DO IT YOURSELF ALASKA

January 28, 2013 | 6:21 pm | No comments »
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At the top of one of the million peaks

Two first timers in the last frontier. Story of a splitboard trip to AK.

(Also found in Slammer magazine for Finnish readers.)

My Alaska was full of expectations;  sharp snow covered mountains reaching high and as far as the eye can see, difficult access, helicopters, big budget filming trips, wild west and rifles, wilderness and animals, waiting for the weather and cabin fever. AK is legendary among the freeriders. and enthusiasts a like. It is feared and admired. Some who visit talk of nothing else and some never want to go back. What is in the last frontier?

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Lines and peaks as far as the eye can see. Turnagain Pass.

The dream about Alaska has lived since I started watching snowboard movies. The AK powder (gold of the present time) and steep lines have intrigued me for years but it has always felt so unreachable without big budgets and high profile filming projects. I have always thought AK to be only heli access and demanding lots of dollars, specially flying from Europe. With the spreading of splitboarding and realization of that many places are actually more accessible for snowboarders too made us curious if we could find good riding in AK without spending too much green and being little greener at the same time. The idea spawned from Jeremy Jones when we met him in Austria while he was filming for Further. He told us that there is lots of easy access stuff too if you were ready to hike around. That was a surprise to us but we took the bait without asking too many questions. We were planning a trip to the new continent but the snow sucked in the lower states. Alaska was having a record breaking snow year so that fit our Protest Snowtour program perfectly. Week after the initial idea was born in the Alps we were already on the plane to Anchorage. We didn’t have time to do much research nor plan the trip proper. We just decided to go and have a look. It had worked well for us in many places so we were still feeling lucky! Alaska is roughly the size of continental Europe and there is few famous hubs for riding: Valdez, Haines and Juneau. All of them are far apart and different flight destinations. We decided to fly to Anchorage since there was apparently some mountain passes close to the city and even a resort. Valdez was a half a day drive away.

IN CIVILIZATION

Me and Jonas Hagstöm landed in Anchorage on the last day of February. We rented a big 4wd SUV thinking we can drive through mountain passes, piles of snow and moose if needed. It hurt on the budget but better over do it than under, as we say in Finland. Bags got stuck somewhere over the Atlantic which gave us few days to explore Anchorage and get more information we are we actually about to go. We visited the Avalanche center in Anchorage to fill the avalanche backpack cartridges and get lots of valuable information about the mountain passes and conditions. (find the website links and info in the end)

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We had to get some clean and cool shirts while waiting for the missing luggage.

 

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Visitor at the motel parking lot

 

The stories of drunk inuits were not over exaggerated and peopleseemed to be affected by the lack of sun and fast food culture, similar like back home but worse. We bought ice-road-truckers t-shirts to fit in and drank Alaskan Amber. Anchorage was not beautiful but functioning as well as any American block city. Wilderness was present even within city as a huge moose was hanging out in the parking lot next to our car.

After finally getting our bags and idea where to go we headed few hours southwest to Alyeska resort. It was good to get some chairlift pow in before the hiking missions. We ran into Travis Rice in Alyeska who was also apparently warming up in the resort.  His presence made us feel good about the conditions. It seemed that we had chosen a good time to come to AK! The resort was fun and snow was good but it was surprisingly crowded which didn’t fit to our image of AK. Also the rules of the resort and funny, yet far too serious, caution signs like “no dogs, guns and knives allowed in the bar” were not what we were after so we turned boards towards Turnagain pass, which was an hour drive away. We decided to do day missions from Alyeska to the pass since there was no places to stay closer, except camping.

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First exploration hike. We found splitboarding up easy in Turnagain since the ridgelines we positioned against the road.

TURNAGAIN PASS – wilderness close by

We had some sort of map but not much of idea where to go once we got up the pass. Weather was also in and out when we arrived so we decided to follow some tracks in to the woods. At least we could see something on our way down. Once we got higher we saw that Turnagain pass seemed to be set up perfectly for splitboarding. The ridges rose sideways against the road making the hiking and access to faces easy. There were lots of reachable terrain without hours long approaches. On the left side of the road it was only hike access and the right side was mainly used  by the sledders. We got above the treeline and saw some amazing terrain when the clouds opened up a little bit. Snow was deep and perfect just  like in the tales from AK. We decided to hold back still a little when we didn’t see exactly was below, the weather kept changing and we had hard time believing that the snow actually stuck so well. We dug a pit to check the layers and tried to evaluate the avi danger. We chose a more mellow line for safety but decided to come back the next day. We were little intimidated being alone in the mountains. For sure no help would come in time if something happened so we had to be extra safe. But snow was as good as we had dreamed of and it felt really stable.

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First turns. Feeling the snow… seems to be pretty damn nice!

 

The weather and avalanche forecasts seemed to work very well. Every mountain pass had own web site with up to date info (see below). Avalanche forecasts were updated every morning and we couldn’t believe our eyes when the danger was only 2 even after fair snowfall. Stable conditions with over 50cm of fresh seemed unbelievable to us. The snow really seems to stick better here. Weather opened up the next day. We went back to hike the same ridge line and planning to ride the line from the peak that we spotted the day before. We figured out the name from the map: Tincan. Sun was shining and we were alone at the top. Jonas dropped first and I snapped some photos of him slashing perfect snow. Nothing but the slough followed him and I dropped after him on the next spine. The feeling after the first proper AK line with perfect snow was indescribable. We stood on the valley floor waist deep in snow admiring our freshly drawn lines and high fiving several times. We spotted and assessed the lines ourselves and succeeded with out any guiding. For all that we knew and cared it could have been first descents. There was no tracks around. It felt wild and awesome to us even if we knew people had been riding these mountains for years. This is what we came for!

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Jonas shredding shredding Tincan.

-POV & home video from our first feelings  and riding on Tincan.

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Valley bottom. Endless line possibilities. Just follow the ridgeline and drop in.

We learned that the easy approach meant little longer hike out. The valley floor was quite flat and snow was deep so it was a mission to get back to the car but we didn’t mind. The views and setting was perfect and we were still little high from the adrenaline. Only disturbance was the distant sounds of sledders on the other side of the pass which made a ripple to the perfect atmosphere. On the drive back we stopped at wild animal refugee/zoo. There was most of the Alaskan wildlife species hanging out on the meadows and we learned the difference between elk and moose finally. There is no such thing as elks back home.

The next day the clouds covered the sky again and we had to stay in the tree covered faces for visibility. It was nice to discover that you could ride even when the weather was bad. The weather forecast didn’t show any windows for the next days so we decided to start driving to our second destination: The Legendary Valdez.

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Some tree riding when the clouds covered the sky. Sharks Fin in Turnagain Pass.

VALDEZ and THOMPSONS PASS – Historical spots – record breaking conditions

The drive was long but rewarding. The highway cut through wilderness. There was nothing except forest and vast scenes for hours. Occasional moose was hanging out next to the road like reindeers back home. There were few funny houses on the way but otherwise the highway was empty. Eddie Vedder’s Into the Wild was the perfect soundtrack for the road trip. The road to Valdez goes through Thompsons pass which is a  place for many famous peaks and lines. Heliboarding in AK started there, I think. It started snowing once we reached the pass and it turned into a blizzard while we were driving through. New snow was always welcome but it was interesting to drive in that weather without knowledge how the road or the pass would turn out. Now we felt that our SUV finally served some purpose. Movie scenes turned from Into the Wild to the Shining. We didn’t dare to put that that soundtrack on. The road finally turned downwards and we reached Valdez late. We checked into Mountain Sky hotel. All the hotels were pretty pricy if you take in to account the remote location and the fact that they were almost empty. Standard price was around 100$ room per night. It was around the same in Alyeska so lodging was not cheap in AK. The rooms were according to the typical American standard: huge beds and millonchannel TV. Breakfast included sugars in different forms and everything individually wrapped in plastic.

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Highway to mountains. Wrangel range. On the road to Valdez.

 

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Awesome road side shop in the middle of nowhere

It was still snowing when we woke up. Car had 30cm cover from last night so it must be lot in the mountains! Jonas had been fighting a persistent flu the whole trip but he got worse on the drive. He had to stay in bed while I went to explore the village and check out some heli operations. Jonas was in no shape for splitboarding and forecast shoved sunny for the next day. We couldn’t and shouldn’t miss that. Originally we were not planning to use heli and it was not in our budget either. There was lots of fresh snow and sun. Situation was calling for it and hey, once in Alaska! I had been doing some heliboarding in the past and I was trying to make sure that we could ride something proper if we were emptying our wallets. It was not an easy task. Everybody was saying: “yes,yes, you will get good riding” but I had to explain to them that we were spoiled with powder already and we didn’t want to ride some mellow meadows, even if the snow was sick. We could do that any day with few granola bars and hiking. It had to be steep and deep! Of course the operations were all about safety and have to always be sure of the clients abilities before showing the good stuff but we only could afford one day so I really had to persuade the guides. Finally I found a operator and guides who spoke the same language. Valdez Heli Ski up in Thompsons Pass promised to try to get a skilful group together and try to show us the best time possible. I made a date for the next morning.

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Good morning Valdez!

“FORCED” TO DO HELIBOARDING

Jonas was still coughing badly in the morning but stood up more friskly than he looked. Clear sky was the best medicine. We drove up to the pass and it was freezing temperatures. In the shade the thermometer was lurking at -30 when we were given the heli brief. We got up in the air and started on some mellow runs making our way to steeper and bigger faces. Snow was absolutely perfect and I couldn’t believe that waist deep and partly bottomless pow stuck on the faces so well. We set few minor avalanches but that was all. It felt really ride steeper stuff with that much snow. We got to ride the Gun barrels from Mt. Dimond and several other good ones. In total we had six plus one runs. They sold us one extra run and we couldn’t say no to those conditions! We paid a grand happily for that day even if it almost doubled our budget. I don’t think you could have gotten it better with a commercial company and showing up without reservation. It was an awesome day and experience but still the feelings that we got after hiking and riding ourselves in Turnagain pass were even better. With the heliboarding the guide was always pointing out the run and direction and we had no say in the game. So it didn’t feel painful at all to return to muscle power and splitboarding even after nearly perfect day. We found another option for accessing terrain too. In our group was a snowboarder, Jeremy, who is operating  a sled taxi in Thompsons pass. You could get a sled tow as high as the sled goes for a fraction of a heli run price. From there you could continue hiking the steeps or just ride down. The approaches in Thompson pass were way longer than in Turnagain. It takes hours to get to the bottom of the good stuff so the sled taxi service is  definitely a good option.

-small avalanche escape

BACK TO HOLY SOLITUDE – Port of Valdez

We bought a topo/ touring guide for the area from Valdez and started to look for good splitboard access faces. The weather turned unpredictable and visibility in Thompsons pass was really bad. There were no trees up in the pass so it the weather was bad you had no contrast and no chance to ride. But the situation was little different around Port of Valdez were the mountains were as good, shorter approaches and had some trees too. We started to explore the mountains that rose straight from the village and sea. Maybe the record snow year made it possible to ride good snow all the way to sea level. It had snowed 9 meters in Valdez already that year and 14 meters up in the pass. So you could say that the base was good! Even the houses were almost covered in snow.

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Valdez being slowly buried

We found some awesome stuff just around the corner in Valdez and the approaches were easy and fast. We hit some minigolf  spine runs, pillows and saw some great kicker terrain and bigger faces. The weather was on and off and we had to turn back many times because we couldn’t see well above the tree line. There was no crowds here. We saw handful of hikers and few sledders the whole week. Valdez apparently attracts mostly heliskiing tourists and the season was also only beginning too. We enjoyed the peace and unhurried pace. When we got few weather windows we used  them best to our knowledge. One time we rode to the backside of one of the peaks and on the way out ended up at the parking lot of the oil refinery. It came to our attention that it was strictly off limits to civilians, specially Scandinavian snowboarders. We had to explain and give out all our information and photos to the security who spotted us immediately when strapped off. It was partly funny and partly concerning. Suddenly we were a threat to the national security. Eventually we managed to convince the men with guns that we were only snowboarding not spying. They let us go for now but I bet our faces are saved deep in some database.

The weather rewarded our last day with on more bluebird day. We set out on a mission to ride 600 vertical meter high and steep face that drops into a lake bed and overlooks the whole village. We had seen the face from the opposite side and the best snow was on that aspect. There had been some high winds and temperature rise in the previous day so the conditions had changed some aspects from perfect to shitty. As we were making our way through the tree line we got scared by a thing in the hanging out on a branch just few meters from us. It looked like a mix of a cat, monkey and hedgehog. We learned later that it was a porcupine. Baldhead eagles were hovering above all the time too so it felt like being in National Geography show. Apparently later in the spring the whales gather in the bay and it’s possible to see dozens of them. It is the wild west still definitely.

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Creature spying us from the tree turned out to be a porcupine

 

We got to the top after few hour hike and small detour. The top section was steepish and little sun and affected. Sun was on the whole wall but it was not too warm yet. I dropped in after planning the route from above. We didn’t have a close up picture of the features so we were doing kind of half back door entrance. The face was fortunately concave and visible mostly the whole way. Snow was still awesome most of the run but I did find and hit some slough channels that were icy that surprised me. I gave some directions and info from below about the conditionds to Jonas through radio. That’s the way we worked and it gave the second guy some comfort and useful info. Jonas ripped down with a big smile on his face. We admired our canvas from the lake bed as we hiked out. Few sledders passed us and gave us thumps up for the lines. They were the only people we saw whole day. It was bluebird, amazing conditions, nobody out and just around the corner in Port of Valdez. We really felt again that we accomplished what we came for on our own with no guiding nor advice from anyone. It felt really good and  made the perfect ending to our amazing trip to the last frontier.

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Our trips last line to the lake

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Jonas draving his line

-Home & POV video from the last day

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcHFhocbr98

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Happy split back home

PERCEPTIONS AND FEELINGS

Our trip to Alaska confirmed a lot of the expectations that I had before and changed some. Snow and the mountains were as amazing as I had hoped and they were far more accessible than I ever thought. With some basic backcountry skills it is possible to access and ride some really good stuff. The scenery is breathtaking all around.  And you don’t need a big budget if you are ready to work a little. The riding exceeded our expectations and weather treated us well too. There was riding for all backcountry levels: from small minigolf to pillow lines and kicker spots all the way to huge faces. The Alaskan redneck culture was still thriving, awesome and funny but it also starts resemble the general American culture in good and bad. It was interesting to see gun cases strapped on four-wheelers and moose hanging around everywhere. The only big disappointment was food. We were hoping to find some fresh fish out of the sea and maybe even some game meat but the food was like the worst example of the fast food and diner culture. Everything was processed, individually wrapped in plastic, sugar coated and imported thousands of miles away. We tried almost everyplace in Valdez and didn’t find any good ones. But beer and burgers were tasty of course! In total our Alaskan experience was awesome and I will count myself among those who always want to go back. It is still pretty wild and wilderness is all around. I just wonder how wild it is must have been 20-30 years ago. My perception of Alaska is still wild and even mystical although we got just a glimpse of it. I strongly recommend to all backcounrty enthusiasts alike to check it out before it too will become more and more touristic, commercial and crowded. Our  surface scratching exploration to the last frontier spawned a hunger to return and experience Alaska all over again and again.

Facts, info and websites:

We were in AK (Anchorage and Valdez area) for two weeks from the end of February until mid March. Our budget was around 3000€ including flights but excluding heliboarding.

Flights from Europe to Anchorage or Juneau (which are completely different zones) are around 1000-1500€. Car rental 150-500$/week. Car is a must like generally everywhere else in USA as well. Roads are generally in good condition and no 4wd is needed except if the weather gets bad in the mountain passes.

Hotels/motels are generally around 50$/person/night. If staying longer possibility find vacation rentals.

Splitboard is the best option for getting around because of the deep snow but snowshoes will work too. Other access by sled or specially heli is pricy.

There was very little or none apres-ski and night life. Some can be found in Alyeska resort and helilodges.

There are three mountain passes around Anchorage/Valdez area which have good and easy to read websites for weather and avalanche forecasts:

Thompsons Pass and Valdez : http://www.valdezavalanchecenter.org

Turnagain Pass 2h drive from Anchorage : http://www.cnfaic.org/

Hatcher Pass 1 h from Anchorage (didn’t visit) : http://hatcherpassavalanchecenter.org/

The Alaska avalanche information center : http://www.alaskasnow.org/contact/

Alyeska resort 1 and half from Anchorage : http://www.alyeskaresort.com/

Mountain Sky hotel in Valdez :http://www.mountainskyhotel.com/

 


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