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February 1999

Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains: High, Wild, and Unknown

The Tordrillo Mountains are so rugged, you'd swear you're the first human to set foot there.

Day 1: Coal Creek

We spread our maps onto the riverside gravel as the drone of our bush plane recedes into the distance, to be quickly replaced by the hum of mosquitoes.

A little red X marks our approximate location along Coal Creek in the eastern foothills of the Tordrillo Mountains, about 70 miles west of Anchorage. Another X, labeled “fly-out,” sits four quads farther west, on the far side of the range along the Skwentna River. Jagged contour lines and flowing white expanses cover the intervening pages, signifying a vast mountain wilderness and lots of soon-to-be-squandered calories.

We’d come looking for big, bad, beautiful Alaska wilderness, country with enough space, challenge, and mystery that the term “exploration” might still apply. But Alaska’s a state of superlatives, and with wild places like Wrangell-St. Elias or Gates of the Arctic, why this dark-horse ZIP code?

Simple. Years ago, I flew over the Tordrillos on a commercial jetliner, and the massive peaks and sweeping glaciers, every bit as stunning as Wrangell or the Brooks Range, stuck in my mind. Inquiries over the years revealed that the range has five 11,000-foot summits only miles from the sea and was first explored by USGS surveyor Josiah Spurr in 1898.

One such peak, Mt. Spurr, is best remembered for showering Anchorage with ash during a 1962 eruption. But otherwise, these mountains seem to have dropped from human attention. Occasional hunters and climbers visit the Tordrillos, I’ve been told, but apparently few people have been through the region since Spurr.

And that’s why, despite swarming bugs and crushing packs loaded with two weeks worth of supplies, Scott Simper, Drew Ross, and I are grinning like truant schoolboys as we thrash out from the landing zone, heading across steep hillsides a bit too lush with alder. Above and beyond the tangled green wall, snow-capped ridgelines promise more mayhem.

Day 3: South Branch of Trimble Glacier

We take two days to ascend Coal Creek and cross the broad, open pass at its head. Now, our third evening out, we’re camped on verdant midsummer tundra dotted with snow-white bell heather. The weather’s been perfect; blue sky and soaring peaks surround us. Below our perch, the South Branch of Trimble Glacier sweeps past in a mile-wide conveyor belt of ice.

Several small creeks tumble past camp and punch into the glacier’s mounded shoulder, yielding a trio of immense ice caves. Next to the caverns, a steep rubble ramp climbs onto the frozen expanse of Trimble, our highway into the central range. Lounging amid the flowers and wolf scat, we trace routes across the ice and set to the important task of eating our loads lighter while our spirits soar in anticipation.

Day 5: North Branch of Trimble Glacier

We rope up to cross the South Branch of Trimble, then teeter across a vast boulder field to gain the North Branch. We’re still well below the snow accumulation zone, though, so crevasses are few, and the glacier ice is peppered with gravel. Our sunny weather has fled, and low, gray clouds combine with the exotic surroundings to create a surreal mood. We march through a haunting landscape of gray rock, silver ice, and turquoise streams, stopping to rest on table rocks while the glacier creaks and pops beneath us.

Earlier this morning, a low pass came into view between the craggy peaks ahead-our key to Hayes Glacier. The col looked so easy amid such daunting summits that we labeled it Sleazy Pass, since crossing it seems like cheating and we’ll probably feel guilty. We camp beneath the slot as clouds become fog, then rain, then sleet. The weather tests our shelter and clothing, and fortunately, everything works. Way out here, extended and on your own in such huge, unforgiving country, you don’t want surprises from your gear.

Day 6: Sleazy Pass

The rain continues, so we lay over a day. Relishing the chance to hike without a load, I walk up the moraine toward the glacier’s head to view Mt. Gerdine, at 11,258 feet the Tordrillos’ second highest peak. Just above camp, the whole world turns to snow and ice. Gerdine rises 5,000 feet, a mountain of soft-serve vanilla, immense and overpowering. Alone, dwarfed by such colossal surroundings, isolation runs like a shiver down my spine, as much a reward-in it’s own way-as the spectacular scenery.

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