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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 8: Hanging Valley Camp, above Hayes Glacier

Another layover day. Rain spatters on the tarp as steam squirts from the cook pot. Our tent sits at the brink of a hanging valley on a tiny pocket meadow overlooking Hayes Glacier. With a backdrop of mist-draped crags, we slouch beneath our front-porch tarp, neurotically counting food bars and playing cards with a makeshift deck cut from notebook paper.

Yesterday, we made quick work of Sleazy Pass, then glissaded on rubbery legs down long, sinuous snowfields toward the rubble-covered expanse of the Hayes. Detouring often to avoid ice cliffs poking through the stony veneer, we crossed its desolate landscape, then climbed a steep, ankle-straining slope to gain this majestic perch. Amid miles of austere rock and ice, our little oasis offers rare habitat for wildlife. Squirrels scold us from the boulders; goshawks screech from across the creek. Earlier, Drew spotted a large black bear in the thickets just above camp. We’ve been expecting him to waddle in for dinner, but he’s yet to appear.

Well into the trip now, we’ve settled into varied roles. Scotty, a top-flight climber and camera/soundman for Backpacker’s television show, Anyplace Wild, handles chef duties. Drew, the tall, lean writer/editor, wrangles the tent, leads river crossings, and scribbles in his journal. Yours truly, aspiring aborigine, has become the dishwasher, coffee brewer, group shaman, and court jester. As revenge for the constant but good-natured abuse they direct my way, I torture them with my camera. In the end, though, we know we can trust each other, and I find their company as much a joy as traveling through this spectacular landscape.

Day 10: Black and Tan Creek

Foolish us. We think we have it made when we drop into Black and Tan Creek. The Skwentna River seems so close, until we run up against the mother of all alder thickets. In the space of yards, we’ve gone from Three Musketeers to Three Stooges. Four hours and perhaps a mile later, we burst onto an open gravel bar. Staggering like dazed wrestlers after a tough match, we camp where we drop.

Day 11: Black and Tan Creek

Ice water slaps at my legs. Numb toes probe for another foothold beneath roaring whitewater. It’s our eighth or ninth river crossing since the canyon narrowed this morning. Now we just wade into the thigh-deep torrent, hardly bothering to break stride. We cross in tandem with Drew upstream. I hold onto his pack, Scotty holds onto mine. We scramble out, shake off, and march on. This canyon’s got to widen soon. We’re starting to get seriously chilled.

Toward evening, emerging game trails lead to a narrow, open ridgeline that we descend to the flood plains of the Skwentna River. Packs nearly empty, we amble contentedly across fields of cotton grass lit to brilliance by the evening sun. It’s relaxation time, a chance to deflate from uncertainty and effort and reflect on the rewards of this tough but enjoyable trip, a magnificent trek along highways of ice and stone and spiced by arrogantly rearing peaks and utter solitude.

We definitely found the big, bad wilderness we’d come for. For myself, it was the finest mountain ramble I’ve experienced. And it comes in a place bypassed by the annual swell of wilderness pilgrims on their way to “bigger” things, all searching for what they think is real Alaska. They needn’t go so far. It’s right here, surprisingly close at hand in this overlooked corner of The Great Land.

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