In 2012 before I’d even done my first bivvy trip I spent some time in a super cub airplane (small 3 seater canvas plane that is the go-to for Alaska bush pilots) with my brother-in-law Kenny MacDonald flying around the Alaska Range. He would land the plane on top of some of the smaller mountains and I’d jump out and fly around a little bit, then get back in the plane and we’d keep exploring. At some point he mentioned that someday I should try to fly across the whole range. The seed was planted. Was it possible?
I returned in April of 2014 and then again in June of 2014 to take a closer look. This time we flew out in the supercub to the south side of the range with Jody taking pictures in the back six days in a row. The southside seemed the obvious route, but cloudbase was typically below 4,000 feet. The sub alpine was as treacherous as I’ve ever seen. If you landed in there you would never get out. Alders and underbrush so dense it was impossible to move around. Clouds of the biggest mosquitos I’d ever seen so thick you would go insane in half an hour. And the alpine was nothing but glaciers and snow. I just wasn’t possible. But then one day we flew through Rainy Pass to the north side of the range, west of massive Denali and Foraker. In no time Jody was puking in the back of the plane it was so turbulent. The air was unstable, cloudbase was over 15,o00 feet and the terrain was much, much dryer. It was like we’d flown into a different world. It was still stupidly remote and the rivers and glaciers were uncountable and massive, but there was flyable terrain and there were strong thermals. Operating on the ground would still be miserable…but maybe if you could stay high? From a paragliders’ perspective it was possible. Maybe. But then we discovered a new problem. There was nowhere to land the plane, and Kenny is quite possibly the best bush pilot up there. If it’s landable, he can land it. So I’d either have to do the whole thing unsupported or we’d have to figure out another way.
Doing it unsupported was appealing, but daunting. There isn’t a single village or store on the entire route- some 480 miles as the crow flies, from the north end of the Lake Clark National Park across the Kichatna spires, Foraker and Denali and on to Highway 1, which marks the end of the Alaska range and the beginning of the Wrangells. I estimated it would take at least 4- 6 weeks to complete the route (based on nothing but pure optimism), and given I can only carry about 5 days of food (due to space and weight), that meant hunting. Kenny and I discussed this possibility in length. At that time of year the salmon are not high enough. And all the game big enough to supply calories are down low- in serious bear country. The only thing up high are ground squirrels, which wouldn’t provide enough sustenance for a month+ given how hard the travel will be. So then we started thinking about putting in food caches in advance, but the only way to do that was by helicopter. And the dream died right there.
Six months later I got a call from Kenny. He wanted me to buy a helicopter. I asked if he was taking hallucinogens. I knew two things about helicopters- 1) they are very expensive and 2) they are very hard to fly. But it turns out small helicopters are not as expensive and Kenny can fly anything. He makes his living as a bush pilot mechanic so he can also fix anything. If I bought the helicopter he would keep it in his hanger and keep it maintained and he would learn how to fly it. As this was the only feasible way I could have a go at paragliding the Alaska range, as well as the fact that I had the choice of investing my money for the future or I could invest it in having some seriously cool adventures, the choice ended up being pretty easy. I bought the helicopter. Dream comes alive again.
Then I started looking at maps and weather. A LOT of maps, and a LOT of weather. As you can see from the snapshot above, a lot of sections are not obvious. And then you’ve got the problem of Denali. It isn’t legal to launch or land in a national park. So we have to walk all the way across it (180 kilometers as the crow flies, but well over 250 by ground), or fly all the way across it. There are some MASSIVE rivers along the whole route that will be totally uncrossable in spring. And there are too many MASSIVE glaciers to count, so I’m not even sure it’s possible to walk across to begin with. So ideally we fly the whole thing like Will and I did across the Canadian Rockies. But it’s Alaska and Alaska weather is notoriously bad and we really have only May and June to get this done before the rainy season starts, cloudbase drops, days get shorter, and the winds pick up. Which means in all likelihood to get this done we can’t do it in the same style as the Rockies Traverse, we’re going to have to walk. A lot.
I returned to Alaska this November again to get a bird’s eye view of the western end of the route with Kenny, which seemed to be the gnarliest and least-obvious line. I was hoping we could fly through the Revelations, to the NW of Lake Clark but they turned out way too steep and rugged. There are zero top landing options and zero launches. So we dove into the Neacola range and although not obvious, there seems a way through. I dropped breadcrumb waypoints with my Delorme the entire flight (5 hours) and then dropped them into Google Earth later to have a closer look. Gnarly indeed, but I think it goes.
Once I got Red Bull onboard with the expedition I needed a partner. Red Bull wasn’t too psyched on me doing it alone, which was how I pitched it. Apparently filming someone talk to themselves isn’t all that fun for the audience. Some awesome pilots were psyched and ready to go, and I wish I could do it with all of them (on the short list was Aaron Durogati, Paul Guschlbauer, Mads Syndergaard, Mitch Riley, Matt Beechinor and Nate Scales) but in the end Red Bull preferred an “American Cowboy” so I called on fellow nutball Dave Turner. Dave and I raced together in the Red Bull X-Alps last summer. He’s got the California distance record, has crossed the Alps four times by paraglider and foot (including once by tandem!) and is a legend in the solo big wall climbing scene. Fearless and skilled, I can’t imagine a better partner for such a monster undertaking.
That decided the last few months have been figuring out logistics. Where to put the food caches. What distance apart? How many? How to make them bear-proof but also biodegradable (wood so we can burn them?) so we don’t leave anything behind. We’ve got one hard rule with this whole thing- once we get dropped off at the start, we are allowed zero outside help other than restocking our batteries and storage cards for the cameras. No food, no supplies, nothing. Which means what we carry on our backs is critical. Obviously we’ve got to carry a lot. Just enough to be not too miserable, but not too much that we can’t manage it as we get more and more exhausted.
I’ve been laying out what I’m planning on taking and packing it to make sure I’ve got room. Here’s the full list, but the major items are:
- Niviuk’s KLIMBER- the new light-weight high level (EN D) hike and fly wing from Niviuk (I’ll be flying the first edition!)
- Sup’Air Delight Harness
- Noco 9 watt solar panel, 12 mAh external battery, Delorme InReach, Thermal Tracker Push-to-Talk
- XCTracer audible vario, Iphone with FlySkyHy app, Delorme maps and Gaia topo maps pre-loaded
- Crampons and ice axe
- Black diamond Highlight tent, Klymit InertiaXFrame pad (the lightest there is), trekking poles
- Smith Maze helmet, pivlock sunglasses, buff, Beyond Coastal sunscreen
- Stove, food bag and a TON of Patagonia provisions salmon, jerky, energy bars, and soups- this stuff is THE BEST!
- Tree kit, first aid kit, pack rain cover, wing and line repair kit, leatherman
- Bear spray, mosquito repellant, SteriPen, headlamp, dop kit (tooth brush, paste, etc)
- Suunto Peak 3 Ambit watch, Salewa Firetail Evo Mid Goretex shoes
- Camel back (3 litre), condom catheters
- Patagonia Nano-air jacket, M10 rain jacket, Torrentshell pants, Puff hoody, board shorts, socks, merino long underwear and merino thin top, heavy gloves and fleece gloves
What does it all come to? With five days food and minimal water we’ll have 60 pounds on our backs. We should be able to get water everywhere, which makes bivvy expeditions a lot easier. But that might be the only thing that is easy about this mission. To be honest, at this point it’s all just a dream and a plan. In less than a month we’ll find out how hairbrained it really is. We’ll have tracking available from Delorme (see below), so you can see how it all goes down. Stay tuned!