As most folks know by now, the winter season throughout most of the West was a bust. From Colorado to California, most people saw record-breaking years in terms of lack of snowfall and warm temperatures, and with all the predictions of La Nina bringing a snowy and stormy winter, skiers and snowboarders were let down, disappointed, and downright depressed….unless of course you lived in Alaska.
Alaska (and Europe)…seemed to making up for the low snow year in the Lower 48, with record-breaking storms throughout the year. Heck……Valdez, a sea level town, may have gotten more snow in December then Crested Butte did all season. So, for those with patience and the financial resources to make the long trek North to Alaska this season, they were well rewarded. And maybe even got some good karma laid upon them in Alaska as well, for enduring the ‘Winter that Wasn’t’ in Colorado.
Crested Butte Mountain Guides ran two Ski Mountaineering Programs in the Thompson Pass back-country area outside of Valdez, AK this Spring, and boy were they good! Having been ski touring on Thompson Pass for 4 seasons now since 2007, I can honestly say, “this year was the bomb.” Incredible snow coverage, great stability, awesome ski conditions, and lots and lots of bluebird weather all added up to making our time on skis up there some of the best back-country skiing of the winter, no doubt.
The Thompson Pass Area outside of Valdez, AK is a back-country mecca. Lying only 30 miles outside of Valdez, it is one of the higher mountain pass roads in Coastal Alaska, allowing for a longer season, and lies inland enough that it can hold more stable weather and drier snow then other areas as well.
The main area is roughly a 20 mile stretch of road that is the only human scar in an otherwise wide open Alaskan wilderness (well that, and the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline that runs alongside the road). On either side of the road are big steep alpine peaks, and glaciers as far as the eye can see, some stretching to within hundreds of yards of the highway. Access to all this is second to none. Park your car on the shoulder of the highway, pick an objective and go. There is a reason why this zone is known as the center of the universe for Alaskan heli-skiing and all other things backcountry.
Led by AMGA Certified Ski Mountaineering Guide, Jayson Simons-Jones, we ran two different 6-day Ski Mountaineering Programs from March 31st – April 15th, and avoided the dreaded ‘Val-disease’ Alaskan down-days from bad weather; getting in skiing on every day of each program, plus some bonus days before hand and between programs. Overall, an unprecedented amount of skiing in such a good and continuous weather window for the area.
Our first Ski Mountaineering Program, was actually more of a Split-Board Mountaineering Program, with Jason, Carsten, and Alison all joining us from Perth, Australia. Despite the fact that Perth has to be one of the most removed places from skiing on the planet, these 3 could rip, and we got after it.
Our camp opened up coincidentally with the megatron back-country snowboard festival that is Tailgate Alaska, and thus there was a certain air of excitement and high energy pervading Thompson Pass. The weather gods cooperated and gave us about 8″ of fresh snow by the end of the first day, with cold temps and bluebird weather to follow for most of the remainder of the week.
Days 1 & 2 were spent in the vicinity of the road corridor getting in some great powder skiing on Loveland Peak & Schoolbus Area, and an introduction to climbing with crampons and ice axes on some steeper lines to gain a summit descent off of Goodwills Peak for 4,500′ back to the car.
Day 3 we utilized the good folks at Big Mountain Taxi for their snowmobile taxi services, and got a taxi ride up close to the summit of Girls Mountain, saving us a 4,000+’ skin and turning a 4 hour approach into 25 minutes. Once dropped off, we bundled up in the -8C temps at that altitude and made a break for the true summit of Girls Mtn. 45 minutes later we were standing on top, and staring down onto the remote Hoodoo Glacier. 3,000′+ of perfect Alaskan powder awaited us down the moderately steep and glaciated north face.
Once down on the Hoodoo Glacier, we revelled in the memory of the incredible powder turns we just enjoyed, and took in the vast and remote Hoodoo Glacier basin, a place normally reserved for heli-skiing clientele. From here we made a slow and gradual climb of 2,500′ up onto the large Worthington Glacier, travelling below some incredible looking peaks and the electric blue of the Worthington Glacier ice spilling down towards the Hoodoo.
Being on the Worthington Glacier we were tempted by the aesthetic and steep NE face of Acapulco Peak, standing at the head of the basin, tall and proud….so off we went. Quickly transitioning to boot-packing with crampons and ice axes, we were continually blasted by fierce winds and fairly frigid temps on the steep face and stopped our ascent short of the summit proper at the logical ski descent entry. From here it was a steep and uniform line of chalky pow, one can only experience in a place like Alaska, and then a 2,000′+ long and mellow descent down the vast and aesthetic Worthington Glacier to our waiting car.
By now we had logged over 12K of vertical and so Day 4 warranted a bit of a rest. Our Ski Mountaineering Programs having an element of skills instruction and learning besides daily guiding services, so we utilized the day to rest some tired legs and work on some rope and glacier skills, specifically practicing various systems of performing crevasse rescues and more in-depth snow study and snow-pit exercises.
Beginning with the easy access afforded us on Thompson Pass, and when the weather there got to windy and cold, we utilized the 30′ high snow piles scattered throughout the town of Valdez for snow storage and finished in the evening sunshine and warm temps of being at sea level.
Day 5 & 6, the weather began to change as the next storm system began to approach South Central Alaska. So we rallied to get in as many turns as possible before the poor visibility and poor weather limited us. For the first objective we chose the uber-classic peak and run known locally as Cracked Ice, a towering peak covered with a fairly moderate angled glacier run from summit to car for 4,700′ vertical. In fact, with snow conditions being incredible once again, the light holding, and the added energy of being joined by Crested Butte local and World Freeride Snowboard Champion, Susan Mol, as guest tail-guide for the day…..we did a second lap up high, crushing 6,500′ of split-board earned AK back-country powder turns.
Our 6th and last day, did indeed deliver the predicted storm, and we woke to solid snow in the form of huge wet flakes, and were reduced to searching out some tree riding, to have some visibility and depth perception. Now, although Alaska is not known for it’s tree skiing, we did indeed find some final good wet powder tree runs closer to town, and sent Jason, Carsten, and Alison on their way to Haines for a week of heli-skiing, happy and content with 5 out of 6 days of powder filled earn-your-turns-riding in on the world class terrain of Thompson Pass.
Thanks to the 3 of them for a stellar week of riding in the AK backcountry, and for keeping the week safe and fun, and getting the most out of the stable weather, good snow, and good stability.
3-days of non-stop snow graced us on our down days, hitting the reset button before our second and last Alaska Ski Mountaineering Program……(coming soon…..)
Jayson Simons-Jones (AK Ski Mountaineering Program Guide)