Aka-sutra — Joe Stock Alaska Guidebook

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | December 5, 2012      
Sutra of The AK

Sutra of The AK

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.


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17 Responses to “Aka-sutra — Joe Stock Alaska Guidebook”

  1. Joe Stock December 5th, 2012 12:03 pm

    Hi Lou,

    Thank you so much for the well thought out review. I really appreciate your GPS comments. It’s a tricky concept to put into the big, modern picture. Your insight is super helpful.



  2. Frank K December 5th, 2012 1:05 pm

    “To not provide the means to use that tool is a mistake no guidebook writer should make.”

    To me it depends on the guidebook and what it’s trying to do. For a CO Hut guidebook, yeah, a detailed GPS track is probably a great way to keep people from getting Torped (How’s that for an old reference?)

    But for an AK guidebook? In many cases a photo, a brief description, and maybe some history might be all I need for inspiration, and I’m probably not looking for a complete blow-by-blow hand holding for each route.

    At least that’s how I tend to use guidebooks.

  3. Lou Dawson December 5th, 2012 1:13 pm

    Frank, I’d tend to agree it depends on the route, my main point is being an avid GPS user myself when I travel, I’d like guidebooks that save me the work of finding and entering data. That’s what the smartphone app people are looking to provide, and I think they’re going to ace everyone else out…

    Ideally, I think text guidebooks should probably be associated with a website and/or app where the author can provide some downloadable routes. Or perhaps the book could be sold with a mini-CD.

    All this begs the question of how does a guidebook writer get paid for their work? We’ll, it’s tough when you don’t have a big customer base. I never made a cent on my guidebooks, just a low hourly wage for all the writing and map work, and now they’re all out of print. They were no doubt good for my career, that’s what saved me from total financial annihilation (grin). But if I’d had to somehow provide huge amounts of downloadable GPS info I don’t know how I could have accomplished that.

    So I guess what I’m saying is I still would like to see more GPS stuff associated with guidebooks. But how to get there and what’s appropriate? Another question…


  4. Tim December 5th, 2012 4:01 pm

    cool looking book, i’ll be interested to check it out, thanks for the head’s up.

    sidebar: lou, have you found any good avalanche forecast type apps out there? i’ve been asking around of a few industry folks i’ve been in touch with lately and haven’t really heard any solid referrals. it also strikes me as perfect app material — data is basically free (which is not to say somebody isn’t paying for it or working hard to produce it, etc) but also, conversely, perhaps why joe chose to avoid digital in the new book. ie., a whole other can o’ worms with limited consumer reach, etc.

  5. wfinley December 5th, 2012 5:22 pm

    There are two theories behind guidebooks. The “lines on mountain / let the author do all the work for you” and the “this will get you there but then you have to figure it out yourself”. If you want lines on a map get Kinney’s Thompson Pass and Puryear’s Alaska Range guidebooks. If you just want an idea of where to go get Thorp’s Back 40, Stock’s Alaska Factor and Wood / Coomb’s Alaska Climbing. All are good guidebooks and I have praises and complaints for all. Puryear’s guidebook spells out the routes in the Ruth like they’re trade rock routes but only causally mentions the inherent dangers. Woods/Coombs will get you there…. only for you to discover that the book is totally wrong.

    The two side are competing philosophies and Alaskans have very strong feelings when it comes to figuring it out yourself. I think Joe tried to bridge the gap between the two by offering maps but leaving it up to you to figure out how to get there.

    That said… every area in Joe’s book is easily accessible and routinely traveled and most Alaskan skiers have been to all of them sans GPS.

  6. Lou Dawson December 5th, 2012 6:53 pm

    But, what if you’re not an Alaskan skier?

  7. wfinley December 5th, 2012 6:58 pm

    Don’t worry – we have a great mountain rescue group up here.

  8. See December 5th, 2012 7:45 pm

    Aside from the fact that I enjoy trying to integrate a written description and a rough freehand map into waypoints in Topo, I believe it’s a good idea to have to do a more detailed analysis of the planned route than would be required if you just loaded it into the gps and drove to the trailhead. At least for the likes of me. Probably not that important for Professor Dawson.

    Not to mention the fact that the only book I’ve ever used that had gps coordinates was often wrong (at least didn’t agree with my device).

  9. See December 5th, 2012 8:06 pm

    …and by “integrate” I mean “translate.”

  10. Jack December 6th, 2012 11:55 pm

    Lou, you’ve got a good website, but your criticism of Joe’s excellent work is beyond the pale.

    I’ve read Joe’s book and I’ve skied Alaska’s backcountry for more than 30 years (and I don’t know Joe), but I’ll tell you this: Joe got it right.

    Come on up, Lou and spend a winter with us sourdoughs and we’ll show you around – you won’t need your GPS. Your eyes and ears and some commonsense will be enough.

  11. TC December 7th, 2012 3:05 pm

    I think you need to re-read the review, Jack.
    Lou is very positive about the guidebook! The only criticism is one that is more general – that guidebooks should be moving toward providing other data (like GPS tracks). Joe’s is just another example of this being lacking in many new guidebooks. Lou is suggesting a way a very good guidebook could be an even better resource. Seems reasonable to me!

  12. Matt Kinney December 8th, 2012 10:29 am

    Unless you are going real deep, GPS coordinates on front range/day routes seem a bit overkill in a ski guide book. There are a few techno-agro skinners out there who find the need to track and map every coordinate/foot of vertical up and down for some graphic reasons as if every ski day is a race day. Good on them for their comparative heart rate charts and analysis.

    But most skiers don’t ski that intensely, care about that stuff, or even own a GPS. I can’t recall the last time someone pulled out a GPS to determine our location while touring.

    Congrats on the book, Joe Stock. Looks like a lot of leg work!

  13. Mike Bromberg December 10th, 2012 9:43 pm

    Congrats on the book launch, Joe. Hope you all are having a great start to the season up there.

  14. Rondo December 23rd, 2012 2:43 am

    Hi Joe, I just wanna know if your guidebook is small enough that I can skin while reading it in one hand while eating a sandwich with the other? See ya! -R

  15. Lou Dawson December 23rd, 2012 8:44 am

    Alaskans can ski with a book in one hand and a moose head in the other, so a sandwich shouldn’t be a problem for you, right?

  16. Dillon December 23rd, 2012 2:11 pm

    Hey Lou, Rondo brings up a pretty common situation. In future guidebook reviews would you mind including weight (in grams)? Thanks.

  17. Joe Stock October 4th, 2015 3:07 am

    Hi Everyone,

    Do you have any suggestions for the second edition of The Alaska Factor? I’m working on it now. It will add GPS, Valdez and Kodiak Island. Any ideas will help. You can also send me an email to: stockalpine@gmail.com.

    Thanks for your help!


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