Alaska Yukon Expedition

by

2/15/2011 Update:

National Geographic Article is published and available Online.

“Nobody had ever done it before: Hike, ski, and raft 4,679 miles through eight national parks, dozens of mountain ranges, and the length of the Yukon territory. Then along came Andrew Skurka.”

Andy Skurka takes it to another level!

(Check for Updates below)

On Saturday, March 13, a small plane will land early morning in Kotzebue, Alaska. Andy Skurka will get off the airplane, put on his headlamp in the pre-dawn darkness, pull on some clothes in the zero degree temperature, and start skiing. He would ski for 12 hours straight, and do at least that every day for the next month and a half. Then he’ll hike and packraft 16 hours every day for the next 5 months.

He’s circumnavigating the entire state, crossing the entire Alaska Range, Brooks Range, and parts of the Yukon. An estimated 4,720 miles, in hopefully 6 1/2 months. Almost all off-trail. Plenty of bears, brush, snow, raging rivers, glaciers (and mosquitos).

Before some big trips, we might say, “The route has never been done before”, but that begs the point in this case … no one has even considered doing this before.

FINISHED!

Andy Skurka walked into Kotzebue, Alaska last Sunday, Sept 5, 4,600 miles and 175 days after he walked out in March.

Remarkably, the Alaska Yukon Expedition took less time than expected. Equally remarkably, in a message he sent a week before finishing, he lamented the end of the trip, and sort of wished it would keep going. Huh?

Over 1,000 miles on skis, glacier crossings, packrafting across fjords, crossing streams during spring thaw, mosquitos, bears … others might have been glad it was done. Of course, others wouldn’t have done it period.

I asked Andy a few questions:

Your trip went quicker than expected? I knew there would choices of longer and easier or shorter and harder routes. The conditions were generally good, so I usually took the shorter route. Hiking across the tussocks was a pain, but it wasn’t worth trying to hike around it for example. And everywhere else we’ve ever been, roads take the easy route, so the hikers route is up high, often above timberline. Where I just was, there are no roads. So while bushwacking across vast wilderness, I would nonetheless be able to choose the most efficient route.

Was it really hard?  Not as physical as I thought. Mostly for the above reason – the route has less up and down, more of it follows drainages.

Did the long daylight equal long hiking days?  Occasionally, but my system is pretty well set. I was getting the miles I needed in 13-15 hr days. But because of the day length, every town where I picked up supplies I spent the night, instead of grab and go. And sometimes I’d wake up in the pouring rain, or have a very difficult river to cross, and instead of having to get on it I could wait until the conditions improved and still get 13 hrs for the day.

Did you really consider extending the trip?  I did. But you look at the map, and the route is very clean, logical. To make it bigger I’d have to go out of my way, just for the sake of making it longer, and that didn’t make sense. Plus, I got done before the first winter storm; conditions were good.

How was it having National Geographic drop in on you?  It was OK; I enjoyed the company. They enlisted Roman Dial and Forest McCarthy, who are great, and the photographer Michael was solid.  And a good photographer; they have good images.

Book? Magazine?  I’m hopin’ so. The material is there. National Geographic is planning a 16 – 24 page article for next year, but nothing is set yet.

Hardest part?  Until you’ve been there, you can’t believe how big, how wild this is; there is nothing like it. Sometimes you start to think: what if something happened? In the Yukon Arctic, I was 3-4 hours from the nearest settlement … by helicopter. I went 650 miles without seeing another person. Just a slip, and you could stub your toe on a rock, and not be able to walk. I was super vigilant, super cautious. It was nerve-wracking really.

I was more scared than all my previous trips combined.  Crossing Icy Bay in the packraft, navigating trailless backcountry, crossing glaciers, all in extreme remoteness … it was really stressful.  Not sure if I liked it.  So I asked Roman.  He said,

“Look, this is how big wilderness feels. It’s not like the lower 48. All those thoughts and concepts are gone. Here, you’re just another creature, like a Caribou, just trying to survive until tomorrow.”

UPDATES

July 3:

Dr Jeremy Rodgers of Boulder accidentally paddles past Andy on the Yukon River!

What are the chances: a doctor from Boulder that Andy saw last year for one of his various overuse injuries was paddling the same stretch of water on the same day he was in the middle of Yukon 500 miles from ANYTHING?!

Andy writes (more linked):

I pulled into the historic gold rush town of Dawson, which marks the end of my 450-mile float on the Yukon River (starting in Whitehorse) and the beginning of my final leg through the wilds of northern Yukon and northern Alaska back to Kotzebue. I had been somewhat dreading this section since I enjoy traveling via my feet, not via my arms while sitting on my butt, but it was a surprisingly enjoyable week.

June 3:

A snippet from Andy’s National Geographic Adventure Blog:

The Alaskan wilderness has brought me to tears twice on this trip, both times while talking on the phone with my mother from a “safe” location where being emotional has no serious consequences.

My first tears were shed in Unalakleet, Mi 281, after enduring continuously for two weeks the brutal combination of coastal wind and Arctic cold, and the associated stress of always being just one mistake away from death. I was recently brought to tears again, on the porch of a Glenn Highway convenience store, Mi 1402, my emotions rubbed raw and thin after skiing 600 miles across the Alaska Range in the peak of variable springtime conditions.

Everyday for the last four weeks I have woken up with at least some amount of anxiety, nervousness, and dread about the exact conditions I’ll encounter that day.

April 17:

Andy is doing it.  Brrr.  Here’s his first post upon arrival in Alaska on March 13:

Just landed in kotz. -25 below; ouch. Intimidating landscape – snow and ice covered tundra, flat and windswept, no lights beyond village …

Motel tonight. Plan 34 mi push tomorrow to cabin. High to be 15 below; low, -25. Tough start: last wk, 75 deg in Mass. Confident I can do this.

Glad he was confident.

Here he is, after a few weeks into it:

Mi 707 McGrath. Taking Fri off, yipee: need to regain strength, weight, after flu; have cache in Nikolai, 50 mi away. Changing landscape as I move east. Started in barren tundra, moved into textbook taiga & now among large spruces.

And finally, he’s now started “Leg Two” of the route, and this is what he posted last night:

Full on AK Range mtneering experience: whiteout, 50mph winds, crevasses. epic day. trip just got real

Go here for an overview of the trip, including how to subscribe to Facebook feeds and an excellent route map with a link to his “Last Reported Position”:

Here is his National Geographic Blog, containing in-depth descriptions and advice:

Go Andy.  And be safe.

Andy started his career – he is a professional hiker – by hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2002; that took over 3 months, while carrying a 50 pound pack. Just two years later, after a hike of the Colorado Trail and California section of the PCT, and losing about 35 pounds from the pack, he pioneered the 7,778 mile Sea-to-Sea Route, walking across the upper Midwest in the middle of winter, for which he won Backpacker Magazine’s “Person of the Year”. By 2007 it was “Adventure of the Year”, awarded by National Geographic, for his 6,875-mile “Great Western Loop” that passed through five major mountain ranges, 12 National Parks, and 75 Wilderness Areas. Andy progressed fast … he was now piecing together his own routes … and in 2008 he went off-trail for the first time with a fast transit of the Sierra High Route (documented on this blog). Long distance hiking was no longer enough; he wanted adventure. So the very next year, he learned how to pack-raft, and did the “Alaska Four Ranges” trip, which represented another step up: new technology in an even wilder environment.

He now intends to put it all together. Not just a really long route, not just mostly off-trail travel, and with extremely tricky and creative logistics; what’s more, it literally can’t be done without using a packraft and skis. Remote? One section is 615 miles long thru total wilderness.

This is the real “Into the Wild”.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Andy is taking it to another level in more ways than one. National Geographic Magazine – for a century, the absolute gold standard of outdoor photojournalism – recently agreed to offer a cash grant for the trip. Even bigger, they have allocated 24 pages to the trip in the Spring 2011 magazine! A photographer has been assigned to the expedition, and they’ve even hired famous Alaskan adventure racer Roman Dial to help the photog get around.

“How will it feel to have a helicopter hovering overhead?” I joked with him.

“Doesn’t change that much. The big point is they got Roman to arrange everything; I can’t help anyone. I have to keep my eye on the ball. And nothing happens if I don’t finish.”

 

OUR CONVERSATION

“Seems like the first three weeks will be the crux?” (All on skis, with the temperature never getting above freezing).

“No, I don’t think so. There are cabins every 100 miles, and it’s the Iditarod Trail so it will be packed down. But the Alaska Range will be interesting. There are opportunities to screw up at every step; there’s 2,200 miles off-trail.”

“So what is the crux?”

“If you don’t absolutely dial in the logistics you can’t do it. Food, gear, people to ship it to, and then getting there. A route mistake could cost a week.”

“You don’t train like most people would think, do you?”

“I’ve been doing some skiing. Mostly planning.”

“What are your chances? 50-50?”

“Better. Call it ‘Cautiously optimistic’. I have developed a practical plan to succeed on an exceedingly difficult trip. There are many things I can’t control – bears, floods, early spring breakup, etc – but I have a solid plan for pulling it off.”

“How does it feel, now on the edge of departure?”

“Finish what you start man!”

Peter Bakwin:

“Seems like every year he keeps growing and pushing the envelope. He’s going to keep pushing until he finds where the edge of the envelope is.”

My personal thoughts:

* The logistics are incredible. It’s a huge testament to Andy’s skill that he can even get off that first step!

* There is huge potential for any slight error to occur. Every day, for 6 1/2 months, in the bush, on skis, in a tiny packraft on glacial runoff streams.

* But Andy actually can do this. He alone has all the pieces – incredible fitness, experience, presence of mind and body. Not sure if Lady Luck will allow it, but he can do it.

* This expedition is on another level – it’s perfectly reasonable that National Geographic is paying attention.

* As always, he published an unbelievably detailed Gear List. There is no point in ever researching anything about backpacking … just go to Andy’s (free) website, and read everything you ever need to know … it’s the best:

http://www.andrewskurka.com

* I think he’ll find that edge.

 

THE ROUTE

Distance:

4720 miles hiking every day for 203 consecutive days = 23.3 miles/day (compared to the 38 mpd he did on the Pacific Crest Trail).

Three segments:

1. First 800 miles: Winter skiing the Iditarod Trail. “Connect the dots” between villages, so can resupply twice a week. Historic.

2. Mile 800 – 2,400: Southeast Alaska; resupply once a week.

3. Mile 2,400 – 4,700: The Northern Yukon and across the Brooks Range. Resupply once to 1.5 times a week, with the longest being 2 weeks.

Self Supported:

Classic thru-hiker style: pack up all food and replacement gear in advance, then mail it to Post Offices, except two caches will have to be taken in by float plane, and one by dogsled(!)

DETAILS

Skis:

The first 1,100 miles, which is 25% of the route, will by necessity be on skis.

He’s using “Backcountry Touring” equipment: 200 cm with metal edges, and waxable.

He’ll use a 3 pin binding, because he needs to be able to hike around in the same boot, which is a classic leather boot.  BNN bindings ski better, but can’t be walked with.

Packraft:

These little inflatables are carried inside the backpack, then blown up and paddled across the multitude of unfordable rivers (think Into the Wild again), and across ocean fjords as well. Besides being the only way to get thru some terrain, they can save immense time floating down large outwash rivers.

Pack Weight:

* Baseweight (everything minus food and water) is obviously higher than ever before, but there is no option: you can’t get very far in Alaska without a packraft.

* The baseweight will be always be in the high teens, because more gear is needed in winter, and the packraft must be carried in the summer.

* The heaviest will be when he carries 30 pounds of food across terrain too rough for any resupply, for a total just under 50 pounds (far heavier than his normal super ultralight style).

Satellite phone (thank goodness!)

Shoes:

La Sportiva Fireblade. “Low to the ground, sticky, shockingly durable. And they fit me.”

Bear Spray:

Can’t fly with bear spray! Might use a marine flare. Gun is a non-option: weight, they don’t necessarily work, and there are implications.

UPDATE (3/14)

1. When I wrote, “No one has ever done this before”, I definitely misspoke.  Countless native people have done trips like this for centuries before we started keeping track.  Walking from Asia to North America across the Bering Land Bridge, including women and children, is still the most impressive “hike” I know of.

2. Here’s the last updates from Andy.  Yikes!!

(Saturday morning): Just landed in kotz. -25 below; ouch. Intimidating landscape – snow and ice covered tundra, flat and windswept, no lights beyond village …

(Saturday evening): Motel tonight. Plan 34 mi push tomorrow to cabin. High to be 15 below; low, -25. Tough start: last wk, 75 deg in Mass. Confident I can do this.

 

 

 


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10 Responses to “Alaska Yukon Expedition”

  1. Colorado MoJo » Blog Archive » Skurka Begins 4,700-Mile Odyssey Says:

    […] Burrell has posted a good story and short interview with Skurka at his Adventure Running blog. And you can follow The Man himself through updates at […]

  2. Ron Strickland Says:

    My hat is off to Andrew Skurka for conceiving and planning this awesome adventure. For anyone who wishes to experience his Sea-To-Sea trek, see: ronstrickland dot com. Alaska is the best, but trails such as the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail have more than enough adventure for most mere mortals.

  3. Buzz Says:

    My running partner from high school offered an excellent comment:

    “Geez, circumnavigating Alaska? Why didn’t we think of that? Oh well. If someone else is going to do it now, why bother?”

    🙂

    Andy’s trip is so huge, it’s hard to wrap one’s rational mind around it.

  4. Deputy Dawg Says:

    Stunning. Thanks for the words- Andy’s adventures are enviable.

  5. pantilat Says:

    This sounds incredible. I wish I had the means to do stuff like that.

  6. Tania Says:

    We just featured a run in the Bolivian Andes called the Inca Run, a 100 mile adventure run….however I’m not even sure how that might compare to this Alaska trek… but hey if you’re interested, you of all people could do this… 🙂

    http://www.travelofftheradar.com/2010/03/inca-run-2010/

  7. Roman Dial Says:

    Video update:

  8. Interval training Says:

    Wow amazing photos

  9. kitchenware tips Says:

    kitchenware tips…

    […]Alaska Yukon Expedition « Adventure Running[…]…

  10. Anonymous Says:

    WOW! You are truly inspirational!

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