Alaska. It’s a place that is on almost every skier and rider’s list of places to visit. In the ski world, AK is known for its abundance of massive peaks, incredible snow, and remote location. Pro skiers have been going here for decades for film shoots in countless segments of ski films, usually operating out of a helicopter or a snowmachine.
In March of 2018, our team, made up of 6 athletes (Cam, David, Ellison, Tallie, Jake, Oliver), made the journey from Boston to Anchorage - not to go heliskiing, but to dive into the human-powered Alaskan backcountry experience. We spent a couple days skiing one of the only ski resorts in Alaska, Alyeska, and the rest of the time was devoted to ski touring on Turnagain Pass and in Chugach National Forest and Chugach State Park.
Our guest guides / coaches for this experience were IFMGA Mountain Guide Joe Stock and AMGA Ski Guide Nick D’Alessio. Both live and work in Alaska and provide high quality experiences for clients year-round and are exactly the type of people that we like our athletes to be exposed to and learn from on a big trip like this. Below are some details from selected days of our 3-week trip.
Day 6 - 9
On these days our objective was a three-night winter camping experience with access to great ski terrain. After food packing and preparation, gear checks and organization, passing in last-minute assignments to our CVA teachers back home, our group headed in on skis to Center Ridge on Turnagain Pass with heavy packs and ambitious attitudes. The approach into camp took a little over half a day and left time to teach the athletes the criteria for setting up a safe, comfortable winter camp. The first exercise was on choosing a camp location, where our students learned to assess the distance from avalanche terrain, the proximity to skiing objectives, and the natural shelter from any wind and inclimate weather.
Our group settled on a flat spot on top of Center Ridge, with some sparse clumps of trees that would act as a natural wind barrier. Next, we stomped out our tent platforms in the snow, creating as hard a surface as possible to set up our tents on. We staked out our tents, unpacked personal gear into our new homes, and took in the incredible view of “the Library” and Kickstep Mountain.
Next we created some common areas. One area with dug snow-benches for eating and hanging out, a “ski locker room”, for our skis and poles, a dug out camp kitchen under a pyramid tent, which was complete with snow countertops, snow cabinets, a pantry, and our cook stoves. Lastly, we built the bathroom and had a long conversation about the importance of dealing with human waste properly when traveling in the wilderness and on protected public lands. Our base camp turned out great and as a bonus, had one of the best views in the Chugach!
Now that our camp was built, we could focus on the finer details of winter camping - staying warm, consistently eating enough food and drinking enough warm liquids, keeping personal gear organized, how to dry out wet gear, how to make sure our boots didn’t freeze over night before skiing the next morning. So many lessons were taught and learned over these 4 days that not only carry over onto future winter expeditions, but also were lessons that translate to personal life as well. Working together as a team, communicating with each other in uncomfortable situations, taking responsibility for personal preparedness as well as contributing to group tasks… so much great learning came out of this camp.
After our first night, we finally were able to go out and make some turns. With tricky avalanche conditions, we stuck to lower angle slopes and areas where we were confident in the snow stability. We spent lots of time skiing off both sides of Center Ridge and heading up to Kickstep Mountain. Every single run was amazing powder skiing in an open, alpine environment surrounded by some massive mountains. During these few days of skiing out of our basecamp, we didn’t see any other skiers and the time on Center Ridge really lived up to being a remote backcountry skiing experience.
Days 11 - 13
In addition to getting a winter camping/expedition experience during this trip, we also were able to spend some time at Manitoba Cabin, a backcountry hut with access to amazing skiing. Hut skiing is super popular in some areas of the country and very popular in Europe, so we were psyched to be able to ski into the Manitoba Cabin for a few nights and enjoy a bit of a mellower backcountry overnight experience compared with our time on Center Ridge. Both experiences were awesome, but different in their own ways.
Manitoba features a large main cabin with lots of common living space, a full kitchen, and dining area. A short walk from the cabin were the yurts that our team would stay in, which were heated by a wood stove and equipped with bunks and mattresses. Additionally, a wood-fired sauna provided some warmth and muscle relaxation at the end of some long days of ski touring. The setup was awesome.
We spent a few days skiing on Manitoba Peak. We found some quality powder skiing one day and some super windy conditions the next. Athletes spent time working on skiing technique in variable snow, identifying areas where we would find the best snow, working on transition efficiency in windy and cold conditions, and working on identifying avalanche terrain and avoiding the avalanche hazard.
On our last ski day in AK before getting ready to depart back to school, we took the day to ride the lifts together at Alyeska, have a blast on a really sunny day, ski the steeps, and reflect on the amazing backcountry days that we had in AK. We also met up with Alaska local and a CVA prospective student, Soren, who skied with us for half a day and showed us around his favorite runs at Alyeska. Soren ended up coming to CVA for his Junior and Senior year!
Written by Patrick Scanlan, Backcountry Program Director, 2016 - Present