Off the Map in the Chigmit Range
As we unload his ski plane, Doug’s gaze bores into me with a chilling, uncomfortable intensity. “You have food, a stove, fuel, and a sleeping bag, right?”
Meeting his gaze, I mentally rummage through my bags before answering affirmatively.
After our intended landing spot didn’t pan out, we’d spent the last two hours of our morning flight re-conning Alaska’s remote Chigmit range until we’d found a zone where Doug was confident he could land, and where I was confident memorable skiing existed.
Standing alone on the glacier, watching his two-seat Piper Super Cub disappear into the distance, the hard truths behind his question finally hit.
Looking around, the Chigmits fluted peaks seemed to loom above me even larger. Doug and I had long since flown off the map I brought from the lower 48, and Doug had weaved and circled so much that I might has well have flown in blindfolded. Suddenly, the enormity of my situation set in: Doug was the only person in the world who knew where I was standing. And, until he came back with my friends, I was really, really alone.
Alaska is always simmering on my mind. The flame ignited during a trip to Denali in 2000, but the West Buttress left me yearning for something different. The crowds and scene felt distracting, with each day spent plodding in the footsteps of others from one village-like camp to the next. Beautiful, yes. But it never felt truly remote.
A trip to the Ruth Gorge and Amphitheater a few years later, just five miles from Denali, offered more of what I craved. One partner. One tent. Absolute stillness. We’d emerge from the tent every morning and look out upon a sea of glacial ice and snow stretching in every direction that wasn’t blocked by jagged peaks and bask in the total quiet. Our ski tracks – our signatures—served as the only visible sign of man’s impermanence. Inevitably, this meditative quiet never lasted past mid-day. It’s amazing how far the drone of Cessnas carrying tourists on scenic flights echo off mile high rock walls. Unfortunately some gnats can’t be swatted away.
Several years and quite a few drinks into catching up with my partner from the Ruth, our conversation takes a philosophical turn. “As the highlight reel of your life plays while you fall into your grave, what images will you see?” Valdez. Selkirks. Silverton. Chamonix. Many magnificent turns flash through my mind. But, first and foremost are those memories of morning stillness in the Ruth. My desire for Alaska burns again.
Basing the next trip around a feeling left the destination open, so I started with what I didn’t want. The majesty of the Alaska Range actually makes it problematic for skiing since little moderate terrain exists. If avalanche conditions aren’t cooperative, you’re mostly left admiring steep couloirs and wondering. Valdez and Thompson Pass provide a broad range of terrain options, but their appeal is mitigated by the constant buzz of helicopters and the nagging fear that they’ll unload their passengers above you. It almost happened to us, mere minutes from the top of a pristine five thousand vertical foot slope we’d spent hours ascending.
Huts and lodges were also out. Their comfort separates us from the vistas we came so far to experience. Once the day’s objectives are accomplished folks tend to retreat to the stove, cloistering ourselves inside, sneaking occasional glances through tiny fogged windows. Walls are walls. Why trade one set for another? My highlight reel of Alaskan memories involves cooking meals outdoors with Imax sized views of the prolonged magical sunsets and rises only found in the extreme latitudes with their low polar sun.
Open to possibility, I began calling pilots and informally interviewing them. Did they understand skiing and could they help find the goods? Even more important was reliability. If they had trouble returning my call, could I count on them to pluck me off the glacier before an oncoming week long storm hit? When Doug Brewer of Alaska West Air answered the phone I was immediately impressed by his professionalism and humility— both unusual traits among Alaskan bush pilots. He grew up with a yoke in his hand, and worked with Teton Gravity Research setting up their “Fantasy Camp” for 2012’s release, Dream Factory. All my boxes checked, I handed over my credit card number and hung up the phone with a racing but happy heart.
“See Mt. Redoubt over there,” asks Doug, pulling back on the yoke, his overstuffed Piper Super Cub slowly climbing above the partially frozen sea. “I was half way across the Cook Inlet here, just like we are now, when she erupted in 2009. Big ‘ol ash cloud started coming towards the plane. I honestly thought I was about to die.” I recall my far more benign encounter with that ash cloud. Driving back from Valdez, our wipers pushed it off the windshield like snow. Unlike planes, ash doesn’t stall a car’s engine. “If we go down in that cold water,” he continues with a surreal sense of calm, “we have maybe fifteen minutes till we go unconscious and drown.” Looking at the broken pack ice just a few hundred feet below us, I uncomfortably shift the full backpack in my lap, causing the grain shovel handle stuffed behind me to fall and hit me in the head again. How much weight was this plane supposed to carry, anyways?
When it comes to embracing risk, many Alaskan bush pilots are surprisingly similar to the mountaineers they carry. After coming down from Denali I worked for Paul Roderick’s Talkeetna Air Taxi, the preeminent flight service for North America’s highest peak. I’ll never forget the Navy F14 fighter pilots lavishing Paul’s crew with praise. “Flying in the terrain you do, with the limited power of that equipment” one said, gesturing towards a Cessna 185’s propeller, “that takes balls. When we run into trouble we just flip on the afterburner.”
Although mostly unknown outside Alaska, the Chigmits help connect the fiery Aleutian Range to the south with the towering Alaska Range to the north. Located within Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, its volcanic peaks are a uniquely Alaskan affair with no roads or trails. The only access comes from boats and planes.
Unlike commercial airliners with their jet propelled rush to clean air at 32,000ft, Doug’s Super Cub flies low and slow. When flown unencumbered, Super Cubs can stay aloft at just 42 miles per hour. Their unbelievably low air speed creates this sensation of slow motion, where I felt I could reach out and touch the peaks that were slowly passing by. Admiring each spine, couloir, and icefall without whiplash, I’m completely enthralled and overcome by the Chigmits majesty. I can’t imagine a better vantage point. This is how I experience flying when I dream.
“There’s the spot.” Doug’s voice over the headset snaps me back into the moment. After months of planning there it is, just like Doug and Google Earth had promised. Three glacier valleys converging like fingers on a catcher’s mitt to create an alpine playground where one camp could access countless lines spanning every compass aspect. Instead of excited though, I feel nervous. To me the snow looks wind worked and glaciers look pockmarked and rough instead of fat and smooth. “Don’t worry, it’ll be greaaaat!” Doug replies to my concerns, lining up for final approach. Bam! Bam! Bam! The Super Cub bounces down the glacier, its skis audibly flexing with each impact into the blue ice that lies below the thin veneer of snow. I’d never experienced a ski-plane landing like that and even Doug seems caught by surprise, immediately yanking back on his yoke.
The Super Cub climbs in silence. I could tell Doug and I were pondering the same question: “What now?”
My friends are excitedly waiting at the airstrip for Doug’s return, and I envision their disappointment upon arriving to these dust-on-ice conditions. The joy of flight suddenly gave way to a feeling of pressure: I couldn’t let them down. We’d invested too much time, energy, money, and hope. I needed a Plan B. Fast. Doug’s meter is running, and his taxi cab costs $325/hr. Flying over the coastal part of the range I’d been giddy, feasting on a visual orgy of snow-choked glaciers, fat couloirs, and plump faces. With each mile we headed inland towards our planned camp, however, the snow conditions visually changed, getting progressively thinner and more wind affected. Pulling up a photo I’d taken earlier over the coastal zone, I hand the camera to him and confidently say, “Go here.” To my eyes, everything looks perfect when we arrive at the zone. Doug, strongly disagrees. “That bench is too tight. We could land, but the take-off looks short. We might get stuck.” Pointing the plane’s nose toward a broad neighboring valley he counters, “How about that?” I cringe at the gently rolling terrain; Alaska’s version of a giant green runs. I picture my friends’ disappointment and politely decline. This is nothing like the Alaska Range, where decades of exploration have led to wall sized maps that are marked with every possible landing strip. Point and go. Easy. When taking off, Doug and I hadn’t planned on pioneering the unknown. And so our flight stretches on, the meter running, as we explore one virgin zone after another, feeling like a high stakes version of Goldilocks where this valley is too flat, and this one is too tight until I finally find myself standing on the perfect glacier, waiting for Doug and my friends to return, wondering where the hell I was and feeling absolutely alone.
Grins, hoops, and hollers: it’s easy to tell when skiers are sharing a good time. Drop in, sink to your knees, and throw in the occasional traversing turn to keep your sluff under control. The compact bowl provides the perfect area to test conditions and silences any reservations about the changed destination.
Gentle alpenglow illuminates our way back to our freshly dug camp. Toasting our first day with drinks and guacamole while the ground moose sizzles, we admire the crown jewel of our new home. Dubbing it the Sage Face for its ski movie worthiness, we envision christening it with our signatures. In spite of our soaring bravado, we at least concede have to throw in a few more turns than its namesake movie hero.
Ridge top plumes and shaking tents greet us the next morning. We should have known better than to venture out in search of turns with such high winds, but our subconscious expectations prove too stubborn and guide our decisions. Doug will also return soon, making every day in this exotic wonderland feel precious. The compact bowl from yesterday, now fattened, rips out sympathetically when we venture near. Humbled, but not enough to head back to camp, we tiptoe around until finding a safe-looking wind-stripped couloir. Our belayed ski cuts produce no results, and everything goes smoothly until our last skier ventures a little too far right when half way down. The crack is audible. A hard turn easily takes him away from the slide, but during our conversation at the bottom the bravado from last night succumbs to the day’s incessant wind. Freed from expectations of turns, we take the scenic route back to camp.
The next morning we linger in our sleeping bags, slow to emerge and don our boots. Although the day is windless, it feels hard to summon enthusiasm to ski the wind scoured landscape. Instead of the Sage Face, our banter focuses on the liquor supply’s expected lifespan. Lacking a proper map, we consult the aerial photos I’d taken with Doug and pick a promising direction to explore. Although the avi danger has eased and the slabs carry far less tension, we’re still unwilling to push onto anything truly steep and committing. Resigning ourselves to sniffing out occasional pockets of wind packed powder, we make the most of the marginal snow conditions. On the skin track I reflect on the power of expectations. How the media uses Alaska to feed us images that sell magazines and movie tickets, and how they rarely provide a more nuanced view. Dean Cummings, Valdez heli-pioneer and owner of H2O Guides, said during one of his Steep Life avalanche trainings, “Most folks don’t realize that the pros are only filming on the very best days. There could be just five days all season where snow quality and stability align.” Today, I muse, certainly isn’t one of them.
Then the storm came.
Finally emerging from the tent to clear blue skies, I’m so elated I bound over to Ian and wrap him in a bear hug. We tumble into the deep and surprisingly low-density powder, giggling like kids on a playground. And it truly is an alpine playground. Eight thousand glorious vertical feet of chutes and ladders occupy our final ski day in the Chigmits.
Our week of perfect silence ends abruptly the next morning with the drone of Doug’s approaching plane. Expecting him doesn’t make this first intrusion into our world of total isolation feel any less jarring. My friends stare at his plane, this interloper, transfixed. I choose to look at them and reflect on the past seven days. I think about what we’ve shared, how much closer we’ve become, and realize that I don’t want to go home.
Looking back now, surrounded by the comforts and routines of daily life, I understand how this trip is more than the sum of its turns. What I earned from this experience is what I wanted most of all— true adventure and indelible memories that I can reply over and over during life’s quiet, reflective moments.
Tips for Planning Your Own Trip
Thinking of your own ski-plane-based camping trip to Alaska? The secret to warmth and happiness is being prepared.
Rent Gear- The commercial carrier baggage allowance of 100lbs/pp isn’t enough, and overage fees add up fast. Get heavy/bulky items such as an extra-large snow melting pot, pans, cooler, two-burner stoves, etc. from the Alaska Pacific University rental center (907.564.8614; www.alaskapacific.edu).
Stoves- Melting snow with lightweight camp stoves is a chore. Instead, bring Coleman two-burner stoves and 20 gallon propane tanks (think gas grill). Using a tee connector we ran two stoves simultaneously, one for melting snow and one for cooking, and with five people one tank lasted 4 days. Check with your pilot as some won’t fly with propane.
Cooler- Keeps your food from freezing solid. Add a hot water bottle or two on cold nights.
Camp Boots- Rookies bring only ski boots. Sorel, Kamik, and Ranger (cheapest) make insulated boots that are rated to well below zero. Your feet will thank you.
Satellite Phone- Your lifeline to the world and rescue. Rent from the Surveyor’s Exchange in Anchorage (907.561.6501; www.tse-ak.com). Ask your pilot or a friend to text weather updates. Checking the phone each day could make the difference between sitting out and getting out before a week long storm. Or, splurge on an iSavi Wi-Fi satellite hotspot and surf the web yourself (www.groundcontrol.com/Wideye_iSavi.htm).
Grain Shovels- Your avalanche shovel is a toy. Bring two for digging camp.
Meal Planning- You’re essentially car camping, so eat well. Avoid overbuying and unnecessary weight by creating a detailed daily menu. Figure out how many servings of each ingredient (cheese, beans, etc.) you need to create a generous meal for one person. Multiply by your total group number and stick to the total when shopping. A box of Ramen makes for light and cheap emergency rations while sitting out an extended storm.
Insulation- Two is the magic number. Two sleeping pads to avoid conductive heat loss. Two hooded down jackets that fit within each other. Two sleeping bags if you don’t have one rated to -20 degrees.
Timing- Coastal ranges generally have the best powder in March/April; inland ranges April/May.
Budget- We did our trip for under $2000/pp, including airfare from Colorado.