Skiing in Alaska: Part 2

[The following took place on day 3 of 7 spent camping at Turnagain Pass in Chugach National Forest, Alaska as part of The Mountain Training School Guide Program]

Waking up at -10°C has become the norm. My body spent 10 hours wasting energy keeping my liquid waste at a balmy 37°C and it has had enough. My only motivation to rise is the urgent need to pee, without it I would never leave my synthetic cocoon. Once out of my sleeping bag I turn into a machine of productivity: get dressed, pee, melt drinking water, cook breakfast, pack bag, prep skis, put on frozen boots. I’m not a morning person or even diligent but if I stop moving the cold will seep into my blood (ok, the heat will seep out of my blood). The plan for the day is long. I hydrate and pack an extra PB&J tortilla.

Paradise
Paradise

We hadn’t seen a cloud since arriving three days prior, clear skies meant cold nights and hot, sunny days. The five of us willing enough to endure the prescribed 19 kilometer journey left camp behind and began skinning up valley to a mountainous head-wall. We sweat with every meter of elevation as if the pressure change was pulling it through our burnt skin. Hours go by in strenuous minutes and we find ourselves in a skiers paradise at the end of the valley. The question became what feature we should spend the next hour wrestling in exchange for a few fresh turns through frozen air. Once we saw it, we knew.

A look back to our corniced ridge (the lowest point with ski tracks to it is where we climbed)
A look back to our corniced ridge (the lowest point with ski tracks to it is where we climbed)
Going up! Helmet might work better on our heads next time...
Going up! Helmets might work better on our heads next time… A cornice is snow buildup on the ridge caused by blowing wind.

A corniced ridge between two peaks. A steep climb would lead us to the other side. What would we see? Mountains would’ve been a good guess but damn did I want to see them. We switched back and forth, back and forth learning through necessity how to efficiently do a 180 on a 40 degree slope. Our skis, or perhaps our skills, began to fail us as the face grew steeper. Unable to hold an edge and thus make progress, we removed our skis and strapped them to our backs as we climbed the last 10 meters on foot. Vehicle sized cornices lurked above us waiting for the sun to melt them free. It was a bad place to hang out so we climbed quickly, finally facing the snowy beast after endless switch backs that avoided eye contact. A few icy kicks, and we were on top.

The view from the dragons back.
The view from the dragons back.

The view from the dragons back was exhaustive. Fangs of rock, snow, and ice stuck out everywhere. A colossal glacier seeped toward us from a distance. The untouched ski down the opposite side of the ridge looked endless, inviting us to an extra 6 hours back to camp, we ignored it as politely as possible.

Looking along the ridge. See the slightly detached cornices?
Looking along the ridge. See the slightly detached cornices?

As elation waned, we transitioned into ski mode, ate, and hydrated. A quick piss was the last opportunity to contemplate the view before we went back the way we came. We would have stayed up there forever had the cornices not been absorbing radiation for the past two weeks, coming closer and closer to unpredictable release.

Well worth every blister!
Well worth every blister!

We side-slipped down next to our boot tracks until we felt comfortable enough to face the fall line and rip some turns. And rip them we did. In 15 minutes we skied down what took us hours to climb. Our legs are screaming on our last turns and my technique went to shit. Now we just have to skin back out. Never again will I wonder why lift tickets are so expensive.

[The day was far from over for us. On the way down we decided to climb another 500 meters to Taylor Pass so we could ski down to camp instead of skinning back the way we had came. Totals for the day: 19.3 kilometers of distance, 1540 meters of elevation gain. Oh yeah, and 1540 glorious meters of elevation loss 🙂 I’m heading back out tomorrow for 11 days. Stay tuned for more!]


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