Story and Photos by Jim Harris
The sound of the DeHavland Otter plane faded from rock-concert intensity to buzz to silence much faster than one would expect. The transition from gliding above craggy summits in the deafening, dizzying flight to craning necks to look up at the quiet ice-wrapped pinnacles encircling the valley was abrupt. It’s the abruptness that prompts an unexpected panic, squeezing air out of lungs and tightening throats: we are 40 rugged miles from the nearest outpost; what essential thing did I forget to pack? We are quite alone.
There’s no better US National Park to find solitude in than Wrangell St Elias. At 13.2 million acres, the Park staff enjoys pointing out that Wrangell St Elias National Park and Preserve is bigger than Switzerland. With only two dead-end roads, neither of which penetrates into the wild heart of the park, solitude is easy to come by. Access by bush plane and foot is requisite.
Ski Mountaineer Andrew McLean and I had arrived in part for the solitude, but also because the Park encompasses thousands of mountain peaks and a snowy wintertime climate that has set us up for fine springtime skiing. By the time of our arrival in early April the cold, abbreviated days of winter were stretching out past 14 hours of sun per day. With a campsite in the gut of a wide east-west trending valley we were positioned to catch both sunrise and sunset rays while skiing the cold, dry powder snow still harbored on the north-facing glaciers above camp.
Having skied on all seven continents – and down some of the most tempestuous terrain on each – it’s telling that McLean continues planning return trips to Wrangell St Elias National Park. For this year’s expedition McLean proposed to ski Mt Bona, whose 16,421 ft. summit soars more than two vertical miles up from the glaciers below. We found the slopes we hoped so ski in poor condition for our pursuit – they were windscoured, icy, and relentlessly crevassed. We aborted our plan after only two days on the mountain. McLean’s willingness to turn back despite months of planning is testament to the dynamism of his judgment. No doubt that flexibility, paired with his systematic and inquisitive mind, has helped to keep the ski mountaineer alive on more than one hairball occasion.
With time, food and fuel to spare we re-jiggered our plans and were flown to the Granite Range, 60 miles to the south. It was an area I’d walked through during a backpacking trip three years before and I was eager to return. On that trip we’d spent days thrashing through dense, leafy brush while imagining what the peaks above might look like wrapped in snow. Certainly the Sitka Alders would be buried, we had surmised with a scowl. Indeed, only the tips of branches had emerged, though the willows sporting fuzzy buds, were already anticipating the spring melt.
Unlike Mt Bona, the Granite Range doesn’t contain remarkably tall peaks, though what it has in abundance are snow-filled chutes sandwiched between rocky mountainsides. McLean has long nursed an affinity for couloir skiing, evidenced by the guidebook he wrote “The Chuting Gallery” and the blog he maintains at straightchuter.com. The goals for our trip had morphed overnight from a singular summit to squeezing down as many of these snowy ribbons we could cram between breakfast and dinner each day.
The standout day was one where we traversed the basins of four glacier-filled valleys. The obstacle to that route was that 2000 foot-tall rock fins separated the valleys and we had no way to know if the couloirs we could see on the near faces would lead to identical chutes on the backside or to dead ends.
In the avalanche awareness classes that I teach we discuss the decision-making pitfalls that lead to backcountry skiing accidents. Unwavering commitment to an objective, or “summit fever” is a frequent contributor to alpine accidents. In class we discuss how the language we speak with in the mountains affects our judgment; people who speak with non-committal phrases like “Let’s go have a closer look at that peak” tend to have fewer mishaps than those who unflinchingly gun for the summit. With that lesson in mind, McLean and I, snacking in the sun after the first successful descent of the day, decided to climb up a nearby ridge to “have a look” over the other side. Sure enough, from the crest we spotted a skiable route through the dark rock towers on the other side.
A few thousand feet of steep skiing later we stopped to rope up and look back at the chute we’d skied. Encouraged by the thrill of exploring yet another valley we crossed snow-covered crevasses in the glacial ice and headed towards the next ridge, optimistic that we’d find a route down the opposing side.
Summiting the next serrated ridge, my enthusiasm dropped when we peered over the other side. The snowy slope tilted downward before it bent even steeper and disappeared. Below a glacier pooled in the valley catch. Its surface was crumpled into ice block towers the color of copper oxide in some places yet smooth with only the occasional ripple of a buried crevasse elsewhere. The distance between the snowy convexity and the glacier at the bottom was just about the same height as the Empire State Building. In context of the chutes we’d been skiing, this was a smaller one but the illusion of a 1200’ precipice put me on edge. The shape of the slope suggested a cliff below, and we weren’t carrying enough equipment to descend more than a small one.
With growing doubt, I downclimbed to the convexity and found that I still couldn’t see where this snow patch led. The slope curved even steeper still and there was definitely a cliff below, but also the suggestion of a sneak around it. With methodical steps and Whippet placements I lowered myself further, breathing deeply to control the adrenal jumpiness that tickled through my arms and legs. Then I spotted a passage, not much wider than the length of our skis where it passed through a rocky pinch, but it opened to a wider chute and fell continuously until its juncture with the glacier below. Buoyed, I whacked my boot toes into the chalky snow eager to share the finding of my reconnoiter.
Minutes later our skis swished down the recrystallized powder in the couloir, the joy of the falling-arcing-slowing, falling-arcing-slowing rhythm of steep skiing joining the joy of exploring these sublime valleys. It was early evening when we reached the glacier and we spent a few minutes weighing whether to continue up and perhaps find a route to one more chute or to begin the return towards camp. “Did you pack a headlamp?” McLean asked. A practical question at its surface, it conveyed an understated concern. McLean was reminding me of how gossamer thin our safety net was.
Still, I was confident we could cross one more ridgeline before dark. The previous day we had skied the glacier that ran in the next valley. We’d looked up at massive couloirs dropping from above but hadn’t skied them. If we could just routefind to the correct low point between those thorny peaks, we’d find one of those chutes.
Crossing a mile or more of open glacier, my sense of forward progress warped. I feel my feet moving, skis sliding forward, but we don’t seem to be getting closer to the rock walls on the other side. As remedy, I pick out a distinctive ripple in the snow and walk towards it. Reaching it, I look for another and continue that way up the mild climb. An hour and a half go by this way before we’re looking down the maw of a whopper couloir. It’s a behemoth, as couloirs go, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet wide, and falls beneath our ski tips at an unwavering 45-degree angle for thousands of feet.
This chute hasn’t been sheltered from the spring sun and the snow has now refrozen into crusty ice in the blue gloom of evening. Our metal ski edges make a sawing rasp that rattles down the rock walls and dislodged chunks of snow release their potential energy, tumbling down in waves that have their own metallic sound. It’s not easy skiing. It would be a bad place to fall, I remind myself as plates of crust accelerate down.
Soon we are gliding down the glacier’s back in the shade of approaching nightfall, skimming over the depressions that indicate sagging snow bridges. In camp we peel off ski boots that steam for minutes once vacant and cook a dried food feast as the last light fades from the silent ski.
We weren’t completely alone in the solitude of our camp in the Wrangells. Wolverine tracks had appeared nearby while we were away and vocal Willow Ptarmigan clucked their barks and rattles in pre-dawn darkness. Wrangell St Elias National Park’s prodigious Brown Bear population would begin to stir soon too, though we noticed no evidence of them.
With those bears in mind, we left behind a clean camp when we departed: just a couple holes in the snow where our tent and kitchen had been. Our ski tracks were already being erased by the wind.