On a chilly spring morning, a plan was hatched amongst close friends. We heard rumors of a new hut going up in the Hatcher Pass area and jumped at the chance to see it for ourselves. Three weeks before our expected arrival date the first visitors to the new hut, known as the Seth Holden hut, described it as "startlingly beautiful" and "a must see". That was good news for us and lifted our spirits higher than ever. Plane tickets were bought and we set off on planning our route via maps and gps.
Early on, we realized something quite special would happen. Since the addition of the new hut, we would be the first people to ever complete the circuit. Hours of looking at topo maps later and it dawned on us that this would be no easy task... The regular traverse, known as the Bomber Mint traverse is quite simple and is done with relative regularity. It involves a couple mountain passes and has a trail for most of the way. The fourth hut we planned on staying at, The Dnigi Hut, wasn't so simple... There's no trail to it and it's miles away in the wrong direction from any of the other huts. It sees only a handful of visitors each year due to these facts. We saw it as a challenge that could pay off in a big way and wanting to get the full Alaska experience, we plotted the gps coordinates and began prepping for our six day adventure...
A couple days out from our trip, a frantic text message was sent to our group. "Bring your rain-gear, it looks like we're going to be up there when Alaska gets its first fall storm..." I read that message on a blistering hot summer day in Seattle, my thermostat approached 100 degrees and I was in a blissful daze because of the heat. Summer is short and very sweet here and being born in the south, I revel in even the hottest of days... For a few minutes I tried to wrap my head around the idea of hiking in 30 degree weather and the inevitable sideways rain that is oh-so common in Alaska.
Travel day... I begrudgingly packed every piece of Gore-Tex I owned, a puffy, extra hiking pants, storm hat, thick socks, and a wind-breaker... All while the morning sun was cresting over the trees in my neighborhood, filling my body with copious amounts of energy and the all too familiar tinge of a sun tan in the making. In a few short hours, I'd be landing in Alaska where the current temperature was a whole 50 degrees cooler. A shock to the system I had been mentally preparing for over the past couple days.
Arriving in Anchorage was as smooth as can be, it being a small airport there's not much that can go wrong. Four of us piled into our rental car and set off to the Knik River to camp for the night. We had some housekeeping to attend to in the morning so we needed to get an early-ish start to the day; laundry, groceries, charging batteries, and then finally heading up to the trailhead to start our six day trek.
There's a nervous feeling I get when I set off on something I've never done before. The prospect of not having cell service if things go wrong, injuries, bad weather, wild animals, the list goes on... We talked about these things briefly but it was quickly shrugged off with an abrupt joke or someone saying something silly, a common occurrence in this somewhat rag-tag group of photographers/adventurers... We took our time packing our bags, triple checking we brought everything. Once we're out there, that's it.
We set off under mostly sunny skies and had five miles of trail ahead of us to the first hut; The Snowbird Hut. The miles flew by, even though the trail was steep and rugged for much of the way. At about the halfway mark, we even had time to take a side-trail to a unnamed lake. A good decision on our part as that would be one of the last times we would see the sunshine on the entire trip.
Past the lake, through an old mining town with debris strewn everywhere, and over a massive glacier that went as far as you could see. We were nearly within sight of the first hut when disaster struck... Adam, the one with the white pack and the guy who usually has a sure foot when nobody else does, stepped on a precarious rock and went headfirst into a boulder. He staggers to his feet and there's blood everywhere... Without causing a panic, two of us escorted him to the hut where I quickly found a full first-aid kit and started cleaning out the cuts and assessing the situation. A cut on his nose down to the bone, clear signs of concussion, and a few deep cuts on his forehead. He was a little worse for wear but we decided to keep pushing on, as long as the concussion didn't progress through the night, we'd most likely find first-aid kits in the hut and be able to keep everything nice and clean and stave off any infection for the duration of the trip.
Rest came easy on the first night... A warm night and a belly full of food will do that. We gathered around the table for a couple hours, shared stories and a few laughs among close friends.
The first morning of a long trip is always the sleepiest... We hadn't quite got in the rhythm of getting up early and starting the day, the adrenaline hadn't fully hit yet, and soreness set in fast with a heavy pack... After a somewhat stressful first day we were all eager to have a chill day and for the most part, that's what we got. Our next hut, the Bomber Hut, was only 4ish miles away. In Washington that's a little over an hour of hiking at our quick pace but up here, it's a little more of an undertaking.
Our biggest worry on day two was weather. We knew we didn't have long before the rain set in, the biggest question was not if but WHEN it would set in. Breakfast and coffee went down easy and we set off down the valley, not knowing what was in store for us...
For once, the views got better and better as we descended down into the valley. The massive glacial lake didn't come fully into perspective until we were right down on the shores. Few adjectives do places like this justice and roaming around the lake, we were at a loss for words. The color of the water, the river careening down the canyon, the jagged mountains defying gravity with their ascension into the heavens... It was all too much to handle at the time as we had to focus on making good time. What lied ahead of us, or so we'd been told, was a couple mile bushwhack, something that makes seasoned mountain veterans shudder.
By the time we started bushwhacking, about two miles into the day's hike, it started to mist. Rain gear was quickly dawned and we trudged on... Mist is one of my least favorite conditions, it's not quite raining but it's definitely not dry... The mist seeps into everything and even though I have good rain gear, it still finds its way in somehow.
A few hiccups and six soaking wet pairs of boots later, the Bomber hut finally came into view. The relief was sudden and all consuming, like a colossal weight was lifted off our shoulders. Being that there was six of us, we always had to worry if there would be room in the huts for us. It's first come first serve after all and a few of them are quite small and can only fit 8 or so people. The bomber hut was one of the small ones and we got there minutes before another group of three... Lucky for us, unlucky for them because the weather got worse and worse as the night progressed.
Dinner was a standard affair, Mac and Cheese with tuna, and the eight of us in the hut rambled on in good conversation late into the night... Every piece of clothing we had was hung up in hopes it would be dry by the morning. Time would tell on whether we'd be putting on wet clothes or not but for now, it's time to sleep. We've got a big day ahead of us tomorrow.
Waking up on day three was a slog, the hut was cold and damp, soreness was at its peak, and we knew we had a rough day ahead of us... Nothing coffee and breakfast can't fix, or at least that's the hope. We took our time with the morning ritual, eating slowly, nursing our coffee, and planning our route to the next hut. Hut three was a new hut that was put in just weeks before we arrived, named the Seth Holden Hut. That meant we'd be relying on cairns and gps exclusively and coupled with the rain, we all knew we'd be in for a tough day.
Few things dried overnight, a couple rain jackets and pants, a couple pairs of socks as well but that's about it. Boots were soaked, shirts were soaked, and putting on wet gear in the cold is the worst feeling in the world. Our solace for the day was that the next hut had much more amenities, better insulation for one, and was much larger than the Bomber Hut so we wouldn't be squeezed into it. By noon, we were ready to head out and stepped into the wet and windy void of the Alaskan mountains. A stiff gust of wind greeted us as we exited the hut, as if to suggest that we stay back for another night. We pondered the idea but we were on a time crunch and the idea left our minds as quickly as we ascended elevation up the first pass.
The rain and wind was relentless, driving sideways at times... Hiking up the dizzyingly steep mountain passes in the rain was a miserable experience with layers upon layers of discomfort. I was sweating profusely, battling getting wet from the rain, and it felt like I couldn't breath properly with it raining so hard. Couple all of that with the fact that when I'd stop, I was now wet from sweat and it's hovering around freezing outside and the wind chilled me to my core. Misery at its finest and for the rest of the trip, this was the best weather we would get.
Amidst the borderline tortuous conditions, the views were splendid the entire way. We passed by some of the biggest glaciers I'd ever seen, walked along half a dozen lakes, and watched the fog roll through the surrounding peaks. In terms of views, this was one of the best days. With each passing day, the weather would get just a little bit worse, with visibility going to zero by the end... This trip was soon becoming less about physical strength and more about mental toughness. Being wet and cold with no warmth in sight, it drained my mind of all happiness and hope. It's an intense feeling I'd never felt before and it welled up inside me at the end of the day, just a half mile from the hut. A half mile but through another boulder field that seemed endless... I just put my head down, focused all of my energy, and put one foot in front of the other in the hopes that one of the car sized boulders wouldn't be the last thing I ever stepped on.
When the hut came into view with nothing but tundra in-between us, a tired smile dawned on my face and I kneeled for a second to show my appreciation for arriving safely. The feeling of relief is growing day by day when each new hut is reached...
Every thing we'd heard about the new Seth Holden Hut was true. A true gem in the mountains, startlingly beautiful and set in a deep glacial valley. We all quickly huddled inside and shed our wet gear, enjoying the dry and somewhat warm interior...
It's about this time, getting into the Seth Holden Hut, where my memory gets blurry, events are scrambled together into a mushy soup. Normally my memory is very solid, each day like a file in a file cabinet, labeled neatly and readily accessible with a mere tug of the handle. It must have been the stress or maybe it was the adrenaline spikes that made everything fuzzy, I'm not quite sure... We stayed up late this night, drinking whiskey and curing our nicotine fix from a long day without.
The first and only time on the trip, I slept a little too hot... The cabin insulation doing its job quite well. The flip side to that is I don't sleep well when I'm hot and it was a restless night of tossing and turning. At least the rain on the metal roof kept me relaxed and thinking happy thoughts...
It's safe to say that all of us would like to wipe this day from our collective memory... I slept a couple hours and fully woke up around 6am to it raining so hard, I was surprised it didn't wake anybody else up. I would have been happy to just stay inside my sleeping bag for a couple days at this point. I didn't want to move, let alone hike for 11 hours on this day.
That's right... 11 hours of hiking. The hardest hiking any of us had ever done, by far and nothing even comes close except day six but only in length and mental exhaustion. The sheer physical effort required on day four was immeasurable. We took the endless punches to the gut and kept on swinging. We howled at our misfortune, we grit our teeth, and we cursed every decision that lead us to this moment of pain.
Two mountain passes totaling some 8,000 feet of gain, the last pass being class 4 and ending in a vertical climb. A fall at any point on one of the passes would be deadly and for some reason that was the least of our worries. We were running out of daylight, well past the point of exhaustion, and our group dynamic was fraying.
The concentration required for day four was unlike anything I've ever experienced. It was so intense that I could feel my mind breaking, calving under the pressure. I'd be focusing on where to put my foot next and my brain would give up and memories and thoughts, totally unrelating, would flood every one of my senses. It would transport me to a different time and place, for a split second and I would catch myself, and resume concentration. This would happen every couple minutes and ultimately led me to falling in a boulder field, hard... Hard enough to feel dizzy when I got up and left me feeling confused and wondering how I got on the ground.
Determination got us up the mountain passes in the downpour... Pure adrenaline got us through the last couple miles on our way to the Dnigi hut. River crossings up to our thighs, new ravines created from landslides hundreds of feet across, side-hilling slopes so steep that one slip means you're sliding several yards down the hill...
I remember thinking to myself, we have to be close to the hut, there's no way we're further than 10 minutes out... Only to look at the GPS and see we still have two miles to go. It's an unsettling feeling knowing we just went through some of the hardest terrain of our life and it's only getting harder as we march on. Every fiber in my being was screaming to either just lie down and close my eyes or turn around where I knew I'd be safe. Even 15 minutes from the hut, on one of the last steep climbs I was thinking to myself that I would rather turn around than go on... It didn't make sense but then again, neither did anything else on this trip.
11 hours after we set off from the Seth Holden Hut, far past the point any of us thought we could go, we finally came into view of the remote Dnigi Hut... Like a beacon in the night, an angel on a hill ushering us into its wings. I thought I would be an emotional wreck upon seeing the hut but alas, I had nothing left to give. Straight faced and oddly dehydrated, I let out a labored yelp and we all high-fived each other in celebration.
We had done it... We still had our hardest day ahead of us but we had made it to the Dnigi hut which we all knew would be our biggest challenge because no one had ever done it before. There's something about going into the unknown that is so terrifying yet so rewarding. It wouldn't fully hit us until we were finished with the trek but the end was near and the relief was welling up inside of us.
By the time the day was finished it was like we all had taken a shower with our clothes on and then put on rain gear over the top of those wet clothes. Everywhere except my shirt was soaked... My Gore-Tex jacket had managed just fine but water found its way up my pants from the river crossings, down my jacket from the spraying rain, and up my sleeve from god knows what. Cold, wet, hungry, and dehydrated, we all did what we could to replenish our spirits within a short amount of time. We made food, drank water, and wrapped ourselves in blankets that were so kindly left in the hut by previous visitors.
Before I knew it, we were all asleep...
DAY FIVE AND SIX
Waking up on day five knowing everything was still soaked and our minds still not fully recovered, we had a decision to make... To stay at the Dnigi hut another night or push on to our last hut, the Mint Hut. If we stayed another night, we'd be well rested and have a good chance at having at least some dry gear. But that also meant we'd have a grueling 18 mile hike out on the last day and there's always the unknown of whether or not the weather will worsen. Looking outside, we knew it couldn't get worse, except for a wall of water coming through the valley. If we pushed on to the Mint Hut, we'd be less rested and more chance of injuries or worse... But it would split up the days and be a lot easier to handle than all at once. There's one thing that we only considered at the last minute that made us stay... We had the Dnigi Hut to ourselves and could stay inside to keep warm. The Mint Hut is the most popular hut on the circuit and there was a real possibility that if we left on day five, it would be full by the time we got there and we'd have to hike all the way out regardless. We brought enough tents but the thought of setting up tents while soaking wet made us all shudder.
So we decided to stay... It was a hard decision and it would prove to make the last day difficult but I'm sure it was the only decision that was right. We only ventured out of the hut a few times over the next day and a half. Getting water, taking a couple photos when the fog cleared, and the occasional bathroom break.
Five days in and you'd think we'd have cabin fever but we were all in such good spirits and stoked to be out of the rain. We found popcorn kernels and were elated at the possibility of popcorn! I was the only one who'd made popcorn like that before so I happily made three huge pots of popcorn for everyone. In terms of food, I can't think of anything that tasted so good out in the mountains...
The hours passed by and we grew happier and happier with each passing second. It's amazing what being dry, warm, and full of food can do to your mood in a place like this. Before I knew it, it was getting dark on day five and we had an early wake up the next day; 4:30am...
Anxious about what came next, I had another restless night... I think I finally fell asleep at 1am. Three hours of sleep is far from a full night's rest but the wilderness doesn't care about trivial things like sleep. The adrenaline started coursing through me early, I could feel my heart beat quicken, my time perception got a little slower as I packed everything up and put on my damp clothes. We had several river crossings and one mountain pass to get through and then it would be all downhill to the Mint Hut and finally, the last nine miles of trail back to the car.
I still wince at the thought of how long and draining day six was.. 12 hours of moving through horrendous terrain. We stopped for a quick break at the Mint Hut but we were moving as hastily as we could those entire 12 hours. It was tougher than any other day because we were all so tired and battered. I distinctly remember that we took a wrong turn up the pass and had to backtrack a mile and a half down the mountain just to go back up slightly more to the left and continue on another couple thousand feet upwards...
When we finally hit the glacier and started our final push I stopped to take a break and drink some water and it was then that the tears started flowing. I don't cry from physical pain or from being scared but I just couldn't control anything at this point. I was petrified and at my whit's end, I didn't know if I could keep going. Reality bends in odd ways when you're at that level of exhaustion. Looking back, I know everything was fine and we were well within our capabilities but your perception of even a tiny step changes drastically. A small step becomes the biggest step of your life, a small ledge becomes a thousand foot cliff, a small rock falling down the mountain is the one that's going to kill you, even though it's falling nowhere near you...
I collected myself and wiped the tears from my face, gave a reassuring nod to the team and up we went. Ascending the glacier and onwards to the last pass. My legs burned and ached, like hot lightning rods were being stuck in me with every step. A few hundred feet from the top, the glacier turned into loose rock... For once I was excited to be back in semi solid ground and before I knew it, we were standing atop the pass.
We could see where we came from and what laid out ahead of us. For the most part it was smooth sailing from here on out. A relatively flat glacier and 10 miles of downhill trail was between us and the cars. It was a bittersweet moment being at the top of the pass. It signified the end of our struggles and trip, an experience that will have a lasting impact on all of our lives... But it also meant that the pain and suffering was almost over. Real food, warm beds, and the oddly satisfying feeling of being amongst a city of people.
The last 10 miles of trail dragged on and on through endless brush and a flooding river that had swallowed up huge sections of the trail. We were all so wet at this point that we didn't even bother avoiding the flooded parts, we just marched right on through knee deep icy water like a normal person walks through a sidewalk puddle.
One soggy step after another, the miles ran on. At this point my back and neck had developed a debilitating sharp pain from carrying my camera around my neck and a waterlogged, unevenly weighted pack. I just added it to the long list of things on this trip that I'd rather not experience again. A few miles from the trailhead we started seeing day hikers and joggers going up the trail, a sure sign that we were close to the cars.
Our pace quickened considerably and then finally after six days... We had made it. We had successfully completed the circuit, a feat that nobody had ever done before. A good friend of ours was waiting for us at the trailhead with snacks and a much needed hug. She even gave us all a celebratory shot of whiskey which went down smoothly. We stripped off all of our wet gear and stood under the eaves of the trailhead bathroom as it rained. The feeling of bliss and warmth that ran through my body in these moments was heavenly.
20 short minutes later and all of us had arrived at the trailhead and the cars were ready to be packed up. We drove to the nearest burger joint and stuffed our faces silly, hoping to induce food comas by the time we got to the hotel.
Now, the only thing left to do was fly out the next day and reflect on the trip as a whole. For the next couple weeks it would be the only thing we'd talk about as we analyzed every day, every wrong decision, every amazing memory from the trip. Some of our bonds grew closer, some of them were pushed apart but one thing is for sure; six great friends came together in an unforgiving land and tackled something that had never been done before.
I'll remember this trip for everything it taught me, both good and bad. It will be one of those defining moments in my life, where everything before is different than everything afterwards... Like a river abruptly changing course in the middle of a storm. We all have experiences like this, trial by fire if you will. Sometimes you learn things the easy way but sometimes you get a crash course on years worth of lessons in the span of six days.
For everything that was hard and miserable about this trip, I wouldn't have it any other way. Beautiful in so many ways, I feel so lucky to have felt so alive. Like I could I feel the essence of what makes me human right at my fingertips...