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The Pilgrimage to Alaska | UNITED STATES, ALASKA | 02/26/2009, by BrennanLagasse
What you want to hear about is backcountry skiing in Alaska. Last March, Jillian and I got smart and boarded a plane for Anchorage. A mere 8 hours later, we had arrived to our friend Maureen's house in Girdwood.
Although we had some ideas of where we wanted to ski, our plan was to just surrender to the phlow. Girdwood is a great place to set up base camp if you're skiing the interior of Alaska as the Chugach are home to the widest, deepest mountain range in all the state.
Our first morning we bounced down a local road, spilling coffee as we went, and arrived at roads end and the Crow Creek Glacier. Although we had to deal with a few crazy snow machiners, we soon figured out they couldn't climb as steep as we could and all was good. Crow Creek Glacier has some great mellow terrain to yo-yo, and you can log a good amount of vert if you're motivated.
The next few days were stormy, but luckily a lifty we had met at Crow Creek helped us get on the hill for free. We spent the next few days getting to know the inbounds side of Alaska, and well, it was pretty damn good. Super dense trees covered in ooznia surround the lower flanks of Alyeska, while alpine magic awaits higher up. Two beautiful couloirs exist that drop right off the top of the highest lift, and Alyeska's tram offers 2,000 ft of a consistent fall line. Needless to say, when the storms broke and we got a better look at what was around us we turned into complete gapers. The northern light show that night was pretty amazing too, which only amplified our gaper status.
After using a lift for a few days we wanted to get out for a long tour, but some info from a kind local inspired us to switch gears and put off our plans to hit Turnagin Pass for another day. Apparently there was a hut at the top of a ridge where Chugach Powder Guides runs their cat-skiing operation. "Sounds Sick" was the general consensus and Maureen, Jillian, Forest the dog, and I were packed and off.
The trail starts right around the base of Aleyeska and is a pretty mellow skin. Actually, it wasn't too mellow for Forest at first. Our brilliant idea that he could carry a load and "maybe even his mommy's snowboard too" was perhaps not so brilliant.
After a few minutes of hysterical laughter and then feeling really bad, we unloaded the pup, regrouped and headed into the hut for some of the deepest turns I've ever made. Even though the cat ran the next day, we just skied away from them, no one bothered us, and when the clients went home that night, we slept in the hut knowing we'd get freshies in the morning.
After a couple more days we finally made it to one of the three spots I had researched before our trip. About 20-30 minutes south from Girdwood lies Turnagin Pass, a major backcountry hit for Anchorage-Girdwood locals. Although it's not fluted, super steep, or riddled with spines, it offers breathtaking views of such terrain and holds a lot of powder.
They have a really interesting way of regulating snow machines and backcountry travelers up there. Once you come to the pass you'll see high marks as far as the eye can see on the right. On the left side of the road is where you'll want to ski because there's no sign of any snow machine activity. You see, the pass is split between the two mediums so you don't ski the right side of the pass and snow machiners don't track up the left. And guess what?-- it works.
We parked at the pass and headed up 2600' vertical feet for instant backcountry gratification yielding heli-quality turns. All this for the price of a good walk. Turnagin was definitely worth the wait.
Quickly our trip was coming to an end and we still had two more spots to get to. The first was Hatcher's Pass, which was on the way to our dream spot, Valdez. The section of the Talkeetna range near Hatcher's is incredibly different from that of the Chugach. It's much colder with an intercontinental snowpack and drier snow. The backcountry skiing can be great and all you have to do is drive to the end of Hatch Creek road right outside of Palmer and hike whatever you want.
In addition to unlimited touring potential there's also a cat skiing operation. The ski god's must have understood that Jillian and I were on a budget because our friend Maureen was dating a guide and we got the cat hook up. Even without the "friend who dates the guide" situation, it's affordable compared to what you'll pay in Girdwood or Valdez so I'd put it on the top of the list if you want to ski 20,000+ vertical feet of dry Alaskan powder and "rest" your legs for more hiking later.
Exhausted but more stoked than ever, we finally made it to Valdez. It was even more beautiful than in the movies! And you can enjoy even if you don't have 10 grand/day to throw down, Valdez has plenty to offer anyone who loves powder.
The most important thing you need to know for Valdez is all of the heli ops run from Thompson's Pass. Even though there might be helis flying over you while you're skinning, if you choose to hike off Thompson's Pass you can ski anything you want. This is an important distinction to make. Just because someone drops cash on a heli trip doesn't mean they get to ski any rad lines. They may even have to cross tracks while descending.
That being said, there's nothing holding you back from hiking whatever you see off the pass and riding back down in infinite bliss. The trick in Valdez is to have flexibility, and having the freedom to choose where you go and what you'll ski is why a trip to Valdez or anywhere in AK is ultimately priceless. Check back tomorrow for part II of Alaska in the Skiing the Backcountry travel series.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:
Ski Travel Part I: Rocky Mountain Road Trip
Ski Travel Part II: The Pacific Northwest