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Multi-sport Adventure DIY (Tip #1: handmake & then burn your skis)

3 Explorers Embark on a DIY Multisport Adventure to Alaska’s Mountains using Packrafts, Skis & Their Feet.

Not everyone can handle spending three weeks camped out on an Alaskan Glacier putting up first ascents of rock, ice and snow routes on unclimbed spires and peaks. Even fewer can then handle skiing out on handmade skis with 100-pound loads, over high mountain passes and across unknown terminal moraines to a river of unknown difficulty. But the trio of Craig Muderlak, Drew Thayer and David Fay did. Supported by the American Alpine Club through the Copp-Dash Inspire Award and various sponsors, including Hyperlite Mountain Gear, they climbed, skied, hiked and packrafted on the adventure of a lifetime. We recently chatted with Muderlak about their wild, multi-sport adventure and the reasons for their success.

What did you do exactly?

In the second week of May we flew into the North Fork of the Pitchfork Glacier in the Neacola subrange of the Aleutian Range in southwestern Alaska. We established a base camp and explored climbing routes on neighboring peaks, including two attempts on the NW Ridge of Citadel Peak, two new rock routes and an additional attempted route on Dogtooth Spire on Peak 7235, a new route up an unclimbed mountain adjacent to Peak 8909 that we call ‘Spearhead’ at the head of the North Fork of the Pitchfork, and a new route to the summit of a rock spire we call ‘The Wing’ on the W side of the Neacola Glacier across from Triangle Peak.

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After spending 21 days climbing, we made a human-powered return to Cook Inlet via ski, foot, and pack-raft over six days. This part of the expedition proved to be very arduous and fraught with uncertainty. We descended the Pitchfork glacier with 100-pound loads on skis and reached the terminal moraine the second day, which we crossed by shuttling loads. The next day we descended the Glacier Fork of the Tlikakila River on pack-rafts; this eight-mile river was flowing strong with Class II and III whitewater and we ran all but one rapid.

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Craig Muderlak working on his homemade wooden skis.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced on this huge multisport adventure?

During our trip back to Cook Inlet, we faced a major decision between two possible return routes. The success of our expedition depended upon us making the right choice. However, we didn’t have much information to work with. Our first option was to move our gear upstream, cross Lake Clark Pass overland, and traverse the headwaters that feed the Big River. This route presents a unique navigation challenge: during the 1950’s when the USGS topo maps were drawn, the entire East side of the pass was submerged beneath a large glacial lake. Today that glacier has receded over a mile, completely changing the landscape and the hydrology. Summit Lake, now much smaller, flows East toward the Big River instead of West toward the Tlikakila, and the terrain that used to be buried beneath hundreds of feet of ice is now a swift river that descends to a second, new lake. This river drops steeply through complex rapids, and the forest on either side is young and thick with slide alder. This geographical transformation rendered the topo maps obsolete, so we had almost no information other than what we saw from the plane and that locals guessed there would be large rapids and “heinous bushwhacking.” Our second option was to ascend a 4,000-foot pass from the Tlikakila River onto the icy plateau of the Double Glacier, from which we could possibly descend a finger of glacier to the headwaters of the Drift River. The decision was tough, as each option presented uncertain and formidable challenges, and neither would be easy. After much deliberation, we decided to take our chances with pioneering a passage to the Big River. As this route would not require snow travel, we burned our hand-made wooden skis on the gravel bar to reduce our loads. In this moment we crossed our Rubicon; we were now committed to finding a way to the Big River with very little information.

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Wow, riveting? So what happened?

We hauled our rafts up-stream and then shuttled loads over Lake Clark Pass to Summit Lake. The locals were not wrong: we soon encountered complex and committing Class IV and V whitewater that we could not run in our laden pack-rafts. We were able to line our boats down the banks of some sections, but eventually we were forced to portage through the thick alder forest. These portages were extremely slow as we had to shuttle loads through dense foliage, and we spent two days covering less than two miles. On the fourth night, after over an hour of tortuously slow bushwhacking, we encountered a small clearing at the edge of the river that was probably the only flat spot for a mile and we made a cramped camp there amongst thick mosquitos. The next morning we awoke to the demoralizing task of returning through the alder forest to retrieve our second loads. Once we got moving on the river, intense rapids soon forced us back into the forest, further dampening morale. Constant sign of the presence of moose and grizzly bears added to the stress.

At this point we wondered if we would make it to the coast in our remaining time; our food supplies were dwindling and the going was very slow. We didn’t know if we could take many more days of this brutal travel–physically or emotionally. On the evening of the 5th day we emerged from the forest to another long section of continuous whitewater–however this section looked like it just might go. I bushwhacked a quarter mile down the bank to scout the rapids, and came back hopeful: it was technical and had some dangerous obstacles, but it could go. After assessing the hazards we inflated our rafts once more and entered sustained Class III whitewater. To our great relief the river soon calmed down and we ran it all the way to the “East Summit Lake”, which does not appear on older maps. This was a major milestone, as we had now crossed the unknown terrain between the lakes, and we celebrated with a driftwood fire on the shore of a lake studded with floating icebergs.

What a relief! How were your final few miles?

Overjoyed and relieved, we descended into the Big River the next morning and found it run-able. After scouting and running some big Class III rapids we entered fast-moving “boogie water” and let the river carry us some 35 miles out of the mountains. Moving effortlessly through miles and miles of that expansive terrain felt divine after so much hard effort between the lakes. We made camp on a sandbar on the coastal plain, where the river spreads out into slow braided channels and we noticed seagulls and harbor seals, signs of the nearby ocean. The next day we floated out on the ebbing tide to Cook Inlet, and the pilot picked us up by float plane at the land’s edge.
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Muderlak and his team built their skis so they could burn them on their multisport adventure to Alaska. Burning them, says Muderlak, was key to their success.

What made this a trip of a lifetime?

We had been planning this expedition for a couple of years; this made us very invested in the adventure. In order to make this trip work, we needed to be very intentional about every detail, including our equipment. The goal was to keep our loads as light as possible and be able to hike and packraft out of the mountains. Extensive planning led us to the decision to make equipment, such as wooden skis, light chalk bags and camera bags. We even transferred a lot of our rations into paper containers, which we could burn to help lighten our loads on the hike/raft out. We obsessed about every detail from equipment to logistics and it paid off. However, despite all of our prior planning, there was still significant uncertainty all the way up until we reached the ocean. In the end, witnessing the entire expedition play out, and completing the route in the face of such adversity and uncertainty was what made this the trip of a lifetime.

What was one of the most significant things you learned either while planning for or while on this multisport adventure?

I learned that being successful on expeditions like this is a combination of luck and planning. Despite all prior planning, if it hadn’t been for the weather and the nature of the rivers that allowed us safe passage, we wouldn’t have been so prolific with our first ascents nor completed our intended route to the ocean. I also learned that creativity and having a team that’s bought into this component of adventure is a really important. Rock climbing itself was not enough to meet our adventure standards for this trip. We wanted something more than simply getting dropped off, climb, and then picked up. However, in order to make our route possible, we needed to be creative. While planning, there were times when I thought we were getting in over our heads. The concept of making skis that we would burn to save weight on the hike/raft out began as kind of a joke. However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to think it would be necessary given the loads and the amount of bushwhacking we would encounter. As it turned out, burning the skis was paramount to the success of this trip. Had we tried to travel with regular skis, there’s a good chance we would have ‘tipped the scale’ on our preposterously heavy loads and made it impossible to bushwhack.

What are the one or two biggest pieces of advice you’d give someone interested in planning a trip like this?

For others interested in doing a trip like this, my advice would be: make sure you give yourselves plenty of time to prepare. The amount of details and minutia we encountered in preparation for the expedition seemed almost endless, at times like a part-time job for at least six months. Also, make sure your team is all on the same page for what they want out of the trip—specifically, make sure people are okay with significant uncertainty. Our team members were all really excited for a HUGE adventure. The unknowns and uncertainty can be stressful over the course of a four-week expedition. The three weeks of climbing and dealing with the endless objective hazards we encountered over this time could have been enough excitement and adversity alone, but that was really only the tip of the iceberg and kept us on our toes wondering what the outcome would be until we got out of our boats at the ocean. And one piece of final advice for any multisport adventure: bring plenty of games and entertainment for moral.
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Muderlak climbing one of their new routes on Alaska.

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