Earlier this month, Joe Calder and Jason Oneill flew up from Teton Valley to join Cody Pink, Michelle and I for a trip into the Alaska Range. Arriving in Talkeenta, we decide to pop into the Fairview for a beer and to see where we could find a room or two for the night. Low and behold, the bar keep asked how many rooms we wanted and we were set. It was like a scene out of the old west, with small rooms right above the bar in this 100 year old building. The next morning we woke to temps well below zero in Talkeetna. A nice little sample of what was to come. The cold morning quickly led to the need for food and warm coffee. After all, whats a trip into the Alaska Range without one last big meal at the Roadhouse. After grubbing down we checked in at the Rangers Station, and then headed over to Talkeetna Air Taxi. It is quite common for climbers to be stuck in Talkeetna for several days due to weather, or just to wait their turn for a flight during the busy season. With nothing but high pressure in the forecast and being one of the first groups in the range for the season, we were in the air in no time.
Everyone’s faces were wide-eyed and full of excitement. As we approached the mountains, their shear size began to become a reality. The further in we got, the more the peaks grew in size and steepness. Massive vertical rock, wrapped in snow and ice, and unbelievable views of Denali (20,320 ft) and Foraker (17,400 ft). Probably the most amazing flight of my life! Before we new it, Paul Roderick (pilot) had us right next to rock faces and banking turns right around spires like they were slalom gates. Jason literally tried to jump out of his seat, luckily his seatbelt was there to remind him not too. As we flew between two peaks and over a saddle, there it was…..Pika Glacier. Paul came over the radio and welcomed us to our destination “Little Switzerland”. We flew down glacier to make our turn and approach to land on the upper end of the Pika. This provided for quite the introduction to the area. Overwhelming really. We certainly had our work cut out for us. There were endless options to ski, but certainly not many gimmies.
Our gear was quickly piled up on the glacier and Paul was gone. It was SO silent. Just us, the breath taking surroundings, and not a single track. The feeling was as though we had just been dropped off on another planet. With the temps being as cold as they were, we decided to dig in and set up camp right away. Setting up camp on the glacier was actually a lot of fun. Everything had to be excavated and bermed to minimize direct wind. This took a couple of hours. Once we had base camp in respectable shape, it was time to ski. The Trolls were just to our east and that is where we went.
The Trolls are a series of 4 spires with couloirs between each. We figured we would ski the most sluffed out couloir to start and get a handle on the snow pack. Glacier travel always takes a little getting used to for me and somehow I was leading this first climb. You could tell I was a bit crevasse shy by the sparatic route I lead across the glacier and up through the bergschrund. The sun began to creep behind the peaks lining the west side of the glacier and the immediate drop in temperature was more than noticeable. After ascending about half of the couloir, we decided to get back to camp and get dinner and water going before the sun set. The temperature pretty much caught us all a bit by surprise. We knew that early season in the Alaska Range would be cold, but it was damn cold. It was literally all we could do to cook dinner, fill water bottles, and crawl into our tents. I was rigged with a -20 deg F sleeping bag, and we figured it was about -30 deg F that first night. Brrrrrrr.
The next morning we woke to what we thought was direct sunlight for the day. It was SOOOO nice to see the sun. As it turned out, camp was positioned in a manner that the sun would disappear behind a ridge line to our southeast for about 45 minutes after already risen through a saddle. I have to admit, after having been quite cold and jumped out of bed at first light, this false sun rise was a bit disappointing. And it would continue to doop at least one of us every morning. However, pretty funny thinking about it now.
After jamming our feet into our boots, warming up and eating some breakfast, we headed out to ski and get a better handle on the snow pack on other aspects. This day did not consist of any major couloirs, but still some fun climbs, a little steeps, and some great snow! We climbed/skied this area called the Munchkins. Not super long by AK standards, but a great test slope and steep.
Then we skinned back up to the saddle between the two Munchkins and skied a super long glacier section with great snow off of the back (northern) side. Quite memorable. By that time it was mid afternoon and we skinned the mile or so back up glacier to camp for some lunch.
After lunch we went for a tour toward the ridge line that had stollen our sun that morning. This was quite a solid evening pow ski.
That evening at camp seemed much more manageable temps wise. I am not sure if it was because we got back to camp with the sun still up, or if we were better prepared mentally, but it sure felt more comfortable than the first night.
Mornings to come, I believe at least one person fell for the false sun rise. I usually did so on a voluntarily basis to get going on the morning routine. Climbing from our tent, shoving my feet and liners into my frozen boot shells, and running around camp until my feet no longer hurt. On this day, we decided to head down glacier a ways and try to up the ante a bit terrain wise. We found one couloir that was pretty heavily shedding cornice from above. Joe and Jason decide to have a closer look. Mich, Cody and I slid down glacier a bit more to a ramp we had been eyeing from camp (on the same wall/aspect as the cornice shedding coulie). Just about the time we starting heading up to the bergschrund, Joe and Jason radioed in that they were bailing on the ice spitting coulie and heading across glacier to a glaciated cirque.
This way we could all have eyes on each other and radio coms. We worked our way up through the bergschrund and about 1500 ft up this ramp. It was really quite cold while booting up this thing in the shade. Toes were pretty much numb. The snow was punchy, but after digging around a bit, felt stable to ski. We dug our selves into the side of this thing and right as we began to get our skis on, we saw Joe and Jason descending a thousand or so feet of 38 degree pow in the cirque across the way. It was one hell of a site. Our ramp was about 50 degrees with some exposure on the skiers left. The snow was not a gimmie conditions wise either.
What a ski though, this thing was puckering to say the least. With Joe and Jason watching from the comfort of their sunny white beach across the glacier, everyone pretty much nailed it! Mich did have a bit of a bobble airing over the schrund near the bottom, but she threw her edges in and rolled right into a controlled turn. A really solid recovery and certainly part of the game! We all met up on the glacier and decided to switch, Joe and Jason would head up the ramp, and we would head up the cirque. It was SOOOO nice to hit the direct sun light again. We were pretty cold by this point. It was also nice to have a boot pack already set by Joe and Jason. We booted up the glaciated cirque to a point just below the schrund. At this point Joe and Jason we just bringing their descent of the ramp and once again, what an amazing vantage point! We followed them, with our 1000 or so feet of wide open pow. The few miles of skinning back to camp appeared to help warm us back up a bit and we made it back to enjoy some sun before it dove behind the ridge line. What a day!!!! That evening we celebrated with some hot coors and whiskey.
Yes, I did just say “hot” coors. Think about it, its well below zero, you just hiked and skied your ass off all day, and you have that yearning for a refreshing drink or two. Well, believe me, you’re not yearning for a cold beer. I know this sounds awful, but a “hot” coors is serious amazing in this situation. You get about half of a pot of hot water going (not quite boiling, but hot). Grab one of your cold or frozen coors (or as many as can fit) and set them in the pot, rotating them from end to end until Joe does his face test to make sure their done. But be careful, this is not with out the occasion explosion, and honestly it is not recommended with out the supervision of one of us. Any of us would be happy to supervise on another amazing adventure!
When crawling into my sleeping bag that evening everything seemed to be comfortable, relatively warm and I was quite content. However, 3am rolled around and I awoke to one hell of a burning, tingling, pain in my right foot. I pulled my foot out of my sleeping back and there it was…..a super swollen, bright red and blackening little toe. My foot had apparently been a bit colder that I thought throughout that previous day. At this point it had been frozen for about 12 hours and had just started to thaw through the night. Pretty uncomfortable. The next morning, once the sun rose (for good), I showed everyone my foot. It was now bright red, ballooned to twice the size of my other little toe, black around the knuckle, and blistered on the underside. No good….. Now I was at risk of refreezing it and possibly losing it for good. This meant, no more skiing and keeping it warm in overboots for the day and a half remaining until we were schedule to be picked up. I was still pretty damn grateful for the skiing I did get to do and at least it was sunny and beautiful out.
While I spent the rest of the trip laying in the sun, reading, journaling and packing up camp, the rest of the crew knocked off two more really cool couloirs and skied another amazing glacier pow run. They climbed as far as they could up a couloir theyaptly called Little Toe Couloir ha ha. It also was challenging snow and super steep, but they nailed it and I could see the whole thing from camp.
The last morning, they all decided to try and get up and down the northern couloir in the Trolls, which was about 2000 ft up to a really steep chimney that clocked in at about 55 degrees. I was able to watch this go down right above camp and it was impressive! I was getting so pumped I ket haltering and running around camp. They crushed this thing. When they skied back into camp I ran out on the skin track for some high fives!!! I really wish I could have skied these two coulies with them, but I am glad I at least got to watch them. It was really quite neat.
Once the celebrating slowed down, we packed up camp just in time to wait for a couple of hours for Paul to swoop in and pick us up. Naturally we killed the time by laying out in the sun, sipping whiskey, and shooting guns! What a freaking awesome adventure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The Alaska Range is seriously not to be taken lightly. Wow.
Marmot’s Col MemBrain sleeping bag is 800 fill goose down and rated to -20 deg F. I pretty well exceeded this temperature rating on this trip and I did just fine. Infact, I frost bit my foot one day and owe the re-warming and capability of keeping it warm to this sleeping bag!
Scarpa’s 2013/14 Freedom SL Freeride Boot is probably the most diverse boot to hit the freerdie touring boot market yet. It is quite stiff for it’s incredibly lite weight, and really allows you to power a ski. Skinning and boot packing for hours up a couloir, and then shredding back down as if you were just dropped by a heli is the name of the game for this boot!
Marmot’s Alpinist 2P tent provided for the perfect base camp home on this trip and with it’s strong pole structure, we were able to block snow closely around the parimeter. This thing is certainly burly enough for glacier base camps as well as high mountain camps.