If I had to sum up my experience at Expedition Alaska in a single word, it would be Raw. Alaska is certainly a spectacular canvas for an adventure race with a vast expanse of trackless mountains, roaring rivers and wilderness terrain, all waiting to be explored. All the pre-race information released by the event organizers promised the toughest adventure race ever with risk of death a distinct possibility, but how much of that was to be taken on face value, and how much of that was hype would only be evident when we stepped onto the course.
Say anything you like about race organizer Dave Adlard (and trust me, there were times out on the course where we weren’t saying very pleasant things), but you certainly can’t criticize his enthusiasm. He obviously has big plans for this race, beginning with the pre-event registration which was located at the McKinley Wilderness Lodge in the shadow of North America’s highest peak. With four days of safety training, gear checks, parade of nations, banquets, map handout and media interviews, all while the team were spread out over three different hotel rooms, we were all keen to just get the race under way.
For Expedition Alaska, I was joined by Sloshy, Rob and Kathryn. I had never raced with Rob before, but after a few emails back at Christmas, we were all lined up to race Exp AK as an alternative to XPD this year. Sloshy, who I’ve raced with many times previously was soon on board, and we were lucky to be joined by Kathryn who was making her comeback race after having a baby 10 months ago, and didn’t want to sit on the side line while her husband raced with team Tecnu. I knew we had the experience, and possibly the speed to go well over an expedition course, however the terrain and other teams were largely unknown factors, so in my mind a top 10, even scrapping a top 7 would have been a great result. So it’s safe to say that finishing on the podium blew away all our expectations and a result I’m proud of.
Before I recap how our race unfolded, a quick word on the format of the race, which I know has left some trying to follow the race at home a little confused. The course had been set up to have a number of soft, rolling mid-course cut offs where slower teams would be shuttled forward to make it to the later elements (namely the white water rafting) on the course. As for any regular AR, full teams of 4 would be ranked above teams who had lost a team member, and teams that made it further through the course before being short coursed would be ranked before those that were short coursed earlier. Dave claims to have no “un-ranked” teams in his races, but essentially rankings were based as they would be in any other AR I’ve done with categorizing teams finish place a matter of naming semantics. Ultimately, we knew our job was to keep our team of four together and get through as much of the full course as possible for the best result.
Despite plenty of announcements of the course legs pre-race, the final course revealed at map handout was much more simplified. It boiled down to:
Stage 1 – The 40 mile Eklutna Traverse across a number of glaciers, including a “Prologue” run along Eklutna Lake.
Stage 2 – A 22 mile (?) packraft and hike from the town of Alyeska to Whittier, including a “bailout option” which would cut off the end of Stage 2, all of Stage 3 and the start of Stage 4.
Stage 3 – a 32 mile ocean kayak on Prince William Sound.
Stage 4 – a 55 mile packraft and hike over Portage Pass and up the Turnigan Arm. This was followed by an 11 mile whitewater paddle on Six Mile Creek in a guided white water raft. Why these weren’t split into two legs in their description, I’m not sure.
Stage 5 – a hike followed by a long MTB leg on the Resurrection trail. Again, why these weren’t separated into two legs when they had a TA between them with access to our bike boxes, I’m not sure.
Stage 6 – a “32 mile” (actual distance was closer to 34km fortunately) flat water kayak on Kenai Lake.
Stage 7, 8 and 9 – To be announced, but essentially loops of packrafting, hiking and biking with teams finishing up in Seward
Epilouge – Mt Marathon run. Teams had to complete the Mt Marathon run course (3022 feet elevation in a 3 mile return run) the day after the race course closed to be considered ranked in their finish positions.
The pre-race preparation included two sessions of crevasse rescue training. Safe to say that at the end of our training, I still felt like our best bet was to just not fall in a crevasse. Getting to rub shoulders with some of the top forerunners of the sport of AR including Mike Kloser and Roman Dial was also a neat experience. One simplifying feature of the race logistics was that each competitor got to have their own personal gear box which was moved to every transition area, meaning that everything could just go in that box and you knew it would be available at any transition area if required.
So to the race itself: race start was on the shores of Eklutna Lake. We spied a moose and a bald headed eagle on the bus ride in, so the Alaskan experience was already under way. A count down from five and teams were off for a run along the shores of Eklutna Lake to collect two “Prolouge” CPs, the second of which included a gear drop of all our ice gear including harnesses, ropes, crampons, ice axes and snow shoes. After kitting up in our rope gear, the final approach to the glacier involved a bit of rock scrambling and a cold river crossing. Apparently this crossing gave some teams a bit of trouble, however we managed to pick a good spot to cross that was below waist deep. Onto the ice and we were in equal sixth place with another “Australian” team, Traces of Nuts (I use inverted commas as the team are all kiwis living in Australia), with Tecnu, Columbia Vidaraid, Yoga Slackers, North Zealand (Denmark) and Equilibre (French-Canadian) all out in front.
The initial climb of the glacier was quite technical with a steep gradient and the blue ice quite fractured, requiring just a much movement sideways as forwards to find a safe finger of ice to traverse. Finally we were doing what all the months of training and preparation had lead up to and we were climbing glaciers in Alaska! We quickly caught up to Seth, one of the two safety volunteers on the glacier who was lugging a large pack with skis and moving slower than the front teams. Apparently Seth had his own little adventure on this leg, bivying down at the first CP to monitor the last teams as they came through, before backing down from the route when he couldn’t locate his ski boots which someone else had cached for him.
All through the afternoon we hiked Eklutna Glacier, trading crampons for snow shoes when the snow cover became thick enough. Teams were told to use a GPS just for this section of the course and provided waypoints for the safest route through. I’m not sure where these waypoints were derived though, as they clearly were not the best way across the glacier. At one point, they had teams cross over a steep saddle located to the west of what looked like, on paper, a much better saddle to cross. Sure enough, as we were approaching the saddle we could see five teams back tracking from the GPS marked saddle to take the more obvious route choice, which consequently saved us a bit of backtracking. After crossing the saddle and looking back, you could see that the GPS marked saddle crossed into an impassable cliff. CP2 was a hut where we took the chance to layer up before heading off into the “night”. Many of the trailing teams used this hut to bed down for the evening, but we were keen to push through and get off the ice as soon as possible. With the Alaskan summer, things never got truly dark and we didn’t even use headlamps on that first night.
Crossing from Eklutna to Eagle Glacier involved a long slog up to where we would exit the ice. Sloshy was doing a great job on the front route finding and playing around with the GPS. Rob was starting to feel the pinch a bit on the back with Kathryn and myself essentially putting in a small tow with the rope we were using as a safety line. The crampons I had borrowed for the race were apparently all wrong for my boot type and kept falling off, which caused an excessive number of frustrating stops to fix, with the eventual solution suggested by Sloshy to just tape them on with strapping tape. The final ascent of the glacier was through more crevassed terrain requiring multiple changes between crampons, snow shoes and boots for sections of rock.
Time is a little hazy in the memory given that there was no true night, however I think we came off the ice early in the morning. Team Equilibre were just setting up camp to have a sleep. They said they had looked for a way down, but couldn’t find one yet, although a team ahead of them had made their way through. Given that they lost a team member after this leg, I suspected that they were also giving her a chance to rest up. Indeed, the descent and traverse off the glacier to CP3 was pretty sketchy, with plenty of steep, loose rock and opportunity to get cliffed out. We managed to traverse higher than Traces of Nuts who we met up with at CP3. It was here that we learnt of the fate of Columbia Vidaraid who were down a team mate after Marco suffered an injury in a crevasse fall. The descent off CP3 included a bit of confusion around the presence or absence of a track marked by a cairn and not passing into private property, but after a short bush bash we were out on the main road to drop our ice gear. A quick river crossing via a historic hand tram and a hike along some back trails and we were into the town of Alyeska at TA1 in around 26 hours in 6th place just behind Traces of Nuts.
The hike into and out of TA1 at Alyeska highlighted one of the issues I had with the race and that was the quality of the maps and route information. I’m not sure why we were provided 1:63360 topo maps when, sitting at my computer at home in Australia I was able to access for free more recent 1:25000 top maps for much of the area we covered. The maps provided were missing critical details which would assist in making safe route decisions, including a major track network leading out of TA1. This track network fortunately overlayed with our route choice nicely. Traces of Nuts had originally elected to exit the TA via the ski lift trails and only changed their minds about their route as they were leaving the TA when Dave advised them about the track leading over the first mountain range. I’m not sure if everyone was getting the same advice, but clearly it was necessary as the route over the ski fields could be potentially quite arduous. And even when Dave advised us on the track out, the location he indicated on the map was on the wrong mountain pass and river out. Furthermore, we learnt later on that trailing teams coming off the stage 1 glacier were met by a ski mountaineering instructor up on the ice who had been following the race online and couldn’t work out why all the lead teams had taken such a dangerous route off the glacier, when there was a track used by the ski mountaineers to access the glacier that led via a much safer way down. All of this added up to us questioning out on the course how well the race had been vetted and the safety of the different route choices possible.
Anyway, back in TA1 we were met with hot food, trail mail and a visit from mine and Kathryn’s family. Like all the top seven teams, we decided to bunk down for 2 hours sleep in the TA, however with all the noise from the TA and a slight drizzle of rain, I don’t think any of us slept very well except for possibly Rob. At the very least it was some rest time off the feet. There was a soft cut off of 33hrs to get out onto stage 2 for teams that wanted to do the full second leg without taking the bail out option. We made this comfortably, even stopping for a sleep, but only one other team had arrived in after us and it didn’t look like many teams would make this early cut off.
Heading out onto the Winner Creek trail, we were treated to a steady climb up the valley and over a stunning mountain pass which included a number of small tarns with terrain that was more reminiscent of Tasmania than anything else I’ve seen before. Kathryn’s sharp eyes even picked out a moose by the side of the trail. We passed the Danish team North Zealand on this trek (who had a team mate struggling a little with blisters and who would eventually drop out) and caught up with Traces of Nuts at the put in point for the packrafts and our first chance to be off our feet. Paddling the Twenty Mile River was a baptism of fire with the first bend in the river pushing us towards a mass of strainers. The next hour was spent leap frogging with Traces of Nuts as we had to portage section after section of shallow water and strainers. This was followed by a hike through marshland and what appeared to be a short climb up over a ridge to get into the next valley where CP7 was located. This hike was deceptively short on paper, however the terrain was super slow and soft under foot, thick with deadfall and false summits as we climbed in and out of glacier carved spurs. We had Traces of Nuts on our heels for the length of this trek and we even needed our headlamps for a couple of hours under the thick vegetation. At one point during the night, we crossed paths with the Yoga Slackers. They had started 2 hours ahead of us but had paddled further down Twenty Mile River before turning off to make the approach to CP7. Bumping into them was pure needle in the haystack sort of stuff, with all 3 teams making their way to CP7 for the obligatory photo on an iceberg.
Packrafting out of the glacial fed lake towards CP8, I had a brain fade and started to take us down river, forgetting that we were not actually in the CP circle on the edge of the glacier where it had retreated to since the maps were produced in the early 80s, but on the edge of the lake. Fortunately we picked this up quickly and corrected our route, unlike the unranked Equilibre guys who paddled a long way down the river before having to turn back around. We were now on the morning of Day 3 with only one poor sleep in TA the day before and my brain was fried with the navigation. All we had to simply do was traverse around the bottom of a spur to Carmen Lake and CP8, but in the thick alder and devil’s club scrub, I couldn’t seem to find the spur. I was happy to hand the nav over to Kathryn at this stage, who got us going in the right direction, although she commented that finding the spur was much harder than it should have been (probably because of the deceptive 1:63k+ scale of the map). With Kathryn’s great nav and our quicker transition from the packrafts, we got a jump on the other teams and set off for a paddle on Carmen Lake in second place outright. Behind us, the Equilibre guys were setting up camp for a sleep, the YogaSlackers were setting off on the paddle behind us while we could see that the Traces of Nuts were taking the bail out paddling option. Traces of Nuts would go on to have an excellent race, covering the short course a day ahead of most of the other teams to finish in a solid fifth place overall.
For us, the most arduous part of the course was just beginning. After a spectacular paddle across Carmen Lake (one of the course highlights in my opinion) we were faced with a major route choice – either up one of two river valleys or a traverse of the ridgeline in between. My vote was for the ridgeline with the assumption that once you got up onto it would be easier travel in the open, at least until you got to the cliffy peak at the end. Sloshy wasn’t comfortable with this route choice after our experiences getting of the Eklutna traverse and wanted to take either the river valley or the bail out option. My concern was that travel in the valley could be slow, particularly in thicker vegetation the further we travelled up the valley, however I didn’t want to bail out when we were in second place, so the river valley it was. Travel at first along the river edge was great with open rocky flatlands to hike along. The problem was that the river kept winding through the valley, forcing us up onto the surrounding spurs which had super thick vegetation and were extremely slow. To keep moving forward we would have to cross the river, which was much too fast, cold and deep to wade across or swim. Ultimately, after a little trial and error we settled on a system where I would ferry one person across at a time in a packraft, before hiking back up with a boat and paddling down to collect the next person. Although slow going, it meant we could still keep moving forward and we managed to do this half a dozen times. However, by the last time we ferried the river the creek had gotten so steep and full of strainers that if we had missed our pull out point on the ferry, I’d rate the consequences would certainly have been race ending, if not fatal. Of all the sketchy descents, scrambles and ice crossings we did in the race, I actually think it was these moving water elements that were the most dangerous things we came up against. There was no chance we were ferrying back over the river again from this point onwards, so when the open terrain ended, we began our ascent up out of the side of the valley.
Climbing out of the valley, Kathryn did an excellent job of leading the navigation and tracking our progress. We eventually climbed above the treeline and the terrain became steeper with loose rock and snow. Rob was struggling at this point and I took his pack, but with all the rafting gear the weight was killing me and I dropped back off the pace of everyone else. Eventually we climbed to a point where we could see the saddle that we had to cross to get to the spur that was going to lead us down the otherside. Sitting in the saddle below us was a snow covered glacier complete with crevasses. We had none of our ice gear, massive pack loads, on the evening of day 3 with less than 2 hours sleep, a struggling team mate, the sky was getting dark and the weather was starting to white out. To say things were grim at that point is a bit of understatement. We knew we didn’t have the knowledge or experience to attempt an unprotected glacier crossing and in the twighlight white out, there looked like no feasible route down and around. Along with the last ferry crossing, this was the only other time I’ve felt fear on an adventure racing course. At this point we made the sensible decision to crack out the tent and sleep. After 2 hours of sleep, the conditions hadn’t improved with rain and a complete whiteout, so we stayed down for another 3 hours. In the morning light and with a bit of rest, we took on the traverse around the bottom edge of the glacier, crossing between steep snowfields and rock bands in our trekking shoes and using a sharp rock as an ice axe. Full credit to Kathryn on the maps who held a perfect straight line bearing to get us around the base of the glacier and to our targeted spur just as the white out lifted to reveal one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen: the massive Billings Glacier pouring it’s icy contents out into the ocean via a valley below.
The hike down out of Stage 2, fittingly tagged as the “Soul Crusher” by the organisers, was not without it’s drama. I took a fall where I was convinced I would break my legs, being lucky enough to catch myself on a small ledge and walk away with just a few small cuts. Packrafting out on the Billing River, Sloshy and Kathryn lost their raft containing their packs and were lucky enough to retrieve it only when the raft’s throw bag rope got caught up in a strainer. At one point, between wetsuit, layers of thermals, PFD, etc, I counted 7 layers of clothing between my skin and the outside air. Paddling out into the ocean was one of those magic AR moments as the sun came out and a flock of birds took off from the shore line.
All told we were on the stage 2 Soul Crusher for 48 hours (running on just 24 hours worth of food) and in third place still 2 hours behind Yoga Slackers. Whilst a couple of unranked team (Equilibre, North Zealand and Cameltoes) also managed the leg, only one other ranked team took on the full stage 2 – team SORB (the USA army team) who were pulled off the ocean with a team member suffering from hypothermia after over 75 hours on the stage. Now early afternoon on Day 4, we were met by Dave the race director with the news that we would not have time to do the ocean paddle, which we had expected. Setting out on stage 2, he had told us that there was a soft cutoff to start the full paddle of 3pm on Day 3, so I was surprised to hear that Yoga Slackers had been allowed to do the full ocean paddle, which they were still out on. We were told we could collect the one kayak CP which was the boat launch location in the town in Whittier, a 6km return hike. This would cement our position in third place so long as we made it to the finish line and completed Mt Marathon, but we couldn’t catch any team in front. To be honest, this was a bit of relief as we didn’t have to worry about “racing” the rest of the course and could just enjoy the best bits. However, from a racing and viewers perspective, for a unfinishible course format like this to work, I believe the course needed to have hard, pre-defined cut off times for each stage that every team is aware of going in to each leg. As it was, all the “cutoffs” were made up on the spot in the transition areas when we asked what was needed to be done for the next leg. As I said, we were glad not to feel like we were chasing or being chased by another team, however I could see a situation arise between competitive teams where these lack of cutoffs could cause controversy.
So with third place in the bag and a feed of burgers and chips after an afternoon stroll through the port town of Whittier (with blessedly light packs for a change), we bunkered down for a couple of hours sleep in the back of one of the U-Hual trucks. The plan from here was to do the best bits of stage 4 before taking a shuttle to the whitewater rafts before they closed down at the end of Day 5. Setting off before midnight, we had a nice hike on the Portage Pass trails before stopping again to sleep the darkest part of the evening. No one was keen to paddle the glacial lake and it’s whitewater outflow in the gloom of evening, and with the time pressure off another sleep wasn’t going to hurt. This would be our first time sleeping in bear country though, so we bagged up our food in a single large dry bag while Sloshy headed up the trail to hang it from a tree while we pitched the tent. Unfortunately, because we were sleeping in a subalpine area, the largest tree Sloshy could find was a bush about chest high, so he dutifully dumped the food bag in the middle of the bush and wrapped it up tight in our mandatory bear hanging line, presumably in a knot tight enough that no bear claws could unpick it.
The hike down to Portage Glacier was another highlight of the course, making it worthwhile doing the whole Soul Crusher stage to see this subsequent part of the course. We again met up with Yoga Slackers who were about to hit the lake paddle. The paddle across Portage Lake was into a screaming headwind, and with two big guys, all our gear and a boat load of water all packed into a 3kg raft, progress was slow. At the end of the lake we had to make a pointless portage next to a road, ostensibly to not paddle in front of the Tourist Information Centre, which was actually on the otherside of the lake – another example where the route had not being vetted correctly with the CPs to take us behind the Information Centre mapped onto the wrong side of the lake. The paddle down Portage Creek was a fun, safe grade 1 float and more what we had been expecting of packrafting in Alaska.
Check point 17 on Stage 4 would be where we rejoined the shortened bail out course. The final approach was pretty tricky with a strong tide now against us as we exited the Portage Creek drainage and into the Turnigan Arm of the ocean, with our way to the check point bridge also barred by some 10 foot high fences which we negotiated in convoy with the three guys from Canadian team Equilibre. Although I was tempted to suggest that we also continue on and pick up CP18 given that the tide was full and would now be running with us, it was a pretty easy decision to pull up next to the highway and text in for a shuttle to the whitewater stage, as had been pre-arranged with the organisers. Ultimately, only two teams didn’t require a shuttle to get to the whitewater rafting cutoff by the end of Day 5: Tecnu who completed the full course and Traces of Nuts who completed the shorter bail out course. Personally, I wasn’t sad to miss the section of course we did as it required a bush bash hike staying at least 50m away from the highway at all times (although the subsequent Granite Creek packraft into the end of Stage 4 would have been good).
After an hours sleep in the sun by the highway, we were spotted by the race director’s wife, Lisa, who had just driven up to the race, and who would be our angel with information and help at all subsequent TAs. In short order she had four stinky passengers and all their gear in the back of her truck up to the whitewater rafting put in. Again, we had around a 2hr wait to get on the second to last raft trip, so after a bit of first aid attention on our hands which had seen a battering from Devil’s Club and Cow Parship (Alaska has some truly heinous undergrowth) and a chance to sort and dry out gear, we grabbed another hour or so of sleep off the race clock.
Once the rafts arrived it was all action, kitting up in dry suits, sitting through a safety talk and demonstrating that we could swim a rapid and follow directions to safety, no easy task after four days of expedition racing. We were joined in the boat by the girls from Boom Boom Pow who had started the race as a 2 person team and who had some interesting tales about a helicopter rescue from the first packraft on Stage 2. The Six Mile Creek raft was some of the best whitewater I’ve paddled on a commercial raft trip. The skill with which our guide navigated the boat through the class 5 rapids on the third and last canyon was truly impressive. Ironically, after all we had done in the race so far, the rafting was one the safest times I felt out on the course knowing we were in very capable hands. The raft finished with a pointless 200m freezing swim down the last section of the creek which only served to prove that not all drysuits are made equal, but it was over pretty quickly and we were back into TA for another hot feed and a hike over a mountain range, the first not requiring our packrafting or mountaineering gear.
The hike to begin stage 5 began with a horrendously thick, slow and steep bash up the side of a mountain out of Six Mile Creek. The hike was only 10km long, but a few hours and only a couple of kilometers in, the 30km road run circumnavigating around the mountain was sounding like a better idea. We had also picked up the Boom Boom Pow girls as passengers on this trek, who readily admitted they were just following us and were grateful for an easier passage through the leg. Their loud banter at least provided some entertainment and there was no risk of surprising any bears. We were just questioning the point of the whole leg when we finally broke through the treeline. I’m running out of adjectives to describe how stunning the views were on the course, but these rivaled the best of the whole race. Sweeping views of mountain ranges from the ocean right through to the majestic Denali to the north, all under a midnight sun. At the top of the traverse we picked up team NYARA who had started the trek 3 hours earlier on the first raft trip of the day. With Kathryn’s great navigation and keeping a steady pace, we made good time to the bike drop which was still part of stage 5. We built our bikes then bunkered down in the tent for another 3 hours sleep before setting off early in the morning of Day 6 for our first ride of the race.
The bike ride started with a gravel road descent into the quirky town of Hope for a couple of check points. Unfortunately it was still too early for any of the cafes to be open for breakfast, however on the ride out of Hope, a local called out to us to tell the race volunteers to slow down when driving on the roads. Kathryn took this as a chance to hit him up for a coffee, which he happily obliged. It turns out that our host was self proclaimed TV “bad guy” Jim Sweeney from the show Ultimate Survivor, and along with coffee, hot water for our dehydrated meals, and a handful of chocolates he was able to provide advice on the trail conditions for the Resurrection trail ahead, which he would also be riding that day from the opposite direction.
From Hope, we hit the Resurrection Trail, a world class ride for mountain biking with spectacular single track. The first half of the ride started with a steady climb to Resurrection Pass. Unfortunately, Rob had never really recovered during the race and our pace was slow and getting worse. We stopped first for a 20 minute break, and then at his insistence for another hours sleep in the sunshine. I was just starting to nod off when I had the realization that we were breaking all the rules for avoiding confrontations with bears in an area known to have a high population of them. With bear spray in hand I sat up and had a look at the maps of what was to come. It was with good news that I was able to wake up the team 15 minutes early and let them know that we only had another 10km of steady climbing to go with the remainder of the ride either downhill or flat out to the TA. Just as we were getting ready to set off on bikes again, we were passed by the Yoga Slackers, who had a team member struggling with ITB issues. Overtaking the Yoga Slackers again near the pass, we collected the couple of CPs on offer and eventually picked our way down to the transition area on Kenai Lake.
At TA5, our boats were not ready and we were told it would be around a 3 hour wait. Again we used the time to dry out gear and grab a solid sleep in the back of the truck. We were woken with time to get our final gear ready, along with a visit from Kathryn’s son. Setting off on the paddle in real boats for the first time, we were joined by Mike Kloser who was taking footage on his GoPro for the race documentary, spending the first half an hour paddling in different formations for him to film. Again, the scenery was spectacular, paddling down a corridor of snow capped mountains for six hours during the Alaskan summer twilight. It was a generally hard and cold slog into a steady head wind, but a relief to learn halfway through the paddle when I turned the map over that it wasn’t a 32 mile (48km) paddle as advertised, but something closer to 34km. The drysuits made going to the toilet a 10 minute ordeal anytime someone had to stop. As always, it was a relief to be out of the boats and into TA6 where we built the bikes and bunkered down for another couple of hours sleep in the early morning.
TA6 was the location where all the extra legs of the race set out from for those teams advanced on the course. For us, we knew we just needed to get to Seward and complete the Mt Marathon hike to secure our podium place. After a leisurely transition we were given the option of two ride courses back to TA: either via the historic Iditarod trail which stayed down low but undulated all the way home, or via the Lost Lake trail which climbed up into an alpine area before descending back to Seward. By all accounts, the Lost Lake trail was meant to be the more spectacular, so in keeping with picking the best bits of the course, this is what we opted for. And the trail certainly lived up to all expectations. If I had to rate every bike ride I’ve done in every adventure race I’ve ever done, the two bike rides from Expedition Alaska would rate as number 1 and 2 on this list by a significant margin, with the Lost Lake ride the crown of the course: bombing single track weaving through cyprus pine forests and alpine lake views.
Hitting the main road for the ride into Seward we had to stop to layer up, with the Alaskan weather throwing a last ditch attack at us. For me, finishing the race at Mile Post 0 in Seward was actually a big anti-climax, knowing we had to get up in the morning and do another couple of hours hiking to claim an official finish. We were the second team to finish that afternoon, with Traces of Nuts following in shortly after for a quick reunion. Seward itself was heaving with 4th of July celebrations as Killian Jornet was just about to set off on his record breaking run on the historic Mt Marathon race, but all I was interested in was food, sleep and a head start on the gear cleaning and packing.
The next morning, the entire race field that still had at least one good leg were lined up for a repeat of the 5km, 1000m+ vert Mt Marathon race course which was officially run the day before. With nothing to prove except securing our finish place, we took it at a steady pace, enjoying the views from the top and bouncing down the scree slope descent. Crossing the finish line, it was finally time to pop the champagne and enjoy a post-race feed of burgers with the team.
A week after the race I’ve had some time to reflect on our Expedition Alaska experience and debrief with my team mates and competitors from other teams. As I said at the start of this report, my experience of everything about the course was raw: both the emotions, terrain and organization. There was nothing contrived about this course. The risks were very real, particularly many of the whitewater paddling elements and some of the high mountain passes characterized by steep slopes, loose rock and snow. The terrain was also arduous and slow in parts. However, the rewards were also very real with the most spectacular back country mountain scenery I’ve ever experienced and the knowledge that it was just you and your team in some wild country.
Credit must be given to Dave Adlard for his enthusiasm and bringing a race like this to the Adventure Racing world series. I imagine noone is making money from a race like this, so it takes individuals like Dave to drive this event and give us an opportunity to challenge ourselves in this way. Ultimately, any race organizer should have the right to take ownership of their race and make of it what they want, but below are a couple of points of constructive thought that would hopefully help the race improve so that it can become a mainstay on the adventure racing calendar.
– Race maps. The 1:63360 maps did not have sufficient detail to safely navigate certain sections of the course or make informed route choices, and misinformation at TAs about the expected route options was not helpful. If 1:25000 map data is available, it should be used, even if this generates more maps.
– Pre-race logistics. The race would have benefited by minimising the pre-race faff. Every one of those 4 days before the race requires more time off work, more time away from family. Hotel accommodation is not good for an adventure racing team. As beautiful as the McKinley lodge was, we need space to spread out our gear as a team in our rooms, and a fridge to store and prepare our own food. The accommodation was the most expensive my family stayed at during our whole Alaska trip compared to the holiday houses we could book elsewhere. If the race was hosted out of Anchorage, it would have saved travel to the host venue, everything could have been hosted out of a hall protected from the weather and teams could have booked their own holiday house accommodation together on their own budget (saving dozens of emails to the organiser), while still being able to access food, bike and gear shops for last minute purchases.
– Safety training. The crevasse training could have been better streamlined by splitting the field in half and having half the teams do the packraft training, gear checks and media interviews while the other half had more specific glacier training with more hands on instruction from the available instructors. Also, pre-race emails could have included all the information on performing a Z-pulley rescue (including any number of youtube tutorials), so that teams could come better prepared for the hands on experience.
– Course format. I think the idea of an unfinishable course where every team races for 6 or 7 days is an exciting one. It means that all teams need to budget for a long race in terms of sleep and effort. However, for this format to work, it would need some tweaks. By having a cutoff on day two of the race, the top 5 teams were effectively only racing competitively for 3 of the 7 days, before the race results were decided. For the race to remain competitive, the early stages probably need to be a bit shorter, or at least the short course cutoffs shouldn’t come into effect until day 5 or 6, allowing as many teams as possible to advance through the straight line course and remain competitive. This would also be much easier for spectators following at home. Also, the race needs to have hard, pre-defined cutoffs for each stage or CP that teams are aware of beforehand. These can’t be made up on the go for competitive fairness reasons. How is a team supposed to know when they should push to make a TA or when they can balance effort with a bit more sleep? For an unfinishable course to work, cutoff times need to be defined and advertised in the course booklet in advance. Also, the Mt Marathon finish was more of an anticlimax more than anything else. If everyone had been gathered together to do the run on the evening of the 4th of July while still dirty, sleep deprived and the town was buzzing (as opposed to a night of showers and rest), it would have been a great way to end the race with all the competitors brought back together.
– Online Tracking. There was much talk about Expedition Alaska both harking back to the old days of Eco Challenge and Primal Quest, but also being the future of adventure racing. Having started the sport after the golden age of Eco Challenge and PQ, but having watched all the documentaries, the course certainly had those epic elements that we witnessed in those old races like the Eco Challenge climb up Tronodor in Argentina or the whitewater body boarding of Primal Quest in Montana. As for the future of Adventure Racing? I truly believe that regardless of the course difficulty and remoteness, for Adventure Racing to grow it needs to have a much better online presence. Since coming home, everyone has congratulated me on a great result, but commented they couldn’t really work out what was going on in the race. I know it can be difficult to get information out with limited volunteer resources in remote areas. However, even a basic course description and map would have helped followers at home track the race. I’m not sure on the technical limitations of the Spot trackers versus the Yellow Brick trackers, but despite their larger size I’d rather have the diverse messaging functions of a Yellow Brick with me as a safety device as opposed to a Spot, and they do seem to make better trackers for online viewing. Take GODZone as a comparison, which has by far the best online coverage of any world series race with excellent course descriptions and online tracking in similarly difficult terrain and which just sold out 70 places in 24 hours after opening entries.
– Control Points. Instead of the traditional orienteering flag and punch, the race used a system of taking photos of the control point locations. To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of this system. Instead of taking more photos during the race, I ended up taking less as I knew I had to preserve the battery in my camera. Also, there was confusion about whether you just needed a photo of the feature in the centre of the control, or if you had to visit the exact centre as a team. Also, what was being asked to take a photo of wasn’t always clear (for example some of the “views”). For some controls, like CP1 at the weather station and CP2 at the Hut, this system was fine, but all of the controls needed to have these well defined features if photographs were going to be used, which is not always easy in the wilderness. One improvement I would suggest is to provide us a photo in the race coruse booklet of the image we needed to take, and then we could replicate that with the required number of team mates in it.
Despite these comments, Expedition Alaska got so much right as a first edition of a race. The organisers managed all the difficult course logistics with shuttling teams, gear boxes and kayaks despite obviously limited resources in terms of volunteer numbers. Having a personal gear box each was fantastic. Hot food in the TAs couldn’t be underrated in terms of the energy and morale benefits of teams, although some of the later TAs would have benefitted from port-a-loos. There was nothing contrived about this course: each stage had its own purpose and epic feel. The race was gear intensive, but all of it necessary. You needed a packraft to traverse this backcountry, you needed snow shoes to cross Eklutna glacier. The whitewater paddling was at times fun, at times technical and at times scary. The views from the alpine locations rival anything in the world. Seeing new glaciers on day 1 and 2 almost became mundane. We got to see moose, bald eagles and seals (but no bears!) in their natural environment. Dave had advertised the race as a true back country wilderness experience with all the inherent dangers, and that’s exactly what we got. I suspect that if help was required, response time would be measured in the hours, not minutes. I got to experience the full range of emotions typical of an expedition race: fatigue, frustration, perseverance along with elation at some spectacular view or a buzz down some great white water, along with a new emotion I’ve never felt in a race before: fear. Is that a good thing? Sitting safe at home writing this now, I suspect so.
Would I do the race again? Ideally, I would like to say yes, but with the expense, logistical difficulties of getting a solid team together and the distance and with so many other great races on the calendar the reality is this is probably not likely. Would I recommend the race to others? Probably yes, with the proviso that every team member had a pretty solid back ground in back country travel and white water experience. This is not a race for beginners, although ironically beginners are well catered for on the course in that ultimately they will be shuttled to the finish line.
Finally, a big thank you to my team mates. Kathryn is an outstanding athlete and the team’s success was in no small part due to her. She carried big loads on the packrafting legs, navigated all the tricky sections and kept the momentum of the team up. Sloshy was again a blast to race with. We were all carrying heavy loads in this race, but safe to say Sloshy’s pack was the biggest. Full credit must go to Rob for hanging in there and finishing the race. Rob was suffering from Day 1 and never once properly recovered, but he held in there and never quit on the team or the race, which is the mark of true team mate. For my own part, I felt like I had a reasonably solid race. There were times I felt like I could have been a better team mate, losing patience on occasion with Rob’s immobility in the packraft or other times I could have carried more gear (although god only knows where I would have packed it). Again, over days of fatigue and strain, it’s hard for emotions not to rub a little raw. Ultimately though, I will walk away from Expedition Alaska with deep sense of personal satisfaction knowing that the team achieved something special with a podium place in one of the toughest adventure race courses in the world.