March 2005

Across the Talkeetna Mountains
by Jerry S. Dixon

The Talkeetna Mountains in Alaska are home to many large mammals including Dall sheep, caribou, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, wolverines, moose and mountain goats. Some of the smaller mammals that inhabit the area are coyote, lynx, squirrels, and snowshoe hares. Most of the Talkeetna Mountains are state-owned land, and much of it is managed by the Department of Natural Resources. (alaskarails.org)

Talkeetna, an Indian word meaning "where the rivers join," lies 120 miles north of Anchorage.

Jerry's hiking companion, 77-year-old Dick Griffith

A view from from one of the many passes en route


Meeting friends along the way


Down to the valley, not so low


More high mountains ahead




Potential glacial "pitfalls"


Talkeetna River put-in


The Class V rapids further down the Talkeetna River ultimately ended Dixon's adventure

 

 

 

The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, July 2004: It was to be a magnificent journey—150 miles across the Talkeetna Mountains, crossing rivers and mountains and traversing wild, untamed country.

Fellow adventurer and longtime friend Dick Griffith (age 77) and I started out from Eureka early on July 25, along with an eclectic group of wilderness adventurers—Everesters, Denali and Antarctic guides, Air Force pararescue personnel, and world-class mountaineers and kayakers.

There was no set course for the race and precious few trails. Racers took five completely different routes to the finish. Some had ice axes, others ski poles. Most of us carried three-pound inflatable backpack rafts. Two of the winning racers had a 16-foot frameless pontoon boat they used in a combination of boating and swimming to conquer the Class V Talkeetna River Gorge.

Dick and I hiked to Crooked Creek and the Little Nelchina, then to Horsepasture Pass and the Little Oshetna, over another pass to the Big Oshetna River. On this stretch near Eureka we ran into several mountain bikers and hikers. Two were women who asked me where we were headed. When I said "Talkeetna" and outlined the route we planned to take, their eyes lit up.

"What are the attributes of someone who does an Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic?" asked one.

"Passion," the second woman answered before I could speak. "And endurance," her friend responded.

Dick, who has run more classics in the last 22 years than anyone around, commented, "That’s right." He should know.

The third day Dick and I hiked up Nowhere Creek to a high pass. It was a difficult climb with the rocks moving underfoot. I thought of what had once happened to a friend, a Canadian ski guide, when on a similar slope the rocks slid and sliced his foot so badly that it dangled from the Achilles tendon. He was helicoptered out, his foot reattached, and, operating on two continents, he still leads skiers up one million vertical feet each year.

In soaking-wet tennis shoes, Dick and I hiked a mile across a glacier, jumping over surface streams that dropped into holes in the ice. Had we fallen we would have plummeted far and deep.

We hiked down the Chickaloon River and over yet another pass into the Talkeetna drainage and along a magnificent ridge where caribou were running. It was a stunning vista.

We at last arrived at the Talkeetna River put-in, and my heart moved up to my throat. This was the same river from which a number of my friends had been rescued. Just a few weeks earlier, the race organizer and his son were running the biggest rapid, lost gear, and had to call for a flight to bring in a paddle. The son described the ordeal as "harrowing."

Dick and I made a critical ferry across the river and portaged the biggest rapid. It was here on a magnificent ridge above the upper fork of the river that I found a parachute. This surprised me because it looked like a BLM jumper cargo chute. Seeing the chute caused me to reflect on why I thrive on wilderness ultramarathons in the same way I once did smoke jumping. In both endeavors you have the privilege of working in the company of the best wilderness experts in the world. And in both activities the commitment is the same: 100 percent.

Dick and I ran 50 miles of the Talkeetna River. It was magnificent, dramatic, and—if you didn't pay attention—life threatening. The fifth day we ran several class III rapids in our three-pound Alpacka backpack rafts. I got knocked over and swam a rapid just above the entrance to the Talkeetna Gorge with my survival gear under my drysuit. After a self rescue I got back into the raft and continued leading, as Dick had led earlier. When I came around the corner, I couldn't see the end of the rapid and all of my 36 years of boating came to play; instinct took over and I got out. "That's it, the entrance to the class V gorge," Dick said when he arrived.

On this the fifth day we had arrived and finished the two crux moves: crossing the Talkeetna Mountains and making our way down to the gorge. I was elated, like being at the summit of Denali, or a first descent of the South Tatonduk River, or finishing the traverse of the Rockies. It was a magic moment.

Until…

Within 10 minutes I was on the ground writhing in pain. Never in my life have I gone from such a high to such a low, and so quickly.

I had been negotiating the Class III rapids just above the gorge and was knocked over when my kayak paddle caught, stopping my hand higher than expected. I was swimming to shore, carrying my kayak paddle, when my water-soaked pack pitched forward and caused an anterior dislocation of my right shoulder. Suddenly, I was in excruciating pain.

Dick tried three times to reduce the dislocation by putting his foot in my armpit and pulling on my arm, causing me to almost pass out. I have suffered a posterior dislocation before, but this was an anterior injury. As a former EMT I knew what to try, but in this instance it just didn't work. Later I was told by doctor friends that with an anterior dislocation I should have hung my arm over a tree and, gripping a rock in my hand, rotated it in both directions.

No go. My voyage was over.

In 2003 there were 34 starters in the race, but only 17 finished. There were also six helicopter rescues. This year only three racers were rescued by helicopters; it just turned out that I was one of them.

Having traversed mountain ranges for 30 years and done wilderness races for 12, I had never before carried a satellite phone until now, but I didn't want to use it. However, when it was clear that I could either use it or lose it—that is, wait two days for Dick to get to Talkeetna for help, I chose to call. Then I discovered I had only one minute and 52 seconds of battery left instead of two hours. In making the call, I was cut off three times while being transferred from one person to another. I had to shut off the phone to get a few more seconds of battery then try again. After the fourth try the phone went dead.

But the information got through. The Alaska Mountain Rescue Group helicopter arrived about 16:00, almost five hours after I had been injured. I have broken almost every bone in my body pursuing my dreams, twice suffered herniated discs, been knocked unconscious four times, and dislocated both shoulders, but the pain I experienced here was the most intense since I shattered my leg skiing in the Wasatch Mountains (Feb. 1964) and spent seven hours waiting for help.

I was loaded in the ambulance in Talkeetna and was driven toward Wasilla. The medical personnel gave me oxygen and administered one dose of morphine, which didn't stop the pain. The medics gave me another dose but I was still in much pain, so they gave me Valium. Nothing changed. The EMT in charge called and got permission to double the dose, but I was still suffering. They finally gave me a different medication but the pain was unrelenting.

A LifeFlight helicopter was called from Anchorage where I was flown to Providence Medical, where the doctor asked if I was still in distress after having received three different pain medications. I said yes. He gave me Vercid. The next thing I remember was looking at the doctor and asking, "When will you reduce my dislocation?"

"It’s done," he replied.

I couldn't believe it. The drug had allowed me to remain conscious but I couldn't remember anything. Fortunately, x-rays showed no broken bones and I hadn't torn the rotator cuff.

An irony of this rescue is that within a couple of weeks, two of my four rescuers were admitted to the ICU unit of the same hospital. They were both treated and expected to recover completely.

For 17 years I had been the rescuer, now I was the one who had been rescued. Anyone who has ever assisted in a rescue should know what an incredible gift it is for the injured person on the receiving end.

In spite of the injury, I will think of the Talkeetna Traverse as a magnificent journey that I will remember as long as I live.

Presently I am training for my next ultramarathon, a 250-mile ski from the Alaska Range to the Yukon River.

Climb like you have never fallen. Ski like you have never been injured. Jump as though your parachute has always opened. Kayak like you have never had to swim a rapid. Go early, go light, go high, go far.

—Jerry S. Dixon BA’70 BA’73

Read about previous Dixon wilderness adventures in "Going to Extremes" in the Winter 2003 issue of Continuum.



U-News & Views © 2005 - An online publication
by the University of Utah Alumni Association
Questions? Concerns? Contact Linda Marion, editor (801-587-7837)
or Marcia Dibble, assistant editor (801-581-6996)