Searching for Powder in Alaska
Skiing in Alaska is many a skier's dream. I've been fortunate to make the pilgrimage three times in my life, most recently a couple weeks ago. I decided to head north from Tahoe after the driest January and February on record. Not that we don't have any snow, we're just skiing the same snow we've been skiing since Christmas. There was plenty of fun to be had, but I was in the mood to experience cold snow, cold air, and the big mountains of AK.
Fortunately, my girlfriend is working as heli-guide near Thompson Pass, so I had a free place to stay. I booked my ticket and anxiously counted down the days until I could lay some tracks in POW! I arrived in Alaska with the weather forecast looking clear and cold for the first week of my stay. I rented a car and motored on to Thompson Pass, excited to see my girl and to ski some steep, cold snow, well on my way to the least expensive Alaska trip of my life.
The three days prior to my arrival, high winds ravaged the powder-laden slopes of the Chugach. The majority of the roadside touring objectives off the pass were wind hammered, and the skiing was mostly variable wind affected cold snow. I was determined to get after it, so I decided to explore a few zones that I'd wanted to check out for years, and just be happy to not be skiing the same old snow and lines at home.
I toured up a zone called Crudbusters, one of the more popular touring spots on the pass, right around mile 40 of the Richardson Highway. The 3,500-foot climb breezed by as I gaped at endless glaciers, ski lines, and scenic beauty that you don't find anywhere else. Eventually, I found myself at a heli-drop, looking down a steep 2,500-foot north-facing zone. One of the heli operators on the pass has sessioned the area, but fortunately, most of those skiers skied immediately on top of each others tracks down the easiest lines on the face. I was also stoked to find that the snow in this zone was almost all powder, with little to no wind affect at all. I picked my way through some rocks and into one of the better runs that I've ever taken off Thompson Pass.
The following day, the wind came up again, and my girlfriend didn't have any clients for the coming week. We decided to hit the road and try to find some less wind affected snow at Turnagin Pass, where it was rumored the wind hadn't blown as hard. We booked a ferry ticket from Valdez to Whittier, and drove down to catch a ride on the Alaska Marine Highway. On an extremely cold and windy day, riding the ferry through Prince William Sound was the perfect way to take in the view and make our way over to Girdwood. The snow capped peaks, icebergs, porpoises, and eagles were all the entertainment we needed for the five-hour cruise.
We arrived in Girdwood and settled into our bed and breakfast right at the base of Alyeska. Girdwood is not only the home of Alyeska resort, but it is probably the coolest town within a five-hour drive of Anchorage. Turnagin Pass is only a 30 mile drive from town, and is home to some of the best roadside ski touring that I've ever experienced. I've scratched the surface of Turnagin Pass a couple of times in the past, and every time I go I'm reminded how much more there is to ski. We toured a couple days up on Sunburst and Magnum, finding good cold snow on all aspects. The long daylight of mid-March allowed us to take our time, getting on the skin track at 11 am or later, taking our time and loving the non-wind affected snow. It wasn't deep, but it was glorious, and I happily busted out a couple laps a day on the long steep north facing shots.
We spent a windy day at Alyeska, checked out the classic steeps of the Christmas Chute and north face. We enjoyed dinner at the world famous Double Musky restaurant. I'm not entirely sure why there is a creole restaurant in Girdwood, AK, but there is, the food is great, and if you're ever there you must check it out.
After several days of living it up on Turnagin Pass we decided to head back towards Thompson, by way of Hatcher Pass. Just an hour on the other side of Anchorage from Girdwood, Hatcher Pass is close to the towns of Palmer and Wasilla. An historic mine is now part of a state park, and the road is cleared year round, giving skiers easy access to another backcountry touring mecca. Hatcher Pass is a little further from the ocean, and therefore generally gets less snow, and there we found the dreaded wind affect, again. We went for a short tour on one of the peaks near the top of the pass and took in another panoramic view of endless ski lines in a sea of mountains. We didn't have the best conditions, but I added a thousand lines to my list of things I'd like to ski.
As we drove back into Thompson Pass a storm was bearing down, a much-needed storm bringing fresh pow to cover the wind affect. The unfortunate thing about being Alaska when it's snowing is that you basically can't go skiing. The general lack of trees on skiable terrain allows for little to no visibility and can be quite a dizzying experience. I sat out a couple of stormy days before heading back to Anchorage, grudgingly flying home, but hey, someone's got to feed the cat...
In my ten days in AK I learned that you don't have to go broke to have the trip of your life in AK, as long as you don't mind a little hiking... The ski touring off Thompson, Turnagin, and Hatcher Passes is only limited by your fitness and hours of daylight. The terrain is all-time, and as gnarly or mellow as you're looking for. I like riding in helicopters as much as anybody, but I sure can't afford it... You can find yourself atop heli-terrain, in some cases heli-drops, just a few hours from your car, and my trip cost only about $1,000 for ten days including my flights...
–Jeremy Benson (Outdoor Ambassador).