Feature image: The crew crosses into new territory. Photo: Marc Doherty, BLDRfly.
The quality of sleep the night before a powder day is no better than an 8-year-old’s on Christmas Eve. The five of us toss and turn in our mobile home, the thirty-foot “Powseeker,” dreaming about the conditions.
The morning light finally dusts the high slopes. We take turns sticking our heads out of the camper, hoping to see the Crudbusters’ ridge caked in new snow. There is new snow, not a lot, but enough to change the game.
After nearly two weeks camped on Thompson Pass, in the heart of the Chugach Range, our group has yet to experience the bounty of steep powder legends tell these mountains offer.
Each day we become more familiar with the terrain, but also the variable and often bulletproof conditions currently plaguing the pass. A brief storm the night before had completely restored our hope in finding the conditions we came here for.
The original warm-up zone, Crudbusters is now our home field, familiar terrain. The high, north-northeast facing slopes, sheltered from the wind and sun, harbor the best snow. With the trace snowfall providing a slight reset, this is the place to ski.
Starting the usual ascent, Charlie’s growing blisters become unbearable and he heads back to the RV. A die-hard weekend warrior who couldn’t stand to see a powder hunt go down without, Charlie flew in to Valdez halfway through our trip. Unfortunately, his new boots thought differently.
We trudge on, carefully skinning through the bulletproof and slippery lower flanks, We reach the upper bowls finding a creamy, wind-deposited four to six inches of new snow.
This is ideal; not enough snow to create an avalanche hazard, but just enough to cover the firm surface below. The sky is wonderfully clear. The gentle, yet constant breeze blows snow over the peaks.
Missing Charlie, we decide to skip a ridgetop adventure and ski the lower bowls. The best conditions of the trip are right in front of us, but our group’s bond now transcends our palate for powder. We radio Charlie to relay our plans. He watches through binoculars, encouraging us to rip it up. Surf’s up on these creamy waves!
Heliskiing is king in Valdez. Our encounter with Alaska backcountry ski legend Dean Cummings proves that — he outlined why the pow we crave is really only accessible by helicopter (see part three).
Thompson Pass provides unrivaled access to big mountain terrain, but when the conditions are less-than-ideal, you need blades or wings to access the goods.
Favorable conditions on the pass mean a mad dash to get the pow while it’s hot (or, rather, cold).
During our morning ski, helicopters buzzed over head constantly, dropping skiers off on the Crudbusters’ ridge and leaving a sour taste in our mouths. They could ski five laps in the time it takes us to ski one. We did, however, feel reassured in our choice of where to ski. The heli’s know best.
Back at the RV, we stare up at our morning lines. Our gaze shifts to the west. The next face over from Crudbusters, a former venue for the World Extreme Skiing Championship, catches our eye.
With the new snow and a similar aspect to Crudbusters, skiable lines and quality conditions await. Keegan points out an obscure slope, away from the danger of the cliffs below and sheltered from the wind and sun. Peppered with small spines, it is a classic Alaskan face.
Not five minutes after cementing this face as tomorrow’s objective, we watch a helicopter from Valdez Heliskiing Guides check the face and drop five skiers off on the ridge above it.
Our line is about to get poached and we can’t do anything about it.
The first skier opens it up, spraying powder and drawing fast, clean lines. It’s as good as we thought. By the time the last skier goes, no room is left to draw fresh tracks. The bitterness returns.
A new hope
The next morning the sound of hovering rotors splitting the still air wakes us. The pilots are using our bridge over the Tsina River as a launchpad for a day’s powder hunt.
We gear up in silence, deafened by the helicopters and our frustration. A guide pulls up in a van and gets out with his clients. I take the opportunity to share the plight of yesterday’s poaching.
To my surprise, he is sympathetic, asks about our plans for the day and says he will save us the lines further along the ridge. This show of respect meant a lot for us. It isn’t totally man versus machine out here!
Later on and farther up the mountain, we once again face a technical move over a large rock jutting out from the ridge. A few days prior we named this feature the “Spitzer Step,” because getting over it was as difficult as getting a clear answer from the former White House Press Secretary.
Committing to my first step and flying over the thing, I raise my ice axe over my head in ecstasy. What was a huge obstacle a day before is now a walk in the park. Our group’s progress on the trip became truly tangible.
Greater challenges present themselves on the unexplored portion of the ridge. We reach another, larger, rock outcropping.
Keegan is leading the group and surveys the options. He concludes there are two options: climb the thin strip of snow caked on the rocks or take the traverse below. Each route has its own dangers.
The thin strip of snow on the rock may be too shallow or loose, leaving us dangerously exposed, while the traverse below is sun-affected and avalanche-prone.
We discuss and evaluate and, again, our progression in these mountains becomes evident. We are better communicators, a better team, than we have ever been.
Deciding on the traverse below, we safely reach the other side. A perfect panel of loose, faceted snow coated in a few inches of fresh powder greets us.
One by one, we drop in and take advantage of the ideal upper conditions, then we funnel into the icy crux. Through the crux and back in relatively smooth conditions, we party run the final 500 feet. After all, today was a team win.