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Big Game Hunting in Alaska

 

Skiing the Moose’s Tooth

For the past two years, I have attempted to ski the Central Alaska Range during the spring. I flew up to Anchorage both times, bought food and fuel, met up with motivated and capable partners, but no turns were made. Instead, we spent several drippy weeks hanging out in Talkeetna. The weather in Alaska at that time of year isn’t afraid to piss on your plans: my timing was impeccably bad. Those two previous visits lined up with two of the longest stretches of nasty weather in recent times. For 7-10 days no flights were made in, or out of the Kahiltna Glacier airstrip. Talkeetna isn’t a bad spot for killing time though. We scoured Google Earth and looked over maps in between drinking too much coffee and getting fat on nutty buns and standard breakfasts from the Roadhouse Inn.

Fickle, feisty and unforgiving as Alaska can be, there is no other place that compares in combining great snow quality with relatively easy access to big lines. That’s why I’ve been going to Alaska almost every spring for the past 12 years. I decided to return again. I guess it helps to be stubborn and stupid at this ski mountaineering thing.

Ben Peters and I had been skiing well together last season—tagging some fun lines and a few first descents along the way. He mentioned that he wanted to pop his Alaskan cherry, so we started scheming. I think a team of four is ideal in the AK range for possible crevasse rescue and breaking trail in deep snow. Several other partners teased us with their interest, but ended up bailing in the end leaving us a team of two— which works well for quickly descending technical terrain and for camping logistics. Ben and I were fired up. Our joint desire was for big lines off the iconic peaks in the Central Alaska Range. I had my eye on one line in particular.

In 2012, I traveled to the Ruth Gorge with Andrew McLean, Garrett Grove and Mark Holbrook. We found arctic-cold temps and unconsolidated and unstable snow in the couloirs we had hoped to ski. We were spooked and so we stuck to low angle terrain. In fact, we spent most of our days just touring around in the flats trying to stay warm in the negative twenty-degree temperatures. The one bright spot from a somewhat disappointing trip was the potential line I saw off the Moose’s Tooth. It scared the shit out of me, but it seemed possible so I added it to my hit list. I didn’t know this then, but I was drooling over the West Ridge climbing route, considered one of the “50 Classic Climbs of North America.”

Each season in Alaska brings very different conditions and weather. For the best chance of success in those stormy and moody mountains it’s wise to have more than just one objective. Give yourself several options—and even several mountains in different areas—to choose from. This is easy to do from Talkeetna because in one hour you can fly into the Tordrillos, the Talkeetnas or several other areas in the Central Range for about the same cost. The Revelations are even in play, though they are a bit further and will cost extra. We were open to all these potential zones. But our true hope was for big game hunting, on the Moose’s Tooth in the Ruth Gorge. We also added Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker to the objectives list. Each might have different snow conditions and weather despite being only a handful of miles apart from each other. The lower altitudes offered up by the Moose’s Tooth and Mount Hunter made them good places to start since they don’t require any acclimatization.

We packed, flew up to Alaska and once we arrived in Talkeetna, we settled into the bunkhouse. In the years I haven’t been shut out by weather, I’ve flown into the range with Talkeetna Air Taxi because of their great reputation and because they offer up a free bunkhouse to stay in. I think it’s only supposed to be for a night or two on either end of trips, but over the past decade I’ve spent weeks of my life sorting gear, reading, recovering from hangovers and checking the weather there! It feels a little bit like home now. This time Ben and I were in luck! After just a day and a half, the skies cleared enough and we got the green light to fly in! The weather forecast had only a few good looking days in the near future so we opted for the Ruth Gorge where we could make a quick attempt on the Moose’s Tooth.

The amount of planning, packing, preparing and travel to get to that point felt a bit ridiculous. It’s always such a relief to get in the air and truly be underway! Most of our heavy travel would be close to the designated airstrips. This meant we didn’t need to travel lightly and we rented plastic sleds from TAT to schlep our shit (whiskey and reading material) the short distances we’d need to cover.

On the flight in, the lower valley was shrouded with low clouds and we couldn’t access the maintained airstrip. Our pilot—the legendary Paul Roderick—dropped us off further up the valley just out of the clouds. We loaded up the sleds and strolled through nothingness for a few miles. Then, taking our best guess at our location, we dug out and pitched our luxurious camp. When you register at the National Park Service they ask for a team name, ours was Great Alaskan Ski Holiday. Some people work hard to avoid living in squalor in tents and some people choose it as a form of vacation. We wondered how much we could charge on Airbnb for our plush ski in/ski out accommodations. The clouds opened up and we were glad to find ourselves based exactly where we wanted to be, right underneath our line on the Moose’s Tooth!

Ben and I decided before this trip that we would like to attempt to climb the standard route marked in green and descend the direttissima (Italian for “direct as fuck”) marked in red. This would require a few rappels to drop onto the lower glacier and then we could ski right back to camp.

That evening we set off to navigate the crevasses at the entry to the route and get a feel for the snow. The center of the glacier was smooth and showed no sign of depressions or holes. The margins of the glacier however were more broken up indicating the icy caves and hollows below. We roped up to wind our way through cracks and over some snow bridges. It was getting dark and after a few thousand feet of recon, we skied back down to camp. The snow was soft and friendly for Ben’s first run in Alaska! Things seemed to be lining up wonderfully.

The next morning we woke up to the soft patter of snow on the tent walls, so we rolled right over in our sleeping bags and went back to bed. The ability to sleep the day away in a tent is one of the more valuable expedition skills. We did our best to burn through hours and hours of bad weather in the dream state. The temps were warm and the snowfall was light, but continued most of day. The mountains started sloughing off the unwanted snow loads. Our thoughts were continually on the route above us and our hope was that the upper face wouldn’t pick up too much new snow creating avalanche issues.

We weren’t tapped into any weather forecasting, but things cleared a little the next morning and we headed out to the opposite side of the valley to ski the Japanese Couloir on Mount Barrille. The Japanese Couloir is an interesting 3,000-foot long line with one really steep choke in it. It was the perfect warm-up run for us. We were able to check out snow on many aspects, move the legs and get some steep and heady skiing in. It was a pretty big relief to actually get to ski something fun and scary after having been completely shut down for the past two years.

Back at camp the sun dried our boot liners as we sat and stared up at the Moose’s Tooth trying to imagine how steep it really was and what the snow would be like. Visualization is important for the mind, but maybe I spent too much time in the act. The more I looked at it, I actually started to feel nervous—more nervous than seemed appropriate.

My anxiety was coming from a dark feeling of doom that had started even before our trip began. When we were planning the trip, I had an overwhelming sense that if I went to Alaska I wouldn’t be returning. It sounds silly now, but it felt very real. I’ve experienced that feeling once before on an expedition to Norway. I almost bailed on that trip because the dread was so intense. Feelings and intuition are important to listen to, but they are just one part of the overall equation. Partners, planning, skill and safety also factor into my decision making process—otherwise fear can take over and ruin the best of plans. I gave extra care to being safe and survived the trip to Norway. And now, as I sat looking up at the Moose’s Tooth, I knew I just needed to move forward knowing that I had a good partner, we had the required skills and we would be taking all the necessary precautions. My fear subsided—at least a little.

If the weather held we would go for the Moose’s Tooth in the morning. We turned our attention to dinner, gear and preparing for the next day when a pair of climbers plodded through our camp. They had attempted the West Ridge that very day and we were excited to hear what they had found. Their report was that the face was 60-65 degrees and they had turned around because of knee-deep snow. We thanked them for the beta and they headed off down glacier. Soft conditions sounded good, but we knew their internal inclinometers must be broken. There’s no way the slopes were 65 degrees! The route description claimed it was up to 55 degrees and we could see it wasn’t over 60. Our guess was that they had traveled here from someplace really flat.

Game day was sky blue and warm. Our window for safe skiing was well defined. We knew that around noon the new snow would start to receive the sun’s rays for the first time in several days. That would incite wet avalanches that we wanted no part of. We downed a quick bowl of hot oats and headed out of camp around 7 a.m. In the distance we saw that Denali was up bright and early trying to straighten out her wispy cloud toupee.

The glacial masses and crevasses were crossed without incident. With the aid of ski crampons and skins we climbed the steep entry slopes. Things mellowed out and we gained the huge broad ridge in a straightforward manner. As we got closer to the steep upper face I felt my anxiety return. I had a hard time settling my nerves. I couldn’t recall being that frightened on a line that I wasn’t even on yet! We caught our first up-close glimpse of the steep upper section of the face and that didn’t help at all. It actually did look like it could be 60 degrees in places!

Steep skiing may appear to be done on mountains covered in snow, it’s not—it’s actually performed mostly in the head. I got ahold of my thoughts and made a bargain with them. I told them that I understood their fears and concerns and they were perfectly valid. I made the promise, however, that we wouldn’t climb one step farther than I felt comfortable. In trade, I needed my mind to chill the fuck out and keep proceeding until we actually got into a precarious situation. These Jedi mind tricks worked and we moved on as the sun illuminated the gorge far behind and below us.

“What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it.” -Jiddu Krishnamurti

All the pointy and sharp edged tools for the ascent were on board. It felt good to strap metal to the appendages and stab firmly into the steep terrain. The guidebook mentioned placing protection in the rock cliff along the traverse, and it was clear that previous parties had done so. I pried out and kept an enormous piton as a souvenir. We didn’t see any need for placing gear though because the snow was soft and the booting was good. We were carrying a lot of pitons and nuts with us for the potential rappels, and now realizing we wouldn’t need these items higher on the mountain, we dug snow pits and cached the heavy gear along with skins and water.

As we came into the main chute on the upper face we found perfect snow. Yes! Perfect snow! All my hesitation and fear faded away. In steep skiing, the very same mountain can be silly fun or scary as hell all depending on the present metamorphic state of the snow crystals. This was going to be to silly fun, and Ben and I both knew it! Ben doesn’t like to share the trailbreaking duties, so he took the lead while I took photos and video of his ass.

The two big killers in Alaska are falling into crevasses and falling through cornices. We had dodged the crevasses lower down and now high on the ridge we took care to stay on the climber’s right side hoping to avoid dropping away for thousands of feet in unredeemable sky miles.

The snow became firmer higher on the ridge where we skirted lower to avoid some rocky sections. The climbing was fun and straightforward except for a small cornice that Ben had to chop through. And just like that, without too much effort we were on the west summit. This would turn out to be our only full day of clear weather in over two weeks in the range. We picked a great place to be for it! Our view was completely consumed by all of the Ruth Gorge, Huntington and Denali. Time for selfies, but not yet celebration.

We transitioned quickly and skied back down; skirting the ridge in the same manner we had climbed it. The skiing was superb with huge exposure on a steep pitch and edges biting into perfect snow. The stuff you dream of! I think the added tension and fear I experienced on the climb made the final release and descent that much more pleasurable. Incredible foreplay leading to sublime climax.

The turns were effortless and the only sketchy spot was airing off the small cornice near where Ben had hacked a passageway. Photos and words don’t do this justice. I wish you could have been there. I wish I could be back there.

We slid off the ridge and into the main chute. The snow had a slight temperature crust on top, but nothing that impeded our turns or our ardor. I can still feel the easy weightlessness that only comes by throwing yourself into the air on slopes at or above 50 degrees. It was around 12:30 p.m. when we reached the traverse and dug out our gear cache. Decision time. Our desire was to continue down the fall line and make the required rappels leading us right back to camp. However, we were a bit behind schedule and we guessed the slopes had another 1-2 hours before they would peel off and avalanche right down on top of us. Would there be enough time to cleanly make 3-4 rappels before Mother Nature turned on the faucet? Getting stuck there being pounded by mushalanches didn’t sound like a good idea. The window was just too small for us to slip through, so we opted to retrace our climbing route instead.

We sidestepped the traverse with skis on, except for 20-30 feet where we had to boot up through some rocks. Then we enjoyed a little picnic before heading off for 3,000 feet of continuous and glorious glacial skiing. Back in camp safe and sound we shared some whiskey and stared back up at the line with a new understanding.

The sun was roasting the mountains and temps were really warm. Two hours after our descent the Moose’s Tooth started releasing wet avalanches right down the line we would have rappelled. It’s most likely that we would have been well out of there by the time shit hit the fan, but we were happy with the decision we’d made.

There weren’t many other lines that interested us in this area and if we left now we’d still have time to attempt Mount Foraker. We called Talkeetna Air Taxi and arranged for a pick the next morning. Over the next two weeks the weather didn’t cooperate and we never made it up onto Mount Foraker. I guess elation and relief and gratitude were the overriding emotions as we flew back into Talkeetna. We’d dared to dream, committed to seeing it though, got lucky with conditions and proceeded with caution to successfully put down the first ski descent off one of the most iconic peaks in Alaska. (We later found out that Brian Bailey and a band of snowboarders had descended it in the 90’s.)

We took a swing and knocked it out of the park on the Moose’s Tooth. Just as important for me is that we were able to be in the mountains and approach these high places in heightened awareness as well as ski some big lines in great snow. Ben was the perfect partner to get shit done! He was able to turn things off and just chill when that’s what was called for. This can be one of the hardest challenges for youthful and highly motivated mountaineers. If I bring deodorant and wet wipes, he said he might go on another ski camping trip with me.

I’m more motivated than ever to return to the Central Alaska Range. Next year I’ll be back with another long list of objectives, several good books and plenty of patience, just in case.

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Noah Howell

Noah Howell

What is your favorite part of a big day in the backcountry?

Besides all the exploration, inspiration, exhilaration and face shots, taking off my boots at the end of the day is my favorite part of an epic outing.

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