(Ed’s note: This is the third and final piece in a series—see earlier stories here.)
By Ian Fohrman
“How much time do you need to be in front of the hotel and ready to fly?”
“The van leaves in 20 minutes.”
I had been on-call with H2O, Dean Cumming’s famous heli operation, waiting for a weather window and an open seat to coincide for over a week. I knew the adages about always being prepared to fly on a moments notice but after around day five I had become complacent.
My camera batteries were charging in the guide’s house, my bag was packed for climbing not heli skiing, and I was still in my sleeping bag.
The next 18 minutes were a tunnel vision frenzy of gear throwing, putting clothes on backwards, and running back into the RV to grab forgotten items one at a time.
Belay loop in the FRONT! What am I doing?! F%$!
Beacon, shovel, probe. Skis, poles, boots.
I cruised through familiar safety talks and beacon checks, still recovering from the panic pack. Before I knew it I was huddled with four strangers atop the first AK peak of my life. I protected my shit-grin from the rotor wash as the A-Star lifted up and dove off the backside of the ridge, leaving us in silence.
We peered down on several thousand vertical feet of rolling white. No wind effect, no runnels, no sun cups or shining ice. It was not the Alaska I’d known the past six days. There was powder! I made sweeping super-G turns over rolling terrain and it wasn’t loud or painful.
The alarm screeched near my head. 7 a.m. RV Blinds up, rub eyes, pupils dilate… Clouds… Thick clouds. I felt like Bill Murray again. Maybe the heli and the creamy sweeping turns were a dream?
There had been a small amount of accumulation over night and the new plan was to find snow machine bumps up one of the gullies directly across from camp. If we got too socked in, there are no glaciers to navigate and it’s fall line to the road. Plus, we had to do something.
We walked past the same people waiting on helis that weren’t going to fly or plans that wouldn’t materialize. We waved a $20 bill and begged for sled rides to no avail.
After 20 minutes I looked at Dorian: “F&% it, we’re walking.”
There was no discussion, only packing. Within moments we were moving. Click, slide. Click, slide. The skin was fast and steady and almost without a thought we were looking across a short stretch of glacier and up at Python. Python is one of the most prominent peaks viewed from Thompson Pass and it had been teasing us though sucker holes in the clouds all week. We picked a direct line across the glacier and started booting up the obvious funnel in the center of the peak.
The snow morphed from chest deep wallowing to easy kicking to impenetrable marble bed surface. The center of the wide chute had sloughed and made ice axes handy tools if not necessities. The weather ebbed and flowed throughout the climb. Moments of sun were punctuated by swirling gyres of crystals contrasting against the dark granite surrounding us. The marble morphed back into powder as we approached the cornice guarding the ridgeline and for a moment we were in a calm pillar of perfect light.
We started the process of tunneling/breaking through the cornice and watched nervously as graupel started to drift in and a wall of ominous dark weather approached quickly. If we broke through the cornice and booted the ridgeline we could access several narrower more aesthetic couloirs on the back side. We looked again at the approaching doom and made the decision to take what was in our hands and abandon the two in the bush.
Dorian dropped first, aired a small rock and shredded down the left and out of sight. The first three turns were a cleansing baptism of steep perfection. I pulled right just above the slick marble as a wave of slough tore past. I scraped down to Dorian, we high-fived, and looked at the several thousand feet of beautiful rolling terrain that still stood between us and the RV.
Before leaving Valdez I swung by my friend’s house to thank him and the other H20 guides for finding me powder in the frozen ocean and to wish them luck for the rest of the season. Predictably they were pouring over maps, weather forecasts, and updates from other operations looking for weather holes.
“Before you go, I have to show you this shot.” Aaron brought me his laptop with a mischievous grin. “THIS is what we would have skied on a good year.”
My heart sank as peered at the elegant fluted faces of my AK dreams and realized that while we had managed to give our turd a few glimmers, sometimes it’s better to just start off with a diamond.
“Check this out!” exclaimed the other guide, still glued to his monitor. “It looks like four more inches of precip and then it’s going to break blue on Wednesday!”
Aaron didn’t put much effort into feigning empathy, “Someone’s gotta be the sacrificial lamb. Travel safe man.”