We met up in the Seattle airport. Tom was coming from the Wasatch, Steve from Northern California, and myself from
Southern Oregon. Tom and I have been skiing and climbing together since we were roommates in college. We met Steve when we were all living and skiing in the Wasatch, and I couldn’t think of a better group to go basecamp style skiing with outside of Haines, Alaska. Tom and his wife were expecting a baby in a few months, Steve was getting married in July, and I had just gotten married the summer previous. While we all still work and play in the mountains on a regular basis, we all have different responsibilities, commitments, and schedules that keep us from doing these things together.
We had been planning this trip solidly for the last three months, and our goal was to be safe, to go home in one piece, and have fun in a beautiful place. This trip wasn’t about trying to ski the steepest, sickest line in order to impress people we don’t even know. It wasn’t about having a goal-oriented mindset to get to the top of a couloir in the face of all signs telling us to turn around. It was about working together, communicating, making good decisions, and having a good time. Given the remoteness of our intended glacial camp, the variable and unpredictable nature of the weather in southeast
Alaska, and skiing in a snowpack to which we are not intimately familiar, it was quite obvious to us that if something did happen, chance of rescue from a serious accident would be slim-however, I regularly feel the need to take on risk in my life to feel alive…
We arrived in Juneau, checked into the Super 8, and utilized the motel shuttle to take us around town to do shopping for food and supplies at Costco and the local grocery store. The next morning, we caught the morning ferry to Haines. The weather was the typical “Juneau sunshine” of rain and low clouds. Most of what we had heard about the current weather pattern in southeast Alaska was that there had been very few clear days, and a relatively high snow line. From the few glimpses of the mountains we were afforded along our ferry route, this seemed accurate.
We had made reservations to stay the night at the Captain’s Choice Motel in Haines, which has a very accommodating shuttle from the ferry terminal. After checking in, we set out to hitchhike to the airport to check in with Drake. Arriving at his hangar, we talked for about 20 minutes about the state of the weather and what kinds of conditions other groups were encountering in the area. In the last month, Drake had groups with intentions similar to ours all over the area that had been weathered out for anywhere from five to twelve days past their intended pickup date. That is just part of the game, and Drake made sure that we knew that this was a distinct possibility of our timeline. He had some concerns about Tom’s intention to fly off of the glacier 5 days before Steve and my intended departure. However, we were all fully aware of the fact that we were at the mercy of the weather, and the fact that the weather doesn’t give a shit what your plans are.
After leaving Drake’s hangar, we headed back into town to tie in with a buddy of mine who guides for SEABA. We met Cameron at the Fog Cutter Bar, and moved onto the Fort Seward Lodge, getting a proper introduction to the activities that Haines has to offer during down days. There had been film groups and heli-ski clients in Haines that had been waiting out weather for weeks. We got some great snowpack and terrain beta from several SEABA guides in between the Baja Fogs I was being given. The big topic being talked about was two widespread surface hoar layers that had been mostly preserved from late March. During the few and far between flyable days in the last month, heli-ski operations had been tiptoeing around the range, sticking to steeper slopes that had been sloughing out regularly. The next morning, I hoped that the worst decision I would make during this trip was not stopping after the 5th Baja Fog during the previous evening’s activities.
After a down day in town spent exploring Haines and speculating on our alternate plans for our trip if our flight in was a complete bust, we rented a truck and headed up to Canada to do some ski touring from Chilkat Pass. We ended up having a great day touring from the “green shack” near Nadahini Mountain with mostly clear skies, a bit of wind, and variable snow conditions. We were all enamored by the vastness of the mountains up there, offering endless views with little human interruption. The scene along the pass was of mostly Canadian sledders and sled-skiers that had been camping in their rigs up there for weeks. Needless to say, as most Canadians seem to do- they were givin’ ‘er. On our way back into town, we checked in with Drake at the airport. He seemed to have had a productive day of flying, getting caught up with pulling out groups, and inserting another group into the field. We agreed to talk the next morning, but it seemed promising that we might fly out.
The morning greeted us with few clouds, and what seemed like a clearing trend. Drake told us to be at the hangar in an hour, and we hurriedly packed up our gear, threw it into the truck we had rented the night before, and checked out of the Captain’s Choice. We decided that I would fly in on the first load with all of the camp gear and pick out an area for our camp to be located. After contorting my body into Drake’s plane amidst all of our gear, we were in the air. I had a rush of excitement, anticipation, and nervousness overcome me as we left the runway. Drake showed me the Meade glacier, and I felt overwhelmed by it’s vastness. We circled a zone that he had dropped people at before, and it seemed to offer a good complement of terrain options including a variety of aspects, slope angles, and complexity. After circling the area a few more times, including looking at what was on the backside of the terrain that would be in our front door, Drake put the plane on the glacier with precision and control. After unloading the plane, Drake took off as quickly and smoothly as he had landed, heading back to town to pick up Tom, Steve, and the rest of our gear. Once the buzz of the plane was gone, it was completely quiet. I found myself standing next to a large pile of camp gear and food just staring around smiling in awe.
I didn’t think I could eat all of our food myself, so I was glad to hear the buzz of the plane bringing Tom and Steve onto the glacier. They climbed out of the plane grinning ear to ear. After unloading their gear, Drake took off only to circle back around, touching his skis back on the snow. We thought he had forgotten to tell us something, until we saw his wing tips dipping down towards the snow. He was just getting some freshies! He had told me that he enjoys skiing, but these days most of his skiing is done in his plane. We spent a few hours building a kitchen, setting up wind walls with snow blocks, and buffing out our camp before setting out for a late afternoon ski tour. We skinned over to a low angle saddle near camp, and gained the ridgeline. We soon found out that everything is quite a bit further, quite a bit taller, and quite a bit steeper than it looks from camp. Snow quality varied, as the east facing terrain we skied had been getting a bit hammered from the wind, but was still fun.
We woke the next morning to the violent flapping of tents and the megamid. We were all quite excited to explore our new playground, but soon realized the moderate to strong northeast winds were not only blowing the snow, but made travel along the glacier less than desirable. After a good effort to gain a saddle and head up a ridgeline to explore some lee-facing terrain, both the potential for new wind slabs and the downright nasty travel conditions had us looking for some shelter from the wind. We found a nice sheltered ramp that held some shallow creamy turns towards the top, turning into fields of sastrugi towards the bottom. We headed back to the lower pass from the evening before, gained the ridge, and found a nice sheltered southwest-facing slope that had a bit of wind loading isolated to the ridgeline. We skied just over 1000 feet of nice shallow powder with a warming snow surface, then skinned back up for another lap, but found we were a bit too late with the cooling temperatures and lower evening sun. Nonetheless, it had been a great day, and we headed back to camp for some dinner and libations.
While in a new area and a much different snowpack than what I am used to, I try to use the mantra of you have to know what you don’t know. If you know where your gaps are in observations, then you can systematically approach targeting your observations to fill in those gaps. Up until this point, we had been digging quick hand pits, observing the surrounding area for recent natural avalanches, and utilizing a heightened sense of situational awareness to try to observe any other signs of instability. We had picked from the low hanging fruit, and wanted to step into some bigger terrain in the coming days. We felt we needed to get some better baseline data for north facing terrain, as it was a gap in our observations.
With less than ideal flat light the next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast, and set out to dig a test plus pit in on a north-facing apron. If the light would improve, we had talked about potentially starting to set a boot pack up the dominating couloir we had been drooling over since we arrived at our camp. We found a couple moderately reactive layers within the latest storm snow, most likely due to a mid storm temperature dip and subsequent density change. The light was improving, and with Tom having to (hopefully) get a lift off the glacier the next day, we agreed to start our way up the couloir.
After navigating around a bergschrund, we started booting up the 50-degree slope, taking turns setting the bootpack. The sun was not yet hitting our piece of snow, but we were seeing somewhat substantial wet loose activity releasing from the warming rocks on nearby faces. Nearing the top, I decided to stay out of the gut and skirt around some rocks to the skier’s left side. The snow was becoming rotten, and the pitch becoming steeper. We hit our turn around time while wallowing on the steeper pitch. Stomping out small platforms on a mini spine of snow, we carefully transitioned to ski mode. It was a little frustrating that we were only a couple hundred feet from the top of the line, but felt good about the decision-making. I dropped in off of the spine, angling towards the gut of the couloir, my hip nearly touching the steep slope as I pulled out of the fall line to avoid my sluff. The snow was cold and soft, the line steep, and the sluff fast. This is what I had imagined skiing in Alaska would be like. We skied the nearly 2000 feet back to camp, where we found ourselves high-fiving, cracking beers, and not being able to stop smiling. It had turned out to be a beautiful day, and we all felt proud of our climbing, skiing, and decision making, even if this line was small by AK standards.
Tom called Drake on the satellite phone, and it sounded like he would be able to pick him up the next afternoon. We woke to bluebird skies and warm temperatures, and headed out for a morning tour before Tom’s pickup. We gained a ridgeline to the south of camp, skied a short but steep north facing couloir, then worked some low angle glacier turns that held nice soft, peel away corn. Drake flew into our camp right on time, and although we were bummed that Tom had to go back to that other realm of life, we were glad his timeline was working out for him. Steve and I buffed out camp with some nice snow furniture and enjoyed a few beers in the sun. We had thought that we had seen flat light until we woke up the next morning. Not being able to do much in the morning, we cooked up a big breakfast including bacon and cinnamon rolls. It had been nice to essentially be glacial car camping. We were able to bring plenty of food, beer, and whiskey, and had included another 7 days of dinners just in case we were not able to get picked up due to weather. We received a few inches of snow that night, and the winds had increased out of the southeast. With what seemed like a potential storm on our doorstep, we decided to stay close to home that morning, but got out for a couple familiar runs during breaks in the sky. It was nice to ski on some new snow, even if it was wind affected. We headed back to camp for a hot lunch of quesadillas, while we waited for another weather break.
They came and went quickly, but by the evening skies were clear enough to entice us up onto a ridgeline to the south for a nice low angle run back to camp. Had we really known what was on the doorstep, we would’ve made another lap. The winds started picking up that evening, with increasing snow showers. We spent the next two days in camp, while the winds were blowing a sustained 15 and gusting to 35 and precipitation rates were often 1-2 inches an hour. Visibility wasn’t more than 15 feet, and Steve and I talked about how disorienting it would be to be outside of camp. We were warm and dry in our tent, and the megamid kitchen tent held up like a champ in the strong winds. The second day of the storm held some breaks in the storm, and we were able to dig out camp some more, rebuild some wind walls, and plan for the next days ski if the weather cleared. It was hard to tell with all of the wind-affected snow, but we had seemingly received about two plus feet of snow.
On the morning of the ninth day on the glacier, we were ready to get out skiing. We had been talking to Drake on the sat phone for the last few days, and were talking about getting plucked off the glacier the next day if weather cooperated. Wanting to make the most of our potential last day of skiing, we got an early start, and gingerly assessed the new snow instabilities while slowly starting to work our way up a shoulder to the south. After skiing a lower angle shot off of the shoulder, we regained the ridge again, and skied a west facing couloir off of the other side of the ridge. The sun and warm temperatures were just starting to affect the snow on all but north aspects. Steve and I talked about our acceptable level of risk given it was just the two of us out there, as well as the potential for storm snow and wind slab instabilities. After a quick bite to eat, we gained the ridge again, and made our way into a shorter but steep north facing line we had skied a few days prior. Ski cutting the left side; we popped out a small D1 storm slab.
Skiing the debris was still fun, and we got some valuable information about the reactiveness of the new snow. We made our way over to a long northwest-facing shelf, shedding layers as the afternoon sun beat down on us. We finished out the day with a 2,000-foot powder run down to camp. The day had flown by, and we were all smiles at camp. We cooked up some dinner, had the last of our whiskey, and made a plan with Drake for a noon pickup the next day.
Waiting for the sound of Drake’s plane gave me time to reflect on our trip. I felt proud that we had pulled off a successful and safe adventure. We didn’t bite off more than we could chew, we didn’t let our egos cloud our judgment, and we didn’t really care about the subsequent Facebook posts. We were just a few ordinary guys wanting to feel like kids again; building snow forts, eating bacon, and going skiing. Life on the Meade Glacier was nothing short of extraordinary. Everything was amplified- the terrain, the weather, the emotional ups and downs, and the feeling of gratefulness. This trip reminded me to be humble and patient with nature and weather. Most of all, it reminded me that experiences like this are necessary in life to recharge your soul. Drake was fashionably late and had to play a game of cat and mouse with some low hanging clouds, but flew us out with just enough time to catch the evening ferry back to Juneau for our journey home.