Brooks Range trek - Anaktuvuk Pass to the Haul Road - Cancelled Flight - last minute change-up

Outdoor_Fool

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I and 4 friends from the lesser 48 had booked 1-way flights to Anaktuvuk Pass in the Brooks Range so we could backpack from there to the Haul Road (that serves the oil fields on Alaska's north coast). After spending part of the morning, and an hour or so in the afternoon at the terminal, it was announced that our flight was cancelled due to poor weather and the next flight was on Monday. As this was Friday, I scrambled to come up with a new plan. I opted for a revision of a packraft trip I had planned for next summer. This trip was the packraft trip in reverse with no boats involved. As I had already left my vehicle at the endpoint of the original trip, we booked seats on a shuttle service to the Brooks Range. The shuttle driver let me off so I could move my vehicle a few miles north to our new endpoint, then allowed me back on to ride to our trip's starting point.

I usually try to keep photos to a relative minimum but it's hard to stop uploading Brooks Range porn. Hopefully you enjoy BR porn as much as I do.

Eventually we were at our starting point.

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We took off within minutes of being dropped off. Clouds and rain would dominate the weather, but that's the Brooks Range in the fall.
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Within a half-hour, I spotted a grizzly and her 2 cubs along the creek. We were able to watch her and the cubs for 20 minutes or so without being detected. We moved up to a point above her and eventually saw a 3rd cub.

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After more gazing, we eventually moved along toward camp 1, passing some recent grizzly diggings along the way.

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The next morning, we took off through a narrow drainage with limestone- and shale-covered slopes. Not too long into this, a band of Dall sheep ewes and lambs crossed the bottom and headed away from us.
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We reached the base of the pass we planned to use and after ascending that, we dropped into the next drainage and ascended another slope before taking a much-needed break. The relentless scenery made it all worthwhile.

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One more elevation drop, a small climb, and we would be traveling on flatter ground for a few hours. Unfortunately the flat ground was mostly marshy tussocks that slowed our progress greatly. We found some antlers along the way.

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I read long ago that traveling through the tussocks is like walking on hairy bowling balls. It still seems to be the best description. Ankle-sprainers, knee-twisters, trip-enders. We slogged through these trying to enjoy the scenery without losing too much focus on step placement. We passed a few grizzly scats, took several breaks and eventually reached the 1,200-foot drop to the valley floor that we would be traveling through for a few days.
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A downstream view.
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Scenery from camp 2. The clouds were in constant flux.
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The next morning we started our way upriver. The day consisted of avoiding the marshes as best as possible and multiple stream crossings. And the never-ending scenery. We also had brief periods of sunshine.
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Drying off and putting the boots back on.
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We continued upriver enjoying the scenery, clouds, and blue sky.
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Taking in some sun.
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Snowline has dropped the previous 2 nights. We were able to hike considerable distances on the dry channels of the braided river which is the easiest traveling of all here. We made camp on sandy deposits on the gravel bars.
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The sun and clouds provided us a great evening to relax.
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The next morning greeted us with sun. After a quick channel crossing, the travelling continued to improve. Surprisingly, there were quite a few flowers still in bloom.
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Another grizzly makes an appearance. It is impossible to tell anything from this picture but it looks like a youngish male.
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About 20 minutes after taking the picture of this member of the group, we watched a sow grizzly and her 3 cubs along the base of the low ridge behind his head. They had likely scented us and were trying to figure out where we were. She eventually led her cubs about 1,600 vertical feet up the ridge along the right edge of the photo.
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A monster pile of berry-filled griz scat. The berry production in this valley was huge. Blueberries, crowberries, cranberries, and bear berries in great abundance.
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We had just been watching another lone griz across the river when we hit a fork of the river that is running higher than expected. We plan to cross it a few miles upstream where it is braided. More antlers disappearing into the tundra and a cow moose. The fall colors have really been coming in as the trip progresses. We spooked a huge bull moose out of the tall willows earlier today but I failed to take a picture.
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Another stream crossing, heading up a new valley, and more fall colors.
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We had made good progress today and a couple of us were ready for a break so we stopped at a good campsite. A big chunk of limestone, camp, and a previous bear scat along a caribou trail.
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That evening, the winds picked up as did the rain. I was used to falling asleep with the rain hitting my tent but was awakened when the winds pushed the side of my tent into my face. We discovered that one of the group was having trouble with water coming into his tent and eventually pooling on the floor. We thought we had that sorted out so I fell back asleep pretty quickly. The morning greeted us with a new surprise and an exhausted group member who had been awake all night.
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As soon as the sun broke out, the snow started melting rapidly. We quickly warmed up the exhausted and cold member and hit the (caribou) trail.
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With good reason, the exhausted member was not enthused about continuing up the drainage. We convinced him to give it a try, which he did for about 45 minutes. He finally admitted he was done. As in DONE. Completely exhausted. We discussed a few options, considered the upcoming terrain, but his legs and his body and his spirit were done so after some discussion and his agreement, I hit the rescue button on the InReach. About 4 hours later the MedEvac helicopter (a Sikorsky 92 for those interested) came in and took him and another group member (his good friend and neighbor) to Deadhorse, the development that supports the oil fields. As we awaited the eggbeater, the weather turned gorgeous and warmed considerably.

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After their departure, the 3 of us continued up the valley.
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It was best that he had quit when he did as the delay that morning leaving camp would require 2-3 long days to reach our original destination. The additional delay in waiting for the helicopter caused us to shorten the remainder of the trip a bit, so rather than continue up the long valley, we cut up a side valley that should have us out the next evening. We fought through some tall willows for a good while at the bottom of the side valley, then faced a relatively long and steep climb up a side valley to our next camp. After that it was a climb up a high pass and then either another high pass or a long walk down valley to the road.
As I lagged well behind this group member, I realized I had barely eaten all day. We eventually took a break to have dinner, then continued to camp.
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More great scenery from camp.
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The pass in the back is what we will climb in the morning.
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The morning opened with low clouds. We left camp heading up valley and hoping the clouds lifted, which they did not. Regular topos were nearly useless as the scale was 1:25,000 but still lacked sufficient detail for route finding. We were able to track our progress using topos downloaded on Avenza. After an arduous climb we reached the pass and started down. The slope up to the pass was comprised of broken limestone and small pieces of shale. Luckily a few sheep trails allowed us better progress. The rest of the day was relatively easy.
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Almost there.
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The descent, although steep, was pretty easy. The ground was soft with shale scree and the knees held up. The scenery opened up as we descended which provided more great views.141.jpg143.jpg
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We continued down valley to the main creek, decided not to hike the pass looming ahead of us, passed an arctic poppy, then followed the main creek out the rest of the day.
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Eight more miles of scenery.
Upstream
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Easy walking.
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Twenty minutes to catch a ride back to the vehicle. Forty minutes back to pick up mi amigos, then a long drive back to Fairbanks in the rain.
 

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Fantastic! I'm looking at getting back to the Brooks Range for a similar trip next year. This is certainly yet another push in that direction.
 
Wow, amazing scenery and some of your best photos ever! Bootcamp, hardcore and some fun 2 come to mind... :cool:
Never considered somebody getting helicoptered out in a situation like that. Of course the sun came out while waiting.
How much did that helicopter ride set them back? Seem to remember the forum discussing $25-40k.
 
Wow, amazing scenery and some of your best photos ever! Bootcamp, hardcore and some fun 2 come to mind... :cool:
Never considered somebody getting helicoptered out in a situation like that. Of course the sun came out while waiting.
How much did that helicopter ride set them back? Seem to remember the forum discussing $25-40k.
Good question but I haven't asked him what it cost. I feel like if he wants to tell me, he will. It's hard to speculate with any accuracy as there are so many factors up here that determine if someone is charged or not, and if so, how much. Many of our rescues aren't charged as it provides needed training for flight crews, etc. I suspect this one was different as the chopper is owned by the North Slope Borough, but whether that means hyper-expensive or free, I have no idea. We were fortunate that it was a bluebird day after the storm clouds parted.

The tussocks can eat a person alive so bootcamp does come to mind. A lot of Type 2 fun definitely. Within 3-4 days, I couldn't wait to put together the next trip up there.
 
Great report! Your shot 146 is wonderful. And the dark red ground cover is beautiful. Do you know what it is?

I have a feeling I would have been eating a lot of berries on this one.

Thanks for sharing.
 
Great report! Your shot 146 is wonderful. And the dark red ground cover is beautiful. Do you know what it is?

I have a feeling I would have been eating a lot of berries on this one.

Thanks for sharing.
Scat, Thanks for the pic compliment.

Arctostaphylos rubra. One common name is arctic bearberry. Not so great to eat for humans, but grizzlies & some birds love it.

We ate plenty of blueberries, a few crowberries, very few cranberries. One or 2 bearberries to remind myself that I don't like them. Maybe boiled down or something they'd be good.
 
Beautiful country - looks cold - and wild. I was also wondering what the chopper ride cost. I wouldn't want to miss out on the last part of the trip, as it looks like the best part scenery-wise. Fantastic shots that give a real feel for the place.
 
Given all the gloves, it looks like a cold/wet trip. Also looks like an awesome trip, makes me want to get back to Alaska. The Brooks Range has been something I've wanted to see for a while.

thanks for the report
 
@Outdoor_Fool If you have a chance could you describe the InReach process? Was there much back and forth or given the circumstances, very straight forward?
 
Oh my - I loved your trip report and gorgeous photos. We haven't been to Alaska (yet) and it is thrilling to see the tundra, mountains, and all the different weather you experienced. The fall color is so beautiful, and those red leaves are stunning!
 
Which tent turned out to be the leaker?
 
A trip like this proves that with good route planning you don't necessarily have to go through the big expense of bush flights to have great scenery in the Brooks Range. Two trips there for me isn't enough. I need to go back. Excellent report.
 
@Outdoor_Fool If you have a chance could you describe the InReach process? Was there much back and forth or given the circumstances, very straight forward?

@wsp_scott
Great question! This is based on my best recollection as the contact between me and (I assume) the subscribed-to rescue organization (RO) is no longer on my InReach.

I hit the OH Shit button. Within a few minutes I received a message from the RO desk verifying that I need help. The next response asks what my emergency is. Then there are some basic questions concerning name, age, etc. There is a little back and forth and then the RO tells me that they are turning the conversation over to a local SAR person, which is the North Slope Borough in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow). This person contacts me, IDs himself, asks if we're OK and if there are any injuries. I let him know that there are no injuries, just an exhausted hiker. He also sends me his cell # and asks that I use that for our communication through the InReach. He asks about weather conditions and keeps us informed about the progress of the helicopter.

The entire process (initiation to pick-up) takes 3-4 hours. Pretty slick overall.
 
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