Ski Mountaineering

Alaska Skiing in August

Aug 16-20, 2010

Alvin Walter

There aren't very many places that beckon skiers to the 'Call of the Wild' in late summer as does Alaska. I still have vivid memories of a movie adventurer who was dropped off by a bush pilot in a remote area of Alaska when it sunk in to him just how much of a commitment he made as he began to down his first mouse. Well, Cory Harelson and I weren't planning any mice dinners as there weren't any mice in the Wrangell Mountains on the Frasier Glacier that is at least 120 air miles from the closest road - however, we were committed to this glaciated mountainous wilderness for at least a week and a half to deal with whatever weather and adventures Alaska was going to dole out to us after the bush pilot tipped his wings at us on a last minute fly-by 'salute' before he headed back to his remote Alaskan lodge.

We were totally reliant on good weather for him to be able to pick us up in about ten days. The typical weather for the previous month had been impossible to fly in according to all accounts. Cory and I, however agreed to bring Southern California weather with us and we held true to our lucky charm status. The day we arrived we basked in glorious sunshine with mountainous vistas that are only rarely seen by the most committed mountaineers with skis.

Our immediate and obvious goals were negotiating substantial crevasse fields, avoiding threatening seracs and titillating cornices, bagging glorious untrampled peaks via obscure one-in-a-lifetime routes, deal with all meteorological challenges, and most important was to have the kinds of thought experiences that go far beyond the physical challenges that will forever enrich our lives and those with whom we share our stories.

In 1932, there was a young Mongolian Princess who sums up our desired experience with the following plaintive words told to Maynard Owen Williams, a National Geographic Society special staff representative, 'Perhaps your way of life is right for you, but it threatens ours. You are in a hurry and, hence barbaric.' 'You are entranced by mechanical toys, which you haven't mastered... 'You find this a backward land... We Mongols' she continued, 'are emancipated. 'A good horse and a wide plain under God's heaven,' that's our desire. And we realize it.'

Our first base camp was set up near two peaks that were a virtual island in the middle of several vast glaciers. On our approach to the higher of the two, we worked our way around several large open and conspicuous crevasses and up over one corniced ridge to where we stood on soft afternoon snow in the direct fall line of a massive cornice showing a vertical fracture line indicating a short life to it and us if we proceeded further.

It was time to cash in some of our efforts and rack up some nice late spring quality turns down to a traverse line that headed through an intricate labyrinth of crevasses below a small hanging- but recently breaking up - glacier. Roping up was the only way to progress through to a ramp that looked like a solid makeable route to the more accessible second peak that we continued toward over a steep exposed black ice field just below the nicely consolidated 800 foot pitch to the summit that we named after its elevation of 9,500 feet.

The 360 degree view was more magnificent than either of us could have imagined with Mt. Saint Elias and Mt. Logan standing tall to the east in clear and bright late afternoon sunlight that cast defining shadows that seemed to highlight routes to their lofty summits at 19+ K & 18+ K respectively and luring us to think we would have time to ski to and on their massive faces - only time was going to tell how realistic our perceptions were.

Our descent off Peak 9,500 to base put us in skiers' heaven with a more direct route on a consolidated granular base where we only stopped to admire cascading and freefalling rivlets of melted ice pouring off the blue ice surface of more than one hanging glacier. Seeing Mt. St. Elias and Mt. Logan inspired us to use our pulgas (sleds) to move our base camp close to some perceived goals which proved to be an arduous exhausting effort past a number of small yet man-sized swallowing crevasses and a recent straight line bear track. Yet despite the physical distractions, we found a comfortable rhythmic pace that allowed my thoughts to focus on things like melodic Andean music and the mountain loving people of South America, sea-going adventures in wild storms that my fisherman Grandfather related in stories, and such far out things as quantum physics where my exuberant college Professor was able to make me see all these tiny particles that we are all made up of that come together for a brief period of time then dissipate - yet forever leave the world changed for their existence. I feel a personal high that is on par with a peak experience and just bask in the internal glow until our rhythm is broken.

We have decided on a new base camp location, pitch the tent, dig a kitchen, then begin building a wind break wall when Cory suddenly looses half his height then regains it with a bit of a struggle and tells me he stepped into a crevasse. It was within four feet of the tent and there was no clue of its existence since it was only about a foot wide at the top and covered with two feet of snow that gave it an eerie blue glow much deeper. We probed around and Cory did another partial disappearing act into a similar crevasse about 15 feet from the other side of the tent. Welcome to the Alaskan world of glaciers and crevasses is what Mother Nature seemed to be telling us and we took that as a clue that we seriously needed to watch our steps, probe everywhere we went and stay on skis as much as possible.

During the night we got some rain, snow, and a bit of wind that cleared long enough in the morning for us to explore another smaller glacier with seracs, melted pools of ice, steep black ice, and a steep cornice ridge that was layered on unstable marble like snow (known as T.G.) that sloughed as we approached. We grasped the warning and descended to the steep black ice that we downcramponed then enjoyed a fine run back to the Bud Lites with Lime that we brought along as contraband that made for a nice celebration at the end of the day.

Now we were ready for a day to explore beyond our line of sight and go to where we believed no man or woman had gone before. The journey was killer - open maws of gaping ice, 60+ degree runneled slopes above bergschrunds, 100 foot wide areas of snow on a Temperature Gradient (T. G.) base that went 'whump' as we passed, and that high looming unnamed peak that came into view after hours of exertion.

It all was disclosed to us on a mostly clear, calm, day under a mackerel clouded sky that projected a checkerboard pattern of sunlight that created the visual effect of an artist's painting. At about 200 ft. below our summit goal and just before we crossed the bergschrund, we broke out the crampons to ascend the double exposed knifeedge ridge to the summit. Cory, with his expertise in 5th class climbing, led the way as I followed with much trepidation since the variable snow conditions and extreme exposure had me thinking too much about the consequences of the slightest mishap - yet within the next 20 minutes we were both standing on the top and ecstatic about our accomplishment and the mind-bending views of all that was around us even at the late Alaskan hour of 9 p.m.

We also quickly realized that Mt. Logan and Mt. St. Elias are such huge mountains that our original view days earlier and many miles back did not accurately put into scale their true distance from us until now. They were days from us and not within the time constraints of this adventure making our new summit that we named 11,237 (for its elevation) our turn-around point. We downclimbed below the bergschrund for practical reasons, them skied downhill continuously for the next 1.5 hours and arrived at camp after dark. It was one awesome day!

The next few days were of less duration yet still filled with excitement and adventure. We were able to climb a north slope in perfect powdery conditions to a ridge that reflected all the colors of a prism spectrum and gave both of us our first glimpse ever of an upsidedown rainbow being reflected off the snow that also made for some heavenly skiing back down.

At camp the next day, while capturing images of the immediate terrain, a huge hanging cornice partially broke off and exploded in clouds of spray as I continued documenting its demise. This was a good reminder of the fragility of this wild environment we put ourselves in.

Later in the day as we were moving our camp and pulling the pulgas over the exact same solid track we came in on but in slightly warmer conditions, the softer snow suddenly collapsed under me forcing an attempted prostrate position as my pulga thumped me in the back. I knew Cory wanted to charge forward and help me out, yet we were linked together with a lifeline that had to remain taut to keep me from sinking further into that perfectly hidden crevasse. Fortunately, without sinking much below my waist despite having skis on, I was able to get my pack and pulga off my back and crawl like a Komodo Dragon out of the immediate threat only to look back into that bottomless cavern over which I hovered to realize I didn't really want to go down there -- so on we went.

The weather had been deteriorating and very low visibility on a choice peak next to camp thwarted a summit attempt that opened the option of yo-yo-ing its lower steep (45+ degree) slopes about a half dozen times on a thin layer of consolidated granules that maximized moving photo filming ops - not to mention having a bit of relatively reckless fun.

Our last full day was a virtual white-out with some wind where I skied beyond the limits of base camp visibility and returned to spend the rest of the day in the tent pondering the point of our fiendish determination to explore and take risks in this isolated ever-changing part of the world on frozen water. It all comes down to this to me - All life on earth began in a proverbial soup of hydrocarbons that grew more complex ultimately becoming living organisms that evolved into the highest form of life by taking risks (evolutionarily speaking) and thus by the mother molecule deoxyribonucleic acid that has stored our history in every cell of our bodies we are living our destiny at the point of mother nature's spear that will continue to drive us to seek the unknown and have a little adventurous fun in the process.

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