Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
(Editor’s Note: This is the first story is a series that explores the coolest trips we can think of, the kind you save up for and scheme to make a reality. We’ll release a new one at the beginning of each month. Stay tuned for stories from Japan, Greece, and more.)
The idea for the trip was simple: follow a snowflake’s journey from high atop a mountain peak all of the way to the ocean. The execution, however, was another story. Finding a mountain range with accessible peaks to ski, a river tame enough to float, and the ocean close enough to make it all feasible was no easy task. After scanning the globe, Alaska’s Brooks Range, above the Arctic Circle, seemed to be the best candidate. The central Brooks had snow-capped peaks and the Noatak River that would carry us 425 miles through untamed wilderness to the ocean. On paper it looked great, but there’s far more to an adventure than an idea, a place, and a process. We would be making first descents, floating a river that was thawing, and surviving for nearly a month in one of the most uninhabited places in the country.
We dubbed the skiing/rafting/bear-fighting mission “Operation Stupid,” because, at first glance it looks like a monumental, if not unrealistic, undertaking. Once we began to break it up, our trip as hitchhikers on earth’s circulatory system became much more feasible. After establishing base camp, we’d spend the first 15 days of the trip skiing, making three or four mini-expeditions into various zones at the headwaters. Then, we’d hit the river leaving time for another ski expedition, should we see something skiable. From there we’d focus on the 425 river-miles to the ocean. The six-mile open water crossing from the delta of the Noatak to the town of Kotzebue would serve as the exclamation point on our adventure.
The weeks before the trip, co-schemer Drew Stoecklein and I made various cold calls to anyone we thought might have a sliver of insight into conditions in the Brooks. Responses ranged from neutral, “hmm, I don’t know boys I doubt anybody has been flying up there since the fall,” from one bush pilot, to down right negative and threatening, “Are you boys f#&king stupid? That sounds like a suicide mission,” from a park ranger.
But we stayed the course, pouring over Google Earth images, web cams, and satellite photos that we hoped would give us a clear “go” or “no go” message. Finally, we called Bozo Cardozo, a guide and intrepid soul who was no stranger to the unknown. “You’re eventually going to get to a point in your adventures where there’s not a road map and you have to go for it, the important thing is to have the humility to pull the plug if, at some point, you realize you’re in over your head,” Bozo said, in a matter-or-fact way. Perhaps the only people that are qualified to judge the legitimacy of an adventure are the enigmas that have been there themselves, that have actively sought discomfort, roadless maps and geographic conundrums, for no other reason than satisfying their soul’s intrinsic search for adventure.
So that was it, we were going. Drew—a skier and photographer with the endearing ability to simultaneously make you laugh and piss you off—Todd Ligare, and Lars Chickering-Ayers rounded out the crew. Todd’s ambition far exceeded his camping and expedition skills, but personally I’d take ambition over talent on a trip like this. Lars is a guy that lets his actions speak for him—and I mean that in a very literal sense. The man is a doer, not a talker, another valuable asset.
Coldfoot, Alaska isn’t much to look at. A gas station, restaurant, and a landing strip are about all there is the small outpost halfway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay on the Dalton Highway. Meeting our pilot, Dirk, gave me a little more confidence. Contrary to the machismo that I’d anticipated in the more remote parts of The Last Frontier, Dirk was helpful and modest, assuring us that our timing was fine—late if anything.
The hour and a half flight into our base camp was surreal. In emotional limbo between the relief of finally committing to an adventure and the anxiety of what lay ahead, I decided to just relish in the euphoria of getting to experience what so few people get to. Dirk set us down gently, by bush pilot standards, on a small island in the middle of the Noatak and we quickly unloaded. Dirk took off and the four of us stood alone in the wilderness, 10 days from other humans or help, grinning.
After dealing with the logistical issues of getting our gear off the island and to a more suitable base camp, we planned our first mini-expedition. Tupik Creek, a tributary of the Noatak, offered some legitimate alpine faces and what seemed like a manageable approach. That’s when we found out just what traveling in the arctic was like. Imagine a field of muffins, varying in height from six inches to two feet, with standing water between the muffins. Now imagine walking across the muffins for miles. That’s what traversing thawed tundra is like.
Then came the river crossings. I’m not sure an adjective exists that can accurately capture just how cold the rivers were. Frigid, mind-numbing cold, nauseating cold—none of these seem to really do the glacial-fed waters justice. Once we got across, all we could do was throw down our packs and try not to dry heave.
Still, we pushed on with relatively few complaints—we knew what we had signed up for. By the time we reached our second camp, we were nearly a day behind schedule, but that was okay. Our camp was right on the snow line, there were enough ramps, chutes, and couloirs to keep us entertained for weeks and we had the mid-night sun making daylight literally endless.
Todd, despite his novice status as far as expedition style adventures go, was the first up and motivated the rest of the crew in the early morning hours. There’s no substitute for ambition, and Todd had no shortage of that. Temperatures had dropped below freezing and we climbed quickly to just below the summit. There, we got our first introduction to Brooks Range geology.
What appeared to be a mellow ridge on the map was actually a knife-edge, comprised largely of loose rock. Todd, Drew and I tried to explore various options to no avail. Lars, being a man of action, began down-climbing to our plan B. We questioned what he was doing. “I’m F%$cking down-climbing,” he said, about as loud as I’ve ever heard him speak. His tone summed up everybody’s frustration with being so close, but having to turn around short of our true goal.
I’ve had some poignant runs in my ski career, but nothing compared to those first turns on what we dubbed “Plan B.” We collectively celebrated getting to make turns where nobody had before. In the end, that was the only run we got to make on that mini-expedition. Weather came in and pinned us in our tent until we ran low on food. That lone run, however, gave us the confidence to push on toward the next, more ambitious objective.
After caching most of our ski gear at the base of our next objective, we restocked at base camp and headed back out. Before we knew it, we had our skis on and were at the base of a mountain, which looked much more intimidating than our last objective. The peak had a maze of chutes and icefalls, and looked menacing. After some discussion, we decided to change objectives to a more straightforward peak. Half way to the new objective a ferocious roar ripped through the canyon we were in. We turned toward the direction of the sound to see our original objective disintegrating in a hellish mix of snow, water, and rocks. One of the most destructive acts of nature we’d ever seen disfigured our original objective to the point that our lines were unrecognizable. Humbled, our plans shifted from getting good turns to getting home safely.
Back at base camp we were a little deterred—the slide had opened our eyes to how unforgiving these mountains could be. We decided our final objective would be downstream about ten miles. The tamer peak would offer some great skiing while limiting our exposure. More importantly, the river travel would give the group a chance to rest and hopefully give tempers, which were beginning to run short, a chance to mend.
The down time worked, and we headed off in generally good spirits toward our final objective. We made our advanced base camp at snow line, in the midst of what might vary well be the best trundling zone in the world. Although we couldn’t muster the energy to hike any further, we easily found enough energy to roll massive rocks for a solid hour before going to bed.
Our final ski day lacked the trepidation of the other ski days—there wasn’t a sense of urgency and we made a couple of laps on generally mellow slopes. It had the feeling of a fun spring day at a podunk resort rather than another day on a month long odyssey. As we headed back down to the rafts, the skiing behind us, I was overcome with a sense of relief. The trip wasn’t done by any means, but I felt the hardest, most dangerous part of the trip was behind us.
The grizzly bear came into the tent on our fifth night on the river. “Bear! Bear!” Drew yelled in the middle of the night. We’d been sleeping in separate tents for safety reasons (for instance: if a bear should come into camp) and yelling, “Bear!” was a common trick we’d play on the other tent, as apparently we hadn’t matured past Boy Scouts. The shouts became a little more serious and a little more enthusiastic, and finally we poked our heads out to see a gun-wielding Drew chasing off a bear. After we’d re-secured camp, we realized that the bear had come into the vestibule of our tent—literally inches from where we’d been sleeping—and snacked on some of our gear. Oddly, we were pretty un-phased by the whole incident and fell right back asleep. When close calls have become the norm, it’s easy to brush off such incidents.
Outside of the bear incident, the rafting went smoothly. Our biggest obstacle, it turned out, was ourselves. The group dynamic on such a long trip is complicated. Despite initial friendships, after three weeks of spending every moment together, relationships got strained—particularly between Drew and me. I, admittedly, have a tough time with down days. To me, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing quickly. Drew, on the other hand, sees every moment as the opportunity for a new adventure. To him, there’s always an animal to try to catch (I’ve had trips delayed because he’s had to get a rabies vaccine), a rock to trundle, or a cave to explore. Both approaches have their merits.
I saw the 300-some river miles that were still staring at us as an opportunity to set some sort of rafting endurance record, while Drew saw three weeks of adventure, isolated from computers, work, and any sort of authority figure. I pushed and Drew put on the brakes. Finally, on some riverbank north of the Arctic Circle, we had it out—verbally at least. It probably wasn’t the first heated argument that’s gone down between friends, dressed completely in GoreTex and mosquito nets in 60-degree weather, but in retrospect, it was admittedly ridiculous. Although it never came to blows, during the rest of the trip Drew and I were rarely alone together—we never shared a raft or a tent and it’s safe to say that we were both relieved to see the lights of Kotzebue.
The open ocean crossing between the Noatak delta and Kotzebue had loomed over us the entire trip. We were exhausted, and collectively we had very little open ocean experience. In line with the spirit of the trip, we made our best assessment, and went for it in the early hours of June 19th, when the winds and seas were the calmest. To our relief no gales came up, no currents swept us to Russia, and we made it without incident back to civilization.
There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “Come back alive, come back as friends, and come back successful—in that order.” These were our loose guidelines for the trip. While we might not have had a specific blueprint for each step, these parameters would at least give us a sense of humility. On paper—and to many people—the trip seemed crazy. It’s this illusion of craziness, the mystery of how to get from point A to point B, and the willingness to pick it apart, which is the essence of any adventure.