Trip Report: Alaska Glacier Camping
Trip Report: Alaska Glacier Camping
SE Alaska Part II: Tomahawk At about 2,500 people, Haines is by no means a city. It prides itself on being the adventure capital of the Alaska, or whatever that really means, but it seems as though adventure can be anywhere you want. Just outside of Haines was a trade route to the Yukon and what helped lead to the discovery of gold in the area. At one point the population was 10 times the present day count before the mining industry mostly collapsed. The Fort Seward Lodge, Restaurant, and Saloon were built here in 1904 as part of the first U.S. Military base in Alaska. Many nights were spent at The Fort enjoying company of good friends. Currently, the salmon fishing industry provides much of the regions economy along with summer tourists on ferries and cruise ships. In the fall and winter just up the road from Haines is the home to the largest bald eagle concentration in the world.
However, Haines also draws in a crowd of big mountain snowboarders and skiers from all over to challenge themselves in some of the most demanding terrain in the world. While other ranges may host taller or more massive peaks, it’s the vertical relief of the stacked, accordion-like mountains that require a certain level of respect here. Around any corner in town could be your favorite snowboarder or skier also waiting to test themselves in same mountains as well. It’s a community of friends old and new. Some are veterans who pioneered the area and some are first timers. With so many down days before getting out again we found ourselves spending lots of time in town. From laundry at Olympic Gold medalist Jamie Anderson’s, beers with 2x Transworld Rider of the Year John Jackson, hacky sack with freeskiing legend Tanner Hall, or hanging out with renowned Absinthe Film’s in a little mountain yurt, it felt as though we were at the equivalent to surfing’s “Pipeline”- a Mecca for the best of the best, though tremendous underdogs we were. Most people access terrain here via helicopters and bigger budgets, however, ski plane access has grown in popularity for the do it yourselfers who want to glacier camp and suffer a little hiking to stand on top of the same heli lines.
Nevertheless, the month of April was slipping by and we still hadn’t gotten out on a second camp and were starting to go stir crazy. Hypothetical’s, plan B’s, and doubt all reigned through our minds. Luckily, reports from pilots up north weren’t enough to pull us away and we stuck it out in Haines. Our friends, Ian and Neil Provo had flown out a week earlier on a small weather window to the Riggs Glacier with skiers John Spriggs and Tanner Hall along with filmer Pete Alport rounding out the crew. While we were in town enjoying some leisure time, indoor plumbing, solid roofs and the company of friends, the Provos were out on the Riggs Glacier getting pummeled with snow and wind. Over the course of 8 days almost 15 feet of snow accumulated and even collapsed a tent. Though weather outlook was looking good and as the system was dissipating, Drake suggested we join the Provos as he’d be picking up Pete, Tanner and John as they’d had enough of the glacier. We also picked up another rider in town, Zak Mills, who’s been on a splitboard-terrorizing mission this whole season and we were excited to see what Mills could bring to the table. The next thing we know, Drake is flying us into the Riggs Glacier to camp at a famed heli zone- Tomahawk.
We quickly set up camp and went out to explore the area as none of us were too sure of our surroundings; the Provo’s just coming out of a big storm and us brand new to the glacier. Fortunately, the zone worked in our favor. Just outside of camp were fun, manageable slopes as well as famous heli accessed runs such as “Swiss Cheese,” “Tomahawk,” “Birthday Bowl,” and more. While the recent storm deposited lots of snow, it also came with high winds and set up firm on most all but the steep, north aspects. Now in late April the increased solar radiation on the snow surface also meant that the NE and NW aspects which received less light were more favorable to ride. The 1st night with the sky glassed over, we were treated with an amazing Aurora Borealis show of dancing lights across the night sky. On our second day our good friend Tony Pavlantos was dropped off on the glacier to join us. Tony is a machine, always running up and down mountains in various forms by the most sustainable means possible. The past few seasons he has also helped Drake out in his hanger and dialed in the mountains around Haines more so than anybody else in the crew. Now we were a group of seven. Normally, I prefer smaller groups in the backcountry due to decision-making processes that become more convoluted with more people added into the equation. However, it was a perfect combination of diverse riders with strong mountain senses.
We spent the first five days with high pressure and hustled across the Riggs Glacier hunting down good snow and for the most part we found it. Neil set the boot pack up Swiss Cheese and it quickly became a camp favorite. Everybody was finding their groove and enjoying time on the glacier. Neil, Zak, Aspen, Tony, Ian, and Zach were all capitalizing and the photos were amazing. However, I felt like I was losing it a little, unable to nail a shot that I was proud of. I tried to shake it from my head and remind myself that’s not entirely why I’m here. But finding some bad snow and even backing down a couple faces due to questionable conditions didn’t help. Since we were riding mornings and evenings, most of the mid day was allocated to base camp feasts, hacky sack rounds, and carving out tracks and bowls to ride around camp. Doing handplants on splitboards and riding the course on a binding-less Powsurf kept us busy. But, eventually the sunshine would disappear and another storm sent us crawling back to our tents.
The third day of the storm was the worst with a handful of feet having fallen, but more importantly winds picking up to high speeds. Every time we’d go out to un-dig a tent or build a snow wall, we’d turn around and it’d be buried again. At some point you have to wonder how much good you’re actually doing. On this camp we had more solar panel power than we knew what to do with, so we’d often watch movies to pass the time. Therefore while we were warm and comfy in the tent watching Office Space, we got complacent and left my cook tent unattended during the height of the winds. Not smart. We poked our heads out the arctic oven to see that my cook tent was gone! We scrambled for a moment to save our food and utensils from the storm and fortunately the Provo brothers had a giant dome tent that we moved our kitchen into. I’ll try not to make that mistake again…
It’d be another two days before we’d stand on the top of any peak. The storm left us with a fresh slate of snow but it again came with high winds. We hoped the steep, upper slopes would still be good. We all woke up early on the first clear, stable day in anticipation for some big objectives we eyed up earlier in the trip. Time was running out and it was a now or never mindset if conditions provided. The majority of the crew went towards Tomahawk to claim the prized heli line, as Aspen and I went off another direction. For some unknown reason, Aspen and I didn’t feel comfortable going to Tamahawk and decided to opt out. Reasons varying, but mostly not wanting to put so many people on the same face, and I also had my eyes on another prize line that I saw a handful of days earlier. The boys did strong work over on Tomahawk setting tracks down such an iconic face, radioing back with reports of great snow quality. Zach Clanton hustled back over the pass and into position after shooting on-slope photos over at Tomahawk and set up a telephoto lens across the way from me. It was close to 9pm and I stared down a blank canvas of perfection. High above the valley bellow I had patiently waited for the snow crystals to turn from white to gold to pink in the alpenglow. It’s hard to really be in the present when always wondering about what’s next- the next minute, week or month and how it all compares to minutes, weeks and months of the past. We try to hold onto those moments where we feel truly alive with whatever passion it is at hand and while it may never last long, its all part of the pull that keeps us coming back for more.
It was dark by the time I got back to basecamp and we all stood around for a bit staring off into some blank space in the distance. Drake picked us up the next day after we just finished eating the last of our bacon rations, and again we’d just had the time of our lives. I’m very thankful for my mountain partners. Without the safety net of helicopter operations and paid guides, we use each other to safely access turns that have stood in our dreams for years. The exposure here can be huge, and it’s not a place for bad decisions or second-guessing. Weather in SE Alaska trends chaotic and unpredictable. I don’t think man can even truly conquer mountains at all, but instead needs to listen to them carefully and appreciate their power. They create the terms and we just choose to be in their presence.
Next up: The Provo brothers and I head off to the Tongass National Forest to fly fish for wild steelhead…
Instagram photos: @zclanton @neilprovo @ianprovo @earnyourturns @tonypavlantos @aspenrainweaver @flydrake @ctbooth