Tombstone Range, Yukon

Tombstone Range, Yukon

As we take our seats in the flight back to Frankfurt I start turning the pages of Caroline van Hemert’s book “The Sun Is a Compass”, which Heather, our kind host for the last night in Anchorage, recommended us so strongly that I bought it already at the airport. It talks about a younger couple making a crazy, seven month and 4,000 mile long off trail journey through the Canadian and Alaskan wilderness. As I turn the pages I realize with some sadness that Matthias and I will never come even close to such life changing experiences. Too late we had the chance to cultivate our passion for outdoor undertakings and we gained experience at too small a pace. With time the list of our commitments grew longer, while our bodies and resources of energy have already started their downhill journey. Gone are the times where I started alone an alpine tour with an ascension of 1,900 altitude meters culminating with an exposed II UIAA ridge, turned back shortly before the peak because of the weather, took a one day break in the valley, and then started everything again the next day, all that because reaching that peak seemed at that moment, for reasons I will not go into here, the most important thing in my life.

As it is, trekking through the Tombstone Range was until the last moment on the brink of failure. Matthias needed antibiotics due to a freshly acquired Lyme borreliosis, developed however several days later another infection which required a different antibiotic. He interrupted the therapy against Lyme and started taking a second antibiotic, which however was not efficient. We were already at the Check-In in Frankfurt when the doctor called us with the recommendation to take another one and to actually give up the entire trip all together (a similar letter from the hospital reached us after we were again back home). So once arrived in Anchorage, instead of making the preparations for an eight-day-trek through Tombstone we first needed to find and go to a doctor, who, after hearing the whole story prescribed with no further ado the correct antibiotic. However, we still had the fear, that it would have side effects that would render Matthias unable for an outdoor trip of this intensity. And not to forget: after treating this second infection, he was supposed to resume the therapy against the Lyme Borreliosis. We were worried already before starting the long trip to Yukon and the place where we slept the first two nights in Anchorage – a basement apartment, clean only in the places the eye first met and pretty squalid everywhere else (add to that the owners walking up and down the house the entire night and talking loud) – didn’t help lift our spirits.

Speed forward three days later. Matthias feels well. We managed to buy everything we were supposed to need for eight days (back at home we don’t survive more than two days without paying a visit to the supermarket, but our two-week-camping adventure with our son in June in the French Alps taught us a lot about planning calories and food rations) and “survived” the drive on the Taylor and the Top of the World Highway. It is Tuesday morning, August 27 and we pick up our bear containers in the Tombstone Interpretive Center, not more and not less than three of them (but then again: we plan to stay for eight days) and we listen to the park ranger instructing us about the weather (apparently there were -15 degrees Celsius last week up there) and the “infamous” Glissade Pass, which the day before our start was still covered in iced snow. By now each of us is concerned with his own fears: I am afraid of the long distance to Grizzly Lake (12km) and then of the extremely steep ascent (and descent) to (from) Glissade Pass in combination with my very heavy backpack. Matthias is afraid of bears. His backpack is extremely heavy. Some 30kg, I guess. But the weather is calm and it will stay like that for the next eight days. Only in the seventh and last night a heavy rain will pelt for hours against the tent.

To the trail itself: we laid back some 75km during these eight days. We spent two nights at the Grizzly Lake, two at Divide Lake and two at Talus Lake. Then we returned back to Grizzly Lake and spent there one more night before hiking-out on the eighth day. Since there was no telephone or internet in the area, we sent regularly an “all fine” message via a Garmin In Reach. There were no bear sightings. Yukon is home to some 6,000-7,000 grizzly bears and some 10,000 black bears. But Yukon is bigger than Germany! The chances of seeing one are not that fat! Other people who were on the trail approximately at the same time did see bears, we didn’t. We don’t complain. I also cannot say, this trail was a real wilderness experience (though it also cannot be compared to the Disney Park the Alps have become – albeit one full of dangers which lead regularly to deadly accidents). There were too many people for that. The tent places are limited (10-12), but you are allowed to place your tent only in designated places, which means everybody huddles together. Of course, if you are afraid of bears (like we were, Matthias even more than me), then this is an advantage. But if you seek solitude or at least quietness, like we actually also seek, then this is not the place for you. Even more: it was somehow of an unpleasant surprise to see that people can fly-in and fly-out with the helicopter at the Talus Lake, which makes that camp similar to a small airport! Two groups of photographers entered the park like that (and while there I heard that none other than Mark Adamus was going to keep there a workshop in the next days). One surely has more energy to make pictures at the sunrise, sunset, in the night and in between, when not having to hike all the way there with 20-30kg on one’s back, for me however, being a nature photographer means trying to know the nature at the most intimate level possible: finding you way through it, learning how it feels and smells in that place. You must deserve your picture by working hard for it, not by stepping outside of the helicopter and then hanging around the camp waiting for the right light (which by the way I missed several times, because I lacked the energy for supplementary hikes at sunset or before sunrise – that would be the downside of hiking in and out :-)).

First sunrise at Grizzly Lake (and the only one).
Descending on the north side of Glissade Pass. The slope has ca. 50 degrees. At this time indeed still partly covered with iced snow.
Divide Lake.
Our tent at Divide Lake. One can see the tent is perched on a small platform, which is meant to protect the tent and its contents from the ground squirrels, some small critters even more dangerous than the bears, because they are everywhere and devour everything, including the straps of your backpack. It goes without saying that you are not allowed to keep any foods or toiletries in the tent and eating in the tent is one of the worst ideas one might had in a bear and ground squirrel country.
Sunset at Divide Lake. At this time of the year, the day is still very long, but the sun’s trajectory is very low, meaning long shadows and oblique light for most of the day.
Day hike from Talus Lake to Tombstone Mountain.
at the base of the Tombstone Mountain. Climbers beware: the rock is fantastic, and as far as I know some one there are routes in Tombstone Range. However I think most of the walls we saw must be impossible to climb. They are too smooth, too hard, too vertical.
Arctic tundra. Insanly bright colours.
Hiking back to Grizzly Lake six days later, now ascending the north side of the Glissade Pass. Worst scree I have ever had under my feet. For each step meant one and a half steps back, as the feet sink into the scree and slip back to where they were seconds ago.
Hiking out, one last glance back to Grizzly Lake.
After we’re out a heav rain starts and the temperature drops dramatically.
What does one do after hiking out? Rushing somewhere to take a hot shower and check his e-mails? No! Instead driving for an hour or so on the Dempster Highway. Here one can see landscapes that not only they are not possible in Europe anymore, but they are impossible to imagine. It doesn’t matter on which peak you are in the Alps, you will always see a village or even a town down in the valley. Most of the times you will also see the hut from where you started. Here, your eyes reach hundreds of km, without seeing anything else then mountains, behind them other mountains and behind them still other mountains. Strangely enough, we experienced on the Dempster more solitude than on the trail.
next morning we woke up to this.

Closing words (in case someone made it so far): we observed several things during our trip, that we could not avoid compare with what we know from Europe (Germany): the people are more open, relaxed, eager to talk and helpful, all this in a natural and very personal sort of way, while in Germany we often have the feeling we have to apologize when asking too many questions or for wasting the time of a service provider for whose service we actually paid. We had quite many such encounters during the two weeks we spent there, and it seems this atmosphere influences also Germans: one pulled right when he saw me making photos, just to ask what was I doing and we finished by chatting for half an hour in the middle of the road (his wife didn’t join). On the highways there were working sites where we saw strong women operating huge machines (bulldozer, dredgers, excavators and the likes) – we have never seen women doing this in Germany. Talking about women: there were women hiking together in Tombstone – we have never ever seen women doing this in the Alps. Once or twice we saw women hiking/mountaineering alone (I was one of them before I met Matthias), but in pairs? Never!. (Update from Sept 24: I was pretty sure, that once I wrote that I have never seen women hiking together in the Alps I shall see soon exactly that. And here they were, two women we have seen on our last mountain tour in the Alps several days ago). The food does not taste much, it doesn’t matter where you buy it and even if it is labelled “organic” . In Anchorage we have seen many, too many homeless people sleeping on the streets, and too many people who were extremely fat, far beyond what we’ve seen in Germany which has its own obesity problem. It has been also a cultural schock to go to Wallmart and see, we could buy guns like one buys bread.

And one another important note: as we were driving back to Anchorage, somewhere between Chicken (where the hell is Chicken you will ask as European, and surely as every other American who does not live in Alaska) and Tok (but you surely heard of Tok, didn’t you?), so: while driving back through these remote lands on the Taylor Highway, I turned on the radio. My mouth fell open, as I heard classical music from radio station from Fairbanks for the next two hours: first the Fantasie for Violine and Orchestra by Max Bruch and then Scarlatti Piano Sonatas with Andreas Schiff, and as next Mozart’s concerto for two horns…. actually it fits together perfectly: off stream music for an off stream route.

As it is we did see a bear! Somewhere on the highway.

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