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.
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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.

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.

Tordrillo Mountains Expedition Planner

Mountain weather, glaciers with lots of crevasses, river crossings, bears, and remoteness make a Tordrillos crossing an undertaking for only the well prepared. Focus on having adequate food, fuel, clothing, shelter, boots, and pack, in that order.

Getting There: Our round-trip tickets from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Anchorage were booked in March for our August trip and ran $523 apiece. From Anchorage, the Tordrillos are less than an hour away by plane. Bush pilots charge according to the type of airplane and number of hours needed for a round trip. We flew with Branham Adventures (P.O. Box 190184, Anchorage, AK 99519, 907-243-4901) and chose a Helio-Courier on balloon tires ($260/hour). To fly us in and out and make a short scouting loop, the cost was $1,248.

(In the end, the three of us averaged about $1,500 apiece for everything-food, fuel, airline, and bush plane.)

Season: Mid-July through early September.

Maps: Our trip covered five USGS 15-minute maps, all titled "Tyonek," sheets C-5, C-6, D-6, D-7, and D-8. For other route options along the Hayes and Skwentna rivers, see sheets D-6 and C-8. Available for $6.50 each from Map Express, (800) 627-0039.

Skills you'll need: There are several skills you must have: orienteering, river crossing, and intermediate (at least) glacier travel and crevasse rescue. You should also have experience camping and coping in bad weather, be in good physical condition, and know all about bear country etiquette.

Special Gear: Heavy-duty leather boots, trekking poles, clothing for all sorts of weather conditions, a sturdy tent, and a sleeping bag that handles everything from summery to light-winter conditions. You'll also need gaiters, an insect head net, Capsicum bear spray, and general-duty glacier equipment (ice axe, crampons, climbing harness, light rope, and a prussik sling). -by S. Howe