One-Man Towns, Eight Paved Highways, 129 Million Acres of Forest. Alaska? Naturally.

Mountaineering in the Brooks Range

May 21, 2001
Outside Magazine

At 68 degrees north latitude, the Brooks Range is the northernmost set of mountains in the world, an unbroken swath of wilderness that stretches from the Chukchi Sea to the border of Canada's Yukon Territory, yet it has only two narrow dirt roads. Few visitors venture to the range's beautiful but forbidding national parklands: Cape Krusenstern, Noatak, Kobuk Valley, Gates of the Arctic. Even the bears of the Brooks are uniquely uncongenial: Not plump and content like their salmon-stuffed lowland kin, they attack anything that can be made into a meal. Hikers included.
So why go to the considerable effort of trekking into the Brooks? Because in its Arrigetch Peaks region, the range harbors some of the finest mountaineering terrain in North America, a wonderland of glacier-carved granite, sheer vertical cliffs, and domes right out of Coleridge (there's even a route known as Xanadu). Getting to the Arrigetch, however, as to any of the remotest regions of Alaska, requires some ingenuity—and a floatplane, since the peaks are far from such modern mountaineering innovations as airstrips. Have your hired pilot drop you at Circle Lake. (Brooks Range Aviation will carry you from Bettles, the nearest town, for about $200 round-trip. Call 907-692-5444.)

After splashdown, hike two miles north and west to Arrigetch Creek, and then slog up the streamside trail till you hit timberline, about 12 miles in. This will take you two days but will get you to the base of the spires—sleek, 7,000-foot peaks rising, in the words of the Eskimos who named this place, like "fingers extended." No other people are within a hundred miles. Not even moose disturb the solitude. This could be Yosemite before the Californians, before the Spanish, probably before Homo erectus.
From the pathway, the climbing options are mind-boggling. Each valley seems to be topped by a nontechnical pass that leads to yet another valley ringed by still more charcoal-colored spires. Many of the routes up these walls have never been attempted. Even most of those that have been climbed haven't been thoroughly mapped. It's best to be accompanied by an experienced guide.
You'll also need a certain indomitability of spirit, since snow squalls can appear as late as July, and when they don't, mosquitoes rule. But if you remain undeterred, the rewards are astounding. Check out the long (about 12 pitches) West Ridge of Shot Tower, for example, or the North Buttress of the Maidens, or perhaps above all, the South Arete of Xanadu, the highest peak (7,190 feet) in the Arrigetch massif, a 2,000-foot alpine climb on moss-free granite. At the skinny summit, the whole of the shadowy, feral, imperturbable reaches of the Brooks roll away at your feet.
To do the Arrigetch justice, you should allow at least a week. As for outfitters, among the most experienced is Nova Adventures in Chikaloon (800-765-5753); its lead guide, Paul Turecki, takes climbers to the peaks for $300 per day. In addition, Sourdough Outfitters (907-692-5252) in Fairbanks runs backpacking trips to the range for about $1,350 per person, including airfare.

Filed To: Mountaineering, Alaska