choice except to go on.

It took about 2 hours to get to a clearing that was flat enough to camp.  We also realized that we were well past the point she had shown us. Exhausted, we ate a quick dinner and set up camp.

When we went to sleep, it was dark and we were too sore to be satisfied.

Sometimes life is like that.  The journey is surprising and you have no choice but to go on.  It’s not until later that you will realize that the journey was worth it.

So when we woke up the next morning, we found ourselves in the most beautiful place we had been yet.  The view was unbelievable.

The next day we were able to clearly see the path that had been recommended to us the night before.  We had been unable to see it because we were too close to the mountain, and in a hurry to get up.  This path was so much easier and would have spared the headache.  But we would’t have ended up with the best view of the trip.  So the two principles I take from this are:

1) Sometimes we stop JUST before breakthrough occurs


2) Sometimes unexpected hardship brings unexpected opportunity (and unexpected joy).

Backpacking in Denali (5): It Just Gets Harder

After the previous day’s jaunt through “Bear Canyon”, we elected to sleep in and let our bodies recover a little.  We started our hike at about 11:00.

Despite the rest, we were pretty sore, and the first hour was excruciating.  It was at least a 3-mile hike through Cabin Canyon to the Toklat River, and since we had to rest at numerous points within the first mile, our spirits were pretty low.

After about 2 hours we finally stumbled onto an animal path (moose?) and having some kind of trail made things quite a bit easier, even enjoyable – despite still having to call out “Hey Bear” every few feet.

We arrived at the Toklat River at around 2:30.  While eating lunch, we decided to make the day our “easy day”, meaning that we would only hike for 2 more hours, then set up camp in the river bed.

The wide berth created by the river allowed us to drop our guard and have some of the best conversation of the trip as we walked.  While we tried to ford the river where it threaded ankle deep, at several points we were forced to exchange our boots for river shoes.

Things were going great until we saw the Toklat visitor’s center in the distance, about 4 miles away.  The map seemed to indicate a campground near the visitor’s center, and we were feeling energized, so we pulled an audible and decided to make for that campground instead of spending the night in the river bed.  This would prove to be a pivotal decision.

The four miles proved a lot harder than we anticipated (kind of a theme, isn’t it?).  Crossing the many threads of the river wore us down, as the possibility of falling in the river was very real (we had some close calls, but survived thanks to the hiking poles).

As we neared our destination, the river finally defeated us.  With the visitor’s center on the other side, the river was too deep and powerful to cross.  Frustrated, we had no other choice but to cross the valley and walk up the side and over the bridge, adding another 30-45 minutes to the hike.

When we reached the bridge, my sandaled feet were freezing and numb from the 39 degree water and kicking rocks in the river bed. Once again, gaiters and neoprene socks would have been a huge bonus.

I knew that both Ben and I were pretty near our breaking point, but we felt like the end was in sight.

We were wrong.

Next: An Unbelievable View

Backpacking in Denali (4): BEARS

Day Two: Bears

Coming into the glacier path, it wasn’t long before we met up with the East Fork of the Toklat river again.  This meant that we would need to do some crossings where the river threaded most thinly.

Here is where knee-length or thigh-length gaiters and neoprene socks would have been worth the money.  But since we didn’t have those, we had to change into sandals.  I had brought both my Vibram Five Fingers and my Columbia sandals, and after trying each of them in turn, I decided to wear them at the same time.

Even so, the water was sooooo cold!

A recurring theme of the trip was that we would overestimate how far we had gone and underestimate how far away the next goal was.  On a normal hike, you would stop around dinner time.  But in Alaska, it doesn’t get dark until around 11:00.  So after our dinner (freeze-dried lasagna), we decided to walk up Cabin Creek to a ridge that seemed maybe a mile or two away. (Ha!)

This started with a pretty treacherous river fording, and then we walked up the river bed.  It was beautiful, but it was also the coldest my feet have ever been. I went as long as I could before changing back into my boots.  This meant water in my boots and wet socks, but it was a small price to pay to keep my toes.

And here, in the midst of a supposed mile hike that turned into a four mile hike, was where we suddenly began seeing signs of bears everywhere. Most disturbing was a fresh claw print side-by-side with a bootprint.

The print was going the opposite direction, so we cautiously continued for about twenty feet, until I noticed that the bushes just ahead of us were moving.

“There’s definitely something over there,” Ben said.

It was about 30 feet away.  (No pictures. Are you crazy?)

We could see the shape of the bear, presumably much more interested in berries than in us, but we didn’t want to take any time to find out. We backtracked and raced upstream to get to higher elevation.  This was scary and frustrating.

We climbed up about 1000 feet until we came to a ridge.  The climb was reminiscent of the stairs of Machu Picchu, and the only way I made it was by using a Tabata-inspired climbing strategy.  I counted out 20 steps, then rested for 10 seconds, then took 20 more steps, until we reached the top.

Upon arriving at the ridge, we set up camp as the sun set over the hills.  We had gone about 12 miles in 11 hours.  We were exhausted, but exhilarated.

One of the last things I wrote in my journal for the day was this: “The bears are out there, but hopefully they stay away.”

Next: Day Three (in which we make the same mistake again…)

Backpacking in Denali (3): Six Miles of Pleasure and Pain

Journal Excerpt: Day 2

So much happened today.  It was the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done.  I felt like we went through every imaginable kind of terrain, each one challenging like a new level in a video game.  There were moments of great beauty, great wonder and great terror.

I mapped it out last night, and since all we have is a map and a compass, we decided to stick to the waterways to keep from getting lost.

Some highlights:

We took the bus from Wonder Lake to the East Fork of the Toklat River, our trailhead. There were amazing views of Mount McKinley, and the clouds made the scene look heavenly.

We walked up the hills surrounding the East Fork.  It was like something out of Lord of the Rings, one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever been in.

Walking along a river bed has some disadvantages.  Tributaries broke up our path on two occasions, and led to some tricky descents.  One side of the river was very steep, and we tried to scale a gravel incline unsuccessfully.  I got about 3/4 of the way up before we decided to go down, which basically meant sliding on a moving pile of gravel.

The amount in the river was also uneven.  At one point, it led us through a gorge that we nicknamed “Ankle-Break Alley”.  It reminded me of Emyn Muil of Mordor – a ravine of sharp, loose rocks.

Following the alley was a swampy forest of willow trees, where the trees had grown closely together.  This made us anxious, because it seemed very easy to surprise a bear or a moose when bushwhacking through the trees.  Once again, we made a lot of noise, calling out “Hey Bear!” every few feet.

Coming to a point where the river was impassable (without swimming) we decided to leave the East Fork riverbed and cut across land to another riverbed about a mile over.  The terrain here – taiga – was very spongy, but at least it was out in the open.

We ate lunch on a hill (beef jerky and fruit leather) right next to some moose bones.  After lunch, we descended to a creek, where the traveling became a little easier. We had lively conversation and debate, which was a welcome departure from our previous one: “Hey bear!”

This creek-bed finally opened into a wide glacier path, which was amazing.  We took some pictures and rested.  We had been hiking for about 5 hours.  Little did we know that we were only halfway done…

Next: Cabin Creek, aka Bear Canyon

Backpacking in Denali (2): The Mountain

Journal Excerpt: Day One

The scenery on the way to Wonder Lake was spectacular.  We saw bears, sheep, caribou and had a phenomenal view of Mount McKinley.  At 20,000 feet, it is the highest peak in North America, and since ground level is only 2,000 feet above sea level, the 18,000 foot rise is the highest relief in the world.  To be able to see the mountain is a rare treat, and they say that only 30% of the people who come to the park actually get a clear view of it due to cloud cover.   Incidentally, it wasn’t long before the clouds rolled in and the view of the mountain was obscured.

While we were cooking dinner, the clouds parted momentarily, and we saw McKinley.  It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.  How can I describe it?

Imagine looking at the clouds high above you and seeing a mountain in the clouds.

Not mountains, a mountain.  One mountain, filling the whole horizon.

[My picture doesn’t do it justice.  Here’s a better one I posted earlier, from the internet:]


Its immensity was staggering, and it drew my heart to stand in awe of God, who made the mountains perhaps so that we could have categories for understanding his immensity.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth.” – Psalm 121.1-2

“Those who trust in Yahweh are like Mount Zion, which can never be shaken, but endures forever.  As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so Yahweh surrounds his people both now and forevermore.” – Psalm 123.1-2

Backpacking in Denali (1): Bring a Map, Water and Bear Mace

[I have decided to start posting edited excerpts from my journals while in Denali National Park, along with pictures or videos to make it all more real.  Enjoy!]

Journal Excerpt: Day One

Today we woke up early and took the 7:00 a.m. bus to Wonder Lake.  Wonder Lake is almost at the end of the 92 mile road that splits the middle of the Denali National Park wilderness.  The park is 6 million acres, which is larger than the state of Massachusetts.  (Locals like to joke that they have parks bigger than our states). Wonder Lake is only around 90 miles away, but the buses go slow and it takes 5 hours to make the trip.

When we arrived at Wonder Lake, we set up camp and ate lunch.  Then we decided to go out on a jaunt that would be one of the most memorable I’ve been on.

Lesson one: don’t try to hammer tent spikes in with a Nalgene bottle.  It’s a good way to lose all the water.  I thought it was unbreakable, but I suppose that if you repeatedly strike it with a spike at a single point that eventually gives way.  This could have been bad if I hadn’t packed an extra water bottle at the last minute.

Lesson two: when going on a day hike in the wilderness, bring a compass and a map.  Hills and forests tend to look the same in the wilderness, and things are further away than they appear.

Lesson three: bring bear mace, when you are in bear country.  It may not actually stop the bear if you see one, but it is a huge security blanket when going through thick brush.

We hadn’t learned any of these lessons yet when we set out on our day hike.

Accordingly, we went with no map, water or bear spray.  We did try to stay in clear areas, speaking loudly to alert bears to our presence (the worst thing you can do is surprise a bear).  It was all going swimmingly, until we decided to hike to a “pavilion” that we saw high on a hill.  We ended up getting lost and trekking through some pretty thick brush with plenty of evidence of bears.  You could see the impressions from where they were lying down, fresh skat (rich with berries).

It was terrifying, like a horror movie that messes with you by never showing you the monster.

We didn’t see any bears, and that was fine with us.  We knew they were close.

After three hours, with waterlogged boots, we made it back.  Quite an adventure, and a preview of things to come!

I am still afraid of bears, and for that matter, of dying.  But it is healthy for me to face my fears and to press forward into the uncomfortable and the unknown.  Tomorrow we hike through the Polychrome mountains, a place where we saw a bear on the bus ride.  I am anxious and excited – and thankful for a chance to walk through the wild places of the world.

The world is not safe or cute but beautiful and dangerous – not to be taken lightly but inviting us into adventure… just like the God who made it.

A Blow-By-Blow Walkthrough of the Tough Mudder (7): Final Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed this series.  Here are my final thoughts on the Tough Mudder:

1.  Expensive: If you’re going to run the Tough Mudder, register as early as possible or wait for a Groupon.  It is an EXPENSIVE race, and on top of the race fee they tend to nickel-and-dime you.  Someone is making a lot of money here, though hopefully it’s the Wounded Warrior Project.

2.  Worth it: That said, I think it was worth the money I paid.  It was so much fun, an unforgettable experience.

3.  Heat Time: Registering early will also ensure that you get to pick as early of a start time as possible.  This is important for several reasons.  First, you get a fresh course.  There is still grease on the monkey bars, for example.  But more importantly, if you are in the early heats, you don’t have to stand in traffic jams at obstacles.  You can breeze through without waiting for stragglers from previous heats.  This is especially important if you are hoping to qualify for the World’s Toughest Mudder.

4.  Photos: If you want good pictures of yourself, bring someone along.  For a spectator fee ($15), they can walk throughout the course, meeting you at key photo ops and taking pictures.  Tough Mudder contracts professional photographers to take pictures of participants, but they tend to only focus on certain points in the race and certain heats (the early ones, I think).  I had to dig through thousands of pictures online to find the 2 pictures they took of me, both of which were rubbish.  And the prices for the prints were pretty outrageous, but I suppose a lot of people are willing to pay.

5.  Gear:  I wore a pair of North Face hiking shorts, which dried pretty quickly. No shirt.  I wore goggles on my forehead, which were indispensable.  I carried latex-coated Grease Monkey mechanic gloves ($3) with the fingers cut off in a zipped pocket of my shorts.  I don’t think they were necessary, but if you want to wear gloves, these took good care of my hands on the ropes and monkey bars.

6. Training: I was probably overtrained when it came to the obstacles, and undertrained when it came to the distance.  Do a lot more running if you are training for this, since it is primarily a race.  I think a person could do this course with little training other than long-distance running since you can get help on most of the harder obstacles.  No one, however, can help you run.

7. Toughest Event on the Planet?  Probably not.  The World’s Toughest Mudder might be.  But it is great marketing for an unforgettable experience.  So get some friends and go for it!