Dream Season: 2 VI Alaska First Ascents in 2 Months

The February Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA) meeting featured a slideshow by Clint Helander, who shared photos, videos and stories on his banner 2022 Alaska Range season, which included the first ascent of Golgotha’s East Face and Full Moon Fever on 14,573’ Mount Hunter. Golgotha (8,940’), located in the distant Revelation Mountains, had been a 14 year dream. He and Andres Marin finally succeeded on their route “The Shaft of the Abyss” on their fifth attempt after repeated failures and nearly being killed by an avalanche in base camp 2016. Helander made the first ascent of the mountain in 2012 with Ben Trocki. 

 Helander and August Franzen completed their completely independent new route on Mount Hunter in May 2022, which included a rare traverse of the entire summit massif and all three summits. The team first attempted the route in 2021, when Helander took a 25-foot crevasse fall.

Ice Skating Alaska’s Swan Lake Canoe Trails

Alaska’s landscapes are so open and ever-changing that it’s possible to experience the same area in vastly different ways. With so much public land, it’s easy to get deep into wild places where your only companions will be moose, bear, birds and wolves. 

Nordic ice skating, also known as “wild ice skating” or backcountry ice skating, has rocketed in popularity in Alaska in the last few years. No longer do people have to rely on hockey skates or figure skates to glide upon smooth pond ice. These nordic blades, made by IsviddaLundhag and Zandstra are designed to be mounted to nordic skiing boots. Most people choose to mount them with skate ski bindings, but I recently made the switch to a nordic backcountry binding. The reason I did this was because it allowed me to be in a more comfortable (and warmer) boot with substantially better traction than the plastic-bottomed skate boots. 

Nordic skating is a fun around-town activity, but it becomes a true adventure when you start skating on big lakes, rivers, marshes and sloughs. There’s no shortage of “wild ice” to skate within an hour of Anchorage, but there was one trip that I had been dreaming of for years that had always eluded me due to conditions.

Many years ago after a cold 26-day trip on Denali, I was looking for a lowkey adventure that didn’t require a lot of uphill, but still got me out in nature. I discovered the Swan Lake Canoe Trails in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Dozens of lakes are linked together with intricate portage trails to make a variety of loops and adventures possible. I spent three days and two nights paddling across serene lakes, catching rainbow trout and swatting at mosquitoes. Years later when ice skating became a popular way to explore the backcountry, I instantly thought how cool it would be to link up the 18 lakes in a few hours.

The early part of winter 2019 was dry and the cold was often pushed out by the dreaded warm pineapple express. Any snow we had melted, but somehow the static bodies of water (lakes and marshes) froze up quite nicely starting in mid November. I began plotting a trip to the Swan Lake Canoe Trails (SLCT) in mid December as soon as the temperatures began to once again dip continuously below freezing. A quick recon from the west entrance to Martin Lake showed me everything I needed to know. Perfect ice and almost no snow on the portage trails. With solstace fast approaching, we would be able to move quickly in the shortest days of the year.

Lars Lindburg and I departed the west entrance of the SLCT at 10AM on December 20. We made rapid time to my recon point from a week earlier and pressed deeper into the wild lands of the Nature Preserve. The only footprints we would see were from wolves and moose. Soon we were cruising at over 10 miles-per-hour past Spruce, Otter, Rock and Loon Lakes. We took a brief side trip to Clam and Moosehorn lakes before continuing on to the mighty Swan Lake. For once, we were somewhat disappointed by how efficient and fast our trusty blades were. In only 12 minutes we had crossed the largest lake on the whole loop. 

The sun hung everlow on the horizon and cast that golden hue upon ice and foliage alike. Spruce beetles have almost completely killed entire forests of mid-size and larger spruce all over Southcentral Alaska and the KNWR has not been spared. Almost every tree we saw was dead or dying and that in turn limited the amount of birds we saw. 

Still, the entire area is wildly gorgeous. As we skated toward the final lake at 3PM, I only wished we were hours away from the car.

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