Jordan White: Skiing Alaska’s Thunder MountainThursday, December 29, 2016
Every trip has its challenges. Ours started before we even entered Alaskan airspace. Having had plans to head after a project that has stumped us for a couple years, the avalanche danger and forecast for the following week had us scrambling for other options. The sheer number of ideas that came to us only shows how much we have left to explore in Alaska. Our big Alaskan objective this spring began just like that. We planned and prepped, but right before the snap we went for the pass play instead of grinding it on the run.
April 14, 2016
In the end we settled on flying in to the lower Kahiltna Glacier on a small branch called the Thunder Glacier; aptly named given the constant sounds of hanging glaciers and seracs falling to the glacial floor. Our main goal was the west face of Thunder Mountain—a formidable looking ski line to say the least.
It doesn’t matter how many times I land on a glacier, hop out of a bush plane and look around. My chin still hits the snow. Called back to the reality of unloading a week's worth of gear and setting up camp, I couldn’t help but to constantly glance over my shoulder as we stomped, dug, set up tents and prepared our home for the following week of work, sweat, cold and most of all … fun!
Considering camp “good enough,” Aaron asked, “Well who wants to go skiing?”
Ropes out, harnesses on, skins on and packs loaded, we chose a mellow objective a bit down glacier from camp to get our lay of the land and a feel for the snowpack. Benefitting from our beds at home being higher than most of the mountains here, we moved quickly, and efficiently in the fading evening light.
The ridge was a bit too steep for efficient skinning so we put a bootpack in—one that we used many more times the following week to gain the upper plateau. The steps are always deeper in Alaska.
Being our first day we opted to drop from here to ski some north facing snow back to the glacier and ultimately camp. The snow was creamy and delicious and offered fast, predictable riding.
Because of the location of our camp, almost everyday of skiing included a 20-minute skin back to camp. But cold beers and hot food provide plenty of motivation to move quickly.
April 15, 2016
Maybe it snowed a bit the previous night, or maybe we got dusted by a powder-cloud from a nearby serac-fall. Regardless, we were definitely scared due to the thunderous serac-fall we could hear all night long. Either way, we opted to move camp a couple hundred yards down glacier to make sleeping a bit easier. Aaron once again declared it “good enough” and asked, “Who wants to go skiing?”
Almost every time I’ve gone to Alaska, I’ve found myself looking out towards other glaciers and valleys and thinking about how much fun it would be to camp over there. This is one of the many reasons to return, over and over again.
Right after watching Joe ski down a perfect snowfield, we all heard a distant rumbling. Avalanches in general are a spectacular thing to behold … but watching them in Alaska is an entirely different experience. They are louder and the powder-clouds are second to none.
After that brief intermission, we went back to skiing pow, or riding it if you are Aaron, though the only thing that’s snowboarder about him is that he rides sideways. He has poles in his hands, wears AT boots and has tech toe-pieces.
April 16, 2016
I love being away from everything, away from the plugged-in life, away from work, away from the convenience of delivered food and away from the lifts that home provides. In the Alaskan mountains, work consists of the next step in the bootpack, food consists of whatever you cook on a camp stove and skins serve as ski lifts.
We headed out to some south facing couloirs across a neighboring branch of glacier. While the climbing was fun, most of the skiing was rather the opposite. Challenging breakable crusts had us working hard for our turns. By the time we neared the top, the weather started to change and we decided to turn around and ski rather than spend more time than necessary in the ping pong ball of glacier life.
April 17, 2016
The main event, what we came here for.
Just about every night around dinner we would start talking about what we should go do the next day. The west face of Thunder Mountain was almost always at the top of the list, pending what kind of weather we woke up to. Eventually, we woke up to blue, very cold, skies. We supposed it was probably as good a morning as any for it, so we geared up.
By now our approach to the upper glaciers had become routine: Start in as many layers as you can physically move in because April in the Alaska range is so damn cold, skin really fast until you hit the sun line, pack your backpack to the seams with all the layers because the sun in April in the Alaska Range is ridiculously warm, finish the last couple switchbacks on skins, transition to bootpacking for 500 feet, put skins back on, and then choose your direction. On this day, that direction was as close as we could come to a direct line at the west face, but as with most glacier travel, we probably traveled as much in the horizontal as the vertical.
As with most approaches in the Alaska Range, it was no short mission to get to the base of the west face. And as we approached, it seemed taller and taller in front of us. The more north facing the slope, the deeper it is. Walking high on these plateaus is a surreal experience, unmatched by anywhere I have been thus far.
We skinned most of our way up to the bergschrund, and transitioned to climbing-plates and crampons. Crossing the “schrund” proved more difficult than planned. After some digging and a slight bouldering move we were past the crux and putting the bootpack in on our primary objective of the whole trip. Steep!
Just a few hundred feet from the top of the face we encountered a sketchy looking rock section—one that we had been concerned about the entire way up. I decided to see how the snow was holding up and soon after traversing on to it, suspicions were confirmed: It was about 3-4 inches of snow on top of some very slabby rock. After slowly and carefully retracing my steps back to Aaron and Anton, we decided that was our high point for the day. We got to ski most of the face, but the summit may have to wait for a different snow year. Time will tell.
All the way home we were thinking about a great day in the mountains. And how fortunate we were to share the memories and the excitement of going after another big Alaskan objective.
April 19 & 20, 2016
We woke up to rather cloudy weather and motivation seemed to be lacking. After sitting around ‘til about 11 a.m. I started to get antsy and asked if anyone wanted to go check out a dogleg couloir not far from camp. Joe and Riley jumped on board. We headed out of camp and up glacier for a change. A quick couple of switchbacks had us over a ridge and on to the upper glacier—across the flats and onto the apron where we un-roped. I led, putting in switchbacks on skins up and past the small bergschrund and up another few hundred feet before switching to bootpacking. We booted up to about 8,200 feet where the couloir turned the corner.
Riley took the lead and wouldn’t give it back as we weaved over rockbands making our way to where the couloir hit a dead end and topped out around 9,000 feet. Leap frogging our way down, we enjoyed powder, firm crust and corn all the way back to camp. In a lot of ways this may have been my favorite day.
That bittersweet end to the trip … We got up at 7 a.m. with the intention of having everything ready to go by 9.
Bags packed, tents broken down and everything shuttled to the runway, we sat and waited for about an hour before Richard showed up and scooped us up. After the plane was loaded we made a stop at the Ruth to pick up some other skiers and continued back to Talkeetna.
We just barely made it to the Roadhouse before breakfast was over…. And in the end that’s all that matters.