B.S. Glacier – Denali N.P.

Climbing season in Denali National Park typically begins around mid April.  Though there are winter assents of routes and peaks, the majority of the Alaska Range does not see consistent winter travel.  Similarly, though there is a fare bit of skiing that takes place within the range, Denali National Park does not have a “ski season” per say.  Most ski descents outside of the obvious peaks have gone undocumented and have occurred as part of climbing expeditions.  Therefore, it is always quite difficult to say whether a specific line or zone has been successfully skied, or even attempted.  That being said, the names we have dubbed lines and zones from this trip are not official.  Though we’d love to claim credit for being the first to descend them, we do not have the necessary documented history to do so.  In fact, being that the B.S. Glacier is a fairly popular climbing zone, it is likely that many of our successes on this trip have been duplicated.  I can; however, discern that if our successes were not firsts, they are far from frequent or common.  I certainly encourage anyone with further information, history or documentation to please get in touch with me, as I would love to hear more about it.

140323-140330_BS Glacier-Denali NP from Teton FreeRide on Vimeo.

After a dismal winter all around in AK, and a few weeks of researching logistics and snow packs throughout the state, on March 22nd of 2014 Michelle and I arrived at our buddy Ray’s house with some critical decisions left to make.  We had narrowed our trip down to the Alaska Range, which, given that we were scheduled to fly out of Talkeetna the next morning, left us with a number of key details to figure out that evening.  We wanted terrain that would provide for long and steep couloirs as well as fun glacier skiing.  Of course, these are not difficult things to find in the Alaska Range.  We ended up deciding on an area near the Moose’s Tooth, south east of Denali.  The year before, we had gone into an area called Little Switzerland and could not have asked for better weather, despite the mega cold spell (temps around -30 deg F).  Tracking the surrounding weather and the forecast for the week, all signs pointed at a large blocking high-pressure system for the foreseeable future.  This was our second year in a row of being among the first groups into the Denali National Park for the season.  Having another trip with what was lining up to be almost perfect weather may not sound that lucky to some; however, anyone that is familiar with this mountain range would probably agree that late winter/early spring in this region can be quite the toss up weather wise, and can change very quickly.

The next morning, March 23rd, Michelle, Ray and I left Anchorage well before sunrise in order to get to Talkeetna with time to finalize our permits, packing and check in with Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) in time for our 10 am departure.  Though the temperatures looked to be quite a bit warmer than what we had experienced the prior year, we opted for a little extra comfort on this go-a-round, and acquired an Artic Oven Tent for base camp.  For those not familiar with this tent, lets just say is comes with a full on wood burning style stove!  As a result, we were almost 100 lbs. over our weight allowance for the flight.  However, because our buddy Cody was scheduled to fly into join us a couple of days later, TAT lets us factor his allowance in as well.  Thank you TAT!!!  By 10:30 or 11am we were wheels up, which on these kinds of trips is well within what I would consider “on-time.”

The flight into the range was, as always, mind blowing.  The size and vastness of this place is unbelievable.  The Moose’s Tooth is a rock peak that tops out at 10,335 feet, and is famous for its spire like characteristics that create awe inspiring visual aesthetics, in addition to a variety of highly technical climbing routes.  As we flew closer to the tooth area, these famous rock towers grew more prominent.  It was like flying into the skyline of a city, only the buildings are spires of rock and ice.  Truly out of this world.  Paul Roderick, legendary TAT pilot, took a few laps around the area to help us scope the terrain, and then we touched skis down on the glacier.  Stepping out of the plane onto the glacier in a setting like this is always an incredible feeling.  Even more incredible, as well as ire, is the feeling of silencing isolation as the plane takes off and disappears into the horizon.

Once Paul was out of sight and on his way back to Talkeetna, we started in on the afternoon project of digging out and setting up camp.  Needless to say, this involves a little more than finding a flat spot and setting up a tent.  However, this year we just had one 4-6 person base camp tent, instead of the various personal tents and kitchen tarps that we had made camp with last year in Little Switzerland.  As I mentioned, this camp setup was pretty plush with the tent being fairly insulated, large enough to stand in, and inclusive of a wood-burning stove.  After camp was organized, and more importantly, the trail to the designated commode was probed and established, we decided to set out on a short evening tour.  With such a dry winter throughout much of Alaska, a major concern this year with glacier travel has been the low snow pack and potentially inadequate snow bridges being formed over crevasses.  To say the least, we were pretty eager to get a handle on what we would be working with over the next 7 days.  We went about a mile up glacier and could definitely see a lot of sags (potential crevasse snow bridges).  There was an enormous landslide in the past that actually covered and displaced a large portion of the glacier at this point, and we were able to skin about 100 vertical feet up the side of it to gain an elevated vantage point of the glacier.  You could definitely see a large number of covered crevasses out there, possibly a by-product of a lower snow pack.  It is always good practice to be prepared for and cautious of crevasses when traveling on glaciers.  Though we felt pretty good about the conditions, we took all appropriate precautions when traveling on this glacier and did not have any issues throughout the week.

Ray Mariani booting up Curly

Day one, March 24thWe woke to some early morning wind, but welcomed the slightly above 0 deg F temperatures.  Not to mention that waking up and firing up the stove made getting ready WAY more pleasant.  Our objective for the first day was to head down glacier to link up to a tributary glacier that would lead up toward the pass we had flow over the day before.  As with most things in the Alaska Range, getting to the tributary glacier took about twice as long as we had figured.  This tributary glacier was also bordered to the south by a prominent peak that adorned 3 very esthetic couloirs.  Two of which looked to be around 55 degrees and variable at the top.  With the third being more like 45 degrees, not quite as much vertical and higher likelihood of being able to top out.  We opted for this one.  Though this couloir was the shortest of the three, it was still pretty long.

Photo by Ray Mariani

We were able to skin up to the bergschrund and then set a boot pack from there.  About an hour later and over a thousand vertical feet later we were ready to click in.  On the way up we encountered a number of shallow instabilities and former crowns.  I dropped in getting a feel for the snow pack and further checking these areas as I descended.  It was stable, with some good and not so good turns throughout the descent.  Still, there is nothing like skiing a steep and long couloir in a setting like this.  It was great.  Oh, yeah, and I found a snow snake about half way down and did a bit of a high angle summersault, of which I was able to ski right out of, thankfully.  Michelle followed, also making her 100+ turn signature down the esthetic couly, and without the extra credit summersault.  Then Ray blazed down, probably making 1 turn for every 2 of ours.  It was sick!

Mich on her way down Curly.

As a result of my summersault, in addition to several other day one kinks we had worked out, and being that there were three couloirs and three of us, we dubbed this area “The Three Stooges”.  The couloir we had just skied was Curly because it was shorter and fatter, with Moe in the middle and Larry on the right.  On our way back down to the main glacier, we took the time to scope some additional zones that we had seen on the flight in.  This place was huge.  Just the general area we had been though on this day could provide weeks of skiing.  Upon arriving back into camp that evening, the sun was setting and we had been out for 8 or 9 hours.  This would prove to be a standard days work to ski anything significant in this area.

The Three Stooges

View down The White Wall

Day two, March 25thWe woke to our now usual routine of AM winds, fire, coffee, breakfast and then roping up.  We were somewhat undecided as to where we wanted to go, but figured that since we had a track laid most the way up to the pass, we’d start in that direction.  This time on our way down, we took note of a massive pillow zone that could be skied on our way back to the main glacier.  As we headed back up the tributary glacier and neared The Three Stooges, we had to decide whether we wanted to start up Larry or Moe, or continue onto the pass.

Ray Mariani entering
The White Wall

We choose the pass, thinking that we could have a look and still have the option of skiing back down glacier to The Three Stooges.  Right as we arrived to the pass, de-packed and broke out our lunches, the pass proved to be quite windy and cold.  So we made quick work of our snacks and decided that we would skin to the head of the glacier, where we could see a col.  Ray had seen a wall of spines as we flew in and believed that this col could be an entrance to this zone.  He was right.  When I first peaked over the edge, all I could really see was the glacier about 1,500 feet below.  Once we got a handle on the cornice and stability of the potential entrance, we could see the spines and couloir.  The entrance was insane, close to vertical for about 10 – 15 feet, then a 60-degree chimney for another 50 feet, and then a 45 or 50-degree couloir that was lined with spine walls on both sides.  At first, I was puckered and not into it.

Ray Mariani on the wall

Ray stepped up and said he was a go if we could belay him through the chimney.  Michelle, with her pure love for building anchors jumped at the opportunity.  With a bomber anchor set and the belay on, Ray worked his way down the upper section and into the chimney where within a couple of minutes he freed himself from the belay and began one impressive descent down the couloir.  After watching Ray, I decided to go for it.  I locked to the rope and worked my way down the first section and released the belay to ski the bottom half of the chimney.

Carving out of The White Wall.
Photo Ray Mariani.

It was quite steep and narrow and I came out of it with some heat with a 45-degree couloir or 50+ degree spine wall to choose from.  I carried my momentum across the couloir and laid a couple of turns down the edge of the spine wall.  Everything seemed to be sloughing out and accumulating in the couloir, the snow was really good.  After a few turns of pretty much getting pummeled with slough in the couloir, I jumped back to skiers left and worked my way though the lower spines and over to the wider exit of the neighboring couloir around the corner.

Mich surfing some glacier pow

I pointed it down to Ray and looked back at the wall with slough still billowing out onto the two aprons.  WOW!  What an amazing zone.  Big big props and thanks to Ray for stepping up to the plate and convincing us to make this one happen.  Also big big thanks to Michelle for the belays.  After disassembling her anchors, Michelle snuck her way around and lined up a nice long glacier pow run to meet us down on the glacier.  From there we had to poke around for a bit to work around a broken up section of the glacier and some interesting terrain features.  It was worth the time because we found the awe-inspiring pillow zone that we had eyed as we passed beneath it this morning.  Michelle found a couloir hidden in the midst of literally thousands of pillows, and was able to help guide Ray and I down our lines via radio.  Probably should have eyed the zone in a little more detail that morning because it was freaking steep, only allowing view of one turn or pillow below you at a time.  That is pretty tough when you’re talking about a line with 50+ pillows in it.  That evening when talking about the day, Ray kept referring to the wall of spines and couloirs as “The White Wall” because it was just that.  Additionally, when talking about the mega pillow zone, it was described as having to fight your way down it and listing to someone ski it sounded as such.  So we dubbed it “Pillow Fight.”

The White Wall

Day three, March 26th After two pretty big days we decided to sleep in a bit and have a bit of a rest day.

Mich on our “down day”

Cody was supposed to be flying in to join us sometime that morning and this would allow us to help unload the plane when he landed.  In the midst of an extra cup of coffee and some nice lounge time next to the fire, we heard the buzz of the TAT Beaver in the distance.  Right on time, Cody touched down on the glacier at about noon.  This left plenty of time in the day so ski and also left us divided, with two opting to rest for the remainder of the day and two wanting to get out for a short tour.  Cody was coming off of a two-week shift and only a couple hours of sleep in the last couple days, and I was pretty tired.  So we decided to kick back at camp, enjoy the sun and watch Ray and Michelle climb and ski an area near camp.  Plus, I got to use Ray’s camera and telephoto lens to snap some shoots of them.

Day 4 objective from camp

Day four, March 27thGoing to bed the night before, we all new we were in for a big one today.  Our objective was over 6 miles up glacier, through what looked to be a huge crevasse field and at least 1,500-vertical feet of steep couloir.  B.S. Gap was a couloir in a cirque at the head of the glacier and right next to the Moose’s Tooth.  According to our maps, if we could manage to get around the massive cornice at the top, we should be able to view the Ruth Glacier and Denali on the other side.

Photo by Ray Mariani

We had read about a group in the 80’s possibly using this gap as part of their historic 3-month traverse through the heart of the range.  Sure enough, our commute to the base of the objective was not short of interesting terrain features and navigation of the glacier.  There were some really impressive bridges and holes that left more than enough for the imagination.  This kind of thing gives me goose bumps even writing about it after the fact.  As we got closer to the base of the Moose’s Tooth, the reality of its sheer size began to set in.  To add some perspective, this massive rock towers approximately three and a half times the height of the Empire State Building over the glacier.

Photo by Cody Pink

Once again, we were able to skin up to the bergschrund and started booting from there.  This time; however, crampons and ice axes were a necessity.  It was steep and firm.  As we ascended, we felt good about the stability, but just as in Curly, we did encounter a few variable sections.

Hallway to Denali.
Photo by Cody Pink.

On the left we had some wind loaded pockets with shallow trigger points, and the right half of the couloir was directly beneath the massive overhanging cornice at the top.  There was a manageable route up between the two and we made it happen.  Approaching the top, I could see that there was a flat bench to the left of the cornice.  Then, once I reached the bench, I could see a wind-scoured hallway of sorts.  On one side of the saddle there was the cornice that overhung the couloir we climbed up, and on the other side there was cornice that faced the opposite direction.  Interestingly, between the two was a hallway of ice that allowed passage to the other side.  And there she was…..Denali.  What an amazing vantage point of this beautiful place.  Looking directly across the Ruth Glacier at Denali, I aimed my camera to snap a photo and thought, “Wow, not many people have this photo.”

After a few minutes of awe-ing over the views we realized how cold it was up there, and that we still needed to descend and get all the way back to camp.  It was about 5pm when I starting down the 50+ degree couloir.  It was NOT good skiing.  In fact, I can only remember a few times where the term “survival skiing” was so prevalent.  Ray and I convened at the bottom, both glad to be down.  As Michelle and Cody worked their way down to the bergschrund, I heard a big pop from the Moose’s Tooth.  I turned my head just in time to see a column of icefall from a hanging ice field.  Talk about being speechless.  Based on how long it took for the ice to fall to the glacier below and the size of the powder cloud that followed, we estimated that it fell about 2,500 feet and may have been as tall as a football field is long (300 feet) when it released.

Photo by Cody Pink

Ray and I were out of harms way, but did feel some of the ice crystals from the powder cloud.  This was by far the biggest natural showing of power I have ever witnessed in person.  Shortly there after, Cody and Michelle were able to put their tongues back in their mouths and join us on the glacier below.  After a pretty exhausting commute back to camp, we finally slide in around 9pm.  We were worked at that point, so getting geared down, water melted and dinner made was no easy task.  Going to bed that night felt pretty good.

Day five, March 28thNot sure how the bodies would feel this morning, we chose to head back down glacier toward the Three Stooges, White Wall and Pillow Fight.  This would give us familiar options, as well as the ease of utilizing an existing track.  When passing below Pillow Fight, we decided that no matter what else we skied, we had to go back through there because, well, how often do you get to ski what seemed like endless pillows.  Further up we approached The Three Stooges and just did not have 2,000 feet of setting a boot pack in us.  This left us with two last options; to continue up to the head of the tributary glacier, and either enjoy a long glacier ski down to Pillow Fight or to drop over the other side and into The White Wall.  Well, once we made it all the way to the head of the glacier and knowing what was right over the other side, we could not resist the pull of The White Wall.

Working my way over to the fin.
Photo by Ray Mariani.

This time, with a complete U-turn from my first reaction to packing over the entrance, I chose to drop into The White Wall unsupported (no ropes).  This was not an unsafe decision; it would just require some careful and precise moves.  As I prepped to drop in, Cody, also having a great amount of enthusiasm for building anchors, worked with Michelle to setup a belay to lower Ray and Michelle.  I slowly worked my way down the upper section and through the chimney.  It was not bad at all, especially after having a roped in trial run a few days prior.

Ready to ride the fin.
Photo by Ray Mariani.

Once through the chimney, I traversed far skiers left and was able to get on top of the massive fin that separated the couloir and spine wall from an even bigger couloir off the other side.  This fin was pretty narrow with an almost vertical drop to the left and very steep spines to right.  Not o mention, it was steep.  Certainly one of the coolest terrain features I have ever skied or even dreamed of skiing.  As a bonus, when I made it to the bottom, it ended in a wall of spines down to the bergschrund and glacier.  The amount of slough I created as I descended was breath taking as it billowed out onto the apron of both couloirs.  I was incredibly excited about this one.  Ray followed, surfing the spine wall this time for most of his decent.  Then, Michelle confirmed over the radio that she was a go and would have Cody belay her in.  I am sure she was nervous, but funneling that fear into calculated moves and solid skiing, she nailed it!  Michelle impresses me on a daily basis, but I was really impressed, however, not surprised at all to watch her pick this one off.  Big big thanks this time to Cody for the belays!

Fighting some pillows.
Photo by Cody Pink.

He was also able to score a long glacier pow run along side Michelle’s tracks from a few days prior.  This time, we had a better idea of how to get down to Pillow Fight from The White Wall.  Also having skied through there once before, round two on Pillow Fight was awesome.  Seriously, what a rad area and even cooler that it is on the way out from skiing these other amazing zones.  And almost just like that, we were back at camp with another long day in the bag.

Day six, March 29thI think the 2-day soreness theory might have caught up to us.  I could feel a significant reduction in energy and strength, as we were all pretty worked at this point.  However, we were on for an AM pick up the next day so we all wanted to dig deep and ski whatever we possibly could that day.  There was another pillow zone closer to camp, that we had seen throughout the week.

Michelle and Ray heading back around for lap #2 in the smaller pillow zone

It was not as high up as the other lines or as big as Pillow Fight, but it looked fun and manageable given our fatigued state.  It was pretty warm out with almost no wind, and this provided for a really easygoing tour.  Sun, pillows, corn and glacier pow…..It was a great way to end the trip.  That afternoon we got back to camp much earlier in the day than days prior.  It was really nice to just take it all in, start packing up camp a bit and enjoy our last evening out.  We had setup a time lapse to capture the sun setting behind camp.  It was not until we were home and going through the footage that we realized a major avalanche or icefall had occurred at the head of the B.S. Glacier.

That evening we experienced a pretty good earthquake, which given where we were, was a bit nerve-racking.  As it turned out, this earthquake was likely the cause of the major event we unknowingly had caught on camera.  In the frame, the debris came from lookers left, tracked across the glacier (over a kilometer wide) and carried upwards of 1,000 feet up the slope on the other side.  Talk about goose bumps.

Unaware of this awesome display of natural power, we spend that last evening recapping the week, planning future trips and playing Farkle next to the fire!  Once again, what a trip!!!

The Crew: Ray, Michelle, Mikey, Cody

Gear Highlights:

The Volkl V-Werks Katana is a stiff, high performance big mountain ski, but lightweight for touring.  The carbon fiber build allows for the best of both worlds as far as performance and lightweight touring.  You can really utilize this ski in any terrain and in any conditions.

Marmot’s Isotherm Hoody offers additional warmth with breathability at minimal additional weight, as wells as compressibility for storing in your pack when not in use.

Scarpa’s Freedom SL Freeride Touring Boot is by far the most versatile boot to hit the Freeride/Touring genre to date. It is stiff enough to handle the big lines, but light enough to not hold you back on the hikes and tours. The walk mode provides a great range of motion and because the boots natural position is ski mode, you do not have to worry about that untimely shift to walk mode while skiing.

Marmot’s Col MemBrain sleeping bag is 800 fill goose down and rated to -20 deg F.  I have used this bag numerous expeditions, including several trips into the Alaska Range and Denali National Park.  It has kept me warm and rested for some very big and long days in some very adverse conditions.

Posted in Spring 2014 | Comments closed

A Bomber of a Traverse

In late February 2014, a group of us headed out to complete the Bomber Traverse of the Talkeenta Mountains in Alaska. The traverse includes 20+ miles of alpine and glacial travel, 6-10 thousand feet of assenting and defending, 3 different backcountry huts, and all with 40+ lb packs.  During such a mild, dry and overall strange winter thus far in AK, we were quite unsure what variety of conditions we would encounter, what crevasse issues the low snow pack would provide, and how far we would actually make it.

As we worked our way up the Little Susitna River drainage on day one, evidence of the extreme warm spell experienced a month prior was observed in all directions with now seized up remnants of wet slides, glide cracks and large debris fields.  Upon making our assent from the drainage up to the Mint Hut the snow conditions eluded to a fairly seized snow pack, with intermittent fasting underlying an unbreakable crust.  Though this would not provide for great skiing conditions, at least thus far it gave hope to possible stable passage of the Back Door Gap the next morning.  That evening we arrived to the Mint Hut at sunset and in true AK fashion, the rugged alpine terrain surrounding the hut made for one hell of a setting.

The next morning the temperatures were a bit warmer and definitely elevated our concern about snow stability in the Back Door Gap.  The Back Door Gap is at +/-1,500-ft assent up a 35-40 degree slope and couloir that tops out just below 6,000-ft elevation.  At this location, the top of Back Door Gap gives passage to the head of the Penny-Royal Glacier to the west.  We were able to safely work our way up back door gab, encountering breakable and unbreakable crust with firms ice and much colder temperatures toward the top.  This was definitely the toughest part of the traverse between the heavy packs and slide for life conditions on the assent.  The decent onto Penny-Royal Glacier provided for a bit softer skiing and sunlight, which was welcomed after the firm and cold conditions just experienced. The decent down the glacier and moraine to the Bomber Hut was pretty low angle, but a really enjoyable ski.  Still firm in most places, but enjoyable.  Once again, the hut is located in an amazing alpine setting on the lower moraine.  We arrived to this hut a bit earlier in the evening than the last one and took advantage of the extra rest, as we were pretty whooped at this point.

The next day was slated to be an easier climb, as it is pretty much all touring at a manageable gradient.  We woke an went through the usual routine of boiling water for coffee, to then melt snow and boil for our porridge / rain deer sausage, to then melt snow for water for the day.  The trip from the Bomber Hut to the Snowbird Hut begins by continuing to descend down the glacier moraine about another 1,000 or so feet.  Then a gradual assent of around 2,000 feet up the lower Snowbird moraine, drainage, and finally to the toe of the Snowbird Glacier.  This stretch of touring was some of the most amazing and enjoyable touring I have done.  The last pitch up to the toe of the glacier from the frozen lake was a bit firm, steep and sporty, but other than that it was pretty easy going.  We arrived to the Snowbird Hut to find our buddy Ray awaiting us.  Which made since, because we were supposed to meet there by noon, and it was now like 3:30pm.  One, we did not think Ray would actually be there that early, and two we gave it a 50/50 split on whether or not he would attempt the approach from the Snowbird Mine trailhead solo.  Well, he did and he did it with a half an hour to spare.  To try and make up for the late arrival, Ray and I went out for a few mellow laps down glacier before dinner and Farkle.  ”Sorry Ray, but it was a fun evening outing at least.”

The next morning we woke up to yet another bluebird day.  After completing our routine (see above) we headed out up glacier for some turns.  Crossing the glacier, toward the big ole nunatak, we had to be mindful of the number of moulins located throughout the glacier.  The skiing and views around Snowbird Glacier are quite something.  The area contains a lot of options over a number of aspects.  While we were out skiing, two helicopters flew into the hut off in the distance, apparently dropping off a group of skiers.

Once back to the hut, we were really stoked to have had the whole traverse to our selves and figured we could end the traverse on that note, so we decided to accompany Ray back down to the trail head, completing the traverse a day early.  What a trip through some of the most amazing alpine terrain imaginable.

Though our trip was self guided, we  utilized the map and notes from The Alaska Factor for this trip. For more on the Bomber Traverse check out Stockalpine.com and/or The Alaska Factor by Joe Stock.

Here is an edit from the trip, enjoy:

140220-140223_a Bomber of a Traverse from Teton FreeRide on Vimeo.

Gear Highlights:

Scarpa’s Freedom SL Freeride Touring Boot is by far the most versatile boot to hit the Freeride/Touring genre to date. It is stiff enough to handle the big lines, but light enough to not hold you back on the hikes and tours. The walk mode provides a great range of motion and because the boots natural position is ski mode, you do not have to worry about that untimely shift to walk mode while skiing.

The Volkl V-Werks Katana is a stiff, high performance big mountain ski, but lightweight for touring.  The carbon fiber build allows for the best of both worlds as far as performance and lightweight touring.  You can really utilize this ski in any terrain and in any conditions.

Marmot Alpinist Tech Jacket offers incredible warmth as a mid layer, as wells as practical compatibility for storing in your pack when not in use.

Marmot Glide Softshell Glove coupled with the Marmot PreCip Shell Mitt is a match made in heaven for a touring ski glove/mitt.  The Glide Softshell Glove is wind and water resistant combined with warmth and when it starts to get a bit chilly, having the PreCip Shell Mitt to slide on over the glove keeps your hands right where they want to be, dry and warm.

Marmot’s Col MemBrain sleeping bag is 800 fill goose down and rated to -20 deg F.  This bag can be used for a burley expedition in the Alaska Range, but is also packable and lightweight enough for a traverse through a mountain range like the Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska.

 

Posted in Winter 2013/14 | Comments closed

Home in the Tetons

It is always good to get home to the Tetons and that is exactly what Michelle and I were able to do the first part of December.  After a quick stop in Denver for Thanksgiving Boyd style, we shot up to Teton Valley to hang with my fam and get our pow legs in tune for winter.  And, of course, to hit up the annual Powder Pig Party for the Targhee Ski Patrol Avy Dogs.

I find it pretty ironic that our early season routine as Alaskans has been to get a couple of days in the backcountry prior to Thanksgiving, and then head down to the Tetons to really get our shred on.  If you cannot beat’em join’em, and this always seems to hold true for Wydaho and the Ghee.  Honestly, it says something when people not only consistently make the pilgrimage over from Jackson Hole and up from Colorado, but all the way down from AK too!

This year, our timing couldn’t have been better.  After getting hammered with winter storms throughout October and November, the Tetons experienced a pretty big lull in the weather patterns in late November.  However, that changed just in time for us to touch down in Eastern Idaho, as the snow began to fly.  New snows, short and cold high pressures, followed again by more snow, we certainly found what we were looking for.  Thank you to Mittsy for the not to aid in setting a particular boot pack and thank you to Jason for the snow pack beta.  Here is a short vid edit of the results……

131201-131208 Home in the Tetons from Teton FreeRide on Vimeo.

Gear Highlights:

Scarpa’s Freedom SL is probably the most diverse boot to hit the freeride touring boot market yet.  It is quite stiff for it’s incredibly lite weight, and really allows you to power a ski.  Touring, boot packing, or just shredding around the resort; these activities and more are all well within the wheel house of this boot quiver in one!

Marmot’s Great Scott Jacket is a new addition to their line of stylish shred wear.  This jacket is light enough to take into the backcountry, but heavy enough to provide warmth while lapping your favorite lift at the resort.  The price is right too!

Volkl’s Two is a new addition to their big mountain line and it is playful!  Stiff enough to drive through turns and stomp landings, but carries the pop and shape to accompany your bag of tricks for sure.  And let me not forget to mention the float in pow!!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted in Fall 2013 | Comments closed

A NEW SEASON: CHERISHING EACH TURN

 

With winter right around the corner, I imagine most people are preparing as they always do, with dry land training, sets at the gym, dusting off gear, and watching ski movies. For many these are fall rituals. Mine are typically right along those lines, and of course, this goes hand in hand with great anticipation. But what happens when this ritual is disrupted by a potentially lifestyle changing disease? This year my anticipation for winter has a bit different feel than years past. It brings a sense of appreciation and perspective.

This past spring I began to experience some unusual aches and pains, primarily throughout my joints coming in waves. Over a short period of time, a few weeks to be exact, the aches and pains grew significantly worse, limiting my flexibility and my joints swelling to abnormal proportions. At this point, I could tell something was off and concerns set in.

Fearing the worst, doctor visits, labs and testing began. Symptoms grew worse and worse, and I began to face the fact that this could be the end of my skiing career, or worse. It got to the point where simple movements were painful and I dropped everything I touched because my hands were too swollen and sore to grip. At first, my symptoms were a likely candidate for rheumatoid arthritis, however, that was ruled out through testing. The usual cancers (pancreatic, testicular, etc.) were also cleared. Thank God. By then the doctors seemed stumped and though I was cleared of many things, there were still no answers. Neither of us would admit it, but both my fiancée and I still feared the worst.

After relentlessly researching my symptoms online, we decided to try removing gluten from my diet. Though some of my symptoms were indicative of Celiac Disease, many of them were not, and this seemed like of a long shot. At the same time, Celiac Disease has a wide range of symptoms and is a fairly uncommon and under-researched disease.

Low and behold, after a week or so of cutting gluten out of my diet my symptoms did show signs of improvement. I went in to the doctor for more testing and mentioned my improvements and change in diet. It was still unlikely that Celiac Disease was the cause but we convinced them to test for it anyways. The next week, my doctor called with results. I was officially diagnosed with Celiac Disease and possibly Angioneurotic Edema. While the seriousness of these conditions are not to be taken lightly, I cannot express the relief I felt to find out that it was not worse, much worse. I can deal with these conditions largely through my diet, which compared to many things, is a huge win!

It’s been a month since the doctor gave me the diagnoses and my body is, for the most part, back to normal. Not only has the swelling mostly subsided, but cutting gluten from my diet has improved my overall nutrition. I’m starting to prepare for the ski season and am learning to use these diet changes to my nutritional advantage. As the air becomes crisp, I’m filled with not only excitement, but also gratitude. I’m feeling less pressure than I have in years past, and am quite ready for a winter of simply enjoying being on my skis. My usual goals for winter include things like shooting photos, acquiring publications, generating content for film or video spots, etc. Honestly, after a summer of battling with thoughts like “what if I can’t do what I love to do,” this winter is simply about cherishing each turn.

I would like to wish everyone a happy, fun, and safe winter. Start on those fall rituals, get out there and enjoy it!

Mikey

w/ Scarpa at http://blog.scarpa.com/a-new-season-cherishing-each-turn-with-mike-leake/

Posted in Fall 2013 | Comments closed

Alaska Range (Lil Swiss)

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.

Mikey

Michelle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michelle droppin in

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.

Joe

Mikey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michelle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Cody & Jason

 

Michelle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jason

Jason

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.

Mikey

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.

Mikey

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.

“Hot Coors”

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.

Jason

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.

 

 

Michelle

Mich dropping

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Mikey

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.

 

Joe, chillin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As usual, here is a POV edit of the trip.  Also, check out some photos from the trip at Pics or picasaweb.google.com/mikeleake.

130410-130416 Lil Swiss from Teton FreeRide on Vimeo.

Mikey

Gear Highlights:

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.

 

Posted in Spring 2013 | Comments closed
  • About Teton FreeRide

    Teton FreeRide is a content based blog founded and operated by Mike "Mikey" Leake. Mikey has lived in the Teton Valley region of southeastern Idaho and western Wyoming most of my life. He has also had the opportunity to live and play in the Lake Tahoe area, and now, Alaska too!

    After competing on the Freeskiing World Tour on-and-off for 10 years Mikey has transitioned to judging various events and become an advisory board member with the International Freeskiers & Snowboarders Association (IFSA). Over the past 13 years he has worked in the ski industry through skiing as an athlete, coach, guide, ski patrol, event coordinator, event judge, marketing consultant, team manager, videographer, and as an associate producer. Mikey has a true passion for the outdoor industry and tries to be involved in every aspect possible.