When it comes to riding big mountains on her splitboard, Jackson, Wyoming resident Rachel Reich knows what to look for.
It starts with watching the clouds burn off and the day turn from overcast to bluebird. Then comes “stripping off your skins, clipping your board together, and strapping in,” Rachel says with an infectious laugh from her home.
You drop into snow deep enough that it sluffs as you snake your way down the mountain. “It feels like you’re on a cloud,” she says.
Then come the views: vast expanses of open sky pierced with jagged peaks extending far into the distance.
You feel small, surrounded by white snow against black rock. “It’s different in the alpine,” Rachel says.
The big payoff doesn’t come without hard, albeit, fun work. This means pre-dawn trail breaking while wielding an ice axe in one hand to use for backup in case you slip.
This also means rappelling ice-choked gullies and carefully stepping around exposed rocks or ridges complete with dizzying drop offs.
Up there, there’s no waiting except to catch your breath.
For the past three years, pro backcountry splitboarder Reich has been traveling the world seeking out the best backcountry descents.
From the steeps of Norway to Alaska’s giant spines, she’s already skinned, climbed and skied many of them.
Though she loves all these experiences — from sharing saucer-sized cookies with her crew post–descent, to the days spent suffering through inclement weather — the following lines are closest to her heart.
Python East Face, Thompson Pass, Alaska
This archetypical pyramid peak leads down to a steep, v-shaped col. From here, a narrowing chute points riders to a platform ridge thousands of feet below. But it’s not over yet.
The terrain in Alaska “is humongous,” Rachel says. After the platform ridge there is another 2,000-foot drop.
This is big Alaska. Though the Python East Face is close to the road by Alaska standards, you’re nowhere near your car after skiing the line.
The sharp, classic line on Python’s East Face has been featured in Teton Gravity Research films, and most notably descended by Griffin Post, a professional skier based out of Jackson.
Snowdomen Peak, Svalbard, NorwayThink glacier riding on a massive scale, complete with open crevasses, snow bridges, seracs and scattered boulders.
Add to this 24-hour daylight, and the constant threat of polar bears.
Because this is polar bear country, at least one member of your crew needs to ski with a rifle.
Adding to the challenge, Snowdomen Peak is packed with complex terrain meaning you have to be strategic with how you choose your line of ascent and descent.
However, once on top, you get a clear view of the glacier you’ll ride that extends 3,000 feet down to the sea.
“You’re not riding blue ice,” Rachel says of skiing down the glacier. “There’s loose snow on top that you can carve through.”
What makes this place unique is the sea to summit experience. One moment you’re on the boat wrestling with the anchor to get it to hold in the muddy seabed and the next you’re on fresh snow skinning up a mountain.
During Rachel's two-week visit to the area she and her team experienced everything from corn snow, to powder to isothermic crap.
“The terrain and isolation of the area was incredible. There were even days when we skied lines that ended at the beach,” she says. “When do you get to do that?”
Central Spine, Hangover, Haines Alaska
Due to its remote location butted against beautiful Glacier Bay National Park, and surrounded by water on two sides, Haines provides the iconic Alaska experience.
Impossibly steep mountains shoot into the sky from the Chilkat River. This area is known for containing some of the best spines in the world.
Using the terrain as your personal playground, riders can make giant, sweeping turns and pop off big cliffs.
“This spine in particular you can ride like a wave,” Rachel says. “I’m cutting up on the apex and then cutting back down.”
On the upside, Hangover doesn’t have a bergschrund (a dangerous deep, narrow space between a glacier and the mountain), to navigate over — or worse, fall into.
Ellingwood Couloir, Middle Teton, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming“When I first saw the Middle Teton (in winter) in my backyard, I knew I had to ride it,” Rachel says.
The quintessential couloir with steep rock walls on either side drops 1,500 feet at 50 degrees, making for incredible sustained riding.
It’s rare to find consistent slope angles that stay constant throughout the whole run like you find on this one. During the descent the magnificent Grand Teton is right over your shoulder while you overlook the north faces of the South Teton and Cloudveil Dome.
Visitors can expect about a four-hour approach with plenty of steep boot packing that requires the use of both crampons and an ice axe.
With the hard work out the way, you are rewarded with the sound of your board hissing over soft snow, and face shots.
At least those are the conditions Rachel encountered when she skied this line. But the face can also freeze up and become an ice luge. If this is the case that means the soft hissing sound below your board will be replaced with icy chatter.
A word to the wise when riding here: Make sure your edges are sharp and keep a firm grip on your ice axe so you can arrest a fall and not slide all the way down the mountain.
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