‘SMILE A MILE’: Teamwork, laughter propel mountain runners on epic Chugach trek

Friday, August 2, 2019 - 11:53
  • Annie Connelly and Keegan Crow mug for the camera atop a peak in the Chugach Front Range. (Annie Connelly photo)
  • Annie Connelly hikes a ridgeline in the Chugach Front Range (Photo by Keegan Crow)
  • Annie Connelly hikes a ridgeline in the Chugach Front Range. (Photo by Keegan Crow)
  • Annie Connelly and Keegan Crow mug for the camera atop a peak in the Chugach Front Range. (Annie Connelly photo)
  • Annie Connelly hikes a ridgeline in the Chugach Mountains while completing the 12-peak Challenge with Keegan Crow. (Photo by Keegan Crow)

Teamwork can be a funny thing — and sometimes funny can be what makes a team work.

For Eagle River 21-year-olds Annie Connelly and Keegan Crow, a working partnership meant adopting a “smile a mile” policy in order to complete the grueling Chugach Front Linkup, an epic 12-peak wilderness adventure that has become the unofficial Holy Grail of Anchorage mountain runners.

“We were cracking jokes, singing here and there, just smiling,” said Crow, who joined Connelly in becoming the youngest known runners to complete the linkup on July 19, when they scaled all 12 peaks higher than 5,000 feet in the Chugach Front Range.

Having a good attitude is paramount to finishing the linkup, both runners said. That’s because there’s no trail or set route for the backcountry adventure, which features about 20,000 feet of climbing — and an equal amount of descending.

“We kinda went into it with the mindset of having fun,” Crow said.

Crow tried the linkup solo earlier this summer but turned back due to heavy smoke and an attitude that soured as he neared the final push.

“I just went home,” he said.

The mountain running community is a small one: Crow’s dad told Annie’s mom about Keegan’s attempt, and Annie’s mom told Annie — who for several years had dreamed of completing the linkup but didn’t feel she had enough experience to make a solo try.

The two runners saw each other in Seward during Mount Marathon (Connelly was 11th in the women’s race; Crow was 56th in the men’s race), and Connelly asked Crow if he’d like to link up.

“She’s like, ‘Hey, would you like to do this with me?’ ” Crow recalled. “And I’m like, ‘I want this off my mind.’ ”

The two hadn’t hiked much together previously but knew each other well because of mountain running. Connelly said Crow brought much-needed expertise.

“Going out of the gate Keegan knew a lot more than I did,” she said. “He was definitely the route leader.”

Both runners said they’ve been driven to complete the linkup since reading an Anchorage Daily News story about Lars Arneson and Peter Mamrol breaking the unofficial speed record in 2017. In that story, Arneson challenged others to try to complete the route themselves.

“We both read that article and it kinda put a bug in our ear,” Connelly said.

Then on July 12, Connelly’s friends Julianne Dickerson and Abby Jahn of Anchorage and April McAnly of Eagle River became the fastest known women to finish the challenge.

At that point, Connelly said she knew it was time to try and add her name to the growing list of runners to complete the linkup, which was first described by Shawn Lyons in his 1990 book “Walk About Guide to Alaska, Volume 2.”

“I don’t think a lot of Alaskans like hearing something is too challenging,” she said.

The partnership proved perfect. While Connelly said Crow brought knowledge of the route (and occasional comic relief), Crow said Connelly’s never-quit attitude was the crucial element to their success.

“She’s just a steady force,” Crow said.

Crow said the route (hikers are tradition-bound from sharing their exact path) includes several “sketchy” ridges and exposures that would have other mountain runners wanting to turn back. Not Connelly.

“She handled it like a boss,” he said.

The duo set out from the Rabbit Creek parking area at around 7:07 a.m. on Thursday, July 18, and finished the next day at the Stuckagain Heights trailhead at 10:43 a.m. The trip took 27 hours, 36 minutes. During that time they stood atop 12 peaks — Williwaw, Temptation, Tanaina, the Ramp, Tikishla, West Tanaina, O’Malley, Koktoya, Hidden, North Suicide, Avalanche and South Suicide — hopped into a couple of mountain lakes and had a mysterious encounter with some sheep that seemed to lead them from peak to peak.

“By the end we had a pretty spiritual connection with those sheep,” Connelly joked.

Crow said the pair found small ways to take their minds off the challenge, whether that meant hopping in Ship Lake or reveling in a pair of dry socks.

“It’s definitely an emotional roller coaster,” he said.

Among the lessons learned was to bring more calories than you think you’ll need, plan for a scarcity of water (Crow said snow patches that were there weeks prior were dry), be familiar with the mountains and pack a positive attitude.

Connelly said what kept her focused throughout the trek was a desire to push to her physical and mental limits.

“It’s not necessarily about proving it to others, it’s definitely an incredible self-challenge,” she said. “Just being out there and on your feet for all that time — it’s not easy.”

The pair initially hoped to finish the linkup in under 24 hours (Arneson lowered the linkup record to 14 hours, 14 minutes the day before their attempt), but by the time they emerged from the mountain, Connelly and Crow were simply happy to finally be finished.

“Happy doesn’t cover it,” Connelly said. “I’d say euphoric comes closer.”

She said completing the continuous push was one of the high points of her athletic career.

“The entire time we were just marveling at how blessed we are to have bodies that can actually do this and that we live in a place where we can do this,” she said.

Connelly’s younger brother Mikey was waiting to pick up the pair when they finished — at which time the exhausted runners promptly fell asleep. Crow said he called in to work so he could continue to snooze, but Connelly was at her job by noon.

“She goes hard every day,” he marveled.

Connelly said complementary attitudes were key to reaching their goal.

“Make sure you have a partner who is exactly as crazy or slightly more crazy than you. But also has a head for safety and making good decisions,” she said.

Both said they hope their trek will inspire more athletes to take on the challenge.

“It’s not just a cool trip,” Connelly said. “It’s the cool trip.”

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274.

Facebook comments