I grew up in a small ski town. An adolescent of the 90’s, skiing was the coolest thing on the planet, and the rise of ski media at the time influenced me beyond what I could foreshadow. Certain skiers stood out, especially those with the flamboyance and flair of the 80’s and 90’s. Magazines and ski films were exciting windows into this crazy lifestyle, and the even crazier people that lived it. The further away from New England, the more exotic and interesting these skiers and their exploits seemed. The Arctic, Antarctic, the Great Himalaya, even Jackson Hole and Squaw Valley USA all seemed to attract the best of the best on skis, paired with landscapes so dreamy that they quite literally didn’t seem real to my young eyes. I wanted to know it all.
I learned about the birthplace of steep skiing in Chamonix, France, and learned more about the roots of wild skiing in my own backyard thanks to the rich history of Tuckerman Ravine. My identity was quickly shaping into a skier with wide eyes, big dreams, and a desire to experience as much of this lifestyle as possible. With nothing certain beyond the will to enact living the dream, there was one place that always stood out above the rest. The one place above all others I had to get to without question. To this day, after years and years of memorable trips all over the world, I still feel the same way about Alaska.
Cody Townsend is one of the most recognized skiers in the world. His exploits in the mountains have been well documented for years, and while he speaks openly that a majority of his most far-reaching lines have been accessed by helicopter, recently he has committed himself to a project to ski tour every line in the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America book, a feat no one has yet completed. Although each line holds a special allure, Cody sums up Alaska eloquently by offering, “I’ve been lucky to ski in every major mountain range in the world, yet the one that still draws the most allure, the most fascination and the most desire to ride are the mountains in Alaska. A lot of mountains in the world touches of the same the pitch, magnitude, snow quality and wildness of Alaska, but none of them have all of this together. It’s just a magical place we are quite lucky to have as skiers.”
Each line Cody has skied for the project has been documented along with Bjarne Salen, an extraordinary cinematographer, skier in his own right, and all-around five-star human being. The episodes these two released last season are more than a series of, hey-look at what I skied, and more of a look into what it really takes to be safe and successful in the mountains in an authentically humble way. The lessons bestowed in each episode are a gift to the backcountry skiing community and have been done in impeccable style. Each episode is fully worth a watch.
I was able to join Cody for two of the adventures on his list last season, and while one was a purely casual friend-shred with a group on Mt. Shasta, our mission to Pontoon Peak in the heart of Alaska’s Chugach proved anything but casual. Bjarne and I had worked together in Alaska before. It was great to get to join him in the Chugach once again along with two other close friends and exceptional mountain people in Jeff Dostie and Ming Poon. While our March mission to Pontoon has its own story, as does the return visit Cody made later in April with Jeremy Jones that also includes an adventure to one of the other most revered lines in Alaska in Meteorite Mountain, the over-arching message here is one of place. At the core, a major part of what is being offered is that Alaska is different. In fact it is so uniquely different, many feel that it is the indisputable epicenter of skiing and riding.
When a series of seemingly obscure events took shape only a few decades ago, what it meant to be a snow slider changed as the pull to Alaska became a right of passage. Cody sums it up well sharing, “Nearly everything I do as a skier is aimed towards the end of the season missions to Alaska. It has shaped my goals, my dreams and the way I ski. To me, it’s the best, most challenging and most wild skiing on the planet.”
Unlike far-off dream locations like the Alps, Andes, or Japan, Alaska feels closer being part of the U.S. while remaining as wild as any slice of land on Earth. With North America’s highest Peak in Denali (20,310’), almost 34,000 miles of shoreline, and arguably the last great intact circumpolar wilderness in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the ecological attributes of the state are unmatched. Skiing throughout every corner of the region can be some of the most memorable turns of a lifetime, with several examples of some of the greatest lines and peaks ever descended included in this special Alaskan edition of Ascent. The diversity of alpine terrain combined with a raw wilderness factor is clearly what helps Alaska stand alone, but the snow that fails in this part of the world, especially along the coast, is also a key influencer to its prominence.
Utah might claim to have the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’, and if it snows a couple of feet of cold smoke anywhere in the mountains, chances are that place is the best in the world at that given moment. But nothing compares to when a triage of special Alaskan ingredients come together in the perfect way. Cold polar air, plus moisture laden storm systems, unleashed on mountains that appear unskiable, to most this provides the opportunity to experience the apex of our sport on the highest possible level. That’s the Alaskan difference. Nowhere does it happen with such consistency that snow sticks to the impossible, stabilizes, and offers up runs of a velvety consistency that literally changes the way you not only ski, but also the way you see the mountains.
It look me three trips to the land of the midnight sun to really “get it” even though I was arguably hooked before I even set foot in the state. Making it to the welcome sign on the Alaska Highway was step one after a long and often treacherous drive. My first turns in the state off Turnagin Pass soon followed. I was so overcome with joy just having made it to Alaska and gotten to ski, it took a little bit to learn more about the history, weather patterns, and to better understand what it takes for the magic to come alive. It’s one thing to become enamored by media, and it’s another thing to leave home to go and live the dream yourself. That’s not to take away anything from just being in Alaska, or the journey one takes to get there because the thing is the seemingly mundane is a quintessential part of the magic. The little things matter; the moose casually walking outside of the airport, the eagles soaring along the coastline on your way to ski, the endless vistas of mountainscapes that look like postcard after postcard. The thing is if you ski or ride these things matter that much more because when you nail it, especially snow wise, it all rolls into one and you’re never the same again.
That’s what happened to me when it all came together in Haines. I never felt anything like what I felt that March. It all made sense. Thousands of days skiing and still this one session, one run really, was so particularly different than any other. I realized every ounce of effort might be positioned for one crack at the weather, snow, and stability aligning. As much as that was hard to comprehend previously, now I fully understood it was worth it. Since then many mountains have been visited, and many memorable runs have taken place. But I always go back to Alaska. Unbearably cold mornings on Denali, heinous snow quality in the Brooks Range, booting up the mighty Sphinx, they all have their own special place in the memory bank. The Tour Camp Jeff Dostie and I have curated with Points North has become my favorite place to be outside of the Sierra. Even if we’re stormed in it feels like we’re at home. There’s no substitute for living on the side of a mountain and getting to know a zone as well as your local ski hill, especially if it’s in Alaska.
Alaska wouldn’t be what it is to the ski community without helicopters, but the idea and action of skiing “heli lines” from a base camp and by human power is what really sealed the deal for me after the initial life-changing runs from the metal bird years ago. Most people come to Alaska for the terrain. They stay for the snow, and are almost always on the constant search for adventure. That’s why there really is no other place like it, and why the third essential component in the formula of wild land and perfect snow is perhaps the most important ingredient of all-the people. It’s not what initially brought me or most other skiers and riders to the zone, but in the end it’s the same characters the helped open the place up to us silly snow-sliders in the first place, opening our eyes and the eyes of the world to live in no particular way but our own. The friends and characters you meet along the way will stick with you as much as that life-changing run as there’s a reason those people are a part of your journey too. Whether it’s a long strange road trip, your favorite backyard stash, or the line of your dreams, experiencing wild snow anywhere is a gift. It’s just that there’s only one Alaska, and for all that it is, it’s still the one.