Pararescue team leads the way

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A wild deception
180-mile competitive trek through Interior is tougher than it looks

By CRAIG MEDRED
cmedred@adn.com

Published: August 12, 2007
Last Modified: August 12, 2007 at 04:20 AM

In the photographs of Bobby Schnell, the untracked route across 180 miles of wilderness between Chicken and Circle in the heart of the Alaska Interior looks deceptively inviting.


Atop the high ridges of the Mertie Mountains, what appears to be near ideal terrain for cross-country hiking stretches out for miles.

From the photographs, one would never know that of the 13 hardy souls who started north from Chicken in this year's Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, only six made it to Circle.

Six others managed to bail out for civilization on their own, some after running into heavy smoke from wildfires near halfway through the race. One -- the only Outsider to show up for this unique Alaska event -- eventually ended up taking out a satellite phone and calling for a rescue after days of bugs, bushwhacking and packraft paddling.

Rescuer or no-rescue, East Coaster Bill Maslow deserves credit for showing up, agreed racers who survived the Classic.

That group was led by Schnell and buddy Chris Robertson.

Schnell and Chris Robertson, a pair of combat-hardened U.S. Air Force para-rescue specialists -- guys trained to jump out of airplanes behind enemy lines, rescue downed pilots and figure out how to save them -- led the way to the finish line.

They took four days, 17 hours and 46 minutes. They got little sleep. They thought about quitting.

And then they pushed on.

DEATH? YOUR PROBLEM

More than four and a half days to go 180 miles wouldn't appear overwhelming, particularly considering the many miles that pass easily while packrafting the Charley River or Birch Creek.

But distance isn't what makes the Wilderness Classic one of the toughest races in the world. Neither is terrain, though the always shifting courses have over the years taken racers through some gnarly country.

What really sets the Classic apart from any other race is simply the nothingness -- the intimidating, frighteningly endless nothingness -- of raw Alaska wilderness.

As the race's waiver of liability notes in boldface type:

"No help will be available. No rescue can be anticipated . . . We are warning you. Any decision you make is your own and you are responsible for it. Your injuries or death are not our problem.''

"It's fairly brutal,'' said John Lapkass, a 50-year-old Anchorage physician who was the fifth finisher this year. It was his 15th Classic on his fifth different course.

To keep the race from becoming too predictable, the course is moved every three years.

Next summer will be the last on the Chicken-to-Central route.

When a group of the survivors from this year's race gathered at Schnell's Anchorage home a couple of weeks ago to drink beer, swap stories and look at slides, it was clear no one will be regretting the change too much.

SLEEPLESS JOURNEY

Slowed by tough hiking through tussocks, willow thickets and boggy black-spruce forest swarming with mosquitoes, racers on this course are invariably forced into a world of sleep-deprivation inhabited by odd and sometimes frightening hallucinations.

Going two and a half to three days with little sleep on the old courses like Eureka to Talkeetna (160 miles) or Nabesna to McCarthy (150 miles) is one thing.

Going four days or more with little sleep is much tougher.

Second-place finishers John Pekar and Kevin Linebarger from Anchorage dealt with their share, and yet even that might not have been the worst of their journey.

Unlike Schnell and Robertson -- who took the most direct route from Chicken to Circle -- Pekar and Linebarger followed the lead of Lapkass and others who tried to take advantage of moving water as much as possible.

From Chicken, they went east to the Yukon River, planning to let its steady flow move them north and west toward the finish. As with the others who've tried similar routes, the two found themselves in old wildfire burns filled with remains of small, charred spruce trees.

Luckily, they made it through without getting impaled, but faced new fire problems later when a fire blocked their planned route up off the Yukon at Woodchopper Creek. They pushed on to Thanksgiving Creek, only to be confronted with hellacious bushwhacking on the climb over into the Birch Creek drainage.

Meanwhile, other racers to the west of them were running head on into smoke from the same fire and deciding to abandon the course.

For Jason Geck, Brad Marden, Jeff Bannish, Michael Sullivan, Jim McDonough and Butch Allen, quitting the race for safety reasons was the wisest course of action.

Fortunately, all had good escape plans. Most involved inflating a packraft and taking a stream or river to the Yukon, which rushes past the villages of Eagle and Circle.

Such planning allowed everyone, except Maslow, to abandon without incident.

Winners -- anyone who finishes this race can be considered a winner -- and losers alike all considered it good fun in the end.

Schnell just wonders why more people don't attempt the race.

COMPETITION CROWDS

With all the self-professed "mountain runners'' rambling around the Alaska backcountry these days, he said, one might think the Classic would see a bigger turnout, as it did back in its heyday.

Begun on a course from Hope to Homer on the Kenai in 1982, the first race attracted only 11 competitors, but by the time the event moved off the Kenai, some 50 competitors were showing up.

Ironically, a bunch of them were members of the U.S. military who seldom made it beyond the end of the Resurrection Trail. Army boots took their toll by then, and they were forced to retire.

How things change.

Now, a couple of military guys are making it difficult for anyone to keep up. The victory by Schnell and Robertson was their second on this course, and the year before the course moved north, Schnell was among a group of four who won the last race on the Eureka-to-Talkeetna course.
 
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