Video: Stairway to Heaven

Behind the December 2016 cover with Cody Townsend

Video: Shot by Cody Townsend; Edited by Brian Davis
Words: Cody Townsend
Photo: Reuben Krabbe

They call it an “Alpine Start.” It’s a euphemism for ‘you’ll sleep when you’re dead.’ When the alarm struck at 2:00 a.m., the lethargy that accompanies three hours of sleep was entirely absent. Instead, the nervous anticipation of what was to come pulled me straight up from a slumber. I emerged from the tent. The line, the face, the peak we were to climb and ski was outlined by a background of thousands of stars. The only thing at that point luring me back to the tent, into the comfort of the sleeping bag, was the biting cold winds pouring down the glacier we were camped on deep in the heart of the Tordrillo Mountains of Alaska. The winds were katabatic though, winds which flow down glacial valleys like water down a river. The peaks thousands of feet above were as calm as the inside of our cavernous, 12 person warming tent. All signs pointed to yes. We were a go. It was time to climb and ski the infamous “Wizard of Ahhhs.”

Take a look at what’s inside the December issue.

Mark Abma, Austin Ross, and I donned and checked each other’s harnesses and gear.

“Double backed?”
“Check.”
“Ice screws?”
“Check”
“Who’s got the rope?”

We pushed out of camp at 3 a.m. fueled up on warm coffee and syrupy oatmeal. Skinning into the dark, the maze of crevasses that insnared the lower third of the Wizard was hidden by the dark. We had scouted a route through the labyrinth many times before. Yet with only the 20 foot reach of a headlamp, every undulation, depression, and bulge in the snow made us question where we were. The rope we tied into was our sole margin of safety at that point.

After all, we’re skiers, not climbers. We came to shred, not add another peak to our checklist.

As the night’s black began to turn to dawn’s dark blue, we realized we made it through the crevasse maze. Being on the lower slopes of the spine wall comforted us. But now the grunt work began. Ripping our skins off, we snapped into ascent plates combo’ed with crampons. The plates for that little extra bit of snowshoe like flotation with crampons just in case we had to bail from our intended route straight up the top of the spine and into the icy runnels.

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Austin took the lead. He wallowed, swam, and, inch by inch, fought up through the waist deep snow piled deep on top of the spine. Sweating, breathing like a race horse, I swapped leads. We played leap frog up the spine for the next 2000 feet. One turn swimming. Two turns recovering in the back.

With the air of thousands of feet under our heels, the burst of energy that came with the sun peaking over the horizon was electrifying. The beauty. The subarctic pastels of alpenglow light. The warmth. Shit, the warmth. Suddenly the cornice that loomed above our entire climb came into focus. As we got closer and closer, we could finally grasp its size. City blocks could be constructed on its overhang. For nine-tenths of the climb, our spine route protected us. If anything were to fall from above, it would go around our island of safety. For that last tenth though, we were right under its threatening and delicate hold on top of the peak.

“I’m no peak bagger,” Abma said to me. The summit would be only another 15 minutes away. Another 100 feet. My desire to stand on top, to welcome the comfort of being off the knife-edged spine we stood on urged me to the top. But it would take a gamble, a roll of the dice, a hope and a prayer that the cornice would not fall. My gut instinct told me it wasn’t worth it. After all, we’re skiers, not climbers. We came to shred, not add another peak to our checklist.

With that we dug platforms into the snow at our last comfortable spot before being completely under the cornice. I cautiously clicked into my skis, radioed to the cameraman more than a mile away. ‘Three, two, one… drop”…

Oh the magic. The freedom of sliding down powder snow at eye-watering speeds. I felt like a sky-diver dancing with the clouds as I floated in-between turns. I hooted. I hollered. I pretended I was a surfer slashing the lip of the spine like a wave. It was pure frickin’ magic.

At the bottom I stood on the safety of relatively flat land. I heard the faintest of yells from miles away. Specks on the horizon. Ian McIntosh, Dane Tudor, Griffin Post, and the TGR crew screamed from an opposing ridgeline after witnessing our descent while they waited to drop their own lines into a hidden bowl on the other side of camp. I screamed back.

Skiing out the bottom, back through the maze, Austin, Abma, and I recollected our decisions, our ski, the glorious morning. We halted in our tracks. A class two avalanche had ripped past our skin track. Sometime after we passed the crevasse labyrinth and before we dropped in, a cornice had fallen in the warmth of dawn. The mini-bus sized blocks were strewn about and the avalanche debris drained into 100 foot deep holes in the glacier. It felt like a sign that our plan, our route, our teamwork, and our alpine start were all the right calls.