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A Cave in the Tordrillos

In early April my husband Zach and I set our sights on the jagged granite peaks of the Tordrillo Mountains, a sub-range of the massive Alaska Range. To put the scope of the Alaska Range into perspective, it could cover the entire state of California. Pinpointing the location we wanted to snowboard was a daunting task full of digital, topographic, and aerial photography maps. Coordinating with the pilot and seeing the photos he had shot from his plane the day before is what finally set our route into action. We swiftly loaded our gear into the beautiful chrome Beaver bush plane and took off. We had a lot in common with our pilot Ben; 26 years old, loved to ski tour, and made a living doing what he loved. When asked, he said “because in Alaska people either become fishermen or pilots.” He flew us around until we made a group decision on a safe camp spot. We then flew through a tight col and made a spiral descent onto the glacier.

Zach Grant breaking trail with Cindi Grant backing him up in the Tordrillos. Photo by Kelly Gray

Zach Grant breaking trail with Cindi Grant backing him up in the Tordrillos. Photo by Kelly Gray

We touched down but didn’t feel a thing; he pulled back up upon the realization that the snow was too deep. He would have to beat in a landing zone with a couple passes. Once stopped, the first steps out of the plane seemed like they belonged in a fairytale, waist deep fluffy snow! We staggered along a boot pack to pass gear along assembly-line style, out of the plane and away from the newly formed runway. Ben had to make a few more circles on the runway to pack it down for his return. Each lap threw up a huge powder spray that swirled out from under the wings. His final take off ran the whole length of canyon to pull it up and out of the deep snow.

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We laughed as we stomped out our camp and made flat spots to set up our tents. “Is this real? Someone please pinch me!” Powder-coated spines, long steep couloirs, brilliant blue ice, and sharp golden peaks surrounded us. With camp set and the sun fading we crawled into our tents under a clear sky full of stars.

We woke up with wonderment at our surroundings and a great anticipation to explore the glacier we had made home. We roped up and started our approach to the mellowest point of the steep mountain face. With all the new snow we knew that deep crevasses could be only lightly covered and so we aimed at higher hills and linked the safe points together. The ascent route we picked was a runnel between two spines and all the natural shedding of loose snow down the center made it consolidated enough to pack in steps. Just above the bergschrund on the adjacent spine, we assessed the snow pack and were delighted by the stability.

We used our splitboards as anchors to hang on to as we built steps by packing snow with our feet. We took turns booting strait up the face to set the track and our views improved the higher we ascended. We were getting close to the top and it was my turn to take the lead. I pushed upwards until I came to a thin rocky section where the ground disappeared beneath me and I lost my footing. A panicked feeling shot through me as I fell up to my hips into a rock hole 1500’ above the valley floor. I shakily pulled my self out with my board and used the freshly circulating adrenaline to finish the top out.

Once we all got to the ridge we were greeted with expansive views of the range. Our base camp valley, that seemed so huge, was dwarfed by this expanse that was laid out over endless miles of glaciated peaks. We discussed the lines that we wanted to ride, picnicked on the ridge, and took in our massive surroundings. After building a platform, Zach and I strapped into our boards on top of one of the many untouched spines loaded with powder. Zach dropped first and his exhilaration with every turn played out in big sprays and loud slough on either side of the spine that he stayed right on top of.

We went back to casino the spine wall for three sublime days. The slough calls were mandatory, the drop-ins were thin, but the meat of the spines were pristine, deep, and surreal. Jubilant laughter and hearts filled with pure ecstasy sent us back up the climb for more. As we carved our turns into knife ridge spines the range of feelings was vast. There was the nervousness on top, the silence in that first turn, the pure connection to each moment, the excitement from every slash, and the almost overwhelming elation from the run out. We had the best lines of our lives.

After being dropped off somewhere in the Tordrillo Mountains our air taxi begins his journey back home. Photo by Kelly Gray

After being dropped off somewhere in the Tordrillo Mountains our air taxi begins his journey back home. Photo by Kelly Gray

I couldn’t get enough and then, I got spanked. The line I picked didn’t go from the top and required a short traverse to get on to. As I crossed the slope a sharp rock grabbed the base of my board and all of the sudden I was in a full tomahawk, falling feet over head down the mountain face. Stunned, I was able to get back to my feet and point it for the spine. Not reaching it before I was taken down by my river of slough and dragged to the bottom and over the bergschrund. My confidence was crushed and I kept looping the thought that “I know better, how did I let that happen!” After a solid session of self-doubt and criticism about my mistake, I pulled my self back to my feet. I changed my outlook knowing I was incredibly lucky. I wasn’t critically hurt, I wasn’t dropped into a deep dark hole, and the hard way is a valuable message sometimes. I choose instead to be grateful for the lesson that I gained from my experience and I climbed back up buy non prescription viagra online to ride another line.

 

That evening we got a text on our satellite phone from a friend in Anchorage with a weather report for the Cook Inlet; partly cloudy, scattered storms. The Cook was sixty miles away from us but it was the closest area to us that the weather service forecasted for. We decided to start construction on our new kitchen, a snow cave. We were on a flat glacier and it required us to dig down, in, and then, up to make a proper shelter. Our backs were sore when the sky went dark with milky clouds overhead. With enough room to protect our stove and food, we went to sleep.

Zach and Cindi Grant breaking trail through fantastic conditions with the Capps Glacier in the background. Photo by Kelly Gray

Zach and Cindi Grant breaking trail through fantastic conditions with the Capps Glacier in the background. Photo by Kelly Gray

I awoke to the tent wall slapping me in the face from the howling wind. We had built a wind wall for down glacier winds and the storm was violently moving up glacier. Franticly we got out and attempted to build a wind block wall before we lost our tent. At one point I had my heels planted into the snow against the wind and I was pulling the guy lines with all my body weight to counter the force. We tried to build blocks by packing snow that would instantly get annihilated and blown away. After awhile of this seemingly hopeless chaos we dumped all the food out of the plastic totes into the cave and shoveled snow into them as forms like we had done while building an igloo back home. Our newly formed 360-degree, five-foot wall went all the way around our tent as a result and became a huge morale boost.

 

Dinner in the cave kitchen was peaceful and the shelter from the storm was welcome. It was so quiet inside that it would mess with my mind. The light coming down the entry tunnel almost looked like sunshine and I would go to check only to find the storm still raging. We had to unplug our venting holes of accumulating snow constantly with our probes to keep fresh air in the cave. Our primary two-burner stove had even sprung a leak making the whole place smell of white gas. We became fully reliant on our only single-burner back up stove for making dinner and melting water for us all, a tedious task.

I lost track of the back-to-back survival shoveling days and although we were sore, after a time, the pain blended into it all. It was snowing up to 4-5 inches an hour when the snowing would peak, a rate we didn’t know existed but is not uncommon in Alaska. At that point we would get out of our sleeping bags in three-hour intervals throughout the night to shovel so that our tent wouldn’t collapse from the pile up. “The endless pit of despair”, our snow cave, was worth keeping dug out for the relief it provided from the relentless storm. We even built a half igloo we deemed the “shit-gloo” after too many occurrences of frozen asses and snow filled pants.

 

There were a couple of nights that I will never forget and none of us slept. We could feel the vibration as a natural avalanche cycle poured off the peaks around us. We heard over 20 large natural avalanches in every direction. Although we had picked a safe camp spot, it all came into question when the entire drainage started ripping loose. The thought of sleeping with my beacon on occurred to me but would have only been useful in body recovery had we been buried. Huddled in our down bags, we laid side by side in terror as the sound of rumbling avalanches surrounded us.

One morning I awoke in a puddle, my inflatable sleeping pad had gotten progressively worse through out the trip and now it was simply flat. A minimal closed cell blue pad was the only thing stopping my sleeping bag from being soaked. The constant attempt to dry frozen gear was inevitably building up snow in the tent and the green housing of the morning had melted it. I started to pack my gear so that I could transfer it to the cave and get the water out of the tent.

 

Suddenly the sun poked through the white abyss. The more I packed the more the clouds cleared and we got a satellite call out to our pilot promptly. He was leery of bringing the big Beaver plane that would fit all of us because the snow was so deep. His decision was to fly the Beaver into the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge 60 miles away. From there he would fly to us with a small one passenger cub that was lighter and had less of a chance at getting stuck in the deepness.

 

Ben flew in and wanted to extract us one at a time with our gear. After some argument I refused to leave Zach alone and so our photographer friend went first. As soon as they flew away the clouds rolled back in. Zach and I prepared to sleep inside the cave for the night as we had already broken everything down. An hour later we heard the buzz of the engine! He landed with little visibility and wanted to take me out. Again I refused to leave Zach alone in case the storm got worse and he couldn’t get back in. Instead we piled our gear up in the snow and put a GPS waypoint on it. Zach climbed into the passenger seat and I crawled into the cargo compartment to sit facing the back of the plane. With a sigh of relief, we flew off into a cloud shrouded pink sunset.

Back on dry ground we were informed that a climbing team of three had been in the same storm but all their gear was blown away and lost. They survived on one stove to melt water and two freeze dried meals for three days when the military extracted them with a flight-by-instrument (no sight) helicopter. This along with many other tales of hardcore alpinists helped put our experience into perspective. As with all adventures we took home memories and lessons. The snow cave was essential, we will forever bring three or four stoves along, and the company of uplifting friends can’t be over stated. We were left wanting after our three days of riding big mountains. The six days of endurance shoveling simply made us earn it and provided us with a pretty characteristic Alaskan ratio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cindi Lou Grant

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