Day Twelve ... Down the River to Valdez
Today was our day of 'holiday' at the end of the adventure, we had a 14 mile stretch of the Matanuska river to float down this morning on rafts before a minibus transfer to Valdez where we stay overnight before catching the morning ferry back to Anchorage and then our flight home.
The Matanuska is a seasonal river; it's at its most tumultuous in the early summer when the massive mountain snow fields that built up in the winter are melting rapidly. By September most of the snow has gone and the river reverts to just wild. Today's water levels were around two feet lower than maximum meaning more exposed rocks and a more technical ride to avoid capsizing by hitting them.
There were four separate sets of rapids on our stretch of the river today which runs through a canyon 500 feet deep, cut into the soft mud that was once the sedimentary bed of a lake fifty miles wide that was trapped behind a glacier when the last ice age ended. The cliffs of mud are sometimes overgrown and sometimes bare, depending on how recently the rains and river flow have eroded the banks and caused one of the massive mudslides that sometimes wash thousands of tons of the cliff into the river, reshaping it's course.
In the spring this river is full of salmon heading for the gravel bars to spawn and the banks are full of bears trying to catch them. Today there were no salmon and sadly no bears either but there were plenty of bald eagles and kingfishers perched in the riverside branches waiting for the trout and many other smaller species that live there all year.
We were in three inflatable rafts, each with an experienced pilot and we were clad in wellies, waterproof trousers and jackets and life jackets. After a safety briefing about what to do if we fell out or if the boat turned over we climbed in and pushed off into the fast running stream and were quickly heading for the first stretch of white water.
There was a degree of luck in where you were sitting and it seemed that whichever boat you were in front right was the place to be for a freezing shower and boat three, where Rob occupied the spot, in particular enjoyed this phenomenon. In fact, so often did he experience the 'glacial facial' that the other occupants of the boat, James in particular, could hardly hold on they were laughing so much.
The fall is in full swing in Alaska and in our time here we have seen all the colours. While in the UK the leaves start to fall in late september and some hang on into early december, it's all over in three weeks up here. When we arrived it was mostly still green with a little yellowing, today as we passed miles of woodland while rolling over the rapids the predominant colour was orange highlighted with reds and yellows. By next week the branches will be empty as winter arrives suddenly.
It's more the ever-present anticipation of disaster than the occasional soaking which makes white water rafting so exciting and as we went from whirlpool to whirlpool, rock to rock and fell over the natural weirs there was plenty of nervous laughter to go with the white knuckle grips we had on the ropes.
The drive down to Valdez from our finishing point on the river was spectacular for it's views, we went out for a beer and a burger once we arrived in town and got showered. Several of us wore our Leukaemia and Lymphoma tee shirts and we collected $130 in impromptu donations from generous locals we didn't know but who wanted to help.
By the time you read this we will probably be home. Our adventure is over, tomorrow and Sunday are travelling days.
We didn't stick to our original schedule because the typhoon winds and snow beat us back but we did still work very hard, we endured extreme conditions and many of the team had to overcome significant personal fears to complete the challenge. We did our very best in the hope that others will be inspired to do something worthwhile or just to contribute to our fund - so that together we can beat blood cancer.
Day Eleven ... Climbing the Matanuska Glacier
There are many glaciers in Alaska, most of them start their lives in hollowed out mountain tops where huge amounts of snow become compressed under the weight of further snow and become solid ice. As more ice is added each year (and over 30 feet of snow fell last winter) the weight of ice forces the whole glacier to slide slowly down the mountain. The Matanuska glacier is 25 miles long, over 200 feet thick and slides down the mountain at the rate of about six inches each day. At the bottom, as it melts slowly, large cracks form and massive pieces sheer off and fall, leaving huge jagged ice cliffs. To get onto the top of the glacier it's necessary to climb these cliffs. The method used to climb up an ice wall varies slightly depending on how steep it is and then changes again if there's an overhang. Our guides gave us instruction in the techniques we would need for all of these but first we needed some special equipment.
We began with ice boots which have a heavily insulated detachable inner and a rigid plastic outer. Over these boots go crampons which are like the studs on a football boot but spiked, three inches long and made of hardened steel, two of these spikes stick out forwards. Then we were given our ice axes which have the usual axe blade replaced by a hardened steel point like a dagger. Next we had a helmet to protect us from falling ice, falling axes and falling colleagues. The ice was formed under such pressure that it is as hard as steel, so where it's rough, for example on a new crack, it's like a cheese grater on your skin. We had specially thick rubber gloves with woollen inner gloves to protect our hands and to give us a good grip on the axes.
Finally we were strapped tightly into the safety harnesses that would hold us on the ropes and save our lives if we fell.
Fully kitted out we began - it's an easy theory: you swing an ice axe over your head with your right arm, the spike only needs to penetrate the ice by half an inch to hold your entire weight, next the second axe in your left hand goes in too. Then you lift your left leg and kick the forward spikes on your boot into the ice wall. Then, using the axes to pull yourself up you kick your right foot into the ice and there you are suspended off the ground by six small steel points sticking maybe an inch into the ice. Now, moving one limb at a time you simply 'walk' up the wall. Easy.
No, not easy, and were it not for the safety ropes with a guide on the other end we would all have been severely injured within the first few minutes as our fledgeling technique and muscle shortage had us slipping and falling regularly, only to find ourselves dangling on a safety rope in a rather undignified manner.
There were five climbs for us to do from a simple steep slope, through two low vertical walls, a higher vertical, a vertical with an overhang at the top and a tall cliff which sloped gently backwards, beyond the vertical all the way. As we worked our way through these different challenges we got a little better, working out that technique was everything and brute force didn't get us far at all. Some were better at it than others; nobody surpassed Ron for effort but it meant that nobody surpassed him for falls either and he was the only one on the day to find himself briefly dangling upside down having fallen from half way up the hardest climb. This is an activity where your power to weight ratio is particularly important so you can take a guess at who found it easiest and who most challenging. Dave will forever hold the record for most time stuck half over and half under the overhang, scrabbling around trying to get a grip on the slippery ice. Bets were placed on whether he'd make it - he did - eventually. It is alleged that Jeremy said a rude word with the effort of the last few feet of the final climb but he says he was misheard. Caroline was the star, one of only a few to climb everything and certainly the most graceful.
We'd been climbing all day, remarkably we'd discovered some muscles that hadn't already developed an ache from walking but they certainly had one now.
Tonight will be our last on the rough ground, last under canvass and last in damp clothes and sleeping bag. Tomorrow night we have showers and beds in a motel as we begin our long journey home from the wilderness. Bedtime now to dream of such luxury.
Day Ten ... The Big Climb
An early start and a rapid breakfast saw us packed up and on the move early because we had a huge day ahead, the main feature of which was a five mile hill - not any old hill - a very steep hill that leads us up more than 3,500ft to the pass. After that we have six miles down the next valley to the end of our seven day hike before tomorrow's glacier climb.
The hill started straight from our tent doors, there wasn't even a gentle introduction, it was steep from the very beginning. We walked in 45 minute spells managing less than two miles per hour and had a short break between each one to eat a snack, drink some water and remove another layer of clothes as we got warmer and warmer with the effort.
The hill zig'd and zag'd up the steep mountain face and seemed to get steeper after each turn and with that we slowed further and our strides shortened until we were barely putting one foot in front of the other. Giving up was not really an option, you could sit down and wait to freeze to death or be eaten by a bear but in reality the only way out of this bit of wilderness was up and over the pass.
Today's climb rivalled our failed attempt to reach the Snowbird glacier in the snow storm a week ago as a physical test; it took us just over four and a half hours to haul ourselves and our packs up to the head of the pass in gradually deteriorating weather. We could see the clouds coming from a long way off and they looked angry, we had hoped to be through the pass before they caught us but in fact they overhauled us with their first snow just before the top. We rapidly clambered into our waterproofs as much to protect ourselves from the biting wind that whistled through the narrow gap as to protect us from the snow.
At least the last half mile was a shallow climb to compensate for the weather but no-one stopped at the top for our customary 'topping out' ceremony; no congratulations, no photographs, we just went straight through and down the other side to escape the icy blast.
Ahead of us six miles of undulating country, mostly heathers, scrubby willow by the water's edge and hundreds of small alpine species we didn't really recognise and certainly couldn't name. It was the most picturesque setting but we weren't able fully to appreciate them Rob was walking like John Cleese because his knees hurt too much if he bent them, Kelly's legs were in agony but she gritted her teeth and found a way through, Paul didn't have any part of his body not hurting but he made it too. Everybody's feet hurt, some with bruising, some with blisters but most simply with the pounding they've taken in the last week and then the last straw of the hill today.
In the fading light of day eagle eyed Jo spotted a moose and its calf about 50m away in the trees, she didn't seem too bothered about us and allowed us to try and get some photos before she led the youngster away into the forest.
We had walked back close to civilisation so tonight's camp was an established site with a small open sided barn like structure and a fire pit so after collecting fallen wood from the surrounding forest we soon had a roaring fire to sit around and eat our dinner - what luxury.
Luxury over we returned to our cold damp tents to consider the prospect of vertical ice walls in the morning.
Day Nine ... Down the Valley
Today's route was just over ten miles, not too difficult you'd think but this is the wilderness and today we would be in the valley, below the tree line in lush vegetation all day and there are no paths.
We left camp along the sunny valley bottom where the lake overflows and then tumbles through countless brooks and pools before reconnecting into a more strongly flowing river a little further down. It took several of us a while to warm up and shake off the worst of yesterday's aches and stiffness but the sky was cloudless and the sun was working hard to rid the ground of last night's frost and it soon warmed us too.
Today we were in proper bear country and the frequent thickly wooded areas and head high patches of dense long grasses and bracken meant we couldn't see much ahead... so we had to make plenty of noise.
The easiest way to get about in the lush undergrowth is to follow the pathways made by the goats, moose and bears all of which tend to follow established tracks which are kept open by constant use. The benefit of using these tracks is that you don't have to cut through the impenetrable plant life that chokes up the wet valley bottoms in the long summer days. The downside is that you have to share them with some rather dangerous animals - and I don't mean the goats.
Early in the day we saw the first signs that we were sharing the path, this took the form of fresh bear droppings and the tell-tale clawed footprints in the soft mud, the prints showed that the bear was small (probably a black bear or a juvenile brown bear) and had been going the same way as us. Then we found some bigger prints, definitely a brown bear - so we had two bears recently on the path.
The presence of bears was exciting on the one hand and a bit frightening on the other, we really want to see a bear but not close up. So the group at the back sang as we walked and to be honest they were so tuneless that it was only just better than being torn apart by a bear.
Yesterday, from the high spot of our walk we had been able to look down into this valley and we had seen a small hidden lake which looked delightful from above and now we were looking for it to rest and fill our water bottles. It was much harder to navigate without the bird's eye view but after a few false leads we found it and it was every bit as lovely as it had looked. We treated our feet to an ice bath paddle in the very cold water but not till after we filled our drink bottles.
Then we were back on the trail, the going was very difficult and very slow, it was wet, muddy and the low branches were constantly in the way. The bear tracks were still with us so we carried on singing (well, wailing anyway).
The further we went the tougher the going but at least we were compensated by the amount of salmon berries, watermelon berries and blueberries ready for us to eat as we passed.
The river meandered back and forth across the bottom of the valley and we had to cross it several times by finding fallen trees of rocky places where we could keep our feet dry. All this was taking a lot of time and at six o'clock we realised that we were not going to make the place we planned to stop before dark so we began to look for an alternative.
The path was now less overgrown as we had passed into the 'arboreal' zone where the bigger trees can survive and we were under towering spruce, aspen, birch and cottonwood (larch to us Brits).
It was almost 10pm and getting dark when we came across a wide grassy track where the old Alaska railway company had long ago torn out a branch line used to bring timber out of the forest to make sleepers for the original railway line connecting Anchorage to the lower 49 states more than 100 years ago. They had left behind only a narrow iron bridge over the river, it had a plate on the side limiting it to 140 tons so we made James and Paul walk over separately.
We had been walking downhill all day over very difficult wet terrain and this was the ideal camp site so we flung up our tents, cooked up some food and ate it in the dark before falling exhausted into our sleeping bags.
Day Eight... Goats, eagles, fire and water.
Fortunately there are no telephone masts to spoil the view up here in the Chugach mountains, in fact there is no sign of human activity at all but that does mean you may well be reading this report (for Sunday) sometime later this week.
The day started brightly after a cold, cloudless night that had allowed the half moon to throw a mystical light on our camp and the snowy peaks that surround it like sentries. We had an all day hike planned today and we were away on time after an excellent breakfast but not before a water problem for Jim-bob (no not that kind of water problem!). As he went to fill up his water bottle from the stream it slipped from his hand and in the fast running water, despite his frantic efforts to retrieve it, was soon gone on it's way down to Anchorage and out to sea. Bad start!
Our walk took us in and out of sun and shade as we followed the valley floor for the first half mile; the sun was just creeping over the opposite ridge casting elongated shadows towards us and it was cold when they were on us and hot when they weren't. Soon we began to climb at an angle heading for a shoulder that looked a promising route up.
We still hadn't seen much wildlife on this trip beyond a ground squirrel and two ptarmigan in the snow earlier in the week and ravens yesterday, we were really hoping for more luck today. We didn't have to wait long as a pair of eagles, soaring on the early thermals swept overhead. After circling us a couple of times they decided we were of limited interest and swept up over the ridge into the next valley.
As we walked we were gaining height rapidly and the views got better at every turn; sometimes back into the spur valley we'd come from, sometimes into the main valley with it's woods, streams and grassland, sometimes into the next valley and the sea inlet beyond that and sometimes, at the highest points, over miles and miles of mountain tops in all directions.
The highest point of the day had a steep, craggy rock pinnacle above a flatter shoulder just below. The shoulder was our aim but most of the group, now experienced mountaineers of course, had to climb to the top and cling to the rock to avoid being blown off in the gale.
While sat on this particular peak we watched a distant mountain goat grazing quietly on the grasses and other small plants below.
Going to the toilet out here is straight forward enough if you just need a pee; behind any rock or just the other side of the hill top will do. However if you need the other kind the protocol is different and less straight forward. First find an appropriate location not likely to cause offence. Second, dig a hole six inches deep with the trowel provided. Third, without the use of a seat do what you normally do. Fourth set fire to the paper with the cigarette lighter provided and when it's burned away, fifth, return the dug out soil to the hole. Finally clean you hands with liquid sanitiser. If you're wondering why I'm explaining these details at this stage it's because it was as we started down from the afore-mentioned peak that Darryl needed to follow this protocol. We left him in a small hollow and carried on down the mountain, out of sight. After several minutes, by which time we were waiting quite a way off, Darryl appeared over the horizon. This would have been fine if there hadn't been a column of smoke rising from where he had just been. We waved frantically and shouted but our voices were carried off by the wind and Darryl simply waved back. Eventually our continued waving and pointing drew his attention to the fact that he had inadvertently set the dry tundra alight which, fanned by the wind, was now a small fire. After a dash back and some careful stamping out of the flames a major environmental disaster was averted.
We carried on, picking our way over and down the rolling foothills, sometimes the mass of small ground cover plants make it seem like you're walking on a mattress, at other times the steep bare rock strains every joint with every step.
Just before we got to the valley bottom we came across a scree slope, scree is small loose rocks, gravel and sand all mixed where a mountainside has been broken down by thousands of years of weathering and sometimes large sloping mountain faces are covered with it. Scree slopes are great fun to slide down but you have to know the technique and for those who wanted to learn the guides offered a lesson. About half the group opted for the scree and enjoyed sliding carefully down the slope. Jeremy, who's done this before came down last in just three big slides but lost his balance right at the bottom and landed in a heap, much to the amusement of the rest of the team.
Eventually, camped and cooking dinner in the evening sun, some with binoculars watched another small family of goats pick their way across the high pass, others played Frisbee with the lid of a bear proof barrel, some went for water and others rested in their tents. We had another visit from the eagle but we were no more interesting than this morning and he was soon off. We went to bed with hope that tomorrow's very long day would again be blessed with good weather.
Day Seven... First snow peak
By the time anyone else was up, Jeremy was already on his way down from his first climb of the day having scrambled up the 500ft ridge behind camp to watch the sunrise. The air was clear and the sky above us was free of clouds, below us the coastal strip was covered by a blanket of white cloud of which only the tops were visible to us camped 2,000ft above them. In the far distance, the other side of the bay, the Alaska mountain range was visible, blushing in the first rosy light of day as it towered over everything else.
Gus cooked us fantastic scrambled egg, Gouda cheese and Reindeer sausage wraps for breakfast and we sat and ate them while watching the light creep further down the valley sides as the sun crept over the pass at the head of the valley.
Our plan for the day was to hike to the head of the valley and climb over the pass and descend into the next valley where the map showed another lake beside which we hoped to find enough flat land to pitch camp. From where we started we could see a peak which looked like it might be climbed by following the ridge at the top of the pass over a small hog's back hill and then up the gently sloping snow covered east face. We would be better able to see if it was possible when we got to the top of the pass.
First we needed water so we followed our daily routine of walking to the nearby stream to fill our water bottles. The water here comes straight of the mountain side from the melting snow so apart from the flavouring or electrolytes which some people add it's ready to drink.
This was our fifth consecutive day of walking and we have built up between us quite a collection of blisters, aches and pains so it took us a while to warm up but soon enough we were at the top of the valley where the ground rises more steeply up to the pass. The sun was shining down on us today so we stopped at the bottom of the rise to remove a layer of clothing in anticipation of building up some heat on the climb.
Removing a layer was the right thing to do as the climb was steeper than it looked and we burn quite a few calories under these packs. Once at the top we could see that the peak we had our eye on was indeed accessible and so after a short break we dropped our packs, tied jackets around our waists and with just water and emergency chocolate, set off.
Although we've been in plenty of snow this week, for many in the group this climb represented an exciting 'first'. Their first snow capped peak.
The hog's back was easy, a gentle incline dusted with snow but with sound conditions underfoot, levelling onto a broad flat top before running into the face of the mountain which was also the start of the deeper snow.
The angle of climb was reasonably steady but quite steep and the snow depth quite inconsistent making it a tricky climb with plenty of chances for your footing to give way and to end up with your face in the snow. For first timers quite scary.
The whole team made it to the top after a snow scramble lasting about an hour. We'd named yesterday's summit Hannah's ridge after her heroic climb to the top, today it has to be Kelly's Peak in recognition of how she overcame real fear to reach this mountain top.
The descent was much more fun than the climb up, the snow holds your feet well if you dig your heels in and you can almost march down even a steep slope, so we were down to where we'd left our packs in no time.
From the pass we could see the valley spur and it's watershed lake which was where we were heading, it looked beautiful enough to be on the front cover of any holiday brochure and we wondered if the lake would be warm enough for a swim?
But first we had to find our way down the very steep slope. At first it was barren and rocky where the mountain winds scour the surface making life impossible even for the hardiest of the little alpines which cling to the rocks up here in the most unlikely places. Further down as the slope steepened and became more difficult, so the surface was more protected from the wind and the small plants reappeared to bind the loose rocks together and give us safe passage.
It was here we saw the first evidence that we were in bear country, in two places on the way down we saw holes in the ground where bears had tried to dig out ground squirrel burrows in search of a meal. using their giant claws to drag soil and rocks alike from the ground they had made quite a mess.
The ground around the camp was flat with more room than we needed so we could spread out, as far from Ron's snoring tent as possible - except for Nick who has to share it.
Jeremy was first in the lake for a much needed wash, it was very cold - about as cold as water gets without turning to ice - but very refreshing! He was quickly joined by James, Ian, Caroline, Mark, Melissa, Paul, Nick, Dave, Darryl and Ron. Some even tried swimming a few strokes but quickly thought better of it. For a while the valley rung with the noise of people gasping for the breath knocked out of them by the freezing water and the hoots of laughter at the looks on their faces as the water touched various different parts of their bodies.
The rest of the group decided they could wait another 48hrs for a wash in something warmer - they were probably right!
For dinner we had the unusual combination of spaghetti with chicken and peanut butter sauce. Not as bad as it sounds - you should try it.
It started to rain as we headed for bed, fingers crossed for tomorrow....
Please remember that we're doing this to raise money to help prevent people, often children, from dying from blood cancer. If you can afford to make even a small donation please do so at www.justgiving.com/wickesalaskachallenge
Day Six... Back trekking again.
We woke refreshed and instead of cold snow covered tents we had warm rooms, but we all knew it wouldn't last. We left the hotel at 8am and headed east out of town to a local beauty spot called Flat Top, but instead of taking the footpath that leads to the tourist area we went straight on up the Indian Ridge Valley, heading back to the wilderness.
We planned to camp by another mountain lake 3,400ft up the valley and it would take us all morning to get there. We started a bit above sea level so we had 2,000ft to gain.
The walk was amazing, the spectacular views changed and improved with every twist of the valley and with every bit of extra height. The ground under our feet was a kaleidoscopic carpet of small alpine plants and flowers, just beginning to mix their rich autumn hues with the already dazzling array of greens, many were heavy with small berries of every colour. We picked and ate blueberries and cloudberries as we walked.
By early afternoon we had reached the lake and for a pleasant change set up our tents in warm sunshine. Next we emptied our rucksacks of everything but a few essentials and set off to climb to the ridge of the mountain that divides our valley from the one to the north.
The ridge was extremely steep, covered in loose scree and unsafe to climb except in one place where a spur extends down forming the hollow where the lake has formed, by following the spur up towards the ridge we could get above the scree and onto the snow that covers the top 750ft on which it's far safer to walk.
Walking on a steep snow covered mountain side is far safer than it seems but it takes a lot of courage to do it for the first time at 5,000 ft onto a narrow ridge. The psychological demons stop most people from even trying it but today 14 of our party made it to the top (and all got back safely). We were well outside our collective comfort zone this afternoon, pushing our boundaries and extending our limits; it took an hour to cross the snowfield and an hour is a long time when you're frightened.
Back in camp at about 7pm we had dinner outside in relative comfort for the first time and since it was Mark's birthday today and it will be Tom's on Monday we gave them a joint party. We put candles on their biscuits, gave them each a small present and sang happy birthday to them very badly.
That's it, another day over. We can only hope the weather holds for another day!
Morale was not so good this morning: it had been snowing for 36 hours and didn't look like stopping soon, our tents were partly buried and there was 7 or 8 inches or lying snow in camp and although the sun had been up for several hours the temperature was still around minus ten. Few people had slept well, some not at all, we had needed to knock the snow off our tents every couple of hours to be sure they didn't collapse and the regular strong gusts of wind often woke those lucky enough to be asleep.
Such had been the weather that lots of us were putting on wet clothes as we emerged from damp sleeping bags and pushed our feet into cold wet boots.
It was clear that we'd need a plan B and that it would have to involve going down rather than up. Going up from there would have needed ropes, crampons and far more experienced mountaineers than us this morning. So after discussions with our guides we decided on a new course of action.
We would abandon our plan to get to the high country from this point, retrace our steps and then use road transport to get to a place from where we could pick up the trail again - having lost a day. As this plan involved a hotel tonight instead of tents and held the prospect of a hot shower, morale picked up instantly.
Coming back down proved, as it often does, much harder than going up had been, especially after so much snow. The gaps between the rocks were often filled in and covered over, making the treacherous rocky areas look like a perfect flat surface, with all the risks of trips or falls. Some of the smaller streams had frozen on top and been covered with snow disguising the very cold water still running below and waiting to fill the boots of anyone foolish enough to step there. The snow fall had also turned steep but safe grassy areas into skid-pans. All in all it was a descent to be respected and we took our time.
For some this was the most scary part of the trip so far, there we're some steep drops waiting below us for anyone not taking care and our concentration levels slowed us down as we took one careful step at a time.
There were several contenders for 'slip of the trip'; Kelly who managed a full head over heels was just beaten into second place by James who lost his footing, slid 10 feet in the mud into Jeremy, almost knocking him off the mountain and at the same time launching a walking pole like a harpoon at Nick our head guide.
Despite all the slips, trips and bottom sliding we eventually all got safely down, first coming out of the cloud at about 4,000ft then reaching the snow line around 3,500ft and the tree line just below that.
We stopped for a group photo just below the snow line where we had a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains above us in a dramatic black and white, contrasting with the multi-colour tundra below us in the valley stretching for miles down to the sea in the far distance.
Finally we arrived in the valley bottom where the vans were waiting. At this point we heard just how bad the weather had been down below, the high winds had brought down power lines leaving parts of Anchorage's suburbs without power for more than 24hrs.
Our hotel for the night was a small tower block with pleasant rooms, hot showers and, in the basement, a guest laundry with tumble driers which we're heavily used by several people including Ian. Into his drier he put his sleeping bag, his trousers, his gloves and (in the pocket of his trousers) a Snickers. Ian now has a chocolate scented sleeping bag with brown stripes and will be 'Bear bait' when we set of in the morning.
In the evening we discovered that Mark can play the piano and the locals in the bar joined in our sing-along and between them donated $105 to Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research!
Tomorrow we start walking again but for now a night in a proper bed.
Day Four... Attempt on Bluebird Glacier.
The overnight storm had reached its peak at about 1am, our little tents had been well shaken but all were still in place. We were however under a good covering of snow and those going out to visit the bathroom in the night were greeted by a spectacular black and white scene in which every rock looked like a bear.
Not that we needed to worry about bears, not with James snoring like an angry bear with toothache - no other bear would have been brave enough to enter his territory.
In the morning the wind was almost gone and for the early risers there were some beautiful sights as the sun rose, unseen by us, behind the mountains to our east and lit up the tops of those to the west in a bright salmon pink wash. It had all the hallmarks of a lovely day but ominously we also had "red sky in the morning".
The team gradually emerged in ones and twos from their tents to begin the day, the temperature was still comfortably below zero so the shout of "hot water!" Was well received as the pot of lake water came to the boil for tea and coffee to start the day.
Breakfast was a pasta, dried fruit and nut mix which when drizzled with a sachet of honey was perfect.
We set of still heavily laden and began the long climb up and out of our valley that would lead us to the 5,000ft pass and the Bluebird glacier on the other side which we could walk down to tonight's camp.
It began to snow very early in our walk, the already very difficult scramble over the ancient rock falls was much harder for the covering of slippery snow and our progress was slow. For several hours we trudged on higher and higher, always over difficult terrain and all the time the snow was falling steadily. The star of the day was Jim-bob who was up and down like a jack in the box helping to carry other peoples packs through the more difficult sections. Hannah was brilliant too, the smallest in stature and the last to join the group she could have been struggling at the back but what she lacks in size she makes up for in heart and determination.
After several hours we reached a small frozen lake set in a natural hollow in the mountainside,we hoped this would be the top but it was yet another false summit and beyond it yet another difficult rocky scramble. The snow was not letting up and we were faced with a very difficult decision; to go on of to turn back. Ahead lay a very challenging final climb and then a glacier where the lying snow would make spotting it's dangerous crevasses quite difficult, behind lay defeat and several hours of tricky decent, back to last night's camp.
Hard though it was there was only one safe option so we turned back.
The snow was already beginning to cover our tracks, several inches had fallen since the morning and it was a long, tough decent. Kelly perfected the 'sliding along on your bum' technique on several occasions and James slipped and bumped his knee but in the end, helped by some terrible singing from the back markers, we made it back, very cold and very wet.
Putting up tents in a blizzard is no fun, cooking and eating outdoors in the same conditions isn't fun either, but remarkably team morale was still holding together as we went to our tents.
Today we have earned every penny of your much appreciated sponsorship, this was a very, very tough day.
Day Three... Walking at last.
Tuesday morning started cold bright and clear, no sign of the storm promised by the local weatherman, but give it time.
Nobody needed their alarm clocks, most had been awake since the small hours, partly because our body clocks are still malfunctioning and partly because we were excited and apprehensive about picking up our packs in anger for the first time.
Breakfast was soon over and the two minibuses arrived with Nick, Hayley, Gus and Julia our guides and we were quickly on our way 'up-country'.
The two vehicles took us out of town and along the highway into the foothills of the mountains towards the small town of Talkeetna but we turned off before we got there and began to follow a smaller road which twisted it's way further into the hills. When we'd gone as far up the trail as the rough surface allowed, the buses stopped and then, after a quick sandwich, we began to walk.
Our packs were as heavy as they'll ever be, we were carrying a whole week's food and we were glad that today was only a gentle introduction with just four miles uphill to our first camp. Our walk began along the valley bottom, rising only slowly but the gradient was increasing all the time and before long we were scrambling up a steep rocky path that took us up around 300 feet through the scrub until we emerged from the tree line and came onto a large flat area of alpine tundra where we took a break.
By now the effect of the heavy packs was starting to show and three of our party had the tell-tale muddy patches on their trousers where minor slips had resulted with them ending up on their bottoms, unable to get back up with the weight of the pack, sat like turtles on their backs. But each time the team helped them up and we were soon moving again.
We'd been going about two hours before it started to rain, just drizzle at first but it soon got heavier and the wind was picking up all the while. Then the rain turned sleety and by the time we'd finished our four and a half hour trek up 2,000ft to camp one it was snowing steadily.
The site we'd chosen was beautiful; a huge natural cauldron the size of several football pitches formed by a horseshoe ridge of jagged mountain tops, dusted with snow and in the middle of it a lake of crystal clear water. On a warm summer's day this would have been idyllic but in a blizzard it's beauty was more of the raw kind.
We pitched our tents, slung low tarpaulins to cook under, lit the primus stoves and collected water from one of the many streams that fed the lake. In short order we were huddled under a tarpaulin, sitting on our bear-proof food drums and tucking into a very nice bowl of pasta.
The increasingly unpleasant weather drove us early to bed and as the last few words of this report were tapped out and sent we were all wondering how well our tents would survive tonight's forecast typhoon winds.
Day two... Anchorage.
Nobody slept really well last night, our first since flying through nine time zones but everyone had managed at least a few hours and most of us looked better at breakfast than we had at dinner. The exceptions to this were Jim-Bob (as James from Leicester likes to be called) and Justin, these two discovered that Alaskan beer is a bit too strong for their delicate sensibilities and didn't make breakfast (or lunch).
Most of the group set off for a brisk 7 mile walk along the coastal path after breakfast to clear the cobwebs and get their legs working again and it did the trick.
We arrived back in town for a quick lunch (burger and beer). In Alaska they have strict alcohol laws and no-one can buy booze without ID so Ron, at a sprightly 57, was refused beer as he didn't have his passport.
In the afternoon we had some time to re-check our clothes and equipment before setting off for our pre trek briefing. Nick our head guide handed out the additional things for us to carry in our packs. First it was our share of the dried food, packed into a 15 litre bear proof plastic drum weighing in at about 3kg. Next was our personal food bowl, stuffed with high energy snacks, about another kilo. Finally a tent between two; inner tent, fly sheet, poles and pegs - about another one and a half kilos. This brings our packs up to about 25kg each but in fact it's the volume of stuff to carry that makes it most difficult, our packs are bulging, we have excess items hanging on the outside and everyone has had to leave at least something behind. In Hannah's case her bag is bigger than she is!
After being given all these things the next part of the briefing was about how not to be eaten by a bear. Our guides carry extra strong pepper spray and as a last resort two of them carry .44 magnum hand guns but the briefing was all about never getting close to a bear in the first place. We're lucky up here, unlike the big National Parks like Yellowstone in the southern states, the bears in Alaska don't see many people and haven't learned to associate them with the food waste that they often leave behind.
We had to be at the very old and very tired Heathrow Terminal 1 by 3.30am, so after little or no sleep most of us arrived looking rather the same as the terminal. But we did all get there, Melissa setting the standard arriving 5 hours before take off and Jo being last there with only 3 hours to spare. Everyone had their passport, the immigration people seemed happy we were leaving the country and for once Lufthansa were on time so at precisely 6.25am we left England and headed northeast towards Germany.
Leaving on time was all Lufthansa got right on the whole flight, they served us 'breakfast' in the form of a small soggy muffin, the crew made us feel like they were doing us a favour letting us on their plane and somehow contrived to land in Frankfurt late.
Heading northeast might seem odd since Anchorage is West but at the risk of hate mail from the flat earth society it's important to point out that the earth is a ball and the shortest route to Alaska in the west is over the north pole and down over Canada.
There isn't anything nice to say about Frankfurt airport or our two uneventful hours there except that we got to the gate and boarded our next aeroplane. It was a Delta Airways flight and their website boasts of modern aircraft with wonderful facilities including in flight wi-fi, video on demand etc etc. Sadly this flight was a code share with Thomas Cooke who had chartered an Air Condor aircraft for the journey and the facilities on board would have had battery chickens complaining. Oh well at least it only lasted 9 1/2 hours!
Flying over Greenland and the arctic circle in daylight is a great privilege and we enjoyed stunning views of the mountains, the glaciers, the snow plains and the ocean straights cluttered with icebergs of every size.
Roughly 20 hours after most of us had left home we touched down in Alaska.
Wow! The town of Anchorage lies on the edge of a huge sea inlet and is surrounded on the land side by a mountain range which is snow capped even now in the late summer and rises so steeply that it seems to intimidate the town.
Our views when leaving the airport were stunning and for the first time the enormity of the task and the scale of this land ahead of us hit the team. The cold fresh air hit us too and each of us had our private feelings; mostly we were somewhere between really excited and really scared.
The time difference here is nine hours so although we'd been travelling for ever to get here there were still another 8 hours till bed time so after finding our hotel we wandered into town and had giant burgers for lunch (giant to us - normal to the locals).
We tried to stay awake in the afternoon with varied success before a very quiet and subdued dinner during which Kelly fell asleep with her head on the table. Then it was an early night. Tomorrow is rest and recovery before we start walking on Tuesday.