Monday, April 23, 2012

5 Thoughts on Alaska and Alaska Video

So, I finally finished my Alaska Ski Video (embedded below), and I wanted to give a few final thoughts on Alaska.

Thought 1: This place rules. For somebody who loves adventure, this place is as good as it gets. Just the stuff I turned down or didn't have the money for (ski tour down a frozen creek to a remote ice climbing destination, heli drop at a remote backcountry yurt for week of touring) would be incredible. Me living in Alaska would be like a gambling addict living in Las Vegas.  I'd have an amazing time, but I'd almost definitely get myself into trouble.  Which leads me to . . .

Thought 2: I need more training. I definitely need more knowledge - snow safety, wilderness first aid, mountaineering, etc.  I didn't feel grossly unprepared, but I definitely wasn't the most educated person there. In fact, my complete ignorance of avalanche knowledge was kind of embarrassing.  I might take the PSIA Backcountry Accreditation next year, which would put me in a good place to take a AIARE Level 2 Course the following year. That, combined with a lot more backcountry trips and maybe a few ice climbing adventures will make me a lot more comfortable when I get into winter shenanigans.

Thought 3: I did it all wrong. If I was trying to have a pure ski vacation, I screwed up royally.  I really only got one resort day at Alyeska and 5 backcountry ski days. I guess 6 "skiing" days in a 10 day vacation is pretty good, but a lot of those touring days consisted of a long hike up, followed by 1 run down.  A couple of times, I'd hike halfway up again and get another run out of it, but it was definitely more of a "hike" day than a "ski" day.  Next time, it's going to be more like this guy:

Pickup truck. Camper on pickup truck. Ski rack on camper on pickup truck. Trailer on pickup truck. 2 Snowmobiles in trailer.  Not a bad way to access all of that powder in the background. Of course, having a snowmobile (or 2) would really have been no good for me because . . . 

Thought 4: Travelling alone sucks. I was visiting a college friend that was only available for adventures on the weekends (which were awesome). The problem was, she works all week, and I had to find my own adventures Monday - Friday (which is a lot more difficult by myself).  At the resort, skiing by yourself is never really the best time, and in the backcountry, skiing by yourself is never really the best idea. So, I ended up having to ski in a lot of heavily trafficked snowmobile skiing areas, when I would have much rather been out in the middle of nowhere. And not to sound vain, but it's nice to get pictures and videos of yourself shot by a buddy (like that Tug Hill Trip). I'm not really satisfied with the below video for this reason (too much first person GoPro-ing without another person in the frame).

Thought 5: I'm not sure if I'd want to live here. The mountains and adventure opportunities are fantastic. The skiing is great. The mountain biking is supposed to be phenomenal (how could it not be?). I could seriously have an amazing adventure every weekend and, for at least 6 months of the year, every day after work. The problem is, I think I caught it at the best time. Right now, Alaska is going through "breakup", a season of flooding, ice jams, mud, grime, and unfrozen dog shit. In the summer, the entire state is apparently overrun with mosquitoes (35 different kinds?). And after summer, it starts getting real dark, real quick.  In December, Anchorage only gets around 5.5 hours of daylight (and it isn't really "daylight" as it's supposedly pretty dreary). I found out that Alaska has a pretty transient population - people who are there for a couple of years and then move somewhere else. I could see doing that. It seems like just the kind of place that would be the perfect "change of scenery." 

So, I'm not moving to Alaska just yet. I need to go back for a more pure skiing vacation to make a final decision. Anyone want to come with? If you need a little more convincing, here's the video:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Trip Report - Thompson Pass, Alaska 3/30/12

I'm working on the Alaska video (trying to edit the entire vacation down to 6 minutes, so a lot of stuff is getting left on the cutting room floor), but I figured I should finish my story about Thompson Pass.

So, after a day of really tiring touring (damn, those hills were steep), I had made plans with the snowmobile shuttle guy to get a ride to the top.  Then, in theory, I would have toured around the top of the mountain with a bunch of short laps, and then skied one big lap down at the end of the day. The drive back to the pass was pretty scenic:

I was scheduled to meet the guy "between 9:00 and 10:00".  At around 9:15, I pulled into the parking area where he had set up shop the previous day and waited.  And waited.  And waited . . .  until about 10:45.  The whole time, this was the view through my windshield:

That would be the Worthington Glacier (summer picture here).  It looked absolutely perfect for skiing (and was one of the places that the snowmobile shuttle guy offered to take me).  Only problem was, I was alone. Glacier travel (what with crevasses, ice flows, hidden hazards, etc.), is not the best undertaking for a random dude with no winter mountaineering experience.  I was wishing that the guys in this helicopter would pick me up:

Since that didn't happen, I decided to make a go of it anyway.  I drove across the street to the parking lot and looked around.  Snowmobile tracks straight up the glacier.  That was good.  I could follow those, and hopefully, they would lead me to powder nirvana instead of icy megadeath. Looking around more, I saw some tents, some RVs, and 2 guys applying skins.  Nice! First time I saw anyone else opting for the hard way (granted, I was only skiing the well trafficked areas because, again, I was all by myself).

I formulated a plan to stalk them, and thereby keep myself somewhat safe (I realize this is not good backcountry etiquette, but if they weren't friendly about it, I would have just skinned up and skied down the snowmobile tracks). Here's what the hike up looked like:

Those are some buildings for the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site.  I just realized that website says to stay off the ice.  Oops.  Here's one of the two guys hiking up:

Note the ridiculously large crevasse, visible on the right.  Of course, I was more concerned about the stuff I couldn't see, which would become an issue later.  Skin track stoke (?):

So, once again, I was on a road made out of snowmobile tracks, so I felt pretty safe.  Damn skin trak was steep as hell again, though.  Nevertheless, I caught up to the two guys (who turned out to be from Salt Lake City), and hiked up with them for a while for a little added protection.  Why? The weather was turning:

We had hiked about 3,000 vertical feet in about 4 hours, and those guys wanted to go higher.  My legs didn't have much left, so I ate a Snickers bar and thought about going down.  On one hand, going down a glacier in low visibility was a questionable activity, and even more ridiculous by myself.  On the other hand, I was tired, and going down now meant I was that much closer to beer and fried food.  Beer and fried food won out.

I told the two guys that I was going to head down right next to the skin track, and if they saw my car in the parking lot when they got down later, they should turn their beacons to "search" because I was stuck in a crevasse somewhere.  The skiing turned out to be not so good.  Besides not being able to see anything, the snow was pretty crusty, and I had to stick really close to the skin track for safety.  You'll see what it looked like in the forthcoming video (or, really, you won't see what it looked like).

I made it down safe, though. and I stashed my gear in the car and took off back to Anchorage.  Pretty good views on the way back:

When I made it back to town, I ate fried halibut and drank tasty, tasty Chuli Stout.  Excellent decision by me. In fact, I made a lot of good decisions that day.  So, I'm no longer a random dude with no winter mountaineering experience.  Now I'm a random dude with very little winter mountaineering experience.

In my next post, I'll premiere my video, Alaska in Six Minutes, and give my final thoughts on "The Last Frontier", including my ideas for how to do a pure Alaska skiing vacation (not that the state tour thing wasn't fun. I'm just going to attack this place completely differently next time).  I'm also going to do something outrageous this weekend (either skiing or mountain biking), so look for a report on that as well.