Trip Report: Alaska Splitboarding Part 1
Trip Report: Alaska Splitboarding Part 1
Destination (un)known: Travels to SE Alaska Part I: White Fang
According to the calendar it was March and while it was still technically winter, I hadn’t truly felt as though the season had really started yet. Like most of the west coast, Oregon had received a fairly poor winter. This left me with a couple options, such as a quick trip to Colorado and Utah for a taste of snow, but mostly days were spent on the water swinging flies for winter steelhead rather than strapped into a snowboard. Packing up my truck and driving 2,000 miles north was no spur of the moment plan but rather an idea that had finally began coming to fruition after months of planning.
However, Haines was new to me and I was equally nervous and excited to see what was in store for the next couple months. Four years earlier I had made the fatal error of coming to Alaska in the first place- I had pitched a tent off the side of the road outside of Valdez and proceeded to spend the next 3 months exploring the Chugach Mountains and riding classic terrain from snowboard films I grew up on. I knew after that first trip I would always make an attempt to dedicate time each season to Alaska. These mountains stand as true test pieces for anyone looking to bid time in big, wild mountains and test developed skill sets. AK doesn’t give it up easy though and I had to keep telling myself that, “this would be the year” I could walk away truly happy with results after a few challenging seasons of past.
Three long weeks went by hanging around town with a few days splitboarding up near the pass in Canada, but otherwise mostly waiting out good weather. Down days melted into one another as though it was Groundhog Day while we itched to get into the alpine. The idea was to hop into a Cessna 185 ski plane and get a two-week glacier camp in what is unofficially known as “the spine capital of the world.” Spines only being available on steep, fluted faces with the right snow properties to hold to such faces AND be ridable. A highlight maybe only specific to big mountain riders and skiers. Our pilot was to be the legendary Drake Olson, a former F1 racecar driver. At 60, Drake is a hilarious firecracker of spirited adventure and zeal, slightly cantankerous yet filled with passion. In ways he identifies with our “dirtbag” culture of following dreams on a whim. Though dirtbag maybe a slightly misleading term, I’m completely at home eating pasta off the tailgate of my truck, sleeping in the cold, and finding my soul in the mountains. It’s not exactly the socially accepted standard of a late 20’s, degree-holding citizen, but I digress. After a couple recon flights to check conditions and find potential zones, we decided on an area not too far from heli support if needed, yet to ourselves. Straightforward glacier travel and in proximity to fun mellow runs all the way to “holy shit that looks scary” testing grounds.
Fast forward to our 4th night on the Davidson Glacier and Zach, Aspen and I are holed up in a small 4-season tent and exhausted from marathoning around the glacier the past few days. We’d struck gold it seemed with some of the best conditions I’ve ever had. All the stress involved with organizing such a trip had just melted away, and our stoke was at an all-time high. The morning we flew to the glacier I awoke in the back of my pickup truck at 7am camped out along the beach with overcast skies and Zach hollering, “We need to get to the hanger now!” Though that shouldn’t have been all too alarming, I decided the night before to go to the Fog Cutter tavern while Zach finished packing and treat myself to a couple drinks as it could be a while before we’d touch dry ground. I first met Zach a few years back through mutual friends in Utah and quickly became inspired by his photography and lust for adventure. We’d been mostly unsuccessful on catching conditions right for the past few seasons, but I figured I’d put all my eggs in a basket, again. So as the clouds broke the next morning and we set out to the Davidson Glacier I was in awe. It was the first true clear day since I arrived in Haines almost three weeks ago and below my feet was four feet of perfectly fresh new snow. It was go time! I quickly shook the small hangover as we roped up and ventured into our new backyard- White Fang.
Snow pit results showed new storm snow moving as predicted so we kept our acceptable risk low the first couple days. It was the sexiest, lightest snow I had ever touched… Plumes would roost into the air with each turn and I felt as though we were finally being rewarded for all the hard work of the past. A lot of energy goes into glacier camping. Camp set-up, snow melting, tent maintenance, eating healthy and the energy required to safely get out and back from our objectives. Cold mornings made quick starts a challenge, however on the third morning with snow stabilized and our confidence high, we were moving by headlamps to a spine wall that had initially drawn us to the zone in the first place. At 8:30 a.m. I began verting up the wall with each step gradually feeling steeper than the last. By 10 a.m. the entire spine was in the light with all its glory as I radioed to Zach with a tone of mixed tone that I was ready- Nervousness, anxiousness, curiosity, and excitement all flooded through my veins…
Back at camp we celebrated with giant breakfast burritos fit for a glacier king as we heard a plane buzz overhead... Drake! And Aspen! Zach and I weren’t sure if he was going to make it to the glacier in time, but sure enough after a few days of camping in airports waiting on standbys, Drake flew Aspen to the glacier as soon as he touched down in Haines. After last year on a trip to the Aleutians, I knew Aspen would be a great member to the team with all his energy, attitude and thirst for life. At 21, he is on the path to making this type of snowboarding a huge part of his life. And thus, we were now a team of three and spent the evening party boarding above camp in alpenglow light. Checking off most of the camp lines, we decided to venture a little further and the next morning we were off to Sexy Spines- a famous heli area known for having exactly what its name implies. We crossed glacier and eventually stood atop the col next to Sexy Spines, wide eyed at the dreaminess of the face. However, we still had a few hours before the spines received any light and behind us brewed an onshore storm with skies ominously darkening. We retreated to camp just in time as visibility was cut to just a few feet. Our sweet high pressure was gone.
Five days went by wandering no more than 20 feet from camp. We found ourselves mostly bound to a 3-person tent playing card games, reading, snacking and listening to music to pass the time. Snowfall was minimal with only a few feet of wetter snow, so shoveling out the cook tent and sleep tent was easy. Whiskey always disappears quicker than anticipated, but our spirits remained high through the storm. The 9th day looked promising for a potential flight back home and Drake sounded confident on the satellite phone about a pick up. He also asked if it was okay to drop off a group of Japanese who were unsure where to go and trying to make a film. We figured why not as we were leaving anyways. After hitting a natural jump all morning and watching Drake shuttle the Japanese in, we hustled back to camp to catch a flight home. The day had warmed a bit, and as soon as Drake landed we could tell he wasn’t happy at all about being there. As the warm sunny day passed the surface of the already wetter snow and oncoming winds made for a dangerous take-off, especially when loaded with gear, which was exactly our predicament to get all three of us out. On one of the shuttle drops earlier in the day, Drake took one of our bags back to the hanger, Zach’s. Therefore it was Zach who boarded the Cessna as Aspen and I watched the Drake take off take off down glacier.
As Aspen and I sat on our gear we wondered if Drake would return… he said he might, but there was no telling. The take off looked challenging and if he did come back, he’d only be able to grab one of us with the fading light. An hour later I spoke to Drake on the satellite phone and his humor had returned. He mentioned the classic look on my face when I realized I’d no longer be on dry ground and full of a tavern’s burger that evening. I didn’t think it was quite as funny, but this was mountaineering and sometimes you don’t get to go eat burgers in warmth. Aspen and I set up our tent again and settled into another night on the glacier. The next day we saw our Japanese neighbors building a pump track for a Yukita Pow Surf- a small snowboard without bindings. After building a track to bowl we played on the pow surf for hours and quickly made new friends. After retreating to our tent for the evening, one came by and dropped off some whiskey. We couldn’t understand each other very well due to a language barrier but we bonded through our love for snow and the mountains. Aspen and I then proceeded to get spiritual and righteous about why we believe we’re out here while simultaneously curious and happy to have gotten wherever “here” was. I guess whiskey can do that to a person tent bound far out on some glacier.
On the 11th day I looked outside at 6am to clear skies overhead. The night had been cold and sucked moisture out of the snow, making a ski plane flight more probable. Again we packed up camp and soon saw Drake flying over the mountains toward us with a huge sense of satisfaction. I had just spent 11 days with some great mountain partners; safely riding some of the best snow I’ve ever had the privilege to ride. Storms were mellow, we kept full bellies and didn’t freeze. Life was good. The flight back to town was glorious as Drake followed the contours of the peaks, valleys and ridges with precision- Feeling the wind below and as if becoming one with the Cessna. Formula racecar driver, remember? Needless to say, once back in town and fresh from showers, we all ordered pizza and beer. Indeed it was a good trip, but by no means was I done with Alaska yet. After some supply restocking we’re ready to get back out. However, little did we know it’d be another three weeks of weather hold before we’d touch snow again on a glacier camp…