There is “physical love,” (as we term it in website writing to prevent weird Google ads from appearing). And then there is Alaska. Beyond all the jokes about one feeling better but the other lasting longer, you have to admit that words such as “Chugach” and “Denali” have achieved mythic proportions for backcountry skiers — proportions that Kama Sutra devotees can only dream of.
Yes. Every sport needs its Sutra. Thankfully, Joe Stock has stepped in and given us the dream guide — the AKasutra.
“The Alaska Factor” guidebook is Anchorage-centric. Which makes sense, since most people in Alaska live in Anchorage, and that’s where you can easily end up by airline from the lower 48 states. Specifically, “Southcentral Alaska” means you’ve got your Kenai Mountains to the south, Chugach to the west, Talkeetna and Alaska Range north. I’ve written it before and say it again; while Anchorage might look like a coastal harbor town to the innocent wanderer, it’s actually a mountain town with access to an amazing range of ski mountaineering — everything from spring skiing tan fests on Turnagain Pass to multi-week epics in the Alaska Range.
Stock’s formula is simple. First, he clarifies the “Alaska Factor.”
To paraphrase: “This is Alaska…glaciers can take a full day to cross…entire mountain ranges are avalanche terrain…relentless storms dark cold — then the sun emerges and douses steep and stable powder for days, until you’re exhausted and begging for a weather day…”
Normally I’m tired of guidebook introductions. They all seem to say the same thing. Tear those pages out and lighten that thing up! But when you’ve got the Alaska Factor to deal with, an introduction can be nice. Stock delivers. His intro includes everything from how to get around Anchorage (rent a car, it’s not a walking town), to eateries and supply depots. I especially like Stock’s excellent AK weather tips: six pages of goods. Then the unusual, such as a section simply titled “Light.” I’ll let you guess what that’s all about (hint, it’s not weight).
On to the goods. Yes, this is a book for trips accessed out of the Anchorage region. Five chapters divide it up: Chugach Front; Western Chugach; Kenai; Talkeetna; Alaska Range. Take the latter for example. Joe succinctly states that this 650 mile long alpine wilderness is “limitless.” To put that into perspective, the area of the Alaska Range easily matches that of the European Alps, yet is entirely undeveloped. It’s almost too much to wrap the mind around.
While I would have liked seeing a variety of Denali ski routes in Joe’s book, he leaves them out probably because a Denali guide would be an encyclopedia in of itself. Instead, he gives you two good options for self-guided or guided visits to the great mountains: Either tour the “Pleisitocene-era Yosemite” of the Ruth Glacier, or go to Little Switzerland and enjoy skiing a scaled down version of the Ruth that allows more climbing for turns (either of the steep or mellow).
More easily accessed from Anchorage (at least if you’re talking driving instead of flying), Joe gives a super overview of the ever popular Turnagain Pass area. Or even closer to the weird wilderness suburbs, check out the Chugach Front Range. Additonal chapters cover other areas commonly accessed from Anchorage, such as Hatcher Pass.
The book’s maps are your basic but effective USGS shaded 1:63,360 topos with red route lines sourced from Natonal Geographic Topo! software. They’re about as good as I’d expect a book map to be, but in my view a text like this should somehow offer more GPS data. That’s really my only chide on Joe, as with the exception of a few hut locations, “The Alaska Factor” has no GPS coordinates included for anything, not even trailheads.
While Joe in his introduction is correct in warning against GPS dependence (he says GPS can make you a “lousy mountaineer,” which is true); the GPS is an incredible tool when used correctly. To not provide the means to use that tool is a mistake no guidebook writer should make. In my view, guidebook writers need to start associating their books with an online source for route tracks and extensive GPS data that the user can download and install before a trip. That would include sources for free GPS maps.
GPS use is a lot of work if done well — and a dangerous crutch if done poorly. It is perhaps not for everyone since it’s still far from user friendly. But let me assure you that with the advent of easier and easier smartphone apps and better stand-alone GPS units, the need for good solid backcountry GPS data is going to explode. Guidebook writers need to be at the front of that, rather than following along as websites with rooms full of geeks try to guess where routes go so they can stick them into their apps with no guarantee they’d really work in the field.
As a guidebook writer myself, I’ve been struggling with the GPS issue for years now. Like Joe, I’ve not done a good job of providing easily accessed GPS data (meaning, just download it into your GPS). Reasons for that are many, but mainly it’s a lot of hard work. So I’ll leave off the diatribe and just say that the text information that Joe does provide appears thorough, and if one wants GPS info he can buy National Geographic Topo!, load up the exact same maps as seen in Joe’s book, and start clicking up a route line that can then be loaded into their GPS. Enough on that.
Before you die, you’d better ski in the Alaska Range — and in the Chugach. Hit or miss, pass or fail, whiteout or bluebird. GPS or not. Just go do it. Thankfully, Joe Stock provides the Aka-sutra you’ll need to get it done.
You can get Joe’s book at his website.