Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Alaska Part 1: Peaks

The least we can do for all our supportive family and friends is to jot down memories from our sweet Alaska trip. It all started in the midst of our wedding planning. Among other details, it became apparent that people would be looking for some kind of wedding registry. We're not all that "consumptive", preferring to spend our own time and money on travel and adventure more than stuff around the house. The idea of piles of comforters and fancy cookpots just wasn't our cup of tea. We quickly came across the idea of registering with a travel agent- bingo! We quickly tapped into our deep reservoir of "dream trips" and pulled out the foundation of a China ski mountaineering adventure. We immediately lodged it in our wedding registry, using Annie's travel agent/friend Cori to collect "Gifts of Travel" from our loved and loving ones. We got an amazing response and are way thankful. The actual logistics of China travel have proven more time consuming than we first suspected. We have good leads, good info, hopefully good local contacts and more reasonable time line expectations. We're still aiming for China, now in spring of 2010. Along the way, we got ourselves really excited for a ski adventure, and learned that whatever we did in China would involve skiing on big glaciers. We soon decided to sate our ski desires and learn about skiing on glaciers with a trip to Alaska. Our trip delivered everything and more. Here's our story:

We bought plane tickets in mid March, weighed all our stuff in early April, then headed off to Anchorage on April 15. Between Bishop and rural Alaska, Annie's Reno family and Alaska Joe's parents in Anchorage provided vital support. The exciting part started on a slanting, snow-covered swath of real estate along south-central Alaska's Glenn Highway. Earlier in the planning process we had decided to ski in Southcentral Alaska's Chugach Range. The Chugach is known for lots of snow, big glacial wilderness and relatively low altitude peaks. We soon got in contact with Mike Meekin, a rather successful and accomplished bush pilot in that part of the state. He's one of only a few folks landing planes on high-altitude glaciers, a pretty neat guy, and was readily willing to help us distill our various ideas and goals into the trip we ended up doing. He worked with us the day of our flight, considering our goals, travel techniques and most importantly the weather.

We wanted to fly to an area of peaks known as "Turtle Flat" In a minor setback, due to weather, we ended up landing a few miles and a few thousand vertical feet short of where we wanted to go.
That first day we landed on the glacier in the early afternoon and had plenty of daylight left. We skied a few miles out and then back to our tent pitched where we had landed. While settling in for the night, mere hours after landing on the glacier, we both started hearing voices. We eventually narrowed our gaze to this unlikely looking chute and watched quite a scene take shape. Four skiers were descending this gnarly couloir, complete with ropes and sleds and yelling. They camped a ways off that night, but we got to chat with them the following morning. They were from Canada and in the middle of what would end up as 30 some days all they way across the Chugach

We had intended to basecamp right near our first choice landing strip. We couldn't reach there in the plane, so spent our second day moving camp to where we wanted to go. We could leave half our food, as our eventual exit would return past our drop-off point. We crossed a cool pass, actually moving over a divide separating three significant drainages. Throughout that second day we swapped leads with team Canada.

Here's Annie leading the way, following the tracks of those first and only folks we saw. At the risk of glossing over relevant details, let's just say that on day three we skied a peak, day four (my birthday, incidentally) skied two peaks, day five skied a peak, and the same on day six. On the seventh day we rested. Beyond that is the next chapter. None of the days out were especially long or grueling by Sierra standards. What wore us out though was the temperatures. I don't know if you know this or not, but Alaska is colder than California! We dealt, coming up with creative ways to make our Sierra clothes work in Alaska mountains.

Annie Skiing Peak #1. We had generally excellent weather. Cold, with occasional clouds and some wicked winds, but no big snowfall, nothing ever pinned us down for more than a few hours.

Peak #2, lit up in pink. High latitudes and mid spring mean killer light. Killer light at both ends of the day for hours at a time. And just a lot of light. Dawn at 4 am or so, dusk 'til well after 9. Daylight was certainly not a limiting factor in our travel schedule.

Frost coated the inside of the tent each morning. It'd take about half an hour just to deal with.

Jed Skiing Peak 3.

Annie high on Peak 4, with Peak 5 and Prince William Sound in the background.

After skiing Peak #5 in a driving wind storm, we took a day off. We had been going each day, skiing our hearts out, making the most of good weather before the inevitable shut-down. As mentioned above, the weather was never really bad in the early portions of the trip. Our rest day was no exception. We actually sat outside in the sun, down almost to t-shirts, for most of the morning. It gradually clouded up, got windy and we watched the pressure plummet. Now, we had originally intended to spend just 5 days at "Turtle Flat" and had packed accordingly. Everything else was buried in the snow back down the glacier, near where we landed on day 1. So, we were basically counting on traveling to our cache of food and fuel the day after our rest day. Not knowing what the apparent approaching storm would bring, I suggested we quickly pack up and head down during the latter half of our rest day. The weather wasn't all that bad (yet?), we had enough daylight, and we could rest easy no matter the conditions, when we reached our pile of food. However, it would have certainly have broken the comfortable relaxation of a full rest day. We decided to stay, counting on travel the following day "no matter what." What happened? We'll post up soon...