Long-Range Bomber Traverse

Long-Range Bomber Traverse

Eska Falls → Dnigi Hut → Holden Hut → Bomber Hut → Reed Lakes

July 29-August 1, 2022

There is something unmistakably fantastical about the Talkeetna Mountains. The peaks are black and jagged, the tundra is vast, and the creeks run wild. The Talkeetnas bear more than a passing resemblance to New Zealand’s South Island alpine, where much of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed. The Talkeetnas have moose and bears instead of ents and trolls… but these are details. These mountains were made for adventures.

When Bryce asked if I’d like to plan a late-summer Talkeetnas backpacking trip, I immediately thought of the Bomber Traverse. This horseshoe-shaped route connects the Mint Valley and Reed Lakes trailheads, with stopovers/waypoints at the Mint Hut, Bomber Hut, and Snowbird Hut. While this is a great route, I’d been on it many times before. So after mulling over our timeline and crew, I pitched a more ambitious trip: we’d start on the Eska Falls trail and spend nights at the Dnigi and Holden Huts before connecting with the conventional traverse at the Bomber Hut. Because this route added a significant amount of distance, it seemed fitting to call it the Long-Range Bomber.

Paxson Woelber


Bronté Smith


Ryan Stassel




Long Range Bomber Traverse Map

Map of the Long-Range Bomber Traverse route

Day 1: Eska Falls to the Dnigi Hut

Our trip started at the nondescript end of Eska Mine Road, in Sutton. We pulled onto the shoulder, passed around a bag of wine, and headed uphill into the woods on a maze of deeply rutted ATV trails.

Bronté at the Eska Falls trailhead
Bronté at the Eska Falls trailhead
Bronté at the Eska Falls trailhead
Hiking the Eska Falls trail

We hung left at all of the intersections, until the ATV trail we were following dead-ended into a cul-de-sac with a single-file hiking trail sprouting off the far end. The hiking trail, which was put in about a decade ago, was remarkably well-built and meticulously maintained. It wound along the edge of the Eska Creek canyon before switchbacking out of the trees into meadows of head-height fireweed.

Below us, we could hear the crack of rifles at what we thought might be a range, or might just be Sutton being Sutton.

Bronté and Bryce on the Eska Falls Trail
Ryan on the Eska Falls trail
Hiking the Eska Falls trail
Ryan on the Eska Falls hiking trail

The “hiking trail” portion of the Eska Falls Trail

After about two and a half miles, the hiking trail rejoined the ATV trails as they looped around the tundra. Many in the “REI crowd” view ATV trails as ugly scars, but they made for fast, easy walking and it was hard to muster up much dislike for them today. Then again, I was glad that there were no vehicles here at the moment.

Hiking the Eska Falls trail
Hiking the Eska Falls trail

Hiking up the Eska Falls ATV trails

Not long after getting back on the ATV trails, Ryan and I dropped our packs to scurry up a prominent tundra point directly east of the trail. It was taller than it looked, but from the top we were treated to a sweeping panorama of the northern edge of the Chugach Mountains.

View of the northern edge of the Chugach Mountains from the Eska Falls trail

The northern extent of the Chugach Mountains. Ice Cream Cone Mountain is the tallest peak in this area and is visible center-left. On the far right is Matanuska Peak. The rest of the mountains visible here seem to be unnamed.

After rejoining the group, we continued on to Eska Falls. The waterfall was a stark divider between the motorized trails and the backcountry of the upper Eska Creek drainage. A faint trail led us up past the waterfall and into a world that–at least in the summer–is only accessible by foot.

Bronté at Eska Falls

Bronté at Eska Falls

Above the falls, the terrain immediately transitioned to rocks and open tundra. The air was cool and calm. The trail flickered in and out, but became more defined as it followed Eska Creek, which glittered under the sun as it meandered through the base of the valley.

It was startling to find such an Edenic alpine zone this close to motorized access and so near Alaska’s major population centers. Maybe it’s that the ATV crowd doesn’t much like hiking, and the hiking crowd doesn’t much like ATVs, and so this valley got a reprive. Whatever the reason, I was surprised that I’d never heard anything about this drainage before. It felt like we had a hidden Hatcher Pass all to ourselves.

Upper Eska Creek drainage
Upper Eska Creek drainage
Upper Eska Creek drainage
Upper Eska Creek drainage
Upper Eska Creek drainage
Upper Eska drainage

The Eska Creek drainage above Eska Falls

Before reaching the headwaters of Eska Creek, we veered west past a rocky lake and up a steep tundra ramp leading to Elbow Pass.

Lake in the upper Eska Creek drainage
Hiking toward Elbow Pass, with the upper Eska Creek drainage in the background

In Elbow Pass we ran into a teacher from Nome and his family, hiking the other direction. One of their group had sprained an ankle, the teacher explained. They were making slow progress but seemed to be in good spirits. They warned that even though we’d already finished most of our elevation gain for the day, we still had a long way to go before reaching the Dnigi Hut.

From the far side of Elbow Pass, we had a stunning view of the peaks, pinnacles and crags on the opposite side of the Dnigi/Moose drainage. Even though we were still relatively close to the road system, crossing this pass felt like we were stepping into another world.

Ryan descending west out of Elbow Pass
Mountains above Elbow Pass

Descending out of Elbow Pass toward Moose Creek. The rock on the west side of the pass was loose and the footing was poor. Luckily, we were off it quickly.

Once out of the pass, we continued down a cirque full of gentle glacial moraines before reaching the Dnigi/Moose drainage proper. Instead of continuing to the valley floor, we stayed high and connected shallow slopes and a series of broad benches. A few easily-circumvented ravines aside, the walking was excellent.

“This is the best sidehilling ever,” Ryan exclaimed.

Bowl below Elbow Pass

After a pastel mountain sunset, we started to lose the light and the air turned crisp and almost cold. The long day was also taking its toll. There was talk of setting up tents just a mile or two shy of the Dnigi hut, but we pressed on, into the twilight and then into the night. Every time I checked my phone to see how close the hut was, it felt like we were almost on top of it and yet somehow still not there.

Several ravines interrupted our progress, requiring us to scout in the twilight for good crossing points.

Evening hiking in the Talkeetna Mountains
Backpacking through the tundra below the Dnigi Hut

Suddenly the Dnigi Hut materialized out of the darkness. Its geometric unnaturalness, sitting out in the wild tundra far from any established trail, made me think of the black monolith from the movie 2001.

The Dnigi Hut

The Dnigi Hut

We opened the door some time after midnight. There were two women in the hut, sleeping or at least trying to. You never know who or what you’ll find at the Talkeetna huts, but of all the huts on the traverse this was the one I least expected to share. One of the women seemed unexcited about our late-night arrival. The other whispered to me that they’d tried to climb Moosehead Pass the day before, but their dogs had not been able to handle the loose rock.

We set up and made dinner without talking. Not long after a surprise Vodka Mule raced to my head (thanks Ryan) I crawled into my sleeping bag and immediately fell asleep.

Day 2: Dnigi Hut to the Holden Hut

By the time I woke up, our hutmates had already departed. I climbed down the ladder as quietly as I could, and explored the hut and its surroundings in my down booties.

In the morning light, the Dnigi Hut felt cozy and inviting. Several years ago, there’d been a conversation within the Mountaineering Club of Alaska about whether to keep the hut due to the cost of maintenance and low visitation. I was glad that it was still here. The Dnigi might not get as much traffic as the other huts (the logbook had about one entry per month) but it’s a key part of several longer hut-to-hut traverses like ours, and could become even more important if the hut network expands.

Less pragmatically, the little silver Dnigi Hut had the same wild, lonely vibe that I once enjoyed so much about the Bomber Hut years ago, before the Bomber Traverse exploded in popularity.

Sleeping inside the Dnigi Hut
The Dnigi Hut
The Dnigi Hut logbook
The Dnigi Hut

Morning at the Dnigi Hut. The hut was installed by members of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska over Labor Day weekend in 1995. To read a short history of the hut on the MCA website, click here.

Eventually everyone rousted themselves from their sleeping bags, and after a long, lazy morning we pulled on rain gear and headed out into an early afternoon sprinkle. Our route immediately took us off the tundra and onto an expanse of lichen-covered boulders.

To know the Talkeena Mountains is to know rocks: how they’re born in the millions from the mountainsides, the paths they take as they move downhill, how they balance and slide and break and roll. The Talkeetnas are a relatively young mountain range, and backpacking through them requires navigating extensive boulder fields that have only recently emerged from under the weight of glaciers. The rock is often loose and treacherous, unstablized by organic growth or time. Small rocks are sometimes lodged resolutely in place, while boulders rock back and forth unsettlingly with a light nudge.

Bryce crossing a boulder field below the Dnigi Hut
Mountains near the Dnigi Hut
Mountains near the Dnigi Hut

Walking through the “rock nursery” that is the Talkeetna Mountains

After about two and a half miles of generally straightforward (and awesomely scenic) sidehilling, we began the climb to Moosehead Pass. I’d heard that this would be the most difficult pass of the trip, and was a little nervous after learning that the duo we’d met at the Dnigi Hut had been turned back by it. But the south side was easier than it looked, and after threading between rocks and ribbons of tundra we were up it without trouble.

Moosehead Pass
Ryan at Moosehead Pass

Moosehead Pass

From the top of the pass, we had direct line of sight back down the Dnigi/Moose drainage all the way to the Mat-Su Valley. A few iPhones started buzzing with notifications, and Ryan and Bronté took advantage of the reception for a Facetime conversation.

Reception in Moosehead Pass

Bronté and Ryan Facetiming in Moosehead Pass

It immediately became obvious that the north side of the pass was the more challenging. From the pass, several steep, rocky chutes dropped down onto large fans of loose scree. After a quick nip of fine Fireball liquor, we started down.

While I didn’t feel that the descent out of the pass was any more difficult than, say, that from Bomber Pass or Backdoor Gap, it wouldn’t be fun for someone who wasn’t comfortable scrambling with their hands. I was glad I’d boarded my dog for the weekend. At the bottom of the chutes, we immediately had to spread out to keep from kicking rocks down on one another.

Climbing down out of Moose Head Pass

Bryce descending out of Moosehead Pass

The large cirque between Moosehead Pass and Blazing Saddle was classic Talkeetna Mountains: rock, tundra, and snow at any and all angles, surrounded by a backdrop of glaciers and craggy unnamed peaks that appeared and then disappeared behind swirling clouds. I’d heard that this drainage was tricky to navigate, but like Moosehead Pass it struck me as no more difficult than other parts of the Bomber Traverse.

Talkeetna Mountains
Talkeetna Mountains
Bronté in the Talkeetnas

Crossing the large cirque between Moosehead Pass and Blazing Saddle

We spread out occasionally as we crossed the cirque, from time to time losing sight of one another till rejoining in Blazing Saddle, the steep grassy pass leading to the next drainage.

Ryan and Bronte

Ryan and Bronté in Blazing Saddle

Below Blazing Saddle we walked across a persistent late summer snowfield and then into a thick sea of fog. We picked through a series of steep, loose moraines and ravines before crossing the lush valley floor and ascending the opposite side of the valley.

Bryce descending from the pass
Ryan hiking in the mist

Snow and fog between Blazing Saddle and the Holden Hut

After climbing up from the valley floor for what felt like far too long, the Holden Hut appeared out of the gray void, looking like a submarine traveling through an ocean of clouds.

Arriving at the Holden Hut
Inside the Holden Hut
Bronté reading the Holden Hut logbook

The Holden Hut

Inside the hut, we hung up our gear, cooked dinner, and pored over the logbook. The Holden had clearly brought increased traffic to this drainage, and it was interesting to see the community reaching consensus on names for the surrounding terrain features. I’d heard a few different suggestions over the years for the glacier southwest of the hut, and it seemed that the skiers had settled on “Sobriety Glacier.” It was a fitting name in an place that demands clear thinking (and is far from the nearest liquor store).

At one point, I caught myself wondering why the building crew had installed frosted glass windows in the hut, only to realize that, of course, we were still submerged in clouds.

Day 3: Holden Hut to the Bomber Hut

By morning the fog had lifted. It felt like our little green hut had become anchored to the ground again, and had come to rest on a tundra bench overlooking a sweeping green and gray alpine bowl.

Holden Hut outhouse, with Montana Peak and Atonement Glacier in the background
Lake adjacent to Holden Hut

I’d only seen the Holden once before, while it was under construction during the summer of 2018. On that trip, the unfinished hut had been surrounded by a large group of tents and volunteers, and the mood was festive. That hard work, time, and money was apparent today in every aspect of the hut. The dark green Holden is a beautiful outpost in a beautiful place.

Holden Hut sign
Illustration in the Holden Hut logbook
Holden Hut sleeping loft

The Holden Hut. The hut was built in memory of acclaimed Alaska adventurer Seth Holden, who passed away in an airplane crash in 2012. To read about Seth, click here.

There’s something special about time spent hanging out in wilderness huts. Maybe it’s the lack of connectivity with the outside world, replaced with the feeling of connection that comes from sharing backcountry experiences with friends. Maybe it’s just the joy of being in a spectacular place (and, sometimes, the gratitude of being out of the weather). Whatever the reasons, hut conversations ramble and flow like nothing else, and are often rich with dry humor, long stories, and the occasional awful pun.

“Isn’t there a bar in the Alcan that has a toe in one of their drinks?”
“You’re supposed to suck on it when you take a drink.”
“Didn’t Callie accidentally almost swallow the toe? I think she had to pull it out of her mouth.”
“Gross… it’s like sourdough.”

Bronté and Bryce inside the Holden Hut
Bronté and Bryce inside the Holden Hut
The Holden Hut

Hanging at the Holden Hut

After packing up and cleaning the hut we headed toward our first objective of the day: Sobriety Pass. We climbed up the rocky hills toward the pass, skirting the edge of a new lake forming at the base of Sobriety Glacier. The air was calm and almost muggy, with the occasional raindrop.

The key to Sobriety Pass was clearly to stay to its northern edge, thereby avoiding a steep scree slope studded with big loose boulders. We had read an account in the logbook in which a dislodged boulder had nearly hit a terrified backpacker, and we had no interest in repeating the experience.

Sobriety Pass
Sobriety Pass

Sobriety Pass. To see a photo of the eastern side of the pass with what I believe to be a safer route overlaid onto it, click here.

Just over Sobriety Pass, we walked around a new lake forming at the toe of Ozone Glacier, pulled on our microspikes, and tromped up the glacier toward Ozone Peak. This was the first of two glacier remnant crossings on this trip. There were no visible hazards and, once we were up the toe, most of the surface was nearly flat.

Ozone Glacier
Ozone Glacier

Ozone Glacier

This portion of the route included three passes in quick succession: Sobriety Pass, Ozone Pass, and Nelteni Saddle. Near the top of Ozone Glacier we scrambled a couple dozen feet to Ozone Pass, and then traversed below the summit of Ozone Peak for about 300 yards to Nelteni Saddle. We tried to stay on rock as much as possible, but occasionally ended up kicking steps into rotten late-summer snow. We avoided a few plates of steep ice, which would have been a bad place for an unwanted slide.

Ryan dropping down into Nelteni Saddle

Ryan approaching Nelteni Saddle

From Nelteni Saddle, we dropped down a wildflower-dotted tundra ramp into the Wintergreen Creek drainage. Across the valley, we could see glaciers pouring through the cloud-wrapped spires and crags of Montana Peak.

To reach the Bomber Hut from Nelteni Pass, most people drop all the way to the boulder-strewn valley floor. But during a 2017 trip we found that we could stay high on the southeast face of Nelteni, connecting benches between cliff bands and avoiding the bad footing at lower elevations. We had no trouble following this route today, and were grateful for the good footing and panoramic views.

Talkeetna Mountains backpacking
Scrambling in the Talkeetnas
Talkeetna Mountains panorama

Backpacking between Nelteni Pass and the Bomber Hut

After the last bit of routefinding, the bench we were following rolled over and dropped us right on top of the Bomber Hut. The Bomber was partially rebuilt in September 2021, and now sported a dark green shell and more spacious interior. I missed the shining silver siding of the old hut siding, but was grateful for attentive refresh and extra space.

The Bomber Hut

The Bomber Hut. For more about the hut, click here. The Mountaineering Club of Alaska does an amazing job keeping these huts in good shape and available to the public, despite minimal resources. To contribute to the MCA, click here.

We spent the evening cooking, taking photos, and completing the iconic Joe Stock puzzle. For reasons that were not entirely clear, Bryce stripped naked and summitted a small rock behind the hut. All-in-all, another lovely evening. It was probably for the best that we had the hut to ourselves.

Ryan at the lake below the Bomber Hut
Bryce and Bronté reviewing photos in the Bomber Hut
The Bomber Hut
Bomber Hut outhouse
Joe Stock puzzle at the Bomber Hut
View from the Bomber Hut loft

Evening at the Bomber Hut

Day 4: Bomber Hut to Reed Lakes

We woke up to drifting clouds and occasional drizzle, but luckily we had excellent visibility all the way to Bomber Pass, which could be seen distantly through one of the hut windows. We had a slow morning, reading Conan comics and answering riddles from Bronté, who accidentally mixed her coffee and creamer into her oatmeal but made the best of it.

We especially enjoyed the years-long “Backcountry Betrayal” saga in the logbook. If you make it out to the hut: 9/6/20, 9/11-12/2021, and 4/22/2022. It’s worth the read, trust me.

Eventually, we all admitted that it was time to get moving and packed up. From the hut, we ambled through the tundra and sparse brush, and hopped over Wintergreen Creek en route to the bomber wreckage on Bomber Glacier.

Wintergreen Creek

Looking down Wintergreen Creek toward the Bartholf drainage

As we climbed upward, the tundra gave way to rock and the rock gave way to ice.

Lichen and plants below Bomber Glacier
Rock below Bomber Glacier
Ice on Bomber Glacier

The face of Bomber Glacier was mostly bare and riven by ൜-shaped meltwater channels, some of which were etched unsettlingly deep into the ice. We picked our way carefully up the glacier remnant, taking care to avoid wet, steep slopes and anything that looked like it could conceal a moulin. Even in microspikes, the footing was a little precarious. Like probably all of the glaciers in the Talkeetnas, Bomber Glacier is in the process of not-so-slowly dying. An enduring rule in the wilderness is that dying things merit great caution and respect, and this probably applies as much to glaciers as it does animals.

Bomber Glacier

Ryan climbing Bomber Glacier, with some of the bomber debris in the background

The namesake feature of Bomber Glacier is the wreckage of a 1950’s-era B-29 bomber, scattered over the ice directly north of Lynx Peak. I recall my excitement the first couple of times I made it to this spot: a crashed Cold War bomber, on top of a glacier! I don’t begrudge anyone a feeling of accomplishment for making it here, but when I’ve been to this site in the last few years it’s felt more somber. Six of the ten airmen onboard were killed in the crash, and the survivors were lucky to make it through the night. The crash site is a memorial that is, itself, disintegrating along with the glacier named after it.

Wreckage on Bomber Glacier
Bryce and a propeller on Bomber Glacier
Wreckage on Bomber Glacier

B-29 bomber wreckage on Bomber Glacier

From the bomber crash site, we traversed across the glacier and then climbed to Bomber Pass. The “watermelon snow” was thriving in the late summer snowfields, and the surface of the glacier alternated between light turquoise and a dusty pink.

Watermelon snow on Bomber Glacier
Bryce on Bomber Glacier

Watermelon snow on Bomber Glacier. This phenomenon is caused by a species of green algae packed with red carotenoid pigments.

We scrambled off the glacier and up the last few craggy feet to Bomber Pass, some of us making use of the questionable fixed ropes. Clouds streamed up from the other side of the pass, obscuring the view of the long boulder field we’d have to descend before reaching Upper Reed Lake.

Boulders between Bomber Pass and Upper Reed Lake

After several days of Talkeetnas scrambling, the boulder-strewn descent felt downright easy. We dropped out of the clouds as we neared the lake, and Ryan and Bronté celebrated with a little dance on a boulder.

Ryan and Bronté above Upper Reed Lake

Ryan and Bronté dance above Upper Reed Lake

At the far end of Upper Reed Lake a vocal marmot welcomed us back to the trail system. From here on out, the only thing left was to walk around Upper Reed and then tromp out on the popular day hiking trail to the Reed Lakes Trailhead. As is always the case, the trail didn’t disappoint. Even though this was the least adventurous leg of the trip, it was really just as pretty as any other.

Marmot at Upper Reed Lake
Lower Reed Lake

Reed Lakes

The trail widened steadily as we neared the parking lot. Then suddenly our quest was complete and there we stood, dirty as orcs, happy as hobbits, and already thinking about the next adventure.

Group photo

From left to right: The author, Bryce, Bronte, and Ryan

About the Author

Paxson Woelber

About the Author

Hi! My name is Paxson. I grew up in Alaska and currently live in Anchorage. For more about me and winterbear.com, click here.

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