Trip Report: Cleave Creek Glacier
Trip Report: Cleave Creek Glacier
A casual 2,500 mile drive North from Portland I arrived in Valdez with an exponentially increasing pain in my side. I went from full stoke and excitement to a baby-like fetal position within just a few minutes. Something was wasn’t right. My roommate who’d drove up to Alaska with me and was now taking me to the ER. Initially, I thought it was my appendix trying to burst into a million little pieces though I was diagnosed otherwise- kidney stones. I’ve heard horror stories before, but this wasn’t something I ever expected happening to me. I live healthy, drink plenty of fluids, and remain active. Ugh, how and why this happened was strange.
The next couple days I rested and then all of a sudden it happened- I passed the stone. I didn’t feel much but excitement, curiosity, and a little euphoria. Then, in another instance, I was told the next day my crew and I would be flying out for our first glacier camp of the season. The news was a little sudden but I was also slightly relieved that my health was on the ups so I scrambled to get gear in order. But first I needed a little Alaskan roadside warm-up on a tasty little run. My true Alaska time starts now, and this would be my 5th year in a row of spending a few months exploring and snowboarding by means that aren’t generally the norm. I love it up North and couldn’t wait to see what the season would have in store!
I heard a Super Cub buzz overhead and soon our pilot was landing his plane equipped with skis on the snow covered gravel bar behind a small little neighborhood just outside Thompson Pass. This was all very exciting. The little neighborhood is a small community of friends who are all snowboarders, skiers, and snowmobilers. They are the bread and butter of Thompson Pass and even some of the dogs in the neighborhood have bagged more peaks in the area than my last 5 years combined. The neighborhood isn’t big and cabins are all modest, but the views are spectacular. There’re only outhouses and water must be hiked in, however this year they stepped forward into the future a little as landlines and Internet access are now available. Within the 46-Mile community, four of our friends hopped on the trip with us and were excited to see their backyard from a new perspective.
We took off and headed up the Cleave Glacier behind Mt. Billy Mitchell, a prominent peak in the area. A recent storm had given the mountains a fresh coat of white and we were hoping to catch some projected high pressure, sunshine, and cold temperatures. As we touched down on the glacier I stared off at Pyramid, our primary objective that was just coming into the light. A famous face with plenty of history in the Alaska heli world. However, we wanted to be the first to ever access it on foot without having our hands held by guides and a heli to drop us off on top. It lends to a more magical experience when camped out on the glacier with friends, learning the area and hopefully able to ride a stellar line or two in the process.
The first nights temps dropped to about -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite wearing all the layers I’d brought, I was still cold. I might’ve packed a little light but the idea was that after the camp we would walk/splitboard about 15 miles back over some passes and out to the road. Bringing extra luxuries wasn’t exactly on my radar. The day out we went to a little wall filled with classic style Alaskan spines next to our main objective. We waited till late in the day to score pink pow- an elusive state when the light is low over the horizon and the snow turns into a beautiful pink. I dropped in and made a slope cut over onto the spine bulge and after hammering a toeside turn; I immediately popped out a little soft slab avalanche. I jetted right into an island of safety while the snow flushed out to the bottom and reminded us we’re on our own out here. We got back to camp just as it was getting dark and warmed up with some whiskey.
The following day we walked towards Pyramid. Travel was easy until we got to the bergschrund, which is where the glacier meets the mountain and usually has a crevasse-like feature where they separate. We’d tried to find a crossing but kept getting turned around until eventually finding a passageway. Another reason why getting dropped off by a heli on top versus walking from the bottom is exponentially easier. But we were here to attempt building character and test some skills. Once above the schrund we started having doubts. A little storm snow on the surface felt suspect and I dug a quick snow pit. Results showed an immediate clean shear about a foot down and the three of us on the lower quarter of the face all decided to pull the plug and give it a day or two of rest before attempting again. Alaska maritime snow can heal itself remarkably fast and because we were camping we weren’t in any rush.
However the next day was met with disenchantment as two Red Bull helicopters buzzed overhead with a film crew, Valdez Heli Ski guide Kirsten Kremer, and Hollywood snowboarder, Travis Rice on board. Before we’d left for the camp, we spoke with Kremer and told her where we were going as to hopefully be on an agreement not to crowd each other’s spaces in the expansive Chugach (which we assumed would be respected.) Despite our efforts, Red Bull money ruled. As we watched one helicopter film another helicopter film Travis, he dropped into Pyramid. Immediately taking a massive air and just a couple turns down the entire face. He rode it with true style- powerful and fast. As my heart sank and we walked back to camp I couldn’t help but feel a little envious. We had the chance but backed off. I don’t doubt our decision, though I do wonder… Was the face healed? Could I have rode it in half the fashion Travis did? Would we get a refresh and a clean pallet to try it again, sans any tracks?
Nevertheless, moral was low. Winds had picked up slightly, and the temperatures still bitter cold. Clanton and I woke up at 9am, still a long ways away from when sunlight reached the camp and found the rest of group up, packed, and ready to roll. The two ladies in the group had thought they might head back a little early and accordingly their significant others felt obligated to go with them. While the night before we all spoke and figured we had enough food and thought us guys would stick around for some more boarding while the girls walked back light with gear and full of empowerment. Obviously plans can change quick and Zach and I knew we wouldn’t catch up, and wait, they had both stoves and us none! We did a quick dummy check to make sure we’d be ok to survive if left behind and caught in a storm. We helped the girls get their packs on (which I will say were incredibly light) and off they went. Zach and I hurried to pack but it took a couple hours before we were off to spend the rest of the day playing catch up.
My 70-liter pack was filled to the brim with multiple new items strapped to the outside and heavier than when I came in due to taking out a lot of the others food and fuel. I guessed it to be 75 pounds in total on my back. By the late afternoon we came to a gully and saw the other 4 above us by about a ¼ mile. They were just finishing a bootpack up a steep section, and Zach and I looked at each other knowing we just couldn’t catch up in time. After fixing boards to our backs and hiking a strenuous bootpack on a south face late in the day, we finally got up into a high pass full of lakes and blind corners. We didn’t know the terrain much outside of a topo map and light was fading fast and with clouds rolling in fast. It was obvious to us so we set up camp before getting pinned down in avalanche terrain and an oncoming storm.
Three days later the weather broke around 2pm and within an hour we were moving. Travel was easier and we were soon boarding instead of skinning. We found our narrow exit and squeezed out of Cascade Canyon into the creek below and onto Thompson Pass. After another mile of walking along the highway we were finally in Zach’s car cached in a pullout along the pass. I forget exactly what type of pizza we had down in town, but I do remember getting to my truck camper parked down by the harbor and preceded to have one of my best nights sleeps ever. But I say that often after trips like these. A couple days passed and we met up with our 46-Mile friends who came out to the glacier with us. At first I felt a little irritated at the fashion of events that occurred over the trip, but it quickly faded as we howled into the sky at a dancing northern lights show. Life is too good to get bummed out on trivial things. Besides, Valdez was about to get a big storm, and that means pow boarding and more good times to come!