Weather or not
lessons learned from a last minute trip to North America’s big mountain mecca.
Words by Anna Segal
Photos by Colin Wiseman
For even the most conscientious planner, preparing for an outdoor adventure is a dubious task. Yet this process is seen by many outdoor enthusiasts to be of utmost necessity. While the idea of ‘adventure’ is defined as the risky undertaking of unknown outcomes, most of us hope that our planning efforts will take some of these unknowns out of the picture. However, I propose that as modern day adventurers, we should dial down the planning and hold a little more space for the unexpected. In a recent, last minute trip to Alaska, I discovered why this approach often results in the most fulfilling experiences.
I am usually a meticulous planner. My life revolves around skiing, which involves numerous uncontrollable variables. In order to counter this, I have spent years refining my planning skills to give me more stability and predictability. I always marveled at the ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ mentality, not understanding why people would put themselves through the potential stress and hardships it can create. That is, until I tried it for myself.
It was late February, I was wading through the wet slushy trails, walking my dog alongside my friend and next door neighbor, who, similar to me, revolves her life around snowboarding. She was relaying her worries about a forthcoming trip to Alaska that she had planned a year ago, but was all but falling apart due to other athletes dropping out. As I listened to her, I simultaneously began imagining myself skiing impressive Alaskan spines, wishing that I had also planned a trip to this big mountain mecca. Suddenly, I was snapped back to reality, when out of nowhere she asked me if I might want to join her.
The departure date was just four days away. Accommodation and transport were sorted and my friend had a couple of contacts living in the local ski town of Girdwood to show us around. I would just need to book a flight and meet them at the airport. But, FOUR DAYS! In my mind this was not nearly enough time to investigate, organize, and strategize. That evening my mind was spinning. I had dreams of potential glory, interspersed with negatively charged ‘what-ifs’. I believed the most encouraging factor I had on my side was the short range weather forecast - the trickiest thing to mitigate with outdoor adventure, especially in Alaska. While Girdwood’s coastal location generally results in a deeper, more consistent snowpack than interior ski destinations, it can also be hit by intense storms, and fickle weather patterns. Being privy to the forecast only four days out seemed like a luxury. With this advantage on my side, I made up my mind and booked a flight.
Four days later I was on my way to the land of grizzly bears, the northern lights, and the epicenter of spine skiing! The forecast for the week was bluebird, and I couldn’t wait to get into the mountains to take maximum advantage of the rare Alaskan winter sunshine. At the airport I met my neighbor and snowboarder, Marie France-Roy, filmer Matt Bruhns and photographer Colin Wiseman. After navigating the massive US grocery store, stopping at multiple stunning lookouts along the Seward Highway, then finally finding our cute log cabin in Girdwood, it was well into the night. While we were ready to have a short night’s sleep in order to get going early the next day, our local guide assured us that meeting at 10am was considered an alpine start in Girdwood. This bemused us a little at the time, but we weren’t going to turn down a few extra hours of rest.
The next morning we met our trusty local guide, Colin, at the gas station. Colin isn’t a guide per se, but a ripping skier and freeride coach at the nearby resort, Alyeska. When approaching a new ski area, there’s nothing better than having a local to show you around. Our plan was to head to Turnagain Arm, a waterway off the Cook Inlet that feeds into the Gulf of Alaska. The Seward Highway runs from along the North side of the arm, splitting the waterway from Chugach State Park, home to colossal mountains that most backcountry skiers would only dream of. This zone boasts valley after valley of world class skiing. It was a matter of choosing one spot, pulling into a nearby car park and setting out along the valley floor to choose a line.
Our eyes were bulging. From afar the south facing spine lines seemed to present endless opportunities. We quickly geared up and made our way into the mountains. By this point it was 11:15am. While we wanted to use our first day to get the lay of the land, we also noticed the heat was affecting the snow. While sunny conditions were a must for this type of alpine terrain, it seemed that the ambient temperatures were not in our favor. The snow on the stunning spines we had seen from afar was starting to rollerball. We chose one piece of smaller looking terrain to test, but our fears were correct. The snow was quickly transforming into schmoo (not a technical term), which not only makes for tricky skiing conditions, but also leads to instability and increased avalanche risk.
We quickly pivoted our plan and set our sites on the north facing terrain. While this was not as featured or interesting, it would at least be shaded and holding colder snow. What we had failed to realize in our frothy frenzy was that the north facing slopes had been hit by northerly winds. This was something we had failed to investigate before leaving! Colin explained to us that the arctic outflow winds had hit most of Alaska about a week ago and that while south facing slopes had been spared, north facing terrain was in heinous condition. I could feel the jaws of our team simultaneously slacken. Realization set it that the all time conditions we had expected were extremely unlikely. Yet, this pause in good cheer only lasted a minute. One look around at the spectacular landscape that surrounded us snapped us back to reality. We were in Alaska, immersed in beauty, sunshine, and alongside friends. Adventure awaited.
This is when our problem solving and prior skill sets kicked in. North and south facing slopes were out, but how about the west?! Further down the valley we spotted the perfect objective - a pyramid shaped peak with an open west face that featured eye-catching afternoon light and smooth, unaffected snow. A fast paced hike, and 20 massive pow turns later, Marie and I were elated and hungry for more.
The next three days we continued to problem solve, but in the best kind of way. It forced us to explore, stay positive in times of doubt, and use our full bag of tools. We lined up a day of snowmobiling with more local shredders, boot packed up couloirs, got lost in old growth forests, fell in creeks, worked on our tans, followed mapping apps up and down the highway to scout potential lines, and spent ample time at the local watering holes sharing stories and collecting beta.
In my mind, problem solving is what ‘adventure’ is all about. The definition of adventure is not knowing the outcome, and that’s what makes it exciting. It also creates the perfect growth and learning environment. While I’m not saying don’t plan at all (this is of course unsafe in most mountain environments), I am challenging you to let go of the cost-benefit analysis for your next potential trip. Ditch the rational evaluation mindset and just dive in! You may be surprised how fulfilling it is to rely on your intuition and personal skill set. And remember, a successful adventure isn’t about achieving the objective, but rather, enjoying the ride!