Coal Country

A band of sanddstone stretches across the valley.

A band of sandstone stretches across the valley.

I don’t like coal. It’s a dirty fuel whose negatives far out weigh it’s positives. But coal is cheap energy and it isn’t hard for a hand full of people to get rich, fast. So the world continues to find a source for their coal habit. One such source is Alaska and the Alaska Range. It is estimated that Alaska has one of the largest coal reserves in the world.
The Alaska Range is home to the only active coal mine in Alaska, a massive open-pit mine near Denali National Park and Preserve.

Bands of coal in the cliffs.

Bands of coal in the cliffs.

The Usibelli Mine is about 20 miles from the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve. Founded in 1943 outside Healy, the mine sells coal to six state power plants as well as South Korea and other Pacific Rim countries. The exported coal is transported on the Alaska Railroad about 300 miles to Seward, which is an ice-free port and home to Kenai Fjords National Park.

Alaska? Looks like Utha or Arizona.

Alaska? Looks like Utah or Arizona.

In September, my Dad and I did some exploring in the mountains east of Denali National Park, near the Usibelli mine. I have seen signs of coal during many of my expedition in the Alaska Range, but in this area, it literally oozes out of the mountains. It is a bizarre landscape, resembling Utah or Arizona. Honestly, I have never really seen anything like it in Alaska. The Delta Mountains have some pockets that look similar, but this area is really special and fun to explore.

coal and oil ooze out of the mountains.

coal and oil ooze out of the mountains.

There are a collection of narrow canyons you can follow. The sand stone in these canyons is super soft and crumbles easily, the ground was moist and gooey. We were forced to stay in the canyon bottoms, though occasional I would try to scale the cliffs to get a better perspective, boots sinking into the sticky soil.

A geologist playground.

A geologist playground.

I spent as much time admiring all the fascinating rocks as I did taking photographs. We both felt that at any moment we would stumble upon some great fossil of a mammoth or dinosaur and we naively searched, having no idea what to look for.

The sandstone is so soft that this willow, blowing in the wind, creates grooves in it.

The sandstone is so soft that this willow, blowing in the wind, creates grooves in it.

I have been bullied and harassed throughout my years photographing in the Alaska Range. I have been told by many an old-timer to “Stay out of their mountains” and to “leave the miners alone”. These sourdoughs still cling to the frontier Alaska of long ago. A time of Mom and Pop mines, rough lives living in the Alaskan bush, adventure and solitude in remote wilderness.

That Alaska spirit of solitude and adventure still exist. It is alive and well in the hearts of guides, bush pilots, boat captains and remote lodge owners. It is alive and well in Alaska’s wilderness, wildlife, healthy rivers and ocean.

A strange landscape.

A strange landscape.

To me, there in nothing that screams non Alaska more than big industrial coal and gold mines. Mines run by big business, with product and money being sent to foreign markets. Mines that actually threaten the things that make Alaska different then anywhere else in the world, the things that make Alaska…Alaska.

sandstone detail.

sandstone detail.

Learn more about industrial coal and gold mining in the Alaska Range at:

usibelli.com

www.groundtruthtrekking.org

northern.org

www.denalicitizens.org

Into The Wild West

The Angel, Revelation Mountains. Taken in 2006.

The Angel, Revelation Mountains. Taken in 2006.

I am now in the planning stage for next year’s expeditions. My main focus is the west end of the Alaska Range. Remote, isolated and difficult to access, few have explored its secrets.

The dominate mountains in the west/south-west end of the Alaska Range are the Revelation Mountains. The Revelation Mountains are becoming more popular in the climbing community because of the exploits of my friend Clint Helander. For the past few years, the Revelation Mountains have been his obsession. He has made numerous first ascents in this land of wicked steep peaks, inspiring others to follow in his crampon points. With that said, the Revelations only see an average of three expeditions a year, all of them aimed at climbing new, difficult routes. There is plenty left to discover in the Revelations and I look forward to returning to them.

In between the Revelation Mountains and the mighty Tordrillo Mountains is a land of  unknowns. During the early explorations of the Tordrillo Mountains, the hardy mountaineers would look west from the frozen summits and see a large cluster of jagged peaks, tucked behind the Todrillos and in front of the Revelations, they called them the “Hidden Mountains”, they have continued to stay that way, hidden.

Unnamed, unclimbed mountains, Hidden Mountains, South-West Alaska Range.

Unnamed, unclimbed mountains, Hidden Mountains, South-West Alaska Range.

On the north/northeast ends of the western Alaska Range are two small pockets of peaks, the Terra Cotta Mountains and the Teocalli Mountains. The fame Iditarod Trail runs through these hills. At the far south are the Neacola Mountains, which create the southern anchor of the Alaska Range as its crashes into the Aleutian Mountains.

Only a couple of the mountains have names on the USGS maps. The most obvious one in the Hidden Mountains is Snowcap, which is actually on the wrong peak (that is also a problem in the Revelations Mountains, certain maps have names on the wrong peaks.) The true Snowcap Mountain (ca 8,350′) was visited in 2010 by legendary climber Fred Beckey along with Alaskan Legend Richard Baranow and Zach Shlosar. Beckey did not make the summit but Richard and Zach did.

Less than a handful of climbers have tried to push into the Hidden Mountains from the closet access point, Merrell Pass near Gold Pan peak. Outside of that, there has been little activity in the area, especially by an explorer or photographer. In fact, the only photographs I can come by (outside of the Revelation Mountains) are photographs taken by large, mineral extraction companies, looking for alternatives to the Pebble Mine.

The western Alaska Range is one of the toughest terrains I have travelled through. Access is limited, the glaciers are moraine strewn and busted up, so ski planes have few options. There are no large lakes to land a float plane on. That leaves access to far off strips on the fringes of the area or by expensive helicopter.

There is nothing but bogs and forest beyond the western Alaska Range, all the way to the Bering Sea.

There is nothing but bogs and forest beyond the western Alaska Range, all the way to the Bering Sea.

Needless to say, this will be the most demanding season of expeditions. It is also the last season, so it is extremely important that I reach these areas. This will also be the most expensive season.

If you would like to support the project please consider buying a print, this a great way to get some great mountain art for your house or office and at the same time support the project. Here is the link to my holiday print sale.

If have back-country skills and would be interested in joining an expedition, feel free to contact me (read this post first).

Cheers,

Carl

 

Mountain Profile: Mount Deborah

I took this photo of Mount Deborah in 2006. Its taken from the south as I was flying over the Clearwater Mountains. We will be landing on the other side, under the super steep north face.

My first time seeing Mount Deborah up close. I took this photo in 2006. Its taken from the south as I was flying after a trip in the Clearwater Mountains.

My obsession with Mount Deborah began after reading the classic mountaineering book, Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative. In it, David Roberts describes an epic journey through a remote Alaskan Wilderness, full of failure, suffering and enlightenment. Undoubtedly one of the great books of mountain literature.

Mount Deborah was named in 1907 by James Wickersham for his first wife, Deborah Susan Wickersham. Its first ascent was in 1954 by mountain legends: Fred Beckey, Henry Meybohm, Heinrich Harrer, via the South Ridge.

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah.

Alpenglow on Mount Deborah. This is the impossible North Face. Taken from the Gillam Glacier.

During rare clear weather, Mount Deborah can be seen in all its gory from the Denali Highway. To reach Mount Deborah though, involves a grand journey through some of the Alaska Range’s roughest and most isolated terrain.

I attempted to reach it by skis from the Richardson highway in 2004, but was turned back by miserable snow conditions. I attempted again in September 2013, but the weather shut us down. So in April 2014, I cheated and flew right to the Gillam Glacier, at the base of the north face.

Mixed light and the north face of mount Deborah.

Mixed light and the north face of Mount Deborah. The vertical gain from the Gillam Glacier to the summit is over 6,000ft of steepness!

Mount Deborah is one of Alaska’s most beautiful and intimidating mountains. It is a mountain of myth and legend. I hope that some day, it, along with her surrounding neighbors, will get the protection and celebrated wilderness status they deserve.

Amazing ice and Mount Hess and Deborah.

Amazing ice and Mount Hess and Deborah. The beauty of the Eastern Alaska Range rivals any place in Alaska and deserves to be protected and celebrated just like other mountain regions in Alaska.

 

Bears of Denali

Denali has some really nice backgrounds for wildlife photography.

Denali has some really nice backgrounds for wildlife photography.

Whenever I give a presentation I am always asked “Where are your bear images?”. The reason I don’t have bear images is because I try my best to avoid any contact with bears while I am exploring remote wilderness. To photograph bears safely you usually need a long telephoto lens, which is too heavy for wilderness exploration and you need to be in an area where they are accustomed to people and have an abundant food supply.

Tiny spring cub.

Tiny spring cub.

I wanted to get some more wildlife images for the Alaska Range book and the only reasonable place in the Alaska Range to photograph bears is in Denali National Park and Preserve. I secured a professional photographer’s permit for a week and my wife and I, armed with a rental 500mm f4 lens, went looking for bears, and boy did we find them!

Spring is the best time to photograph bears in Denali. The playful and curious spring cubs  are out frolicking. The leaves are just sprouting, making it easy to spot wildlife and the bears really enjoy the spring shoots, grasses and roots that litter the side of the road.

Grizzly head shot. An impossible shot in the remote wilderness.

Grizzly head shot. An impossible image in the remote wilderness.

Unlike coat shedding wildlife like caribou, moose and Dall sheep, bears don’t look nearly as mangy in the spring.

Now, I have had plenty of bear encounters while exploring. All my interactions with grizzly bears have been civil. It has been the black bears that have caused all the trouble. I have had to chase numerous black bears out of camp and had one curious black bear destroy my tent and everything inside.

Determined! We followed this Grizzly for many miles as it walked head down, determined to get somewhere.

Determined! We followed this Grizzly for many miles as it walked head down, determined to get somewhere.

I practice strict bear safety and keep a clean camp. All the bears I have had issues weren’t after food, they were young bears, eager to meet the strange, two-legged creature and his bizarre items, like that colorful dome thing.

Denali did not disappoint when it came to viewing, if only for a second, a large variety of wild creatures. We were lucky to see a lone wolf, three red fox, countless caribou and Dall sheep, moose, lots of nesting birds and a total of twelve grizzly bears. And for a bonus, “The Mountain”, Denali, showed itself for a single day.

smells good in there! Grizzly cub stops next to our car and wonders what all the good smells are?

Smells good in there! Grizzly cub stops next to our car and wonders what all the interesting smells are?

I know I have been critical of Denali National Park and its restrictions throughout the years, but this was a very positive experience for me and I have new respect for the park. Honestly, If your going to have a wilderness area accessible to all types of people, then Denali sets a standard that is hard to match.

Life is good!

Life is good!

Interview on Project Pressure

I have been exploring glaciers for over ten years and I never get tired of the things I discover.

Strange beauty on the Knik Glacier, Alaska

Project Pressure is a not-for-profit organization documenting the world’s vanishing glaciers in order to highlight the impact of climate change, inspiring action and participation. The project will result in the world’s first comprehensive crowd sourced glacier atlas, a touring photographic exhibition, a documentary film and an open source digital platform.

I will be partnering with them for many of next year’s expeditions. Below is a recent interview they did with me that was just posted on their blog.

http://www.project-pressure.org/latest/exploring-the-alaska-range/

Tangle Lakes

Pond near Lower Tangle lake, Amphitheater Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

Pond near Lower Tangle lake, Amphitheater Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

Not all of the Alaska Range is remote and rugged. One of the more popular areas in the Alaska Range is the Amphitheater Mountains off the Denali Highway. The Amphitheater Mountains are a small sub-range of the eastern Alaska Range. They are a mixture of rolling tundra, craggy peaks and beautiful alpine lakes, the most accessible ones being a series of lakes known as Tangle Lakes.

My first trip into the Amphitheater Mountains was in 2005, when my usual partner in crime, Sy, and I did a circumnavigation of the mountains. We went in early June and ran into deep snow on the north side of the range. We encountered many caribou and my first and only encounter with a wolverine. Weather was mediocre and I created few good images.

Last week I went up to the Tangle Lakes area with my wife and son along with a whole bunch of family friends. We canoed, hiked and picked berries, all in the rain. Okay, we did have one nice morning that didn’t turn ugly until the late afternoon.

my son picks blue berries. Lots of records were set in 2013, the most months with snow on the ground, the warmest summer on record and possibly the best blue berry season ever.

My son Walker picking blue berries. Rain or shine, berry picking is always fun.

This was my first trip since the ill-fated Neacola trip and I wondered how I was going to feel around so much cold water, but I felt fine, even when the wind, rain and waves picked up during one of our canoe trips. Unfortunately, just like my last trip, photography was mostly a bust.

The Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River. This image was taken in 2006

The Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River. This image was taken in 2006

The Tangle Lakes are the headwaters of the Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River, that splits the eastern Alaska Range into two sections. The Amphitheater Mountains (and the neighbouring Delta and Clearwater Mountains) are the home of the of Nelchina caribou herd. The Nelchina herd’s primary winter grounds are the Amphitheater Mountains.

A large bull caribou of the Nelchina herd. This image was taken in 2006, in the Delta Mountains.

A large bull caribou of the Nelchina herd. This image was taken in 2006, in the Delta Mountains.

The Tangle Lakes biggest claim to fame are the human artifacts that have been discovered. There are more than 600 historic and prehistoric sites within the Amphitheater Mountains that help to tell the story of human occupation and hunting for the past 10,000 years. The Tangle Lakes Archaeological District was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

Even with it’s natural beauty, bountiful wildlife and long history, the Tangle Lakes area is constantly being surveyed and probed for possible large-scale mines. Almost every hour a helicopter passes through the area to the many drills sites north of the Amphitheater Mountains. In the adjacent Delta Mountains, one of the area’s finest hiking trails was bull dozed in order to get drilling rigs to remote sites.

Proposed Tangle Lakes Wildlife Refuge

Proposed Tangle Lakes Wildlife Refuge

Because none of Amphitheater Mountains are under state or federal protection, a dedicated group of locals have begun the process of creating the Tangle Lakes State Wildlife Refuge. Creating any type of protected land in Alaska these days borders on impossible. So, If you have spent time in the area and would like to see it stay as wild and beautiful as it is, please consider helping out.

For more info on the Amphitheater Mountains and the creation of the Tangle Lakes State Wildlife Refuge visit:

The Northern Environmental Center and Save Tangle Lakes

Cotton Grass and Round Tangle Lake.

Cotton Grass and Round Tangle Lake.