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Running Alaska’s Pinnel Mountain Trail by: Chris Butcher

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PC: Nikki Potter

I was suddenly woken up from my fitful sleep, it’s 2:30am. A mosquito has felt it necessary to harass me, me covered in mosquito repellant, sealed in my car and desperate to get a few grateful hours of sleep. Then I saw the sun, this sun was floating just off the horizon of distant hills and mountains, a sun bathed in a steel orange glow cast from the clouds of a wildfire burning over 50 miles away, it was stunning, it was the summer solstice.

A few friends of mine and myself have taken it upon ourselves to run the Pinnell Mountain trail, a 28ish mile trail roughly 107 miles Northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska. I myself not being much of a morning person elected to car camp at the far trailhead of the point to point trail Eagle Summit in the hopes of getting a few more hours of sleep rather than getting up at 6:00am and doing the two hour drive the next day. It made sense after all as we need to leave a car at this trailhead so we can drive back down to the starting trailhead at 12 Mile Summit.

Snuggled deep in my bag the newest rain cell drifted overhead sending the mosquitos and flies still inside the car into a frenzy. Sleep however was the issue and tomorrow I’ll need every ounce of alertness to run this demanding, technical trail. With that I drifted off to the sounds of heavy rain drops colliding with the roof of the car and rebellious mosquitos and other flying things trapped inside desperate to be outside and making their case heard loudly, finally I slept.

In the morning and several cups of coffee later I welcomed my friends as we casually exchanged gear, my gear in Erica’s car and their gear in my car for the end of the run clothing change. Without wasting time we were off, making the 27 mile drive back to 12 Mile Summit to begin what we anticipated to be an incredible day of adventure and running.

After a group picture at the trailhead we set off unceremoniously speed hiking up the boardwalk for the first bit to conserve energy as we gradually gained elevation over the next mile. The Pinnell Mountain Trail is not the most runnable trail, rocks dominate the landscape, small rocks, big rocks, hidden rocks, all manner of rocks seemingly existing for one purpose, to aid with your collision with the ground. Running these Alaskan trails are beautiful tundra covered arctic landscapes as far as the eye can see and the Pinnell Mountain trail defines beauty.

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This trail is above tree line the entire distance affording great views as far as the Alaskan Mountain Range over 200 miles to the south. But there’s the rocks, rocks that require constant attention so you don’t catch a toe and end up face down on the trail. With this constant attention comes with a price, staring at the ground endlessly. The safest way to enjoy the landscape and the views while running is to simply stop running, stand still and take it in, we did that a lot.

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With over 6,300 feet of elevation gain there is plenty of time to relax from running and hike the climbs. These breaks always seem to be right where we needed them and conserved our energy for the longer running that was to come later down the trail. We winded our way around rock strewn hills and over exposed flat ridges, sweat dripped from under my hat as we ran up the less steep climbs.

Finally after nearly 10 miles we reached the North Fork weather shelter and settled in for a nice break and to get some food into our bodies to replenish all the calories we’ve burned over the last couple of hours. Usually the North Fork shelter signals the end of the day for hikers back packing the trail, though some push on to the next shelter most enjoy a relaxed mindset preferring to take it slow and easy, enjoying the experience one step at a time.

Once refreshed we left the shelter and headed out for the next section of the trail, a short 7 miles to the Ptarmigan Creek Shelter but easily the hardest of the trail. The running is wonderful here above the rest of the world and the light cloud cover kept the temperature in check. Running along the ridge tops the valleys fall away every direction you look, it’s magnificent in its simplicity and its grandeur. With a breeze pushing us along we descended into Swamp Saddle, a huge saddle separating two large valleys and the base of the climb that leads to the first Pinnell Mountain, yes there are two Pinnell Mountains on the trail and I have no idea why.

Being extremely soft tundra the trail through Swamp Saddle is comprised of a boardwalk for the entire distance and this energy zapping wood causes us to hike the majority of this section of trail.  After crossing the saddle we climb up the hillside to enjoy a pleasurable run across a plain before we begin ascending Pinnell Mountain. Conserving energy during the climb is a big challenge, the trail seems to get steeper as we go and just as you think you’ve topped out there is a bit more to go before navigating around the summit and traversing the rock fields and obstacles for the next couple of miles.

Running with the right people will always make the most demanding conditions light and fun. I was running with the right people, Nikki and the Erica’s (there are 2 of them) always have a positive attitude and run with an amazing light and humorous mentality, just what you need out here.

As we jumped and stepped along the ridgeline searching for the trail as it faded in and out with the rocks one of the Erica’s started picking up pace through the technical section leaving Nikki, the other Erica and myself to find the way on our own.  After what seemed like an eternity we saw the first sight of the shelter, a wonderful little structure sitting on an exposed saddle in the middle of nowhere, it was exactly where it was meant to be.

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As we sat on the porch snacking, the wind picked up chilling our sweat soaked bodies and after a very short break to refill water bottles and eat some of Erica’s mini pancakes we were ready to head off for the final 10 mile section of trail but first we had to hike up the second Pinnell Mountain, the rock embedded tundra offered no relief as we climbed. Finally crossing the flat summit we began the incredibly steep and technical descent down the other side, stopping every once in a while to pull the phones out to take pictures of the amazing landscape that continues to unfold in front of us.

Running across the lichen carpeted tundra with rocks poking up just about everywhere  is more akin to dancing on your tiptoes to avoid landing awkwardly on the sharp stones than it is to actually running and makes for slow going at times and that’s ok, it allows us the opportunity to look around at the breathtaking landscape we have surrounded ourselves with.

Traversing Porcupine Dome has to be one of my favorite sections which baffles every one. For me it is a special time, it sums up the whole trail in a single moment and every aspect of the Pinnell Mountain Trail can be found along this section. A short steep climb leads to the shoulder of the Dome followed by a wonderful path of dirt and stone, then crashes into long areas of what amounts to scree slopes of barely manageable rock jumbles that if your not careful will cause you injury and great suffering.

Alaska Running
Alaska Running

But running over all this rock makes me focus on the moment directly in front of me, nothing else matters just running, watching every single foot placement making sure that the rocks I’m landing on are solid and as secure as possible.  As I stare at the ground the whole world is gradually opening up in front of me and as I come around the Dome I’m suddenly given the most spectacular view of the ridgeline and final climb of the day.

After having traversed the ridgeline and hiked the final climb I paused, the wind had picked up cooling me down and a light rain had began to fall, blown in from the wind. I slowed down everything in that moment, staring off at the view of the final 4 miles to go and reflecting on the last 24 miles that have passed. I laughed to myself, the challenges I faced along the trail both mental and physical, yet I here we were a short distance from the end of the adventure that I didn’t want to end.

As I pulled out my shell to protect myself from the wind the girls came up, looked around and bolted down the amazing downhill as fast as their legs would let them, leaving me with the other Erica to enjoy the amazing views in the short time we had left. I spent the next hour of running reflecting on the trail, savoring every memory that I was already cataloging in my mind. The smell of the place, the feel and timeless beauty of this world captures my emotions like no place I’ve ever experienced.

PC: Nikki Potter

The parking lot looms closer and closer, I run slower and slower not wanting it to end. In the distance on top of a hill one of the Erica’s and Nikki stand there watching as Erica and I approach the final decent to the island of humanity that is intruding into my world, a place of cars, outhouses and tourist signs. We laugh like children swinging through the switch backs leading down to the trailhead, high fives fill the air with the laughter, talk of the adventure and the sighs of it being over both thankfully and sadly.

Running on the Pinnell Mountain trail is an experience for the soul, the self and the body. Escaping for a day to immerse yourself into this place with amazing friends is one of the finest ways to get back to who we are, lovers of wilderness, romantics, adventures, trail runners.

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