McCarthy and Wrangell-St Elias Part 1

May 26th, 2008

Donoho Peak!

Bridge on the 60mi dirt road to McCarthySightly hungover from the mead and Grey Goose extravaganza in Homer we got back on the road and headed for McCarthy. It was going to be a long day in the car so we planned to stop and mountain bike where the Resurrection Trail we rode a few days before would have come out.  However, about a half mile before the trailhead we were stopped in a line of cars by police. A truck had overturned off of the road. Great. There’s no such thing as a detour in Alaska where you’re lucky if there’s one road where you want to go, so we looked for an alternative ride to kill time while they opened the road Gas station in Chitinaback up. We found a promising one that led down by Skilak Lake. About a half mile in, pushing our bikes up yet another impassible rock patch, it was apparent that this was not intended to be a bike trail and we turned around. This all took long enough that when we returned to check the roadblock they were letting cars though, so we were back on the road. It was clear sailing back through Anchorage and along the Glenn, the Chugach impressing us out of the right side of the car this time.

Dust from Chitina and Nizina Rivers, Chugach in backWe got tired and found a camp site a little ways down the road towards McCarthy, by Kenny Lake. Actually, we camped a little before that but Drew decided the dogs nearby were too loud and we broke camp, drove another half hour, and made camp again. Anyway the next day found us in McCarthy, nestled between the Chugach and the Wrangell Mountains in a rather remote valley.  We were now in A glacier "cone", I believeAmerica’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias. The road actually ends at a footbridge, which you have to cross to get into McCarthy proper. We talked to a Park Ranger and the colorful parking lot attendant (the side of the bridge you park on is privately owned and they extort $5 a day for you to park at “Base Camp”) and found out that unlike most National Parks there’s no entry gate, no entry fee, no trails… nothing. In fact, up at the old mining town of Kennicott there is still privately owned land, completely surrounded by park. We got the scoop on a Donoho Peak from Base Camp parkingfun hike however, up Donoho Peak (6800′) between the Kennicott and Root glaciers, and decided to do that. It looked like there would be skiing down the main avalanche chute! The first five miles of the approach is the road to Kennicott so we decided we would bike that, cross the root glacier and camp at the base of Donoho with the remaining part of our arrival day. There would even be a free history walk up at Kennicott if we hurried. Right from the start of our promising trip though things were going poorly. Since we decided to ski Donoho and I had to bring my ski boots for the glacier crossing to wear my crampons anyway, Riding into Kennicott with an unwieldy packall my gear gave me about a 60lbs pack. I can honestly not recommend riding a bike 5 miles uphill with a 60lbs pack on. There is no quicker route to back muscle destruction. Also it was raining, and we were riding fast under our “deadline” to catch this history walk. We actually made the Ranger talk, wet and exhausted, but it was more fun riding by the mountain guides who got stoked by the amount of gear we were lugging and who offered to “guide” us up Donoho.

The famous crusher mill at KennicottKennicott is a pretty interesting place. Besides the huge 15-story crusher mill which is visually impressive it was amazing to see the rugged terrain they were pulling copper out of considering the tools they had at the turn of the century. Kennicott is the richest copper lode ever found, with some ore over 70% pure (they mine 1.5% elsewhere in the world today). The 4 million dollar railroad from Cordova to McCarthy was quickly paid off. Kennicott was a modern city with the first x-ray machine in Alaska while Anchorage was just a tent camp. When the ore panned out however the company left overnight, taking almost nothing with them and leaving the impressive ghost town we have today. Pretty cool.

Approaching the Root glacier, Donoho in the mistAnyway we left Kennicott and hopped on the Root Glacier. I’ve been around glaciers, but I’d never traveled in the rocky and icy ablation zone in the summer with crampons on like this before. Even in the rain it was a fun new kind of terrain to navigate. There were ponds and crevasses to avoid, steep ice to toe-up, moraine rock to dodge, etc. It was a pain in the ass to do in my alpine ski boots (I don’t have sexy AT boots yet) with a heavy pack on, but fun nonetheless. We ate some incredibly high sodium dehydrated soup, stowed the food in the provided bear box, and camped.

Me, out in the rain on Root glacierDrew exploring the moraines for a campsite

Donoho in the sunshine from campIn the morning it had stopped raining thankfully. We rousted ourselves a bit later than planned (because of the rain), left all of the camping gear at camp and set out up the mountain. We knew there was supposed to be a trail that led to the bottom of the scree field we would be climbing up, but we didn’t know how to find it. We had camped in a flat spot between the moraines and none myriad game trails was obviously “the” trail. We would follow one until it Glacier pond and scenic viewdumped us into the deep alder bushes, then try another. Finally we attempted to head right for the mountain through the heart of the alder thicket, but they’re a pretty tough little tree and the way the snow bends them down they are like guard hairs, resisting forward movement. Put a pair of skis on your back and it’s pretty much impossible. We tried to find a way to the mountain all morning before we gave up. Tired and frustrated, we trudged back across the glacier (enjoying good views in the sun this time), dreading the guides in Kennicott asking us how our ski went.

Blackburn and Donoho from the Jumbo mine road

Nice shot up the Root glacier to the huge icefallBecause we had been turned back from our original goal and desire to billy goat around was not sated I decided to hike to one of the mines above Kennicott. Drew needed to re-group from our defeat so he just rode back to camp. These mine hikes, which follow the old access roads above Kennicott and are about the only trails in the park you don’t need to fly in to, are nothing to scoff at. It’s unbelievable where they pulled the copper out of, especially considering the technology of the day. The mines are thousands of feet above Kennicott and it’s a rather strenuous hike to get up toSnowy roads up to the Jumbo Mine them. They pulled copper right out of the ridge line. The bunkhouses and tram towers are perched precariously on the cliffs. I hiked up towards the Jumbo Mine (or was it the Bonanza Mine?). The problem was that the second half of the trail was still under a lot of snow. I had to post hole through super-saturated spring slush some of the way, and actually didn’t make it all the way to the mine because it was in a bowl that was still really deep. I did climb up a sub-ridge however and got a nice view, climbing about 3000′ all in all. Back at camp we decided to do a bike ride the next day, and then possibly give Donoho another try as a day-trip without skis so we had less weight.

The Golden Saloon in McCarthyTo celebrate/forget the day we headed in to the Golden Saloon, the bar in McCarthy. Now, I’ve been to lots of small town bars teeming with local wildlife, but few compared to this experience. It was the weekend, and the locals were having at it. The people who choose to live in McCarthy are the opposite of bland and uninteresting. Everyone was wasted, people were running up hundred dollar tabs, there was loud music and even some bare breasts. Tits in McCarthy, AK. The world never ceases to amaze me. The funniest thing was an awkward motor-home couple who were all bundled up for winter in this super hot bar and who kept to themselves uncomfortably the whole night. In addition to them, the wild hippies and the local mountain guides, we were also in the company of such luminaries as the grandson of the founder of McCarthy, Mr. Barrett, and the guy who (apparently) was the first to complete the Northwest Passage via dogsled. It was a great night in McCarthy.

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