By Clark Fair
At 11,070 feet, Mount Spurr stands about a thousand feet higher than Redoubt and Iliamna, and because reaching it would require traveling a greater distance inland from the coast, Craig Barnard, Rory Stark and Tyler Johnson changed their usual modus operandi.
They decided to charter a plane from Merrill Field in Anchorage to Tyonek, take mountain bikes to roll up the maze of logging roads leading out of town and up the Chak- achatna River drainage toward the volcano, and to give themselves at least five days for the round trip.
On a Friday morning in early June, they boarded a single-engine Cessna Skywagon piloted by Spernak Air, and after a short flight they were unpacking gear in Tyonek and preparing to maneuver about a 40-mile maze of backcountry roads that would lead them up along the Chakachatna to its confluence with Straight Creek.
“It was crazy,” said Barnard, the least experienced of the three riders. “These guys were flying. It was all I could do to keep up. And I was hot for every break. I was, ‘Oh, a break! Come on! This is supposed to be fun, guys.’”
Near the confluence, they stashed their bikes and began following the creek, crossing and re-crossing its chilly waters to avoid prying their way through thick tangles of alders. Once, Barnard, who said the water sometimes moved so fast he could feel himself starting to float, tumbled into the stream.
“I bit it. I was on all fours,” he said. “Your legs are numb all day long. And then just in time to start feeling your legs and stuff, you plunge into the river again.”
Eventually, after camping for a night on a gravel bar to avoid all the bears in the area, they reached the source of Straight Creek: a swath of ice they called a “dry glacier” because its dense main vein was topped by a thick carpet of rocky debris.
Johnson called the up-and-down, boulder-strewn traverse of the glacier “tedious.” Stark said it was “just like a moonscape.” But, after day of such travel and a night on the glacier, they exited onto a southeastern flank of the mountain, and it was here that their real troubles began.
The clouds moved in. The light flattened out. Warmer air began to deteriorate the snow.
At about 8,000 feet, according to Johnson, they “got up onto the ridge, and, man, it was super steep. But it was the only way we could see to connect our route to the summit. We’re like 3,000 feet from the summit, and the snow at that point was so soft where you could stick your ski pole all the way up to the handle. Like 4 feet of mush.”
Stark painted an even more severe picture: “There was a cornice on one side of this ridge and then a really steep drop with crevasses running down the other side. This snow, it was just ready to rip. I mean, real sort of unstable snow conditions.
“I pretty much figured if we tried to traverse that ridge, we’d break a slide on it and go into one of the crevasses. And if you stayed high enough to be away from that, then you’d be hanging over the cornice on the other side, which is a cliff. It was pretty untenable.”
They sent Barnard out ahead for a closer look, and even though he said he was “disappointed” to turn back, he knew it was the right call.
“It was such a good decision to turn around,” he said. “Their vibe was totally right.”
They descended to 6,000 feet and camped.
On Monday, they worked down the full length of the dry glacier and camped along Straight Creek. On Tuesday, they reached their bicycles and trundled back into Tyonek, where they called Spernak Air. By Tuesday night they were all at home.
Johnson said they were all disappointed by failing to summit, but they decided to take a practical perspective: “The (other two) trips were so perfect that it was kind of nice to throw in three-quarters of a mountain in there. Nobody’s that lucky.”
Johnson added that he had no regrets.
“They were the cheapest trips I’ve ever done, and the most rewarding,” he said.
In the months to come, the trio would have many more rewards but also more difficulties.
In October, Johnson, Stark and Stark’s brother, Will, flew into Katmandu in the Himalayas and climbed then skied down Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest peak.
Just before the end of the year, Stark and Johnson were skiing high on Silvertip Mountain on the Kenai Peninsula when Stark, for the second time in his life, was swept away by an avalanche.
“It was horrible,” he said. “I broke my femur in three places, and my tibia was just shattered. For about 6 inches it was just bone fragments. And there was a piece of bone coming through my leg, and I lost a lot of blood, so I had to have a transfusion.”
Stark was rescued by the 210th Rescue Squadron of the Air National Guard. In November, he had surgery to remove 20 screws and some metal plates from his leg. Sometime after this Christmas, he said, he hopes to start skiing again.
In March 2008, Johnson and a pair of other Anchorage racers finished second in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic. And in July, Johnson and Barnard won the summer version of the race. They plan to compete in the winter classic again this March.
“It was mainly for the adventure,” said Johnson, speaking chiefly of the volcano trips but also about the men’s shared love of the outdoor experience. “It’s not just the mountains and the skiing. That’s fun, but I think for all three of us it’s just the adventure of going out and doing something different, and rolling the dice. If it works it works. If it doesn’t it doesn’t.”