WORDS AND PHOTOS: Christian Pondella
As we boot closer to the top of the fluted, 60-degree couloir, it's so steep and deep my scruffy face brushes the snow. I break stride to clear my sunglasses. I've climbed a lot of precipitous couloirs but nothing so steep that my face connected with the surface.
Chris Davenport, John and Jim Morrison, and I are in the middle of the Alaska Range, about 30 miles from Denali, near Mount Foraker, which rises some 13,000 feet above us. A couple days ago, we waited about 60 miles away in Talkeetna for a storm to clear. On the way in, the pilot warned us to have snowshoes and shovels on hand, ready to dig, as he expected the Cessna 185 to get stuck in the deep snow that had blanketed the region.
Alaska was in the middle of a memorable winter. It snowed 975 inches at Girdwood's Alyeska Resort by season's end, about 27 feet more than their annual average. In early April, after cancelling a trip to Europe, Davenport and I decided to do Alaska on a budget. We chartered a ski plane, got dropped off on an unnamed glacier, set up camp, and ski-toured to countless couloirs for a week. All for about a $1,000.
About 10 years ago, I spent a few weeks in Alaska in the Wrangell Mountains with friends, trying to ski one of the bigger objectives, getting our asses handed to us. These larger peaks create their own misery and weather. At some point, as we got down to the lower glacier, a light had gone off in my head: The best skiing in these mountains is on the smaller peaks in the lower elevations. By setting up base camp at one of a thousand basins, you can take advantage of the best quality and quantity of skiing in the range and avoid the pains of more unpredictable weather.
Airplane-assisted ski touring in Alaska is like car camping. You can bring as much gear (and booze) as you want and get dropped off anywhere. It also costs a fraction of a heli-ski trip. For around $600 per person, you can get in and out of the mountains. With a couple hundred dollars for food, a few nights in hotels, and a plane ticket to Anchorage, a 10-day trip could cost as little as a grand. It doesn't hurt that you get to camp in the heart of the mountains with your buddies, earning your turns and relishing the solitude.
After the clouds parted, we lifted out of Talkeetna into a wilderness of sky and mountains with our eyes glued to the windows for the next 35 minutes. Like a little leaf floating in the air, we flew past mountains towering thousands of feet above us, sometimes only 30 meters from the granite walls. We landed on the glacier and stepped out of the plane into a surreal fantasy world. It was as if a magic genie had granted us one last wish and we got this: four feet of new blower snow, blue skies, cold temps, no wind, and no one else around to make tracks except for a lone wolverine.
For the seven days we camped, the snow was out of a dream. It snowed about four feet the two days before we arrived, and the storm finished off with no wind, leaving a perfect blanket of cold smoke, non-wind-effected powder. Cold temps kept the snow ideal, and we didn't cause or see any avalanches in the area. One day, when we were skinning up to a couloir, a chunk about the size of a van broke off the bergschrund and tumbled down the slope right over Davenport's skin track. It left crater holes in the snow, confirming the stability of the snowpack.
So we skied everything in sight: the steep, fluted couloirs that dominated the view right out the front door of the tent, the beautiful peak down the valley, and a number of tours up and down the glacier. The cold Alaskan nights kept us in our cozy bags until the first rays of light hit the tent. We would ski in the late morning, then return to our fortress tent for lunch and a siesta, then head back out for the late-afternoon, early-evening adventure. Most of the tours included a few miles of trekking across the glacier, followed by 2,000 to 3,000 feet of booting and skinning.
At siesta time on our seventh day, we were sitting in the tent, reflecting on how lucky we were to be there, and how idyllic the trip had been. I happened to mention the word "wind" and how there hadn't been a breath of it, and then, suddenly, a gust shook the tent. We took it as an omen the mountain gods were looking over us. Knowing better than to push our luck, we made the call to get picked up the next day.
Before we departed, though, atop that fluted couloir I felt with my face, we enjoyed the brief comfort of being on flat ground and reflected on the amazing week of weather, or lack thereof, and deep snow. I clicked-in to my skis, nerves settling, and my skier instincts took over. We stared down at the run dropping away beneath us. In a few seconds, one after another, we dropped in and skied to the bottom, not stopping once for a photo. Sometimes, the richest images are best left to memory.
General Info: If you need a guide or equipment, check with Alaska Mountaineering School. Colby Coombs will take good care of you. Once you are back in Talkeetna, have a celebratory beer at the Fairview Inn and enjoy quality Alaskan culture.
How To Get There: Fly to Anchorage. Once there, stay at the Earth B&B (EarthBB.com).Lori is wonderful and can shuttle you the 115 miles to Talkeetna in one of her vans. Stop in to Wasilla (yes, that Wasilla) on your way to Talkeetna and load up on food at the market. Charter a plane with Talkeetna Air Taxi. Paul Roderick is a great pilot, plus you can sleep in their bunkhouse if the weather is bad.
This story was first published in the January 2013 (41.5) issue of POWDER