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Solitary hiker treks 1,500 miles across Alaska
Anchorage Daily News


May 23, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The first step would prove to be the toughest of Italian Ario Sciolari's winter-long solo trek across about 1,500 miles of frozen Alaska.

Back in civilization now, the 39-year-old climber admits that when his journey began near Glennallen in December, he was so fearful his knees shook.

"I was so scared in the beginning," he said. "I did not know what to expect."'

Had it not been for a commitment to walk all the way to Kaktovik on the North Slope of the Brooks Range to highlight the threat posed to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by oil drilling, the mountain guide confesses he might have bailed.




The problem was not so much the long, dark nights that embrace Alaska in December or the bitter cold. Sciolari knew enough about those things to be comfortable with them. He had completed a month-long solo winter hike the length of Scandinavia five years earlier.

What was difficult about Alaska was the sheer enormity of the landscape, the vast distances between human habitations.

Sciolari said he was scared "by the size of it and by being alone so much."

From Lake Louise, where the adventure began on Dec. 9, he headed north across a 25-mile-long system of frozen lakes into a world far different than that around Sciolari's home near Cortina D'Ampezzo in northern Italy.

He guides there in the Dolomites, some of the most spectacular mountains in the world. Out of the heart of these rugged peaks rise the three limestone towers of the Tre Cime. They are what might be considered Italy's answer to Switzerland's Eiger, and climbers come from all over to attack their classic routes.

There is nowhere in the Dolomites where you are more than an hour from a road or an accommodation, what the Italians call "refugios." And it is rare to hike more than half an hour, even in the offseason, without meeting other people on the trails or via ferrata routes.

America's 49th state is the opposite.

"That's why I come to Alaska," Sciolari said.

On his trek across this chunk of the frozen north, Sciolari would slog along for days and days without meeting anyone or seeing any sign of anyone. It made his walk into something of a struggle.

"Here and there I got some snowmobile tracks," he said, but most of the time he was out in front of a gear sled on snowshoes breaking trail. Breaking trail on snowshoes for hours upon end is tough duty. Breaking trail while pulling a sled is triple-tough duty.

When the snow piled high, the latter became so difficult as to be impossible.

"Sometimes it was so deep, I would go (and break trail) and have to come back and go again," Sciolari said.

On such days, he would snowshoe for 8 to 10 hours and only progress a few miles. He wondered if he would ever reach his destination along the Arctic Ocean on the north side of the Brooks Range.

By late January, though, he was across the Alaska Range mountains north of Lake Louise and into the broad Interior. He stopped in Fairbanks for a week to resupply and wisely bought a wood stove to heat his tent.

"There I had a week of stops to get more equipment," he said - the wood stove, some beaver mitts, and mukluks.

His brown eyes twinkling, his face still burned brown from the glare of sun on snow along the North Slope, he sat outside an Anchorage coffee shop last week and smiled at the thought of what good purchases those turned out to be.

Upon leaving Fairbanks, Sciolari pushed into a cold snap that saw temperatures sinking to 40 degrees below zero. On the trail, the problem at such temperatures is not so much staying warm as staying dry.

To avoid frostbite and hypothermia, you must dress warmly. But then, as soon as you move, the insulation traps the body heat and makes you sweat.

"Just standing there, it was like running a marathon," Sciolari said. "(But) you don't want to sweat."

In these conditions, the wood stove proved to be worth its weight in gold because it gave Sciolari a way to dry clothing dampened by sweat.

"It dried me up," he said, "(But) I remember how hard it was to get wood in the evening when I was tired."

Sometimes that chore took him a couple of hours, but it was always worth it, especially when the thermometer was pushing 50 degrees below zero.

That came about the time Sciolari hit the worst patch of his trip in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks. He had hoped to follow Willow Creek through the mountains to Beaver Creek, but was stymied by blow-down timber in an old wildfire. He ended up being forced up and over a mountain before dropping down to Beaver Creek, where the snow was deep and unbroken, the cold extreme and the oxbow bends in the river endless.

When he finally made Birch Creek, a village just east of Beaver Creek, he was one happy hiker. In fact, it was a pleasure to reach every one of the villages and winter-occupied lodges he encountered.

Near the villages, he said, snowmobiles packed the snow and made for easier walking. And the food was always better than what he stuffed down on the trail.

"Every time I got to a village, I was like eating, eating, like I don't know what," he said.

And north of the Brooks Range, on the final leg into Kaktovik, he finally got to ski.

"Once on the North Slope, it was perfect for skiing," Sciolari said.

The snow was firm. The sun was bright and increasingly warm. And he could see forever.

To the north, the Arctic Ocean stretched to the horizon. To the south, the Brooks Range met the sky. The scenery was so spectacular, so wild and so desolate, Sciolari said, "it just made me cry."

It was everything, he said, that Europe is no more.

"All of Alaska is amazing," he said. "You say it's a wasteland (on the Slope), but this wasteland made me cry. You say a wasteland; I say a sanctuary."


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