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FAIRBANKS - The first three days of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic were smooth sailing for Rob McCue and Mike Knoche.
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"We were just cruising along, making 25 miles a day," said McCue, a 40-year-old carpenter and cab driver from Fairbanks.
Then they came to Skolai Pass.
The snow and ice they were traveling on disappeared and turned into rocks, dirt and glacial moraine. They spent as much time carrying their skis as they did wearing them.
"When we hit Skolai Pass we felt like bugs crawling over each stone, one at a time," said McCue, who eventually finished the roughly 150-mile race in just under eight days. "There wasn't any snow. We couldn't drag our sleds and had to put everything on our backs.
"Once you hit Skolai Pass it was a struggle every step of the way after that."
If there was a theme to this year's Wilderness Classic backcountry ski race from Nabesna to McCarthy, that was it. The 150-mile course is regarded as one of the toughest routes ever used for the 23-year-old Classic, which features a new course every three years.
The route is littered with glaciers that force racers to abandon their skis in favor of crampons and weave their way through rock-filled moraine fields.
A field of 16 competitors started the race on April 1 and all nine that made it to the finish in McCarthy had horror stories to tell about negotiating Skolai Pass and Skolai Creek, a 20-mile stretch about halfway through the race that serves as a door through the glacier-filled Wrangell Mountains.
"Skolai is a dirty word in the English dictionary," quipped Fairbanks' Simon McLoughlin, who took more than eight days to reach McCarthy, more than two of which were spent crawling through the pass and down the creek. "Once you hit Skolai it was hell on Earth."
Skolai Pass is basically a five-mile-long moraine field filled with rocks, boulders and piles of earth left behind by retreating glaciers. Dragging a plastic sled through the snow-barren, rock-filled pass was brutal, said McLoughlin. The sled repeatedly tipped over on rocks.
As a result, he ended up breaking a ski pole and a binding on one of his skis, which made traveling on skis the last 75 miles a challenge. McLoughlin, who completed last year's Wilderness Classic in the Brooks Range, called this year's Classic "probably the hardest trip mentally and physically that I've ever done."
As bad as crossing Skolai Pass was, skiing down Skolai Creek was even worse, he said. The 15-mile creek resembles a gorge more than a creek. There are two large canyons, each about two miles long, that racers must skirt by climbing hundreds of vertical feet up out of the creek and crossing a series of steep-sided canyons formed by tributaries flowing into the creek.
No easy way out
When he came to the first of the two canyons, McLoughlin found himself staring over a waterfall of ice. He crawled to the edge of the ice ledge to scout it out.
"I saw this dropoff and I couldn't see the bottom," he said. "It was one of those deals where you had to lean out more than you wanted to to see the bottom and I didn't want to do that."
At that point, McLoughlin began scouting both sides of the creek for the easiest way around the canyon. But as he found out, there is no easy way down Skolai Creek.
"It was like being in a nightmare," McLoughlin, a 41-year-old New Zealand transplant, said of Skolai Creek. "Every time you tried to get out of a situation there was nowhere to turn. If you went left there was a mountain blocking your way and if you went to the right there were three ravines you had to traverse.
"There was an obstruction almost every step."
McCue and Knoche spent almost 40 hours making their way down the creek, experiencing the same kind of misery McLoughlin did.
"Occasionally it was kind of daunting," said Knoche, a 33-year-old carpenter and biologist. "Just when you'd think you were going to be able to start skiing again, you'd ski a mile and have to put your crampons back on and it was back to hiking.
"On the lower half of that creek we had to climb several thousand feet up and down that gorge."
They also had to dodge falling rocks on the creek.
"Rocks were just falling off the walls all over the place as things were thawing," said McCue.
Even the winning duo of Fairbanks' Frank Olive and Chris Wrobel of Anchorage, who finished more than three days ahead of their closest pursuers, had trying moments on Skolai Creek. It took them 14 hours to make it through the pass and down the creek.
Olive, a 32-year-old sales rep at Beaver Sports in Fairbanks, and Wrobel, a 29-year-old wetlands biologist from Anchorage, covered the course in 4 days, 12 hours, an average of more than 30 miles a day.
Nobody came close to matching their pace. While it took Olive and Wrobel 14 hours to make over Skolai Pass and down Skolai Creek, it took most of the other racers between two and three days to cover the same distance.
More challenging route
While Olive and Wrobel, who teamed up at the last minute, were able to double pole down the Nizina River for the final 40 miles of the race, McCue and Knoche weren't so lucky.
By the time McCue and Knoche reached the Nizina River, temperatures had shot up into the high 40s and low 50s, causing the river to begin melting. What took Olive and Wrobel seven hours to ski took Knoche and McCue twice that long.
"We were looking forward to double poling down the Nizina but that was pretty much breaking up when we got there," said McCue. "We were skiing through a foot of overflow."
The sleds they were towing behind them might as well have been boats, said Knoche.
"We were just dragging our sleds through the river," he said.
It took McLoughlin and Rob Kehrer of Anchorage about 20 hours to ski the final 40 miles.
"We started at 7:30 in the morning and we were still carrying our sleds through open water at midnight," said McLoughlin, who finished at 3:45 a.m.
Both McCue and McLoughlin, who completed last year's course in the Brooks Range, felt the route through the Wrangells was much more difficult.
"This race is a whole lot tougher than the Brooks Range," he said. "It's a whole different ball game."
Of the seven racers who failed to finish, four of them - Cramer, Chris Allard, Casey Fagerquist and Danielle Pratt - chose a more technical route over the Chisana Glacier that proved to be impassable. The four skiers spent two days trying to figure out a way through a maze of ice.
"It's a route we've done in the past but it's melted out," said Cramer. "We were probably 300 yards from the point we wanted to get to but we couldn't get through there. It was all vertical rock and a huge hole."
The four skiers ended up skiing back to Chisana after seven days and scratching.
Fairbanks' Nina Valadez pulled out of the race on the first day after losing her skis in a windstorm on the Nabesna River, according to Cramer. Valadez swapped her skis for crampons to walk up the river ice and somehow her skis, which she had strapped to her sled, worked loose and fell off without her realizing it for five miles.
Paul Burcar of Anchorage and Nichole South of Talkeetna pulled out at Chisana, 50 miles into the race because they were going too slow and didn't think they would have enough food and cooking fuel to make it to McCarthy, said Cramer. Despite the demanding physical and mental nature of the race, many of the racers were already looking forward to next year's Wilderness Classic in the Wrangell Range.
"It was awesome country," said McCue, who spotted mountain goats on the canyon walls towering above Skolai Creek.