Ever noticed where the best footage in ski and snowboard movies comes from? Or the locations for your favorite photos in snow magazines? Nine times out of ten, the most unique terrain and best snow in the world is found in Alaska. Spines, flutes, ramps, faces, couloirs, glaciers, Alaska has it all.
I am a 25-year-old splitboarder from Vancouver, BC. I have been touring in the BC south coast mountains for five years now, and this year was finally my break to get a full season off. I graduated from university in early December, and decided that I would go splitboarding every day my legs would allow this season with the ultimate goal being to get to Alaska for April to see what the hype was about.
To make it happen I got in touch with a good friend from Ireland, Gavan Hennigan. He has just as much free time off as I do since he is a contract commercial diver, so we rented an RV and cruised the province of British Columbia from December to mid April. Johanna and Ben also joined us for most of the trip as well. Our goal was to go out and ride amazing snow in new zones that have never been done on splitboards.
The season in British Columbia was another one for the ages. We spent January in Pemberton, and watched the snowpack grow from just over 1m to over 3.5m by the end of the month. We were tits deep in snow almost every single day. We followed that up with February at Rogers Pass, BC where we had everything from bluebird alpine days to some of the deepest, most blower pillow lines you can imagine. We topped that with the month of March in Terrace, BC where the alpine opened up for us and we put in the biggest lines of our lives in the Cambria Icefield. All of this was amazing, but the whole time we were just waiting and planning for Alaska (I know, we are spoiled…). The draw of Alaskan terrain is unparalleled to anything else in the world.
So how do two dirtbag splitboard mountaineers go to Alaska on a budget to live the dream? Well, we got in touch with an airplane pilot named Drake Olson who is based in Haines, AK (check him out at www.flydrake.com). He is able to do drops out in Glacier Bay National Park west of town towards the coast and well out of heli zones. The park is home to the most ridiculous expanse of endless peaks and glaciers one could ever imagine. The plan was to fly over the park with Drake and find a spot to set up camp for a couple of weeks.
We rolled into town on the ferry at the start of April, with 2.5 weeks to get a weather window. We fully understood that the weather in Haines is highly unpredictable, and we could very well have spent the whole 3 weeks sitting in town twiddling our thumbs or sitting in the tent digging a snow cave to maintain sanity through a week long storm. But within our first 3 days in town, the weather cracked and we jumped in the plane with 2 weeks worth of gear and an extra food drop left with the pilot.
I don’t think Gavan and I have ever been so nervous as when we jumped in that plane. Six months of planning, a winter of training and practicing glacier skills, nights of packing and agonizing over details, and finally it was go time. After 15 minutes in the air, we were looking at the gnarliest mountains we had ever laid eyes on.
The next thing we knew, we were on the ground jumping out of the plane into waist deep blower powder. We picked a zone at relatively high elevation because of expected warm temps, and we wanted a relatively “mellow” area for our first Alaskan experience. Instead of setting up camp, we decided to take advantage of the sun and snow and go on a tour.
The views from the ridges around our camp were jaw dropping. The mountains went on for days and days and days. And not just any mountains – some of the best terrain you can’t even dream up. The pictures say it all.
Overall, 7 of 10 days on the glacier were bluebird. Temps in the afternoon were blazing hot, so every day started at 5am and finished by 2:30pm. The snow stayed preserved on north aspects the whole trip. Every single day we hit a new zone with steep runs and perfect alpine snow. The afternoons were spent drying gear and lounging in the sun at camp nursing our sunburns.
After almost two weeks of riding, doing a few days over 2000m climbing (with lots of boot packing), we were begging for mercy. But we pushed on for more as the weather allowed. No sunny day can be wasted out here.
Despite the impressively difficult lines that can be ridden in Haines, the hardest part by far is climbing. We had to employ every bit of strength, skill, luck, and courage to climb this stuff. Mountaineering our way up the lines was the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced in the mountains. And not only was the climbing technically challenging, but it seemed that no matter what time of day, or what route we choose, we were always exposed to some ridiculous, unavoidable objective hazard that made us feel insignificant.
This brand of snowboarding was pioneered by the likes of Jeremy Jones and company in the movie Deeper’ but I think we proved that you don’t have to be a sponsored pro rider to enjoy what Alaska has to offer.
In the end, we survived 10 days of climbing and riding some of the biggest lines of our lives. Haines, Alaska is truly home to some of the most unique terrain, and the possibilities are endless. Most of these places have never been climbed, skied, or snowboarded before and we only scratched the surface. One thing is clear: I will be back in Alaska for as many springs as I possibly can. And I hope the fact that we are just two regular old dirtbags will inspire more people to get out and enjoy what the world up there has to offer.
Enjoy the video.
Guest blogger Tyler Wilkes is a dirtbag splitboarder and mountain biker hailing from Vancouver, BC who spends as much time as possible exploring the mountains of British Columbia. Despite recently graduating from university with a degree in environmental engineering, he has delayed his entry to “real life” by working seasonal jobs in the bush in summer and traveling BC in an RV to splitboard mountaineer in winter. Gavan Hennigan is a commercial diver from Ireland. His work lets him travel the world to ride snow and surf boards more than half the year, and his favorite place for snow is British Columbia. Tyler and Gavan have spent two seasons together employing their mountaineering skills to ride snowboards in places and on lines seldom done in BC and Alaska.