Kicking off an Alaskan backcountry ski pilgrimage

Part one of multi-part travelogue of an Alaskan backcountry ski adventure

By Marc Doherty Apr 27 2018

Editor’s note: Boulder houses many an adventurer, those biding time among the mountains, training their minds and bodies (and bank accounts) for the next adventure, whether to Boulder’s desert sibling Moab, the Himalayas, America’s final frontier, Alaska, or some other vast unknown place ripe for exploration. In this multi-part series, BLDRfly writer Marc Doherty chronicles his ski pilgrimage to the great white north. Marc completed the trip this week — this will be a retrospective chronicle. Read part two herepart three here, part four here and part five here.

If you talked to me in the past six months, I probably told you about Alaska. If my name came up in a conversation with someone who knew me, he or she would have said, “Oh, Marc, yeah, he’s going on vacation to Alaska.”

But I’m a skier and this trip was never a vacation. It is a pilgrimage, the pinnacle of my ski career to date. No I’m not a professional, but skiing is my career. This was a work trip.

Traveling to Alaska is a major check off any adventurer’s list, but for skiers, it’s the final box and it can never be ticked off. No skier comes back from Alaska and says, “Wow, great vacation, where to next?”

They ask when they are going back. The magic kingdom of the north, America’s last frontier holds more skiing than can be done by anyone ever. The number of peaks skied is dwarfed by those left untouched.

Enter the Chugach

Each mountain range in Alaska holds its own allure. There is the Brooks Range, arid and resting far above the Arctic circle. Denali, the highest peak in North America, lays in the heart of the Alaska Range. Then, there is the Wrangell’s, so extreme that I get nervous mentioning them; the region’s National Park is the size of six Yellowstones!

Among the remaining, the Chugach Range is a skier’s prized gem, and the one my fellow travelers decided to explore on this trip. Arching from Anchorage eastward to the Bering Glacier, it is the snowiest mountain range in North America. A coastal range, snow sticks to slopes so steep that on other mountains they would be barren cliffs. Mix in dreamy terrain and mountains that meet the Pacific Ocean and it becomes the obvious choice for skiing’s Mecca.

“The Books” and the Heiden Glacier, one of the many storied nooks of the Chugach Range. Credit: Marc Doherty, BLDRfly.

So, tantalized by the desire for a taste of the top, stoked by personal progress and paired with the tools and teammates such an epic trip would take, on April 6th the Alaskan dream would come true.

Pushing the limits

I started a countdown to my trip 60 days prior. Each morning I would wake up, face my white-erase calendar and update the countdown (located under the ever-growing gear list).

Marc’s countdown calendar and gear list. Credit: Marc Doherty, BLDRfly.

This reminded me, regardless of whatever else was on the daily agenda, that this trip took priority. Priority to train my body, mentally prepare, sharpen skills, ski hard, dial equipment, memorize maps, routes, techniques, conquer fear and manifest the dream.

Or maybe this was all too much. Ten days before lift off, after a long day of testing the new Alaska-worthy skis, a quick meeting and a night of running around the outfield at softball, I got sick. It hit me in three hours. I’m a healthy guy. I know when my body is about to wage war with something real and this turned out to be a heavyweight title fight that went the distance.

There was always an element of worry in this trip. Will I be fit enough? Will I ski hard enough? Will I push the limits too far, hurt myself, or something worse? The worry of whether or not I could even get on the plane never crossed my mind until then. This was now the only one.

I had a gnarly virus; no western medicine could come to the rescue. Luckily, my girlfriend, Ivy, the queen of making me take things I can’t pronounce and a naturopathic doctor in the making, loaded me up, 24/7, and forced me to rest.

She urged me to resist the worry, the fear and trust that my body is strong. The mind is stronger, but also stubborn. I pushed my physical limits and it was time to pay.

Go Time

Physically ready or not, boarding my 6:00 a.m. flight to Anchorage from Denver relieved so many symptoms. A slight headache throbbed, but my mind was set on adventure. The anxiety that wore down my body over the past few months was instantly gone.

First move of the trip: enter the airport successfully. I grabbed my awkwardly large ski bag, turned and waved goodbye to Ivy, took three steps through the sliding doors and BOOM! Down goes Doherty, as I stepped on my shoelaces and hit the deck. How am I going to climb mountains if I can’t walk into a airport?

Either the ski boots and clanging carabiners on my back or my seasonal ski bum moustache (strictly for catching powder in, otherwise, it’s pretty hard to see), garnered a lot of inquisitive looks in the airports along the long legs to Anchorage. Some people asked where I was going. One guy on the train said, “Hey look, that guy’s a mountaineer.”

I wanted to turn around and say, “Well, I’m still just trying to be.”

I slept most of every flight. I knew good rest would only be found sparingly after this. Once I heard the call of the final descent into Anchorage, I peered out my window. Clouds blanketed every elevation of the sky, pure white chunks of ice littered the dark stormy waters of Prince Williams Sound.

No mountains in sight, but I knew to the north, sitting behind the veil of clouds, were the Chugach Mountains, my home for the next 18 days.

Mount Billie Mitchell waiting for Marc at his new home in Alaska’s Chugach Range. Credit: Marc Doherty, BLDRfly

Marc Doherty

Marc is BLDRfly’s adventure reporter. When not hunting powder, Marc can be found exploring area trails, hanging out with his dog Chelsea and running Rio’s rooftop.