It was the winter of ’98 and I had already been in Alaska for two years when I finally decided it was time to learn to ski. I bought skis, boots, bindings – the whole package – and I started the weekend pilgrimage to Turnagain Pass. 15+ years ago the Pass was a different place. There were all of 30 skiers who frequented the place and everyone knew everyone. I started showing up and within a few weeks the long time cadre of local skiers took me under their collective wings.
I was a shitty skier, a shitty skinner, my route finding skills were nonexistent and I had zero avalanche sensibility. Despite all that, the locals let me tag along behind them because their values said that someone who had moved here and appeared to love the backcountry and skiing, was someone who should be mentored. Mentoring apparently meant let random kids follow you up the skin track and tumble down runs that I really had no business skiing. Tumbling down the perfect 35 degree pitch run on peaks like Lipps is a really bad idea, but I got away with it.
Those guys that let me tag along behind them are still out there today. Everyone knows them and even those who don’t have heard stories about the ubiquitous locals. They’re all pushing 60, their hair is more gray than brown, and they’re a bit slower on the skin track than they were 15 years ago, yet they still ski stuff I’m too scared to touch.
Those guys embodied the open and sharing spirit of the Alaskan backcountry skier 15 years ago and still do today. It was a spirit I fell in love with and one that I strive to emulate. Their openness and passion inspired a long time friendship that I hold dear. And I’m not the only one.
Long time local ski bum Eric the Viking throws a party every fall. Show up to the party at 7pm and you’ll find an average age of 60. The early crowd has sacrificed skiing for kids and careers yet they hold onto ski friendships and ski memories and lessons learned from their 20s and 30s. Those memories formed who they were and 25+ years later they’re passing what was learned onto their children. Hang out at the annual Viking party till 1am and the average age drops to around 25. The kids that show up are the hottest, strongest, baddest skiers in Alaska today and they come because the old school Southcentral Alaska crew is reaching out to them and making them feel welcome just as they did to me.
It was this way when I first met this crowd, and 16 years later I’ll randomly meet one of them on a skin track and they’ll whisk me away from the crowds to show off their favorite secret stash. Run into them in the parking lot at the end of a long day and they’ll pull out beer and pry you for details. Forget your sunglasses on a spring day and they’ll lend you an extra pair. Meet them at the top of a peak and they’ll argue that you should get first tracks if you’ve never skied that run.
All these things have happened to me over the years and as I watch the crowds grow and the attitudes change, an anchor point that holds me in place is the debt I owe to those who embraced a stranger who shares the same passion year after year, winter after winter.
I digress, but there is a point to this trip down memory lane…
It was a beautiful day and stability was bomb. Sun and stability means I hound Eric until he agrees to take off work and go skiing with me. After 2 or 3 days of hounding he usually agrees. So we met at 8am and by 8:45 we had shouldered our packs with skis on back and had begun the trudge up Falls Creek.
Falls Creek is the land of steep chutes. 2.5 miles and 2000′ of hiking drudgery gets you to the snow where you can finally transition to skis and skins. Another mile of so and you’re in a beautiful alpine cirque surrounded by steep walls and steep couloirs that range from ski mild to WI4 wild.
We warmed up on a fun chute that sits on the north side of the west shoulder of Indianhouse. It had 3 sets of tracks in it but we were the only ones in the valley so we weren’t concerned so up we went. 3 sets of tracks meant a nice skin-track to a boot pack, which meant easy going for the 1000′ or so to the top of the run. We sat in the sun for a while admiring the muddy Arm and then dropped into perfectly fun and skiable snow. The run averages about 40 degrees and compresses down to about 15′ wide in one spot – but apart from that it was wide and open with fresh snow to be had on either side. Eric and I leapfrogged down it taking pictures and both of us exited with whoops of excitement.
Back on the valley floor we turned our sights to the west couloir of Indianhouse – a beautiful 1500′ splitter that easily averages 45 with a stretch of 50 degree skiing at the top.To our surprise we saw a solo skier skiing up the run with two dogs in tow. The skier was fast and we debated hanging out in the sun until he was done and then snagging seconds – but after a bit it was decided that the skier would probably shoot for Falls Lake couloir since it didn’t have tracks. So we set off to snag a run off it with the intention of returned back the Indianhouses’s West couloir later in the day.
We debated on route and ended up choosing the South ridge verses the SE gully of point 3920′ (that bump between South Suicide and Indianhouse). The south ridge is a fun scramble in running shoes and we weren’t too psyched on sun-baked south facing Chugach gullies that tend to shed rocks come spring.
It was easy going for most of the ridge, and while skinning up we had a good show as the lone skier linked turns down the West couloir. However as we neared the top we reached the rocky buttress that requires a bit of exposed 3rd class scrambling we noticed the skier making a straight cut towards the SE gully. As we transitioned the skis to the back we looked down to see the skier actually jogging to get up the gully and reach the top of the run first.
It should be noted that there were all of 3 people in the entire valley, and there were tracks on nothing except the run we had skied and run the solo skier had just skied. But apparently the solo skier now had his sight set on the run we were headed to. Eric and I scrambled up. I will admit there was a touch of competition setting in and we both began to scramble faster… But the ridge is not to be taken lightly. It saw a fatality in ’99 and there are definitely sections where falling is not an option, so as pressed as we felt to climb fast, we moved carefully and methodically given that we were scrambling in ski boots with heavy packs.
The SE gully ended up being the way to go and the solo skier reached the top of the run about 1 minute before we got there. As we scrambled along the ridge he we watched him frantically drop his pack, pull his skis and clip in. We reached him as he was locking his boots and he quickly pushed out into the run lest we try and push past him or something. Apparently it was a race.
It should be noted that we knew who the guy was. The SCAK ski community is small and the community that skis Chugach chutes is even smaller so everyone knows each other. This guy pushed his way out and as he started to drop he had an afterthought and turned to make eye contact. “Nice day isn’t it?” He said. “What are your names?”
We told him. The solo skier suddenly recognized me because we’ve met and corresponded multiple times and he knew Eric through mutual friends.
And then he was gone. Down the chute because he couldn’t be bothered to hang around and, apparently it’s a race. Eric and I sat in the sun, ate lunch and digested the encounter…
This is a new attitude in the Alaska ski scene. Prove that you are stronger than strangers and don’t bother to wait or be friendly because someone else might get it first. It is a myopic attitude where the only thing that matters is first tracks, logging more vert then the skier behind you and getting home earlier to spray about your first tracks on Facebook.
I encountered the same attitude last year on Peak 4. For my birthday I left work early and we were the first to the top of the run where we waited for another solo skier who was just below to join us. At the top we chatted him up and then my ski partner said,”Billy…since it’s your birthday would you to ski first?” My response was,”Why yes thank you,” but as I started to slide towards the entrance the solo skier said,”Well if you’re going to talk about it…” And pushed in front of me.
Then there was the accident in Surprise Bowl last winter. A group of skiers started to follow another group up a skin track. The people couldn’t be bothered to wait; they started skiing and triggered an avalanche that partially buried one of the followers. Supposedly (according to the drama posted in the now defunct Teletips Alaska thread) they skied down, saw that the skier was unhurt and said,”Well that should teach you to follow behind someone” before taking off and leaving them alone.
I am not immune to this. There have been times where I have expressed agitation over crowds in farther away places where I’ve worked hard to escape others. But 9 times out of 10 if I take the time to speak to those people it turns out I know them and feel like an ass for acting grumpy.
How did we get here? Is the shift in attitude because of newcomers, or has the mentality shifted due to the prolific growth of backcountry skiing?
It’s easy to say that some of the attitude probably moved in with the crowds, however, much of the attitude is a result of people who are unwilling to accept that times are changing and that the Anchorage vicinity is becoming more like the rest of the country in regards to crowds in the backcountry.
But with that in mind, in 15 plus years of skiing and climbing up here I’ve never had an encounter where someone actively raced me to the top of a run just to prove he was faster and then dropped in without hardly a word. Alaskans don’t do that. Alaskans don’t act that way because it’s a small town and everyone skis, sleeps, eats, drinks and works with everyone else and if you act like a chump it catches up to you and you go down that lonely miserable row that others before you have gone down.
I really could care less about one set of tracks on a cloudless day; and an interaction with a person who places greater emphasis on proving that he is faster than a couple of fathers 10+ years older, than on building relationships in this small community is hardly worth the time we spent discussing him.
Eric and I ate lunch, and then we snagged seconds and thirds down the blissful Falls Lake couloir in perfect shin deep powder. I skied across to a spot to take pictures while Eric hooted and screamed and laughed his way down.
We them skied down valley and back around to the West couloir of Indianhouse.
The West couloir of Indianhouse is a phenomenal run. Steep, tight and incredibly aesthetic. A solid boot pack puts us on the sharp Indianhouse ridge where we sat and watched the bore tide.
Then we got down to business. The top was steep enough to where I opted to downclimb about 10′ to a precarious platform where I stomped into skis. This was followed by a long stretch of 50 degree snow where I took a looonng time psyching myself up to make jump turns. But I finally committed to it and skied the beautiful steep run in perfect snow top to bottom.
At the bottom we laughed and hooted and then set off again. This time we toured back around to the southern bowl of South Suicide. We skinned and booted to the ridge hoping to ski the southwest face to Rainbow, only to find there wasn’t enough snow. By then it was 5pm and we had already logged 9K so we called it a day and hiked across to the South facing cirque and skied 2500′ of perfect corn.
Back in the grass we ran into two other skiers and we stopped to chat with them. Of course we knew them, and of course we had skied with them before. We chatted, we compared snow notes, we asked about each other’s kids and work and health, because while skiing is important, what really makes this such a great town are the people who share your passions.
Walking down the Falls Creek trail from snow-line to salt-water in the setting sun I reflected on these relationships. The good snow was fleeting – it would be gone by the weekend, the high pressure pushed aside by wind and rain; the distasteful encounter replaced with memories of a long day spent in the mountains with a good friend and the drudgery of the hike outshined by pleasant banter with friends randomly met in the mountains.
This is my community and my home. It is a small community, and our ski partners eat, drink, sleep and travel with us. Our ski partners build our houses, clean our teeth, mend our broken bones, offer us work and everything else that happens day after day in our town. Stay here long enough those same ski partners deliver our babies, teach our children and, one-day, hire our kids.
That is the lesson passed on to me so many years ago: that there is more to life than skiing and while that day of waist deep low density tree skiing, or steep powder-filled couloir jump turns, with your best friends is something you’ll remember for decades, the moment was fleeting. What is not fleeting are the people you spent that time with and the people you meet doing the same things you love, and the friendships you cultivate with those people.
Huge thanks to Eric Parsons for all the fine photos!