Referring to any backcountry trek in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as remote is in some ways redundant. Wrangell-St. Elias is one of the most remote in the National Park system. Most trekking routes here require fly-in access from the bush community of McCarthy and just getting to McCarthy can be an adventure in itself. But even by Wrangell-St. Elias standards this route is off the beaten track and travels through country so wild that it defines remote wilderness in Alaska. The journey begins on Mt. Wrangell plateau which offers stunning views of Mt. Drum, Mt. Wrangell and Mt. Blackburn.
We start with an easy day on the plateau and stick around for the night in the hopes of capturing some sunset photos as the last rays rake across the peaks. The next day our adventure begins in earnest as we make our way down the steep edge of the plateau and out across Long Glacier. Obviously there are no trails on the ice, but also no trails on the entire 8 day trek. In Alaska we have to find our own way.
Soak Up the Views from High Mountain Passes
Over the next 8 days our route takes us up and over three high passes, each offering fantastic views of the Wrangell range. None of these passes have names that appear on any map. Our first pass requires some hard work as we take a sloping traverse up to the top. The last bit requires attention to footing at times but the view looking back makes it worth the effort.
After a mostly pleasant hike down Fall Creek we come to one of our first real challenges – a steep descent down a brush choked slope. When we finally arrive at the banks of the Kluvesna River we’ll be more than ready for a well earned break. The route up the second pass seems never to end as we huff and puff our way tot he top. But end it does and what a view! From this lofty pass above Surprise Creek we can still see massive Mt. Wrangell behind us and mighty Blackburn in the other direction beckoning us onward. We’ll camp at this pass to enjoy the views in every direction.
And so the journey goes as we make our way through untouched wilderness for 8 days of never to be forgotten adventure. We conclude our trek at Nugget Creek and spend the night in the relative comfort of an old mining cabin before flying out the next day.
Challenges on this trip include river crossings, route finding and some serious bushwhacking. This is not a trek for the timid. But the reward for all the hard work is the opportunity to experience ruggedly beautiful country that few have ever seen. As of 2012, this route has only been completed by two groups. So this is no dialed-in adventure where the guide knows every twist and turn – this is a journey where you will share the sense of exploration.
The Adventure at a Glance
Difficulty: Very Strenuous/advanced
Duration: 9 days trekking, 11 days total Anchorage to Anchorage
Season: Mid July - Early September
Elevation Gain: +10,577’, -13,341’
Distance: 37-40 miles
Detailed Itinerary: Mt. Wrangell / Skyscraper Traverse
Drive Anchorage to McCarthy
We get an early start and begin our trek with a bush flight from McCarthy to the Mt. Wrangell plateau. The trek starts with plenty of adventure on the first day as we make our way down the steep edge of the plateau and out onto Long Glacier. This crossing is a fascinating look into the world of glaciers and the route across is not always obvious. We will have to do a bit of exploring and backtracking to wind our way through and around some amazing obstacles. We’ll be wearing crampons (provided by Trek Alaska) but there is no need to rope up. Once safely across we make our way up the valley a bit and pick out a nice campsite near the stream.
Our route today continues up the valley on a sloping traverse that leads us up... and up and up to our first of three passes on the trek. The last bit gets a bit steep so we’ll be huffing and puffing when we top out at the pass. Fantastic views looking back at Mt. Wrangell and our route for the last two days. The pass makes a good spot for lunch with a view. We drop down from our lofty perch into the Fall Creek drainage. The going is relatively easy as we make our way down this beautiful hanging valley. Towards the end of the valley we start looking for a place to make camp near Fall Creek.
After a bit of hiking we come to the lip of the hanging valley and a great view of the Kluvesna River 1300 feet below. But getting there will take a bit of work. It’s a steep descent down a brushy slope but with careful route finding we make our way down to the flats and out to the shores of the Kluvesna. Another excellent spot for lunch and a bit of a siesta after our hard work on the way down. The rest of the day involves some wonderful hiking as we make our way along the Kluvesna ending up right at the source of the river - the toe of the Kluvesna Glacier. There are some excellent places to camp on the gravel bars and the surrounding scenery is just amazing with dramatic mountains rising all around us. Weather permitting, we’ll get some great photos here.
Since we’re down in a valley there’s only one way to go from here - up. First we make our way over the moraine at the toe of the glacier before turning south and beginning our hike up to Surprise Pass. The initial bit, what I call the Tundra Ladder, is a bit on the steep side. We’ll get some great photos looking back at the Kluvesna Glacier as we hit the top of the “ladder”. From here the slope eases back to less severe angle. The route up this second pass seems never to end as we huff and puff our way to he top. But end it does and what a view! From this lofty pass above Surprise Creek we can still see massive Mt. Wrangell behind us and mighty Blackburn in the other direction beckoning us onward. We’ll camp at this pass to enjoy the views in every direction. This is one of my favorite spots to camp in the whole park! We may spend an extra day here or at some other point in the trek. We have an extra day figured in to allow for weather and other contingencies.
Our hike from Surprise Pass to the Kotsina River is full of challenges. This section includes some of the most regain terrain on the trek. The route does some up and down and winding around to avoid some impassable sections of Surprise Creek. But at last we break out onto the flats and enjoy the easy travel as we make our way to the Kotsina. It’s another river-side camp for us on this day. The lower elevation means trees which makes it possible to enjoy a camp fire this evening! We build it in a sand pit that we fill in the next morning leaving no trace of our fire.
The first thing we do today is get our feet wet. Our crossing of the Kotsina will be our most challenging of the trek. We will cross as a team using the methods we have been perfecting on easier crossings. Not only is it a challenging crossing of a stiff current, it’s a cold one. But don’t worry, we’ll be warming back up quickly as we head up the slope to the south and make our way up an extended bushwhack. All bad things must come to an end and so does the brush. We drop down to Roaring Creek which no has a more gentle shoreline allowing us to make our way up the valley. This is a hard day but a shorter one. We stop in the early afternoon and make camp near a crystal clear stream.
Today we make our way up to our final and most challenging pass. Actually it’s being a bit generous to call it a pass. It’s more of a low spot on a steep ridge. The approach is straight forward but the last 2-3 hundred feet of gain is some of the steepest of the trip. The payoff is spectacular. We suck in the views of peaks near and far. The descent down the other side is thankfully a bit less steep though some careful route finding is needed as we drop down almost 2500 feet to Nugget Creek. The terrain eases off the lower we get until eventually we encounter something we’ve not seen before - a trail. It’s not much of one at first but it gets more pronounced as we go. The trail is a remnant of the mining days when the area was prospected and mined for copper. We pass through some interesting ruins of cabins from the mining camp that provide a good place for lunch and photos. The last stretch from the ruins to our final destination are savored as we walk down what is now a broad ATV trail that winds through aspen and birch down to the public use cabin near the banks of Nugget Creek. After a week on the move, we enjoy the comfort of the cabin.
Our last day in the wilderness is spent doing a little exploring of the area around the cabin, or just resting our feet. In the afternoon we are picked up at the nearby airstrip for the return flight to McCarthy where we spend a final night.