(Editor’s note: The WildSnow AK crew’s solar electric system is under repair. The crew is working on a fix (Apollo 13!). Blog posts may be delayed. They’ve still got their sat phone and SPOT units functional so they’re safe for emergency comm, but they can’t send more photos or lengthy text at this time. Lou2)
After three days of incredible skiing we’re sitting in our tent, stuck in a storm. As I listen to the beating wind, images from the past days run through my mind.
We arrived in perfect weather. When it’s clear in AK, you go for it! “Ninja-style,” as Drake puts it. We’ve been doing just that, skiing from dawn till dusk, with small amounts of eating and sleeping in between. Not time for much else. Now that we’re storm bound we’ve got nothing but time. If the weather reports are to be believed, we’re in for a five-day storm, at least.
In any case we’ve skied some incredible lines, some of the best turns of our lives.
Zach and Jason landed on Monday morning. We immediately headed out on a tour. Being dropped into the middle of these mountains, we had little knowledge of the snowpack or conditions. Our first day, we prioritized snow evaluation and stability assessment. Wanting to get a good idea of all aspects, we toured up to a mellow saddle and split up the group to dig some snowpits. Zach and I dug one on a NE slope, while Coop and Cory dug on either side of the saddle, on E and W slopes, with Jason belaying. Our pits had fairly satisfactory results. We also did some quick ski cuts, with no results.
With cautious confidence in the stability, we skied down the east slope in search of ski lines. At the bottom we hung out a bit. While we were eating a snack, a heli approached, circled above, and landed nearby. A guy in a guide’s jacket hopped out, and started post-holing towards us. He asked us if we would mind if they filmed some steep spines above us. We didn’t really mind, but our “Alaskan wilderness experience” was shattered. Mark (the guide), also told us that there was going to be lots of heli activity in the area over the next few days, as there were 9 (!) film crews trying to get footage in the area. They should hire us to do their recons.
Although we were a bit bummed, we had known that sharing the terrain with heli-skiers was a possibility. We had chosen our location, at the head of the Riggs Glacier, with a variety of factors in mind. Since it’s been warm in the Glacier Bay area this winter, the high elevation of our camp is important. It’s also a fairly short flight from Haines, and in close proximity to a plethora of incredible ski lines (in particular a big face known as “Tomahawk,” due to the many pro riders who have done just that down the massive face.)
Our camp is inside the the national park, but just barely. Much of the nearby accessible terrain is outside the park, and therefore accessible for heli-access (as far as I understand, anyways). However, we’d been under the impression that they wouldn’t be in the area much, since it’s quite a long flight from the heli-bases. Unfortunately that didn’t seem to be the case.
Although we were a disappointed at having to share our skiing, that wasn’t the biggest issue. Twenty days on an Alaskan glacier is just about the best way to mitigate the “scarcity heuristic.” However, that safety advantage was blown out of the window. We all started to feel the drive to ski some of the bigger, more enticing lines near camp right away. Whoa.
We tempered our enthusiasm, and proceeded to investigate some enticing slopes above us. We split up. Zach and I headed for a short couloir, while Coop, Jason, and Cory headed up an adjacent slope. Zach and I dug a pit we didn’t like, but the other guys found some better stability, and skied a great line in the evening light.
We toured back to camp, and we’re excited to take advantage of the stability and good weather and ski some of the other big lines around camp in coming days. As for the heli film crews, we trust they’re having a nice nine days in Haines waiting out the weather. Undoubtedly they’re more comfortable than we are — but we like it here anyway.
Louie Dawson earned his Bachelor Degree in Industrial Design from Western Washington University in 2014. When he’s not skiing Mount Baker or somewhere equally as snowy, he’s thinking about new products to make ski mountaineering more fun and safe.