“If you want an intense, life-transforming experience, walk in from the coast of Cape Fairweather or Lituya Bay up Desolation Valley and the Fairweather Glacier.”-Alaska: A Climbing Guide, Wood and Coombs
Or… if you want to ski the mountains as cheaply as possible, walk 100 miles from Yakutat, then ski and raft 100 miles out to Haines. 200 miles, blue skies, steaks on summit day… with Graham Kraft, Lindsay Johnson, Marcus Waring, and Danny Powers.
In mid-winter Graham Kraft invited me to fly to Mt. Fairweather and then ski out to Haines. I wasn’t very interested, partly because of the likelihood for bad weather, partly because I was still recovering from the Logan Traverse, but mostly because it would seem strange to fly to a mountain 15 miles from the coast and not spend any time on the beach.
Then the semester ended, I got restless, and Graham left a message proposing we start in Yakutat and hike 100 miles to the mountain, mostly on the beach. Graham’s girlfriend Lindsay could join for the beach walk, and his high school friend, Marcus Waring, could join for the ski. Marcus and Graham wanted to spend a month at the basecamp, more time than I could give, so I needed to find someone that could exit early with me.
I got Graham’s message on a Tuesday, thought, “Who do I know that can take a month off work and is comfortable enough on skis to navigate the nasty ice falls?” By Friday I had Danny Powers committed. I love Alaska. I knew Danny from the Wilderness Classics and figured he’d have the right mindset for a trip that would likely be wet and cold.
We paid $2.50 to fly to Yakutat with frequent flier miles. Fred, the guy that drove us to the end of the road last year, met us in a ‘new’ van/cat den and gave us a lift to the beach. We spent an incredible week walking 75 miles of sand under clear skies. It could not have been more different from last year’s approach to Mt. Logan, where Graham was literally wringing water from his sleeping bag the night before we got on the glacier.
Each day we watched Fairweather grow larger. We saw whales, seals, sea lions, and dead sharks. We beach-combed and found a dozen Japanese glass balls. A few nights we waited uncomfortably for the nearest bears to settle in elsewhere. Hands where held. Danny walked barefoot.
A highlight of the beach walk was paddling the iceberg-choked lake below Grand Plateau Glacier. The sandy beach turns into huge boulders (rounded moraine rocks) with an impassible drainage outlet. To get around the outlet we hiked through the lush green forest to the lake, paddled between icebergs, and cut back through the forest on the other side of the channel.
At the end of the beach walk Marcus flew in (he conveniently had a break-up in time to join for the hike from the beach) with our mountain gear and extra food. Lindsay flew out to start work on a fishing boat. In addition to bringing the most technical experience and awesome laid-back attitude, Marcus brought a case of beer because he thought he was arriving at 9 PM, not 9 AM. Danny didn’t complain.
Based on Caroline, Pat, and Bougie’s reports we knew to access the Grand Plateau glacier as high as possible to avoid crevasses. We moved slowly through the brush with our full packs (80 lbs?), seven miles in two days. Crossing the toe of Sea Otter Glacier was the crux. It was one of the most bizarre landscapes I’ve seen, the moraine has a mature forest on it; crevasses in the middle of a rain forest.
When we hit the Grand Plateau glacier (at 3000 ft.) we were greeted with smooth snow, no visible cracks, just a wolverine track. We used our packrafts as sleds and cruised through the Grand Plateau ice fall to base camp at 9,800 ft. Graham had arranged for a food drop at the base camp; we ate like kings: pizza from scratch, ham, steak, ribs, two growlers of beer compliments of Beth from the Haines Brewing Company. Graham and Marcus didn’t have pee bottles, so they debated sharing an empty growler.
We had two days in thin cloudcover before a crisp clear sky for summit day. We left camp around 5 AM and had an uneventful climb to the summit (15,325 ft.). The greatest hazard was the possibility of ice fall and avalanche debris at 11,000 ft. We weren’t travelling under the ice fall, but twice during the day we saw powder clouds that reached our up-track.
A cloud bank hung at ~6000 ft, creating a vista with stunning islands in a sea of clouds (here is a nice pilot’s view). Graham pointed out that collectively we’d skied the big peaks we could see to the north: Marcus on St. Elias, Graham and I on Logan, Graham and Marcus on Hubbard.
After a comfortable snack on the summit we stripped our skins for to ski the descent. We discovered that one of Danny’s Dynafit heel pieces was broken, so he had to downclimb. Danny maintained his incredibly positive attitude, the same attitude that allowed him to shrug off losing his water bottle, axe, shovel, sleeping bag, and a mitt during the trip. In case anyone else is planning on using an ultralight pack for an expedition… don’t.
(Danny… don’t read this part…) The ski descent was awesome! The snow wasn’t great, mostly soft sastrugi, but it was still awesome, and exceptional considering the elevation, exposure, and weather.
We spent a few more days at high camp waiting out thin clouds before Danny and I started the ~100 mile exit. We made a few mistakes… due in part to the fact that I only brought pages of the gazetteer as maps. The first mistkake was trying for a shortcut over the ~1000 ft. Watson Col. Graham and Marcus joined to help scout it out. The col was steep and icy. The backside had a massive cornice and no obvious exit ramps, so we retraced our steps. I hoped to ski down the col but didn’t trust my skis on the steep, crusted snow. I decided to switch to crampons midslope. The wind was howling and pulses of slough accompanied each gust. I had to wrestle my ~70 lb pack onto the slope to get my skis onto the pack. In the process a shoulder strap broke. Then the toe bail on my aluminum CAMP crampons broke. Ugh. I managed to get a few ski straps around the toe piece and gingerly worked my way down the slope using the other guys’ toe imprints. I had to force myself to move slowly even though I knew the guys would be getting cold waiting at the bottom. Marcus climbed back up to lend a proper ice tool. This was the only crappy part of the trip. The brush on Sea Otter Moraine was bad, but I’m good at that kind of bad.
The rest of our exit was uneventful. It was really cool to see how much Danny’s rope skills and route finding had improved during the trip. He came in with the least experience, but that meant he got to learn the most. He led nearly all of the exit and we had no crevasse falls.
Exiting the Tsirku Glacier was a treat. We had the sun directly behind, casting long shadows down a ridge on the toe of the glacier. The ridge was sloped just enough that we could glide toward the moraine and weave between boulders as they became more abundant. We exited the moraine right where Josh Mumm and I had exited in March, and it was really cool to compare the winter and summer landscapes.
The Tsirku river was straightforward. The start was boiling with big boulders, but quickly mellowed into braided channels. The rapids in front of Le Blondeau Glacier were easily skirted. We pulled over at the village of Klukwan so Danny could check the Ferry schedule; he was anxious to get home. A fisherman saw us, admired our loaded packrafts and gave us some delicious dryfish.
We pulled off the Chilkat river at a boat dock and caught a ride to town with some rafting guides. They knew Graham and Lindsay and were excited about our trip. They brought us to “Meat Night,” a weekly barbecue. We met a ton of cool folks. They suggested that I take off my ski boots, but I thought that was a really bad idea. We smelled bad.
Danny flew out the next morning, I stayed a few nights at Graham and Lindsay’s treehouse waiting for Sarah Heck and Kellie Okonek to drive from Anchorage for a bike race. I bought shoes, pants (too big), shirt and hoody (too small) all for $10 from the thrift store. I even bought underwear. I’ve never considered used underwear, but I was convinced that it was better than what I had on. Someone pointed out this Flight of the Concords lyric to me: You know you’re not in high finance, Considering getting second hand underpants. I took a 4$ shower and worked through three razors to shave. I had forgotten to buy socks, so I relieved some lovely striped ladies socks from the lost and found bin at the laundromat. I was nervous that someone in town would recognize the socks. I think a lot of the folks from the barbecue didn’t recognize me when I waved to them the following days. I should rob banks.