PHOTO: Robin O'Neill
PHOTO: Robin O'Neill

Living Off-Grid in a Skier’s Paradise

Derek Galbraith lives for solitude and skiing in a remote corner of Alaska

PHOTO: Robin O’Neill

This interview was first published in the February 2017 (45.6) issue of POWDER. Subscribe here.

Derek Galbraith lives in a cabin, in the woods, in a remote corner of Alaska, far from the conveniences of modern life, but close to the best skiing in the world—Thompson Pass. Galbraith, 45, built his sparse home with logs from spruce trees. It's a work of art and, typical of a contractor's residence, one that will never be finished. He came from Utah in 1996 in a Toyota van with three dogs and first settled in Valdez. Then a friend told him about a commune at the 46-mile marker on Thompson Pass without electricity or water or trash-collection services, and he was sold. His bathroom is a hole in a wooden bench in an outhouse 50 yards from the cabin—to get there, you have to posthole through the snowbank—but damn if there isn't a more beautiful view from a toilet seat. The Alyeska Pipeline runs directly under his plot of land—marked by an orange sign with numbers—so the state plows the road. But otherwise, this life is no-frills DIY in a skier's paradise.

Julie: You're hard to get in touch with. I'm guessing that's the point.
Derek: Yeah, for like five years we all lived out here with no phone. Then they brought a phone line in, and a few years later, unfortunately, there's more Netflix now than reading. It's kind of a bummer, but what do you do? I still read, of course.

His bathroom is a hole in a wooden bench in an outhouse 50 yards from the cabin—to get there, you have to posthole through the snowbank—but damn if there isn't a more beautiful view from a toilet seat. PHOTO: Robin O’Neill

Did it take long to get used to the solitude?
Not for me. But some people, for sure. I like it… Especially when I was younger, we'd get these big wind events, and I'd turn my phone off for 10 days—there's no point if there's no skiing. Just hunker down and read Jack London and weird out.

What's the story behind this neighborhood?
In the '60s, when Alaska had the remote state property program going, somebody liked the area and they staked out 160 acres, got it surveyed, and it was theirs. I think the guy wasn't a skier—skiing hadn't taken off here by any means yet. He just loved the area…The neighborhood has actually been called Serendipity, and most of us that ended up here, it was serendipitous. We ended up here just by weird chance, a collective of skiers.

Who are your neighbors?
Every single person out here is interested in skiing or snowboarding. We're off the grid, we deal with lots of snow, so you have to want to be right here to deal with these things.

How many days of skiing do you get in?
I mean, it's so varied year to year, but I try to get 100 days in…Thompson Pass, if the wind hasn't blown and you can see, it's usually good skiing. There are times where you'll have 16 inches of sastrugi on the whole range. But then you get those magical times and it's like the best skiing in the world.

Seems like the Alaskan way is really a do-it-yourself way. Does that apply to skiing, too?
You know, heli skiing is a big deal, and that's how most of us heard about Valdez…We kind of were like, Wow, this is a heli ski area. This isn't ski touring. But when we came back a couple weeks later, it was bright and sunny, and of course, you just start walking up everything 'cause it is user-friendly to a certain extent.

Is that what keeps you here?
Skiing brought me to Alaska, but basically Alaska itself has kept me here. Just the wide expanses, the economic opportunity to start your own business, and the space. Alaska, it's not really the big party scene and you're not getting great food. You're not gonna go to the sushi bar and hang out and talk about what you did all day long…You sacrifice a lot to live up here. It is a little bit harder, but those of us that like it, love it.