April 2014, I set out for an amazing opportunity to attend a backcountry skiing and snowboarding mountaineering course in the mountains outside of Haines, Alaska. First of all, I had never been to Alaska, let alone lived on a glacier for weeks at a time. Needless to say, I was ultra-fired up and couldn’t wait to run towards the great unknown. I spent the months leading up to the trip scouring the web for absolutely anything I could find on the mountain range I was about to call home. I ate, drank and breathed anything Alaska. I replayed all of my favorite TGR Alaska segments and piece by piece, put all of my gear in order. Finally the day came. I boarded my first of several flights out to Haines. Confident that I would soon be slaying spines and blower, I put on my favorite Grateful Dead track and fell asleep to the hum of the engines with a grin on my face. This was really happening.
Five days into my trip, I realized things would not be going the way I had envisioned. Varying group ability and an extremely low level of acceptable risk was turning my dream trip into a giant disappointing tease. After clocking in nineteen days on the glacier, I had learned crevasse rescue, glacier travel protocol, how to walk really far with a heavy pack on my shoulders and a frustrating sled in tow, and had ridden zero lines. A far cry from the “steep seventy degree climb to the summit” and “face shots galore on a 2,000 foot headwall” advertised on the climbing school’s site.
On the 30th of April, 2014 after twenty days and nights of snow camping and twenty-five long miles of heavy gear hauling, we had reached our “far point”, the Tsirku glacier. The views from our location were simply staggering. As I gazed out into Glacier Bay, I fantasized about the skiing potential on other side of this massive glacier. One peak, especially far out on the horizon, caught my attention. “I wonder if people ski that” I pondered in the nuking wind.
As I unzipped my tent on the final days of the trip and surveyed the wondrous peaks surrounding camp, I came to grips with the fact that I would not be riding any of these lines, At least not anytime soon. By now we had spent the better part of a month living out of a tent, on a human-powered trip, in the rowdiest mountains on earth without logging so much as a single descent. I had put all my chips in on this Alaska trip after three years of spirit crushing drought in my home range, the Eastern Sierra. The silver lining was rapidly turning grey. This was not easy for me to deal with. I was unhappy, and I was angry with myself for being unhappy.
I returned to California with a crushed spirit. So far Alaska had been just as disappointing as my first three years on the East Side. During the long summer months I wondered how much longer it would be until I got a taste of the glory.
In April of 2015, I had earned the opportunity to return to Haines, Alaska. Promising myself this trip would be different; I spent most of my winter in California and Oregon diligently planning my two months of freedom in the North. I left California on April 3rd in a 2005 Ford Excursion packed to the gills with food, gear, and a bed to sleep on. The trip started off with a bang and 2 weeks into the trip I had ridden the best line of my life, twice! Rogers pass and the Canadian Rockies did not disappoint, a big thanks to Joey, Dustin, and Rance for the Canadian hospitality!
After a few weather days in Haines, uncertain if we would even get a good weather window to fly in, Zach Clanton, Aspen Rainweaver, Cody Booth, Tony Pavlantos, and I got the insane privilege of joining forces with Neil and Ian Provo out at their base camp after part of their crew had bailed following a catastrophic storm that dropped fifteen feet of snow on their camp. We can’t thank the original group enough for all their hard work in camp. We arrived to leveled, raised tent platforms, a huge dome tent, and a snow-skate bowl, paradise by our standards. Thanks Neil, Ian, Pete, John, and Tanner! You guys pulled off a major feat keeping that camp going despite the weather being thrown at you.
By our fourth day we had all bagged several descents on the low hanging fruit around camp, the antithesis of the “look but don’t touch” vibe of the previous year. These quick lines around camp were successively the best runs of my life. Nothing but blower pow on steep faces. Finally, everything was falling into place.
We settled in for a relatively mellow five day storm that produced 6 feet of beautiful snow and strong winds. While waiting out the storm, Neil and Ian kept talking about a line called “Tomahawk” that was supposed to be the crown jewel of camp. After dinner, we huddled around each other’s iPhones to look at photos of the line. Eager to contribute to the group, I pulled up the photos I had taken from our “far point” last year to see if they’d be of any use. Surprisingly, Neil said, “Ohh yah there it is!” He pointed out “Tomahawk” in a photo I had taken a year ago on my split-ski mountaineering course. It was the exact same peak that had caught my attention the year before. We could also see our current campsite in the same photo. The excitement built around camp for days as the storm began to clear.
On April 30th, 2015, exactly 1 year after I had taken a photo of some dream line across the glacier, I found myself atop my fantasy line. There I was, with the best crew imaginable, getting a look at the face. Looking west, I could see where I had stood a year earlier snapping photos. The feeling was unreal, how does something like that happen in a 5,000 square mile National Park? Honestly, I had no idea if the peak was even named when I was mesmerized by it the year before or if the line went. What are the odds of scoring a backup slot at an already established basecamp that would put me right beside my dream line? My luck was indeed changing.
At 4:00 am the following morning, I fired up the Jetboil for some tea and oatmeal. A few hours later Neil, Ian, Zach, Tony and I were standing on top of “Tomahawk”. The realization of a four year dream was incredible. Every turn that I had made on the East Side in bulletproof low tide snow, every life luxury sacrificed, every hour I had spent in some class or working in a restaurant to keep the dream alive, every mile I had walked on dry ground with my splitboard strapped to my back in the last 4 years added up to those moments, the moments we live for.
After touching down safely in Haines, I was finally able to process what had just happened in the mountains. To most of the other seven billion people in the world, our journey means nothing. “Quit wasting time on useless activities and do what your parents did, get a job, Sir!” they might even suggest and honestly, that’s fine by me. But for those of us that were out there, that trip means everything. We all got to experience the fruition of hard work, highs and lows, patience, and perseverance. We got to experience something real.
Photos and words by Zak Mills