Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Team treks to Skagway in 40 hours


Only about a dozen people are known to have traveled by foot between Haines and Skagway.

Six residents who made the mountaineering trip Jan. 31 likely set a record, making it from Lutak to Dyea in 40 hours by swimming across the Ferebee River and stopping for just four hours’ sleep.

The trip also is significant for apparently being the first made in winter, and the first including women, said longtime mountaineer Paul Swift. “They bided their time, planned it out, and did it right. I think it’s pretty good.”

Kevin Forster, wife Jessica Kayser Forster, Jenn Walsh, Chris Downer, Meredith Pochardt, and Jesse Reis made the trek along a route over three mountain ridges Forster had plotted based on views from flights over the terrain.

The distance from their start to finish is only about 12 miles as the crow flies, but it includes climbing a total elevation of over 12,000 feet.

Forster had pioneered the route on a 35-hour solo trek in May. He traveled primarily at night, as punchy snow made daytime travel nearly impossible.

On their recent trek, conditions were ideal. The weather was warm and clear, and a crust on the snow allowed them to walk atop the snowpack during the day. They deliberately traveled light,carrying only tarps for shelter, 50 meters of cord for rappels, crampons, ice axes and two days’ worth of food.

The most technical portions of the trip came shortly after setting out from the end of Lutak Road: a 50-degree climb that required crampons and ice axes followed by a rappel over a cornice.

Fifteen hours later, at dusk, they reached the Ferebee River about halfway between Ferebee Glacier and Taiyasanka Harbor.

One by one, they swam across the 30-foot wide section of river, sharing a dry suit they reeled back by rope to the next swimmer waiting to cross.

The biggest hitch on the trip came when the rope attached to the bagged dry suit came loose, setting it afloat in the river, with half the party yet to cross. After a successful ice-axe lasso, the swimming continued. The river crossing took two hours, followed by a short snooze.

The group swung north of Mount Harding to avoid difficulties on Halutu Ridge, crossed Burro Creek at a logjam, ascended the south aspect of Face Mountain and dropped down into Dyea with enough time to catch a ride into Skagway by 8:30 p.m. Saturday evening.

Kayser, who was making the trip to celebrate her birthday, said morale was high. “It was a super positive group. Everyone was fully into it.” Besides being apparently the fastest trek between the two towns, it may have been the smoothest.

Residents John Svenson and Dana Van Burgh made the trip twice in late summer in the 1980s, inspired by an account by author and adventurer Hjalmar Rutzebeck. To replicate Rutzebeck’s experience, they took no compass or maps on their first trip in 1982. The duo and two others took the same route during a miserable trip a few years later when it rained every day.

Svenson’s circuitous route, nearly twice as long as Forster’s, went three miles up the Ferebee Glacier, turning off toward Skagway at West Creek.

Svenson said thick brush at lower elevations during the summer forced his treks to generally stay atop ridges, compared to Forster’s more direct route. Those trips took eight days and 10 days, respectively, he said.

Svenson was surprised Forster’s group could make the trip so quickly. “That’s awesome. This is the next generation of mountaineering. They’re doing what we did and taking it to the next level. That’s cool.”

Mike Van Note and Eric Holle tried to pioneer a coastal route between the towns in May 1994. They made it to Dyea in three days, but described it as a brutal, cliffside folly. There was talk at the time of establishing a trail between the towns, but people in Skagway didn’t seem to be interested, Holle said.

Holle said Forster’s route was a “sane” one compared to the one taken by him and Van Note, which was forced up-mountain at times by rock faces.

Forster’s advice to anyone seeking to duplicate this trip: “Do not underestimate it. It’s more than just a walk to Skagway…You need someone on your team with mountaineering skills and mountaineering gear.”

But he added, “Under the right conditions, completing the route in less than 24 hours is entirely possible – and would be very cool indeed.”


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