Neither fans nor ceremony greeted Jay Cable and Tom Moran when they crossed the finish line of Alaska’s most formidable race earlier this month. There was only the deep satisfaction of mission accomplished and of surprise.
“In my head,” Moran said later in a telephone interview, “I thought we could be anywhere between first and ninth. I thought there was a possibility we were winning, but I didn’t think that likely.”
Given that the duo had been more than 49 hours plodding and packrafting through the Brooks Range, the most northerly mountains on the North American continent, and hadn’t seen anyone but each other in almost two days, Moran’s confusion is understandable.
Welcome to the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a race began in 1982 with the idea that there ought still be Alaskans tough enough to hike the 150 miles from one end of the Kenai Peninsula without using any roads.
Once competitors figured out a good route linking human trails, game trails, creeks and rivers, the route was moved. The reason? The race was too easy if everyone knew where they’d find the easiest travel. The race has been moving around the state ever since.
The challenge this year on the Classic’s every changing course was from Galbraith Lake, 360 miles north of Fairbanks on the desolate Dalton Highway, to Wiseman, a community of about a dozen three miles west of the Dalton near mile 189.
A lonely jog along the wild and lightly traveled gravel “highway” from Galbraith to Wiseman is enough to intimidate most people, but the Classic abhors the civility of established roads and trails.
This is a race meant to reward route finding, a valuable skill in the Alaska wilderness, as well as stamina and the simple ability to survive. The race waiver has long stipulated that “no help will be available. No rescue can be anticipated . . . We are warning you. Any decision you make is your own and you are responsible for it. Your injuries or death are not our problem.”
For a long time, competitors sort of laughed at that. There were plenty of close calls, but everyone always made it back until one didn’t. Forty-four-year-old Rob Kehrer, a veteran of 10 Classic races and a savvy wilderness traveler, died in 2014 in a packrafting accident on the Tana River in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
His death underlined the risks of cross-country wilderness travel in Alaska and helped lead the next Classic back toward the Brooks Range where the rivers aren’t as big and as powerful, and where the terrain makes it easier to bail out of fast-water stretches.
The Thompson Pass to Lakina River Bridge route in the Wrangell-St. Elias featured so much alder-bashing hell that it pushed racers to take to packrafts – small, one person inflatable boats – anywhere they found water they thought they could float.
The comparative lack of brush in the Brooks makes portages around troublesome stretches of water a whole lot easier, but the north-of-the-Arctic Circle location does present other problems.
Struggle of ’17
Moran admitted he avoided the Wrangell course because it was “not inviting,” but when the Classic moved back to the Arctic (it was on a different route there from 1991-1993) he started discussing it with Cable for whom this sort of adventure has become a norm.
Cable was one of a trio of fat-tired bikers to lead the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) into Nome in March. Along the way, they stopped to help a pair of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog mushers stranded in a ground blizzard along the Bering Sea coast at the bottom of the Topkok Hills about 40 miles east of Nome.
One of the mushers, Scott Janssen, was later recognized as an “Alaskan hero” by the state Legislature for cuddling with friend Jim Lanier, 77, until snowmachines arrived to rescue them. Cable, Kevin Breitenbach from Fairbanks and Phil Hofstetter from Nome stopped along the trail to make sure Janssen and Lanier were still alive, helped them to call for that rescue, concluded the men would survive until the snowmachines got there, and then pushed off into the storm.
Lightly dressed to avoid overheating when bike pushing, Hofstetter said, it was too cold to stand in the howling wind and hang out with Janssen and Lanier, but the trio did stop in the shelter of a cabin not far down the trail from where they met the mushers to text Nome and double-check that the snowmachines were on the way.
And they didn’t rest easy until the machines went past headed south toward Jansen and Lanier. Their contributions to the rescue went largely unnoticed, as did that of others, but Cable and his traveling companions are not the type to make anything of it.
There is an old code of the trail, and the code says you take care of anyone in trouble.
Moran confessed he sometimes felt Cable was taking care of him in their first Classic in 2017 when things didn’t go so well. The pair picked what “looked like a perfectly doable” route between Galbraith and Wiseman, he said, but they found out otherwise while trying to cross a glacier blocking the first pass at 6,100-foot pass.
“We couldn’t get a toehold on it,” Moran said.
The lost a lot of time detouring over into the Killik River watershed and then looping back toward Wiseman. This year they did the easy thing. They poached a variation of the route Luc Mehl and Todd Tumolo used to win the race in 2016.
Mehl identified a four-pass route that he and Tumolo took up through the Atigun River valley and then down the Hammond River drainage, which he later described as “an excellent float at high water. The mountains featured a lot of scenic rock outcrops, and the river had enough tree hazards to keep us awake. There were a handful of Class III bedrock rapids and then an approximately two-mile canyon section that was benign with the exception of a nasty Class V land-slide rapid.”
Mehl is a highly experienced paddler.What he describes as “excellent float” would more accurately be described as a “challenging adventure” for the less skilled.
Mehl’s memories of the passes were that “the cost of gaining elevation was quickly repaid with world-class scree and/or snow descents on the south sides. The first pass was especially rewarding, allowing us to take 10 foot strides in the fine-grained shale scree.”
Moran’s memories of the passes are a little different. The third pass was the worst.
“The last 200, 300 feet was a scramble up on frost-covered scree,” he said. Cable theorized the coating was actually an ice glaze caused by a wave of wet air freezing as it blew through the pass. Whatever it was, both men agreed it made miserable the hike to the top of the pass.
But there was a reward waiting.
“We got to the top of the pass, and the view there was absolutely wonderful,” Moran said. “It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.”
The other passes “were all challenging in their way,” he added. “It snowed on us on a couple of the passes. The fourth pass was hurry up and get over this thing before we freeze to death.”
The real fun waited at the bottom, however – the Hammond River water slide.
“The first few miles were pretty steep,” Moran said. “The first hour in the Hammond was pretty fast.”
His handheld GPS satellite tracker at one time showed the paddlers moving at 9.4 mph.
“It’s not a super challenging river,” he said, “but there’s lots of wood. There’s one rapid you have to portage around. Other than that, it was just a lot of maneuvering. I’ve been packrafting for a few years now, (but) I don’t think I’m really all that proficient.”
He confessed to being a little worried about the float, but it went smoothly after an early pause.
“There was a three-hour stop in the middle of the float…to make a fire,” he said. “We started floating around midnight, and it was getting cold. After about an hour, we floated until we got to a big tree. Jay got a fire going. We slept a couple of hours by the fire.”
Fire making remains a life-saving skill in the Alaska wilderness. Nobody should undertake the Classic without mastering the skill.
“Jay got the fire going,” Moran added. “I just stood there.”
Given how wet everything was, Moran said, he’d have been pressed to get a fire started under the conditions. The area had been deluged by torrential rains just before the race, but the weather improved once the Classic got underway.
On his blog, Cable simply wrote this:
“The fire wasn’t as big as I would have liked, but it was warm, and Tom and I got a bit of napping in while waiting for the sun to come back up. Eventually it got light enough to float again, and we were back to floating. Alas, the temperature had dropped a lot overnight, and it was cold enough that I had frost on the deck of the boat.”
Winter comes early to the Brooks Range, and Cable is not a guy to promote himself. His blog, for those truly interested in the route, has a good map and an interesting route profile showing those passes.
The Classic is defined both by how few competitors show up – the biggest turnout was way back in 1984 when the race started in Hope and followed the Resurrection Pass and Russian River trails a third of the way across the Kenai Peninsula on the way Hope – and how few competitors finish.
The race intimidates, and the reasons to quit are many. Thirteen started this year. Eight finished. The other five bailed out to the Dalton Highway, including “California Nick,” a rare competitor from Outside (the common Alaska term for the lower 48).
He got in trouble trying to float Kuyuktuvuk Creek, a waterway Cable and Moran looked at and rejected on the way to the Hammond.
“The creek looked like it would be fun packrafting,” Cable wrote, “but perhaps a bit on the bouncy side, with big rocks and rock walls. We considered floating it, but the idea of floating a fast creek (it looked like it dropped around 150 feet a mile, so a bit steep) while sleep deprived and without any beta seemed not quite worth it. Later we learned Nick from California floated it, flipped, and swam, losing his boat and gear and ended up having to walk out to the Dalton Highway.
“Still (he) made it out without too much drama. Major kudos to him for pulling that off. ”
Kudos should be due Cable, too, for sharing victories in two of Alaska’s most demanding wilderness races in the same year even if he downplays the accomplishments with the observation “that I am not particularly competitive,” which is true.
Cable would more aptly be described as steadfast, as another of his observations underlines.
“I think the first year Luc and Toby finished over 13 hours ahead of what Tom and I did this year, so their experience was probably a lot different,” he messaged. “I bet they went a lot ‘harder’ than we did.”
All things are relative. All things.
As Cable notes, “the Classic has no fixed route, so navigation, both picking a good overall route and finding good walking (avoiding brush, finding game trails etc), is very important, but the walking pace we did this year was pretty low impact. So I was less physically tired in the Classic, but it was a lot more mental work than the ITI.
“The ITI is a lot more contained than the classic. There is a fixed trail with really only one route, but (at least on a bike) I put a lot more physical effort into it than I did the Classic this year.
“One huge difference is the ITI is so much colder than the Classic (too). When we got tired, I just laid down and napped, something I don’t do in the ITI for example. Hopefully this answers your question. I should clarify – when I am talking about the ITI, I am mostly talking about the part of the race after McGrath (north of the Alaska Range).
“Before that it is a different deal. The trail is very contained. There are checkpoints or places to go inside pretty frequently, and there are a lot of people around for the most part. That makes a huge difference. Someone can go a lot harder, and if they blow up, or fall apart, count on getting to a place they can collapse at. I would say the (ITI) 350 is harder physically than the Classic for me, but way easier mentally, but again that is just me.”
All of which sums Cable’s Alaska hardman status well; there are few people in Alaska or elsewhere who would use the word “easier” anywhere in any description of the Classic or the ITI.
CORRECTION: This is an edited version of the original story in which some times and speeds were slightly off.