brown bear grizzly track southern spiral wrangell st elias national park traverse jim harris cisco tharp adam steel joe dyer
The Objective:
southern spiral wrangell st elias hike traverse backpack map route
As seen from afar:
wrangell st elias route hike backpack map topo alaska traverse souther spiral

Numbers that defined our world:
Wrangell St Elias NP and Preserve: 13,200,000 acres²  (20,587 miles²)
Distance traveled: 430 miles (~220 miles on land and ~210 floating)
Time: 33 days (25 days on foot and 8 days paddling)
Distance on trail: 0
Resupplies: 3
Bears: 14
Other park visitors: 0
Jars Nutella eaten: 5
Gallons olive oil used: 0.7
Hours of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) performed: 1.2
Width of tent space space, per individual: 15”
Width of foam sleeping pads: 20”

On the long, unpaved road to McCarthy, with the bumpin’ sound system.

Almost midnight with a great bivy spot at the airstrip

When Chuck Norris goes to bed at night he checks underneath for Garry Green.

Cisco won the rock-paper-scissors for shotgun seating

Garry dropped us off at Tebay Lakes

As the sound of Garry’s plane faded, we found we were very, very far from anyone else.

At the end of the first day we could look down the Bremner valley and see the Copper River on the horizon. More than four weeks later we camped at the Bremner / Copper River confluence that’s just in front of the furthest mountains, almost a full circle.

Hauling the Great Grey Whale
Backpacking in Wrangell St Elias National Park Alaska
The fireweed was going off in the smoky valleys.
Backpacking in Wrangell St Elias National Park Alaska
Ready for the first of many balls-deep, glacially-fed river crossings.
Ready for river crossing Backpacking in Wrangell St Elias National Park Alaska
Like this one, where we waited until morning to cross to avoid swimming.
Stream Crossing in Wrangell St Elias National Park Alaska
This was the first time I’ve spent three days walking up a single valley.
Backpacking in Wrangell St Elias National Park Alaska
Big, unnamed peaks every which way.
Backpacking in Wrangell St Elias National Park Alaska
Cisco admiring the view from near camp
view from camp alaska
Over a pass…
Over a pass in Wrangell St Elias
And then onto a grizzly bear trail
Bear trail hiking in Alaska
In places, the bears don’t have a normal path. Generation after generation steps in the footprints of the last bear, carving long trains of divots in the tundra.
Grizzly bear trail Alaska
Shaking the reindeer lichen out of the VE-25.
Reindeer lichen VE-25 North Face Tent
After the first few days of 80 degrees and sunny, the weather shifted to cool and damp and is probably that way today too.
rain on glaciers in Wrangell St Elias National Park, AK
No photo-choppery. Serious.
blue lake in water in Alaska
Good thing I didn’t bring any down-filled gear.
Rainy day backpacking in Alaska
Reluctant to get wet boots even wetterRainy day stream crossing in Wrangell St Elias
Hiking through fireweed
Fireweed backpacking in Alaska
Traversing down the Klu River valley.  The easiest route was often to sidehill above the elevation where the vegetation turns to dense brush.
Klu River hiking, Wrangell St Elias, Alaska
The view as the rain clouds cleared the next dayKlu River, Wrangell St Elias, Alaska
The maps cover four times the area of the 7.5-minute series I’m used to using. For a few days it felt like we were moving at a glacial pace until I adjusted to the scale.
topographic map reading in wrangell st elias national park, alaska
I began noticing the first fall colors with the shift to cooler weather. This must’ve been around August 6th.
fall leaves in wrangell st elias national park
The first glacier crossing was only a mile or two long and rarely crevassed. Compared to the miles of wet scree and talus moraines we crossed that day, walking on the ice was cake.
glacier hiking in wrangell st elias national park, alaska
To minimize the chance of bear encounters, our sleeping tent, kitchen, and food storage were spread far apart. Yellow tent on the right, blue and white speck of a kitchen Mid above the reflection line on the lake.

alpine lake camp in alaska

Not a big truck. Just a series of tubes.

ted stevens big truck series of tubes alaska, bear proof food containers in alaska

We arrived to our first resupply site two days early. The Park maintains the bunkhouse from a small mine that operated for a few years in the 1930s and employs a volunteer to look after it in the summer.

bremmner site, wrangell st elias, alaska

Shortly after we arrived, a pair of Park Rangers flew in on a mission to aversively condition the local grizzle bears. Joe noticed one nearby and the commotion that ensued was spectacular.

brown bear aversion in alaska

In addition to good shots, they proved to be fine scrabble players too.

scrabble game with park rangers

We spent down time exploring the area

backpacking humor and violence in alaska, mine waste

And cutting unnecessary doo-dads off packs, you know, like zipper pulls.

fastpacking, light backpacking in wrangell st elias

Finally we got re-upped with more food.  Garry settin’er down at the far end.

bush plan resupply for our backpacking trip in Wrangell St Elias National Park, AK

Refueled, we were on our way again.

cotton grass tundra in alaska

On August 10 snow line wasn’t too far above camp.

mid summer snow in alaska

Tundra walking

tundra backpacking in alaska

Rocky hopscotch for a few miles

talus boulder hiking backpacking in alaska

The easy walking turned to willow and alder thrashing. Like all the way out the valley to the glacier.

alder bushwacking in alaska

Not so bad for bush-pushing, really.

bushwacking bush push in alaska

Sand skiing down the moraine

sand skiing down the moraine to the glacier in alaska

Walking onto a lobe of a huge AK glacier

glacier hiking backpacking in alaska

The water was so clear it was hard to gauge depth. Joe plays “Is it deeper than my pole?” “Yes, it is deeper than my pole.” Whatever the depth, it was delicious.

glacier water drinking alaska

We did a lot of dunk ‘n drink without filtering the H2O.  On lower 48 trips I nearly always treat water but here it just felt less imperative.

alpine lake rainy hike in alaska

A cool looking cloud tunnel and a view of where we came from.

cloud tunnel formation over glacier in alaska

Up and over another group of peaks.

iceberg to bremner mines, alaska

Big views everywhere

iceberg to bremner, wrangell st elias, ak

Then down the other side

iceberg to bermner, wrangell st elias, alaska

Rain on Lupines.

rain on lupine flowers in alaska

Beautiful, bear scat covered camping

bear scat camping in alaska

There was this great moment, one of those times I wish I would have taken a photo, where we stopped to admire some enormous prints in wet and spongy mud.  After looking for a moment, Joe stepped forward and shifted his weight onto the mud next to the giant bear track. We saw his Vibram print, only half as deep as the bears, as he stepped away.  Then, slowly, magically, the mud sponged back, refilling his step. Only the giant bear print remained.  We blinked at each other and walked on.

bear prints, bear tracks in mud, alaska

Luckily the bears were preoccupied, as the berries were going off.

wild blueberries, huckleberries in alaska

It’s amazing how one ingredient will improve plain, cold grapenuts and powdered milk.

picking wild huckle berries blue berry bear alaska

We sometimes stretched our self-imposed “packs-on” waterbreaks by lounging without actually taking off packs.  Whatever.  The views were worth savoring.

packs on water break

Walking over a fertile, glacial-silt floodplain.

fertile glacial silt floodplain near iceberg lake glacier

Each year a lake forms here, dammed by the glacier.  Office building-sized ice chunks bob around in Iceberg Lake until, sometime mid-summer, the dam gives, sending a flood ripping down hundreds of miles of river.

iceberg lake dam wrangell st elias, AK

The icebergs are stranded high and dry after Iceberg Lake drains.

iceberg lake backpacking, wrangell st elias, alaska

Croc’ing across one of the tributaries that fill the lake each spring.

iceberg lake stream crossing, alaska

The Tana glacier is largely protected by a giant moat, but we found a spot to access it here, above the cave.

tana glacier bridge, wrangell st elias, alaska

Tana Glacier from the air.  The backcountry rangers and local guides were skeptical that there was a passable route across, and from the air, I would have agreed.  We budgeted several days to cross it, but ended up making it in one long, 13 mile labyrinth push.

tana glacier aerial view

With an awesome vantage to choose the least-crevassed route, we nervously schemed the night before.

tana glacier planning, wrangell st elias, alaska

Then the next day we were off, blessed with decent visibility after a rainy night.

tana glacier, alaska

We stayed unroped, for the sake of speed, which was a reasonable decision below the firn line.

unroped glacier hiking backpacking alaska

Another giant moulin hole, where the surface water plunges hundreds of feet into the inky depths of the glacier.  It was so tempting to want to see inside, like a fly perched on the edge of a Venus Fly Trap.

moulin in glacier in alaska

We crossed over ridge, after ridge, after ridge, of rock-covered moraine

hike glacier moraine in alaska

…Crampons off, crampons on, crampons off…

crampons off glacier walkhike backpack

…Crampons back on. Places like this felt oddly similar to canyoneering here in Utah.

alaska canyoneering crampons glacier crevasse

We found a moulin water refill after a long waterless section wandering through crevasses.

drink glacier water alaska

And finally onto dry land at the far edge of the glacier.

granite creek alaska tana glacier

Between rain showers, we got just a bit of perspective of what we’d crossed

tana glacier, granite creek, tana river, rain storm

The next day we followed the banks of Granite Creek.  Adam noted that if a “creek” is named on an AK map, it’s probably too big to cross without a Pack Raft.  Indeed.

granite creek, wrangell st elias, alaska

The “creek” is bigger than a many “rivers” in the lower 48.  If you look closely you can see we’re a ways above it here.

granite creek, alaska

A few moments of sun was all the excuse needed to explode packs in an effort to dry wet everything.

drying out after rain, alaska

Nature imitates Andy Goldsworthy

nature imitates andy goldsworthy art

I tended to not take the camera out of its dry box when it was raining, which was often. Here’s a rare picture of a long day of over-the-head alder shwacking.

alder bushwacking in alaska on a wet, rainy day

And another from a different long day of thrashing.

alaska thrash, bushwack, rain, backpacking

Above brush line again, thankfully.

alaska backpacking alpine lake tundra talus

I got hit in the knee by a gallon milkjug-size chunk of ice while croc’ing across. It’s safe to say I’d never been hit by an iceberg before.

iceberg alaska lake crossing hike backpack wilderness

Garry coming in for the 2nd resupply on day 17

garry green bush plane landing gravel bar alaska

Out of the resupply gates, we were off and walking again

glacier walking, hike backpack, walk in alaska

The last third of the hike had never been done. In fact, it sounds like our party might be the first to cross the Granite Range.

crevasse crossing alaska

Fresh snow on the peaks in the background while crossing another ten miles of glacier.

fresh snow, granite range, alaska

roped glacier travel alaska backpacking

It only looks roomy.

VE-25 north face tent

Pinned down by fog and rain, we practiced crevasse rescue systems to pass the time.

3:1 3 to 1 pulley rescue practice

And all of 33 degrees too.

deep river crossing alaska

Looking through the window across another large, possibly uncrossed, and unnamed glacier.

granite glacier, alaska

We walked across plenty of “no fall zone” catwalks with dark voids to either side

snowbridge crossing, crevasse, glacier, alaska

Meandering through another heavily crevassed section, though it’s hard to tell from the photo.

crevasse glacier hiking

If only we’d brought an innertube we could have had all kinds of first descents.

glacier water alaska moulin

Though this would probably be the exit of a tube ride.

glacial runoff outlet moulin flow

Chugach Bouldering Guide, pg 2245: These beautiful erratics are easily accessible with a short flight, several days glacier travel and a river crossing.   Bring your brushes.

wrangell st elias bouldering climbing alaska

Down Goat Creek

goat creek, granite range, backpack, hike, wrangell st elias

The leaves quickly began yellowing as the nights grew colder.

alaska fall yellow leaves, goat creek, wrangell st elias, AK

A little fire and a hand-rolled tobacco on the banks of the Goat

cigarette, tobacco, goat creek, backpacking, hike, alaska, wrangell st elias

Trundling opportunities abound. Helmets advisable.

loose river bank, trundle, river rock, goat creek, alaska, backpack, hike

Day 23 was misty and navigation was tricky until the clouds broke enough to allow a view 3500’ down into the Chitina River valley.

chitina river, backpacking, hike, alaska

The following morning the river was socked in, but the peaks on the north of the Chitina were visible.  Twaharpies Ridge in the center then University Peak on the right.  University Peak is 12,000 above the river. Mt Bona, behind it in the clouds has 14,000’ of rise.

twaharpies ridge, university peak, wrangell st elias, backpacking, hike, climb, alaska sunrise

Enjoying the sun before our last day of hiking, we were slow to make it out of camp.

chitina river backpacking

Fall in the alpine

fall alpine colors, red, yellow leaves, tundra, alaska

Rather than bother with 5th-class grass downclimbing, Adam pioneered the technique of reaching out to grab a tree top then fire-poling down.  Here Cisco perfects the technique.

spruce tree fire pole

Drying rack. Badum-ching!

moose antler drying rack

The mushrooms were going off. Anyone know what type these are?

strange, magic, mushroom, fungi, alaska, boreal forest

Amanitas in the ferns.

fly amanita mushroom, alaska, fern

Day 25, the final resupply.  Garry brought the raft but landed a mile and a half from the point he’d earlier picked out as the LZ,  In a hurry, he dumped our gear, and flew off even as we hustled across river braids to reach him. We were left with packs, boots, axes, crampons, ropes, helmets, garbage, Rubbermaid bins and all sorts of crap we didn’t want to have squeeze into a little 14 foot raft.

chitina rafting gear, supplies, river float

The overloaded boat was christened with box wine.

box wine boat christening ceremony

And onward, to the ocean.

river rafting chitina river alaska

We stopped for a night at an old trappers cabin, maintained with help from locals. It was our first time being inside a building in weeks.

chitina trappers cabin, alaska

On the river I wore more layers that I’ve ever had on at one time before in my life.  I felt like that kid in his snowsuit in Christmas Story.  Something like 6 layers on top, and 3 more under the yellow Helly pants.

cold weather boating, alaska, chitina river

Sand camping. Eating, sleeping, tooth-brushing – everything is a little crunchier.

chitina river sand bar camping

Rainy days on the river were borderline miserable.

rainy day chitina river boating

Dry is much nicer

chitina river smoking

At the confluence with the Copper River we pulled out and walked to the town of Chitina, where there is one gas pump, one restaurant, and one bar. It was a little culture-shocking anyway.

chitina river, alaska, restaurant, dinner
After dinner we adjourned to the bar and soon after heard a thump as man fell off his barstool.  He wasn’t just drunk.  He was having a heart attack and so we began performing CPR.  A short while later a local with EMT training and an AED defibrillator arrived.  The patient didn’t come back, though not due to lack of effort on our part. The ambulance dispatched from 70 miles away was a long time coming.  Celebration was cut short with the somber turn of events. “When I said we should close down the bar tonight, that’s not what I meant,” Joe remarked as we walked back to the raft that night.

CPR, chitina, alaska

The next day we wandered back to town and visited the EMT from the night before at his home.  He had a fantastic vegetable garden, racks of salmon curing inside, and a winter’s worth of food stacked on deep shelves.  After a few hours of Alaskan hospitality he sent us off with garbage sack stuffed with veggies.

alaska salmon dry curing, smoked salmon, chitina river, alaska

Wild berries drying above the wood stove.

wild berries drying on racks, subsistance living, alaska

After weeks of dried foods, this is awesome

alaska produce farming, subsistance, garden, carrots, turnips

Hanging out in the garden was enormously uplifting to the morbid mood that lingered on from the night before.

chitina alaska produce, big garden

We headed back to the river with an armful of salad a fresh outlook.

chitina mccarthy alaska hiking produce

And on we floated.

copper river, boat, floating, expedition

The bar owner in Chitina had given us each a beer after the ambulance pulled away the previous night. This picture is a reminder to me of the helplessness as the barkeep had watched us, and wanting to contribute to the situation in some way, kept trying to hand us Pepsis and beers while we compressed and jaw-thrusted away. He finally succeeded by sending us off with a handfull of Buds. Back on the river, we toasted the patient. To Al Greise!

budweiser toast, copper river, alaska, boat, float

Camping so close to water is frowned upon followers of Leave No Trace principles.  Though all four of us had spent years teaching the LNT guidelines, we often found sites like this to be the only places brush-free enough to set up a tent. On the other hand, I don’t think many others will camp in this exact spot.

copper river expedition, alaska, float, boat, campsite

Even with limited good camp sites, we still cooked away from the tents

kitchen site, copper river, alaska, float, boat, camping

Canned wild salmon + extra sharp cheddar + crackers = delicious

smoked salmon snack copper river alaska wild camping

This fish wheel, a salmon catching device, had gone rogue and floated 70 or 80 miles down from Chitina.

copper river fish wheel

Flying the Blue Peter nautical flag. Flown from a sailing ship, the flag means “this vessel is about to proceed sea” and is also a favorite emblem at Outward Bound, where the four of us teach mountaineering courses together.

copper river, blue peter, outward bound, nautical flag, expedition rafting

We got a care package in our final resupply, mailed by friends and co-workers at Outward Bound.  Thanks Emily.

copper river, kite, flying, expedition rafting, camping gravel bar

Devil’s Club is covered with needle-like thorns, not just on the stems but on the leaves too.  It is pretty though…

devil's club plant, alaska, thorn, hiking

Bear patrol.

copper river float, baird canyon

Most Alaskans will tell you that you’re nuts for traveling unarmed.  I never felt threatened by bears, humans or otherwise, but blowing up small iceburgs from the raft was a checkmark on the bucket list.

12 guage shotgun slug, copper river, alaska


Yerba maté on a cold afternoon.

yerba mate, alaska, copper river, expedition float

We camped just up from the Million Dollar Bridge

milliion dollar bridge campsite alaska

Childs Glacier was calving every few minutes. At our campsite not even a mile upstream, we listened to the rolling, thunderous sounds of ice breaking into the river all night

childs glacier, million dollar bridge, alaska, copper river, cordova

Brown bear waves from the bank

alaska brown bear

And suddenly we were at the Copper River Highway, where the river fans out and joins the ocean. Without much fanfare we rinsed, deflated, and rolled the raft, then started trying to hitch a ride into Cordova.  There wasn’t a lot of traffic, but every vehicle was a large truck (often equipped with a little moose-lifting crane) who’s driver was out on a hunt.  Every single moose hunter rolled down the window to ask if we were okay, then when we said we were, offered a ride when they made their way home.  A few hours later a moose-sized man decided he’d had enough for the day and we loaded up our sandy pile of gear and squeezed in his pickup.

cordova copper river float boat expedition


cordova, wharf, alaska

Down by the docks

cordova alaska boat dock wharf salmon gill net

In true dirtbag style, we poached camping at the wharf

cordova camping wharf

Before taking the fast ferry to Whittier the next morning.

whittier cordova fast ferry

We spent a few days in Seward couch surfing, eating expensive produce, and doing laundry.

seward alaska guitar mirror pond beer

And found enough work to pay for the drive back to Utah.

seward framing

It was fall in the Chugach when we pointed the truck south.

chugach fall leaves color

Seward to Girdwood to Glenallen to the Yukon to British Columbia and the Cassiar to Smithers to Jasper to the Icefields Parkway to Highway 93 through Montucky to Highway 15 to SLC

gas station, icefield parkway

The End.

blackfoot, Idaho, lake swimming