Great Outdoors

Setting a challenging goal: Gates of the Arctic

By Cindy Brown
For The Taos News
Posted 12/26/18

At the end of last year, Jamie Ash set a personal goal that would be hard to accomplish and take months of training: the Taos business owner set her sights on hiking in the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska.

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Great Outdoors

Setting a challenging goal: Gates of the Arctic

Posted

As the year closes, our thoughts turn to next year and our goals for 2019. Maybe you're dreaming about going on an adventure.

At the end of last year, Jamie Ash set a personal goal that would be hard to accomplish and take months of training: the Taos business owner set her sights on hiking in the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, some 8 million acres of spectacular terrain in the Brooks Mountains above the Arctic Circle.

The hiking season is very short there with the snow lingering into July and winter beginning after a brief fall season. Ash chose to go at the end of August when the fall colors of the tundra would be at their peak. The trip challenged her mentally and physically, and she was in pain at times during the 13-day odyssey that involved day hiking, backpacking, and pack rafting - carrying gear on a raft on the river.

Ash, 57, was part of a group of two women and three men, who, along with their guide covered more than 40 miles. Although she was challenged by the trek, ultimately she proved to herself that she was strong enough to succeed. The payoff was solitude and time spent in a trail-less wilderness.

"The land is spectacularly beautiful, teaming with life and water. The naked granite spires of the Arrigetch Peaks rise up through the fog, all around the tundra-covered landscape. It was the most amazing place I've ever been, by far," she says.

Training for the trip

Ash is a regular year-round hiker in the peaks near Taos. She went on her first backpacking trip about a year ago to Paria Canyon Wilderness on the border between Utah and Arizona. After first going with a friend, she loved it so much that she returned two weeks later to try it on her own.

After that trip, she thought, "Maybe I'm young enough and strong enough that I could go somewhere really hard."

She began to look around for her next adventure. "Gates of the Arctic in Alaska looked pretty amazing," she recalls. "It was a guided hike with Expeditions Alaska - just five hikers and one guide. I thought, if I go in August, maybe I'll have time to train."

She started slowly in January 2018 and then began to train in earnest in late March. She continued her day hiking, adding weight to her pack to simulate the weight of her trip pack, which she estimated to be about 32 pounds. By June, she was walking with the full weight.

Her training schedule included solo night backpacking in rainy wet places in anticipation of being in the Arctic where even in the fall, the daytime temperatures average in the mid-40s, and the night times were in the 30s. Going up the Columbine Trail east of Questa, she would aim for the ridge - an elevation gain of 4,000 feet, similar to what she knew she would encounter in Alaska.

Ash added strength training at Aurafitness, working with weights to strengthen the muscles she would use on the trip. As the trip neared, she was training three to four times a week and approaching 20 hours a week total in training. There were times when her business, Handmade Plaster Pigments, kept her too busy to train, but she persisted and regained any lost fitness when she could.

Working with Prisca Winslow, a Feldenkrais teacher, Ash came to understand how to move most effectively. "I met with Winslow every two to three weeks in her studio," she says. "She taught me how to carry myself upright. We had our last session on the trail, where I carried my full pack and she watched how I walked and moved. Winslow made suggestions that increased my ease of movement." The result of this extra step was that Ash didn't experience any back or shoulder pain on the trip even when carrying the heavy pack for hours although she did have some knee pain after her first day hiking in the mossy and swamp-like area called muskeg.

Understanding that most of the hiking on the coming trip would be off-trail, Ash looked for opportunities that would mirror that experience. "I would go up and walk around on talus (rocky) slopes near Gold Hill. Although the talus here is smaller and easier, I knew that there would be lots of boulder hiking on the Alaska trip."

In fact, an extensive boulder field on the trip proved to be the one area Ash couldn't navigate during her first attempt. So, she is planning another trip to conquer the boulder fields.

Going back

Ash hopes to visit the Gates of the Artic again in August 2019. Not being able to traverse the boulder fields cost her the chance to see some crystal-clear blue lakes at higher elevations.

Ash is planning to train with weight on her ankles to mimic the added pounds that having wet boots adds. With all the river crossings and wet terrain, she found that her boots were almost always wet.

A few more calories a day will also be coming on this trip. Ash keeps an extensive spreadsheet listing all her food and gear, along with the weight of each item. She makes up her own meals with dried ingredients that can be reconstituted, including oatmeal with nuts and fruit, beans with rice tortilla soup with ground beef, and chicken and mushroom risotto.

And she is seeking ever more difficult boulder fields to hike.

Wildlife, twilight and color

Among the memorable moments of the trip was seeing a mother grizzly bear with her two cubs foraging for berries on the hillside above base camp. Ash also saw beavers and a moose with one antler on the river.

Although this part of the Arctic is considered a desert, receiving only 16 inches of rain a year, a layer of permafrost holds the moisture, and the many rivers create an environment that is always alive with water. The streams are so pure that the hikers didn't have to carry water or even filters. As the guide Rhane Pfeiffer said, "We can hike with a teacup."

When asked about her favorite part of the trip, Ash says, "I loved the plant communities of the tundra. The colors- oranges, purples, neon greens, bright reds, scarlets, soft yellows, ice greens, mauve-rusts, deep golds--it was an explosion of visual stimulation, an outlier of natural beauty. I honestly didn't think a place that beautiful was possible. And that's just the colors. Then there was the huge variety of plants and the fact that they so thickly carpeted the ground. Before I went, my idea of tundra was barren desert, but this place was magical, exquisite and so alive."

Climate change and a sense of urgency

The Arctic is changing. The average temperatures in the Arctic have risen almost twice as fast as in the rest of the world, causing the melting of glaciers, sea ice and permafrost. (greenfacts.org)

For Ash, the return trip is a chance to see the Arctic as it exists now and while she can still do it. "I don't know how many more years I can do this," she says. "For me, it is now or never."

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