Forums Trip Reports redemption in the chugach–two weeks of thompson pass pow!
Viewing 19 posts - 1 through 19 (of 19 total)
  • Author
  • #782280
    246 Posts

    it’s been awhile since i posted anything here, but a recent trip was so rad that i’m willing to brave this terrible forum software and attempt to post a TR.

    i don’t think i’ve ever seen firefox actually hang up and crash before the first time i tried to log in here! here we go… let’s see if this works.

    as we all know, the weather on the west coast was not conducive to snow sports this past winter, and my attention was further divided this season by an almost-crippling injury and an ambitious engine swap project. and so it has easily been a year since i last sat down to write up a trip to the mountains.

    but now all that is about to change! so pull up a comfortable chair, pour yourself a barrel aged stout, and stop thinking about corn snow in january. for today, i have a story of redemption to tell.

    this past winter was a challenging one for me. the difficulties started early, when my plans to spend most of august snowboarding in new zealand were shattered (along with my lower tibia) in a rock climbing fall. my doctors debated whether or not i needed surgery. i wondered if i’d walk again in 2014.

    i decided to forgo the surgical addition of more hardware to an ankle that already has 5 screws from a prior injury, and perhaps i chose well, because in late september, i was allowed to start limping around in a walking boot. after six weeks on crutches, i was overjoyed to go outside again. my recovery was beginning.

    by october, i was allowed to walk unaided. i put a shoe on my right foot for the first time in two months. i may have hugged my snowboard.

    unsure when i would be able to return to snowboarding, i jumped at the chance to buy a turbocharged engine from a wrecked jetta. i’ve always dreamed of having a van that doesn’t get passed by semis, and perhaps an engine swap project would help pass some time at sea level.

    as autumn gave way to winter my recovery, like our snow, was intermittent. some days my physical therapy went well, and i returned home to gaze at my snowboard and smile. other days i struggled to climb stairs, and my mind, clouded by pain, wandered back to a promise i made myself after a string of serious injuries in my late 20s–that i would give up snowboarding if i ever found myself on crutches again.

    but i didn’t give up. instead, i limped back on to my board, buoyed by encouragement from my friends, and grateful for each person who broke trail for me and then waited for me to catch up.

    as i slowly gained strength and confidence, i established a goal for myself–to be able to join my friend saign on his planned spring trip to alaska. we had been talking about this trip for over a year, and it was beginning to look like i might be able to make it. this thought kept me motivated and dedicated to my regimen of daily PT and weekly snowboard trips (even when the conditions didn’t really justify it). it seemed like every time i was overcome by doubt and frustration, i’d get a call from saign, talking about destinations he had in mind, ski plane operations he’d been talking to, and updates on the alaska snowpack. while i focused on rehabilitation, he laid the groundwork for a classic ski trip.

    the plan was to fly into juno, pick up an air freight shipment of food, then take a ferry to haines where we’d meet up with the legendary pilot Drake. as soon as we had clear weather, we’d take a ski plane flight out to a promising location and set up camp on a glacier to ride spines for a week or two. we would need to eat well for this mission, so as march came and went without the big snowstorms we’d hoped for, we channeled our enthusiasm into preserving meat for our long, cold glacier campout. while saign cured and dried beef jerky and filled vacuum bags with smoked pork shoulder and par cooked bacon, i ground up some fresh rabbit meat from our friend scott and pickled a brisket. soon my smoker was filled with rabbit sausage and pastrami as i was with excitement to finally visit the mythical chugach.

    however, as the date drew closer, saign’s frequent phone conversations with drake became discouraging. the weather was too stormy to fly, and clients were lined up deep at the airstrip; apparently we were not the only ones hoping to end a dismal season with a week or two of glacier camping. we postponed our trip by a week…. then another week…. hoping for a break in the constant storms.

    but the forecast stayed bleak–warm, wet, and windy. so with only days left until our latest possible departure we abandoned the itinerary we’d been planning all season in favor of car camping at thompson pass. hopefully the milder weather and mobility of a rental car would help us make the most of conditions. finally, after years of dreaming, months of rehab, and weeks of agonizing over the weather, we were on our way to alaska!!

    a first visit to a dramatic location is always a surreal experience, more so when it is steeped in years of ski film lore and a snowless winter of dreaming. as we drove out of anchorage and into the mountains, we knew immediately that alaska was going to live up to its reputation.

    the mountains were shrouded in clouds when we reached thompson pass, so we continued on to valdez where we planned to camp for the night and fill our air bag cylinders in the morning. one clear day was forecast before the next storm, and we wanted to make the most of it.

    snow at sea level!

    why set up the tent? it’s dry in here…

    it’s hard to describe the level of excitement we felt, waking up to fresh snow and clear skies over the beautiful mountains of valdez harbor. it’s on!!

    dirtbag style camping is something of an institution at thompson pass, so we stopped at the main lot to seek advice from the “locals” camping there with their snowmobiles. we soon had an earful of recommendations, photos of a guidebook, and some new friends.

    throughout our preparation for this trip, saign had been in communication with a venerable alaskan shredder, jaime (whom some may know as snowsavage). between the information he’d shared and what we gleaned from the guidebook, we had a pretty good idea that the valley west of mt dimond was stacked with “dozens of couloirs”. i believe this wall is referred to as the “promised land” and that name sums up perfectly how we felt as it came in to view after a couple hours of skinning.

    the “tailgate alaska” festival had just ended the day prior, so between sled and heli traffic, most of the couloirs had tracks in them. but there were enough to go around, and it was not hard to choose an untracked line for our first run in AK.

    enthused by the deep powder, saign set out at a sprint, a season’s worth of anticipation directed at this first bootpack.

    i put on verts for the first time in my life and did my best to catch up.

    when i caught up with saign at the top of the run, i finally had a chance to look around and appreciate the surroundings. the wall across from us, dominated by mt dimond, was glowing in the afternoon sun, each couloir beckoning with its own unique appeal. but one steep line stood out above them all, and as we stared closer, we picked out two figures slowly booting their way to the top.

    the two parallel lines to looker’s right of the summit are the famous “gun barrels”. the longer line on the left of the summit was the one that caught our attention. and though we wouldn’t find out until we ran into him in a bar a week later, it turned out to be a friend of ours putting in the bootpack.

    i will warn you now that this trip report is slightly bereft of riding photographs. i typically am happy to stop in the middle of a run and get out my camera, but in the steep, constricted, powder-choked couloirs that defined this trip, such behavior seemed unsafe and a little blasphemous. these lines were meant to be shredded hard from top to bottom, and that’s what we did! fortunately, we had helmet cameras rolling for most of the descents, so i’ll throw in a few frame grabs, but for the rest, you’ll just have to watch saigns excellent videos…

    we paused for a moment at the bottom to reflect. after all of the dreaming and scheming, we had finally ridden a beautiful alaskan couloir in perfect stable powder conditions on a beautiful bluebird day. the glow of good fortune and satisfaction soon burned into an ember of desire…. for more pow!

    what were we to do but pick out another untracked couloir and start climbing!

    this particular line didn’t top out to the ridge, so we each picked a spot on the 50 degree slope and dug a ledge to transition on.

    as i carefully assembled my board, i stared across the valley as the climbers we had watched earlier crossed over the ridge and disappeared. i couldn’t believe it… had they just put in a perfect bootpack up this amazing couloir… and left it untracked??

    i couldn’t help but wonder, had the climbers abandoned this sunny slope due to solar instability? sun crust on the snow surface? would it be worth following their bootpack tomorrow to find out? as if on cue, the answer to my questions appeared in the form of a helicopter. it landed on the shorter, less exposed line just to the left. all thoughts of sun crust vanished as we watched huge plumes of dry snow fly up behind the skiers as the heli followed them down. these must be pros filming a movie segment, and still “our” line was untracked!

    as we raced down another epic steep pow run, we heard hoots echo across the valley… could it be… the pros we’d just watched were all ladies!

    the north side of mt dimond as seen from the road. the climbers we had seen (eben & jeremy) had crossed the ridge at the shoulder just right of the rocky peak and ridden this face, leaving the west facing couloir for us!

    the main “tailgate” lot was a bit of a swamp, so we decided to forgo the party scene and set up camp down the road where our tent could stay out of the mud that smelled suspiciously of 2 stroke gas.

    the clear skies and sun were nowhere to be seen the next morning, but all we could think about was the bootpack up dimond as we quickly broke down camp and headed back. but the clouds stayed high as our line came in to view.

    the climb was almost 2000 feet, but with steps already in place, it went fairly quickly. the constant threat of impending whiteout kept our pace high as we charged upwards.

    all the way up, we saw nothing but perfect snow, and we made it to the top before the clouds dropped or the storm started.

    the light wasn’t great, but we had just enough visibility to see where we were going… DOWN!

    the descent was superb. the run starts with a wide snowfield that was holding perfect blower pow. after a few hundred feet, it rolls over and becomes steeper, and you have the choice between heading skier’s right back into the chute that we had climbed, or picking your way through rocks above the cliff band beside the couloir. the rollover that hides much of the run from view at the top also keeps the guided heli ski groups away, as there is no safe vantage point from which a guide can watch the entirety of a client’s descent.

    i followed our bootpack down the main chute, while saign worked his way through the exposed rocky section. we both found nothing but perfect snow and immediately began assigning superlatives to the descent.

    find the rider…

    there’s only one way to deal with this much stoke, and that’s to go climb another couloir! knowing that we’d likely spend the next few days waiting out a storm, we headed back to the other side of the valley to tick off another line. funny how after just 2 days in alaska, a run that would have been a contender for best of the season was now “just another couloir”. i didn’t even get out my camera.

    this is the “promised land” as seen from mt dimond (on a sunnier day later in the trip). the right and center arrows are the runs we did on day 1. the leftmost arrow is the bonus run we did to finish off our second day.

    part 1 of saign’s video series covers these first two days and includes footage from all 4 runs.

    246 Posts

    that night we headed further north, down the inland side of the pass to the rendezvous heli ski lodge. with bar that offers $5 showers, it seemed like an ideal place to wait out a storm. the lot across the street seemed like a perfect dirtbag camp spot, and i was slowly getting used to the fact that it’s generally acceptable to camp on the side of the highway at thompson pass. i dubbed this location “campsite 12-3”.

    sure enough, the next day we awoke to wind, precipitation, and low clouds obscuring the mountain. after two good days, it was not too frustrating to spend a day relaxing.

    that night we moved our camp back up to the pass to better watch for breaks in the weather.

    the storm showed no signs of abating the next day.

    whipping up a cup of “down day coffee”.

    the snow was barely freezing at pass elevation so we broke down our camp in hopes of keeping our gear somewhat dry. now, what to do with the rest of this stormy day?

    we thought about driving down to valdez… or back to the bar at rendezvous… but after a whole day off from riding, there was really only one option.

    the “willow glades” near the road provided an amusing diversion. the shrubby willows provided a bit of visual contrast to allow some depth perception where the ground was otherwise indistinguishable from the sky.

    trying to store camping gear, snowboarding gear, and a weeks worth of food in a small rental car was a constant challenge. pretty much everything had to come out in order to get our snowboarding gear back in. at least this time we had a nice snowmobile trailer to block the howling wind.

    back by rendezvous, the weather was a little milder, and we spent the evening hiking around the banks of the tsaina river, hoping to find a way across to access mt billy mitchell.

    did i mention that we were prepared to spend 2 weeks camped on a remote glacier? on our flight up, saign’s carry on “personal item” was this bag filled with 30lbs of dried, cured, smoked or frozen meat. it was a carnivore’s christmas every night opening up this bag and trying to decide what to make for dinner.

    recipe for saign’s “alaska jambalaya”
    -1 can spicy beef chili
    -1 can sweet corn
    -2 spicy & garlicky smoked rabbit sausages
    -1 heapin helpin of smoked pulled pork
    -generous dollop of tapatio
    dice sausage on the hood of your rental car, discarding casing to the nearest hungry dog. mix chili and canned corn in a small camping pot on your tailgate, retaining half of liquid from corn. heat on a small coleman stove, stirring in sausage and pork with a flimsy backpacking spoon or willow branch. add plenty of tapatio and serve over whole wheat spaghetti noodles or in soft tortilla shells. make sure the dog doesn’t get your leftovers.

    the iconic thompson pass peak “mount billy mitchell” looms over campsite 12-3. when it is visible in the morning, you better get up to the pass because you might be able to ride!
    i think this constitutes visible.

    unsure if this lull in the storm was going to last minutes or hours, we followed a group that was putting in a skin track up “crudbusters”. clouds loomed ominous, ready to descend at any moment and leave us in a white out.

    as we neared the top, we were dismayed to see a “valdez heli-ski guides” chopper land just above the group we were following. we had heard that the heli operators generally won’t land right above people that are climbing, but i guess when it’s the first weather window in days, everyone is anxious to get out.

    we caught up to the group that had been breaking trail, thanked them and discussed our options. it seemed that the VHSG groups were riding the couloirs on the west face of the ridge, so we decided to hit the first main east facing couloir while it was still untracked. the group of alaskans went on further to show some bare ass to the heli skiers. it seemed an appropriate gesture. meanwhile we rode a fun chute in great pow and forgot about the frustration of competing for runs with guided heli clients.

    we broke some steep trail getting back up to the ridge, hoping for another run. it looked like the guides had dug a snowpit on the west side of the ridge, so followed suit. we got a pretty easy fracture within the super low density new snow, and while we were debating the significance of this find, our friends the clouds decided they had been away long enough. unwilling to drop on to the glacier in a whiteout, we followed the skin track back down the ridge.

    a view from the road of the west face of crudbusters. many of these lines get heli skied.

    on the far left is the east face that we rode. the ridges to the right are known as the iguanabacks.

    there are several couloirs on the east side of crudbusters; we rode the rightmost. the skin back up to the ridge is the crux.

    that night, a sense of revelry was in the air. the heli clients at rendezvous had gotten out as well that afternoon and everyone was ecstatic about getting pow runs on what we all expected to be a down day. it turns out there was a big stack of pallets set aside for just such an occasion.

    it snowed more overnight, and when we awoke to dreary skies and heavy clouds there was not much to do but try to save our tent from the snowmelt swamp. by this time we had gotten over the silly habit of packing up our tent during the day. roadside camping does not raise many eyebrows at thompson pass.

    down days are a little easier to bear when nachos are involved. (this was the second of 3 meals during our trip that we did not prepare and consume in our rental car).

    if you can’t ride, you might as well shower. and if you happen to have forgotten to bring soap, dish detergent is a good stand in.

    i got my first chance to read a novel in a while. phillip k dick writes some weird shit.

    the next day looked no better. having consumed the last of our candy and beer, we made the drive back to valdez to resupply. on a normal snow year, there is a lot of potential right by the harbor.

    imagine that, “alaskan brewing company” beer is actually pretty ubiquitous in alaska. in fact, it was pretty much that or PBR. we got both.

    sookie the dog has done more heli runs than you. and she still wants your dinner.

    RVs and heli guides. you can spend a lot of money in alaska. and you still have to sit around drinking when the weather says so.

    the next morning marked my favorite numerological holiday, the 20th of april. the weather gods must have shared my sentiment, because when i unzipped the tent for the daily dawn sky-check, mr billy was calling down to us. time to move!!

    crudbusters and the iguanabacks were looking good, but we decided to push on further up the pass.

    our goal for the day was “RFS”. the sun was shining and new snow was clinging to the willow branches. it was a cheerful morning as we meandered through benchy terrain.

    despite that our objective was labelled with an acronym that included the words “really” and “steep” its face was not far from the 50 degree pitch that characterizes many of the good runs in the area.

    but no sooner had our objective come into sight than a familiar sound sent fear and aggravation coursing through our hearts. sure enough, the low pitch rumble gave way to the familiar sight of a VHSG helicopter landing right on top of our objective. our frustration faded a bit when they left the steep face for us. nonetheless, the next chopper to land received the appropriate one finger salute.

    the clouds threatened as we neared the summit. dimond was already engulfed.

    but the sky was somewhat clear overhead, so we pushed on optimistically.

    the visibility was still good when we reached the summit and began to discuss a plan. with several days of recent snow, we were a little wary of the stability, so i buried my board as a deadman anchor and belayed saign on to the slope to make some assessments. by the time he radioed up that the snow looked great, the clouds were closing in. i dug up my board and coiled the rope as quickly as i could, but it was to no avail. by the time i looked over the edge, i could only see 2 footsteps behind me.

    we waited for over an hour, hoping for a clearing, but the clouds did not oblige. defeated, we inched back down our bootpack. at last we understood why short weather windows and long approaches make this the land of helicopters and snowmobiles.

    meanwhile, back at “camp” the heli skiers were capping off a morning of pow runs with a bit of parking lot baseball. someday i’ll have a heli budget……

    despite a slightly frustrating day, things were looking good. the storms had buried all of the tailgate tracks under several feet of right-side-up powder. we had picked up a copy of the guidebook, learned our way around the pass, and had some objectives in mind. our camping situation was dialed in, and we still at at least 20lbs of meat left in the sack.

    stay tuned for part 3! and in the meantime, here’s the second installment of the video series, covering the stormy days of our first week.

    246 Posts

    optimism and excitement were running high as we entered the second half of our trip. the forecast looked great for the rest of the week, but as we were learning, the chugach weather predictions are a bit more of a gamble than the precision modeling that we are used to in washington.

    this was the exact opposite of what we expected to see driving up to the pass from camp. in fact, we decided to write off the day and go explore by car to see if we could find some interesting side roads.

    but after an hour of driving around, we turned around, only to see billy mitchell starting to light up in the distance!

    we decided to head back into the crudbusters/iguanabacks cirque, hoping the distance from the pass would help keep it sunny. the skies continued to clear as we climbed, and we knew we had some unfinished business after our last visit. soon we were standing atop the same run that we were chased from by clouds last week, and the weather looked a little different this time!

    wanting some extra confidence in the snowpack, we got out saws and a small cord to cut a cornice.

    the cornice chunk didn’t trigger anything, and a snow column only failed within the very light new snow. we soon had the confidence we wanted for a line that appeared to have a few opportunities for airs.

    another great pow run!

    while hanging out in the rendezvous bar, we had heard that one of the best couloirs in the cirque was located far to the back and out of sight. a few clouds were starting to gather, so we briefly considered heading for a closer line on the iguanabacks… but quantity won over certainty, and we headed for what we hoped would be a longer, steeper run.

    i started breaking trail in the sun, but clouds were on the move, and it was clear by this time that the bluebird minutes were numbered.

    white out threatened as we neared the top, bringing a sense of anxiety along with the clouds. but there’s not much that can be done to speed up the process of climbing a 50 degree slope in thigh deep snow.

    dig dig dig.
    sinnnnnnnnk slowly into the soft snow, losing most of your vertical progress….
    breathe in and start digging again.

    the leader must excavate a hole in front of him in order to even think about taking a step. it’s a ridiculously slow and labor intensive process… but it leaves a trench (and maybe even steps) for the follower, so the person behind may “rest” as they climb. we took turns in front, switching places often with only a brief stop to comment how light, deep, and stable the snow was and what a great run we were about to have.

    yep, i’ll admit it. i grew my beard out for this trip just so more snow would stick to it. that is what a season without powder will do to your brain!

    saign’s third video features footage from these two great runs we had on a day that we almost wrote off.

    so far, we had focused exclusively on terrain south and west of the highway. generally, these were shadier aspects with good pow and fairly straightforward exits to the road in case of sudden whiteout. but each time we drove through the pass, we had looked to the north at sapphire peak, it’s southwest face one of the more striking features in the area. the access involves climbing an ice fall and traversing the twentyseven mile glacier, so we were saving this one for a day when we had no concerns about deteriorating visibility. that day had come.

    “if you can see a cloud, go somewhere else” was the advice we had received regarding this objective.

    starting the icefall climb. not a cloud in sight!

    we were tempted to explore this cave on the icefall, but the glaring sun reminded us to keep moving.

    fortunately the twentyseven mile glacier is named for a milepost on the highway rather than its size. we had thought about climbing and riding “tone’s temple” (visible on the left), but there were already two people on the ridge when we reached the glacier. presumably they had snowmobiled up into loveland basin and climbed from the back. we decided to push on to sapphire.

    as we crossed the glacier, our recurring nightmare seemed about to manifest as a helicopter circled a few times then landed atop sapphire. however, this time it was not valdez heli-ski guides dropping off a bunch of lawyers on top of us to poach our run. we were filled with relief when the helicopter left behind a group of pros who flew a drone around the summit for a few minutes and then dropped off the rocky north side and out of sight.

    we transitioned to verts at the base of sapphire. things were about to get fun!

    as we worked our way up the south ridge, the mix of snow and rime ice began to feature more of the latter than the former.

    saign has more guts than me, and bravely led the way in verts.

    meanwhile, i was troubled by visions of plastic verts skittering near the steep, icy summit and stopped to put on some real crampons–for the first and only time of the entire trip. while i was stopped, the 2 skiers we had seen earlier on tone’s caught up, and i recognized them as the pair that had offered to sell us an old snowmobile for $400 when we encountered them in valdez during the storms.

    it was a small and icy summit, crowded with our group of 4 all transitioning at once, but i was determined to photograph the view!

    the first hundred feet of the descent was a little harrowing–crumbly rime ice and not much snow. but at “only” 45 degrees, it was manageable and soon gave way to the powder we expected. how could it have been in the sun all morning and still be so dry and perfect?! this is the miracle of alaska!

    continuous from the summit to the road, now that’s a good run!

    as with pretty much everyone we met during this trip, the pair we encountered on top of sapphire were gracious, friendly, and very competent. they thanked us for putting in the bootpack and waited to let us descend first. then best of all, they asked if we needed a sled lift anywhere for an evening run!

    we had been thinking about spending the next day accessing and climbing python peak, but with sled access to the base, suddenly this classic run became an after-lunch jaunt!

    there were a couple of tracks on the face already, but not enough to keep us from making the climb. steep, packed with features, and loaded with pow. i couldn’t believe i was looking down another iconic run in the same day!

    every run that we took on this trip had its own unique appeal, and many times we stared back up at our tracks and breathlessly claimed to have just taken the best pow run of our lives. with so many characteristics that can make a run memorable, exciting, and fun, i’m not sure i believe in choosing a “best” run.

    but i will say that after a thousand feet of being sprayed in the face with a fire hose of fluffy pow–face shots that barely cleared enough to take a bearing before the white room closed in again–carving down the second epic run of the day in perfect snow illuminated by golden evening light… that i have never experienced a greater feeling of giddy, satisfied euphoria at the bottom of a run.

    daylight lasts until 10pm this time of year, but it was already long dark by the time we sat down to dinner this night!

    saign’s fourth video installment is the footage from sapphire and python. i know i’m a little biased, but it contains perhaps my favorite POV footage that i’ve ever seen.

    if you are going to watch only one video from this TR, this is the one! (just be prepared–even if you watch this on a hot summer day, you may find yourself instinctively reaching to wipe the snow from your face!)

    246 Posts

    throughout our trip, we utilized many sources of information to familiarize ourselves with this new and imposing environment. we benefited from a ski guidebook, extensive cell phone topo maps, and saign’s winter of research. but our most valuable resource of all was the sage advice of an experienced alaskan snowboarder named jaime. posting under the moniker “snowsavage” jaime has been regaling the internet for years with well written and superbly photographed tales of adventure. when i first began splitboarding a few years ago, i read with rapt attention his story of a board accessed elk hunt; the idea of camping out in the arctic brooks range with an elk carcass while being followed by a pack of wolves opened my eyes to the possibilities of splitboard travel and helped me close the book on a period of my life in which “snowboarding” meant waiting in line for a ski lift. and now, years later, i had finally made it far enough north to take advantage of his extensive knowledge of the snowpack, weather, and mountains.

    saign and jaime had been in communication throughout the season, and continued to share stories and information as we explored thompson pass.

    our enthusiasm must have been contagious, for by the second week of our trip, jaime had decided to drive out from the anchorage area to check out the fantastic weather and great snow. one book claimed that thompson pass gets on average 4.1 sunny days during the month of april, and we were getting that many in a week!

    after the second day of our trip, when saign conveyed the news about the awesome line we rode on mt dimond, jaime had mentioned that this was a thompson pass classic he’d always wanted to ride. and with the combination of steep, exposed face riding, a rollover, and chute below (not to mention big vert and great views) i knew i’d be happy to go back. not to mention that in our previous descent, i’d been a little too timid to ride through the rocks above the big cliff and had pretty much followed the bootpack down. in the back of my mind, i was a little envious of saign’s cooler line and was happy at the idea of going back and doing it “right”.

    yep, i know i’ve posted this already, but as possibly my favorite photo of the trip, it bears repeating. here it is again, “zells” on mount dimond, as seen from across the valley to the west.

    jaime met us at our camp at the end of our long day on sapphire and python, but i was too tired at that point to chat much. the next day we headed up to mt dimond under the perfect blue skies that we expected.

    a good trip usually has a few instances of fortuitous encounters, and ours was no exception. the two snowmobilers who passed us as we began the approach stopped to chat and ended up being friends of jaime’s. soon our party of 3 had become a party of 5, and hours of skinning had been replaced by a few harrowing minutes of tandem sled riding.

    motivated by a desire to express our gratitude (and pay forward the bootpack that eben and jeremy had left us last time), saign and i agreed to take on the trailbreaking today and give our new friends a stairway to the top.

    the sled guys had ridden around to have a look at the north face while we started on the bootpack. kicking steps is slow, and those guys were fast, so they caught up before we reached the top.

    the weather was good, the company was great, and the views were excellent. we were having about as much fun as is possible while carrying a snowboard up a steep hill in deep snow!

    one more repeat…. this is when i actually took this photo from part 1.

    snowsavage nearing the top and joining in our normal daily chorus of “damn this run is going to be good”.

    is there anything more satisfying than sitting atop a mountain that you’ve just climbed, taking in spectacular views of mountains you’ve ridden and mountains you want to ride, and sharing tales of adventure and exclamations about the great snow quality with your companions?

    yes there is! just when i thought the day couldn’t get any better, jaime mentioned that he’d been successful in a recent hunt and had brought along grizzly sausage and chicharones. if there’s one thing i love almost as much as steep pow it’s homemade cured meat!

    but as much fun as we were having on top, we were all excited to get to the pow riding. ben (the one with the sled and the furberg board, not me!) snapped this awesome shot of saign dropping in.

    meanwhile my camera was blazing away shooting dozens of out of focus images because i’d left it set on macro focus after taking the grizzly sausage pic. saign was almost to the rollover by the time i realized my mistake and focused my camera.

    i dropped next and got this photo from the bottom as i anxiously watched jaime pick his way right along the top of the cliffs. maybe after a few seasons in AK i’d be this bold!

    with the benefit of snowmobiles we had more options regarding where to go next.

    we decided to head all the way to the back of the valley to ride a north facing wall stacked with little jumps.

    ben (the other one) goes for some air.

    saign beat us up to the top and dropped while we were still climbing. jaime stopped in the bootpack to get this photo of saign on his first lap.

    the view to the south from this ridge was particularly scenic. i don’t currently have good software for stitching panoramas, so i’ll post this one from saign’s cell phone. i promised myself that my reward for finishing this TR would be the latest version of lightroom (which was released while we were in AK!). once i get that set up i should be able to stitch some of the panos i shot and perhaps will update this report, but until then, here’s the iphone version…

    jaime was on his way up to where saign is standing when a cornice started to crack. unwilling to ride underneath it, we sat and waited for it to fall on its own. the remnants are visible just past where jaime is sitting.

    on the way out, jaime demonstrates why he is a connoisseur of “GFP”.

    part 5 of saign’s video series covers this excellent day of riding.

    it was pretty rad getting to repeat one of the best lines of the trip with someone i’ve always admired and hoped to ride with ever since i first picked up a splitboard. the forecast still looked sunny, and we still had one more whole day to spend at the pass. we decided there was one last loose end that we needed to tie up: RFS.

    MMM… oatmeal and muscle milk sludge. i had the same breakfast every day for 2 weeks and still enjoyed it on the last day.

    saign, it might be about time to wash your snowboard socks.

    i had plenty of photos of the RFS approch from our last failed mission, and today we were in a hurry, hoping to beat the helicopters to our destination so i didn’t stop for more. we had scoped the steep face from the road with saign’s telephoto lens, and it appeared to have only a track or two, so we were optimistic. but as we feared, when 9am rolled around, we heard the familiar sound of a helicopter and saw with sinking feeling that it bore the familiar blue and yellow paint job of valdez heli-ski guides and was headed straight for our objective. we threw our shouts and gestures of anger and frustration helplessly into the wind as a second VHSG helicopter approached. but our anger was replaced with simple dismay when we saw what they were riding…

    the guides took their clients, all of whom were paying $1200 a day for the privilege (yep, we stopped in to inquire about their rates) RIGHT DOWN THE SKIN TRACK! that’s right–whoever had put the 2 tracks down the face of RFS the day before had skinned up the mellower east side of the face, and two choppers full of VHSG clients had followed thier guides directly over the skin track.

    i don’t know who had the more frustrating experience–us watching a perfectly good skin track get wiped out by heli clients that could have flown for 75 more seconds and reached a peak that would have taken us all day to approach on foot… or the clients paying $1200 for the “alaskan heli ski experience” only to get dropped off at the top of a roadside skin track and having to ride down over it instead of the cool steep face that the people skinning went down. this is why we didn’t heli ski!!

    but they trashed the skin track instead of our run and soon we found ourselves on top–in much better conditions than last time!

    the “other side” of python–this is on the list for next time! (see if you can spot sapphire in the distance).

    this sight made me wonder how many more days of sun this snowpack could handle before the bomber stability that we’d experienced could no longer be counted on.

    soon another VHSG chopper landed on the flat glacier below our run.

    the group headed down a “run” that was barely steep enough to sustain movement. in fact, the 3rd rider got stuck and ended up walking over what appeared to be crevassed glacier. it seems to me that if you can afford heli skiing maybe you could afford to take a lesson or two at a resort first??

    eventually, we got sick of laughing at heli skiers and got down to business… “RFS” business.

    one friend told us that he thought RFS should stand for “real… short” and indeed the steep part is not that long. but with a nice ridge in the middle, an exciting pitch, and great snow, it was a good run, and we’d have gone back for seconds if we didn’t see 5 people on the ridge skinning up. instead, we headed downhill, feeling fortunate to have had the opportunity to come back and experience the line we’d been skunked on before. the run back to the car was over 3000 feet of super enjoyable low to moderate angle pow, and we enjoyed every turn, knowing they would be our last of the trip.

    but with plenty of daylight left, what to do now… well, there was one place i wanted to stop to get a photograph that i thought would sum up my opinion of a local heli skiing operation.

    tsaina lodge, home of valdez heli-ski guides (as seen last week during the storms).

    now, i have nothing against heli-skiing in general. in fact, i’d love to try it some day and had even contemplated it for this trip. but after seeing that most of the heli ski clients were riding less interesting runs than what we were climbing, we decided to save the heli ski budget and use it to come back for another cheap trip next year. but don’t let me discourage YOU from going heli skiing at thompson pass.

    but i will say this. there are many heli operations serving the pass area: rendezvous, black ops, dean cummings’ H20, and yes, valdez heli-ski guides. now, i have it on good authority that some of the best guides in AK work for VHSG, so i don’t doubt that it’s possible to have a great time skiing with them. but in the 2 weeks that we spent touring in the area, every time we had heli clients dropped on top of us, it was VHSG. so my advice is that unless you are friends with a guide, or have several thousand dollars to spare trying to make friends, GO SKI WITH ANY OPERATION OTHER THAN VHSG!! unless your idea of AK heli-skiing is to pay $1200 a day to ski down roadside skin tracks while being heckled and mooned by angry tourers, then i would avoid VHSG. all of the operations have permit areas that include both roadside and distant terrain, but VHSG is the only operation that we saw consistently dropping clients on the roadside. these people were paying good money to heli ski, and VHSG was too damn cheap to spend a little on fuel for the chopper to take them off the highway corridor.

    this photo was taken at the heli ski desk at tsaina lodge….
    “valdez heli ski guides: where you pay $1200 to ride down a skin track and they still charge you $10 for a damn sticker”

    OK. rant over.

    next up we headed to the pass proper to take a few photos. this area, near the wortman’s glacier was one that we had hoped to visit during this trip. but to visit “the books” you need a snowmobile, and we opted to tick off roadside objectives rather than deal with the logistics of renting or bumming a ride. this is on the agenda for next trip!

    once nice thing about getting back to camp before it’s dark is that you can actually dry out your gear! (important when you are about to pack it up for the trip home).

    the next morning, we began the drive back towards anchorage. but there was still one thing left to do–finish off our meat!

    scenes from the scenic drive back to anchorage…

    we drove up to hatcher pass to have a look at some of the more “urban-accessible” ski terrain. a woman came up to us and asked me to take a picture of their group, saying they had just completed a 20 mile overnight ski traverse and apologizing for not having showered. i smiled, took the photo, and didn’t mention that 20 miles sounded more like a long day than a traverse, and that i hadn’t showered in a week.

    we stayed with my friends grisha and john in palmer, who showed us a good time in town (and let us use their showers!!).

    of the many challenges we faced during this trip, trying to get all of our gear back into our luggage was one of the more time consuming!

    it’s a happy moment when you reach the end of a trip without deploying your airbag. but you can’t fly with the system pressurized, so we celebrated with a driveway deployment.

    was it fate? or the universe trying to add a symbolic conclusion to an amazing trip? after an incredible two weeks that redefined my perspective on snowboarding… after experiencing an epic mountain range that i’ve dreamt of for years, just when i thought this trip couldn’t get any more unique or offer any other new experiences, i came across a little gas station selling a new dew product that i’d only heard of through rumors…. DEWSHINE!
    the first (and to this day only) time that i have ever found this miraculous beverage was on the way to the airport. i couldn’t fit my snowboard boots into my luggage, so i slammed a delicious dewshine while i changed into them for the flight.

    so yes, i made it home safely from a ski trip that had perhaps more tense moments in steep terrain than any of my other adventures to date. i recovered from a stupid injury enough to experience a dream that i’ve had for years. i tend to shy away from “expectations” when dealing with things so dramatic, but if i did have any, they were blown away.

    and all this in a season that many have called “the worst in memory”.

    it took a lot to make all this happen, and i certainly didn’t do it alone. i owe a big thanks to the many people who helped me to get here–to kyle, leyland, scott, and everyone else who helped me limp back into snowboarding shape… to stefanie for putting up with my little pow addiction… to my great physical therapist… to jaime for the good company and tons of beta… but most of all to saign, who did the lion’s share of planning and organizing to make this trip happen, who finished every bootpack when i said it was too steep, and who put up with my slow pace of climbing.

    thanks, everyone. let’s do it again next year!!

    but in the meantime, i was about ready to take a break from sleeping on the ground and eating in a rental car. time for the amenities and comfort of home!

    351 Posts

    Great TR…and I am stoked that you found redemption!

    336 Posts

    Restoring my faith in you are. Looking forward to the next 2 installments, and Nice Work!!!

    Rico in AZ
    559 Posts


    Looking forward to the rest!

    71 Posts

    Wow what a TR! Thank you for sharing and giving life to this lost/forgotten forum…Just accidentally wandered here and found a gem..

    50 Posts

    wow really nice report! I definitely want to go to Alaska one day…

    Amplid Milligram 163, Tour Operator 159 & LabCarbon 162, Phantom Alphas 14/15, Atomic Backland w/ Phantom LinkLevers,

    246 Posts

    thanks everyone!

    it’s sad to see this forum so quiet. i took so much inspiration from the posts here when i was getting started splitboarding.

    it’s so time consuming to write trip reports, but if i get back into it next season, i’ll put some content here. the new forum software is frustrating, but i don’t usually compose TRs in the web interface anyway. the “lightbox” pop-out photo display is a cool way to see pictures at a higher resolution. i reformatted all the links for part 3 so that they’d work with this feature. it took way longer than i expected, so i’m not sure i’ll do it for the rest…

    385 Posts

    !!! I read the whole TR and you didnt mention your ankle one time while in Alaska! that is good to hear, what a way to get back on the horse. You sir have got me thinking Alaska needs to be in my plans sooner than later.

    thanks for the great report. and the new found fire..

    330 Posts

    I wasn’t sure if you were going to take the time to post here as well. Thanks again for pulling though the injury, and taking the time write up an awesome TR.

    Until next year…

    624 Posts

    Awesome tale, great weather. mind blown!

    thanks for posting that

    44 Posts

    Just plain excellent. So awesome to read on a mid June morning! Thank you very much for taking the time to write this up and post a TR. I’ve been missing this type of content here. Spectacular! Hope you’re able to get up there again. Congrats on the recovery as well!

    151 Posts

    We are truly not worthy

    350 Posts

    Its july now so i expect this forum to be quiet,next season the core forum people should put the effort in to put up content . wonderful tr and totally needed this


    Great TR! I was staying in an RV at Rendezvous with some buddies during those same weeks! definitely remember seeing your tent sent up across the road and we were the crew setting the trail on Crudbusters after the storm broke. i think we got in about 4 laps that day. super fun. didn’t get a chance to ride Diamond but Sapphire was a fun ride especially going by the ice fall. until next year!

    Amplid Milligram, Salomon Split, Phatoms w/ TLT6.

    33 Posts

    All time trip report. Definitely got me stoked for this upcoming winter even though I don’t plan on doing anything near as big. Anyway definitely sounds and looks like it was a dream trip and to do all of that after recovering from an injury must have been amazing! Thanks for taking the time to put all that together!

    31 Posts

    f yeah! very nice redemption indeed!

Viewing 19 posts - 1 through 19 (of 19 total)

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.