Brooks Range Vacation IV - Steep

With a considerably lighter pack than when I started out from Joe Creek some ten days ago I kept a good pace, walking into the gate of the mountains on my way to the pass that would take me across the Continental Divide

By Jörgen Johansson

Had I been superstitious I might have considered the bleak, rock-infested surroundings with the ice-cold stream a bit eerie. However, I knew from many past experiences that high elevations and overcast skies tend to bend your thoughts in that direction. I knew that this feeling would be gone the second the sun broke through, so I did not worry.

The chilly wind also motivated me to walk briskly, hiking poles clattering on the rocky floor of this gaping mouth into the mountains. It took me about an hour to reach the place where the one creek was born from three different water sources, coming down their separate canyons to a wide, stony expanse surrounded by high peaks. It was quite a place, like a mountain cathedral.

After a brief rest on the cathedral floor, drinking a cup of cold water and eating the usual snacks, I took to my road. This was a fairly small brook, foot deep and four-five meters across, that poured out of a much more impressive ravine. Following this upstream for some four kilometers would take me to pass 7520.

It started out well enough. I could shift from one gravel bar to another when steep cliffs bordered the stream. When the walls closed in from both sides I could walk in the water. But it soon got a bit worse. Or a lot worse.

In places the stream got so compressed and narrow, with fast moving and deep water, that I could not walk in it. I was then forced to climb the least steep of the canyon walls briefly, to reach the other side of this particular bottle-neck, where the ravine and stream once more widened and offered gravel bars for walking.

Some of these climbs where not very high and not that technically difficult, even with a 15 kilo pack. However, now and then there were passages that were less than pleasant. Every time this happened my hope was that ”this was the last bottleneck”. After having managed four or five such tricky climbs I also was becoming less and less attracted with turning back and having to do those passages all over.

As I made my way upstream in this gorge, things did not get any better. The short climbs got longer, the unpleasant passages were shifting into being downright scary. I was becoming seriously worried that I would injure myself. One mistake, one slip, could have dire consequences.

Getting close to the top of the ravine, where I hoped I would see the pass, there was a sort of rock corner I had to get around. The bottom of the ravine with the creek was some ten sheer meters below. A fall here would be serious business. 

I am no climber and climbing with a big pack and walking poles is not something that makes this kind of scrambling any easier. I did however feel that poles in many cases where actually more help than hinder, but everything would have been a lot easier with some better rock to hold on to.
The rock here was incredibly crumbly. Almost every rocky outcrop tended to come loose in my hand. Rounding this rock corner, I had the sickening experience of a handhold like that coming loose. I could feel myself, in some peculiar slow motion way, pulled by my pack, begin to topple away from the rock face.

Milliseconds later, perhaps, my left hand, scrambling frenetically, found a grip on something that stayed in place, and I could ease around the corner and get onto a ledge with some solid footing. After about a minute I was down on a safe gravel bar. When the tension left my body I could feel the sobs breaking through the armor and I sat down on my pack and cried for a full minute.

Now, going back was not, in my mind, an option and not long after I came to a steep slope covered with snow. Could this be my pass? I was still not familiar with exactly how the map portrayed the terrain in these steep surroundings. Coming up the gorge I had spent a lot of time going very short distances. Somewhere along the line I had lost my dead reckoning. I was not certain where I was, with my less than detailed 250 K map.

I zigzaged up the snow covered incline, kicking steps in the slushy snow with my Salomons, wondering if this was the end of my climb, if I would  look down on the other side of the pass from the top. Another slight incline met me after the first one and I trudged up that one as well, still hoping. What I finally saw was not really the top of the pass, but rather the bottom.

Ahead and around me a wide snow patched rock basin, met my eyes. A big glacial cirque would be my guess, where a number of football fields would have fitted. Except for where I was standing, there were no exits, just a huge half circle of jagged peaks connected by high ridges. 

My eyes found the lowest spot on the sky line, right next to a prominent peak that looked like it would be my old friend 7520. The lowest spot would of course be the pass I was looking for. From the top of that pass a long strip of last winter’s snow hung, like a white tie down a fat man’s chest and bulging belly. It looked steep, really steep. Really, really steep.

From where I was standing it would be approximately a kilometer of mixed rock and snow fields, to the bottom of this white tie of a stairway to my pass. 

A good time for lunch.

I rolled out my pad, pulled on my puffy layer hoody and sat down. While waiting for the water to boil I studied the steep climb along the seemingly vertical snow patch. Maybe it was not quite as high and steep as had been my first impression. And other people had presumably used it, people on more or less the same route as myself. Buck Nelson maybe, probably not Andrew Skurka who had been on a slightly more northerly route through this part of the Brooks.

Well, if it was an established pass it was supposedly negotiable and if so, why not by me.
It took me about an hour after lunch to reach the rocky slope below my snowy ladder. A couple of times along the way I had turned my head at cracking sounds and with my eyes had followed rocks thawing away from the steep mountain sides around me and bouncing down the precipices until they found a resting place at some snow patch on the cirque floor. 

My biggest help, slowly zigzagging up the 10 meter wide snow patch, was the consistency of the snow. It was soft and wet enough for me to be able to kick reliable footholds, but solid enough to support my body weight and pack weight while arduously shifting from one foot to another.

The pace I soon established was some 30 seconds of zigging with 30 seconds of rest followed by another 30 seconds of zagging. During the stops I looked at the view. It was no doubt stupendous, but I did not enjoy it much. This patch of snow that clung as my lifeline to the incline was steep. Really steep. Really, really steep.

It felt like 60 degrees, which probably was an exaggeration. Maybe 40-45 degrees. I made a halfhearted attempt to judge the steepness with my two poles, but my heart was not in it. It was purely of academical interest, now that I was in the middle of the thing. 

There was no way I would have dared climbing the rocky rubble bordering my white ladder. Without the snow it would have been no go. Looking down it was obvious that a fall in this place would be very difficult or impossible to break, if I started tumbling with my big pack on. It seemed a certainty that I would be ground to pieces when I started hitting the rock slope below the snow field at high speed.

There was only one way of getting out of this and that was the hiker’s usual mantra, to keep putting one foot before the other for as long as it took. In its upper part the drift was compressed into a narrow waist by two rocky outcrops squeezing from both sides. The one to the left was perpendicular, the one to the right more promising, less steep than the snow I was stomping my way up in anyway.

I felt a certain sense of elation when I could put my hands and feet on the rocky outcrop to the right and get away from the awful steepness of the snow strip. My elation did not last long. Another area of crumbly, crap rock met me and it only took half a minute to realize that this was less safe and reliable than the snow. Carefully and slowly I retreated to the now very narrow waist of snow and kept on making zigs and zags, each leg of those only a couple of meters.

On another level, my brain had to build a sort of expectation barrier. This had to do with what could be expected on the other side of the pass. I had to avoid creating in my mind an image of a gentle slope that would let me have a nice walk-in-the-park descent, the sun joyously sparkling on the snow fields that I would happily skate down.

I simply needed to be prepared that the other side of the pass could be just as steep and dangerous as this one. In fact, this was a more likely scenario. The map, with its lack of detail, did not offer much information on this. The worst case scenario would of course be that it was just as steep or even steeper, but without any handy snow fields to help me stay on the rock wall. So steep that I would not be able to get down. So steep that I would have to go back the way I had come.

If I expected too much, was too optimistic, the disappointment might damage or shatter the thin layer of absolute focus that was holding me up. The absolute concentration that I needed, in order not to make one single misstep, must not be dented if I could in any way prevent it.

Soon the rock out crop on the right petered out and let the narrow waist line of snow expand to a wider patch. This also was the end of the steepest part of the incline, instead I had a steep hill stretching some 50 meters ahead, where I could walk, albeit slowly, in a straight line to what I hoped to be the top of the pass.

It was the top of the pass. An almost flat, rock strewn area of some 50 meters across and gently curving upwards several hundred meters to the sides. The sun was shining. I looked back the way I had come and could see marvelous peak after marvelous peak rolling towards the eastern horizon. Man, this was country!
I took a couple of photos of this view, perhaps subconsciously postponing the exploration of the other side of the pass. Then I walked across and looked down on the other side.

The view in this direction was also great. And it looked better than I had dared hope. Not that steep compared to what I had just experienced. I had some water and snacks with this wilderness world that is the Brooks Range at my feet, before starting down.
It was in fact a gentle slope that did let me have a nice walk-in-the-park descent, the sun joyously sparkling on the snow fields that I happily skated down. It seemed too good to be true. And in fact it was.

My goal was the Canning River, which I would follow for a day or two upstream, before cutting across to its tributary the Marsh Fork of the Canning River, where my food supplies for the next couple of weeks awaited me.

The canyon on this side of the pass, following the ever-growing melt water creek down stream, was a lot easier to negotiate than its neighbor on the other side had been. This one also had cut its share of deep ravines in places as well, but finding a good route to safely circumvent the worst bottle necks was made easier by coming from high ground and having a better view of what was below than what had been the case coming up the creek on the other side.

After a couple of hours of hiking, and a nice cup of coffee in the sunshine, the canyon ended and the creek continued into a sizable valley with a river running down the middle of it. Just like the Canning River would. However, two things were wrong: This river had appeared much too quickly and it was running in the wrong direction.

Time to take stock. Also time to take a more than cursory look at the map and also to haul out the compass for the first time this day. Following ravines, like I had been doing, I did not feel I needed the compass much. Big mistake.

Perhaps the adrenaline rushing through my system this day had managed to rattle my brain out of its usual comatose state, because it did only take me a couple of minutes to figure out what must have happened.

Reading the map very carefully indeed, as I should have been doing all along, I could see that the big cirque where I had started my ascent up the steep snow ladder was the home of, not one, but two passes. 

The pass I had picked was to the far right in the cirque, which fitted with a casual look at the map. The pass should lead north, which it also seemed to do. I should have checked this direction with my compass. Because what I had done was take the pass going the south from the rock basin. I had seen no other pass and erringly thought “I follow the creek upstream until it ends and the lowest spot on the ridgeline will be the pass”.

What I was looking at was not the Canning River but a tributary of Red Sheep Creek. So what I had done was risking my life in order to achieve nothing really, remain on the south side of the Continental Divide and I had done so by crossing a pass that no sane person would bother to climb simply because it did not get you anywhere.

A quick look at the maps covering the area between where I was and the March Fork cache, did however cheer me up a bit. This was confirmed when I had descended to the sizable tributary of Red Sheep Creek and set up camp. Taking my time over the maps in camp it seemed I could reach the Marsh Fork fairly easily by following the creek outside my tent down to Red Sheep Creek, follow that for some distance and then cross over to Cane Creek and then another crossing to a drainage that would lead me to the re-supply cache in three days or so.
It rained all night and almost all next day, but I made good time along game trails down to Red Sheep Creek. The most eventful thing happening this day was triggered by a movement half-way up the other side of the valley. My cheap binoculars were soaked and misted over, but the camera proved that it was a grizzly.


It slowly made its way along the slope, at least 500 meters from me, looking for something edible it seemed. I snapped a couple of photos and moved on in the rain. It was decidedly chilly, some 7-8 C and difficult to keep warm without moving at a brisk pace. 

This would turn out to be the only bear encounter on my walk through the ANWR. It has been said: This is not the Serengeti. It is a very lean part of the world.

The chilly rain kept me company all day. As before, the rain had soaked through underneath my waist belt and my merino shorts were all wet and draining me of body heat. The best proof that circumstances were miserable this day is that I decided to skip afternoon coffee. I only took a short snack break, sitting on my pack in the rain, and decided that I would set up camp around 6 pm, an hour or more earlier than usual. This would get me into my shelter, into dry clothing and into my sleeping bag. Nothing seemed more attractive right then. 

Well, you never know what happens. Around 6 pm the rain stopped, the clouds began to lift and I found myself in the most magical of valleys. I pitched my tent and spread wet clothing out to dry. Suddenly the world was a friendly place. I looked forward to eating my eternal noodles and beef stick sausage under the sky for a change, but just when I stuck my spoon down in the steaming bowl it began raining. I rushed to get everything spread out to dry before it got soaked anew.

When this shower had passed I took a walk around camp. The surroundings were not that spectacular, the mountains not that high and pinnacled around me. It was more like a whiff of Scotland, with a lot of green shades all over. What made this into Camp Magic was rather this sort of coziness after several days of high mountain harshness combined with some strange geology.

The creek I would be following over to another drainage tomorrow, ran in a fairly deep ravine. But parallel to this creek, on the other side of the ridge that made up one of the ravine wall, another creek ran for a long stretch. The two creeks joined not far from my tent. The rest of the landscape was on par with this, a very varied mixture of hills and gullies and small brooks. Very difficult to describe, but lovely. I took a number of photos trying to capture this wonderful haven, but none of them could in any way match the reality. 

The next day I topped out on a rise, exciting my magic valley and seeing Cane Creek spread out below me. Straight across the valley I saw the next side creek I would be following upstream to another pass that the map did paint in much more forgiving colors than it had the hair-raising ascent of pass 7520. A chilly wind was blowing, with promises of rain.

I descended and then crossed Cane Creek easily enough and started up this new creek with no name. It was very similar to the creek leading up to pass 7520, a fairly narrow and shallow creek that was easy to ford and easy to walk in most of the time when the side walls closed in. In places there were snow bridges I could walk on for short distances. But again, the side walls kept closing in and kept getting higher and steeper.

After a while I came to a gash in the rock where the creek, now only a meter wide and with noticeable power, thrust over a rocky threshold into a pool that promised to be more than waist deep. Not an appetizing prospect to swim-climb this forceful opponent, although it looked doable if I stripped completely and only donned my rain gear. I looked around for options.
The wall on my right looked climbable up to a seeming ledge, some five meters up. I could see the narrow gash around the creek widening into gravel bars only a short distance upstream. I started climbing.

The seeming ledge did not turn out to be something that would let me negotiate my way past the watery gash. However, the slightly curving incline above it looked climbable up to another seeming ledge that hopefully would be more walkable.

If you put a frog into warm water, it will jump out. But if you put the same frog in cold water and gradually increase the temperature to warm, it will it adjust its own body temperature to the surroundings until it dies from overheating.

To cut this simile and a long story short, after three-four pretty difficult scrambles to the same number of ‘seeming’ ledges that promised passage, but did not deliver, I was what is endearingly called, up the creek without a paddle. It sounds more fun than it is.

Some hail travelling on the biting wind found me on a steep slope a couple of hundred meters above the creek, which was dotted here and there with snow-bridges. The way ahead looked chilling, and that had less to do with the weather than you would expect.

The slope was pretty steep, though nothing like pass 7520, in places with grassy strips and some reasonably walkable drifts of gravel and small rocks. But most of what I could see of the slope ahead consisted of large areas of slick-rock. From a steepness point of view they looked sort of walkable with rubber soles giving a good grip. I had that. The problem was that these big and small slick-rock areas were liberally sprinkled with bigger and smaller rocks.

These rocks would act as ball-bearings if I tried to walk on them, rolling under my feet. And if I fell on a slope like that there was no way I would be able to arrest my fall. I would tumble head over heels with a rapidly increasing speed down the entire slope and end up a reddish mess in the creek at the bottom of the ravine.

Yet, I had to move ahead, angling down towards the creek, even if this would, sooner or later, lead me to a complete dead-end. That is how I reasoned, anyway. Maybe this was all wrong. But I do not like to go back. I’m too lazy I guess, to let all the work behind getting this far be for nothing. Another weakness I have is that I’m really poor at quitting. So I started delicately to make my way across the slope ahead.

Before I started I took a photo looking upstream and another looking back towards Cane Creek and the slope I had clambered up. These turned out to be the last photos of my trek.

By now I was past the bottleneck along the creek that had put my up this incline, so I was looking for a way down, but for now I had to move parallel to the creek, looking for spots and strips that looked like providing traction, avoiding the rock studded slick-rock death traps.

I slowly made my way, in some places easing myself down on my butt on smaller areas of gravel studded rock, feeling the seat of my rain pants shredding in the process. I had no real sense of time passing, just concentrated, scared and praying that this would end well.

After a while a dry gulch running down the mountainside, all the way down to the creek and perpendicular to it, blocked my progress. It had more or less vertical walls, some two-three meters high, but the bottom of this 10-20 meters wide melt water gutter consisted of fist and head sized rocks that promised a reliable, if not stable, footing. The problem was getting down there.

I made my way downhill along the edge of the gulch until I found a likely ramp-like notch leading down the wall. I eased my way down. I had to use every bit of traction possible to keep myself from beginning to slide. Finally I realized that I had to take off my pack and lower it ahead of me, down the ramp. This would allow me to climb down the last meter or two onto the rocky gully floor.

I got my pack off without trouble and started easing it down, one-handed, along the steep ramp. If it would slide gently on this flat rock surface a meter or so, it would hit the rock and gravel mixture of the gully floor and stop. I let go of my grip and watched the white HMG pack start sliding.

After about one second it stopped sliding and rolled over once. Then another roll, and it left the slick rock ramp. It all happened very fast now. The pack rolled over again on the rock and gravel, and now it was really beginning to travel and the steep slope quickly gave it a tremendous speed.

I saw it gathering speed; now ten meters away, now twenty. Before it disappeared from sight I saw items attached to the outside of the big bag start to scatter wildly. Then it was gone from sight.

The climb to the bottom of the gully without the pack was just as easy as it had looked, and the rock and gravel surface as easy to walk on as well. I went down to where the pack had gone out of my sight and collected the belt pouch that contained my camera in a hard case, plus maps and compass.

Then I started down the slope, which had a gentle curve that obscured the creek at the bottom of the ravine from view. Where and how I would find my pack, I wondered. Would it be smashed to pieces entirely, shredded by high speed and sharp rocks? Would it be resting in the creek? Would it have been flushed downstream by the creek? Perhaps jammed under a snow bridge where I would be forced to crawl into some icy hell-hole to retrieve it, or maybe would not even find it.


  1. Wow, this is powerful stuff, I have never been in the situation your were in and don't know how I would handle it. It is evident your determination coupled with considerable experience got you through what was clearly a challenging (dangerous) situation. Well done, I imagine this chapter was also hard to write with the memories of the challenges and how you felt as you revisited this part of the trip. Looking forward to a less stressful next chapter.

  2. Roger, I think these experiences have contributed to the fact that it has taken me a while to 'get into the mood' to write about my trip. We'll see what happens next ;-)

  3. Wow! That gives me the shakes just reading about it!

  4. Robin. Sounds like I succeeded in my communication of what gave me the shakes experiencing it. Of course, for a mountaineering type of person the whole thing might have been a breeze, but being a walker I can only relay how I felt.

  5. Breathtaking...and kinda scary. Can' t wait to hear the next chapter :o)

  6. Thanks Terje. I'm working on the next chapter. To bad I have to do some real work as well ;-)


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