Chugach Traverse, Thompson Pass to Palmer
“Too Big To Fail”
That’s how Andy Fischer described this year’s big ski traverse. Last year we were the “Doesn’t matter to me nine.” This year we tried more people (eleven), more agendas (eleven), and justified last-minute logistics because we had easy road access at the start and finish. Andy was right, we were too big too fail. It was certain that someone could finish, even after a one-week blizzard, a broken ski, and a broken leg. We skied 150 miles through the Chugach Range, from Thompson Pass (Valdez) to Palmer.
The weather forecast called for a big snow event, but if you spend a lot of time paying attention to forecasts in Alaska, you spend a lot of time indoors. Our Winter Classic crew, Sarah Histand, Danny Powers, and Scott Peters, only had two weeks to play, so, with Eben Sargent, Andy Fischer, and me, we left Thompson Pass despite the forecast. The other half of the group stayed at a cabin at 46-mile, waiting for the storm to pass. We made it 20 miles before getting pinned for 4 days in the tents.
We traded messages with the cabin about the weather, but communication (via inReach) was difficult. The day that we decided to pull the plug and backtrack to the highway, they had decided to leave the cabin and join us, ready for adventure. They unpacked and waited for us.
I went into Valdez to potentially resupply and decide whether to try the route a second time. The southern side of the Chugach range gets big storms, the forecast suggested a long period of instability, and the group felt too big. Sarah and I considered flying to Hawaii for her second week of vacation rather than risk another storm. We watched a movie called ‘Begin Again.’ Morale was low.
I didn’t commit to round 2 until after the rest of the crew had already started up the Tsaina. When Sarah got back from work she drove me up to the pass. We met Paul Forward coming back to the highway with a broken ski (La Sportiva, snapped at the binding while skinning a flat snowmachine track). I grabbed the group gear that Paul was carrying, and Paul caught a ride with Sarah, almost like it was planned. We were down to seven: Graham Kraft, Andy Fischer, Lindsay Johnson, Kate Fitz, Eben Sargent, me, all from the “Doesn’t matter to me nine,” and new comer Jeremy Wood, a friend that we’ve been trying to get on the traverses for years. The weather was great, the fresh snow was plastered to the walls for excellent on-the-way skiing, and we were glad to be reunited and making progress!
Things were going smoothly until descending to the Valdez Glacier on a nasty breakable crust. Kate Fitz took a heavy-pack-tumble mid-slope and stayed there. We grouped up with her and Jeremy (MD) tried to figure out if she had a bad sprained ankle or worse. Kate had seen her boot pointing 90 degrees to the right. Kate’s pain tolerance was incredible, which made me think it wasn’t that serious of an injury. I was wrong, and I learned a lot watching Jeremy assess the injury. Thanks to Sarah’s logistical help from Valdez, Kate was in the Valdez ER in four hours, diagnosed with a fib/tib fracture. Team Vulture was in fine form, dividing up Kate’s best trail food. “Too big to fail” was down to six.
At this point Jeremy Wood was the only person left without Fairweather Ski Works skis (built by Graham). We started to make jokes about making sure that Jeremy was roped up, the last skier down the slope, etc., but they probably weren’t that funny.
We continued to have good weather for the next two weeks, with just one (welcome) storm day to let our legs recover. The scenery was excellent, the ski objectives were deep and soft.
At this point we realized we were going too fast, that we had more time than we needed for the remaining 70 miles. This created a slightly strange dynamic where some people (me!) wanted to keep cranking out big days, while others wanted to ski more big-line objectives and cover less ground. It felt like all six of us wanted slightly different things. Those of us that had been stuck in the snow storm were nervous about getting shut down again. The guys that had spent the storm drinking beer in a heated cabin weren’t worried about another storm. So we spent a lot of time talking about whether to cover ground or ski big lines rather than covering ground or skiing big lines.
The transition from the southern to northern side of the range (Cashman Col and further west) was stunning. The peaks between the pass and the ocean were big and steep, with plenty of ski options. The access is hard and the weather is often bad, but man, that area is worth spending some time in.
Our route took us over three passes to reach the base of Mt. Marcus Baker, and each pass had the potential to avalanche. We gingerly picked our way across the slopes and were relieved to reach the flats in the next glacial valley. The passes could be really spooky with less stable conditions.
The next highlight was ‘Turtle Flats,’ a plateau at ~8000 ft. above the Matanuska Glacier. The flats are bounded with an ice-capped cliff to the south and an icefall to the Matanuska Glacier to the north, like traveling laterally on a set of stairs. We watched ice and avalanches scream down the cliffside for hours, from a safe perspective out on the flats.
After Turtle Flats we set camp and geared up for a day trying to climb Mt. Marcus Baker, the tallest peak in the Chugach (13,176 ft.). The route took us over a sub-peak to the east, tall and sharp. I was pretty uncomfortable on it, though Eben just clomped along like it was flat. Our good weather held for an incredible summit view. Andy took off all his clothes, which either ruined or improved the view, depending on your perspective.
Andy’s performance on the summit inspired the tone for the next few days, with Graham convincing the guys to pose for nudie pics. There are rumors of a Fairweather Ski Works calendar. Eben said something like, “Granted, I don’t know much about marketing, but I think the majority of the boutique ski market is middle-age guys, and they probably don’t want to see photos of other guys naked.” I proposed that we ask my brother for a photo of one of his models holding Fairweather skis, and use that photo as the cover so that people assumed the calendar was full of babes.
We skied more great snow, continued discussing the fact that we were moving too quickly, and kept moving too quickly, afraid of the weather changing for the worse. We climbed our final pass to Marcus Baker Glacier for our exit to the Knik River.
We had an incredible morning skiing through the moraine on a supportable crust that gave way to slush too soon. It was a pretty painless transition to rock, with excellent flat walking and great scenery.
At Grasshopper Valley we met Mike Meekins’ Supercub to trade skis for packrafts. We climbed onto the Knik Glacier and enjoyed a mostly easy day on ice in our tennis shoes. I loved this part, walking on bare ice. We had to backtrack and thread through cracks a few times, but it was all passable without crampons, which was good, because we didn’t have crampons.
After descending from the ice we followed ATV tracks to the Knik River, inflated our packrafts, and spent 1.5 days fighting a headwind. We met Kate in Palmer for dinner, then headed home to Anchorage and the ‘real’ world. It was an anti-climatic finish compared to our other trips. I’m not sure what we’ll do differently next year. The only thing that seems certain is that there will be a lot of demand for a 2017 Fairweather Ski Works Calendar.