Adventure Under the Magnifying Glass- An Exploration of the Neacola Range
What is it defines the beginning of an expedition? Does it begin when a team is motivated to set a goal, and commit to the process? Or only once the goal is being carried out does has the expedition begun? Planning long trips takes focus and hard work. The burdens of the trip are felt long before heavy loads and endless days dominate the scope, as the primary target. Sometimes getting to the mountains is the most arduous part of a journey. Organizing, inspecting, and packing equipment are all part of the adventure, and ultimately contribute to the overall success or failure of the outing. Chris Marshall, Jake Gaventa, and I are all guides who work in the mountains. Our schedules are full of transitions from one trip to the next. We spend just as much time in the hills, climbing and skiing, as we don’t. ex200 examAnd our time outside of them is filled organizing gear, catching up on the chores, and demands of life. Often times the border marking the end of one adventure and the start of the next is blurred by logistics and rigging. We get lost in the shuffle, making it even more challenging to define when exactly this trip actually began and when the last one finished.
Chris and Jake submitted applications for the Live Your Dream Grant, provided by the American Alpine Club, and sponsored through The North Face. This grant provides opportunities to aspiring professional guides, climbers and skiers to go after things we thought remained out of reach, untouchable because of the lofty price tag often associated with trips like this. This grant helps people all over the country realize its okay to dream, and that it is possible, to go on trips that are at the next caliber level. We were awarded a grant to embark on a journey deep into the Neacola Mountains that sit across the Cook Inlet from Kenai, and comprise a compact sub-range of the Alaska Range. The range is part of Lake Clark National Park and in the shadows of both, still active volcanoes, Redoubt and Iliamna. This range is diverse and vast, supporting wildernesses in many different forms; from alpine peaks and unnamed glaciers up high, down to the Alder thickets and Briars that line the shores of the Cook Inlet down low. A landscape that is rich with marine life, and hosts a healthy population of huge grizzly bear who roam both low and high in search of food. We set out for somewhere untraveled. We longed for the feeling of exploration and discovery. Then again this is Alaska, so one doesn’t really need to venture to far from any road to get a dose of the wild and feeling of being alone and exposed. This is a lesson I would soon learn first hand.
Flying into Anchorage close to midnight, the sky is dark but the glow of moonshine bounces off the peaks of the Chugach Range. I receive my bags and wait for Brian Vaughan, my long time friend and ski partner, to arrive and shuttle us back up the Glen Highway to his cabin in Sutton. Sutton is a small village that sits in the Matanuska river valley, on the edge of nowhere and far away from most everything else. I arrived a few days before my two partners Chris and Jake. Brian moved to Alaska eight years ago to start Ptarmigan Trails, a company that builds bike trails for the city of Anchorage, other municipalities, and private homeowners. His small cabin sits on an acre of clay and gravel. The plot boasts a multi-feature BMX flowy pump track, and is perfect material for him to hone his skills with his mini-excavator. Sutton isn’t much of a town, but it’s got everything you need, and the people sure are nice. During the previous winter, the snow came late, and the ground froze hard. Mid-winter was business as usual; good snow and no sun. Brian shared with me many stories of amazing powder hours (not full days in AK) he and friends had up at Hatcher’s Pass, and all seemed well. Then spring came early with abnormally warm temps early in May and the snow began to thaw quickly. This is when things got a bit sloppy.
As we drove toward the small village of Sutton, Brian mentioned, casually, how the place is a little flooded. At first I think nothing of this comment, as with any mud season, a little bit of flooding is to be expected. We drive past the banks of the Matanuska River, and I observe a roof washed up onto a point bar. 300-115 dumps“Huh that seems odd”, I think to myself, but the thought gains no purchase, as we carry on with our conversation and bounce on down the road in Brian’s truck that has been converted to run on grease. One of two rigs in his fleet, with the other being a 1985 Mercedes-Benz turbo diesel, which he has also converted to a grease-guzzling beast. After rounding the final curve and pulling onto a dirt road, Brian casually mentions the flood in his yard one more time, throws the rig in park and says with a smile “here it is!” I’m tired from my flight, and want to sleep a bit before we head off to the hills for some warm up touring. Before we get out of the rig, Brian says “the outhouse is over there” pointing to the small pond with a privy sticking out of it just up stream from the front door. “ Watch your step,” he mentions in an ironically dry tone. I slide out of the vehicle and assess the moves I am required to make to safely reach the plywood deck that marks the entrance to the cabin and a few moments rest. Judging by the nonchalant comments about the flood, I quickly realized that the Alaska factor permeates most all things here, and that the “small flood” resembles more a wetland ecosystem, complete with mallards, and other random migrating waterfowl. The pump track is fully submerged with the exception of a few berms and jumps. A boat would probably a be better tool than a bike at this point in the game, and the house was starting to slightly sag into the mud that oozed around the sauna tubes holding it upright. This was already feeling adventurous.
We wake up early the next morning and captain Brian chefs us up a hearty breakfast on the old fashion wood burning range top stove, his only heat source and means of cooking anything hot. This takes a mere two hours, but before we know it we’re on skis walking up a slope right outside of town. We’re approaching a series of massive peaks that guard the Matanuska River, Brian points to Granite Peak and says he’s always wanted to go up there. Not a goal but a point to focus on, with the understanding we probably won’t get far as the conditions are far too warm and we’re late to begin with. We maintain a rapid pace nonetheless, one that is refreshing and invigorating after my long journey here from Idaho. A good warm up for the true reason I am here, to explore an untraveled glacial valley deep in the Neacola Mountains far away from the swamps of Brian’s cabin and the hustle and bustle of Spenard Rd. in Anchorage. We don’t talk much as we ascend, which is fine and also very much Brian’s style, so I am not alarmed. We gain a bench and see our Granite Peak cooking in the warm spring sun, and after the sweat is clear from our brows, we both comment, almost simultaneously that it is warming too quickly; there is a lot of hazard sitting above us, and we should not continue onward. It’s reassuring to remember that despite being a man of few words, Brian and I are solid ski partners who realize a dicey situation when we see one. We find a few rocks to sit and have some food while we watch the peaks around us shedding snow off their slopes, in a display of violence mixed with grace. Rumbling and crashing snow gives way to brief moments of silence, like waves testing a seawall, these avalanches are big and wet. We both peer up at the peaks with humility and excitement at the power the mountains have, and are happy we are not mingling with these tsunamis as they slap and crash all around. Then I’m reminded of the trip I really came here for, the expedition team I have to pick up at the airport tomorrow evening, the gear shuffling, food planning, and last minute errands required before we head into the unknown. I clam up with nervous anticipation about what is to come, so I click into my bindings, and do what I know how to do best, ski.
After Chris and Jake arrive, I shift gears away from backyard ski touring and cragging at Weiner Lake, to food prep and gear organizing. We have a lot to do before we have to be in Nikiski to catch our flight across the Cook Inlet and out into the remote Neacola mountains. Brian briefs us on the quirks of the 85 Benz, how to fill up the tank, and how best to operate the veggie-grease system. This four-door sedan has a mega-trunk and a rack for gear, but we are still worried it won’t fit all that we need to take on the glacier. The goals for the trip are clear, explore a part of the world never visited before by skiers, and try to establish first ascents and descents, rock, and alpine climbing routes. We have spent weeks doing our homework, researching past trip reports (we found two), printing and laminating maps, and training by skiing and climbing. With our edges and front points sharp, all we need to do is get all the gear into the vehicle, which proves to be easier said than done. After careful tetressing and packing, we finally squeeze the last duffel bag full of pork products and whiskey into the trunk, and we start to slowly roll toward the airport in Kenai, hoping the tires don’t blow out or crack the wheelwell they rotate just inches away from.
Waiting at the end of the runway at the airport, we don’t quite know if we are in the right spot. A small, but well built single engine plane taxis its way to our end of the parking lot where we have piles of stuff sacks, packs, and duffel bags. Doug Brewer, our pilot and owner of Alaska West Air, smiles when he whips the plane around and kills the engine. He swings the door of his Bush Hawk open and quickly makes the obligatory comment about the wheels we are sporting. We banter a bit about the grease system, introduce ourselves, and Doug shares with us his urgency to get us across the inlet before the weather that is forecast comes in and shuts us all down. So we shuttle gear feverishly across the runway, handing packs of ropes and boxes of food up to our pilot. The plane fills up quickly and we are forced to take two flights to the mountains. I’m on the second flight, and am thrilled when I come tearing down out of the sky right onto the glacier and 100 meters away from where we’ll place our base camp for the next 15 days of adventure and discovery. Upon touchdown the plane slips over the snow like a hockey skater around the crease. It is firm verging on hard, with a little bit of fresh on top, which is ideal for planes, and great for booting up steep slopes. We kick the last duffel out of the plane and Doug wastes no time before he turns around and glides down the glacial runway, pulls up, and flies away. We are left in the silence surrounded by a bunch of giant granite peaks that resemble monster staring down upon us. Domes blasting out of glacier with 180 degree cirques wrapping off of ridges more complex than anything I have ever seen before. This place is huge with features that elicit feelings of dizziness and disorientation when focused on for too long. There is growing concern among the three of us that the aforementioned weather system could bear down on us at anytime, so we work with haste to construct our camp. We pack snow, and dig trenches, erecting snow block walls, and carving benches in the kitchen. Our frozen home takes shape, and we stop, often, to point out different lines and shapes. Amazed by the potential for huge ski descents on the couloirs that split steep towers and headwalls that are over vertical, all perfectly hard granite. In every direction there is something that we place on our project list. We gasp out spontaneously with excitement, as the realization that this is happening absorbs into our brains. Energy radiates throughout the raw valley we are in. A balance of unimaginably steep granite cliffs and soft aesthetic ski slopes. Arching hallways, and stepped faces tower above us as the sun skirts the ridge, and falls behind the fortress of a mountain above camp that showcases a splitter couloir, dividing two prominent buttresses. Luring our attention with Siren like energy someone mentions that we will ski that. Nerves spark the tinder of creativity as shadows kiss the floor of our hanging valley. We pause to watch the cold darkness ooze toward us, and overtake our camp with its bitter blanket. For the first time we feel the bite of the cold that persisted for the following week, and froze our faces as we dodged small soft slabs climbing high above steep mixed terrain as we topped out on arctic breeze and other local climbing and skiing objectives. This is a subtle hint from the mountain, a message to remind us that we aren’t in charge out here. The daydream breaks and we are back to digging. We find a rhythm as the sky opens up and begins to spit heavy wet snow. We welcome this weather with as much excitement mixed with nerves that we aren’t buried in snow and unable to leave our tent out of fear that we might never find it again. There are stories of tents being fully buried by relentless storms that persist for days here.
We awake the first morning on the glacier to a thick ceiling of clouds cast over our camp and a few soft inches of fresh snow that fell overnight. We gear up for a day of climbing and skiing, and then head west out of camp to a set of chutes high on the walls off the glacier that feeds back into the main swath. This spot we would later name the Solar Bowl, as it was always a few degrees warmer there and the sun lingered longest. We boot up firm steep snow in the margin of a giant couloir. Despite worsening weather and howling wind, we trudge uphill to the ridge where the snow thins out and our boots clinch to the slopes with not much more than a centimeter or two of purchase. After topping out we transition to skis and scrape off the col and back to the gut of the vein that traces to the heart of the valley. We ski down through boot deep powder that kicks up into suspended spindrift after each turn. It dances with the clouds creating a haze of both solid and vapor. We open it up on the glacier below and scream big arcing turns onto a bench in the bottom of Solar Bowl. Energy is high as we regroup and ponder the line we just skied. What would be a “normal” ski run in most ranges, but here it automatically becomes elevated. In conjunction with the hanging glaciers and over-hanging towers that neighbor this fine warm up run, this place takes on the characteristics of a medieval landscape complete with castles guarded by gargoyles. Swirling drifts that sweep off the faces and shoulders above bring life to the mountains, and a pulse we can feel pumps with each gust of wind and whip of snow across the slopes. We forget about time as the light shifts slowly, and a curtain of clouds overhead warps our concept of daylight even more. We ski three more runs above Solar Bowl before making the long descent back to camp. I glance at my watch, and it reads 9pm. Alaska has a way of stretching out time and manipulating it into a blur between reality and the dream state Alaskans call sleep, but anywhere else would be considered only rest. After some time in camp, we finally find our way into the tent and relax before the next adventure.
The following day is clear and crisp as we emerge from our shelter, excited to discover dry snow surface conditions, and not a breath of wind. The couloir that looms above camp is finally visible in its entirety, and awaits the points of our crampons and the edges of our skis. We skin, together, up the large sweeping apron that ramps consistently from the floor of the glacier to the walls that guard the narrow couloir from the long hours of light and winds that sculpt the surface of the snow in most other places in the range. The conditions are perfect for climbing: cold and calm. Chris sets a fine pace for the first pitch up the couloir and we all are charged with excitement each and every step we take upwards towards the pass. We swap leads and I charge forward through a technical choke that pitches up to 55 degrees. Hidden rocks loom just below the surface waiting to snag our ski tips and send us sliding back to camp ruined. We note the hazard; discuss the strategy for moving through this section, and carry on without much more thought.
At the saddle the moist air rising out of the valley to the south condenses as it reaches us, pouring fog over the ridge, and into the start zones of our ski run. Sweat freezes solid to my skin, and we waste no time switching from climbing mode to skis. I slip away and hack out a few choppy turns to acquaint myself with the snow conditions, tentatively allowing my ski edges to slice through the firm and grabby snow. I hold up in a small moat below an overhanging rock that provides a good spot to regroup before the choke and the glorious swath of virgin powder looming just below. The choke rolls over and looks mean with granite sharks swimming all around. Chris gingerly skis down to me as I wave him through. He affirms himself in the crux working his left edge with conviction and confidence. He smoothly negotiates his way to a safe zone and signals up to us that it goes without too much trouble. Jake then arrives at the moat and opts to take a belay through this section as the snow has been scraped away from the rocks enough to make the skiing marginal, but totally doable. I plunge into the firm snow, quickly flake the rope, and munter him downward. Rapidly passing the rope through the hitch Jake makes his way through the shark tank of the crux and arrives safely at the spot Chris has carved out below. I pull the rope back up, coil it with frozen hands, and replace it in my pack.
Back on my skis, I feel secure. I slide away from the safety of the moat and feel the exposure of this steep crux creep into my head and absorb into my composed mind, taunting my resolve, and coaxing me to stop focusing. I battle with this sensation and breathe my nerves back to a manageable level of calm before I leap skyward and switch edges. The thumping of my blood is audible to only me, but the illusion of this sound resonates away, and echoes back off the fortified walls of this granite castle. I come back to my breath, and slide with my skis cautiously over rock and ice. Skiing steep runs like this is just as mental as it is physical. Thinking only of the turn you are making, but not thinking too much, or else you become paralyzed across the fall line, out of rhythm and forced to reset. A balancing act on a scale with one tray holding control and the other holding speed, I tip it over and fall. I tread lightly until I am below the hazardous zone, then I open it up. Like a levee breaking I blast through my conservative barrier and let my skis follow the fall line briefly before I load them against it, and I am off, flying. I am airborne for an elastic moment that is stretched into what feels like seconds. I shift my edge and join back up with the snow sinking deep into the crystals that explode around me and reflect the endless blue light of the deep Alaskan wilderness. I am so alive, so happy. I roost past my partners and hear them cheering me on with excitement. My legs ignite, and burn with each and every arcing jump turn. It’s this feeling that drew me into this adventure. I focus only on this moment and float over the snow as it churns and boils its way downhill with me. Confused by who is in the lead, the snow or me, I take two more turns, carve a big GS style arc into the margin of the run, catch my breath, and watch as my friends Chris Marshall and Jake Gaventa descend in the same in flight fashion. Skiing is so pure in this way.
The following days were spent climbing then skiing peaks and couloirs all over the glacier we latched onto. The weather remained fairly stable in a range that is notorious for wicked storms that have grounded expeditions, forcing them to do nothing more that dig, eat, and sleep. There are stories of this range dumping so much snow on skiers that teams have been completely buried in snow, and have had to remove their tents back to the surface of the snowpack, resulting in their camps being 10-15 feet above the original elevation when they first erected it.
We made numerous ascents and descents of peaks that had no previous names, and may never be visited by man again. Inspired by the medieval theme the towering spires lent to our position, we awarded our runs with names like Two Tower Couloir, Knights Moats, Storm King, Artic Breeze, and Broken English. We climbed peaks here that required so much of our energy, we were left scalded by the wind and sun, tired, and eyes bloodshot from keeping them open for so long. The most memorable day of which demanded 23 hrs of continuous movement and focus. On one ridge we would honor two fallen partners with the name Ricks Ridge on Knox Peak (IV+ 5.6, 60 degree snow and ice). So much thought and planning went into this trip that as it was all happening I often paused and wondered if this is what I had had in mind when I committed to being part of the team. Did I think I would be duck-diving slab avalanches, braced to a two tool anchor, in -30F temperatures? Did I think would be climbing 5.7 rock in my ski boots, with skis strapped to my back with rock fall crashing down the gullies to either side of me? Or did I think I would be building kickers that launched me over the kitchen tent when the weather went south, with wet loose and slab avalanches ripping off of peaks and faces in every imaginable direction?
I didn’t know the answer to any of these questions before I set out. I hardly knew the questions. All I knew is that there were questions I wanted the answers to. I desired to know what I didn’t, and ventured into the depths of the wilderness to try and find out what that was. Exploration is adventure under a magnifying glass. Discovering what exists around the next corner, or on the other side of that far ridge, is enough to bring us all back to mountains. I sit here now, and think about all the places I have been. I try to explain the reason I go to mountains to others who have not, and often tell them I go so I can return and know. To know what it is like on top of that peak, or in the middle of that choke. I go so I can look back and not have to wonder what it looks, feels, and smells like far above the clouds that create mystery in a world, with unlimited access to unlimited information. Defining our limits is a skill that is lost on so many people, in places where so many people keep dreams tucked away just out of reach. I feel lucky to know what it feels like to live one of mine. There are still places out there that we know nothing about, and are waiting for us to figure them out.
After Patrick’s trip to the Neacola’s, he plans to return, and lead, bush plane style, fly-in ski trips based out of Alaska West Air’s lodge in Nikiski. He lives in Hailey, Idaho and works as a professional guide at Sun Valley Trekking.