Mountains, massive piles of rock and earth shaped by glaciers, erosion, and weather; can conjure feelings of awe, enlightenment and fear in people. For millions of years weather systems have shed soft crystals of snow on these massive peaks, and now we stand as mere specs in the history of these giants, aloft on their high ridgelines. As we descend a sensation secretes from our brains pulsing throughout our bodies as adrenaline, sculpting our passion to return to the top of these towering peaks over and over again.
Pursuing their love for the mountains, Jason Shutz, Bill Buchbauer, Annie Fast, Chris Ankeny and Tom Routh headed for southeast Alaska in late April– Haines, Alaska to be exact. Haines has been moderately popular among the ski and snowboard film crews for years, but still contains plenty of pristine wilderness only attainable by glacier plane and split board. The posse, made up of Montanans, headed to Haines for an affordable backcountry trip aboard Cessna ski planes. They were armed with split boards, mountaineering gear, and winter camping equipment. During the first two weeks of April the group bagged a lot of great sunny days up on the glaciers, split boarding new lines and eying up lines for next year.
After a full day of Air Travel from Montana I arrived in Haines, Alaska aboard a single engine Cessna. Haines is positioned at the North end of Alaska’s Inside Passage and at the Northern end of America’s longest Fjord. The town shares its border with 20 million acres of protected wilderness: Glacier Bay National Park is 25 miles by air, and Canada’s Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park are just up the road. A Bald Eagle Preserve is also just outside of Haines giving the area an amazing collection of dramatic scenery and plethora of wildlife.
Day Two of my trip was like 99% of Alaska days: it rained. The Montana posse that I came to hook up with spent the day recuperating from a 4-day backcountry camping /split-boarding trip. I sat and listened to spook stories about new uncharted areas with sketchy snow pack, hairball plane flights onto glaciers, and all the great runs in between. Make no mistake; no matter where you ride at home, Alaska is bigger. Everything in AK is big: the mountains, the fish, the wildlife, the trees, everything is just so damn gigantic. The air was getting cold and it was snowing on the peaks; our conversations turned to the next mission once the sun broke again and the stoke began to build among us.
The rain continued for the next eight days with little sign of the sun. Chris, Annie, and Tom went home leaving Jason, Bill, and I to wait for the sun. Pool, darts, scrabble, ping-pong, eating, reading, beer, coffee, beer, coffee, fishing, hiking, and hacky sack became the motion of the days. Cabin fever can invoke some strangeness in people and after eight days of rain and no riding; the walls were closing in – I can’t take it, I can’t take it. Freaking out and pounding your head on the wall is no way to deal with it, sowe ran around in the rain for a few hours. But that was a bad idea. We ate again even through we’d eaten an hour ago, and two hours before that. We were beginning to lose our minds and we only had two days left; The northern lights are out that evening and it was clear – would it be clear in the morning? That was the question.
We talked about just taking some heli runs if the sun did shine because your chances of getting to fly in the heli in moderate light is better than it is in the ski planes. The ski plane pilots need very clear days in order to see the ever-changing landscape that they are landing on, where with a helicopter you don’t need a runway to take off and land. Besides after you land in a plane you usually still have to hike up to the top of your line. The drawback was that there was only one helicopter operating in town and there were six groups wanting to go out. We hoped that the Men’s Journal Adventure Team which was there with a group of ski racers and ski legends would go for their main objective – a peak on the coast; which would mean a lot less of a cluster getting onto the heli.
With the original plan for some glacier plane trips into Glacier Bay National Park for split boarding and a winter camp squashed by the weather, and the chance to heli jaded by the adventure boy team, the drinking waged on and on. The locals say that you can drink it blue.
Well, after nine days of drinking, the sun finally shone, and we headed to the heli at 33 mile for day ten, the last day in Haines. Being on the not so special list, we finally got out at around 4:00pm for two runs with our ultra-cool guide Jim: the first was on “Deflowered” and the second on “Hangover Helper” – short runs in Alaska standards, but pretty damn big anywhere else. The snow was blower, lots of new snow from the eight days of precipitation and just enough cold air to keep it light and fluffy late in the day. All of a sudden it was 7pm and we had to haul ass to catch the ferry. Cramming all of our stuff, the three of us, and Jason’s dog Chewe into the helicopter pilot’s 1970’s Subaru was a bold task, but we got it done; and off to Juneau we went to catch the plane home.
After nine down days I was leaving Alaska 1 for 10. Two long powder runs in the bag made for a relaxing ride to Juneau on the ferry, and many daydreams longing for more on the plane ride home.
Alaska is a land of adventure. You don’t have to be loaded to ride high powdery peaks in Alaska; you just have to have solid backcountry knowledge, glacial travel experience, and knowledge of the local mountains. Three people can catch a ride on a glacier plane (Drake Olson / Earth Center Adventures ( 907- 723-9475) at one time and depending how far you go into the mountains, you can expect to pay about $300 each for the roundtrip in and out. Once you’re there you can explore via split board for the day or camp out for as long as you like; just remember tent fever comes on a lot quicker than cabin fever!