Monday, March 7, 2011


During the summer of 1990, after I graduated high school and before I headed off to college, my Dad put into motion a trip of grand proportion.  The goal was to experience one of last truly wild places in North America, a place that up to that point in time, was only read about in books or seen on a television documentary.  A place that didn't seem real or tangible.  The mission was simple:  Experience the magnificence of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The plan:  Two weeks of climbing in the Brooks Range and two weeks of rafting out to the Arctic Ocean.  Our group of six would do all of the logistical planning without the assistance of a guide service.  We did it all, right down to the food menus, travel, routes and equipment lists.  Looking back now, it is hard to believe that I spent a month in such a place.  

A few days ago my father, Paul Torrence, sent me a USB flash drive with the slides (not even sure if digital cameras existed) he took on this trip digitized for prosperity.  The photos revitalized all my slowly fading memories and brought to light the fact that this was a trip for the ages.  Below are a few of those shots.

Where this trip took us.  North of the Arctic Circle.

A land of struggle...caribou and wolf prints.  Hopefully it stays this way and we don't screw it up as the pressure for oil and gas extraction in the Refuge is higher than ever.  While on this trip I saw the caribou, but never got to see the wolf.

Paul Torrence, the man behind the mission.  The Brooks Range provides the back drop with its countless unclimbed peaks.

Once in Alaska the trip went like this:  Anchorage to Fairbanks to Fort Yukon to the Hulahula River Valley.  Roger Dowding, in red, of Yukon Air, was our bush pilot.  He flew us from Fort Yukon to some random gravel bar in the middle of the ribboned Hulahula River.  We would learn a few years later that Roger was killed in a crash while flying through the Brooks Range.  

So what do you do when the plane, your only contact to the outside world, flies away?  That's easy. Make camp and enjoy a place that only a handful of others have seen.

Backpacking in the Alaskan tundra.  No trails here.  Better know how to use a map.  The group (left to right):  Andy Kopek, Peggy Rosen, Al Rosen, Carl Solomon, Paul Torrence)

Yes, the backpacks were big.  We had to be ready for every situation.

The first climb:  Mount Michelson (8,855')  Looks like Everest don't it?

During the ascent:  A break on the shoulder of Michelson.

The summit ridge of Michelson.  That's me in the orange helmet.  Can you say "On belay!"

Camping in a glacial cirque.

Climb number two:  Mt Chamberlin (9,020')  The highest peak in the Brooks Range.

Not even legal enough to have a beer, but standing under Chamberlin's weighty summit.  We never made the summit.  The ice fall that shrouds it's summit was, for us, insurmountable.  We stood fast to our trip motto:  Live to play another day.

Now it was time to head for the coast.  Rafting the Hulahula River.  Andy Kopek in the rear and me up front.

Auf Eis (an ice formation typical of north flowing arctic rivers) on the Hulahula.  Makes one look very small.

Made it!  Al Rosen and I on the shores of the Beaufort Sea.  The small village of Kaktovik would be our first "taste"of civilization in a month.  I remember looking at myself in a mirror for the first time in four weeks...proof that you can forget what you look like!

Your Moment of "Alaskan Zen" 
If I ever go into wine making this is what I'd call my first batch.

What was the worst part of the adventure?  The freakin' mosquitos drove me mad!


z said...

This is amazing. And 20 years ago - even more amazing.

Jana said...

You and your dad were during the "endurance thing" way before it was cool. What a great adventure.

Anonymous said...

WOW! Ian you never told me this story. Hope you have more amazing experiences to come. Remember " can't get lost on an adventure..." Nemi Talli

Al D. said...

Wonderful blog Ian. I always enjoy your posts, and this one is close to the top of them all. Thank you for sharing it with us total strangers that consider you a friend

Karl Jarvis said...

That's inspirational. Truly epic. Someday I hope to take my boys on an adventure as amazing.

Joe Grant said...

Vintage Torrence..priceless. Great post and thanks for sharing.

Escudilla said...

Old man Torrence here - aka Uncle Buck. Believe me when I say that when you get to be my age (68) and the body parts are beginning to show signs of wear and it feels like the 20 mile mark of a marathon,you will NEVER EVER forget a moment of a trip like this while you will NEVER REGRET even one moment stolen from our humdrum daily existence of making money so we can make more money. Work for the WILD, folks. Pay back your Mother. Don't let the ignorant and greedy destroy it all.

olga said...

Any chance your dad is looking into adopting another child?

Zach said...

epic trip, classic. i was up that way for a job interview, did a few runs out into the bush. i love the sheer beauty and emptiness of the brooks range. i dream of doing a 2-3 week trip in there.

Missy B. said...

what an amazing adventure.

Hone said...

This made my day. I forced to move from my hometown of Eagle River last summer. I left my river boat at my dads house and cant wait fly to fly up there and get lost on the river with my dad this June.

Awesome post!

The Rosens said...

Ian, what a treat to see your blog entry on this trip and to see the pictures again. What a time that was! We say 'ditto" to everything you said and were delighted to be flooded with wonderful memories of that awesome adventure! When the mosquitoes get bad at our house in the summer, we try to remember Alaska!
On Belay!
Al and Peggy

Koz said...


Awesome! It's unfortunate that everyone can't have a life-defining wilderness experience like this early in life. It really can make a pivotal difference in the life paths we choose and in what we consider important enough to dream about and chase after. I have the summers of my youth spent at my family's cabin in the Sierra to thank for expanding my middle-class Cincinnati kid horizons and allowing me to happily turn my back on the concept of more-is-better-materialism and a sterile suburban scene for a simpler existence and more time to get a little taste of exploring some of this amazing planet we call home.
I also realize that if everyone had a cabin on the edge of the John Muir Wilderness to spend their summers in, it would no longer be wilderness. I feel very lucky...almost as lucky as you for getting to spend a month in the Brooks Range :)
See ya on the trails!

Koz said...


One question remains... when are you going again? :)

randy roberts said...

You mentioned Roger Dowding was your bush pilot, he was my Uncle. We lived in Anchorage, AK where he started out as a bush pilot and hunting guide. Your picture brought back many great memories of flying with Roger. He was an awesome uncle and wonderful person. He was attempting to pick up a hunting party before a huge storm hit. He didn't think they could survive the storm so he risked his own life to get them out before the storm hit. The storm hit sooner than predicted and he flew into the storm and flying by instruments but crashed into the side of a mountain. It took over a week before they could even search for him due to the ferocity and duration of the storm. I was so thrilled to see this post! Roger was also in a documentary with National Geographic titled "Braving Alaska". Thank you for sharing your adventure and I hope you have many more!

Linda Roberts