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Ski-Mountaineering in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
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June 2011 :: United States :: Brooks

Written and Submitted by Kit DesLauriers—June 30, 2011 (Photo credit: Chris Figenshau)

In April 2010, I was part of a team of ski mountaineers who journeyed to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in far northeastern Alaska to climb and ski it’s high peaks and then experience skiing across the contested coastal plain to the Arctic Ocean.

From base camp near Okpilak Lake, we first climbed the northeast side of Mt. Michelson (8,855 ft; 2699 m) and made a ski descent from the summit via the east face and north-facing glacier back to camp. It may have been skied before but I don’t know for sure and it is highly unlikely to have been skied via our route since the standard route is the South Face to the East Ridge.

Mt. Isto is the highest mountain in the Brooks Range (9,050 ft) according to the USGS Topographic Map named Demarcation Point [1:250,000 made in 1955 (with limited revisions in 1983)].  Acknowledging that the mapping in Alaska is very lacking in detail—we are talking about small differences—it is still of note that USGS maps and our GPS indicated that Mt Isto is higher than Mt. Chamberlin (9,020 ft). Apparently, some people and publications consider it to be the highest peak in the Range. Our GPS actually gave the elevation of Mt. Isto to be 9,080 ft. On April 28th, 2010 we climbed and skied the SW Face of Mt. Isto from our advanced base camp on the Upper Okpilak River which was 13 miles south of our original base camp. Again, it is unknown if this mountain had been skied before.

The third and final climb/ski before we left the Upper Okpilak valley was of an unnamed peak that measured 8,760 ft. on the map yet on my GPS came in at 8,860 ft. Again, while not a large difference in elevation it is interesting that if this unnamed mountain actually is 8,860, then it would be higher than Mt. Michelson. We skied south from camp up the river drainage and then turned east up the glacier and climbed the West Face, also our ski descent route.  We joked that this route would rate 5.6 X as far as skiing goes since the summit ridge is extraordinarily narrow with rock pinnacles as obstacles plus immense exposure down the west and east aspects but the snow quality was surprisingly good—as it was on most all parts of our descents. There is never much snow in the Refuge and we were at the end of the season for winter traveling through the valleys but fortunately we were also just after the polar bears had left their dens for the pack ice.

Pulling our sleds loaded with gear, we kicked and glided due north across the coastal plain for 60 miles over the next 5 days before reaching our destination of Kaktovik on the Beaufort Sea. Team members included: Kit DesLauriers, Hilaree O’Neil, Giulia Manego, Kasha Rigby, John Griber, Chris Figenshau. 

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