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North America, United States, Alaska, Brooks Range

Brooks Range, Alaska. Our wish: to search out and experience the most remote wilderness skiing available; our objective: to ski from the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean, over the Brooks Range. Betties, Alaska (67° N.) April 1. Wayne Merry, Ned Gillette, Jed Williamson and myself. The local bushpilot mumbled, “There ain’t no living out here” as he helped us lay two caches on our proposed route, ten days apart. Then, on skis, we followed the all-but-forgotten Sled Trail along the Koyukuk River. Three days of knee-deep snow made us wonder if we’d even reach the Range, but upon turning up the North Fork we encountered a few stretches of wind pack and bare ice which became more frequent towards the windy core of the Range. Our most watched enemy, Cold, became relentless and severe at —30° and we had misgivings about initiating an Alpine mode of traveling in the Arctic winter. An ally of cold itself was the overflow: free water insidiously hiding in various forms on the river. Wet feet meant imminent frostbite. Another danger —alarmingly unexpected—were the grizzlies, early out of hibernation. Prodigal in caution, however, none of us froze or were eaten. Eleven days of harder work than we cared for; then we passed through the grand mountain Gates of the Arctic. Concern for our cache at Ernie Creek—because of the grizzly and wolverine tracks in great number—proved unfounded, and we had three days of feasting, a ski ascent of Two Prong Mountain (6200 feet), and investigation of the Valley of the Precipices (described by Robert Marshall as “the Yosemite of the Arctic”). This wilderness peace was rudely shattered by an oil company helicopter, whose oily occupants were looking for lost others of their ilk. On the trail again. Mount Doonorak’s chilling presence was made no more real by the flocks of white birds—the ptarmagins—against her white flanks, nor by the cawing black Harpies overhead, nor by the prints, in bas relief, of huge wolves never seen. We approached the precipitous couloir leading to the Arctic Divide, expecting trouble. Carrying our skis we climbed steep shale on the east side—“impossible,” according to Marshall. It went without difficulty. Now we entered a different world. At our backs was the broad river of spruce forests, flanked by steep-sided peaks. Climbing to the pass put us high among the mountains, as we skied on their barren shoulders which rolled gradually downhill towards the Arctic Slope. Jagged peaks on all sides called to us like Sirens, but tightly scheduled rations kept us plugging towards our next cache. Skiing was a special joy for each of us, often strung out miles apart, each left with his own thoughts. We skied, lower down, into a broadening valley; the wind, now at our backs, pushed us easily along the glare ice of the meandering Itkilik. Ground squirrels on the sun-facing banks of river terraces jerked to attention as we skidded by, and alarmed caribou exploded across the frozen flats. We paused to marvel at the 15-foot high blisters of ruptured ice, and peer down through thick blue windows to the sun-lit stones on the riverbottoms. Our second cache was on the Arctic Slope. We opted to use it for exploring rugged mountains near the front of the Range. Later we might push across the barren, flat Slope to the Arctic Sea, as originally planned, but for now the call of the Sirens was too great. From a single camp near the Atigun River, we climbed four fine peaks, P 6200, P 7610, P 7410 and P 7100, all between the Atigun and the Sagavanirktok A sudden Spring breakup dispelled further thoughts of skiing to the Arctic coast, and we sadly skied and walked into the oil camp of Galbraith. We had come 300 miles, counting side trips, in 30 days, and crossed the Arctic mountains, climbing five of them. Being first to do these things is even more precious than usual, for the Brooks Range is rapidly losing its primitive quality. The oil companies have moved in efficiently—the land is nearly theirs.

Jack Miller