Eastern Alaska Part One: No Guidebook No Problem

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | June 2, 2016      

Running through Safeway in Fairbanks, Alaska in ski boots (aisle 4, looking for another jar of peanut butter on our way to the airstrip), I knew the trip was a success. We hadn’t left yet, but the adventure was already true. I was headed into a lesser-visited corner of the Alaska Range to go skiing with two friends for the following two weeks.

Eastern Alaska Range is big

The Eastern Alaska Range is big, remote, cold, windy, and full of lawless summits in the middle of a wilderness designated and dictated not by congress but by its own physical geography.

Now more than ever, guide books, trip reports, route photos, and the webernet of data at our fingertips fosters a culture of tic lists, ‘classic’ lines, and access into the backcountry. Such a matrix of information has opened up the mountains to thousands—myself included—but can also take some small amount of ‘exploration’ out of what backcountry skiing or mountaineering is. Luckily, Alaska.

A couple months ago Vince barged into my kitchen in Leadville, Colorado saying, “Alex, no one knows where this place is!”

“I know, that’s the idea.” I replied.

Vince, Joe, and I flew into a valley of unnamed peaks in the Eastern Alaska Range aiming to find, borrowing a phrase from Melville, a ‘true place’. “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” (I listened to Moby Dick during the trip; Vince read a John McPhee Alaska book and Joe read something about the pandemic that destroys the world).

With no information on skiing available, the three of us took a dive into the chilly waters of the unknown. Our destination is fuzzy on Google Earth, poorly rendered on USGS maps, and lacking any official name.

Jerry Garcia

To para(re)phrase Jerry Garcia, ‘in a tent, in a tent, in a tent I will lay my head. Listen to the glacier sing sweet songs and rock my soul…’

Vince is Nick Vincent. Vince and I both work for Paragon Guides in Vail, Colorado. Vince hadn’t been to Alaska before, but I think I can say he is hooked.

Joe is Joe Meyer. Joe and I worked together in Denali National Park and now he runs a custom adventure guiding company in Alaska (Traverse Alaska).

We set up a glacier base camp and spent 11 days skiing, exploring, and eating butter in the heart of one the world’s more frozen realms.

Vince finding turns in an all too big place.

Vince finding turns in an all too big place.

(Safety note: some of the pictures show skiing unroped in glacial terrain. This can be VERY DANGEROUS. We chose to do so in some cases based on years of glacier experience, local conditions, and personal choice. Please do not see this as an endorsement of such practices.)

Big glaciers, unnamed peaks with little recorded visitation, snow, cold, cornices, avalanches, crevasses, and the dragons of Alaskan mountains battled sunshine, pow skiing, northern lights, and the type 1 fun of ski touring.

Pow turns, oh yes.

Pow turns, oh yes.

About three hours after landing visibility went from bluebird to a quarter mile, down 50ft, finally down to 10ft. We were ‘inside the ping pong ball.’ For the whole trip a wall of fuzz would come and go, but the windows of light gave ample opportunity to ski, tour, and mountaineer.

Alex, looking utterly disappointed at the view.

Alex, looking utterly disappointed at the view.

The clouds lifted around 5pm on our second day and we headed out. A mile across the glacier, up a side valley to a high pass. One of the great benefits of the Great White North this time of year is the day length. We skied back to camp into a northern sunset after 10pm; by 1am green and pink northern lights shot out of the sky.

Touring on big glaciers offers an experience into the surreal. Small outcrops turn into giant cliffs; that near corner ends up being miles away.

Touring on big glaciers offers an experience into the surreal. Small outcrops turn into giant cliffs; that near corner ends up being miles away.

Much of our skiing took a similar schedule for the next few days, we left with clearing skies mid afternoon and got back between 9pm and midnight.

Vince and Alex picking a line from a ridge near camp (Joe took a bunch of great photos that should be up on his gallery soon).

Vince and Alex picking a line from a ridge near camp (Joe took a bunch of great photos that should be up on his gallery soon).

Our first sign of improving weather gave us a chance to enjoy the fruit of waiting out the storm. Pow skiing. Each time we headed for a ‘small’ slope it turned out to be steeper, bigger, further, and far better that it looked from camp.

Alex dropping in; this rib was almost unnoticeable from camp down in the valley below.

Alex dropping in; this rib was almost unnoticeable from camp down in the valley below.

Exploring a ramp we called the ‘Escalator’ gave us a change to get up high in the valley for the first time. We got to a pass then skied down in a fury as the visibility went to zero. Fifteen minutes later, the clouds passed and blue skies surrounded us. Near the pass for the second time, we turned and booted up a steep face to the ridge of a peak that hung across the valley from camp. Awesome exposed scrambling led to a spectacular summit.

Joe enjoying epic views, soon to be followed by some well earned smoked salmon (if you find yourself in Fairbanks, Interior Alaska Fish Processors is well worth a visit).

Joe enjoying epic views, soon to be followed by some well earned smoked salmon (if you find yourself in Fairbanks, Interior Alaska Fish Processors is well worth a visit).

Picking our way across the ridge to an unnamed peak. No record of anyone having been up there before.

Picking our way across the ridge to an unnamed peak. No record of anyone having been up there before.

Next we headed for a nunataak that we dubbed the ‘Sleepy Dragon,’ then there was the ‘Moat’ and the ‘Bowl;’ powder slowly changing to corn.

Choosing lines was hard to say the least. Landing on acceptable risk in remote places involves a mixture of observation, experience, second-guessing, and precaution (with maybe a hint of luck). “Hard sayin’ not knowing,” was a frequent refrain while spying possibilities from camp.

On the fifth day of the trip we skied over to high point to check out a more north-facing bowl. Arriving at a new vantage up in the valley we looked down on our skin tracks in the valley below. Two days earlier we had toured to a pass at the head of the glacier and the day before we had veered off of this track to a cirque up valley from our vantage. Now looking down at this array something didn’t seem to make sense. It was hard still seeing the track to the pass, but looked as though a strange wiggle seemed to cut the corner from our previous day’s adventure to this older route.

We were alone in the valley save for the ravens (ravens in Alaska will always find you). After much deliberation we decided that this track belonged to a wolverine that was now eating all our food. We ripped skins and sped to defend our camp. No wolverine. The scale of a large glacier plays all sorts of tricks on you. It snowed that afternoon and erased signs for any further investigation.

Joe and I are now confident we were seeing our old track from on add angle at distance. Vince maintains the wolverine was lurking.

A hidden crevasse field, scary wet slides, a wolverine (according to Vince), another peak (maybe, we’re not sure. I’ll come back to this in my next post), a killer camp, and great turns all made for an adventurous week and half of skiing.

…I guess the skiing was okay.

…I guess the skiing was okay.

I am endlessly grateful for the lessons learned through going where others have already trodden. However, seeking the lithic solace of more ancient times, we put together this most recent adventure in a quadrangle still fussier than most.

The Alaska Range is an epic place.

The Alaska Range is an epic place.

You may have noticed that I haven’t actually told you where we were. Such discretion is not oversight, but deliberate. I hope to have shared a bit of our experience of the unknown.

Chasing a dog across a grass airstrip (again in ski boots) for a quarter pound of cheese after landing back in Fairbanks reassured me that plenty of adventure is still out there, just about all around us. Find yours.

Okay, my next post will include a bit more about the skiing we got done, I promise. Here is Eastern Alaska Range Part 2.

(P.S. If anyone needs help finding their adventure, and specifically wants to do some ski touring in the Alaska Range, Alex, Joe, and Vince will be guiding a trip next spring. Get in touch with Joe Meyer for more information.)


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


17 Responses to “Eastern Alaska Part One: No Guidebook No Problem”

  1. Lou Dawson 2 June 2nd, 2016 10:42 am

    Nice job Alex, both on the writing and the trip! Did you get the cheese back without ending up with stitches from the Fairbanks mongrel (grin)?

  2. Alex June 2nd, 2016 10:50 am

    Thanks Lou! The dog’s name was Lucy, I ended up chasing Lucy home (only about 100 yards from the edge of the airstrip–I think she was keen to burry the cheese in her garden) before a very nice woman introduced me properly and relinquished the cheese from Lucy’s jaws.

  3. Lou Dawson 2 June 2nd, 2016 11:09 am

    Hmmm, I thought the dog would have run back to some grizzly AK guy who’d been living on moose meat all winter and was craving dairy products, with his dog trained to scavenge (grin).

  4. Vince June 2nd, 2016 11:32 am

    You cant seriously still think that those tracks were ours? Stop fighting the truth Alex. The wolverine is real.

  5. Zia June 2nd, 2016 3:42 pm

    Vince, you’re probably confusing yourself with your spirit animal. Easy to do on a glacier. Looks like a sweet trip! Might bug ya for ideas this summer.

  6. Joe Meyer June 2nd, 2016 5:27 pm

    Nice work Alex! And Vince, I’m still not ready to let you have your wolverine…

  7. Jim Milstein June 2nd, 2016 9:55 pm

    “However, seeking the lithic solace of more ancient times, we put together this most recent adventure in a quadrangle still fussier than most.”

    Great trip report except for this one sentence. Does it mean something or was it just a quote from a distant wolverine?

  8. Alex June 2nd, 2016 11:01 pm

    Ha, Jim you’re the third person today to ask me about that sentence…I guess I’ll have to blame it on the wolverine.

    …my intention was to say that our location choice aimed to find the (dis)comforts of what can seem like a bygone era…Maybe you’ll have to take another trip to Indy Pass so we can chat about it!

  9. Donny Shefchik June 3rd, 2016 6:56 am

    Alex, No wonder Vince came back all wound up! Great adventure in the great unknown, there is nothing like Alaska. Wishing you the best on your next adventure….. getting married in a couple weeks!!

  10. Jim Milstein June 3rd, 2016 11:58 am

    Now that you mention it, Alex, discussing lithic solace is high on my to-do list.

    When wolverines try to eat your lunch, throw them some stone comfort.

  11. arche June 3rd, 2016 2:07 pm

    “Alex, no one knows where this place is!” ….almost no one, though the number is sure to grow with more blogging and trip reports. I guess now that you’ve gotten your experience block checked it’s a good time to throw the door wide open. Yeah I know, few are as bold/audacious as you folks so it’ll stay secret. Let’s hope, but I do wonder whether a guided party of 6 skier clients and their guides had appeared out of the fog whether or not the “lithic solace” factor would’ve been the same. You’re basically left with fist-come first-serve (or almost first) adventure. Hat’s off to you.

  12. Rudi June 3rd, 2016 3:05 pm

    “You may have noticed that I haven’t actually told you where we were. Such discretion is not oversight, but deliberate. I hope to have shared a bit of our experience of the unknown.”

    Not telling the reader where you were does not give us the same “experience” that you had as you most certainly knew where you were going before you left. It just sounds a bit smug, don’t worry I wont try to visit YOUR triple secret mountain range.

  13. Alex June 3rd, 2016 3:41 pm

    Arche, I don’t think the door is by any means being thrown wide open. Alaska seems to have a rather higher density of such opportunities perhaps because challenges in accessibility keep crowds down in all but a very few areas. The Eastern Alaska Range has a ton of potential and history, but it is also an area more than a hundred miles across and even ‘popular’ mountains in the range like Hayes or Deborah still might only see a couple expeditions a year…. beyond this, I tend to think (perhaps optimistically) that adventure will always be out there…If the mountains are first-come first-serve we would have all already lost. We certainly weren’t the first people to explore this area by any stretch, its just not a popular or well known spot (nor do I expect it will be any time soon). Luckily I think wilderness experiences can be all-come all-serve. After all, there are plenty of corners tucked into the mountains all over were people have been skiing for a hundred years and yet little evidence of such history can be seen on any given weekend tour.

    Rudi, apologies if the tone came of sounding ‘smug,’ certainly wasn’t my intention. I did not at all mean to keep a ‘secret’ for myself, just the opposite–I hoped my TR might shed light on how great the Eastern AK is! I just didn’t want to put out a to-do list (a different type of TR). I hoped a ‘disclaimer’ might help explain the lack of usable intel, but sounds like I may have missed the mark.

  14. Vince June 3rd, 2016 4:15 pm

    Rudi, as a member of the expedition, I feel compelled to respond to that one. Knowing the location never guarantees an “experience” and disclosing our location won’t change the “experience” we had or give you more insight. Once the plane deposits you on the glacier and disappears amongst a background of rock, snow, and ice the experience is ‘happening’ and is as raw, unscripted, and like nothing you thought it would be. The unknown is the essence of adventure and is what I think is Alex’s intent. Its not a secret but a catalyst for discovery.

  15. Dave P. June 3rd, 2016 7:14 pm

    Been skiing the eastern AK Range since I arrived in the late 90s. Except for a couple routes popular with climbers my partner and I never saw another soul. I’ve always been self propelled, never flew in. Word is that in the old days there were more folks roaming around this backcountry on skis. Maybe that time will come again. Fact is, its more of a climbers range than a skiers paradise. There’s a lot of wind and at least north of the divide where I’ve typically gone, not a lot of snow relative to the Chugach for instance. It is a beautiful and powerful place with endless challenge for the ski mountaineer (emphasis on mountaineer).

  16. Lou Dawson 2 June 4th, 2016 8:05 am

    Didn’t sound smug to me on the edit, just refreshing in these days of “I was there and here is exactly where there was” types of blog posts. Which are of course our usual editorial style here on Wildsnow.

    In any case, sometimes we have an over-inflated view of what the ski mountaineering population is capable of. Fact is, a miniscule percentage of the world’s population will do this stuff, or ever will. The lands of our larger more remote mountain regions are stunningly huge in square miles, the rate of population growth keeps declining (especially in industrialized countries that do this sort of recreation), and a vast majority of the world’s people have value systems that don’t include brutal difficult dangerous and expensive mountain recreation. Further, a miniscule percentage of the population have the physical ability for mountaineering, and an even smaller subset have the ability to do multi-day self supported wilderness travel.

    I do acknowledge the fact that humans tend to herd, so if a certain place gets excessive attention (be it Hains, Chamonix or Jackson) you get a concentration of people. When in reality if everyone spread out there would be zero zilch nadda issues of crowding (and fewer good bars, along with other downsides). IMHO the herd effect is the argument for backing off on sharing specific details about locations.

    So, overall I’m glad we’re going both way here on WildSnow, with some posts having details, and some not.


  17. Brian June 7th, 2016 10:35 pm

    Great point Lou. As a newbie blogger I unleashed the “beta reflex” and spewed all the important details of access and location. I wanted to share. But after moving to AK I found this sort of thing is not particularly embraced by the locals. So, although I still write and photograph some outings, the locations and peak names are left out. The keen eye can discern the salient details but I simply don’t spoon feed them any longer. I guess it keeps the crowds down and adventure higher for those looking for it.

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