Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-week backcountry Alaska ski adventure by BLDRfly writer Marc Doherty. Read part one here.
Wandering toward the passenger pick-up area outside the surprisingly glamorous Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, I spot a slightly dusty red Ram pickup. Something tells me this is my ride. After a long stare followed by a friendly honk, I toss my gear into the truckbed and hop in the cab.
I am the third member of the crew to arrive — the two others in our crew are set to touchdown later that evening. Keegan, our unofficial team leader, has a ragtag crew of salmon fishing guide-pilot friends who agreed to host us at their infamous Barbara Street house before we set out on our 300-mile drive to Valdez.
Around 9:00 pm, we pick up the last two team members. The excitement is now boiling over; what starts as mildly serious talks about logistics quickly escalates into storytelling, revelry and Alaskan craft beer. Still recovering from my illness, I load up on Emergen-C and call it a night.
The next morning, the crew and our hosts collect ourselves over a breakfast at the City Diner. After a typical Alaskan breakfast of reindeer sausage and eggs, we stop by REI for camp fuel, spend $400 dollars stocking up at the grocery store and snag anticipatory apres-ski beers.
Everything is more expensive in Alaska. From jumbo bags of Sour Patch Kids to organic teas, you can find it all in Anchorage, just at a premium.
Now that we are stocked with everything we couldn’t fly with, we pick up the RV and make our final stop back at Barbara Street.
The 30-foot “Class C” motorhome is even more luxurious than we anticipated. For $150 a night (an offseason steal) our home for the next two weeks came with a master bedroom, full kitchen, sofa, dining room table, bluetooth speakers (inside and out) and heat!
For our crew, big ski trips normally involve exciting, but notoriously uncomfortable, winter camping. What a treat this is going to be! The RV is called the Sunseeker, but we quickly decide on a more fitting name: the “Powseeker.”
The next stop and our home for the remainder of the trip is Thompson Pass!
Onto the pass
This gap in the Chugach mountains, about 30 miles northeast of Valdez, is the snowiest place in Alaska. The Richardson highway passes through it, providing relatively easy access to all-time big mountain ski terrain.
The pass has a rich ski history. Starting in the late 1980’s, a few bush pilots looking to make some extra money and skiers seeking perfect, steep powder teamed up. Plane- and helicopter-assisted skiing took off in the area. Big mountain pioneers like Doug Coombs and others flocked to Valdez and the crown jewel for extreme skiing in Alaska took form.
A human-powered experience
Beyond the realm of our luxurious RV digs, we don’t have the luxury of a motorized assist once on this trip. We need mountaineering skills, equipment and solid knowledge of the mountains surrounding the pass to make the skiing we want to do possible.
The first we had each acquired through years of ski touring in Colorado and beyond. For the latter, we need some help. Luckily, we scored a copy of a hard-to-find guidebook to the pass in Anchorage. This, along with topographic maps from Caltopo.com, one of our favorite trip-planning tools, gives us a solid start.
Screen shot of the five-mile stretch of Thompson Pass that we will explore extensively.
Weather and avalanche conditions are also crucial to the success of our trip. We monitored the conditions on the pass all winter, especially in the month leading up to our trip.
Two weeks prior to our arrival, a strong storm delivered two-plus feet of snow to the pass, but hurricane-force northerly outflow winds wreaked havoc, leaving most of the snowpack textured and bulletproof. A high-pressure system then set in for the next two weeks, an abnormality for anywhere in Alaska.
In other words, powder skiing is not going to be the low-hanging fruit we had hoped for. We planned our trip on the understanding that April is normally the best window for skiing in the Chugach, with long days and falling snow. Nevertheless, we remain confident and know we can find sheltered areas harboring the conditions we want.
Mac dives into the guidebook while Marshall gets caught up in the scenery en route to Valdez. Credit: Marc Doherty, BLDRfly.
Our route from Anchorage first brings us northward through the Chugach. This is our first close look at “Alaskan” mountains. We each have our own window and don’t stop pointing out every skiable line we see. Kids in a candy shop.
It is almost exhausting, darting from one window to another as we each spot and point out a new skiable line. Descending the northern slope of the Chugach, our route turns eastward, passing the Matanuska glacier to the south. Stopping to take pictures of this massive valley glacier, we can’t help but realize that we are entering a new realm, the northern third of our hemisphere.
Boreal forests then lead us to Glennallen, where we turn south onto the Richardson Highway. Driving back into the Chugach, we are now meeting our destiny head on.
Ascending up the continental zone of Thompson Pass, golden hour is upon us. Passing Mount Billy Mitchell, Crudbusters, Dimond, Python and Sapphire appear — the guidebook and maps becoming real.
And everything is bigger than we imagined. This is the Alaska Factor.
Reaching the summit, we get our first view south of the pass. We pull over the RV to soak in the view of “the Books” and beyond, everything bathes in the setting sun. The weather is clear with a few streaking cirrus clouds above and the wind blowing.
We retrace our steps westward on the pass and settle the Powseeker into one of the many roadside pull-offs. Unbeknownst to us then, mile marker 38 will be our nightly retreat for the rest of the trip. Each day we step into an adventure unknown, but it is nice to come home to a familiar place.
We settle into the RV, discuss our plans for the morning over a game of gin rummy and call it a night. The dreaming was over and tomorrow, the work, and adventure, begins!
The Powseeker gets settled in, with a glimpse of Mount Dimond over head. Credit: Marc Doherty, BLDRfly