Fly- In Winter Camping in Alaska
There may be other places in the world where you can do one-drop skiing expeditions, but there is nowhere like Alaska. The basic idea of a one-drop is to load up on food and gear, charter a small plane and get dropped off for a week or two of backcountry skiing, then get picked back up and flown back out. From the steeps of Valdez to the summit of Denali, Alaska has incredible skiing for all abilities and plenty of it. There’s powder, corn, huge, steep, wild, long, mellow and everything in between. And while the skiing may be incredible, it is routinely overshadowed by the flying experience. After one of the best skiing days of my life, all people could talk about was the flight out. Because Alaska is mostly roadless, it has the highest concentration of planes to population on earth and flying is a way of life.
One-drops are a sort of performance art and there’s no one set way to do them. I prefer to spend my time skiing rather than moving, hauling gear and setting up camp multiple times, so I tend to go heavy and stay put. Other people like to move every few days or do overnights from a central location. It all depends on your location and goals.
It’s hard to go wrong with any one-drop trip to Alaska, but there are a few tricks of the trade that can make it go smoother. One of the first is to realize that if you bring a ton of gear (which is part of the fun of one-dropping) then you probably won’t be going far from your landing site, which in turn means that you need to pick a good place from the start. Depending on the location and landing site, if you plan it properly, basecamp can be set up under the shadow of the plane’s wing, or at the most, within a couple hundred feet. Unless you are into it, manhauling is to be avoided. Because mobility is limited, it is important to find an area with a wide variety of skiing options in a tight zone so you can get out regardless of the avalanche danger or weather. Scale is everything in Alaska, and if Plan B is 30 miles away you are going to spend most of your trip walking.
For starters, plan on two weeks and about $1,800 per person as a baseline. It is possible to do a shorter trip, but a general rule of thumb for Alaska skiing is to allow for 50% down days due to weather, so by the time you fly all the way up there, get flown in/out, buy food, etc., you’ll want at least 5-7 days of skiing, which in reality means two weeks. If the weather is perfect, you’ll score a ton of skiing, but if not, you’ll still get out. The bulk of the $1,800 is for airfare, both to fly to Anchorage and for your glacier landing (as landing on snow is generally called). The rest is for shuttles, rental cars, food, lodging in Anchorage and miscellaneous travel expenses. My personal preference is to go with a group of four people total, which divides up the cost and allows for two groups of two for tents and rope teams.
There are so many options in Alaska that it can be hard to know where to go. One of the most tried and true outings is to fly into Anchorage, take a shuttle up to Talkeetna (they can stop along the way for food shopping) and then fly into the heart of the Alaska Range to a place like Little Switzerland, the Ruth Gorge or the Kahiltna Glacier. Air taxi services like Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) have set prices for most of these flights, which makes planning easy. A slight variation on this is to ask the pilots, many of whom are skiers themselves, for something slightly off the beaten path.
Beyond this, finding a place to fly into is a matter of studying maps or sniffing out trip reports from years past. The Chugach Mountain range is popular as it is huge, has great skiing and lots of air taxi operations. The Tordrillo range is similar, but smaller. Because Alaska is all the way up to 60 degrees north, there is good skiing right down to sea level in the spring and finding high peaks isn’t necessarily important. The prime time for one-dropping is April through May and a nice base elevation is about 1,500’. For higher peaks in the Alaska range, the ski season is May through June and the base camps will be up in the 7,000’+ range.
Bush Plane Logistics
For anything off the beaten path, the place to start is by finding an outfitter and pilot way ahead of time. Some of these are big commercial operations, and some are a person with a single Super Cub. It can quickly become complicated, but for skiing, bush planes fall into three categories, small, medium and large. On the small end, a Super Cub can hold the pilot and a passenger plus his/her gear. These planes are nimble and plentiful, but if you have a group of four people and a long flight (anything over 45 minutes) there is a very real possibility that you might not all make it in on the same day, or in the case of Alaska, the same week. The next size up would be a 3-4 passenger plane, which with ski gear means 2 people, plus gear per trip. Beyond that would be a large plane, like a Turbine Otter, which can carry 8 people, plus gear. The prices tend to be similar as one big expensive flight is similar to four smaller, less expensive flights, but the advantage of bigger planes is that it keeps the group together and simplifies logistics.
For good reason, pilots are very particular about their aircraft. The best way to help them is to have all of your gear organized and be on time, then let them do all of the loading. A key concept is to pack for the plane, not the glacier, which means stripping all sharps off of packs, not wearing a harness and have all of your immediate essentials with you. Many outfitters allow for a set amount of gear weight per person and then have a surcharge for anything over, so be sure and strip out heavy, bulky items like wheel ski bags. On smaller planes, it’s also good to have lots of sleeping bag sized stuff sacks rather than huge expedition duffles as they can pack them in every little nook and cranny. Alaskan pilots are famous for figuring out how to maximize people and payloads in ways that might not meet strict FAA regulations, at which point they might politely request “no photos please,” in which case you should put your camera away and enjoy the ride. And last but not least, stove gas is often stored in a separate area and loaded last, so don’t forget it!
If possible, landing on a frozen lake is highly desirable as there are no crevasses, sidehills, humps or bumps for the plane to hit, which makes lake landing much more reliable. Pilots can almost always land on a lake, but most require good weather and visibility to land up high in the mountains, which means you can burn many precious days waiting for the right conditions to fly.
It may require some extra sleuthing, but camping in an east/west valley means you are going to get the maximum sun, which in turns means you’ll have more daylight and warmth. Better yet, try to find a spot with some trees, rocks or terrain features to site your tents in to help act as a wind break. Beyond that, if you can find all of these spots with a nearby creek, you’ll drastically cut down on the amount of snow you have to boil. Last but not least, situate the toilet downhill from camp and well away from your snow collection zone.
Food – Anchorage has a massive Costco, complete with an in-house liquor store, where you can stock up on everything. Try to strip away as much excess packaging as possible and then transport the food in the beefy Costco cardboard boxes, which can be burned later. I’m a fan of bringing as much “normal” food as possible to help stay fully charged up and ready to go.
Shuttles – Talkeetna is a popular destination and there are multiple shuttles to/from there and Anchorage. For many other ranges, you can fly right from Anchorage, but on some of the more remote ones, it will be cheaper to rent a car and leave it. Payless Rentals seems to be the cheapest.
Finances – Appoint a treasurer and have everyone keep track of things they paid for. In the end, total it all up and divide it by the number of people, then settle the balance between yourselves. This is way easier than trying to do it purchase by purchase.
What you save by doing a DIY one-drop trip you’ll offset by having to buy a bunch of burly gear. Think of it as an investment and don’t cut corners on tents.
Tents – A four season, double wall tent is standard issue for a sleeping tent. Look for ones that have a low wind profile and the ability to withstand snow loading. If possible, try to upsize the tent by at least one person, so if there are two of you, go with a three or four person tent so you have some room to spread out and store gear. Cook tents aren’t mandatory, but vastly improve camp comfort and the tent of choice is the Black Diamond MegaMid with a dug out floor/kitchen. In all cases, try to pitch your tent with the doors away from the prevailing winds.
Communications – There are all sorts of GPS tracking and texting devices out there, but it is hard to beat the reliability of a satellite phone for changing plans or updates. They are available to rent in Anchorage.
Sleeping Bag – Another costly investment, but they last forever. I’m a fan of -20 degree down bags and get them oversized so I can throw my liners, gloves, etc. in at night to help them dry. In really cold temps, add a Nalgene bottle of boiling water to help heat things up.
Sleeping Pads – A single inflatable sleeping pad is fine if you are going into combat, but double is essential for spending day after day sleeping directly on the snow. Put an inflatable on the bottom and foamie on top. For a really good night’s sleep, bring a portable cot – it stays flat, keeps you off the snow and one of the most experienced AK winter campers I know swears by them.
Stove board – Winter camping is all about melting snow and cooking, so bring a large stove board (18” x 24” x ¼” plywood).
Stoves – The ultra classic, tried & true MSR XGK stove is not only deafening, but it also pumps out a ton of heat, is indestructible, burns just about anything and works well at high altitude. Bring two, especially for four people.
Cook Kit – For melting snow, bring a 3 liter black pot with an MSR heat exchanger and a Backpacker’s Pantry pot parka. For cooking, bring a frying pan, smaller pots and a small bamboo spatula. Don’t leave home without a GSI Fairshare Mug wrapped in insulating foam. To help keep the food organizing mayhem at bay, bring a bunch of lightweight, zippered stuff sacks to help sort things out, i.e.; snacks, drinks, breakfast, dinner.
Camp Boots – Unless your ski boots are really comfy and you like spending all day, every day in them, a pair of Sorels or Baffin boots make camp life much nicer.
Wood Stoves – If you are looking for the next level of decadence, a wood stove is it. They require quite a bit of advanced planning and camping near a fuel source (dead trees), but they melt massive amounts of snow, dry gear and make camp life plush. They are also a good way to burn your tent down and get carbon monoxide poisoning, but these are small details. The TMS Portable Woodstove is available for as little as $67 from Amazon, and with Prime and a friend in Anchorage, you can have it shipped there for free. They take a few solid fire sessions to burn off the toxic paint, so plan on that before putting it in your tent as well as retrofitting a fireproof chimney gasket. Bring a fine toothed snow saw to collect firewood. Do not bring Presto logs as they hardly put out any heat. Aside from the TMS version, there’s a variety of super bitchin’ titanium or ultra-compact, lightweight woodstoves out there, which are priced accordingly.
Like skiing itself, one-drops are a learning process which only gets better with time. The more you do them, the smoother they go and the more fun you have. There’s nothing more magical than setting up in a wild, remote location, getting comfortable and then doing nothing but skiing until you drop for days on end. And although this article is focused on planes and Alaska, the same concept works with getting dropped off by sailboat, snowmobile or helicopter. Start small, work your way up and have fun.