Editor’s note: This is part five of a two-week backcountry Alaska ski adventure chronicle by BLDRfly writer Marc Doherty of a trip earlier this year. Read part one here, part two here, part three here and part four here.
Feature Image: The full backcountry ski AK crew, left to right Keegan Kliman, Marshall Pedder, Jordan Gaines, Marc Doherty, Charlie Bergevin and Mac Kliman. Photo: Keegan Kliman.
It’s bad luck to call your last run. And apparently, on a trip like ours, it is bad luck to call your last day. We never did.
Leaving the Powseeker, the name we gave our RV early in the trip, earlier than usual, we decide to ski in our usual zone, but to approach it from the valley instead of the ridge.
This required a sprint through a narrow slot canyon. The canyon is a terrain trap. Avalanches anywhere above us are unavoidable in this confined space, a funnel for falling snow or debris.
Safely reaching the end of the canyon, we rope up and ascend the glacier (or what is left of it) along the valley floor. It is refreshing and exciting to be taking a new approach.
Crossing the glacier. Photo: Marc Doherty, BLDRfly.
Breaking for a quick snack, the weather begins to change. Clouds engulf us.
Before we are entirely socked in, Keegan points out a familiar, infamous line. A few years prior, his girlfriend was caught in an avalanche and dragged over a cliff. She broke her ankle and the two of them faced an exhausting mission to get back to safety. We had heard the story before, but to see the cliff put the incident in context. The cliff was huge and Sasha was lucky.
With myself in the lead, we pound further up the valley. Squinting in the blinding, yet gentle snow, new couloirs come into play. The pace quickens as excitement builds.
We encounter the most consistently smooth and soft snow of the trip. Was this the refrigerator effect, something Alaska backcountry ski legend Dean Cummings turned us onto when we ran into him earlier in our trip (see part three)? Up high in glacial valleys, the ice acts as a refrigerator, keeping the surrounding snow cold and soft, even under the strong April sun.
We pick a classic looking couloir along the south wall of the valley; 2,500 vertical feet, tight and walled in up high with a wide and fast lower section.
Even in the flat light conditions, we charge up with our skis on our backs and ice axes in hand. Every dozen steps or so we look at each other in moderate disbelief.
Did it really take us this long to find what we came for?
Topping out on a narrow perch, we take off our packs and prepare for the descent. In and out of the clouds, we catch our first view over the valley’s headwall to the east. For the first time in the trip the vastness reveals itself. Here, we sit at the pinnacle of our trip, but in the terms of these mountains, we are far from the top.
Going out with a bash
The sun came out just enough for our descent and it was bliss all the way home. The idea of a second lap toys with us, but our tired legs settle for a group cruise down the smooth and fast glacier. We milk every foot of the descent, carving and slashing whenever we can, filling in each other’s tracks.
Back at the Powseeker, we celebrate with beers. Our buzz leads us back through the doors of the Rendezvous lodge, where the party apparently already started. Our new friends introduce us to newer friends and the bar bell rings all night.
Waking up to a hangover and a new haircut, we make the drive back to Anchorage. Our hosts there are anxious to hear about our success and the origin of my new mullet. I just tell them I had to leave a piece of me up on the pass!
Before we each fly out the next morning, talk begins on plans for next year. Planes, remote cabins and first descents come into play.
This taste of the big leagues, what it means to ski in Alaska and our progress on this trip has us hungry for more. Our Alaska group is formed. We will go home happy and safe. But we each agree the dream isn’t over.