A First Year in Alaska

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | August 27, 2018      

Alex Lee

A few turns in the Alaska Range help if you ever want to feel small

A few turns in the Alaska Range help if you ever want to feel small. (click images to enlarge)

“We only need to find 10 turns for it to count!” said Andy, as we marched into the Alaskan mountains near Anchorage, in search of late summer snow.

Last Wednesday I met up with a couple friends at the Glenn Alps parking. We headed off for the evening on a last ditch effort to ski last year’s goods. We biked into the Chugach towards a small wiggle of frozen water still clinging to its north facing refuge. Blueberries, and the remnant light of the boreal summer, guided our way to a slick grass scramble and unstable talus wallow.

Andy was carrying a pair of homemade snow-blades with tech ski-touring bindings. He calls his setup “the future.” (“It sure ain’t the past,” was my initial reaction, reminiscing on the 1990s heyday of snow-blades, which tore about the resort but I never saw utilized as a ski mountaineering tool…).

We each got exactly ten turns, and biked out at sunset. The final vestige of summer.

The future.

Ten turns to the future.

The nights are starting to cool off, and I think our 10-turns outing probably marks the end of my 2017/2018 season. So before looking ahead to the 2018/2019 winter, a few reflections on my first full year in Alaska: lessons of patience, persistence, maritime snowpacks, long days, and darkness.

I moved to Alaska a year and a half ago from Colorado for a job teaching at a university in Anchorage, and for a dream of snow, mountains, and subarctic adventure. The north provides all of these, wonderfully.

In the Western Chugach, getting  the proper perspective on Anchorage.

In the Western Chugach, getting the proper perspective on Anchorage.

The Alaskan ski calendar cleaves into two seasons – optimism and pessimism. Below, a few lessons I took from both.

Pessimism: Low expectations emerge in August as the last bit of the snow retreats to the glaciers of Alaska’s remnant Pleistocene. Termination dust creeps down the mountains by September, and by the end of October the bears head to sleep – a welcome relief from pepper spray and predator checks. Ice climbing and rock skis seem like good ideas and hot chocolate returns as an old friend.

Lesson One – Don’t Expect to Be Told Where to Go
My season began last year, chasing access to the high country in the Western Chugach. Asking around for information about skiing the glaciers near Girdwood, early snow on Hatcher’s Pass, or the first chutes to fill in near Anchorage felt like trying to buy street drugs (or so I’d imagine) – most people scowled and said no such skiing existed, a few people dodged the question, and one or two would pass on the goods in back alleyways with hushed voices and vows of secrecy.

The Jewel Glacier offers an early season hotspot that lots of southcentral AK folks head to in the fall before avalanche danger stymies the approach. Once I had been there, people kept saying, “Yea, that place is great.” But before I had been there, people kept saying, “What’s that?” No doubt some locals fear I have just given away too much….

Lesson Two – Always Bring A Colossal Puffy
The fall soon gives way to winter and I learned that November into early February is a time for beards, mittens, and whiskey. The days are short, the snowpack still shallow, and the winds cold (like really cold). Pessimism sets in. One resigns to discomfort, laziness, headlamps in every pocket, and low expectations.

Skiing before 10 am starts to sound crazy (it’s dark), and the Coloradoan in me began shouting, “I thought it was warm by the ocean!” and “Why are we going outside when it’s dark and stormy?” To which Alaska promptly responded, “Because its fun, you softy!”

Despite low expectations, the simple joy of a few good turns makes any day a success.

A beautiful morning on ‘Tincan Proper’, Turnagain Pass.

A beautiful morning, heading toward ‘Tincan Proper,’ Turnagain Pass.

I fell in love with Turnagain Pass during this past winter. In my opinion, it’s the gem of the greater Anchorage area (I know Hatcher Pass loyalists will scoff…). Long tours in low light to endless terrain made Turnagain’s magic truly shine. Early in the year, the snow was sketchy, but the Pass is a bit more maritime than anything closer to Anchorage or north of town (like Hatcher). A search for safe terrain amongst the spines that adorn much of the area also yields decent results. While Tincan and other popular spots do have lower angle, more protected options. I was thrilled to find access to such a wonderland of ski touring – no matter the angle of the day (I also admit that I fell further in love with Turnagain once the steeps were a reasonable goal).

Optimism: An odd thing happens from mid February through March – the sun returns. Days normalize, the snow deepens, stoke grows. This is not spring — still too cold and snowy — but now optimism begins to fill the air. Talk of mountains and big days supplants the existential reflection of the dark times.

Lesson Three – Patience
Last year the snowpack never mellowed out for long in terms of avalanche danger. As with nearly any backcountry ski region in the world, if you wait out the dangerous times, you can get plenty of safe days.

Exploring past the broken trail at Turnagain Pass.

Exploring past the broken trail at Turnagain Pass.

On my birthday, we headed out to a zone on Turnagain called the Shark’s Fin. I had never been there and wanted to see what it offered, and then traverse to Eddy’s, another area on the Pass. Viewed from the road it appeared straightforward, but I couldn’t find any info about what the day might entail (I just got an idea for a post!).

I promised an easy outing to a few friends. After two perfect pow laps on the Fin, we pointed across the valley. I’m not sure how many hours later, but what seemed like a mile of skinning turned into a near vertical alder climb up to a 50 degree boot pack through waist deep snow. My two dogs were with us, I hadn’t brought lunch, my wife went from unimpressed with my route choice to downright pissed at me (good thing it was my birthday). We got back just before dark.

While the day had moments of misadventure (and a dose of sub-optimal decision-making on my part), it also marked an attitude of optimism bounded by respect for the mountains. They’re big. If you let your guard down avalanches, snow caves, and frostbite are on deck. Over beers back in town, we agreed, “…we just got Alaska-ed!” (..though Margi was probably also thinking: “I just got Alexed!” Why are spouses always right?).

The optimism of late winter creates a buzz of creativity. I capitalized on this with a few random trips to explore other parts of the state. The interior, cold and windy, is beautiful and quiet in the winter. Valdez is rainy and fickle, but amazing: Thompson Pass has the most incredible roadside terrain I’ve ever seen (5000ft lines are real!). The front range of the Chugach holds plenty of good skiing for those willing to look.

A long way to the Ocean, might as well make turns all the way down!

Last winter brought snow all the way to sea level.

Spring showed up seemingly overnight sometime in April. Big lines to sea level, sneakers, bear spray, and peaks made the transition obvious. By then, optimism shone across Alaska. Things look so good in the spring that hibernating mammals wake up even before the food they rely on turns green.

Lesson Four – Alders Are Evil
Alders are obnoxious any time, but in spring their true evil is unveiled. As they melt out they form a formidable defense to the retreating snow. Sometime in late March I headed out towards an unnamed couloir that drains into the Turnagain Arm just south of town. While shwacking through the alders, a branch somehow snaked into my ear. It didn’t hurt, but I immediately lost all hearing on that side. I tried to play it cool with my ski buddy, but was feeling dizzy and uncoordinated. We skied anyway – maybe not the best call, but it was fun. Turns out I perforated my eardrum (it healed in about a month). Hey, it’s Alaska, you’re just as likely to lose your hearing while you’re skiing as when you are sighting in your moose gun.

No eardrum, no problem.

No eardrum, no problem.

Cut trails are few and far between, but the extended hours of daylight allow after-work skiing along the western boundary of Chugach State Park where the few trails and easy access to higher terrain reside. Anchorage locals flock to Peak 3, Bear Valley, and a few other accessible spots. Ear to ear grins, shared parking lot beers, and high fives from strangers ease the feeling of overcrowding. Plus, I couldn’t hear them anyway…

When the snowpack settles, roads clear, and days lengthen, Anchorage is a city of 300,000 people with terrific skiing 20 minutes from the middle of town. Almost no approach and 1800ft lines – hard to complain.

Tree skiing is rare in Valdez, but if the weather and snow doesn’t cooperate plenty of fun can still be had.

Tree skiing is rare in Valdez, but if the weather and snow doesn’t cooperate plenty of fun can still be had.

Okay, what’s the point of all this? Skiing is fun, but you already knew that. Alaska has exceptional skiing, but you already knew that too. My biggest lesson has been that skiing offers a unique perspective on community, place, and fun. The backcountry gave me a language for learning a new town, meeting people, and navigating my way in the mountains.

I’ll stay another year and see if the pattern repeats.

Spring turns above the Turnagain Arm, just south of Anchorage.

Spring turns above the Turnagain Arm, just south of Anchorage.


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12 Responses to “A First Year in Alaska”

  1. summer doldrums August 28th, 2018 1:17 am

    FWIW, i spent 7 years in AK and the weather patterns really weren’t consistent year to year. Some years colder and dry (but still lots of snow) others warm and wet. When the precip came down over the course of the year wasn’t really even consistent. The only thing that really seemed a given was the distinct possibility of torrential rain with every storm system every month of the year.
    That said, Alaska was badass. Every dirtbag ski-tourer should take a stint up yonder.

  2. Brian Harder August 28th, 2018 10:34 am

    It’s funny how many new comers to AK who have a blog or write for others feel compelled to give beta to all the cool skiing they find when they first arrive. This is frowned upon, to be sure. How do I know? I did the same damn thing when I first came up here and posted a very detailed word map of how to get to some of the best skiing in South Central. I look back and cringe. Of course, a few readers didn’t hesitate to beat me down and I quickly went back and edited out the key information. Going into my 7th season I’m one of those tight-lipped skiers you mention in this post, for better or worse. I still share some of the nectar but usually only with partners or visitors from Outside. I guess it’s just part of the AK ski culture.

  3. Alex August 28th, 2018 10:46 am

    Hi Brian, I’m not sure if I am the new comer feeling ‘compelled’ to give beta in that equation (I don’t think I actually gave away much beta in this post?), but I agree with you and I definitely get it – while AK has near endless terrain, we do not have endless access to that terrain. I think the ratio of outdoor enthusiasts to trailheads is actually pretty high, which motivates a good bit of discretion….along with a general Alaskan skepticism about the decision making of others maybe. Off course any ski zone has tight-lipped locals, but it does seem more prevalent here. I am curious if you have any other thoughts on what makes the AK information culture different?

  4. brian harder August 28th, 2018 11:03 am

    Not sure on the right word then, Alex. I certainly felt “compelled” since I was so excited to find what I did. But that didn’t go over so well. Honestly, I don’t have an answer to your question as to why it’s the way it is up here. I’ve just come to accept it.
    Initially, I thought being more tight-lipped might allow me entrance into the numerous cliques and sub groups of established skiers up here but that never happened. That probably had as much to do with my Lycra and little ski-oriented approach as anything. But 6+ years in I still typically ski with one or two other misfit transplants. Summer and winter there is a general stand offishness around others in the mountains. I’ve been on countless summits where I encountered others and they did their best to pretend I wasn’t there. It’s odd, to be sure, and something I never experienced in the numerous other ranges I’ve lived in over my 40+ year tenure in the mountains.

  5. Jim Milstein August 28th, 2018 11:37 am

    Alex, you have no respect for your alders!

    They are trying to make a living –– just like you.

  6. JCoates August 28th, 2018 4:11 pm

    Brian, glad you brought the “AK local vibe” topic up–even if not intentionally. I spent a couple of seasons there too and left about the time you moved in. I was pretty put off by the whole scene and the secrecy of not sharing beta. Luckily I eventually met some cool locals who pointed me in the right direction (I suspect because they wanted to ski with my GF). Over all, however, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

    The BC skiing in AK is great–but it’s not that GREAT–at least not so much that it warrants being a secretive jerk. When people ask me what it was like living there I usually say it’s like living in Montana…but you have to fly further on a plane to get someplace without evergreen trees and bears. The ironic/frustrating thing for me was, for the most part, the folks being so secretive had never skied anywhere else and had nothing else to compare AK skiing to. I’ll put the Swiss Alps up against anything around Valdez, Turnagain pass, or McCarthy with regards to ski terrain and generally would see less people than I would on a weekday at Tincan (and a lot less dog poop and Texans too…I am not sure which is worse). Brian, I suspect you probably crushed it enough when you got there that folks eventually stopped sniggering about the spandex.

    While I’m ranting…do AK men all still trail run topless? What’s up with that? Definitely some schadenfreude from my end when Killian showed up and dominated the Mount Marathon a couple years ago…with his clothes on no less.

    With that said, Alex, it was a great post and I wanted to comment that it truly was a pleasure to read. Good stuff.

  7. alex August 28th, 2018 6:24 pm

    I totally agree – I think its never a good idea to think of a good spot as THE good spot… Luckily there are lots of wonderful mountains in the world.

    I do want to add that there have been a ton of super cool AK locals that have shown me around and welcomed me into the mountain community here. Some folks have been overwhelmingly open and sharing with information (even though I sometimes show up in lycra with 65 underfoot skis – hey Brian, maybe we should ski together sometime?). I have gotten the sense that there is a culture of self reliance in AK that breeds a respect for solitude, exploration, and a do-it-youself mentality- I don’t agree that Alaska has a more standoffish norm, but rather that there is a ‘small town’ social expectation, whereby you get to know someone and build trust before asking for directions (maybe thats just my hope…). There are obvious positives to not sharing all information with anyone who asks, but no need to be totally hush-hush either.

    Ultimately I think too many people ski touring is a beautiful problem to have anywhere.

    …As for trail running shirtless, I wouldn’t know – I stay inside in the summer, its too hot and sunny out there 😉

  8. Lou Dawson 2 August 29th, 2018 8:44 am

    Am I missing something here? Alex writes about a few well known zones and we get a debate about sharing incredibly secret and coveted beta? I don’t mind the comments and discussion, but I have to chime in here.

    Don’t use Alex for beta, there happens to be a guidebook with everything you need if you’re a visitor, so you don’t have to depend on Alex, or if it comes to it, buying beers for locals at Chilkoot Charlie’s.



    BTW, whatever you do for beta, DO NOT GOOGLE CHILKOOT CHARLIES and watch any of the resulting videos. Doing so will result in things that require powers of un-remembering you may not possess.

  9. Jim Milstein August 29th, 2018 4:56 pm

    Jcoates, in the Olympics, originally, all the competitors competed naked. You got a problem with that? The Greek deities and heroes displayed little or no clothing. The Gauls famously fought stark naked and screaming like banshees. Long tradition. Cut some slack for the doughty Alaskan men trying to keep cool, please.

    As for Kilian, he wears lycra.

  10. Lou Dawson 2 August 29th, 2018 6:07 pm

    JCoats, yeah, the forest for the trees, Alex was indeed attempting to write something fun to read. That was the agenda. We’re always pushing for more of that here at WildSnow. Writing such prose is tougher than weighing boots, but worthy in our opinion. Thanks for enjoying. Lou

  11. Matt Kinney August 31st, 2018 7:32 am

    Good story and reflection of a first year skiing big, fat Alaska. Socially it is what it is but some of the folks are simply amazing skiers, people and under the radar of Red Bull and Powder. ie..”.Viking” and his wife..OMG!. Lycra clad newbies to Alaska have always been an eyesore in the AK BC. Think and accept being solo. And yes the weather is getting worse with rain on snow more often, so I hope you can scratch out some turns over the next decade before our snows disappear. (sad). Find a good partner and you can own the place relative to your skills. I find it easier to say I survived Alaska than skied it. You might one day feel the same. It’s a complicated place that will chew you up and spit you out. Be careful, make good decisions , and find a partner with some medical skills.

  12. Nick September 25th, 2018 8:48 pm

    Hey Alex, great post. Really enjoyed reading it. My wife (who grew up in Anchorage) and I are heading up there some time this spring, probably for a week or so focusing on the Turnagain Pass area, maybe with some Hatcher Pass action as well. We’re leaning towards first week of April but are pretty flexible. What would your pick be for timing most years?

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