Hooper hikes, paddles, battles nausea to win Wilderness Classic

August 6, 2020

For more than 3 ½ days, Sam Hooper of Denali Park hiked alone on ATV trails, along caribou routes, over tundra and through marshes and swamps. When he wasn’t hiking, he packrafted various creeks and rivers and portaged around rapids when necessary.

Hooper in the 2019 AMWC (Photo by Sean Pociuk)

The former Denali National Park backcountry ranger struggled with nausea most of the way and was thus only able to consume half of the nine pounds of food he brought. With perpetually sodden feet, he developed severe “trench foot.” To save weight, he carried neither a stove nor a sleeping bag. The latter omission compromised the quality of his sleep, which totaled a mere 10 hours on the 150-mile trek from the Jack River near Cantwell to the Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway.

Motivated in part by a pending commitment to dipnet for salmon with wife Jen Johnston — who was waiting for him — Hooper soldiered on, arriving at the lodge shortly after midnight on July 23.

He’d been underway for 86 hours and 5 minutes.

“In contrast with last year, it was generally a pretty miserable experience,” Hooper said by email. “So the faster I went, the sooner I would be with my wife in a nice, warm cabin.”

Hooper, 32, went so fast he finished the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic nearly a day quicker than the next group and 27 hours faster than he and partner Sean Pociuk did the same route in 2019.

The AMWC, founded in 1982, is a low-key, unsupported, human-powered event of 120 to 250 miles through remote and unforgiving terrain. Any rescue is up to the participant to coordinate and a satellite communication device is required. There is no entry fee for the 15-30 participants and no finishers awards.

Hooper had a much different experience in 2019, calling that trip “really fun” although he struggled with knee problems and Pociuk had Achilles tendon issues.

“We were literally hobbling for the last 20-some miles of walking — we each had our own variation of a zombie-like gait,” Hooper said.

Stretching before and during this year’s Classic helped his body hold up better overall, but his persistent sickness took much of the enjoyment away. Attempting to eat just about anything besides salty snacks made him gag — a contrast to 2019, when he ate every last crumb of his food.

“I was afraid that I was going to throw up the food I had carried all that way with no way to recover the calories,” said Hooper, a veteran wilderness traveler — he and Johnston traversed the Alaska Range for 1,000 miles in 2017 — who’d never had severe stomach troubles.

The source of his nausea? “My only guess about the cause what that I was preemptively taking naproxen sodium (aka Aleve) at the max recommended dosage for the first two days,” Hooper said.

Despite the challenges — or perhaps because of them — one gets the impression Hooper will enter the Classic again.

Photo by Sean Pociuk

Hooper attempted to articulate its appeal:

“I imagine it’s not an uncommon experience for solo Classic participants in general, but without someone else to share it with, it almost felt like a strange dream. I’m sure the sleep deprivation didn’t help, but my sense of time and even place felt warped. It underscores what an odd endeavor the Wilderness Classic is: you start at the same time as everyone else, but it’s unlikely you’ll see any of them after the first few hours. The only connection between your experience and theirs is the piece of paper you sign into at the end so that the organizers know you’re safe. There’s no prize, minimal recognition, usually little camaraderie, and often nothing to verify that you even experienced what you think you remember,” Hooper said.

“The only thing that’s left to motivate someone to do it, then, is the chance that the challenge itself leaves some lasting impact, and hopefully not just on your body. I would say that’s the defining characteristic of Wilderness Classic, and I really felt it this time.”

2020 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

Start: Jack River, 10:15 a.m. on July 20

Finishers (Sheep Mountain Lodge): Sam Hooper, 12:20 a.m. July 23; John Pekar, Brian Pekar and Matt Kupilik, 9:53 p.m. July 23; Jay Cable and Tom Moran, 9:54 a.m. July 24; Abe Meyerhofer, Noah Ripley and Matt Lutz, 10:24 a.m. July 24; Tyndall Ellis, Ben Olwell and Adrian Barniak, 12:17 p.m. July 24; Lee Helzer, Luc Mehl and Alan Rogers, 2:55 p.m. July 24; Curtis Henry and Jacob Buller, 12:47 a.m. July 26.

-By Matias Saari, Alaska Sports Blog Contributor