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Our Alaska: Mountain Wilderness Classic

Alaska Dispatch
Courtesy Luc Mehl

Alaska's a place of many extreme races. Sure, there are Ironman Triathlons and Tough Mudders elsewhere, but Alaska is on a whole different level when it comes to endurance sports. We have people climbing Mount McKinley, running the Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races -- even swimming the Bering Strait.

But there are even other, less-publicized events, where a dedicated group of hardcore adventurers take on some of Alaska's biggest challenges. One of them is the Iditarod Invitational, a 350-mile race from Anchorage to McGrath on the Iditarod trail with nothing but a bike or a runner's feet to carry racers there. And oh yeah, it's in the winter.

Another is the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a race that varies in terrain, distance, and beginning and end points. Every three years, the course changes, and this year, Alaska Pacific University science professor Luc Mehl and friend Josh Mumm took first place in the 130-mile course in a time of about 3 days, 22 hours. The trail wound from Thompson Pass -- near Valdez and the snowiest place in Alaska -- to the tiny community of McCarthy, where Southeast Alaska meets the Interior. No trails, just a beginning and an end. 

That meant trekking by foot, packraft and skis to get from point A to point B, over some of the toughest terrain in the state. 

Mehl and company are no strangers to the extreme, though. He'd previously tackled a trek to Aniakchak Crater and the Denali Traverse, neither of which are for the novice adventurer. Mehl even shrugged off the West Buttress route up Denali -- the most popular route up the mountain -- as sounding "like too much of a scene."

This year's Wilderness Classic, though not the longest in the race's history, may have been one of the toughest courses yet. Previous winner Roman Dial said as much, according to a post on Mehl's blog.

But maybe the best judge of what makes a difficult race is the number of people who finish it.

Out of the 15 competitors who started in this year's Classic, only seven finished -- three teams of two and Dial, traveling solo. Dial said in a blog post of his own that his time was slower because he got 14 hours of sleep over the course of nearly four and a half days. He described his amount of sleep as "considerable," and said he did it because "I like sleeping more than hallucinating."

Those entering the Classic aren't faint-hearted though, and the racers opted to keep the course for the next two years, despite the difficulty. 

On Mehl's blog, numerous participants recounted their adventures (or misadventures). Just reading about the journey is exhausting.

There was a lot of nervous energy at the start; no one knew the best route or if they had brought the right gear. Travel was good until the Bremner brush. Josh Mumm and I travelled 50 miles the first ‘day’ and only 10 the second. At one point we were paddling upstream in the Little Bremner to avoid the brush, walking a gravel bar, crossing to the other side, paddling up eddies when possible. We had expected animal trails but they were faint at best. Much of the forest was choked with fallen spruce. It was often fastest to climb onto the logs and log-walk up slope to other fallen trees. But the consequences of a slip were painful and our shins were bleeding. Rob Keher has some nice scars on his face from a fall.

Fortunately, Mehl has made a habit of documenting his adventures, so those among us with out as much willpower can tag along on the journey. He uploaded a video to Vimeo demonstrating the widely varied terrain that he and Mumm had to cross in order to be the first to arrive at the finish.

You can read much, much more about the Alaska Wilderness Classic and the particularly devoted outdoorsmen who compete in it, at Mehl's blog, ThingsToLucAt.

Our Alaska takes a look at the people, places, activities and wildlife that make Alaska great. There's the Alaska that many people know from reality television, and then there's Our Alaska. If you have a video that puts the spotlight on the positive, educational or unique aspects of Alaska and its people, send links or submissions to ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.