Life, Ham, and the Pursuit of Steep
“Let me know what looks good and I’ll put you down,” said the pilot through my headset. I’d never felt so empowered. Countless skiable faces littered with spines, snowfields, couloirs, and other skiable features I couldn’t have conjured up in my own imagination filled the windows on all sides of the plane. Now, sitting in the one tiny seat tucked behind Mike Meekin in his two-seated Supercub, I had my pick. The Northern Chugach, and the Mike Glacier, was my oyster. “I suppose that looks pretty good over there,” I responded coyly, pointing toward a collection of needled couloirs flanking the western edge of the glacier. Abruptly sending the plane into a steep dive, it seemed like seconds before my boots hit snow. A few bags thrown my way, and I was alone.
In addition to steep skiing, this trip was all about experiencing Alaska and all of the primitive beauties that I knew would come with it. The first week prior to that landing on the Mike Glacier, two friends, Laura and Andy, and myself spent some time in Valdez, visiting Laura’s friends Mike and Jennifer; lifelong Valdez residents raising boys in a house just outside of town. A spontaneously executed trip meant last minute planning, and no concrete plan for housing. Luckily, the hospitality of Alaskans is unmatched, and Mike and Jennifer’s gear shed quickly became our home for the first week of the trip. The coastal town of Valdez, nestled on Prince William Sound, provided quick access to Thompson Pass, the heli-skiing hub, and home to some of the most accessible, frequently documented classics of Chugach steep skiing.
Our introduction to Chugach skiing started here on Thompson Pass throughout that first week. We spent the first few days skiing the roadside attractions; The Berlin Wall, Cracked Ice, Doug Coombs’ classic Cherry Couloir on Python Peak, and sled-accessed skiing on the remote Tonsina Glacier. The sharp summit of Python Peak showed me how small a Chugach summit can be, and the steep Berlin Wall taught me about a real Alaskan sluff. Not the benign, light as air, “who cares” kind of sluff we deal with at home in Utah, but the Alaskan freight train; the kind of sluff you hear before you see.
Rest days were spent on Mike’s boat, shrimp fishing, and watching the Dall’s porpoises “bow ride” with us as we moved from pot to pot. The coastline in the Prince William Sound was spectacular. Oddly to us, we spotted a mountain goat perched on a cliff over the ocean. Around every corner was another unaltered cove or bay, remaining as nature intended. There was little separation between the alpine world and the ocean here, and Laura and I marveled at the countless skiable mountains that rose straight out of the sea.
Mike and Jennifer had been skiing the Chugach their entire lives. Based on the stories I’d read about the heli-skiing legends pioneering countless new lines throughout the heyday of Alaskan heli-skiing in the 90s, I assumed the backcountry scene in Valdez would resemble the Wasatch; a large community of skiers, some flying under the radar and some not, skiing everything white in sight. Mike’s stories proved the contrary. The community of core local skiers in Valdez, discounting the brief seasonal influx of heli-operators and seasonal employees during the spring, was small and intimate. Mike recounted stories of dropping his son off at the bus stop, loading sleds on trailers, nabbing a steep line deep in the Chugach interior, and coasting down Thompson Pass just in time to pick up his boy from the bus stop.
“I am thankful for Life and Ham,” read the elementary school project hanging on Mike and Jennifer’s refrigerator. I noticed it one evening after a full day of skiing, and the humor and the beauty of those words stuck with me. Even their son knew how good he had it here in Alaska. Laura, Andy, and I had it good here, too. With fresh halibut pulled out of the Prince William Sound that day on our plates, tired legs from another day of skiing steeps on Thompson Pass, we couldn’t help but to be thankful as hell. Alaskan life was good.
Following our week in Valdez, we had originally planned on a second week spent at the Scandinavian Peaks Hut on the Matanuska Glacier. Our pilot, Mike, gave us a call a week prior, letting us know that a recent wind event had heavily scoured much of the soft snow on the peaks around the hut. He recommended heading to a neighboring glacier, the Mike Glacier, that had held on to its snow, hiding at a slightly lower elevation, tucked between the Matanuska and the Powell Glaciers. While he had only flown a couple groups into the Mike Glacier, consisting mostly of NOLS groups and a couple ski touring parties, Mike knew these mountains intimately, having flown the Northern Chugach for over 30 years, and felt we’d the find the kind of skiing we were looking for. We bid farewell to Andy, who had to return to reality in Fairbanks, and headed for the Sheep Mountain Lodge to catch our ride in.
Hopping off the plane, Mike tossed our bags onto the snow, spun a tight half-circle, and took off down the glacier. Piper Supercubs are only two-seaters, so alone I was while Mike went back to pick up Laura. All I could do for the time period was sit on our bags and marvel at the world I had just been transported to. On the flight in, forest had turned to tundra, and tundra to glacier, culminating in thickly glaciated jagged mountains; cloaked in a deep snowpack despite being further inland than the coastal peaks of Valdez. Glaciers filled the lowlands, and amazingly there were also remnants of thick glaciers draped precipitously over many of the summits; some exposing their edges with bright blue seracs fresh from frequent shedding. Iceflows connected many of the elevated glacial basins to the main fork of the Mike Glacier, blocking easy passage to several of the upper tongues of the glacier. Most notably, there was an intimidating amount of ski lines, many on the verge of skiable. I always knew that snow here stuck to the steepest of faces to the point of defying gravity, and this interior part of the Chugach was no exception.
Our first turns came that afternoon in a west-facing amphitheater on east side of the glacier, opposite camp. The long April days and warm spring sun had cooked the west aspects, but with the slightest of northern exposure, we found soft snow, cold recycled Alaskan powder. While our first turns above the Mike Glacier were mellow in comparison, the scale of this amphitheater and the aesthetics of the terrain around us were mind-blowing.
Heading back to camp, we noticed a third set of tracks paralleling our skin track from earlier that day, yet these tracks were not human. A single set of mammal tracks had followed us across the glacier from our camp. The same tracks were littered all around our tent, weaving in and out of our kitchen in an inquisitive pattern, not disturbing any of our buried food or our shelter. Our pilot had told us that there was a small population of wolverines in this part of the Chugach, and he had played a role in helping track their whereabouts by plane for the associated government agencies. However, we’d disregarded the idea of ever actually seeing one. Amazingly, the tracks would repeat the same pattern on subsequent days, following us out of camp, but day-after-day, never showing itself to us odd human visitors.
That night, Annie’s Mac-and-Cheese aided our recovery while Canadian Hunter whiskey provided deep sleep as the nightly migration of clouds moved up-canyon, overtaking our camp. Whiskey never tastes as good as it does in the warmth of a sleeping bag and the shelter of a solid tent in the mountains. Laura and I debated the identity of our camp visitor, and joked about our odd choice in Canadian whiskey since we were in Alaska after all. Despite the country of origin, it satisfied just the same.
Waking up to a foggy morning, couloir skiing close to camp seemed like the logical choice. An anomalous rocky subpeak jutted out further than anything else into the main flow of the Mike Glacier to our south. It seemed like the most reasonable ski run up-glacier, where hanging seracs guarded the majority of the steep headwalls and widening spring bergschrunds would provide troublesome access. As if to invite us up canyon, an easily accessed splitter couloir pierced the north face of this unnamed subpeak, flanked to the north and south by steep blue icefalls cascading from both neighboring cirques. The 1200’ couloir, shooting straight up from the glacier, paled in comparison to its surroundings in terms of size, but stood out for its striking consistency in pitch and linear rock walls on both sides.
As with everything else in Alaska, the apron was steeper and bigger than it looked from afar. Steep skinning up a 40-degree cone of a season’s worth of sluff gave us access to the base of the couloir. The pitch was relentless. 45-50 degrees sustained as we booted upward in deep sheltered powder inside the chute. 1000’ later, the terrain steepened, beyond Alaskan standards for snow retention, and the snow transitioned to rock just below the summit ridge. Thick clouds had continued to fill the upper glacier as we ascended. On cue as we topped out, the slightest rise in temperature began sending roaring Alaskan sluffs cascading off the rock walls and down the center of the couloir. In order to get skis on our feet in terrain this steep, we dug platforms into the side of the slope, precariously guiding the toes of our boots into our toe pieces.
Steep and deep. 50 degrees and faceshots. These were the legendary steeps we came to Alaska for. Careful work was done to mange the roaring sluffs caused by each pair of linked jump turns. We tucked into tiny protected corners of rock when we could, to allow the other person to leap frog while sending freight trains of loose powder roaring past. The lower in the chute we skied, the more the sluff piled up from turns above, and the deeper it got. Culminating in big wide-open “Big Mountain Freerider” turns on the massive cone-shaped apron, we arrived abruptly back on the flats of the Mike Glacier.
Thick wet clouds filled the lower portions of the glacier and ended our day long before the late April Alaskan sun would set. In honor of our shortened day, and irony of our whiskey choice, the “Canadian Hunter Couloir” seemed like an appropriate name. We navigated the socked-in glacier back to camp and were greeted by more tracks around our camp from our elusive wolverine visitor.
Another night’s rest came, and the next day we found ourselves rounding the corner into a western fork of the Mike Glacier, headed toward the series of couloirs I had originally spotted from the plane. Several 1500’ parallel needles greeted us as we climbed easily into the upper basin. At the base of the headwall, we had our pick. The most direct shot snaked upwards to the col below Unnamed Peak 8590, a distinct pyramidal summit several miles north of the Scandinavian Peaks Group. As we climbed, Laura and I couldn’t help thinking that this massive couloir would be a classic in any of the other mountain ranges we’d skied. We felt lucky to be there. On the opposite side of the basin, our backdrop included more unnamed summits, capped by thick glaciers. The edges of these hanging glaciers were the most vibrant blue, enhanced by the flat light of the cloudy afternoon.
In true Chugach form, the ridge at the top of the couloir was thin and heavily corniced. The looming pyramid of Peak 8590 and its massive, semi-skiable north face shaded the deep basin to our north. This basin below was huge, surely home to another week’s worth of spectacular skiing that seemed unlikely to have ever seen ski tracks.
Downclimbing the thin entrance, we clicked in to our skis and marveled at the classic run below our ski tips. Firm steep skiing provided contrast to the soft powder we’d grown accustomed to here, but it didn’t matter. Steep and aesthetic, the couloir seemed to go on forever. The words of Mike and Jennifer’s son’s school project had stuck with us, and even with hard snow and flat light, we couldn’t help but be extremely grateful for the time we spent skiing in this spectacular place, even as we skirted the chunder and frozen wet debris at the bottom of the couloir. Despite being a tiny blip within the great range that is the Chugach, The “Life and Ham Couloir”, as we called it, was an absolute classic ski run inciting true gratitude for life and the pleasures within it.
As we began the trip home, I swore I’d return to the Chugach every year. As it usually happens, life gets in the way, and I haven’t been back since, 4 years later. I occasionally send Jennifer an email ensuring an imminent return visit. No matter how great subsequent ski trips have been since then, I find myself reminiscing about our time in Valdez and our trip onto the Mike Glacier, and revel in the adventure and life experience that I had as a result. Without a doubt, “I am Thankful for Life and Ham”, and the steep, wild mountains that come with it.