SCOTT Freeski athletes Sam Cohen and McKenna Peterson, had eyes on a Spring trip to Alaska for the 2017 season. However, with a strange wind event destroying the snow pack in early January along most of the coastal mountain ranges in well-known areas such as Haines, the team was forced to look deeper. Coming upon the Zone known as the Brothel Spine wall, nestled in the Fairweather Range of AK, Sam and company decided this was the place and settled in for 3 weeks of skiing and adventure.
Spending time in the mountains has always been a huge part of my life. I can’t seem to stay sane without it. My first trip to Alaska was in January 2012. A few buddies and I wanted to go camping and ski lines off Turnagain Pass. We went for four days and got pounded with snow. When it cleared we had some of the best runs of our lives. It was a humbling experience to say the least. The next four years I learned how to ski the mountains in Alaska. Most of my spring season through those years was spent in Haines. Last winter an arctic wind event mid-season wiped the mountains of the deep snowpack we know as Alaska. With continental snow conditions, Haines wasn’t exactly the best place to be but Alaska always has something to offer. The mountains are endless and around every corner, in every nook and cranny, you seem to find something new.
I flew into Juneau March 23rd, 2017 with a plan to go camping for three weeks in the foothills of the Fairweather Range. My previous trips to Haines had all been via heli access, which was an incredible opportunity to learn about and ski these mountains. With the weather being so fickle in Alaska, you end up sitting in town a lot and skiing a little. Going camping would allow us to be in the mountains the entire duration of our trip and experience it to the fullest.
Shortly after I arrived in Juneau, I took the ferry over to Haines and hopped in the bush plane with pilot Drake Olson to get a closer look at the mountains. The mountains looked bare. The arctic wind event mid-winter had stripped most of the zones I knew to the rocky bone and we were now faced with very rough conditions. A thin snowpack and widespread instability. Not the typical conditions for a place off the ocean. To be honest, it looked dismal.
We moved along with our plan, even with the terrible snow conditions. After a lot of scoping and hunting for good snow we finally found something worth while. Drake dropped our team at what was to be home for the next three weeks and we went to work. After struggling with sickness, lack of good snow and simple group dynamic issues we found the flow and things finally started to click as a team. Rising to the occasion when it presents itself and to see through the hardship was what made this trip one of the best I have ever been on. As our time on the glacier started coming to an end I was feeling some type of contentment. We had done our best with what we were given and that was all we could do.
Making due with what you have is an important part of life. The mountains didn’t offer the best conditions on this trip but they did allow us to be out there for an extended period of time and have an unforgettable experience. Everyday out there is a unique challenge, whether it be climbing and skiing a big line, or melting snow in the frigid cold at 3:00 A.M. to start a very long day. The struggle of dealing with all the unpredicted variables thrown at you becomes natural as you push toward what you set out to do. The people you are with become close to family and the bonds that have grown on this trip are unforgettable. In the end we achieved our main goal, to make it back home. The many descents we made were just a plus.
Anticipation. Restlessness. Concern. Ambition. Three weeks of living on a glacier, with no distraction, other than what to climb and where to ski, creates an aura of heightened emotion and intense connection with surrounding glaciers and peaks. Questions about snowpack, snow quality, the route, the unknown, remain in the forefront of our collective conscious as we commit to our main objective. “There’s never going to be a good time to go for this line”, Elliot’s words, “overhanging ice field… it’s never going to be the right time…you just have to do it”. He’s right.
We're confident. We go.
Leaving camp in the early darkness, the biting cold and wet boots are invigorating. Hours of silence as we slide one foot in front of the other. The sun greets our group of four with a pink sky, turning the snow beige and softening the mood. We respond with hoots and hollers as the pace quickens. Gusts of wind reap at our skin as we reach the first transition. A 500 ft descent is necessary to reach the bottom of our ascent couloir- up, down, up, down. Henry drops first and surprisingly finds the first good turns of the trip. Cold smoke whirls past his head as we watch his body relax and his turns open up. Immediately the stoke reaches its highest point of the 20 days of glacier camping and we add an extra 1000 feet to this run. The joy of gliding through flawless cold powder takes precedent over the task at hand and, for a brief moment, the mission is put on hold. After all, the search for this feeling is why we have isolated ourselves deep in the Alaska backcountry.
The previous two weeks had been dedicated to the hunt for good snow. Our camp is surrounded by gorgeous lines; couloirs, spines, the steepest walls of snow, yet the snow was crap. The surrounding lines were fun to climb and terrifying to ski. We couldn’t help continuing to climb and ski boilerplate ripples and edgeless ice. It was the beauty of the peaks that kept drawing us up. And bad skiing… is still skiing. It had been enjoyable in a type II fun kind of way.
This is type 1 fun. The idea to bail on our objective and lap this gully of heavenly pow crossed each of our minds but was never voiced. We, again, begin to climb. It doesn’t take long to top out on the ascent couloir and peer down our line. The first look is equal parts ‘wow’ and ‘holy shit’. The spines are steep and sparkling, the lower ice drops into oblivion and miles below, the valley glacier sits flat, perfect, safe. This is it, the objective over which we have been obsessing is here, right here, extended beneath my ski tips. I’m on top of the unreachable line.
Rip the spine, jump the bergschrund, find the sneak, cross the next bergshrund, navigate the ice bridge (gently!), weave through the crevasses, find the lower flank, exit the toe of the glacier, finish on the valley floor. The most demanding ski of my life. The success, well earned. The gratification, indescribable. We all feel it. The adrenaline, the high, carries us through the long journey back to camp.
Still reveling in our fulfillment, we talk of the next unreachable objective. The sights had been set well before we realize. More risk, more reward. An endless cycle and a lesson in patience.
It’s only a matter of time before we are topping out on another unreachable line.