Like many skiers, I’ve been brainwashed into believing the only way to ski the Valdez Chugach Mountains of Alaska is by helicopter. Boy, was I wrong.
Rather than expensive and frequently unreliable aviation access, longtime Valdez backcountry skier Matt Kinney, in his new guidebook “Alaska Backcountry Skiing,” makes it abundantly clear that all you need for the Chugach is a modicum of wilderness skills, skis or splitboard, and a car to drive the Richardson Highway. For miles and miles on the highway Chugach peaks rise up from near sea level, offering everything from gentle tours to faces and couloirs that easily qualify for the latest TGR movie (as some probably have already).
Not only does Kinney make Valdez look like a major candy store for muscle powered skiers — he also details a number of safety considerations that tell you Valdez backcountry glisse is totally unlike ordinary lower-48 jaunts such as powder laps in a Wasatch aspen forest.
We’re talking adventure. Virtually all the terrain in Kinney’s book is not timbered, with associated issues such as wind and whiteouts. Glacier travel is common, river crossings can be an issue, and “wind events” in the Chugach are defined as not how hard you breath while skinning, but rather as howling gales that last for days. Yep, Alaska — when does the next plane leave?
Kinney’s book is more than a bunch of text about routes. It also includes a sprinkling of interesting history, tons of terrific photos carefully noted with slope angles and route lines, and reasonably useful maps (though on all but the shortest routes you’ll want full topo maps along with compass and probably a GPS).
I was also impressed by what Kinney’s book is not. Matt is known as a vociferous anti-helicopter activist. When his book arrived, I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the boorish rant I’m sure Matt was tempted to include. To his credit, Matt left out the politics and value judgments, instead simply ignoring snowmobiles and helicopters, and concentrating on detailing the routes. While I would have preferred at least a bit of comment on where machinery might either assist or interfere with the Valdez muscle powered backcountry experience, it was probably better for someone as opinionated on the issue as Matt to just leave well enough alone.
I’ve read nearly every North American backcountry skiing guidebook ever published, and can honestly say few of them got me dreaming the way Kinney’s book did. My few trips to Alaska have always been memorable adventures, but frequently included intimidating logistics and no small amount of cash outlay (or else involved staying in or near Anchorage, too large a city for my taste). Valdez is a place where Alaskan thrills are available without executing a major expedition, and without machinery other than your car. I’m going. I don’t know when. But I’m going.