The Classic Line The Sphinx
By Brennan Lagasse
The vantage is one I have never experienced on skis. Gravity is pulling me down, but my edges dig in to counter the force. Gaining rhythm, the sensation of my body weight rolling over my ankles is pure bliss. The slope is steep, relentless in its pitch, but the snow is perfect. Each turn is special. The face never lets up until I’m in the air, clearing the gaping bergschrund at the bottom. At this point in my life as a skier, I’m certain that I have never experienced something so close to perfection.
Nestled deep in the mighty Chugach Range, The Sphinx has long been admired as a classic ski line unlike anything else. It was first ridden by Jim Rippey on a snowboard, and Doug Coombs on skis-two of the most respected pioneers in the history of snowsliding. A true classic needs to embody the words shared by Merriam-Webster, “a work of enduring excellence.” In that spirit, The Sphinx owns those words in spades. One of “The Big 5” of the Chugach, these lines are accepted within the greater ski community as a group of lines that are the best of the best. In the author’s opinion it’s true. Nothing compares to nailing Alaska at its best. Having traveled the globe for years, when the conditions are right, it is the best snow on the best terrain in the world.
Whether you’ve spent years skiing in Alaska, or simply have the dream of making it one day, these “Big 5” lines play a role. In film, in magazines, and in stories, there’s a reason they are so coveted. However, as unique as each line is, The Sphinx stands alone. Look at it. Where have you ever seen a face that looks like that? Where else on the planet could something like that also hold snow that’s literally perfection for the snowslider? It’s barely a 2000’ descent, but with a high 50+ degree pitch that never lets up you better believe it’s quite literally the run of a lifetime.
In the early 2000’s when I first started my annual trips to Alaska many things enamored me. One of these nuances was the state’s official motto, “North to the Future”. That motto was authentic when the Chugach Range was first getting skied heavily in the early 1990’s, and it remains that way today. It took me a few trips to really start to see why so many view Alaska, and specifically coastal Alaska as the premier global ski destination. When I finally nailed it Haines one season nothing would ever be the same again.
After traveling the state, skiing in multiple mountain ranges, and finding work as a ski guide, I choose to settle in with what’s become an extended family of sorts with Points North Heli-Adventures based in Cordova. With my preeminent ski partner, Jeff Dostie, we were given the opportunity to establish a first of its kind ski touring program in Alaska that would be helicopter assisted. Our first stab with the program came in 2011, and it was then that Jeff and I really started becoming more familiar with the history of the Chugach. On a good day even the most mundane slope in the Chugach has the chance to be the best run of your life. Was The Sphinx really that rad?
Respectful to the history of establishing ski lines in the Chugach, Jeff and I both feel no motorized tool comes close to comparing what a helicopter can do in the mountains when it comes to access. That said, we’re backcountry skiers, ski tourers, and ultimately prefer skiing under human power. As we started exploring and ski touring via our Tour Camp with Points North, welcoming clients from all over the world to see this standout range from a new perspective, we started dreaming. We asked ourselves what it would be like to climb and ski these “Big 5” lines. Researching for years, we realized The Sphinx had only seen descents by heli- skiers, and although the other big lines were of high interest, the aesthetics of the West Face kept our attention like no other.
Overtime, we schemed as many ways as possible to access The Sphinx to climb it first before skiing back down. We crafted plans to hike in from the nearest roadway, and possibly use kites to help us reach the base of the line in the timeliest manner. Our initial thought was to go as pure as possible, and while we would need to fly from our homes in Lake Tahoe to get to the road in Cordova, we still believed that was our best plan. After a few years of almost zero snow at sea level where we wished to begin our mission (the line ultimately tops out at 6200’+) we brainstormed motorized support. With some snow we might be able to snowmobile in and dodge the thousands of crevasses on the approach, or we could simply get a plane drop in like we had for a previous Denali ski expedition and go that route. What we realized as a few more years passed is all of these plans could feasibly work, but what really mattered was when the line would be in absolute safe, perfect shape for us to climb it before a descent.
Last winter the window appeared. Kevin Quinn is the owner and operator for Points North Heli-Adventures. He is a bonafide Alaskan legend, and among his many attributes, he has become about as dialed as one can be in terms of predicting ski conditions in the Chugach Range. He knew about our dream, having skied The Sphinx many times, he also knew what conditions were needed to ski it safely. He confided in us that an ascent was worrisome to him from multiple perspectives, but the first week of March, 2016 showcased to him the perfect ingredients for our plan.
Jeff and I had been tracking the weather since the first new flakes started collecting for the 2015-2016 season. We traveled to Alaska armed with enough expedition style equipment to post up in the Chugach and wait for the perfect window. When we showed up, Quinner told us the time was now and he would be willing to help us get in and get out of the zone with helicopter support. With no snow for miles at the start of the approach from sea level Jeff and I realized this was our chance. We took it, and were luckily able to bring aboard our other Tour Camp brother and partner Wesley Thompson. Together, the three of us run Points North Tour Camp. The synchronicity was undeniable.
Grouped at the base of the face, after years of planning, our objective was now in sight. The quietness of the moment elicited a similar feeling I’ve shared in the mountains before, one of angst, intimidation, and unbelievable stoke. We roped up and started our climb to looker’s left as crossing the massive bergschrund was our initial crux. Jeff lead, and after pitching out a few belay’s as a ropeteam of three, we recollected to ascend the face. I took over, and with the help of verts, we collectively marched up the most beautiful snow climb any of us had ever experienced. Jeff and I traded breaking trail until I punched the last few steps to the top. Another wave of intense silence fell upon our group. The view was sublime. We were here, and even though we had successfully just put the first ever booter up the West Face of The Sphinx that nervous feeling of committing to a rowdy descent was all too real.
The line is irrefutable in its flawlessness. Slough washes to the right, and the slope pulls you the same direction, so skiing with a trajectory to rider’s left is a must. One by one we dropped. Our experience was impeccable ski mountaineering snow-soft enough to be a full on powder run, but shallow enough in that the depth of our turns allowed us to hold an edge. The steepness never backed off until we regained our starting position back on the flat glacier below.
Classic lines are examples of permanent brilliance. To me, they can’t be skiable by only a handful of people, once in a blue moon. To ski The Sphinx one must be prepared to descend an unrelenting steep slope, and to ascend it takes a whole other set of skills. That said, for those competent on such a level, this is a true dream run. It’s not overly technical, nor does it mandate massive air, and the navigation of overly exposed terrain. If you’re savvy, there are ways to gain access. When an ideal window opens, aligned with safety, skills, and a team that are up to the challenge, there might not be a more aesthetic, fun, inspiring run in the world.