Neacola Nightmare

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I hate cold water. I always have. When I was a teenager I wanted to surf, but the water (central California) was too cold for me, even with a wetsuit. I have never liked like cold swimming pools or swimming holes, know matter how hot the outside temperatures were. When I moved to Alaska, my dislike of cold water grew. I learned  that is was possibly the most dangerous thing in the state, more dangerous than the bears or avalanches, cold water was an unforgiving killer and I swore to avoid it as much as possible.

We landed on the shores of the ethereal Turquoise Lake. It was late afternoon and we had many miles to cover. There were four of us: lead guide Andy, clients Colin and Patrick and me, the tag-a-long. I was not a client or a guide, however,  I was not an outside observer, I was part of the group and I wanted to make sure that everyone felt that way.

There have been many stories of photographers joining expeditions, brought on because of their mountain skills, not their photo skills, whom later let their team down, putting photography above the well fair of the group. I was not going to be that photographer. This was not my trip.

We worked our way up valley, switching between boots and river shoes, crossing braided streams, then rocky cliffs. It was drizzling and I was not amused. Alaska was having the best weather of any summer anyone could remember, except in the Alaska Range and except for me. This was my third trip this year and once again the weather was foul. But my mood was still high, this was only day one of a twelve day trip, the weather would get better.

Patrick crossing glowing moss and River Beauty.

Patrick crossing glowing moss and River Beauty.

Our goal that day was to camp near the firn line on the Turquoise Glacier. There is only one way to get onto the Turquoise Glacier and that was on the other side of the river. We marched on spongy, glowing green moss and around black lichen blanketed rocks. A fine mist hung on the mountain tops, we felt were sneaking into the mountains of Mordor, there was a gloomy, dark feeling to everything around us.

We reached the crossing spot, a place Andy had crossed before. It looked big, swift, scary. Andy went out a third of a way in the brown river and decided that it was too swift. It was already 7:00PM and we were wet and hungry so we decided to camp at the crossing and tackle it in the morning when the volume would be lower and we would be warm and well rested.

We had a great dinner under the cooking tarp, learning about each other, telling jokes, sipping a little whisky (Colin owns a popular bar in DC and had brought up some of his finest drink). The rain let up around 10:00pm and I spent the last hours of daylight photographing the moody cliffs and the abundant waterfalls that descended down every gully.

We got up early but had a leisurely breakfast, no one seemed motivated to tackle the river. It had rained all night and the river looked more swollen than the night before. During our after dinner explorations we had discovered a heavily braided section up river and decided that would be the better crossing.

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One of the many beautiful streams that rush out of the Neacola Mountains.

We were already a little behind schedule and had a huge day ahead of us, including a high, steep pass. We needed to get moving. We lugged our monster packs to the first of many braids and put on our river shoes, wrapping our boots over the back of our necks. We were only a mile from the toe of the glacier and the water was cold, evil cold, ice chunks were floating by. Quickly my feet went numb as we splashed through braid after braid, looking for a good spot, nothing. My feet slowly became bricks, lacking feeling. I was feeling nervous and apprehensive, I was having doubts the river would go. My feet hurt.

“Can we go another way, the other side of the glacier?’ I asked Andy, the only one familiar with the area.

“no, the river is the only way.” he insisted. He had crossed the river multiple times before, it would go.

I have always been known as mister safety, the guy who always turns back. I have had many disgruntled climbing partners, not impressed with my lack of courage and unwillingness to push the safety envelope. Part of me wanted to just say no, no way, and yet I didn’t want to be that guy again, safety boy, the one to alter the trip, end the journey.

We found a spot, ten feet across, but moving fast. We were all starting to shiver a little, it was time, now or never. We set up a pack line, Andy, then Patrick, Colin and me at the tail. We listened to Andy’s commands: left, right, left, right. I kept my head down, swearing to myself that I wouldn’t swim. We were hardly moving, I looked up and witnessed water boiling deeper up Andy, nearing his naval. Colin was shaking, so was I.

And then it all ended.

Andy went first, in slow motion I watched him go by, down the river. Then Patrick, six-foot four and 250 pounds, gone. Colin and I held our ground but it was useless, down went Colin.

I screamed, I was going to die the way I told myself I would never would, via cold water.  The next thing I knew I was under water.

Proper river swimming etiquette goes like this: Unbuckle your waist and sternum strap before crossing. Take pack off and sit, facing down river, feet up. You then use one arm to paddle to shore while the other arm holds onto your pack.

What I was doing was text-book alright, text-book on how to die!

I was rolling sideways down the river, like a big rock. Under water, then above, under then above. I screamed for help each time my head was up. What had I done wrong? I had made a stupid, critical decision, I had kept my sternum strap on.

I tried to un-snap it while I was rolling but my hands were unresponsive and I was panicking, Mr. Calm and Collective was freaking out. Then I snapped out of it.

“Shut up Carl, no is going to save you, save yourself.” My brain said, ignoring my cries for help. I struggled and got myself pointed down river, looked at the river and realized I was about to float near the shore, I flipped, swam like hell and clawed the bank, I made it.

I lay there, half way in the river screaming at my useless hands as I tried to undo the strap. Finally, I got it unbuckled and dragged myself on the shore. I put my head in my hands and tried to comprehend what just happened, why I did what I did. I was terrified but alive. I looked up and saw Patrick way up river, Andy and Colin were down near me. Andy looked at me and gave me the thumbs up, I returned the signal. Then put my head in my hands again. I looked at my legs, gushing blood, my feet were purple, swollen, cuts everywhere. One of my river shoes had been torn off. My ankle looked broken, but I didn’t feel any pain, but there could be no way that I was okay, everything looked bad. I looked up, Andy was still staring at me, Again he signaled, thumbs up or down? Down I signaled this time.

Something else seemed wrong, I couldn’t see well, I had lost my glasses. Luckily, I had a pair of prescription sunglasses too. But something else was not right and then I realized, I was on the other side of the river, they were not.

I was shivering and then my years of experience kicked in.

“Your own your own now, time to get moving”, I thought.

I stripped naked right there on the rocks, opened my pack and pulled out my dry bag, opened it with worry, but everything was dry. I put on warm dry layers and socks. I grabbed my tent, sleeping bag, water, a little food. I looked at Andy, he knew what I was going to do. I also noticed that Colin was jumping up and down and that he didn’t have a pack.

“Where’s Colin’s Pack?” I yelled across the river. Andy pointed down the river.

I don’t think I have ever set up a tent so fast and within a few minutes I was in my dry sleeping bag, eating food, getting warm. I sat there, angry at myself.

Ego usually plays the main role in mountain accidents. Had my ego played a role? Was being tough and brave all of a sudden important to me? It was strange. Part of me did believe the river would go and we made a team decision, my gut however knew it was a bad idea. No one was at fault, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had messed up, that I let Ego prevail.

And then there was the sternum strap issue that almost drowned me. It was a conscious decision. I knew better but I still didn’t unbuckle it. I think part of what I was thinking was that an explorer never loses their pack, your pack is your life. The other thing was that the pack was heavy and the sternum strap kept me balanced. If I had been calm, I would have unbuckled the strap as soon as I saw Andy swim. But I wasn’t calm, I was cold, scared and stubborn and was NOT GOING TO SWIM! If I would have just relaxed and went with the river, my swim would have been a much less dramatic of an experience.

An hour later I heard my name called. I crawled out, Andy was on a river bar mid-river.

“Are you Okay?” he yelled.

“Yes, I have got food, I am warm and I think I can hike out.” I screamed over the rage of the river.

“Okay, we are heading out, I will return, maybe tonight.” He waved and the three of them descended into the mist.

My swim was terrible, however, the others did fine. Andy got beat up a little and lost a river shoe. Patrick managed to muscle himself to shore, on his hand and knees. His knees were swollen and he had lost his boots and poles but he was in good spirits. Colin, the one with the least experience, had a smooth swim, calm and relaxed, until a huge rock hit him in between his legs, making him let go of his pack.

They hiked the four miles down to the lake shore.  Colin carried Patrick’s pack because  Patrick had no boots. On the way down they watched Colin’s pack float by and get stuck on a bar in the middle of the river. When they reached the shore, Andy called Lake Clark Air and scheduled a pick up for Patrick and Colin. He also told them to,

“Bring me a pack raft.”

Back in the tent. I kept going over and over the event in my head. I couldn’t shake it. I was mad and disappointed in myself. I believed the trip was done, I mean, Colin’s pack was gone (I didn’t know at the time that Patrick didn’t have boots either). I tried to listen to music but realized everything on my iPod was sad and depressing. Then I remembered that I downloaded a bunch of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me podcasts, just what I needed to lighten my mood.

I was still very concerned about my legs and especially my feet. They were very swollen but I felt no pain nor did any of the cuts hurt. I cleaned out as many as I could but ran out of wound care supplies.  I tried to keep them elevated.

The river, doesn't look so bad does it?

The river, doesn’t look so bad does it?

Twenty four hours past and still no Andy. Plenty of scenarios were running through my head. Again, my self-preservation mentality kicked in.I decided to prep for my escape. First, I needed to decide if I was going to be able to hike. My feet felt really strange; was it a cold related injury? impact injury? Or were they swollen for other reasons? I decided to hike up to the glacier and see if I could cross at the toe and come back down. Andy was positive it would not go, but I would rather take my chances with a glacier than a river, no matter how sketchy it was.

My feet worked, they felt strange but no pain. The glacier would go, I was sure of it. Unfortunately, on the other side of the river, near the glacier’s toe, was one of the most spectacular and frightening waterfalls I had ever seen. It exploded out of the mountain with utter rage and descended to the main river without hesitation, it was impassable. Another option was to head down river but at some point the river hugs the cliffs and I would be screwed.

I didn’t want to accept it but, I was going to have to cross again.

Survival mode sent me into a series of decisions.I couldn’t cross without poles (I lost mine during the swim). So I took my tripod apart and created two poles with its legs. My pack was too heavy to cross by myself or to swim with, so I needed to lighten up. The bear canister was drenched inside so I took out all the food out. Everything that was waterlogged; rice, noodles and granola, I dumped in the river. I decided to keep four days worth of food. I didn’t have a stove so I dumped my fuel.

My conversion from tripod to trekking poles. Worked great.

My conversion from tripod to trekking poles. Worked great.

The rain had stopped and a good breeze came from down valley. I draped all my wet gear on the bushes. My plan was to watch this small stream on the other side. It would be my meter on how much water was coming out of the mountains. The night before the swim it was just a trickle, now it was flowing really well. When that creek went down, I would look for a crossing.

An hour later I saw two figures heading my way on the other side. It was Andy and Colin. Colin? Why was he still here? He didn’t have a pack! They walked past me and went to an area where there were no braids in the river. Andy looked at me, made a swimming motion and pointed at the spot.

“No Way!” I thought,  “He wants me to just dive in and swim?”. I packed slowly, trying to imagine the suffering I was about to endure. Then I saw him blowing up a raft. (I would later find out he made a paddling motion, not a swimming one.)

We then shuttled the pack raft back and forth, first with my pack and then with me in it. It went without a hitch and the raft ride was fun. Our morale shot through the roof as we headed down stream, happy with our successful rescue.

“We plan to keep going” Andy said. I stopped.

“What? Colin doesn’t have a pack!”

“We rescued it with the pack raft!” Colin exclaimed.

With heavy heart I broke the news that I had dumped food and fuel. They had also lost food because of flooded bear barrels but they were bound and determined to continue the adventure. We stopped at the bottom of a pass that led on a different route. I got caught up in their enthusiasm and agreed to continue with them.

They hiked down to retrieve the rest of their gear and I stayed and rested. They were gone about three hours, long enough for me to come to grip with the fact that the trip was over for me. I was still rattled mentally and my feet were swollen and not right. Together, we barely had enough food and fuel for four days. We had a ton of extra gear: pack raft, paddles, ropes.

When they returned I told them I was going to head out. It just made sense, I was a third wheel now, possibly injured. I would carry the extra gear out and would give them my food. The fuel would last longer with just the two of them. I decided to stay one last night with them. We ate good and sipped more whiskey from the one flask that survived the river.

The next morning I left my two wet friends, huddle under a tarp. My pack weighed more than it did when we started the trip but I was happy to help them out. I wanted Colin to have a good adventure in Alaska. I was jealous that they were able to continue.

I marched for three hours under a heavy burden, both physically and mentally. It rained the entire time. My lifeless feet crossed slippery boulders, skirted cliffs and crossed braided stream after braided stream. The Neacolas were doing everything they could to encourage my departure. For the first time in my life I felt rejected by the mountains.

I set up my tent on the shore of Turquoise Lake and waited for the plane.Then the rain stopped and a brightness over took my tent. I crawled out to some glorious sun, the first I had seen the entire trip and at that moment the sound of the plane echoed through the valley. And for the first time in my life I said out loud,

” I hate you mountains”.

Packing for my next trip: Neacola Traverse

In 2007, my friend Dan Oberlatz and his longtime client Mark Stevens made a 55 mile traverse of the Neacola Mountains in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Since that trip he has told me its one of the best trips in the Neacolas. So next week I will be tagging along on that same traverse with a Alaska Alpine Adventures guide and his two clients. I won’t be guiding the trip, just tagging along, but will help out if need be.

The Neacola Mountains are the southern anchor of the Alaska Range, jumbled together with the northern end of the volcanic Aleutian Range. My first Alaska fly-in backpacking trip was to the Neacolas in 2002, Turquoise and Twin Lakes area. I also did a trip in the northern end of the Neacolas in 2007, Shamrock Glacier area.

Shamrock Lake, from my 2007 trip to the Northern Neacola Mountains

Shamrock Lake, from my 2007 trip to the northern Neacola Mountains

This trip is consider one of the hardest trips that Alaska Alpine Adventures offers. It’s all off trail with 30+ miles of glacier travel, 4 high passes, lots of scree and moraine, deep river crossings and even some good old fashion bush-whacking, sounds awesome! This trip will take us across the longest glacier in the range along with the highest peak, Mount Neacola.

Because I am a guest and not a paid guide or paying client, I need to be able to handle anything and be self-sufficient. When it’s not your trip, you need to be conscious of the other members, their desires and skills. The last thing you want to be is a burden, you want to contribute to the team. Weight is a major concern on this trip. Food for 11 days will be heavy, and the rugged terrain will be awkward with a heavy pack, so my camera gear needs to be minimal.

I have really enjoyed using the 70-200 f4 with my D800e but I just can’t justify the extra weight of a second lens. Everything needs to fit in my Naneu C7 bag. So I will bring the following:

D800e with L-plate, Nikon 24-70mm lens, 10-stop B+W ND filter, B+W polarizer, 2- 32gb media cards, remote release, 4 batteries and my trusty old Gitzo Mountaineer tripod with its Linhoff head.

Like my other trips, I have partnered with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation and will be looking for ice worms along with collecting water samples from various sources.

This should be a great, tough trip and I am looking forward to the challenge. See you in a few weeks.

Backside Glacier Trip

Backside Glacier and Mount Huntington

Backside Glacier and Mount Huntington

I have returned from my latest journey in the Alaska Range. I flew into “Moraine Lake”, the terminal lake of the Backside Glacier. The Backside Glacier descends behind the legendary peaks of the Ruth Gorge, in-between the Tokositna and Ruth Glaciers.

I flew in with Alaska Range Project sponsor, K2 Aviation, on a glorious and unusually warm day. A heat wave had locked Alaska in a dry, record-setting summer and the day was blazing hot and uncomfortably sunny. This was my first time in the area and I had trouble deciding where I wanted to explore. I had to either go high for the views or head up glacier.

Unnamed mountains reflected in Lima Bean Lake (local name).

Unnamed mountains reflected in Lima Bean Lake (local name).

I choose to go high and camped near a small alpine lake. Photographing in Alaska in the summer, near the solstice, is hard. The days are long and the sun stays high for most of the day. Sunset was 11:59 and sunrise was around 4:00. The sky never really gets dark and rarely does that magic, alpine light happen. That was the case on this trip. In nine days I never witnessed any sunset/sunrise colors.

Working in variable, less-than-pleasing light is key to mountain and wilderness photography. Rarely do you have time to wait for the perfect light, the weather changes too quickly or you have to keep moving and work with the light you’ve got. There is always a pleasing angle of a mountain in every type of light, but being on the correct side of the mountain when the light is right is what is so difficult.

Light beams above the Ruth Glacier. Hazy days make for interesting light.

Light beams above the Ruth Glacier. Hazy days make for interesting light.

The first few days were hot and the sky was hazy and kind of grey. After spending some time up high I decided to head down and up the Backside Glacier. The Backside Glacier is a stellar glacier with lots of unique features. I headed up glacier to the firn line and camped along the eastern lateral moraine.

Melt water stream on the Backside Glacier. It was abright and sunny day so I had to use a ten-stop ND filter too slow down the exposure.

Melt water stream on the Backside Glacier. It was a bright and sunny day so I had to use a ten-stop ND filter too slow down the exposure.

After I set up camp I tried to push up a series of side glaciers that descend from Mount Church and Mount Johnson. Within a few minutes I found myself stuck in one of the most spectacular thunder storms I have ever been in. The rain was relentless, pushing its way right through the “waterproof” nylon on my tent fly. The lighting lit up the sky and the pounding thunder echoed off the granite walls that surrounded me, It was both amazing and terrifying. The storm lasted about three hours.

The shadow of Mount Church is projected into the clouds by the rising sun.

The shadow of Mount Church is projected into the clouds by the rising sun.

Cold glacier and warm rock. Mount Johnson.

Cold glacier and warm rock. Mount Johnson.

Collecting water samples.

Collecting water samples.

I headed up the side glaciers the next morning. A fantastic shadow of Mount Church was being projected, by the rising sun, on the clouds behind the glaciers. The cool color of the glacier was a great contrast to the warm colored rock and light on the big walls of Mount Jonhson.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the Backside Glacier and collecting water samples in partnership with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. I collected samples from melt-water on the surface of the glacier, from the outflow, Moraine Lake, the outflow of the lake and the river. I also collected samples from fresh water streams that descended into the lake.

The impressive gorge that prevents access onto the Ruth Glacier.

The impressive gorge that prevents access onto the Ruth Glacier.

Brown and Blue, Ruth Glacier.

Brown and Blue, Ruth Glacier.

The next day the weather changed from hot and sunny to cool and wet. I set up camp where my clients would be camping the next four days. The tail end of my trip I would be co-guiding a hiking trip for Alaska Range Project sponsor Alaska Alpine Adventures. After setting up camp, I decided to try and access the Ruth Glacier, but a spectacular canyon prevents travel between the glacier and the lateral moraine. I hiked along the edge for a few miles until it finally ended. Right when I was about to cross onto the glacier I spotted a black bear traveling on the tundra hills above me.

Not usually a concern except I had heard there was a problem bear around, and this bear was walking in the same direction as my camp. I then realized what a bad idea it was to camp alone in an established camp area that I was sure the bear knew all about.

I followed the bear as it walked along the hillside. There is a section where the hill ends right in the river and you need to side-hill above it. Just as I was reaching that point, the bear decided to descend the hill to the river.

“Great” I thought, “I am going to end up in the river.” but I waited and the bear continued onward, towards my camp. I followed the bear as my warnings to him got louder,

“Don’t mess with my stuff bear!” I kept yelling. I once had a tent, sleeping bags and Therm-a-Rest pads get destroyed by a curious black that thought our stuff was fun. I got louder and more aggressive as he headed straight for my tent. Luckily, my badgering seemed to be annoying him enough that he made one circle around the tent and then continued up the bank.

Plover Eggs.

Plover Eggs.

Mother coming in to rescue her eggs.

Mother coming in to rescue her eggs.

Mother Plover pretending to be injured in order to lure me away fro her eggs.

Mother Plover pretending to be injured in order to lure me away from her eggs.

This area is strange to me. It seems like a perfect place for large mammals, especially Dall Sheep and caribou. However, the only large animals are black bears. I spent the rest of that day photographing some of the birds and rodents that make their home in this wild country. I found a Plover nest  and the little mother came running over, chirping at me. Then she pretended to be hurt and flopped her way away from the nest, hoping I would follow. I obliged and followed her until she felt I was far enough away from the nest and then she gave up her performance.

Ptarmingan

Ptarmigan

The next day the hiking clients showed up. They were a great group, four different countries and languages were represented. During their four days, the weather was pretty terrible, but their excitement and joy of being in Alaska and the mountains could not be crushed by the heavy weather. I don’t do a lot guiding these days but it was an enjoyable trip and fellow guide Mario, was a great guy to guide with.

It wasn’t the best trip photographically, I got a few, book worthy images, but I had trouble getting into the right state of mind and couldn’t figuring out want I wanted to show of this unique area.

I had no issues with D800e on this trip. I am now backing for my next trip, a 60 mile traverse of the Neacola Range.