Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story about three seasoned outdoor enthusiasts who begin a quest to take on three Cook Inlet volcanoes over the course of three long weekends.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, although most of their friends thought they were nuts.
It was a Thursday afternoon after work in May 2006, and the onset of Memorial Day weekend was in the air. Buddies Tyler Johnson, 32, and Rory Stark, 37, had a free Friday and a good weather forecast in front of them, so they decided this would be a good time to climb and then ski down a volcano.
They targeted 10,016-foot Mount Iliamna across Cook Inlet, and sketched out a rough plan of attack: Drive down to Ninilchik, launch their 16-foot Achilles inflatable from the beach, motor nearly 50 miles across Cook Inlet and far up into Tuxedni Bay, work their way inland on foot until they reached snow, and then start climbing on skis with skins.
Simple enough, they thought, despite the fact that neither of them had been there before. It would be an adventure. And Johnson and Stark, both veterans of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, were accustomed to adventure and thinking on their feet.
“Me and Rory, we’re trying to find people in Anchorage (where both men live). We’re like, ‘Hey, we got good weather for three days. We’re gonna take the boat across,’” said Johnson, a 1995 graduate of Skyview High School. “Nobody wanted to take the boat. Everybody’s like, ‘You’re crazy, man. Nobody’s gonna go across in your 16-foot boat. Come on!’ So when we left town, it was just me and Rory.”
Of course, all of those doubters back in the big city didn’t know about 35-year-old Craig “Chunk” Barnard, a carpenter, handyman and extreme-skiing enthusiast living on the Kenai Peninsula.
“Rory was like, ‘I know this guy, Craig. He’s down in Cooper Landing. He lives in a tent. We’ll stop by and see if he’s there,” Johnson said.
“So we stop in Cooper Landing and we start driving down Craig’s road, and there he is, walking from the liquor store with a six-pack. We’re like, ‘Craig, hey, man, you gotta come.’ And he’s like, ‘All right, all right. Yeah, yeah. Hey, can I call my boss real quick?’
“So he calls his boss and leaves a message and tells him he’s not going to show up to work Friday and Saturday.”
According to Barnard, the “invitation” from Johnson and Stark was more of a command.
“We walked into my tent, and they told me what I need and what I don’t need,” said Barnard, 35. “And what I don’t need was ice axes or crampons or ropes. So they just kind of quickly shuffled some gear into a bag for me.”
That rapidly, the three of them were on the road, heading south.
“That’s how it started, completely off-the-cuff, no planning whatsoever,” Johnson said.
They brought no maps and no GPS. They brought no mountaineering gear — just backpacks, skiing gear, some food and alcohol, and their boat.
“We had four days of food,” Johnson said. “We had some Taco Bell. I think we had, like, one thing of Mountain House, maybe, but we just stopped at the fast food.”
They purchased a stack of cheeseburgers from McDonald’s and took advantage of the “10 burritos for ten dollars” deal at Taco Bell. “And that worked out really well. That was our food for the whole trip.”
They arrived in Ninilchik in the early morning.
“We barreled off across the inlet at 2 a.m., and it was pretty rough going across, and then we had to go up Tuxedni Bay,” Johnson said. “We didn’t quite know where we were going, you know. We just knew we had to get somewhere up into Tuxedni and see how far we could get.”
Barnard had been on Iliamna before, just the year before, and had a general sense of the best route to take. In 2005, he had been part of a three-week, fly-in trip onto Tuxedni Glacier, and from there he skied the mountain, eventually reaching the summit.
Based on Barnard’s experience, Johnson and Stark planned to run as far into Tuxedni Bay as possible to reach the glacier flats, but the upper reaches of the bay eventually became too shallow to continue. They beached their boat and dragged it above the high-tide mark, then hoisted their gear onto their backs and began a slow trudge up the heavily bear-traveled mud flats of Center Creek.
They planned to follow the Center Creek drainage into the high country, eventually crossing over a rocky ridge before dropping down onto the Tuxedni Glacier, which they would follow to the base of the actual mountain.
That Friday evening, about 18 hours after leaving Ninilchik, they stopped at about 5,000 feet and made their first camp. None of them had slept since Thursday morning, when they’d awoken to go to their respective jobs: Barnard as a handyman and carpenter, Stark as a pilot for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Johnson as a civil engineer.
The next morning, they were on the move again: up the glacier to the mountain’s southwest flank, and from there to the sulfur-smelling summit of the volcano.
“We had to pick our routes, and there were some crevasses, but the crevasses weren’t that bad. It was more the avalanche conditions we were a little concerned with,” Johnson said. “We picked our way up (the main mountain) in six hours, and then the ski down was like 30 minutes.”
They reached the summit early Saturday evening and soon returned to their Friday campsite for the night. On Sunday morning, they skied off the snow of upper Center Creek, then walked the mud flats back to their boat.
“We got down to our boat, and it didn’t get mauled,” Johnson said. “There’s just circles of bear tracks around our inflatable. We heard that the bears like to take swipes at those boats over there, so we thought for sure something was going to be wrong.
“So we launched it. Nice weather. It was like glass coming back.”
They arrived in Ninilchik in the middle of the Memorial Day weekend fishing flurry.
“We beached the boat on Ninilchik beach, and there’s probably a thousand motorhomes all lined up there, and these people were there, and they come walking over,” Johnson said. “They were just blown away. They’re like, ‘Where’d you guys come from?’ And we’re unloading our ski gear and stuff. They just couldn’t believe it.”
By Sunday evening, all three men were home — satisfied, and yet not satisfied.
Johnson said that when they had packed up in Ninilchik and were driving north, they were all thinking the same thing: “Man, that was absolutely, unbelievably the best trip I’ve been on in a long time. And so we’ve gotta do all three now.”
The Redoubt and Spurr volcanoes were waiting.