The massive landscape of Little Switzerland, Alaska.
“I had started to think maybe this (trip) wouldn't be happening, but it sounds like you're committed.”
Dan’s response to my email alleviated the fears that I had waited too long to get the planning in motion. We were going to ski in the Little Switzerland area of the Alaska Range. A ski mountaineering paradise. He had left me in charge of the initial stages of planning, including getting the gear spreadsheet started. A tactic I think he uses to see if people are actually interested in skiing Alaska. He expressed to me during this trip that a lot of people talk about going to Alaska to ski with him, but that I was one of the few that put the effort in to make it happen.
Flash forward to May and Dan is picking me up from the Anchorage airport. We spent that day organizing gear and making a final shopping list to tackle. A quick run to REI the following morning and we were off to Talkeetna. That night we met a group of three that would be flying onto the Pika Glacier with us, one of which I had a few mutual friends with back in Montana. Small world for a big state. We shared some Sour Patch Kids with them on the river, which they repaid the first night on the glacier by giving us each a beer. What an upgrade!
Our ride into the Alaska Range
The following morning we showed up at the 8am check in time with our air taxi service and found out we would be flying first thing. People had been waiting to fly for up to four days due to the storm and we luckily nailed it on our first day. Flying into the range turned mine and Dan’s stomachs in knots. Flying over so many intense mountains knowing you’re getting dropped off in the middle of them is an intimidating and exciting experience.
The view from our cook tent we got to enjoy every night with Dan’s delectable miso soup.
We landed on the glacier at 10:30am and I was the first to step off the plane. I immediately sunk up to my belly button in the new snow. Bags were unloaded, skis thrown on, and we started hauling bags up to where we would make basecamp. We set up in the same area as the group of three and went for a short evening tour to assess the snowpack and ski some powder. It was deep, stable, and good! With stoke on our minds we returned to camp for some miso soup and dinner. Dan makes a mean miso soup paste which was a ritual we indulged in everytime we returned to camp from skiing. Soup was priority number one.
The first of many runs skiing powder this trip.
The following day we awoke to new snow and low-vis. We tried for a couloir close to camp on the Trolls, but the low visibility had us bailing off. Later in the afternoon when visibility cleared we went to ski on the Munchkin. We made a futile attempt to boot a north facing couloir, without ascent plates this would be a limiting factor on the trip. As we were transitioning to ski the group of three snaked our line! They had found a way to skin up to it on the backside.
“If they weren’t such nice guys I’d be pissed”. I shared the same sentiment. It was fun to have some friendly competition with them, we’d be bumping into each other all week while skiing.
We skied and on a double convexity I triggered a small 4” thick wind slab. We had noticed this soft slab earlier and deemed it manageable. However it was a good reminder to stay on our toes. The snow was deeper than yesterday. We followed the other group’s skintrack and got sloppy seconds in the couloir they snaked. Plenty of snow left for us.
Enjoying powder on the Munchkin.
Day three came and we were looking to complete a circumnavigation connecting to another glacier that would require crossing a tricky icefall. We thought it looked doable, but as we got a closer look we didn’t see a reasonable route through it. We were here to ski and not spend hours getting through an icefall. We bailed to go ski a line on the Hobbit King. We had to navigate traversing between a double cornice to ski the line, one above and below, a decision we would only make in the morning when everything was still frozen. The top of the line was still frozen, solar aspects were melting and refreezing.
Part way into day three and we were realizing there is a learning curve to this place. We were getting shut down or missing the good snow. We ate lunch and discussed options on what to ski next looking at other peaks nearby.
“What about that line behind us?” I asked this realizing we had been ignoring the closest line to us all. It was a solar aspect catching sun, might as well try to see if we could ski some steep corn.
Booting the isothermic couloir on the Hobbit King. The northeast face of Italy’s Boot fills the background on the right.
By the time we had booted to the top of the line the snow was turning isothermic. Later than I’d like to be, but it showed there was potential to get good conditions on south aspects if we timed it right. We skied down, fighting the wet and heavy snow. Less than ideal conditions, but we managed to get on a steeper line which helped fuel excitement. We were beginning to figure it out. At the bottom we dog-legged right to a north facing line that held unreal powder. 1000’ or more of steep and deep Alaskan powder. I heard Dan joy-shout from the bottom with how good it was. We had turned the day around. Tomorrow we would go for the northeast face of Italy’s Boot - one of the most complex lines in the zone.
After a discussion with the group of three, we would both go for Italy’s Boot together, thinking two rope teams would be better in case of something going wrong on a face with numerous objective hazards. They took off a little before us to break trail. If we didn’t catch up, they would wait for us to top out before skiing down.
The Paradise Vice Tours were the perfect ski for this trip. As light as many mountaineering skis, but the 105mm width gave great float in Alaskan powder.
We followed their high-quality skin track and breezed up the face, arriving to the bergschrund and bootpack 15 minutes behind them. We started to transition and an avalanche came from above us and further left of us and the other group on the face. They were on the safety of the ridge, we were not. We decided the bootpack was out of the way of the big overhead hazard and continued the transition with the stipulation that one more avalanche would mean time to bail.
The sound of another avalanche began filling my ears. I looked up and spotted it, this time directly above me.
“Avalanche! Go Right Now!”
Dan and I were still roped up. Getting caught in an avalanche meant we both were getting dragged down this face to end up in a tangled mess of rope. I sprinted right as fast as I could. Luckily it was a small avalanche and the ten feet to the right I moved was enough to get out of the way as the avalanche filled the hole in the snow where I had stomped a platform to transition. The closest call I’ve had with an avalanche, and it imprinted on my brain how small I was in this massive landscape.
“Time to bail! I don’t like avalanches coming at my head!”
It sucked to bail, but we had to listen to the mountain. 400 feet of booting would have gotten us to the ridge and out of the way of other avalanches. But we were 30 minutes too late, it was time to descend, FAST. We reversed the transition and skied out of the upper section to a safe zone lower down on the face. The consolation? Consistent knee deep powder that lasted the 2100’ to the glacier below. As we got to the bottom, we looked up to see another avalanche crash through part of the bootpack and where we had transitioned. We felt relief, we had made the right call. Despite bailing 400’ shy, we both agreed it was potentially the best run of our lives. Steep and deep Alaskan powder on a technical north face. It was the kind of line I’ve been dreaming about for years.
Near the bottom of Italy’s Boot. Glad to be out of the way of avalanches.
The following morning we woke up to snow and low visibility. A perfect excuse for a lazy day. I promptly kicked Dan’s ass in cribbage and took a nap. In the afternoon it cleared enough for a few laps on the small hill behind camp. The new snow skied well, but was heavier than anything we skied all week.
For the final full day of the trip, we decided to try a circumnavigation dropping to Granite Glacier from the Trolls then coming around the Hobbit King to rejoin the Pika Glacier. The 2000’ north facing shot down to Granite Glacier had avalanched the day prior in the wet storm. The upper third of the line skied well, but the rest was a mess of avalanche debris. Damn. North facing shots had even deteriorated. We were bummed but relieved we would be flying out tomorrow since conditions were getting worse.
We navigated Granite Glacier to a col then dropped into a tributary glacier that would bring us back to the Pika and the highway of a skintrack we had put in over the week. But first we would have to navigate down a glacier we had never been on in rapidly deteriorating visibility. Something I’d prefer to avoid but here we were. I broke out my avalanche probe and took point. Progress was painstakingly slow. And with good reason, I found myself a few feet above a crevasse that could swallow my car at one point. I couldn’t see it until I was almost stepping into it. We made an end run and navigated the rest of the crevasses back to familiar terrain. We made our way back to camp and made small preparations to fly out in the morning.
Navigating down an unknown glacier in low visibility.
We didn’t get a flight out until 4pm the next day, so we sat on the runway for almost a full day. We filled time with throwing snowballs at one of our skis, listening to music and podcasts on how the CIA drugged people with LSD without their consent. We eventually loaded up and were back on dry ground in Talkeetna before long. The beers in town tasted damn good. I didn’t have to drive back to Anchorage, so I indulged in a celebratory amount of brews and enjoyed the views on the ride back to Dan’s house.
The evening sky over the Pika Glacier.
Photos: Dan Jenkins & Paul Fotter. Written by Paul Fotter.
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