Words by: Trevor Grams
60 miles deep in a mountain range does not sound particularly far to a lot of people. A car could cover that distance in about an hour; a plane could fly there in half that time if the weather is good. Pulling a week’s worth of gas, food, climbing gear, and backcountry ski and snowboard equipment behind snowmobiles 60 miles is a little more challenging than driving or flying. And then when it was time to leave. We had to figure out how to coax one machine back to life, tow a different dead machine, and make sure laughing Neil, with a broken arm and mouthful of heavy painkillers, made it back home.
I had been discussing options for a big spring break trip with my snowboarding partner and Scottish foreign exchange student, Calum Macintyre. With the low snow year along Alaska’s coast last season, this east-west valley on the north side of the Chugach Range was looking like our best chance for good snow. We decided to talk with Sam Volk, a commercial fisherman and experienced winter camper from Petersburg who had a solid background with snowmobiles and the many things that break on them. Neil Gotchall, a hardcore Alaskan from Palmer who was smart enough to chase an engineering degree, rounded out our team of restless college students as the only one who preferred riding two planks on the way down.
After discovering this area on snowmobile ride with my dad my freshman year in high school, a dream was planted. I promised myself that one day, when I get “good enough” at splitboarding, I would come back to this place and ride the peaks that penetrate the jet stream 4000-5000 feet above the valley bottom. One broken arm, two broken machines, three rolls of toilet paper, four friends, and five sunny days later, it is safe to say our crew made that dream a reality.
As we rode through the trees toward the perfectly curved slopes of the Northern Chugach, the snow slowly transformed from a rain crust to 2 feet of fluffy powder. For the next 36 hours, we were engulfed in snowflakes gently drifting down from the clouds that erased the tracks of any creature that called this place home. Pillows and a couple kickers in the trees kept us entertained the first day. The hush of drifting snowflakes and lack of visibility combined with our distance from other humans made for a satisfying claustrophobia. I could feel the peaks peering through the thick clouds and drifting snowflakes as we made ourselves at home in this wild new zone.
The weather broke. For good. With perfect weather, avalanche conditions, and group dynamics, every day was the new best day of our lives. Every day we put knee-deep skin tracks in, choked on powder, and climbed until it felt like our legs would fall off. Every day we dropped back into camp, made food, debated what time we would wake up the next morning, and then tumbled into sleeping bags for the night. The repetitive routine was delicious.
On the seventh and final day, our luck was running low. First, the toilet paper was forgotten, which created a small emergency on the glacier. Luckily that was resolved with a sacrificial buff and only resulted in some interesting sunburn. Then a snowmachine mysteriously stopped running. After abandoning the broken sled for the day, Neil dropped in on the wrong blind roll and tumbled over two large cliffs. He broke his arm when he smashed into a rock sticking out of the lower cliff. After deciding Neil was not going to die in the near future, a couple of us took one final sunset spin in this paradise valley before packing up and leaving the next morning. Our turns down the gently rolling slope smiled and waved as the sun slipped beneath a crevasse field.
My perspective on “good enough” splitboarding has changed considerably since I first dreamt about riding this area. While this was a big step forward in my riding, there will always be those heavy lines and big trips reserved for a later date when I am “good enough.” This trip made me realize the importance of dreaming big and working to progress. I am stoked to see what this season brings as far as the progression in my personal riding, my friends riding, and the forward movement of the world’s backcountry community and industry.