Nov 01 2010

TR: August skiing in Alaska

There aren’t very many places that beckon skiers to the “Call of the Wild” in late summer like Alaska.

A big view from the air of Alaska's Wrangell St. Elias mountains. St. Elias dominates.

I still have vivid memories of a movie adventurer who was dropped off by a bush pilot in a remote area of Alaska when it sunk in to him just how much of a commitment he made as he began to eat his first mouse. Well, Cory and I weren’t planning any varmit dinners as there weren’t any mice on the Frasier Glacier. It’s in the Wrangell Mountains at least 120 air miles from the closest road – however, we were committed for at least a week and a half to deal with whatever weather and adventures Alaska was going to dole out to us. After the bush pilot tipped his wings at us in a fly-by “salute” we realized we were totally reliant on good weather for him to be able to pick us up in about ten days.

According to all accounts the weather for the previous month had been impossible to fly. Cory and I agreed to bring Southern California weather with us and we held true to our lucky charm status the day we arrived and basked in glorious sunshine with mountainous vistas that are only rarely seen.

Alvin Walter pulling provisions to the next camp.

Our immediate goals were negotiating substantial crevasse fields, avoiding threatening seracs and titillating cornices, bagging glorious, untrampled peaks via obscure one-in-a-lifetime routes, deal with all meteorological challenges. However, our most important goal was to have the kinds experiences that go beyond the physical challenges and enrich not only our lives, but also those with whom we share our stories.

In 1932, there was a young Mongolian Princess who sums up our desired experience with the following plaintive words told to Maynard Owen Williams, a National Geographic Society special staff representative, “Perhaps your way of life is right for you, but it threatens ours. You are in a hurry and, hence barbaric. You are entranced by mechanical toys, which you haven’t mastered…You find this a backward land…We Mongols” she continued, “are emancipated. A good horse and a wide plain under God’s heaven, that’s our desire. And we realize it.”

Mount Saint Elias basks in arctic alpenglow.

Our first base camp was set up near two peaks that were a virtual island in the middle of several vast glaciers. On our approach to the higher of the two, we worked our way around several large open and conspicuous crevasses and up over one corniced ridge to where we stood on soft afternoon snow in the direct fall line of a massive cornice showing a vertical fracture line indicating a short life to it and us if we proceeded further. It was time to cash in some of our efforts and rack up some nice late spring quality turns down to a traverse line that headed through an intricate labyrinth of crevasses below a small hanging – but recently breaken up – glacier. Roping up was the only way to safely move to a ramp that looked like a makeable route to the more accessible second peak that we continued toward over a steep exposed black ice field just below the nicely consolidated 800 foot pitch to the summit that we named after its elevation of 9,500 feet.

More than a "little rivulet" drops from a nearby hanging icefall.

The 360° view was more magnificent than either of us could have imagined. Mt. Saint Elias and Mt. Logan stood tall to the east, the late afternoon sunlight cast defining shadows that seemed to highlight routes to their lofty summits at 19k-plus & 18k-pkus respectively and lured us to think we would have time to ski to and on their massive faces. Time would prove how unrealistic our perceptions were. Our descent off Peak 9,500 to the base put us in skiers’ heaven with a more direct route on a consolidated granular base where we only stopped to admire cascading and freefalling rivulets of melted ice pouring off the blue ice surface of more than one hanging glacier.

Seeing Mt. St. Elias and Mt. Logan inspired us to use our pulgas (sleds) to move our base camp close to some perceived goals. This proved to be an arduous effort past a number of small yet man-sized swallowing crevasses and a recent bear track. Despite the physical discomfort, we found a comfortable rhythmic pace that allowed my thoughts to focus on things like melodic Andean music and the mountain people of South America, sea-going adventures in wild storms that my fisherman grandfather related in stories, and such far out things as quantum physics where my exuberant college professor was able to make me see all these tiny particles that we are all made up of that come together for a brief period of time then dissipate – yet forever leave the world changed for their existence. I revel in the high and bask in the internal glow until our rhythm is broken.

Home sweet Alaskan home.

We agree on a new base camp location. After pitching the tent, digging a kitchen, and then a wind break wall, Cory suddenly looses half his height then regains it with a bit of a struggle and tells me he stepped into a crevasse. It was within four feet of the tent and there was no clue of its existence since it was only about a foot wide at the top and covered with two feet of snow that gave it an eerie blue glow much deeper. We probed around and Cory did another partial disappearing act into a similar crevasse about 15 feet from the other side of the tent. Welcome to the Alaskan world of glaciers and crevasses. We took that as a hint that we needed to seriously watch our steps, probe everywhere we went and stay on skis as much as possible.

During the night we got some rain, snow, and a bit of wind that cleared long enough in the morning for us to explore another smaller glacier with seracs, melted pools of ice, steep black ice, and a steep corniced ridge that was layered on unstable marble like snow (known as T.G.) that sloughed as we approached. We grasped the warning and descended to the steep black ice that we down-cramponed then enjoyed a fine run back to the Bud Lites with lime that we brought along as contraband that made for a nice celebration at the end of the day.

Full metal assault.

Now we were ready for a day to explore beyond our line of sight and go to where we believed no man or woman had gone before. The journey was killer – open maws of gaping ice, 60+ degree runneled slopes above bergschrunds, 100-foot wide areas of snow on a TG base that went “whump” as we passed, and that high looming unnamed peak that came into view only after hours of exertion. It all was disclosed to us on a mostly clear, calm, day under a Mackerel clouded sky that projected a checkerboard pattern of sunlight that created the visual effect of an artist’s painting.

At about 200 ft. below our summit goal and just before we crossed the bergschrund, we broke out the crampons to ascend the double exposed knife-edge ridge to the summit. Cory, with his expertise in 5th class climbing, led the way as I followed with much trepidation since the variable snow conditions and extreme exposure had me thinking too much about the consequences of the slightest mishap. Yet within the next 20 minutes we were both standing on the top, ecstatic about our accomplishment and the mind-bending views of all that was around us even at the late Alaskan hour of 9 p.m. We also quickly realized that Mt. Logan and Mt. St. Elias are such huge mountains that our original view days earlier and many miles back did not accurately put into scale their true distance from us until now. They were days from us and not within the time constraints of this adventure making our new summit that we named 11,237 (for its elevation) our turn-around point. We down-climbed below the bergschrund for practical reasons, them skied downhill continuously for the next 1.5 hours and arrived at camp after dark. It was one awesome day!

Mt. Logan - Canada's tallest peak at 19,551 ft. (5959 m).

The next few days were of less duration yet still filled with excitement and adventure. We were able to climb a north slope in perfect powdery conditions to a ridge that reflected all the colors of a prism spectrum and gave both of us our first glimpse ever of an upside-down rainbow being reflected off the snow that also made for some heavenly skiing back down.

At camp the next day, while capturing images of the immediate terrain, a huge hanging cornice partially broke off and exploded in clouds of spray as I continued documenting its demise. This was a good reminder of the fragility of this wild environment we put ourselves in.

Sweet reward for a days climb.

Later in the day as we were moving our camp and pulling the pulgas over the exact same solid track we came in on but in slightly warmer conditions, the softer snow suddenly collapsed under me forcing an attempted prostrate position as my pulga thumped me in the back. I knew Cory wanted to charge forward and help me out, yet we were linked together with a lifeline that had to remain taut to keep me from sinking further into that perfectly hidden crevasse. Fortunately, without sinking much below my waist despite having skis on, I was able to get my pack and pulga off my back and crawl like a Komodo Dragon out of the immediate threat only to look back into that bottomless cavern over which I hovered to realize I didn’t really want to go down there — so on we went.

The weather had been deteriorating and very low visibility on a choice peak next to camp thwarted a summit attempt that opened the option of yo-yo-ing its lower steep (45+ degree) slopes about a half dozen times on a thin layer of consolidated granules that maximized moving photo filming ops – not to mention having a bit of relatively reckless fun.

Our last full day was a virtual white-out with some wind where I skied beyond the limits of base camp visibility and returned to spend the rest of the day in the tent pondering the point of our fiendish determination to explore and take risks in this isolated ever-changing part of the world on frozen water. It all comes down to this to me – All life on earth began in a proverbial soup of hydrocarbons that grew more complex ultimately becoming living organisms that evolved into the highest form of life by taking risks (evolutionarily speaking) and thus by the mother molecule deoxyribonucleic acid that has stored our history in every cell of our bodies we are living our destiny at the point of mother nature’s spear that will continue to drive us to seek the unknown and have a little adventurous fun in the process.

© 2010

  • http://www.thompsonpass.com Valdez Telehead

    Very lucky indeed. That sun spot in August was simply fantastic. My wife and I had been frustrated trying to fly into W-SELIAS earlier in this past summer. Many were frustrated all summer in all part of the state. Many died (16) trying (ie Senator Stevens) in dinky bush planes. Who flew you? We fly in and out of Gakona.


    Excellent pics and story. Thanks for sharing.